Music

Milemarker: ‘We Were All Setting Everything on Fire’

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On their first album in over a decade, post-hardcore outfit Milemarker describe an uncomfortable scene: being “ambushed” by a former classmate in a grocery store parking lot, forced to take stock of present-day reality now that the potential of youth has evaporated. The song, “Recognition,” flirts with the idea that “nostalgia is a killer” before accepting things as they are. True to the band’s penchant for ironic wordplay, it’s also about reveling in others’ belated acknowledgment of your achievements, which seems particularly relevant given Milemarker’s unexpected return after a ten-year hiatus.

“A friend of mine was like, ‘Oh wow, Milemarker’s playing again? Are you guys playing Coachella?’ I was like, ‘We’re not At the Drive-In getting back together, you know?’ ” recalls one of the band’s founders, Dave Laney. He formed Milemarker in Chapel Hill with Ben Davis and Al Burian (whose zine Burn Collector was required reading in the DIY scene) in the late Nineties, releasing a handful of seven-inches and a few LPs before their hardcore-punk-meets-futuristic-synthwave sound took shape on 2000’s Frigid Forms Sell.

The electronic elements, interspersed with politically minded, scream-sung lyrics, grinding guitars, and viciously pummeled drums, were off-putting to hardcore purists, but Milemarker settled in to an unoccupied niche. “We were sort of the art-damaged kids, making music in a different context with an art angle, so there were a lot of visuals and antagonistic behavior onstage,” Laney explains. “[We mixed] up that formula, so it’s not just another band with kids in black shirts yelling and turning their amps to ten. Although in all fairness, we did that, too.”

Milemarker became known not only for their unorthodox embrace of Casio presets, but for their startling use of pyrotechnics during their live shows. It started with Davis lighting his drum kit on fire and eventually evolved into other band members fire-breathing. Roby Newton, a friend who had developed visuals and light shows for the band, had joined as a singer and keyboard player, and invented a rig that made it appear as if her arms were engulfed in flames. “We were a bunch of prima donnas. If anybody was getting attention, somebody tried to do something to get more attention. So pretty soon we were all setting everything on fire,” says Burian. 

A handful of LPs later, he and Laney moved to Germany, and the project went dormant. But last year, a short Europe-only reunion tour resulted in the writing of a new record, Overseas. And while they won’t be playing Coachella anytime soon, Milemarker are touring behind the record, with a new lineup comprising Burian, Laney, drummer Ezra Cale, and keyboardist Lena Kilkka. That outing includes two shows in New York – August 24 at Shea Stadium and August 25 at Saint Vitus. “I’m kind of surprised this is going on right now,” admits Burian. “At the time it sort of seemed like we would probably be together, like, six months and maybe put out a seven-inch. [The band was] low ambition, high enthusiasm.”

The title of the record is a nod to it being their first release since moving to Europe. With its homophone of “oversees,” it’s also a take on the same technological paranoia that characterized much of their earlier output. “It’s interesting to hear [older] songs because you realize it’s actually happening now — people’s inability to divorce themselves from the virtual world,” says Burian. “That wasn’t nearly as present [at the time], and it seems like it’s exponentially increasing. Writing songs about it doesn’t stop the process, it turns out.”

With that realization comes a surprisingly positive shift for the overall attitude of Overseas. “I like to be socially critical, but there’s a line where it becomes sort of negative and there’s not any catharsis to it. And I don’t think that’s the purpose of music,” Burian says. “I want to make music that ultimately is uplifting.”

The album closes with a koan on its anthemic final track, “Supercomputer”: “To answer the question of how shall we ever be able to extricate ourselves from the obvious insanity of this position: There is no answer.” Milemarker exists in 2016, and for its members, that seems to be enough — almost. “At this point, to find ourselves still doing it is awesome. But it also gives me this ‘What does it mean in the context of your life?’ kind of feeling,” Burian muses. “It’s starting to hit that tipping point where the stuff you think you’re gonna do becomes the stuff you did.”

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