Ethan Milner

Ethan Milner is a writer, musician, and counselor in Eugene, Oregon. His writing on music can be found in the archives of MotorCityRocks.com, and his poetry has been published in numerous journals, most recently Eunoia Review.
On his latest effort for Sub Pop, Mascis composed, produced, and performed nearly every track, which is borne out in the record’s remarkable consistency.
How do you imagine Yob songs are made? I’ll describe the picture that was in my head: front man and song writer Mike Scheidt travels down a spiral staircase that goes forty stories beneath the earth, lit only by the torch he carries. At the landing, he finds an empty atrium made entirely of bones, and at the center an ancient Minoan-era guitar Amplifier. Scheidt hangs his torch on a wall, then goes to sit cross-legged before the cobwebbed amp. He removes his eyeballs, and stabs two quarter-inch cables that stem like snakes from the amp into the meaty jacks where his eye sockets should be. He transcends our material world navigate the ethereal plane until he is ready to return, unplug, put his eyes back in, and have an entire new album written in his mind. The truth, as Scheidt generously revealed in an interview with Impression of Sound, is not exactly that. On a related note: in a recent review of photographer Garry Winogrand’s current exhibition at MoMA, Pulitzer-winning Boston Globe reporter Mark Feeney wrote: "[a] sculptor sees possibility in a piece of stone. Stone just sits there while the sculptor studies it. A photographer — specifically, Winogrand — sees possibilities in a dynamic arrangement of people in space. His camera carves a stone even as that stone is being hurled at him."It struck me as oddly resonant when, just a few weeks after I read this, Scheidt described his process of discovery in similar terms. He said that embedded within an amplifier, or a new guitar, is a song waiting to be discovered. Yet in Scheidt’s journey, he’s blind, the stone turns to sound waves, and it reverberates at the heaviest frequencies, those most difficult to tame. His search for possibility is more a pilgrimage. Or it’s as simple as shredding in front of a shitty practice amp for hours, until it sounds just right.IOS: Maybe we can start by talking about the new record. Are there some central ideas you’re trying to communicate? New directions explored?Mike Scheidt: We start out every album, just… we go internal. We write for us. It being put out there, how it’s going to be received, or what people think of it, that comes later. So it’s just kind of a continuing personal evolution, I guess. There were definitely some themes on the new album that have run through the other albums, like the Eastern Mysticism bent. From within that framework I write the lyrics and the music, and the other piece of that is just channeling wherever I’m at. So it’s always kind of personal, and this album might be even more so, maybe partially because of our evolution and just getting clearer and clearer in what we’re doing.IOS: I’ve seen you guys take a lot from different cultures — from graphical representations to the trance quality of the music and how you guys get to this almost shamanistic place. I wanted to explore some of that with you and hear more about what it means to take such a pan-cultural view of what you do. MS: I think there’s often, not rigidly so, but there are often themes that you find in a lot of different philosophies and religions that I think are consistent. One of the things that’s most satisfying about either meditation, or prayer, or even sports, or running; in getting immersed in your work, whatever that work may be, there comes a moment when the work, or the running, or the prayer, or the meditation, or the music, and the person participating, become one thing. Or it becomes so much one thing that the person disappears altogether. That space is really pregnant with all sorts of possibilities with personal revelation, with insight and growth, or just simply feeling better, if nothing more happens than that. All those experiences are valid. Certainly I’m a strong proponent of education and knowledge. I also think that there’s a really important place for there to be an acknowledgement of what we don’t know, and the limits of what we know. Living from that place, for me anyway, is as much about having that kind of balance and that personal space; I feel like that mysticism that comes from the East has fostered a certain space for me that’s helped me and made my life better, and more equipped to deal with my life. IOS: Tell me about the relationship between martial arts and music for you. Krav Maga is about ending the conflict as quickly and efficiently as possible; Yob seems to be so much about patience, about channeling something. Are those two halves of a whole, or is that the balance for you?MS: If you’re talking about martial arts, there’s a whole lot of different goals a person can have with a practice like that. If you’re talking about internal martial arts, whether it be Qi Gong, or Tai Chi, or Bagua, and it’s this inner practice where everything is very slow, and geared towards centering and getting energy flow and all sorts of things, whether it be extending your life or grounding your energy; all sorts of amazing health benefits, it’s low impact so people from all sorts of walks of life, different body types, and ages can do it.You can get into other styles of martial arts where there are competitive aspects to it, whether it be doing tournaments or competitions or MMA where part of the process of getting better at it is being in competition and having that adversity in your life to build the skills. At the same time that also fosters humility because you always meet someone better than you, and there’s space there for growth. And then you get into the styles where you start getting into more modern day self-defense. You can learn something in a competitive realm, where there are rules that can definitely apply to self-defense. Sometimes when we practice with a lot of rules all the time, then in real life, we do what we train. I think with Yob — I mean, I first got into it [Krav Maga] because of a couple things that happened on the road where I felt like I was just too far away from home to not have a say in what went down. I’m really good at talking my way out of things, but sometimes people make decisions for you, and then you have to deal with it. But I’ve been really, really lucky, I haven’t had to do anything like [fight]. Thank God too, ‘cause I haven’t practiced in a couple years ‘cause I’ve been sitting in the van, so I haven’t really been at it for a while. But those teachings stick with me and I do truly hope I never have to use anything like that. I think at the end of the day people do martial arts to empower themselves. As long those tools that they learn are not used to disempower other people wrongly, then it’s only positive. It’s when people victimize other people with their skills that it becomes a problem or they take an attitude about it, or get meat headed about it. We’ve all been in gyms even where there’s not martial arts where people are lifting weights and there’s all different kinds of mentalities about that, some of which are very positive and some aren’t. The people I trained with, the school I went to, luckily they were pretty careful about weeding out the meatheads that just want to come in and learn how to hurt people. IOS: Shifting back to the music itself, I wanted to hear about how you guys craft the sound of each album, and the evolution of the band. The guitars on Atma were so grimy and had that awesome rough edge, but I think each Yob album has its own feel. How do you go about carving out tone: how much is influenced by those gnarly Monson guitars, how much is the amp, how much is technique, and just in general how do you go about finding the right tone? MS: I change gear often, because the tone in my head does change, and I end up needing new gear to find the tone I’m after. I think most musicians would agree with this: whenever you get a new guitar, or a new amp or pedal, and how it relates to the other things that you have in your arsenal, there are actually songs built into those things that you haven’t heard yet, or you haven’t played yet. You get a new amp and then you start playing, and something will come out of you that’s never come out before. Same with a guitar, something that’s brand new. So I think to some degree, when I get new gear, it is a source of inspiration. But the flip side to that is no amount of great gear will make a mediocre idea awesome. The tone, all the money in gear and guitars, pickups wound once a day for seven years, it doesn’t make up for a lackluster idea, or heart, or emotion that isn’t there. I’ve seen a number of good-sounding bands that just hadn’t connected to what I wanted to see yet, they just had a lot of good tone — and I love good tone as much as anybody, and I’m not trying to be elitist — if I don’t feel the aura and the vibe and the heart, it doesn’t matter what the gear is. For me, the way I combat that is to write every single bit of Yob on a little, piece of shit practice amp. IOS: Really?MS: Oh yeah. It’s just a little piece of garbage Fender solid-state, five-inch speaker. I wrote the entire album on that amp. If I’m on my bedroom with that little piece of crap and whatever I’m playing is just making me lose my mind, then I can put that on my amp and I know it’s going to be awesome. Then, whenever I come up with what I think are good ideas, I go to practice with them and learn them with my band mates, and we play together with them on the concert gear, and if it’s really moving us, then we know we’re on the right path. I don’t have any fancy gear at home — I mean, I play through my Monsons and my pedals, of course — but the little amp is just junk.IOS: It reminds me of something a friend of mine said about tone, which goes something like 80% of tone is in the right hand technique.MS: I have some agreement with that, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. If you give Matt Pike a piece of crap practice amp or a crappy guitar, or you give him each level of nice gear — he’s going to have his opinion of what he wants to play, and it’s probably going to be something pretty nice, would be my guess — however, he’s going to sound like Matt with each rig. There’s no way that he’s not going to sound like himself, regardless. You know, there was an interesting movement in electric blues scenes where on the west coast you had a bunch of bands with really amazing gear, like old fifties wide-panel Fender tweed amps, and really arcane, nice older guitars. But then in the South you had these guys playing through absolute garbage gear, but they’d be like “look how good I sound with this,” trying to make a point, like, “listen to me”. My philosophy is somewhere in the middle there. I know what truly great gear is, so I’m cursed forever, because I know that difference. But we fly in to festivals who use back lines and we don’t always get to use what we want, or have the gear we’d like to have for a fly-in or a festival, so wherever it is, we have to show up and be us, all the way. So we just got to show up and just put our souls into it, and let the chips fall. IOS: In September last year I saw you guys play at WOW Hall, then six months later you’re opening for Tool at Matthew Knight Arena, then you’re playing a DIY space on the west side of Eugene a few months after that. Tell me about the different kinds of energy you get from those contrasting shows. Those are such different rooms. How do you interact with the crowds, and what other adjustments do you have to make?MS: When you’re playing an arena versus a DIY space, you have to make some adjustments. The environments are very different. Playing in a DIY space, I’m not worried about the monitors, because often there aren’t any or they aren’t that great, at least compared to what a band like Tool is touring around with. In the arena we have to worry about the monitors because that’s literally the only way we can hear ourselves because the room is just too big. You don’t have walls to play off of. I never realized how much I played off of sound coming off of walls until the walls were hundreds of feet away. The slap-back time was seconds. All of a sudden those monitors became very important. But all the little technical stuff aside, in those environments, the thing that has to be consistent is us, and why we’re there, and why we do what we do. And every time we play live or practice it’s a constant reaffirmation of: why are we a band? Why do we play music? What’s our goal in playing music? And our goal is to dig deep, lose time for a while, and connect with a room. That’s not dependent on environment; that depends on us. IOS: Do you have a preference or is it just that whatever the venue is, it’s about you? MS: We’ll it’s about everybody. I would say that. It’s about the community we’re a part of. So our goal is to connect with whoever is there, and we can do that by connecting to ourselves. If we’re connected, then we can ground and open up that space. I mean, you don’t have to do that; I go see bands that are completely lost in themselves, or turn their backs to the audience. There are all sorts of ways to paint a room, I guess, there’s all sorts of different ways to do it, and it can all work really well. For us, it’s more about how to make the room and everybody in it, and the people on the stage and the people in the crowd to become one thing. That’s where it gets a lot more interesting. If I was just on stage and was like “I’m here to entertain you”, then it would get pretty boring to me pretty quick, because I don’t consider myself an entertainer. But, to be able to get up there… we’re all there because we love music. We’re all there because we want to have a great experience. So it’s not just about us, we can’t do it by ourselves. We need everybody in that room. But at the end of the day, if nobody gets into it, nobody likes us, three quarters of the crowd walk out to smoke when we’re playing, well, the work is still on us to dig deep into ourselves, and be true to why we’re playing in the first place. In that sense, the response from the crowd is secondary. IOS: Have you guys had that kind of reaction in recent times?Not for a little while, but sometimes you just end up on the wrong bill, or in the wrong space. These days, I think we’re able to be consistently in environments that are kind to us. But back in the day? All the time. In the Doom scene in the 90’s and early 2000’s, we were too heavy to be on just a regular Rock show, we weren’t fast enough to be on a Metal show, so we ended up playing lots and lots of Punk shows, Punk and Hardcore, and Post-Hardcore shows. Things like that where it was a little more amorphous, and these bands were taking their genres, whatever they were, and morphing it into their own thing anyway, so that was where we best fit in. And even then, not everyone liked us. And that’s still true, not everyone likes us. But if it’s our show, if you don’t want to be there, you’re not going to be. IOS: How has it been working with Neurot records, and collaborating with musicians as influential as those in Neurosis both creatively and for business?I feel really lucky now, because I’ve known those guys, Steve Von Til and Scott Kelly, for long enough that we’re friends. So, as a fan, if I think about it too much, it starts to become just a little unnerving because I’ve listened to Neurosis since Pain of Mind came out. I bought it brand new on cassette the day it was out. It was a very influential album on the band that I was in back then, and you just extrapolate that over a couple decades of time and getting to work closely with artists that I’ve been a fan of for going on three decades, it’s pretty amazing. But they understand how important it is to be artistically intact, and they would never push us to make decisions that weren’t in the best interest of us, of our art. They’re very serious about representing the band correctly because that’s what they do for themselves. They’ve sat in the vans for decades, and toured all over the world many, many times. They’ve been on several labels themselves, and they know the ins-and-outs, and they know what they want for themselves. So as a band on their label, we get the benefit of that experience, and their credo, under the umbrella of a group of minds and spirits that are exactly dead-on with how we feel ourselves. And we get learn from them — it’s just a very inspiring experience, very much so. Just having their confidence is just very satisfying. IOS: Neurosis is a band that seems like they almost get better with each record; they’re your peers, but they’re also models. Yet I think you could make that same statement about Yob, that you guys have grown and evolved, and kind of have something — not a formula — but something like a method that is itself evolving. Do you guys ever talk about that process of evolving as musicians, or does that just sort of go unspoken? MS: I think we don’t want to overtly repeat ourselves. So in other words, if we’re playing a riff, or the feel of a riff that reminds us too much of something that we’ve done, we’ll be like “eh, we need to tweak that a little bit”. So we’ll have a sort of internal dialog to make sure that we are— that there’s a sense of progression. But that progression doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a picking pattern that we’ve never done before, or a drum beat that no one’s ever heard. It’s more just for our own personal selves, and making sure that each album has its own sound and its own flavor, and a cohesion where the songs on the album make sense. But also that it sits well in our back catalog, that’s important to us. We don’t mind throwing some curveballs, but we like to be consistent as players and as a band as well. So it’s kind of that balancing factor of pushing in new vibes and a sense of dynamics while at the same time being recognizably us, but trying to be a better us each time. IOS: It brings to mind bands like Baroness and Mastodon who catch so much flack from the “Metal Community” for their own evolutions. Not to judge them, but do you ever have that kind of worry, that if you change too much or evolve in one direction or another, that you might alienate some of your fan base?MS: We’re a big, loud, Doom — I don’t even know if we’re a Doom Metal band. We’re metal and have a lot of influences, and Doom is probably the best thing to compare us to — at least someone would know what they were getting into (big, slow, long, heavy music) — but the truth of the matter is that we’re a Doom-ish band, singing about New-Age themes. And that, from the get-go, rubs people the wrong way. It can. We never really anticipated or ever had an ambition about having a bunch of worldwide impact, or growing the way we have. It’s just really happened on its own, organically, and we just kind of stuck to what we do and remained really true to it. I know a lot of people out there that outright do not like us, or what we’re about. The fans that do like us, and what we’re about— we know that is something that is not always a stable situation. That can change. What people like will change. We all have albums that we loved a lot at a certain part of our lives, and we all go back to it and it doesn’t hold up anymore, or we just don’t like it as much as we did. Things change and people change. So it just comes back to our original credo, that whatever we’re doing, we just have to believe in it and that we’re 100% into it and stoked on it. You just have to let the chips fall; you can’t please everybody, and the people that try, end up bitter, end up hurt. We just try to stay true to what we do and our fans find us. If you start worrying about pleasing people, there’s no end to the insecurity about that. IOS: It sounds like you guys really highly value integrity, and that it goes back to pleasing yourself in the work — though I can imagine that can be hard, as well.MS: Oh yeah, it takes me months after a record to be okay with it, if I ever do. Luckily, when you put music out into the world, it’s no longer yours. So people have their own experience and their own relationship to it and that’s way more interesting in a lot of ways than my own relationship to it. I already know what that is, but I don’t know what yours is. So that’s very interesting to me. Whatever the experience is across the spectrum, the outright love and everything in between, it’s all awesome. IOS: Sometimes it’s good to end by checking in about what you’re listening to these days. MS: It changes all the time. I travel in my van with probably, maybe upwards of like a hundred CD’s. It’s a very old-fashioned thing to say — it’s not on my iPod or my phone. I do still travel with a bunch of CD’s and a CD player. Lately I’ve been listening to Cathedral— Carnival Bizarre, Forest of Equilibrium; Dinosaur Jr. – Farm; Swans – The Seer. Wipers — Over the Edge; Terrorizer —World Downfall.IOS: One more thing: I noticed that you and Cathedral share is the use of samples. Is that something that is a direct influence, or something that happens more naturally? There’s lots and lots of bands who have done it, whether it be the early Poison Idea stuff, or The Accused; Neurosis had a lot of samples as well; Cathedral, and a lot of Death Metal bands. We add samples too, and it can be an amazing way to have a vibration or an idea come across from a source that’s nailing it, hitting the bull’s-eye. In our case for the new album it was Alan Watts who hit the bull’s-eye. We’ve been lucky enough to have some of his stuff and we’ve gotten permission from Eckhart Tolle to use some of his stuff in the past. So it’s all good — but Cathedral is a huge part of my evolution as a player. In fact, I probably wouldn’t even be playing Doom if it wasn’t for Cathedral. I was a big fan of Napalm Death when [one-time front man] Lee [Dorrian] started doing Cathedral. When it first came out, I just didn’t quite get it. I was like, “yeah this is definitely not Napalm Death”. But I went to see Napalm Death on the Grindcrusher tour, and they were playing with Brutal Truth, Napalm Death, and Cathedral. When Cathedral came on, I didn’t even care; I was just not into it — until they started playing. Something about the live environment, the hugeness of the sound, it just blew my mind. I went from the back of the room, not caring, to the front of the room. Ever since then I started getting into Doom metal after that. I became part of their fan club, and Lee was doing a zine called Reflections of Doom that he sent out to all the fan club members. That was the first time I had heard of Electric Wizard, Pentagram, Revelation, any number of the older Doom bands, that was the first time I’d ever heard them, like ’92 maybe. Without Cathedral there’d be no Yob, really.
Once, I took a cross-country journey that found me in the empty highway lands of Idaho. On Interstate 84, between Ogden and Twin Falls, a storm amassed in shades of grey and green. Stretched across that open canvas, without buildings, past mountains, the storm loomed larger than anything I’d seen in the tameness of my Midwest-suburban rearing. I had the benefit of a partner with good cell phone service, and she received alerts that warned us not to go further. We obliged, and stopped at a “gas station” that indeed offered gas, but also served as a port of call in the emptiness. There was a two-llama petting zoo, one pen conspicuously empty. Upon entering, visitors were greeted with a warning sign: Baby Rattlers! Investigating further, one would discover a barrel filled with rattle toys for babies, surely a farce cribbed from Jonathan Swift’s own notebook. It seemed to entertain the family of four that stood ahead of me in line, at least.
In its forward simplicity, Miserable could be misread as repetitive; it evades this reduction thanks to the album’s shamanic focus.
HEAL can’t be called navel-gazing; it’s self-administered surgery.
There’s something about alienation that runs deep, and it’s all over Under Color of Official Right.
The edifice of Western music is built upon order. Like a stained glass window, the orchestration can be stunning in its vision and precision, clear lines defining the landscapes of harmony. Composers from Bach to Lennon to Janelle Monae build their empires of sound upon the foundation and rebar we call notes, intervals, scales, modes, and chords. Harmony stems from geometric balance, every Ra Ra Ah Ah Rama you’ve ever heard unfolding like fractals in the audio field. Yet what is often omitted in Western music, that we might find in, say, a classical North-Indian raga, is the idea of tonal fluidity. Precise imprecision. That in between “notes” exist infinitesimal tones offering an expressive power that lies beyond the exactitude of diatonic scales.


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