Today Miller-Kelton, a Columbus, Ohio alt-country band with classic rock and folk sensibilities, celebrates the release of its new album, “Tip-Top.” I’m pleased to interview Edward Reilley Forman, the band’s songwriter, “rhythm guy” and vocalist.
Edward Reilley’s lyrics are narrative in nature, but the stories he tells with his music are far from once-upon-a-time. In Miller-Kelton’s latest work, all the heroes have gone missing. Rusty Cadillacs fueled by miracles limp toward the freeway. Bills pile up unpaid. Even a lucky break earns more loss. There might not be a Big Bad Wolf around the corner, but someone hungry is hiding in the shadows, and Miller-Kelton, with its stark blue-collar honesty tempered by a potent blend of humor and poetry, will tell us exactly how big his eyes are.
Many of the tracks on “Tip-Top” address a common theme: the divide between the American dream and economic realities. Yet the songs never deliver their message in a heavy-handed way, possibly because the band members are having such a good time with the music, which rocks—and rollicks and mourns and soothes and celebrates, depending on the song—while showcasing Julia O’Keefe’s earthy, virtuosic vocals.
“The Last American Outlaws” opens with a wry look at the Monday-morning driver’s license line and, narrowing in on the theme of societal rule-following, shifts seamlessly into analyzing how old-time renegades like Dillinger and Jesse James have been “replaced by / soliders and policemen / for a broken sort of people / and a freedom that hasn’t gotten very far.”
“Has the rebel voice been silenced forever in times such as these?” Miller-Kelton asks in the same song. Perhaps. But these musicians won’t let such a cultural shift go by unnoticed, and somehow, that kind of scrutiny infuses the cold world they sing about with a little more hope. Welcome, Edward Reilley Forman!
1. Tell us about the new album, “Tip-Top.” How would you describe Miller-Kelton’s distinctive sound?
It’s just simple music, really, with a little bit of gloss around the edges. We try to keep the grittiness of a rock band, but blend in a little of the looseness of country music. If we can get that down and out of the way, Julia’s voice will float above it. We like to throw in some vocal harmonies to break things up, and occasionally fuss with the beat a bit to make sure the listener is paying attention.
We usually get lumped into the catch-all “Americana,” which is sort of a mash up of folk, country and rock, with the odd dash of blues or jazz. Sort of an odd genre—music with roots in everything, but which is essentially rootless. I’m okay with that as a category, it’s pretty expansive. Room for everybody.
2. You’ve found your songwriting voice and assembled a top-notch team to interpret your creative vision in the studio and on stage. When did Miller-Kelton form? Who are the other members, and what do their talents bring to this album?
MK has been around for about four years now in some incarnation or another. The only two constant members have been myself and Julia, who handles most of the vocals. Her singing is the first thing that people notice—she continues to amaze me.
The latest incarnation of MK is built around a new rhythm section. Our current drummer, Chase, is actually our former bass player. He recruited Brian to the band as a bass player, and the band got twice times as loud in 20 seconds. Chase is one of those irritatingly talented people who can play anything. He’ll play ever instrument on stage better than you, and then announce that his “real instrument” is the tuba or something.
Both Brian and Neil, who plays lead guitar, take a precise, practiced approach to things. Chase and I tend to jump around a little—we probably drive them nuts. Neil is a ringer on guitar, a real pro. It took us a while to get him signed on permanently. John Turck, who plays organ on the album, is not a member of the band, although he has a standing invitation. He has his own trio, and they do some great stuff.
3. What usually gets you started drafting a new song—a thought? A phrase of music? Do you flesh out your ideas on paper, with your guitar, or both?
Well, a good story makes for a good song. My songs are generally just vignettes or quarter-act plays. Just picking up an anecdote in conversation is often good enough.
“Tip-Top” might be a good example of that. The story is about a guy who lived in the Driving Park district, which is a little rough—near Miller-Kelton, actually. He got a $30,000 settlement in a workers’ compensation lawsuit. Two weeks after he got the money, they found him dead of a heart attack with $6,000 cash in his pocket and nothing else to his name. He was king of the neighborhood for a while though—must have been one hell of a two weeks. I got that story in a lawyer bar called Club 185. No idea who I heard it from, just talk floating around the room.
“Zanesville, Ohio” is about a murder which happened near Chase’s house when he was a kid. I interviewed Chase about it, pulled the court file and visited the scene.
Once the story is there, the song sort of writes itself. I start with a story and an acoustic guitar and see what comes to me. Most, but not all, good songs come all at once. Once I have most of the lyrics, I stick it in a drawer and come back to it in a week. That lets you be a little bit more objective in editing, more willing to cut it up. Usually I am just tweaking the lyrics, using the adjective pinwheel—the online rhyming dictionary is the cat’s pajamas. (Question: what rhymes with “early?” Answer: not a whole hell of a lot).
Some songs though, like “Last American Outlaws,” come hard. Maybe that’s because it’s not a story, more of a pseudo-political diatribe—grievances, real and imagined! Getting the moon/June stuff and the more generally asinine lyrics out of that thing took weeks. Just editing, editing…
4. You sometimes write lyrics from other points of view, including stepping into Julia’s shoes. That’s part of the satisfying story-quality your work delivers. What’s it like imagining someone else’s life and writing from that perspective?
Well, it’s not that weird, really. Of course, nobody ever really writes from their own perspective either. You have this perception of yourself, but as a practical matter most of your deepest, darkest thoughts are followed by something totally unrelated. Like, “This horrible rejection has torn a hole in my heart from which I can never recover” followed by “Man, I could sure go for a doughnut…”
That said, I don’t think I’d be a great woman—I only imagine myself as a woman who continuously suffers tragedy and abiding sadness. I probably suffer from some subconscious sexism which paints all women as victims, and Julia gets stuck singing about it. It’s funny, she’s actually one of the more laid back people I know.
5. There’s a strong sense of geography on this album as well as on your 2010 release, “Goodbye Cindy.” Your band’s name, Miller-Kelton, comes from a highway sign, and some of your verses cite specific cities and streets. Others are homages to that fine American obsession, the road trip. Can you address how towns, cities and highways have inspired—or grounded—your songwriting?
Wow, that’s a great observation. Place is important, but it’s hard for me to explain how. There is a Champion Avenue near where I live. I always thought it would be cool to write Champion Ave. on a return address. I have no idea why.
Location is a stage, I guess. You grow up in a small town, you want to move to the big city some day. In the Midwest, not all parts of cities are really urban. So you look around for places where you can walk outside and say, “OK, I am now in the city for real.” Or—“this seems adequately dangerous…” So you try to get that feeling across.
Road trip—yes, “Traffic Jam in Gatlinburg” is most certainly about a road trip, and my brother and I really were stuck for two hours in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We moved about 50 yards in that amount of time. Had a lot of time to look around at the people stuck in traffic with us and think, wow, there are some differences here. Not big ones, but say a fish half out of water. The confederate flags creep me out a little. There’s a part of me that hears “the south shall rise again” and thinks, hmmm, maybe that isn’t such a terrible idea. They could use another ass-kicking.
6. Speaking of streets, tell us about “Parsons Avenue.” What’s the story behind the song?
Well, the first thing is that it isn’t about Parsons Avenue, which is on the south side of Columbus. It’s about Livingston Avenue, which runs perpendicular to it, but suffers from having too many syllables in the name. I live a couple of blocks away, it’s a rough street.
The song is about the crowds that gather around the outside of the various carryouts on Livingston in the summertime. Some hookers and drug deals, I guess, but mostly just people hanging out. Nothing else to do. There aren’t any movies or music joints around, no blues, jazz, funk or anything—that’s music for rich people now. What happened? We put a horn section on that song because that’s what I wish I heard, music and partying in the city on a hot summer day.
7. “Goodbye Cindy,” with its lushly rendered folk ballads, has a more personal aesthetic than “Tip-Top,” which feels more political, but there’s a cohesive vision behind the two albums. Both offer unflinching commentary on lost opportunities and what it means to be American—or more specifically, Midwestern—these days. How has your artistic vision developed as Miller-Kelton has matured? What’s next?
Yeah, the new record is a lot more irritable, isn’t it? “Goodbye Cindy” was in large part about relationships between people—not always my own relationships, thankfully. My friends and neighbors turn up quite a bit in that album though. Even the most political song on the album, “A Man Without a Country,” is about a politician trying to explain himself to his wife (Mary Beth is easier to say than Hadassah, as it turns out). One review said it was a “veritable one act play of pathos and interpersonal drama,” which makes me laugh a little—I’m not that serious of a person. Only the song “Summer Rolls” sounds very hopeful, and that song has always seemed unfinished to me. That said, I also get the vibe that the narrators of the songs are, as a general matter, prepared to move on.
The new album is about poverty, both economic and cultural. But you could say it is about a relationship between a person and a nation. Why don’t you love me like you used to? Why are you letting this fall apart? What the hell is the matter with you?
So what’s next? Hard to say. I write songs in batches and then take a few months off. Sometimes a year off, I’m ashamed to say. I like the band as it is, I don’t expect to shake it up. I’m slated to start writing again in late summer, who knows what will be on my mind then. I’d like to do something more cohesive and interrelated. I’d also like to do story songs from the first person, but I have never been able to pull that off before. No harm in continuing to try.
So why not celebrate Tax Day by buying a copy of “Tip-Top” at DigStation or CD Baby? (Electronic distribution only; the physical albums will be available in a few days.) Or check out Miller-Kelton’s website at www.millerkelton.com. Find the band on Facebook here. And MySpace here. “Goodbye Cindy,” the band’s previous release, is also available at CD Baby.