Harvey Milk's Counter-Careering
When did "careerist" cease to be a biting accusation in the realm of underground music? When did every punk with a guitar decide that he/she deserved a living making music? Sure, it's always great to see hardworking acts reach a point where they don't have to work temp jobs—no one wants to slave away for The Man. But isn't it equally admirable to be financially independent of one's art? To not worry about the audience, the business, the whole game, but to simply focus on the music?
Athens, Georgia, may have birthed unexpected hit-makers such as R.E.M. and the B-52s, but the Southern college town also delivered irreverent and tumultuous Harvey Milk. Born in 1992, the band worked through the decade as little more than a local legend. They released a few LPs on obscure, short-lived East Coast record labels and small-run pressings of 7-inches that became treasures even the handful of in-the-know locals had to hunt down in used bins and trade lists. They were the band that opened for the Jesus Lizard when David Yow and company came to town. And while they managed to land a few regional tours with bands like Shellac and Godheadsilo, their upcoming appearance at the Funhouse marks the band's first venture out to the West Coast.
It may not be fair to speculate on the degree of career ambition within Harvey Milk's ranks, but judging by their penchant for noise, their controversial moniker, and their inclination to fuck with people's musical boundaries (with stunts like covering R.E.M.'s Reckoning in its entirety), it seems likely that Harvey Milk never had any intention of following Michael Stipe and Kate Pierson into the big leagues. And their obscurity has always been part of the band's charm. It wasn't until they initiated their eight-year hiatus in 1998 that their reputation really began to seep across Clarke County lines. Relapse Records took to reissuing their early albums and singles back in 2003, and in the process exposed the band to a whole new audience. Henry Owings and Chunklet magazine began to sing their praises. Harvey Milk fandom developed into a minicult.
Now, with their second post-hiatus full-length, Life... the Best Game in Town, the band have further solidified that cult status by enlisting longtime friend and low-end legend Joe Preston for second-guitar duties and opting to work with the esteemed thinkin'-man's-metal merchants at Hydra Head Records. While both decisions helped garner more attention from fickle and snobby noise-rock fans, neither augurs massive financial success.
"The band has always existed for our collective amusement," says drummer Kyle Spence. "That hasn't changed. We were really excited about getting out there and playing shows this summer, not really to reach a broader audience but mostly just to play. We were hoping that the touring would work out and maybe generate enough money so we wouldn't have to sell our instruments when we get home, but we're not sure it's going to work out that way."
Harvey Milk may be resigned to not recouping their expenses, but their limited marketability has allowed them to remain creatively liberated. With no expectations weighing them down, they've managed to create a defiant yet remarkably palatable album in Life.... The production is stellar, yet many listeners will probably find themselves checking their speakers during the latter half of "Death Goes to the Winner," as measure upon measure of pummeling palm-muted eighth notes are buried underneath red-lined throbs of static.
Harvey Milk's mean mammoth-sized riffs and exemplary darker material guarantee an audience (albeit a small one) within the experimental metal community, but it's their deviations from the sludge formula—the occasional lighthearted, poppier moments that derail their malevolent facade—that make their work so daring.
"It's just how things worked out," says Spence. "We don't take any of this too seriously—except the music. So for us to try and present ourselves as doom mongers would be ridiculous. There's obviously a difference between how Creston [Spiers, guitar/vocals] plays music and how he acts when he isn't, and it's fortunately not an affectation at all. We never really went too much for the theatrical side of things."
Harvey Milk's mixed moods and moments of major-scale melody don't feel like calculated attempts at winning over a wider audience, so much as direct snubs to the metal orthodoxy. When Life... reaches its most radio-friendly moment on "Motown," it's clear that Harvey Milk's embrace of pop is in some ways even more malicious than their bleak doom riffs. The upbeat notes demonstrate both the band's ability to craft accessible music and their decision to reject it, but it also hints that the band don't quite fit in anywhere, especially not in the more cliquey realms of underground music.
The album artwork shows a run-down living room: Beer cans litter the coffee table, a beat-up Iron Maiden poster hangs on the wall—it looks like a young metalhead's first apartment. It's an appropriate illustration of a band releasing their fifth album well into the second decade of their existence. There is no glamour in Harvey Milk, no constructed evil pretense, no great aspirations—just a bunch of dudes doing what they do, not giving a shit whether you like it or not. It's an attitude that may not win them legions of fans or stacks of money, but it's exactly this career apathy that has made them such enduring underground heroes.