Sugar, Sugar?

The music of San Fran popsters Beulah isn't quite as sweet as you think

Today's musical climate tends to lay the career blueprint right on the table: form band, release indie record, get signed, grab for the brass ring, crash 'n' burn, go on VH1 with your recovery tale in time for the reunion tour. What, then, to think of a group willing to forecast its own demise?

Miles Kurosky, of San Fran's Beulah, has a refreshing, if unexpected, perspective. Fronting the band since it debuted in '97, he's enjoyed the kind of critical kudos normally reserved for your Bob Pollards, your Wayne Coynes, your Frank Blacks. Beulah's third album, The Coast Is Never Clear, has just been issued by Velocette (formerly Capricorn) and the band just got back from playing in front of thousands at the summer European open-air festivals. The future's so bright, the guys in Beulah gotta wear . . . rose-tinted sunglasses?

How's that Behind the Music episode shaping up, Miles?

Beulah: Getting ready for that Behind the Music episode.
Beulah: Getting ready for that Behind the Music episode.
Kurosky (with umbrella): "I'd rather put a gun in my mouth than have a day job at this point."
Kurosky (with umbrella): "I'd rather put a gun in my mouth than have a day job at this point."

"Honestly, I think our career's almost over," says Kurosky, mulling over the implications of what he's just disclosed to the press for a moment before continuing. "Maybe it's not about building a long-term career anyway. I don't think we want to keep doing it in the same way that we're doing it. There's a certain plateau you reach in indie rock, and I think we've almost reached that, you know? It was funny: When we were playing with Superchunk, my keyboardist looked over at me and said, 'No disrespect to Superchunk, I love 'em and all, but man, I don't think I could be doing this for 10 years!' And I looked at him and said the same thing."

Not that Kurosky and Beulah begrudge other bands their aspirations. It just might be time for a modus operandi shift.

"I'm pretty sure that if we make a record again, we won't tour on it," Kurosky says. "It is fun to tour sometimes because you're seeing some new places. For example, it was great to spend three days in Amsterdam. But I might prefer to be able to go do that with my girlfriend, too. At this point, I already know I need to do something entirely different that kinda breaks the mold. I mean, one thing I've learned from Radiohead is that you can pretty much assassinate what you've done in the past and move on and do something new. Even if you're an artist, you do think about what you've done, if it's worthwhile enough to be heard or seen. I don't buy it when artists say they just do it for themselves, when they say, 'I don't care.' That's a load of shit. If you put it out there and it's to be sold, or watched or heard, then that means you're trying to communicate something. It's all to be heard, and I want to communicate an idea. It's the human longing to touch or to be social -- I think that exists.

"Yes, I want to make myself happy, and I have my own feelings and subjective ideas of what makes great art. But I do think about where it fits into the 'collective,' you know, what's going on in art right now and what's important. It's about capturing moments and making those moments work, putting your two cents in that add up to that one dollar."


Rolling off the shrink's couch for a moment, it is remarkable how quickly Beulah went from home-recording obscurity to indie band du jour.

The first album, 1997's Handsome Western States, was essentially a collection of Kurosky's four-track demos assembled over a 16-month period by the songwriter and guitarist/trumpet player Bill Swan. Psych-pop kingpins Elephant 6 got a whiff and enthusiastically issued the record. Encouraged by the public's response, the duo assembled a group and hit the road, only pausing long enough in '99 to record When Your Heartstrings Break (Elephant 6/Sugar Free).

That album firmly marked Beulah as a buzz band; at the band's '99 CMJ showcase you couldn't wiggle a theremin antenna without tickling an A&R person. Media accolades spewed forth along the lines of "a spry, jubilant record that sounds like a lo-fi Beach Boys record with horns," "the most concise expressions of frustration and grandeur you'll find in pop music right now" and "achieves what bands like Oasis have tried but never really managed to do: take old musical styles, twist them around and create something fresh and new." Of course, the amount of critical surface-trawling was alarming. It was as if by noting a Brian Wilson piano/strings motif married to a sweet, massed vocal harmony or a jaunty Burt Bacharach horn flourish dangling from a Beatlesesque melody, critics could justify applying the retro-pop label without reservation.

Kurosky agrees, saying, "I've been trying to shake this Beatles-Beach Boys thing for a while. I could release an ambient-post-rock thing now and I guarantee you that somebody would still find a Beach Boys thing in there to talk about! But I never think in terms of that. Songs come to me and I fiddle with them. One thing that is conscious with me is instrumentation, because I like different instruments and using them. And we did sort of transcend the genre where we came from. I hear as much stuff that's from the '90s or '80s that influenced us. I mean, I've written songs and told the guys, 'Oh yeah, this one's kind of Replacements-y.' Then I fuck it up so it doesn't sound as much like the Replacements.

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