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?
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"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.
"With the new record, I knew I didn't want to make the same one twice. There's a bossa nova song, a country song, a soul song, an ambient one, an Asian thing, a song that almost sounds like Macha -- it all sounds like Beulah to me. We're influenced as much by Stereolab as the Beatles and Beach Boys. . . . This record was more influenced by going out on the road with Wilco and loving Summer Teeth than it was a lot of other records."
Indeed, The Coast Is Never Clear is a monument to diversity. Beulah's palette encompasses everything from the aforementioned bossa nova (the "Girl From Ipanema"-like jazz of "What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?") and soul (the Philly-sound lushlife of "Hey Brother") to jaunty, country-inflected British dancehall (Muswell Hillbillies-era Kinks seem to inform "Popular Mechanics for Lovers") and anthemic cinema-score pop ("A Good Man Is Hard to Kill" contains echoes of blaxploitation and vintage teens flicks). The Wilco nod above is no red herring, either; the tune "Gene Autry" is a big rawk number whose ancillary touches (trumpet, violin, tubular bells) might be welcomed by Jeff Tweedy for deployment while sidestepping his own early pigeonhole, the alt-country tag.
But appearances can be deceiving. While Beulah is sunny and optimistic in sonic texture, below the surface lurks an overlooked, less-cheerful emotional subtext. Spin, in a mostly favorable review of Coast, recently chided Kurosky for his superficial lyrics with the off-base observation, "Of course, though, the stakes are rather low. The most plaintive laments are about suntans fading and roommates returning to (booo!) the east Coast, 'where men are men' -- but never-never land rarely sounds so alive."
"It was a good review," admits Kurosky, "an eight out of 10. But everything I put into the record emotionally and lyrically seemed to just be lost. With the music we make, it's easy to make the assumption that the things we're singing about are not very heavy. But the entire record I think is equally heavy or more heavy than anything that's on the market right now, whether it be Palace or Sparklehorse or whatever. We're just this 'pop' band, and I've had this albatross hanging around my fucking neck for the past two years and it's in the shape of a goddam Hello Kitty lunch pail! It's been driving me batty!
"More so than the other records, where we were a bit more cryptic and esoteric, this one is all about personal relationships: where they're faltering, where they're not, where they're going well. 'A Good Man' is all about my father, his breaking his neck going through the windshield of his car, and me asking him for his love. 'Suntan Fades,' it's not about a suntan fading, it's about all those things you hide, keeping up appearances that you're healthy and in good shape and in good spirits -- but what happens when that 'suntan' fades, and all those people know that all those drugs you take aren't going to save your soul and all those girls you have sex with aren't going to make you feel love. Look at 'Gene Autry': about getting to California, 'and in the end the city spreads out just like a cut vein and everybody drowns sad and lonely' -- so this place that you come home to isn't as welcoming as you thought it would be. The last song, 'Night Is the Day Turned Inside Out,' it's about everybody's relationship with their wife or girlfriend for five years and the dwindling sex life with your partner. 'There's a red light district in your heart that I used to visit but it's been boarded and I can't afford it anymore.' And so on.
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"But at this point, I could be singing about necrophilia and I'm still gonna hear about 'sugary songwriting,' you know?"
Misunderstood or not, Beulah remains a beneficiary of ongoing praise, and Kurosky is clearly grateful. At the same time, maybe a self-enforced planned obsolescence isn't so weird after all. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips once characterized his band's unlikely ascent along the lines of an "accidental career," and Kurosky similarly hints that it's important to view things through the lens of perspective -- and to know when to get an eye exam.
"For a lot of bands, it's like gambling. Like a gambler has that itch to pull the lever on that slot machine, bands want to as well when they see the same fucking ads, they see MTV, and there's that one chance to be that one thing. Certainly we as a band were tempted by it many times. I'd rather put a gun in my mouth than have a day job at this point, but I think about how this is a very expensive 'hobby' we have going here. We tour and tour and tour and we do okay living on the road, but we certainly don't come home with enough to pay for a house or pay the rent all the time. I'm just trying to decide whether to keep it going and whether it's worthwhile. That's what happens -- I see the guys, everybody's getting married and these are gonna be fond memories. You look back and say this was fun, we were able to do a lot of things that most people don't get to do, and we actually gave it a shot."