Assault on the Senses

Harvey Milk share their brand of blues rock with audiences west of the Mississippi for the first time

Albums by the band Harvey Milk should come with airbags to ensure that the monstrously heavy collision of sound doesn't snap the necks or smash the faces of listeners.

Deep, dark and slow, the music of Harvey Milk reeks of an unholy union of the Melvins, Big Black and Black Sabbath, with no small amount of Gang of Four-meets-Sonic Youth distortion and feedback folded in for good measure.

Casual listeners might be tempted to compare the band--which came together in the early 1990s--to contemporary stoner-rock or doom-metal bands. And although Harvey Milk may have had some influence on the younger bands in those genres, the group works from a more basic musical foundation, drummer Kyle Spence said in an interview last week.

"Harvey Milk is a blues-rock band at its most basic," Spence said, amiably. "We're not stoner rock, sludge or doom anything, and if it helps for people to label our music to find it in record stores, that's OK, I guess. But we're not some version of one of those subgenres. We just play blues rock."

Which is probably why the band's recent albums, such as the new Life ... The Best Game in Town, have drawn comparisons to AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top.

Spence spoke via cell phone from Dortmund, Germany, where Harvey Milk was completing a two-week tour of Europe before returning to the United States for their latest American tour--including their first gigs west of the Mississippi. Harvey Milk will play Friday, July 25, at Solar Culture Gallery, with opening act Ultramaroon.

While in Europe, the band has been playing "mostly clubs and theaters," Spence said.

"Although we have done a couple of festivals: We did Supersonic in Birmingham, England. That was probably the best festival that we have ever done. It was just great. It's like the antithesis to ... the Download, or any of those other English festivals where it's this giant corporate thing."

Other bands on the mostly experimental, three-day Supersonic 2008 bill included Battles, Merzbow and Keiji Haino, Gravetemple (featuring Julian Cope), Wooden Shjips, Earth, Efterklang, Dalek, Red Sparowes and Oxbow.

Spence's favorite Supersonic act, though, was "a guy, I can't remember his name, but he played sheets of glass with his mouth. That was very odd and interesting."

Harvey Milk was formed as a trio in Athens, Ga., a town known for jangly college-rock exports such as R.E.M., Pylon and The B-52s.

Guitarist and vocalist Creston Spiers and bassist Stephen Tanner are the remaining founding members, and Spence replaced original drummer Paul Trudeau in 1998. The band took a hiatus in the late 1990s, after the release of its third album, The Pleaser.

They reformed in 2005 and, in the next year, released Special Wishes, followed by Life ... this past June on the independent metal powerhouse Hydra Head Records, home to such most-excellent acts as Isis, Boris, Jesu, 5ive and Kayo Dot.

On the current tour, multi-instrumentalist Joe Preston (aka Salty Green, who has experience playing with such groups as The Melvins, High on Fire, Sunn 0))) and Earth) has made the group a quartet.

Spence said that during Harvey Milk's early incarnations, its recordings were hard to find, and the band didn't get a whole lot of attention.

"Even when we were an active band, we just put out a lot of limited-edition singles and very obscure records that nobody could find in stores."

While the band took several years off, though, listeners slowly began to discover Harvey Milk's music.

"If it wasn't for the Internet, and if it wasn't for certain people like Relapse Records, which reissued a lot of our early recordings, we wouldn't have the interest we have now."

Relapse, another cool indie metal label, also compiled in 2003 the essential The Singles, which collected some previously rare and hard-to-find tracks.

"So that all was going on, and Stephen, who had lived in Brooklyn for the last eight or nine years, he was approached by people who wanted us to make a live album," Spence said.

"He said, 'Shit, it's going to be easier for the others if we just put the band together and do a new record.' I think he was just sick of people asking him about this band he used to be in 10 years ago."

Some listeners might wonder why the band chose to name itself after the pioneering gay San Francisco city councilman who was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, in 1978.

Although Spence wasn't in the band at its beginning, he recalled that "Creston had watched this documentary about Harvey Milk and just thought he was a cool guy. It's not meant in disrespect or anything purposefully funny or ironic. They were trying to make names for the band, and it came down to either that or Rip Torn.

"Now, it's funny, though, because we couldn't have timed it better: We're getting the most attention in our career because of that movie coming out."

Milk, starring Sean Penn in the title role, is slated for release late this year.

Down-tuned, low and growling, the music of Harvey Milk is a visceral assault on the senses. And Spence said the band's secret weapon in the pursuit of that sound is bass player Tanner.

"He's got probably more to do with the Harvey Milk sound than anyone. He's more important than anyone in the band, because he keeps everything interesting. If he's not around, it's really hard for Creston and me to really keep it interesting.

"Stephen has a lot of influence on what the band sounds like, and our approach. He's a hilarious guy, and although people might not know it from our music, there's a lot of comedy in what we do."

In fact, mixed in with the music the band plays in its touring van is some comedy, Spence said.

"The last thing I remember hearing is Nick the Lounge Singer, doing 'Star Wars'--you know, Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live? We also listen to a lot of Albert Brooks movies on CD, like Real Life or Modern Romance. You can see the movie unfold in your mind while you are listening."

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