Milk Maid Makes a Splash With Yucca
Milk Maid, the new project from Nine Black Alps bassist Martin Cohen, is on the verge of launching a breathing debut record, Yucca (Fat Cat). Also in the band are fellow Manchurians Adam Carless and Ian Hodsen. This record proves Cohen’s incredible versatility as a musician who channels everyone from Jesus and Mary Chain to Guided By Voices. Ranging from acoustic, distortion-heavy ballads to grungier retro tracks, Yucca is sure to earn some rave reviews. In fact, Milk Maid was recently #1 on NME Radar Buzz, and it’s no wonder why. In this interview, I chat with Cohen about Yucca, Nan Goldin, and Queen.
ELM: One thing that stands out for me is the incredible diversity of sound of the songs. Was that something you did consciously, or did it just happen on its own?
MC: Being a songwriter and a singer are things that are still very new to me and I’m still getting conformable with them. These are pretty much the first songs I’ve written and I suppose I haven’t developed any sort of style, but developing a style isn’t really something I’m looking to do, or if it is it’s not through writing one type of song. I saw Yo La Tengo last year and they played a 10 minute songs with increasing feedback and intensity then a 3 minute pop song with a drum machine and a dance routine. To have that freedom and belief in the songs as songs is important rather than trying to make things fit a mould you’ve made for yourself. I’ve tried sitting down to write specific type of songs but that’s really hard, you can’t really preempt songs. Things just happen that are out of your control and they appear.
ELM: What advice would you give someone before listening to the album?
MC: I give bad advice.
ELM: There is a lot of visceral imagery in the album’s lyrics. Where does that come from?
MC: I’m not really sure, it’s part of the same process as where the melodies and chords come from. Just sitting down and strumming for hours and sometime words come out that sound good over melodies over chords that sound good. Occasionally I’ll write the lyrics in isolation but only once a melody is in place then it all just comes together at some point. I’m just always drawn to the darker stuff that comes from it all.
ELM: “Someone You Thought You Forgot” almost made me cry. Can you tell me more about that song?
MCL There isn’t really that much to share about that one. It’s all pretty much in the title! It’s one of the few songs on the record where I know what it’s about. It comes from the same situation as “Girl” and “Dead Wrong.”
ELM: I’m really intrigued by the record’s cover art. Where did it come from, and how do you see it relating to the music?
MC: It’s not really something I’ve thought about. It’s just a photo I took on holiday with my family last year, just the back of my grandma’s head when she was walking down some stairs. There were times when I was thinking of using something darker but I’m not sure how dark the album is; maybe sad is a better word. The photo could be like a memory where you have trouble remembering someone’s face even though you spent so much time with them but I don’t want to reason anything in that way, it’s just a nice picture.
ELM: Aside from it being an awesome plant, why did you choose “Yucca” for your album title?
MC: I actually wanted to call the second Nine Black Alps album Yucca but it didn’t really appeal to anyone else in the band. When we were recording that album we drove past a road called ‘Yucca’ everyday on the way to the studio. It wasn’t even Yucca Road or Yucca St., just Yucca. I just liked how the word sounded and looked. It looks like it shouldn’t be a word and there wasn’t really much more to it than that. Thinking about it now I guess other meanings can be applied and related back to the subject matter of the songs, things like being able to weather bad circumstances and coming out ok which is characteristic of the plant. Also, since a lot of what the songs are about are based on that time I spent in America, I guess it makes sense, but again, that was never the intention of using that word as the title.
This is really the first time I’ve had to think about these things. I’ve been in total control doing this album, and all the decisions I’ve made I’ve not had to explain or justify or even think about; they just felt like the right things to do. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m copping out of questions; there just isn’t much reasoning behind these things.
ELM: How has living in Manchester influenced your music?
MC: The weather helps a lot; I’m more productive when it’s grey outside. Musically, not so much.
ELM: How long did it take to make the record, both writing and recording?
MC: Everything was written between November 2009 and November 2010 and I was recording the songs as I went along, releasing an album wasn’t on my mind at that point. Once an album was taking shape, I went back and re-mixed a couple of songs.
ELM: What was the recording process like?
MC: It was really easy and surprisingly stress free. There are 5 more acoustic songs where I play everything so I just did those at home on the 8 track; usually [I] spent a day or so on each song recording, then a few hours mixing the following day. The ones with drums were recorded at our practise room in Manchester with various drummers; [we'd] normally go in about 10pm and get things set up and start recording when all the other bands had left at about 11pm and try and get 2 songs done, get home about 4am, [and] then get up in the morning and do bass and guitar myself. Once I’ve started recording a song I find it really hard to do anything else until it’s finished and mixed; I can never wait to hear how it sounds. That’s kind of why I like doing most of the recording myself; I want to get it done fast and don’t want to have to rely on people to do help me out, plus I start feeling guilty about taking up their time.
ELM: What kind of other jobs have you had?
MC: I’m working in a bar at the moment. I’m the past I’ve worked on the door checking tickets, cloakroom attendant, call centre stuff, flyering, nothing too surprising. Being in Nine Black Alps paid but that was hardly a job.
ELM: Who are your favorite writers? (Not just songwriters, but general writers.)
MC: I’m not a massive reader but a couple of writers I’ve been into recently are Jose Saramago and John Fante. Lyrics are a big part of music for me and the earlier Cass McCombs records really appeal to me and Thalia Zedek from Come is a new favourite too.
ELM: Are there any visuals that inspire you, like films or paintings?
MC: I’ve done loads of photography over the past few years and Steve Gullick has been a huge inspiration for me, his photography and his music. I really like Nan Goldin too. After music, that’s what I have the closest connection with. There are filmmakers and artists I really like but none that have ever made me want to get involved in film making or painting. The black and white Jim Jarmusch films are really beautiful; a lot of the time they’re just like loads of ace photos. I’m never inspired in the ‘bolt of lightening’ kind of way; some days I just have more energy and patience to sit down with a guitar and try and write songs.
ELM: What are your live shows like?
MC: Much louder than the record!
ELM: Do you have any milestone accomplishments for which you’re aiming?
MC: I don’t really think long term. Most of the time all I’m thinking about is writing new songs.
ELM: What was the first record that changed your life?
MC: The first band I really got into was Queen. I think I bought about 16 of their albums before I bought anything else, but by that time, Freddie was already dead, so I never had a chance to see them live. They had a big impact but I wouldn’t say they changed my life because I hadn’t really heard much else! The single one that probably changed my life was ‘Total 13′ by Backyard Babies; they’re a garage/punk/glam band from Sweden. It was probably the first time I really went nuts over a band but nothing else they’ve done has come close to that record. I saw them live around that time loads; my mum even let got me out of school one day so I could go to a signing they were doing–I think it was Wolverhampton. But they opened the first door into punk music which I followed back to blues and stuff, so it was pretty educational.