The Boston Phoenix
April 27 - May 4, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Heroic doses

Milligram deliver the rock

by Carly Carioli

Milligram Years ago, before he introduced me to my wife, a friend of mine sat on the couch in his living room, which at the time was serving as my bedroom because the previous Fourth of July we had done a bunch of his cocaine at my house and my girlfriend had kicked me out. He felt responsible, though I tried to tell him that it had only been the final straw; she probably woulda kicked me out anyway. One way or another, I'd have wound up on this couch. He nodded. "We're the kind of people who are gonna get our hands on a little bit of something, and then we're gonna throw it all away."

It was, for a time, the story of my life, and even though it is no longer my story, I still find myself trying to tell it where I find it. I look for records that fill the scorched amphetamine void, the kerosene null-noise bliss, the fierce blank jittery howl of that time, and I celebrate them. Sometimes the story ends badly; sometimes the records are awful. The story I want to tell you now is not about one of those times.

For a year or so I was the singer in a band, a lousy one, though our intentions were pure. We even had T-shirts printed up that read "Lowest Common Denominator Rock," a valiant sentiment, though the music came out sounding like a cross between Dokken and the Jesus Lizard, emphasis on Dokken. One night at rehearsal, I foolheartedly attempted to rectify this situation by playing my mates songs from a few of my favorites: the Stooges' Raw Power, the Hellacopters' Payin' the Dues, Teengenerate's Get Action, Turbonegro's Apocalypse Dudes. "This is what it should sound like," I said, when, suddenly, as if by divine hand or monkey's paw, a band in the practice space next door began to play, and the sound smoked right through the walls with a lurch and shudder, all black-death heft and white-light speed, Zeke's trucker-meth oilthroat spasms played at Fu Manchu-grade blotto-thundergod boogie blur. My jaw dropped. "Well, actually," I said, "that's what it should sound like."

These days the band next door are called Milligram. But, they've been known by many names. There were the Horses, the Dead Horses, the Horses' Heads, the Four Horsemen. " `Nipple Mountain Clampdown' is the one that I still wish was the name of the band," says drummer Zephan Courtney, "and I feel appeased by having it be a song title at least." Then they decided it would be funny to call themselves the Stones because, for one thing, Mick and Keef couldn't sue if you just called yourself the Stones, could they? They actually played a couple of gigs under the name the Dead Formerly the Stones. Finally they settled on Milligram, which no one particularly liked but everyone could live with.

I've barely set up my tape recorder in the Milligram practice space when Courtney cracks a pint of whiskey. "I just want it on the record that I think we're the best band in Boston," he says, to his bandmates' slight dismay and to the horror of my tape recorder, which thereupon commits suicide, leaving me an hour later with a series of five-second snippets of conversation about DSL connections, Guns N' Roses, Captain Beefheart, the ins and outs of various major-label A&R men and producers, and the endless recyclability of rock and roll.

The story is in bits and pieces. And what is there to say, really? There is a single on which Milligram's version of Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown" lasts but a minute, a locomotive crawling-flesh piss blues that they intended to do as the Stooges would have done it, in which the singer proclaims his injury baldly, without the mitigation of art or artifice: "I'm angry and I'm hurt." There's also an EP coming out on Tortuga this week that crams seven songs into 17 minutes of fear and loathing. One song, says Courtney, sounds exactly like Motörhead, another like Kyuss, some others like other people, because this is what rock and roll does. It reinvents the wheel. "I mean, it's a wheel no one's even come close to getting perfect."

In the early '90s Courtney was the drummer in Stompbox, who were for a time Boston's brightest hope for post-hardcore notoriety. They made one album for Columbia before being dropped. Courtney switched to art pop as one half of the well-regarded local duo Chevy Heston; most recently he has served as the studio drummer for Juliana Hatfield's faux metal alter ego, Juliana's Pony (disc due on May 16). "With Chevy Heston, the whole idea -- the idea of art rock for me in general -- was to unlearn everything you know about your instrument. And so after that I was really interested in getting back to playing straight-ahead hard rock, to remind people of how it's . . . zzzzlrp."

The tape lapses. When it comes to again, Courtney is still talking. "Stompbox was really into the idea. We found out that you couldn't copyright a song title, so we had songs called `Forever (In Blue Jeans)' and `Carry On My Wayward Son' and . . . zzzzlrp . . . and if we had made a second album we were gonna call it Chicago 17. And then Chevy carried that on too with songs like `Goin' Down Slow,' which is an old Howlin' Wolf . . . zzzzlrp . . . and rock and roll, it's all been reconstituted and put back together, and so the idea of naming something `Zeppelin' or `The Stones' or `Maiden' or `Smith' or . . . zzzzlrp." The tape recorder finally dies.

Guitarist Darryl Shepard was twice kicked out of Sabbath revivalists Roadsaw. The first time was on stage in the middle of a bottle-throwing melee; the second time he never even made it to the gig. "Best thing that ever happened to him," say his new bandmates, and others have agreed, including his old bandmates, who recruited Courtney's old Stompbox bandmate Jeff Turlich to replace him. Shepard's playing has gotten sharper, leaner, and more ferocious. He doesn't get the chance to solo much on Milligram's concise EP, but when he does, it's brutal psychoholic slag barely recognizable from his old band.

I don't know anything about the bass player. He seemed like a nice guy. His name is Bob.

You wouldn't figure singer Jonah Jenkins for a person with a fear of commitment. He is the earnest, focused type, slightly geeky even beneath a serious set of eyes and devilish smile; he is soon to wed his girlfriend of eight years. And yet he has spent the past decade making bands of enormous commercial potential and then simply walking away. In 1995, his band Only Living Witness recorded their second and finest album, Innocents, for Century Media. Innocents was ahead of its time by about 18 months, triangulating the post-grunge hard rock of Alice in Chains and the post-Sabbath dronemetal of Kyuss and C.O.C. Just after the album was recorded, Jenkins broke up the band. Innocents was released, with little fanfare, a year later.

After that, Jenkins was poised to bring emocore to the masses via Miltown. They were signed to a major label and spent $200,000 recording an album. I heard a cassette and was convinced it would make them at least as big as the Foo Fighters. Jenkins hated the album, was disgusted by the process, was determined not to reward his label or his bandmates for their crass enterprise. He walked out and broke up the band; the album was never released. He is still under contract to the label, which is now known as Giant. He has been under contract to one label or another for the past 10 years, yet he has recorded just three albums and released only two, only one by an active ensemble.

To Jenkins, this story is neither disheartening nor particularly noble. "I can see how somebody who hasn't been through it would think that way. It's really healthy for us. Because in other bands I've been in, that pressure -- of doing showcases, or trying to get signed -- has just destroyed the band." The Giant folks are not interested in releasing anything by Milligram, but they're unwilling to let Jenkins out of his contract. They still believe he may make something they can sell. They may be right, but then again, Jenkins says this band -- heirs to a not-quite-salable lineage that includes the Stooges, Motörhead, Black Flag, and the Minutemen -- is the kind of music he has wanted to make all along. The only time Miltown sounded the way he wanted, he says, was when they covered "Ace of Spades."

In the meantime Milligram bunker down and burn through a half-dozen songs. My suicidal tape recorder, risen like Jesus on the third day, bleeps back to life. The speaker is overloaded and the last words it catches, as the howl red-lines into nothingness, are Jonah barking a song called "After the Riot": "I'm a wreck, I'm a wreck, I'm a wreck, I'm a wreck."

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