The six years since San Francisco's Beulah broke up have given songwriter Miles Kurosky ample subject matter to confront with his densely orchestrated pop. In addition to enduring several rounds of surgery for shoulder and kidney ailments, he moved from San Francisco to L.A., drawing cold comfort from Frank Lloyd Wright's remark that the city, which both men clearly loathe, is a "desert of shallow effects." Kurosky's now out on his first tour since Beulah's 2004 farewell show, and recently released his debut solo album, entitled The Desert Of Shallow Effects. It won't surprise Beulah fans that at least two dozen musicians played on the new record, but the arrangements as a whole embrace earthiness and creaky conflict, steering away from the euphoric polish of Beulah's finest songs.
The dissonant woodwinds that spill into opening track "Notes From The Polish Underground" signal that Kurosky's willing to go just as dark as Beulah's final album, Yoko, as do the first lines: "My limbs have failed me again / They see no sense in trying." Though this solid 10-song set isn't as self-pitying as those lines suggest, Kurosky's embarking on his tour with no expectations: "I'm gonna go on tour and then I'm gonna come home and talk to my wife and say, 'What do you think?'" Before this Thursday's show at Schubas, Kurosky spoke with The A.V. Club about making the new album, Buddhism, and why he'll likely be glad to play some Beulah songs on this tour.
The A.V. Club: Were you ever tempted to do something really solo and stripped-down?
Miles Kurosky: That was something I was trying to avoid. A friend of mine kept saying, "That's what people want, they want to hear the real Miles and get down to the bare essence of who you are." I guess for all of us, no matter how weird you get, it's you sitting on a couch with an acoustic guitar. For me, that's as boring as you can get, because that's what I have to deal with on a daily basis. I'd rather look toward Tom Waits or Sun Ra in terms of making records than, I don't know, whoever plays acoustic guitars.
AVC: Well, having a lot of parts and players was obviously important in Beulah, too. But the effect was usually more bright and polished.
MK: A lot of times with Beulah, I'd make folks play parts 50 times because there was one little squeak on a guitar. In hindsight, it made Beulah what Beulah was, I guess, but also it's a bit ridiculous. Would people have ever noticed that? Probably not. If chaos or chaotic translates to more human, which I guess in some ways it does, because our essence is just chaos, yeah, that's what it is. I was going for that. I don't know if I was going for [darker]. Maybe it's just a by-product of where I was in the songs that I wrote. It'll be interesting to see how people react to that, if they miss the sunshine.
AVC: You named the record for a Frank Lloyd Wright saying about L.A., and he obviously meant it in a cranky way. Did the place weigh on you as you wrote the songs?
MK: Well, I was born and raised in L.A., and then I lived in San Francisco for about 16 years. I thought I'd never go back to Los Angeles, because I truly hate that city, but my wife was getting her master's degree at UCLA, so we had to go. I started writing a book about how much I hate L.A., and then I started reading other books—just anything about L.A. The thing is, it's a perfect quote that not only encapsulated this place that I was at, but also this place that I was at in my life. When you quit your band, and I was sick for a while—I did a shitload of reflecting. The funny thing is, it was the perfect quote about my life at the time. You know, we surround ourselves with so many things that we think make up our lives. We think we know who we are because we define ourselves by a thing or what we do. It's not a city that's just "a desert of shallow effects," it's our lives as well. It's a bunch of nonsense, really. I got married to my wife, and I converted to Buddhism, because my wife's Buddhist. When I converted to Buddhism, that was the question: "Are you caught up with a bunch of superficialities?"
AVC: On the other hand, you've talked about the neighborhood of Portland you used to live in, and all the wind chimes and people using Buddhas as lawn ornaments. Is there a place you can live that's a happy medium between that and L.A.?
MK: Here's the thing: I do love Portland. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, I'm a bit of a curmudgeon, so I probably just complain about everything, which is my own problem, and that's a daily struggle. But I'm just an equal-opportunity hater, you know what I mean? I don't like the douchebags who just worry about their cars in L.A. Those people are just gross. I also don't like the over-the-top Burning Man hippie thing. But yes, I have found a happy medium. I just bought my first house, in North Portland, in a neighborhood called Arbor Lodge, which is incredibly working-class. I'm keen on normal folk, you know?
AVC: Do you think the lyrics on the new album will strike people as even darker than Yoko?
MK: Yeah, probably. My wife always makes a joke that inside me beats the heart of a teenage goth. Which is kind of hilarious, because I don't really have a goth bone in my body. The other day, my wife also said, "Have you ever written a happy lyric?" I guess they're kind of happy in a sort of reflective way, or maybe "bittersweet" is the better word. I can't tell too much about the songs. I think one song I'd probably be arrested for.
AVC: It seems you also take more time on this album to emphasize certain details in the lyrics, like the line about "stale sex and baby's breath" on "Dead Language Blues."
MK: You probably found it perversely disturbing. [Laughs.] Actually, even when you said it, it kind of sounded weird and gross to me. "Stale sex," it kind of brings up images, doesn't it?
AVC: How are you feeling about all the people who are requesting Beulah songs for this tour?
MK: Beulah, as far as I can tell, continued to get popular after we died. A lot of these people never saw this band, they never heard these songs live. A lot of people got into it when they were quite young, so they couldn't get into the shows when they were 16 or 17, and then the next year we broke up. I mean, I went and saw plenty of people when I was younger that started bands—Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg—and they didn't play their songs from their old bands, and I remember being kind of bummed out about it. It's not like they're asking me to do a cover of something I hate. At the end of the day they're still asking for me, so I consider it an honor still. That they give a shit to even remember is fantastic.
AVC: It seems like one of those things where a lot of people will have different favorites. Have you noticed any consensus?
MK: Well, the one that's gotten the most is "Emma Blowgun's Last Stand." That makes sense. It's kind of triumphant and it's got that nice catchy trumpet line. Sometimes over the years I've read these reviews where I only wrote three-chord songs, which is entirely untrue—in fact, I've written too many chords for some songs just because I was trying to be difficult. But that song actually happens to be only three chords the entire way through, and it just happens to be the most popular, which is kind of hilarious. I guess it's that innate sort of "Louie Louie" gene that we're all born with.