The Brooklyn-based indie rock group Milagres takes their name for the Portuguese word for “Miracles”. The band is comprised of Kyle Wilson (vocals) Fraser McCulloch (bass, keys, vocals), Eric Schwortz (guitar, vocals, and percussion), Paul CJ Payabyab (drums), and Chris Brazee (keyboard). The early incarnation of the group recorded their first album titled Seven Summits, in rural Massachusetts and released it independently in 2008. In 2010 Wilson sustained a back injury and wrote the majority of the material for what would be the band’s second album, Glowing Mouth, while in recovery. Glowing Mouth was released in 2011 on Kill Rock Stars Records, which signed the band after listening to album. The band has played such shows as South by Southwest, CMJ Music Festival as well as touring with Peter Wolf Crier, Minus the Bear, and We Are Scientists.
The cover art of Milagres' most recent release, Glowing Mouths, is a picture of an alpine glacier taken by frontman Kyle Wilson, who is an accomplished mountaineer. The photo is adjusted to highlight a dreamy glow emanating from the ice, and is an excellent visual representation of the Brooklyn band's music. Milagres converts the serene majesty of nature into sweeping soundscapes; deluges of stately vocal harmonies, starry-eyed synths, orchestral flourishes. This is music for big speakers, or headphones somewhere beautiful and remote.
We spoke with Wilson from his Brooklyn apartment the morning before the band set off on a cross country tour. Over nearly an hour of Skype (Wilson's first time!) the Milagres frontman talked about his favorite backcountry meal, why he loves Prince's vocal shrieks, and the draw of perilous alpine trips.
Band of the Day: Question: So much of the images on your album cover have to do with nature, your mountain climber nature must be influential to you. What's it like to live somewhere so divorced from nature, does that affect things?
Kyle: Yeah it's really hard for me. It's also getting harder now that I'm working so much on music and don't have so much time, I used to go out west every summer to do a trip. A couple years ago I went to Rainier [Mount Rainier, a 14,000 ft. peak two hours from Seattle -ed] which was amazing. My old man is climbing all the tallest peaks over 14,000 feet in Colorado. He's not old, but he's getting there, so I like to accompany him on the dangerous ones to make sure he's ok. I haven't been able to do that lately, the largest obstacles being time and money. But I also think that one of the reasons I write about it so much is because that's my daydreams. That's what seems so sublime and supernatural to me. Whereas the urban environment seems too mundane.
Band of the Day: Are you writing about the things that happen to you in the mundane city world? Or are you literally thinking about natural landscapes when you write?
Kyle: I have an instinct to want to place my connections to the world in a natural setting. I don't know why that is. Even if I'm writing about whatever I'm going through in my personal life, or I'm just writing about an idea, I tend to choose a natural image to express it. I've been writing for a long time, you can psychoanalyze me, I have no idea why that is. To some extent it's intentional, but for the most part it's just what I naturally do. I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that musically, the music that I write tends to sound grave and serious, and if you're going to put lyrics to music you can't put humorous urban lyrics to that kind of music. You can, but the effect is sort of...
Band of the Day: You could be really abstract like Radiohead.
Kyle: Sure. I take issue a lot of the time -not to speak of Radiohead specifically, I like Radiohead- but...I remember reading an interview back in the 90s, yep back in the 90s [laughs], with Eddie Vedder. Ever heard of Pearl Jam? He said something about how when he wrote songs, if they were open-ended and anyone could decide it's about something or other that meant something to them. I think that's a huge cop out. You should be very specific about what you're saying. You don't have to have a message, but your images and your ideas should be specific enough that people can either know exactly what they're saying, or they step into this world of exactly what they're saying and take whatever they can away from it, knowing exactly what you're saying. Rather than, “oh I think this song's about my boyfriend” or whatever. That doesn't mean you can't be psychedelic and crazy like Jeff Mangum for example, but if you look at the way that Neutral Milk Hotel writes their lyrics it's all concrete imagery.
Band of the Day: If you could play a show in any specific natural space, where would it be?
Kyle: There's a huge question, what's the carbon footprint?
Band of the Day: Regardless of any practical limitations.
Kyle: Do I get to be free from damaging the environment?
Band of the Day: Yes.
Kyle: Wow, that's tough. There's a lot of places I'd want to do it where it would be really cold, and that would suck. I guess I'd pick some place I've never been so I could go there. Maybe somewhere in Patagonia, that'd be awesome. Somewhere lower where you can see everything. But I've never been there so I can't say exactly.
Band of the Day: Your album cover has a lot of light on it and the word light comes up frequently in the album. Is there something about light that inspired you?
Kyle: We'd done a record before this and I had very intentionally drove a theme, and written the album around this particular theme. This time I hadn't really done that, but I went through everything and tried to figure out if there were any unifying concepts. The only thing I came up with was a very simple abstract, broad idea--light and dark. I think it works, there's a lot of stuff in the lyrics about moving between one and the other, I don't know how much more I can say about it. It was unconsciously written into the record. Everything on this record was more less stream of consciousness.
Band of the Day: Was that a liberating experience for you?
Kyle: In some ways. By the end it was. The last two songs I wrote are completely different from anything else on the record. One of them is “Glowing Mouth,” the other is the last song on the record. Both of those songs were...finally towards the end of writing that album I got to a place where I felt totally free of any self-imposed restrictions I had gotten before. I abandoned any notions of organization I had imposed on myself.
Band of the Day: A lot of people compared your vocals to Prince in this record, but if you could steal the vocal chops of any singer over the years, who would it be?
Kyle: Roger Daltrey. Maybe Roger Daltrey, maybe Prince, maybe some combination of the two. Maybe Harry Nilsson. He's one of those unsung heroes of classic rock, he was friends with Randy Newman and John Lennon and lots of people. He's famous for a really bad song, “Put The Lime In The Coconut,” it's really bad.
He [Lennon] has that great kind of scream. If you've ever listened to John Lennon's Plastic Ono band on “Mother” when he just starts letting it go. I'd like to be able to scream like that. I'm hopefully working on something like that for the next record. One of my favorite vocal performances of all time is Prince's performance on a song called “The Beautiful Ones.” At the end he just starts shrieking. For some reason I find it really appealing when an artist can do that on a recording then replicate it live. But maybe I'm just saying that because it's something I can't do yet. I can sing really low, I can sing really high, but I can't shriek.
Band of the Day: If you had an unlimited budget to make music or art in general, how would you use it?
Kyle: I studied classical composition in school, it's still a huge passion of mine so I'd love to write for strings. I've written pieces for orchestra but never had them performed. I would begin there. I'd want to write some music that was pretty orchestral and I'd go crazy with acoustic instrumentation. I'd probably waste most of the money on a studio recording rather than a live performance.
Band of the Day: Does it feel claustrophobic being a band in Brooklyn?
Kyle: Yes. And even when you go to Europe you can't escape from being a band from Brooklyn. People are like, “oh look, it's another band from Brooklyn. And guess what? They're wearing plaid shirts.” And you're like, well so are you! So are bands from everywhere else!
Band of the Day: Favorite back-country meal?
Kyle: Gado-gado. It sounds awful when you're down here in civilization, but when you're up there it's good. It's basically pasta with peanut butter, butter, just kind of everything that's high calories that you can think of in a pot and mix it up.
Band of the Day: Would you say you do pretty hardcore mountaineering? Is it more of a hobby?
Kyle: During the process of creating this album I was...the band was in a lot of ways seeming like it was going to fall apart. I was a lot more interested in climbing than in playing music. I've never really gotten to the point where...I'm not an accomplished alpinist, but I've been up a few things that are pretty cool. I know a million people that are more into it and better at it than I am, but it's definitely a passion of mine and something I've always considered as a potential career option, being a mountain guide. It's one of those things, like being a musician that I know I don't need to make a lot of money to be happy. The same would go for a career in the outdoors. I'd be happy even if I wasn't making very much money.
Band of the Day: Do you mostly do ice climbing, rock climbing or a combination?
Kyle: I've done stuff on rock, a lot of alpine climbing, some ice climbing, for the most part I'm into straight glacier mountaineering. Most of the time it's not as glamorous as most people think, you're trudging up hills for very very long amounts of time. I think it's mostly the atmosphere, getting to see a pristine place that most people never see. Going to a great effort to be there, also, when your survival depends on your every move and everything you do and what you do to take care of yourself in a very simple way, the things that aren't important just disappear. When you get back to civilization you have a much different idea of what's important. As someone who is prone to be stressed out about stuff, and I think a lot of people are, going into the back-country is something that refreshes me and reminds me that the things I'm worried about on a daily basis are not nearly as important as I think that they are.
It also makes you realize that there's a lot of things that are important that are our society just doesn't value, especially on the East Coast. The environment is not something people think about here.
Band of the Day: I have trouble understanding alpinists that do the really technically difficult, really dangerous routes, I don't understand that mindset.
Kyle: The reason that I got into it was because I was fascinated by that hubris. Have you ever read Into Thin Air? I find it fascinating that someone would go to such great lengths to do something like that, at the end of the day all they have to show for it is that they get to brag to their friends about it or they have a plaque saying 'You Climbed Mount Everest.' I think that's really interesting. I also think it's interesting that the public is totally fascinated by the morbidity of the sport. The fact that people die doing it, the danger, all that stuff is way more important to them than the reason why most people actually do the sport. It took me a while to discover that the reason people do it is because they love it. It's an amazing way to live, an amazing thing to see. An amazing thing to experience.
Band of the Day: But what about people doing first ascents, really dangerous stuff that goes beyond getting out into the backcountry and rediscovering what's truly important, like you were talking about?
Kyle: If you actually know what you're doing, you're aware of the risks. You've probably learned along the way what types of risks are likely to get you in trouble and what risks aren't. Some of those things that people do that seem really dangerous, they're doing a great job of managing the risks. Overall, you could say that mountaineering is still safer than driving a car. You might be putting your life in the hands of chance, nature, your own abilities to keep yourself alive, but every time you hop into a car you're putting your life in the hands of a whole lot of other people. In a lot of ways that's even scarier. You have no control over the outcome. You could be randomly picked off.