"It's just one of those words that doesn't really have a definition," says Al Burian, Milemarker's vocalist, bassist and synth guy. "It just seems to exist to sum up this group." And if emo indeed lacks a definition, then it's surely where the eccentric Milemarker should be filed. Anaesthetic, its latest release on Jade Tree Records, uses a heavy electronic element to create a bleak, cold atmosphere in which post-punk-informed songwriting is stretched to epic lengths. It's new-wave art rock that those with stamina-blessed feet can dance to.
The electronics and keyboards first entered the mix when the Chicago-by-way-of-North-Carolina band, which had previously followed the more traditional guitar-bass-drums blueprint, signed with hardcore label Paralogy and added the synths just to see how its followers would react.
"We're pretty vehemently antigenre," Burian declares. "Without being totally all over the place, we're eclectic to the point of unlistenability. We try to see what the clichés of music are and either subvert them completely or work against them. The strange thing about emo is that it's emotionally fake music. When you give people the chorus that they want to hear or the purposefully vague lyrics that can apply to any situation but don't really mean anything, it's just too easy. It just becomes a panacea for people, music to listen to on the way to work."
That kind of passive consumption strikes a sour chord with Burian. "It just makes for lazy lives," he says. "It gives people the illusion that they're participating in a rebellious subculture that doesn't really have anything to offer and that doesn't really present any kind of model for living alternatively or doesn't pose any of the big questions or big problems that are going on in the world."
Despite these feelings, Milemarker is still working within the murky confines set forth by the great horn-rimmed masses to communicate its critique. In fact, some of its lyrics stumble into the same traps. But there are also lines such as Even depression's not depressing anymore that make concrete statements. "You have to have a framework in order to make any kind of commentary," Burian rationalizes. "We have to know who we're talking to in order to have anything to say to them, so I don't mind. It gives me a sense of who's going to be at our shows and where they're coming from."
Milemarker's commentary extends all the way to Anaesthetic's tricky pink packaging. The Pepto Bismol-hued cover features only a white-winged horse surrounded by a circle of stars. Nary a song title is listed, and the band's name appears only on the spine and in small print on the back. Break apart the CD tray, though, and you'll find a pink insert that contains lyrics and recording info. (Vinyl enthusiasts must tear open the sleeve.) The message: Milemarker is all about making people look closer and challenge what they're presented with.
"If you're going to sing about something, it might as well be something that's important to you and might affect other people," Burian says. "For me, a lot of the early punk bands that got me into music affected my personal politics and led me to question the real mainstream lifestyle, the consume-produce ethic, the feeling that you have to be a cog in whatever social machinery is presented to you."
While its goals might be similar, Milemarker is consciously moving away from old-school punk and the clichés that come with it as well as from the bromides that punk was trying to escape when it broke away from straight-up rock. "Rock and pop music is a language of clichés," Burian says. "It's hard to claim to be original within the four-chord context because everything you do is going to reference something else. When punk rock first came out or when independent hardcore came out, they would write one-minute songs where they would pack all the energy into that in an attempt to eschew the mainstream by getting out of the whole three-minute verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus format. I think for us, trying to work in much longer structures is an attempt to get out of that mainstream hit-song dynamic but also to get out of the punk rock fast angry song. Of course, you get into other clichés when you run into that territory, because certainly eight-minute songs have been done before."
Maybe in the oft-maligned beast known as art rock? "Yeah, but we're arty kind of people," Burian says unapologetically. "I think it makes it a little harder to listen to. Some people are used to listening to the first thirty seconds and asking, 'Well, do I like it? I don't know. Next.' Or being so conditioned to having it wrapped up in three minutes where if it goes longer it starts to irk them, and I think that's okay. I think it's good to irk people or make people try a little harder."
That is, if people don't give up on Milemarker altogether. But Burian says the group's current path doesn't necessarily predict its future direction. Thanks to an established open-door policy that's seen roughly ten people enter and exit the fold, Milemarker is more a collective than a full-on band. "We let anyone that plays with us change things in a democratic kind of way," Burian says. "We're constantly trying to bring in new people and keep the idea of where it's going pretty open through that."
Another dictum states that all suggestions warrant consideration, even if they sound a little iffy. "The prevailing premise of this band is that you can't say no to anything, whatever someone suggests or comes up with," Burian says. "I almost feel like at times we were daring each other to say no. We've recorded songs at homes with computers or by looping samples of other bands, or some of our songs are written where someone will bring it in. We've had songs where I've been like, 'I don't know about this; this just seems too crazy.'" Admittedly, the results have been mixed, but this formula has produced songs that are original and almost never boring, avoiding that ultimate musical sin. "We have some songs that are terrible, but I think it's better to try and have a miss than to be the band that is really good at writing one sort of song and just does it over again. I mean, I like AC/DC and everything, but I wouldn't want to play in it."
Even if Milemarker didn't have an audience, Burian says the band members would still be doing what they do. "Right now, we all feel thankful that people are somewhat interested in us and that we have a label to put out records, but even without that we'd be in the practice space or at home making music just for ourselves, seeing how far we can take things and seeing how far we can push ourselves," Burian says. "The way people react to it is kind of a secondary consideration, in terms of thinking about whether people can really deal with it. You know, if they can't, then fuck them."