By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
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Brother Russell Miles is 32 years old, and the only thing he does, day after day, is make prank phone calls. He has done this for years, since he was a child growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, making amateur comedy tapes with his older brother. The pair would sit in their room, one of them pretending to be a radio talk-show host, the other a fictitious caller. They worked out intricate pranks, including one where Miles' older brother masqueraded as an elderly woman who would admit to the host that his show was the only thing she lived for. After she had reeled the host in, her ceiling fan would come crashing down on top of her, "killing" her on live radio.
More than two decades later, Miles is still doing the same thing. Now though, it's his job.
It has been a strange trip. A decade ago, Miles (his "rock-and-roll pseudonym," he says, not wanting to reveal his real name) was a devout fundamentalist Christian, a devoted disciple with the kind of religious fervor rarely seen outside of a tent revival or a parole hearing. He was one of the flock, a believer. As a vulnerable 19-year-old, he was saved and jumped into Christianity with both feet, beating the Bible so hard he bruised Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the process. At the time, Miles was just another confused kid trying to find meaning in his life, trying to find his way. He thought religion was the answer, and in a way, it was. It just wasn't the answer he expected.
"Instead of dabbling around the edges, I went into it so intensely that I was able to get where Oz was and see him behind the curtain working the controls, basically," says Miles, as he sits in a nearly empty Cafe Brazil, picking at a plate of chicken crepes. "I had a lot of really disillusioning experiences. I'm not an atheist now, but I don't consider myself a fundamentalist by any stretch. Obviously."
Miles laughs at this remark, an understatement of biblical proportions. To many people--especially right-wing and religious talk show hosts--he is the Antichrist. Shortly after leaving the church after a brief, three-year fling, Miles redirected his religious ardor into what he calls his "renegade ministry," a record label (Trance Formation Records) and online mail-order business (located at www.fringeware.com/~melba) based on the time-honored practice of prank phone calls. Through six years and twice as many guises (most often, an elderly woman with a salty vocabulary named Melba Jackson), Miles has made thousands of crank calls, each driving a thorn a little deeper into the side of the religious entertainment industry.
But talk shows aren't his only targets. Trance Formation's latest release, this year's Here is Melba!, is a disc of calls Miles has made to various home-shopping channels over the past few years. As Melba, Miles frustrates operators with inaccurate credit card numbers, momentary bouts of Tourette's syndrome, and profanity-laced diatribes against Mormons, but somehow, rarely gets cut off.
"I think most of the time--especially on home shopping channels--they may suspect something wrong, but they probably get so many weirdos calling, I mean, genuine weirdos that really want to buy something, they can't just dump you," Miles says. "Same thing with the religious talk shows. When you're sitting around waiting to get on those shows, you end up listening to them over and over. We noticed that some of the real callers were just as weird as we were. I used that to kind of harass [Austin talk show host] Mike East one time. I said, 'Mike, your listeners are so weird that you can't even tell the cranks from real callers.' And what happened, he started getting gun-shy and cutting off sincere callers. Anyone who was sincerely weird or had speech impediments. He'd get trigger-happy."
Sitting here, Russell Miles blends in better than a BMW in Highland Park. Dressed in jeans and a white "Lewinsky Cigars" T-shirt, he looks like anyone and everyone. He talks in a gee-isn't-that-something manner that tends to make you forget he's the one making the calls. That is, until he slips into one of his characters.
It all began rather innocuously six years ago, when Miles moved to Austin. He had left Dallas to escape the city's conservative environment and grow his hair out, literally and figuratively. But what he found when he arrived--at least on radio talk shows--was a climate every bit as stuffy as the one he thought he had finally freed himself from. Bill Clinton had just been elected president, and shock waves of moral outrages were spreading across the country. Conservative pundits were having a field day on talk radio. And that's when the calls started.
"Right after Clinton got elected, I was sort of amused by the reaction on some of the Christian talk shows, conservative talk shows, to Clinton getting elected," Miles recalls. "They were apoplectic. They were in shock. The first tape I put together was a collection of calls I made around that time, sort of capitalizing on the hysteria."