It's hard to tell whether Beulah front man Miles Kurosky is joking. After all, he's only one question into an interview about, among other things, his band's new album, Yoko, which he's already confessed is his favorite of the four Beulah has released. Under the circumstances, you'd think he'd be revved up and ready to plug.
But, no, he'd really rather talk about something else. Anything else. Like Papaya King.
"Is it true you can get a hot dog and papaya juice for, like, a buck-fifty?" You can practically feel his enthusiasm prickling over the phone line. "I mean, that's amazing. It's kind of a New York landmark, right? I've been to Nathan's out at Coney before, but I just read about this place, and I really want to go when we play in the city. Do you know where it is?"
After establishing some basic facts (the original Papaya King is on the Upper West Side, and yes, you can get lunch for a recession-proof price), Kurosky relents: It's boring, for sure, but he guesses it'd be all right to talk about music for a while.
"You know, I think I'm kind of over music," he asserts, never mind the fact that he's noodling away on his guitar as he talks. "I don't even have a stereo--I have a CD Walkman, but it skips all the time. Sometimes I stand really still and listen to jazz, but other than that..."
No wonder the future of Beulah has been the subject of so much excited conjecture. In the past nine months, the indie-rock Web site Pitchfork has reported, retracted and then (sort of) reported again that the band is on the verge of breaking up. Kurosky, the band's songwriter, denies the story--but he's coy about his intentions.
"They're obsessed! I just got another e-mail from them today!" Kurosky laughs, his good humor underlined by some genuine exasperation. "Look, we never said we were breaking up. Never ever ever. All we've ever said is, look, these things don't last forever. Good things never do.
"What I mean," he continues, "is that you have people out there, they're your fans, and they assume that the train'll just keep rolling. Like, we get e-mails from people who say, 'Oh shit, you just played in my city, but I couldn't make it because it was raining, so when are you coming back?' And it's like, you know what--maybe we're never coming back; we don't know. All we know is that no one in Beulah wants it to become one of those bands that refuses to die, even after it's stopped being interesting."
What was interesting for Kurosky this time around was the idea of making an un-Beulah album.
"I think there were certain clichés, Beulah clichés, that we needed to get past," he explains. "Like, staccato horns and ba-da-ba and anything that was making people use words like 'sugary' and 'sunny' to describe our music. I promise you, I am not the Brian Wilson obsessive people make me out to be."
In practice, making an un-Beulah record meant coming up with some hard and fast rules: more space in the arrangements, a live sound, more minor chords, no "ba-da-ba."
"We decided to work with Roger Moutenot," Kurosky says, "because his stuff with Yo La Tengo has this amazing sense of breath, y'know? Those albums breathe. And then we just went into the studio and played. Which was a new thing for us--before, we'd always do all this overdubbing. This time, it was like, whatever we've got here, that's what we're using."
"Of course," he goes on, "we ended up drifting from that a little--it's no use being doctrinaire; the point is to make a good record--but overall I think the energy is more...human. Y'know, like the little flaws that happen because there are six people in a room making music--I like that those flaws are there. I think it makes the record more real. It took me awhile to understand that," Kurosky adds, "because I'm a fucking perfectionist, and I have dog ears. We mastered this thing, like, seven times." He laughs. "I guess you can only change so much."
Change, but only so much, is an appropriate description of Yoko. Yes, the album largely hews to darker tones, and there's a certain stretched-out, ambient vibe new to the band's music. But the melodies and Kurosky's biting lyrics are recognizably Beulah.
"I've heard that this album takes a little more time for people to get into," Kurosky notes. "But that doesn't bother me--I think that most music that's really fed me in my life has been deep enough to require that attention. My fear is that people won't let it go to work on them. That's sort of my beef with rock in general," he adds. "Like, there are some bands that are allowed to challenge you and change what they do, and everyone else is supposed to make the same record over and over. Radiohead, those guys could make an album of all fart sounds and people would be, like, 'Genius!' Hell, I'd probably think it was great, too. But for some reason we're one of those other bands that people think should be sunny and sugary all the time. That's what I'm sick of."
Kurosky, clearly blessed with a talent for pontification, nonetheless has trouble finding the words to explain how the more un-Beulahesque tunes on Yoko got that way.
"Well, some of them are more Beulah than others," he acknowledges, "even though we had all these guidelines and everything, and they all were recorded the same way. Like 'Landslide Baby,' that one's pretty Beulah. But, I don't know, a song like 'Wipe Those Prints and Run,' that sounds really different to me. I mean, I started writing it, or not even writing it; I was just lying on my bed like I am right now, with my guitar, and this came out--"
He puts the guitar up to the phone and strums the track's opening bars.
"And I thought, hey, that doesn't sound like anything I've done before. So, OK..."
The guitar again; the next few notes.
"Then I did that. And that still sounded...new. Melancholy, or...I think all the songs on the record I really love are the ones that came out of me feeling out a new sound bit by bit. That's where the music got exciting for me again."
But for the most part, as Kurosky reasserts, the music isn't that exciting for him anymore.
"I haven't heard anything that's really, like I said, fed me in a while." He pauses, strums his guitar thoughtfully. "I can remember, when I was younger, hearing records, and it felt like they'd saved my life, y'know? I don't know if what's out there just isn't doing if for me--I hear things occasionally that I think are interesting, but..." He pauses. "Or maybe I'm just not hungry anymore."
"Look, I don't want to give them the impression that I don't care about this band or this record or playing these songs live," he says, "but there are other things that maybe are more exciting to me right now. Music ends and being creative goes on. Like, there are some short stories I've written that I'm sort of revising and figuring out what to do with. I'd love to write a script. I'm working on a novel. Y'know?"
OK, Miles. Tell us about your novel.
"Nope. Can't talk about that." He laughs. "Let's just talk about the record, OK?"