by Alex Colston (@re_colston)
Say you’ve landed a gig before there was a gig-economy, one walking dogs. Like “paper boys” and “babysitters,” dog-walkers are the original at-will employee. Say it pays fairly well, or well-enough for your purposes. You’ve got your partner. You’ve got Chicago. You’ve got your friends, most of whom are “Chicagoans” from the generously annexed outskirts of Chicago, two of whom have joined you in a musical endeavor for fun. There’s a bunch of you with musical projects, all respectively colorful yet copacetic, and it’s all quite rad. You’re touring. You’re promoting. You’re resting, relaxing, and drinking otherwise, and it’s all kind of on rails—it’s a tolerable, workable situation. Shit could definitely be worse.
This is the picture Kelly Johnson painted, discussing the 7 years he spent doing this fun thing they called Geronimo!. That band was loved by a devoted many, especially by Johnson, Ben Grigg, and Matt Schwerin, who made up the band. It’s best they loved it, or else 7 years with dozens of shows, of the transcendent and forgettable variety, must have been some serious self-inflicted misery. After years of trashy meals, troubling their circulatory systems, and crammed, cement-box basement shows, ruining their auditory systems, in 2015, Geronimo! buzzed their girlfriends to explain they’d called it quits, and maybe it’s fair to say life is more sedentary as a result.
Last week, Kelly Johnson released another solo dig, Death on Mars, under the stage name Milked over at the EIS Tape Club, and the record, though ostensibly about a sci-fi future, is really about the unclosed past.
The record’s concluding track, “Énouement,” has Johnson worried, strangulated. Change of place isn’t helping. He’s here, wherever that is, but he’s also moving into a reflection over a long opening verse: “Now I’ve found a brand-new place/to existentially whine/to get sick of the patterns/and the routines in my life.” After confirming, yet again, that “everywhere you go, there you are,” Johnson plays us out into the distant space of some black-hole memory.
If you have a Merriam-Webster itch to cry foul about this word, énouement, saying he’s misspelled “dénouement,” you’ll have missed the play, and it’d be best to take it up with the romantic Tumblr blog of creative neologisms, “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” where Johnson cribbed the track’s title. “Obscure Sorrows” defines: “the bittersweetness of having arrived here in the future, where you can finally get the answers to how things turn out in the real world.”
Death on Mars is this extended look from the future, from the vantage of another planet, already knowing how things end up. From this look, the means have unexpectedly simplified, life has been lived, the landscape has moved beyond familiar into indefatigable detail, and a certain, foundational segment of reality is firmly unmovable. And yet the mind spools into the past or an imagined future on Mars, in another city, or on a diverged, less barbaric timeline. “And yet.” This temporal pivot is the inevitability around which Johnson wrote this record, and it’s to remarkable effect.
Johnson paired up with EIS Tape Club, in part, because the opportunity presented itself, and because the smaller-scale production, the compactness of tape, and the simplicity of the entire operation felt right. The production is of a sort with the record, as recording it was likewise unhurried, simply done, and extended over a casual timeline.
The record itself is, in the final analysis, loud and barreling, composed of anthemic guitar-rock, where Johnson sits at the table pounding fists with John Reis (Hot Snakes, Drive Like Jehu) and riffing mad-eyed with Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney) and Joey Santiago (The Pixies). Reacting to a recent Washington Post piece about the decline of electric guitar sales and the attendant decline of “guitar heroes,” Johnson isn’t buying it, or he thinks the giant, pop-rock records he favors, brimming with solid song after solid song, give the lie to the classic rock pomposity baby-boomers are so fond of touting. It doesn’t require a nice or expensive guitar to play interestingly, he might’ve said. Be that as it may, Johnson certainly sees that his style of guitar-rock is in abeyance, and this is where the political gets personal for him.
As he ironizes on the record’s second single, Johnson would have those “White Punks,” the young ones often necessary to the project of musical community, to consider how DIY spaces, in their bid for diversity, often put the cart before the horse. As Johnson sees it, everywhere there is an inclusive-for-the-margins, zero-tolerance-for-bigots space throwing shows, there is a monochromatic, suburban profile to the attendees: “I’ve got no sympathy for white punks in angst/or their suburban dreams/of making a scene.”
It’s, of course, a particular pickle too for Johnson’s bands, Geronimo! and Milked, as they’re both 90s-traditional as they come and both composed of three white guys, often attracting more white guys to their shows. Johnson is well aware: “I have no answer to the problem, but these venues are often progressive in advertisement not in practice.” That seems altogether well to point out, as it’s a growing concern across the country and possibly it’s getting better all the time. Johnson says he’s lived through different iterations of Chicago’s music scene, seeing venues live and die and good intentions land and crash, and “White Punks in Angst” is just a way to blow off steam about it. As far as blowing off steam goes, this is much preferable to those who would strike the opposite posture.
When I called Johnson, he was milling about Chicago’s Emporium Bar Arcade, waiting around to play guitar with Meat Wave for an AV Club closed door session. Meat Wave is another Chicago act and fraternal twin to Johnson’s project. The show was also featuring Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Chicago’s wunderkind, and Twin Peaks, another Chicago mainstay. Maybe because life now apparently includes “at-will employment” with one of the best bands in Chicago, Johnson has a downright chipper tone about him on the phone.
Johnson has since sold off his dog-walking gig, when the rolodex got large enough to call it a business. With his current freedom of working from home, Milked presents a yet-unexplored musical opportunity for creative autocracy. It’s his band to milk as he pleases, as it were. He’s already onto recording another record. As for touring, Johnson says a lot of the fodder for the record, especially for its animating question of where one belongs, came from experiences on tour.
But, “touring is a young man’s game,” says Johnson, 34, remarking on the labor and hustle of keeping a band in the black. Johnson made it clear that a band’s continued success is not selling all your vinyl, which Geronimo! still has plenty of, it’s a matter of keeping the fun going, since, in our gig-economy, the gigs are often paying bands worse than if they were walking dogs. Not otherwise strung along by monetary compensation, the emotional labor alone can undo the friendships making a band tick, but that seems not the case for Grigg and Schwerin, who will be supporting Johnson when Milked plays for the locavores.
Otherwise, to urge or quell, as the case may be, the unsettling desire to finally settle, Johnson says he and his wife might move. I thought about this as I re-listened to Death on Mars. It struck me how, should he move, Johnson had produced a record that will have anticipated, even staked out the aesthetic experience—the emotional twilight—of leaving before he’s even left. Death on Mars sounds out the question we, including the “white punks” and the more marginalized, intone fairly often: “When will I get home, and will I be undone when I arrive?”