Whether it be the stars, magnetism or the circles we move in, things have a tendency to return from whence they came. Thursday’s Milemarker show at Wetlands will be a homecoming of sorts for the former Chapel Hill act who moved to Chicago in 2000. Former residents Dave Laney and Al Burian took a break from Milemarker in 2003 to pursue a new project, the more straightforward guitar punk of Challenger.
“We never broke up,” Laney asserts when I catch up with him in Boston, just prior to soundcheck. “Pretty much eight years of going all the time warrants taking a step back to figure out what you’re happy with and what you want out of things. It gets easy to lose sight of things if you keep charging through.”
Their new album, Onimosity, features the return of Ben Davis, who started the band with Laney and Burian in 1997. It also marks the departure of provocative keyboardist Roby Newton, who since leaving Milemarker has started another band with her new husband, Rjyan Kidwell, aka Cex.
“The band got pretty intense being on the road all the time over the years, and it caught up with it,” says Laney. “It turns out Roby needed to leave it, which is completely understandable. That is something that had been brewing for a while, and she knew that she needed a change to refocus things to make herself happy.”
Over a beer at the Reservoir, Davis sheds a little further light on Newton’s parting.
“She didn’t feel like she was expressing herself fully, even though she was lighting herself on fire, totally kicking ass, wiring up lighting gear. She brought a whole bunch to that band, and made it much more than a hardcore band with keyboards,” says Davis.
Which is of course how the band started–as driven, theatrical iconoclasts, or in the Chapel Hill parlance “art fags.”
“No one here was playing keyboards and destroying things–so we were like, ‘That sounds like a good thing.’ And people would be, ‘You’re being really pretentious,’ and we were like, ‘We’re just trying to be ridiculous.’ We just got into it and were having fun,” says Davis.
Milemarker shows could certainly be spectacles. Davis would set his drums on fire with lighter fluid. Early on they were banned from the Cat’s Cradle after they smashed their keyboard on the stage. Newton rigged elaborate light boxes and would perform topless with electrical tape over her nipples.
“You pay $30 to see Iron Maiden and you get a show. They’ve got a robot that comes out and is set on fire. Now you can pay $15 to see an indie band and they don’t service you like that,” explains Laney. “They don’t move, they don’t even say hi.”
But while Newton is gone, the band forges forward. Buoyed by a decent budget courtesy of New Jersey’s Eyeball Records (home to early My Chemical Romance and Thursday albums), the band was able to fly Davis up for the recording of their new album. Like everything Milemarker does, the process was chaotic and crammed with activity.
“I got to the studio at noon and left at 6 a.m. Sunday. We went back at 11, after driving home and sleeping for like two hours. They said, ‘You can have breakfast after you finish your takes’. At 7:30 I said, ‘Can I have breakfast?’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, your plane leaves in an hour,’” Davis chuckles. “I literally sprinted to the gate and got there as they were closing the door.”
“I’m like, ‘No, wait, you’ve got to lay down this slide guitar part,’” recalls Laney. “He’s like, ‘I don’t have time’. I’m like, ‘Get your bags, I’ll set up the slide guitar’. He sits down, I put the headphones on his head, and we were rolling. He did it once and is like, ‘I’ve got to go’ and went running out the door.”
True to form, Onimosity is a smorgasbord of sounds, and somebody dosed the silverware. Half the album consists of songs that extend past the five minute mark, some well beyond it, like Renaissance if they’d been into Gang of Four. At times aggressively riveting and others strangely entrancing, it’s truly a product of the process.
“We never have enough time, which is nice and frustrating,” Laney says. “If you have too much time you over-think everything. I know people who’ve been recording albums for months and they’re like, ‘We pretty much took all the congas and Brazilian flutes off the track.’ And I’m like, ‘If you’d only had a month it would have still been in there and you would have something really weird sounding!’ You start getting too self-conscious.”
So there’s little surprise that Laney isn’t looking any further ahead than December when the tour ends (and he moves back to the Triangle).
“Every record we’ve ever made, we’ve thought would be the last record. Every show we play I’m surprised people come. I’m not counting on anything, because that just leads to disappointment,” Laney says. “We’ll finish this tour, see how it goes, and go from there. That’s how it’s always gone.”
Milemarker plays the Wetlands in Chapel Hill on Thursday, Nov. 3 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $8.