“I feel I need to vent about what I’ve been through,” says Milk Maid’s Martin Cohen. He’s sat in a jazz club in Manchester’s hipster-drenched Northern Quarter and is explaining to Best Fit about the painful birthing process for his band’s excellent second album, Mostly No. So, we buy him a beer, pull up a chair and listen to his tale of creative woe.
“The songs were written pretty quickly as I don’t really do much else,” Martin begins. “I work part-time so I can concentrate on music. However, even though I also like to record quickly, we had endless problems from start to finish, so Mostly No took quite a while to record.”
While making comprehensive notes, we enquire about the exact nature of these ‘problems’. “They were spiritual problems, practical problems and financial problems. We had been playing some of the songs live for a while, but there have been numerous line-up changes over the last two years.”
Peering over the end of our half-moon glasses, we ask Martin whether he believes he is a merely a victim of circumstance or is he just hard to work with. “Ha. It could be me. But, I think it’s an age thing. People get to mid-to-late 20s and get jobs and start settling down and therefore cannot go on tour or commit as much. Everyone has been honest about it. We did a tour with Mazes last September and we were going to record for a month straight after and just nail the new album. But, our bass player moved to New Zealand and our guitarist moved to London and then it didn’t work out with the drummer. Also, we had amps breaking, guitars breaking, mics breaking – but it is finished, that’s the important thing.” We tell him that psychologists describe this phenomenon as ‘album closure’. “I think that’s the therapy session done,” Martin proclaims, another satisfied Best Fit patient.
In fact, the former bassist with Manchester noiseniks Nine Black Alps has a lot to be happy about. Mostly No follows hot on the heels of last June’s sublime Yucca debut and is a scuzzier, more psychedelic upgrade on Cohen’s innate sense of melody and love of alternative guitar music. While we are not complaining in the slightest, Best Fit asks Martin why he decided to release Mostly No relatively soon after Milk Maid’s first long-player. “A lot of bands have EPs or a bunch of singles out before the first album, but Yucca was our first introduction and I wanted to follow it up as if it were an EP,” he explains as a jazz troupe begin to soundcheck and we realise our “quiet pint” may not happen. “Yucca was finished in February of last year and we were then offered a chance to do a split-album with another band. We had five songs ready for that, which, if it had been released would have come out before Yucca. So, we had already got some new tracks for this album.”
In the flesh, Cohen comes across as a gentle and slightly introverted soul. He’s wearing his trademark hat and sporting the obligatory Northern Quarter beard. While Milk Maid is a quartet (bassist Sam Alder, guitarist Mike Jordan and drummer Scottie McKnight complete the line-up), Martin is very much the band’s creative force and he admits to a certain level of control-freakery (“I’d want to know what’s going on every day even if we had a manager”). Cohen is clear on his vision for the band. “I’ve always wanted Milk Maid to be a band and not a solo endeavour. I don’t want to be a singer-songwriter – I want to be a songwriter in a band. I don’t want it to be a dictatorship – I want it to be an equal, shared thing, but it has never reached that point for some reason.”
Despite being beset by problems and line-up changes, Mostly No is a hugely impressive record. Much of the album is rooted in the grizzly Americana of, say, The War On Drugs or Ty Segall. Ever the perfectionist, Cohen picks faults that only the artist would hear “I did want it to have a live sound but I still wanted it to be quite blown out and distorted. I feel like a missed the mark on that a bit, on the production side, from what I was aiming for.”
He’s nit-picking. To us, tracks like ‘Dopamine’ and ‘Summertime’ are perfect examples of lamb-like pop melodies dressed in the wolfskin of jagged guitars and lovingly-worn distortion pedals. Mostly No exudes the analogue warmth of music made on a 16-track tape machine. “The album is quite short which probably adds to the scatty nature of it,” Martin continues. “I originally wanted to make a longer record which had more songs and more instrumental sections – more music – rather than just melody. But, you have to have a band to be able to do those things. Hopefully, we will be able to expand upon that on the next album.”
Lyrically, much of Mostly No seems pretty dark, as half-heard snippets of self-flagellation and despair prowl the album’s stellar soundtrack. If we took the words at face value, we could worry about Martin’s state of mind, but he quickly dismisses any notion of Mostly No as being a cathartic spleen vent. “It’s a bit like the last album. There are lines of truth and the rest is just nonsense. The words have to sound good and I have to want to sing them, but I don’t need them to relate to a story.”
However, we are nothing if not tenacious, so we grill Martin about lead single ‘Summertime’, which does seem, on the face of it, to be about waiting for a nice day before contemplating suicide. “Yes, ‘Summertime’ is the one where I know exactly what it is about,” Cohen says, as if confessing to a terrible songwriting crime. “I had read an interview with Everett True, the NME journalist, and he was talking about going over to Seattle just after Kurt Cobain’s death. The weather there had been really bad – it rained non-stop for four days – and it raised some questions about whether that had been an influence. That’s what ‘Summertime’ is loosely hooked upon. It’s the notion of waiting until the sun is shining and the birds are singing before thinking of killing yourself.”
While this isn’t the cheeriest of thoughts, Mostly No is an album fuelled by Cohen’s love of guitar music and if he’s happy to share his influences with pride, Milk Maid are no mere copy-cat opportunists. Mostly No is a reverential update; a Mancunian hotpot of snarly Mary Chain spiced with the surging melodies of Tom Petty. Cohen tells us that his parents played very little music in the house when he was growing up and that he had to “start from scratch.” Queen were his first love and for a while, his only love, “I bought 18 of their albums before I bought anything by anyone else,” he reveals, to our slight incredulity.
We ask Martin which current bands he sees as peers to Milk Maid. “I probably don’t listen to many current bands that sound like us. I can tell you who I try and rip off if that would help?” We nod, all ears. “I listen to a lot of Big Star and The Byrds – they are the two classic bands. The last Kurt Vile album [Smoke Ring For My Halo] blew my mind. There were three albums last year that I know I will listen to for the rest of my life; the Kurt Vile album, the Ty Segall [Goodbye Bread] album and another by a band called Women [Public Strain – which was actually released in 2010].”
By now, we’ve had to decamp to the pavement outside the club. The jazz quartet has begun a gig and interviews get a little tricky to conduct during a full-blown free jazz wig-out. Talk turns to the future. The remainder of 2012 will be a mix of the obligatory gigging plus writing new material. A short UK tour will be followed by a two shows supporting Stephen Malkmus And The Jicks in August (“I cannot wait”) before Milk Maid head overseas “in one direction or another.”
While Cohen seems excited at the prospect of getting out on the road again, the balance between touring and making new music has shifted. “When I was in Nine Black Alps I was so into touring, perhaps because I wasn’t involved in the writing process. So, touring felt like what I was in the band for. Now, I’m just really enjoying songwriting, so I want to have enough time to get some new stuff together and do another album.”
Another album already? It seems that Milk Maid will continue with their impressive levels of productivity. “At the moment I’m writing more acoustic-based stuff and other songs are almost power-pop in places, but I’m not sure how that’s how I want the next album to be,” Martin reveals. “I quite like the idea of working on two albums at the same time – one more jammed-out and psychedelic in the band context and one more acoustic. I’ve already got the album covers sorted – I just need the songs.”
The songs are the easy bit, retaining band members is a bigger challenge.
Mostly No is out on the 9 July via Fat Cat.