Talking Travel, Over-Thinking and UFOs with Rhye’s Mike Milosh
The alt-R&B artist taught us about epigenetics in a conversation about his transient life and latest album, 'Blood.'
All photography by Genevieve Medow Jenkins
One day, when Mike Milosh was a child, he went to see his father perform in a church. The patriarch of the family, a violinist, played in an orchestra who – in return for performing religious songs – were allowed to throw their own classical music concerts. That day they were playing the neo-Baroque composition “Adagio in G minor”, a touching oeuvre that’s since been used in everything from poignant funeral scenes in The Sopranos to a Thanksgiving episode of Bob’s Burgers.
“The first time I heard that song I just started crying,” says Milosh, speaking from across a table in The Photographer’s Gallery in central London. “There was nothing I was sad about or hinging an emotion on. I was literally crying because the music was so beautiful. That feeling of having someone touch you so dramatically and in such a big way… I’ve always wanted my music to do that.”
His musical project Rhye, launched in 2013, certainly has. Debut album Woman arrived just as popular music started to trim down the fat, with acts like the xx and Frank Ocean releasing sparse yet distinct emotional records. At the time Rhye had been billed as a two-piece – a collaboration between Milosh and Robin Hannibal, a Danish songwriter-producer – but the music feels like it’s solely Milosh’s creation, cemented by his recent return with follow-up Rhye album Blood, in which Hannibal is not involved.
Although the pair both worked on Woman, Hannibal left Rhye before its release and never played a single live show. Instead it was Milosh who took to the road, bringing the traditionalist and seductive tone of Woman to around 40 locations across the globe – including one stand-out performance in Denmark where he was accompanied by a 49-piece all-girls choir. Five years have passed since Woman and in that time Milosh also parted ways with his wife and, at one point, found himself $50,000 in debt (the result of buying out from his record deal with Polydor, who retained the rights to release Blood). This new release, he says, carries a tonal quality that speaks to the joy and the rediscovery of oneself after having emerged on the other side.
Across a lengthy conversation (which has been edited for clarity) we spoke about the journey leading Milosh to this point, the way music works and how he’s used his art as an enriching tool to discover and live in several places around the world.
Noisey: We’re in The Photographer’s Gallery and you took loads of photographs for Blood, right?
Mike Milosh: I probably took around 300 photos and from there brought it down to a top 20 – all of which were used in the album art. The cover [above] I knew was the cover when I shot it. Geneviève, my girlfriend, is in this glacier lake in Iceland that we drove 17 hours to find, naked with our friend Natalie swimming.
Have you always been interested in photography? Is that a new thing?
I used to shoot stuff for Ford, the modelling agency, when I was in my 20s. I’ve done a lot of photography. I did two documentaries about auto-racing. When I was a kid I used to race cars, so I approached Porsche with this idea...
Wait – you raced cars?! How?
Because I’m a dick.
Illegally? I’m picturing street racing.
No, legally. Two of my friends owned car race teams. My friend Thomas had a race-car we would race. My friend Dave Lacey raced for Porsche. He hooked me up with the president of Porsche to do a documentary about their factory racing team. We did 80 hours of footage, a proper full documentary. But then we got sued by Fox Television and it never got released anywhere. They sued us for $800 for every minute of footage we shot and we had 72 hours. We were like 23 years old.
Was that one of your first creative projects?
I had a very lucky childhood. I went to art school when I was eight and I got in for ballet. I joined the Royal Conservatory as a cellist aged 12. My dad also had me in competitive swimming too because he firmly believed work ethic comes from the competitive nature of things where you’re alone and don’t need a team. So I explored that. Then I was an art major for painting. Then I went to university for production and sound design in Montreal. I hated it... it sucked.
So what did you do?
I left and I decided to be an entrepreneur. I started this valet company where I was supplying valet for a couple of restaurants, doing these contracts for BMW where I’d pick up these super-expensive cars and give them to clients and take their car and get it fixed or worked on. That all came through the auto-racing connections. I think I got really bummed with music when I was at university and that destroyed my passion. Then one day I was listening to Autechre and I fucking freaked out and wanted to buy some shit. So I went and bought an MPC 2000 and started getting excited about [making music] again.
You’ve lived in so many different places – Germany, Holland, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal. Does travelling inform art?
I used to think so. In fact I went to Thailand [a few years ago] specifically because I thought the sun would help make the most joyous record ever. But actually I got bummed out and sad. It was dark in Thailand, with a dark energy. I’ve done a lot of records and worked with a lot of people and in the end it’s my personal and emotional state that generates the music I do. It doesn’t matter where I am. It’s just what I’m feeling.
It’s interesting you say that because your music is emotional and not connected to a particular place. But still – you’ve travelled around so much. Why not stay in one location?
Have you heard of epigenetics?
No. What’s that?
Epigenetics is essentially the genes within you; you carry information in them from your ancestors. Let’s say trauma. So for example… my girlfriend is Jewish and she doesn’t sleep well at night. We researched why she doesn’t sleep well and apparently the reason Jewish people don’t sleep well at night is because for the last 800 years they’ve been persecuted. So they’ve carried this trauma through their genes. That’s epigenetics. My family is a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. But we followed it back and it comes from a tribe of nomads, so I was like ‘OK, I’m genetically predisposed to be a nomad’. So I think that’s one part of it?
The other part is if you want to make it in music and sustain a career, you can’t stay in a country like Canada. If you want to accomplish anything that even remotely resembles a healthy lifestyle you have to travel. So I developed a big love for it out of necessity, artistically. There’s also something beautiful about moving to a new place where you don’t understand what they’re saying. There’s like a new version of you that’s inside there. You think, ‘Wait, who am I?’
Listening to you talk now I feel like you think quite deeply about what's around you... or at least like learning about things.
Yeah. I’m the guy that everyone has to shut up because I’ll talk to you for 18 hours, and you’ll have to go, and I’ll be talking about a CIA program that brought Nazi scientists to America.
What’s a standout track for you on Blood – one where you’ve successfully brought a moment to life?
“Song For You” (below) is the song I feel really homed in on something. The reason why is because the emotional response I was having to the song when I was making it, I kept having to take a moment before I did the vocals, so my vocals are quite constricted. You know that feeling when you feel like you’re about to cry and you’re quite constricted? People in the studio were crying. We were a bunch of dudes in the studio crying... It was quite pure. Watching my girlfriend’s experience with the song when I first showed it to her, she was wearing headphones, it felt like it achieved that thing I want out of music which is to elicit a really strong emotional response. I really want that image to come across because otherwise music can just be sounds out of a speaker that kind of become noise.
I was reading that David Byrne book, How Music Works. He talks about how all these sounds in music have been influenced by the sounds in our life and how noise music is highly influenced by the fact we live in noisy cities. I don’t want my music to be that thing that just becomes another piece of noise. I wanted to elicit as strong a response as possible in people.
The first record Woman was about falling in love. This one isn’t strictly about that.
This record is about a bunch of things. It’s about not being with the person I married, leaving them. But that’s only the first song.
You’ve addressed your divorce in that one song?
Yeah. Then it’s like ‘OK, now let’s move on.’ I had to go through a lot of legal problems to make the second record. I had to buy out an option that was held on Blood. That’s why it took four or five years to do.
What do you feel like the tone of your music is?
It’s embracing adventure. I drive the bus myself. I do it all because it’s super fun to be the guy that drives the bus. Everyone thinks I’m the bus driver and then I go and be the singer. When I was directing the “Please” video (below), one guy was asking me how did I get the job. And then I’m in the “Please” video. He was like “What the fuck.” He didn’t understand that I was the singer. The explosion his mind went through in that moment was so gratifying.
I love driving. I think my favourite place to drive has been back from Vegas through to Death Valley in California.
That drive is really crazy.
Yeah. I was scared driving back at night though.
Do you want to hear a crazy story?
We played a concert near Vegas. I was with my ex and she froze. I thought she was joking. I looked at her and looked over and saw a seven foot tall completely white man with white hair who had very little physical form, like no elbows and arms, it was weird. He was staring at her. He looked at me – [*clicks his fingers*] – then she unfroze and said she had felt him going in her mind and every cell being analysed. I was like ‘What the fuck’. That area in the desert is crazy. That night we also saw a UFO flying across the sky doing all these crazy things.
Fuck that's so creepy... Why did you call the album Blood ?
I’ll probably never tell anyone that. Like the word Rhye itself, no one knows what it means except for me. One person kind of figured it out. I gave them a hint – I said if you knew anything about Enochian magic and numerology, you’d maybe figure it out.
What’s Enochian magic? What type of magic is it?
Umm… I can’t really explain what type of magic it is.
Okay. Well if I want to do wider reading on it, what should I look up?
You could look up Enochian magic then try to figure out what that is. But it would be very difficult…
For me to figure out the meaning of Blood from that?
So... they’re both linked?
Yeah. But on the surface Blood is about family, it’s about epigenetics, it’s about do we carry trauma, do we deliver our own fate, what spirit attaches itself to each song that you make… because each song has its own world or life also. It feels like an entity because I know when it’s completed. So in that way... what is the song’s blood...
What is the spirit in the song?
This is really interesting. Excuse me while I turn the tape recorder off so we can chat more about this off-record.
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