For his newest solo project, Millevoi dialed down his usual firestorm of proggy notes and upped the epic Neil Young-influenced guitar solo ante.
Philadelphia—the city still best known for Rocky, terrible sports teams, a rather ambivalent attitude towards the concept of "brotherly love," and unbridled cheese steak sandwich decadence—has long been a breeding ground for shredders, jazz freaks, and grimy, lo-fi punk of the highest order. With the recent explosion of a musically diverse, weirdo experimental scene led by the likes of Watery Love, Spacin,’ Cleric, Purling Hiss and Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band, shit’s gotten especially real in Philly.
Then there’s Forsyth’s Solar Motel bandmate, guitarist Nick Millevoi, whose resume skips between genres and sounds at will. Besides trading Televison-meets-Grateful Dead licks with Forsyth, the bespectacled ax slinger and John Zorn disciple also dabbles in punk-jazz with Many Arms, Hasidic doom metal with Deveykus, and brainy tech-metal with Cleric, by way of his pal Matt Hollenberg (with whom he also plays in the extremely self-explanatory Hollenberg-Millevoi Quartet).
For his newest solo project, Millevoi dialed down his usual firestorm of proggy notes and upped the epic Neil Young-influenced guitar solo ante on the apocalyptic desert blues of Desertion. Throughout its six tracks, Millevoi channels the countrified acid-rock twang of the Meat Puppets while under the sonic influence of the atmospheric guitar heroics Young explored on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man soundtrack.
Noisey: You’ve played in many different bands and in solo mode, all very stylistically different, and Desertion is yet another departure sound-wise for you.
Nick Millevoi: After all the crazy noisy records with Many Arms and the freaked-out jazz, I wanted to do something really melodic and tonal that got into the tradition of American electric guitar music and really dig into it with a wide variety of influences and I finally felt like I had something to say.
What about the Neil Young influence on Desertion?
I've always wanted to rip like Neil Young. He's one of the first guitar soloists that I really got into. I've always loved guitar solos, but I don't think it was until I got a copy of his double live album Weld in eighth grade that I could really hear the scope of what a guitar player could say in their solos and how heavy it could be: his playing is so direct and melodic and the tone is monstrous! I could talk about that tone all day. The way he uses extreme noise and feedback on that record—it sounds like thunder!
When I was 13 or 14 years old, I had a dream that Crazy Horse was playing a concert in my backyard, and I got to play out of the amps that are on the cover. They aren't real amps, but I don't think I realized that. They're comically oversized. But I remember what it felt like to do it. I had never played out of a big amp before and I remember in this dream just hitting one GIANT note. I never remember dreams, so I really think this dream helped decide my fate.
Desertion sounds like you’ve been watching a lot of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, for which Neil Young privided the soundtrack.
You know that scene in the beginning of the movie where William Blake is on the train and he keeps waking up to different people across from him? There's the one guy who asks him where he's going and Blake says, "Machine." The guy says, "Machine!? That's the end of the line!" It's terrifying. That little part tells you everything you need to know going into the movie. It captures the dark feeling and lets you know that Blake is totally doomed. What you're about to watch is just going to go downhill for this guy. That's the feeling I wanted to try and capture. The song "Desertion and the Arsonist's Match" is a song that came directly out of me thinking about that feeling. That movie and that soundtrack are really big influences on me.
Is Desertion a concept record?
It's not a true concept record, as in it's not a rock opera, but there is a definite concept that pulls it all together. I'm really into that.
There's one tune called "Desertion and the Arsonist's Match" and another called “The Fire That Partially Damaged City Hall." What's with the fire references?
All the titles are related to desolate urban places in America. There's obviously a country/Americana vibe going on, and I'm pretty fascinated by dark country music and the desert. Around the time I started putting this record together, I was thinking about my experience living in Philly and all of the city's desolate areas and decrepit old buildings. I kept looking at old pictures of the city and remembering all these stories my grandfather told me about the city from when he was growing up, which basically sounded like it was the Wild West, and thinking about how I could try and capture that kind of feeling within this country music. It's sort of a polar opposite scenario, but in the same way that there were noir directors who made westerns, you know?
The fire references are coincidental; I guess fires just make good stories! "Desertion and the Arsonist's Match" is a reference to a quote from a book about Detroit, a city I think about a lot. I wrote "The Fire That Partially Damaged City Hall" while looking at this picture, which should explain the idea.
What about "Disneyland in Hamtramck?" Had you been there before?
Yes! The place is incredible, and I think this song is the most hopeful part of the record because I had this place in mind. Hamtramck Disneyland is a giant structure that this guy Dmytro Szylak built behind his house in Hamtramck, Michigan. It's a completely outsider art creation that was inspired by his years of working in a factory. In order to see it you have to go down the alley behind a bunch of houses. I felt the vibe when I was there and was totally inspired by the place. Dmytro was working on it and he invited us in and we hung out for about an hour. He asked me to play for him on a guitar someone gave him so I played him Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" and we have a photo of it in my kitchen. He's passed since and the place is up for sale now (or is sold?) and they're not sure what's going to happen.
You've had solo records under your own name that explored noise, metal, drone, and jazz and now with Desertion, you're doing a countryish thing. To what do you owe your eclectic chops?
When I was in college, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life and changed my major a bunch of times—the typical kind of searching thing. While I was briefly studying music, I heard Naked City and realized I didn't need to focus on inside jazz guitar, and that all genres were valid and it was okay to play country licks next to hardcore riffs and have a maniac scream over fast swing. It was like the sky opened up. John Zorn's music really helped me realized that I should just follow my own trip, embrace eclecticism, and not worry about what I though I was supposed to do.
Bassist Johnny DeBlase (Zevious, Sabbath Assembly), Jamie Saft (who’s played with Bad Brains), and Ches Smith all play on Desertion. How did you get such a diverse lineup of musicians together?
Saft and Ches were the perfect choices when I thought about who could bring the best feel for this kind of music. They're ultimate top-level players who really understand where this is coming from. I wanted Hammond on this record and feel like it's a crucial element to the sound of these songs, and there is no better organist who can tie together all of the elements of these tunes than Jamie Saft. He also plays piano through an Echoplex on two of the tracks, and it sounds bonkers. Ches plays with so much feel. We made a record together a few years ago that was more of a free jazz thing and I knew I wanted to make another record with him.
Having Johnny on here is crucial, too—he’s my favorite bassist to play with. And of course, Dan Blacksberg plays trombone (and did a string arrangement for Philly violinist June Bender to play). Dan has been doing all of these sessions for different heavy bands. He played on recent records by The Body and Liturgy, and I think his work here really contributed to the dark, dusty vibe of the record.
Catch Millevoi on tour with Johnny DeBlase and Kevin Shea (Talibam!):
June 9th - Toronto, ON - Burn Down The Capital
June 10th - Detroit, MI - Trinosophes
June 11th - Chicago, IL - Elastic Arts
June 12th - Lafayette, IN - Spot Tavern
June 13th - Columbus, OH - The Summit
June 14th - Pittsburgh, PA - City of Asylum