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The Milkman’s Union Interview + Exclusive Video

As you know, local trio The Milkman’s Union are playing our HillyTown Presents show this weekend. The band has been hyperactive lately, unveiling a new EP and temporarily streaming a single (with guest appearance by Lady Lamb The Beekeeper) for fans in the past weeks. Here’s another treat from the band: a HillyTown exclusive video, plus an in-depth interview, because we just can’t get enough.

Interview by Matt Dodge. Photo and video by Bryan Bruchman.

The Milkman’s Union on post-college ennui, amp dreams and Sufjan Steven’s step-dad

Local indie rockers The Milkman’s Union have earned their place in the Portland musical landscape since moving to town last September.

Beginning as the high school musical endeavor of Burlington, VT frontman Henry Jamison, the project migrated with Jamison to Bowdoin College in Brunswick where he met drummer Peter McLaughlin and bassist Sean Weathersby. Since the band graduated and moved to Portland, Bates College alum Alex Hernandez has replaced Sean Weathersby on bass.

Boasting a high school prodigy as a guitarist, two audio engineers on bass and drums and a background in booking big name shows (did Kevin Drew belittle you at Broken Social Scene’s 2008 show at Bowdoin? Blame McLaughlin for booking the condescending Canadians) The Milkman’s Union seems poised for success following their breakthrough debut album “Roads In”.

Based in Jamison singer-songwriting style with influences of garage and post rock creeping in around the edges, The Milkman’s Union can play a soft, folksy act one night, and keep pace with Portland’s indie rock acts the next.

The act has opened up for national touring acts like Deerhunter, Santigold, Ben Kweller and The Morning Benders, and will play the HillyTown Presents: Milagres + The Milkman’s Union + Husband & Wife at One Longfellow Square this Saturday, April 23rd. Purchase advance tickets here.


How did you get your start?

Henry Jamison: “It started it in high school when i was 16. I released two albums and got like, moderate buzz going in Burlington. Then i went to Bowdoin [College] and lost my ambition for a few months. Then Peter came along with this bass player (who is now a private investigator in Washington D.C.) and they kind of helped me get going again.

We were in a post-rock band for a while and then moved back to playing the songs I had written before and had continued to write. Slowly we started playing shows on campus and debuted in Portland last November. Peter and I moved to Portland in September, met Alex and have been playing a recording quite a bit.

What was it like to a “buzzy” 16-year-old musician in Burlington. Was there a lot of pressure to succeed?

HJ: It was strange because I feel like it gave me a false idea of how easy it would be. I went to this very small private [high] school and everyone there was very invested in what everyone else was doing — I did a CD release show for my first album and there were maybe 220 people there?

I decided I didn’t want to go to college the summer before my first semester, because I had a girlfriend I wanted to hang around with. I was sending demos to [record label] Asthmatic Kitty and places like that with no concept at all of what it would take, although I did end up having a long e-mail exchange with Sufjan Stevens’ step-dad. Basically he was like “Sufjan was 30 when he actually tried, and he had already earned a PhD, so why don’t you at least get through undergrad.” I haven’t spoken to that guy since, but it was certainly good advice.

Then it took a more even keel. It’s a slow ramp-up, and now that I understand that I think it has has led to more equanimity in the face of all the things that need to happen and just doing them one by one and realizing that it’s actually a possibility but it’s not something that’s just going to get handed to us.

Known more today for it’s eclectic avant garde acts [see literally anything from Burlington label Nu-New Age Tapes] and folksy adult contempo fare such as Grace Potter, where did your singer-songwriter indie vibe fit in?

HJ: I was bros with a lot of guys trying to be a Ben Folds, John Mayer kind of thing, and I wanted to be that like, glossy and poppy, but I was just too weird and didn’t know how to do it. I was very into Ben Folds, but realized quickly that wasn’t my thing. Songs I wrote always maybe approximated a Bright Eyes song, but the ways in which they failed to be like Bright Eyes was what turned out to be good about them maybe.

What are your own musical backgrounds?

Peter McLaughlin: “My musical background was more on the jazz and improvised music side of things. I was a consummate Hendrix-like, classic rock, blues rock, acid rock fan, then I got more into jazz stuff, fusion stuff, played quite a lot of jazz in high school, got more into the weird, avant garde stuff. That’s sort of what i was deep into when Henry met me — I hadn’t seriously played any pop and rock music all that much.

HJ: We’ll, we were both into the Notwist.

PM: Yeah, we met in certain places, like, you know, Radiohead, Blonde Redhead. Kind of more “art poppers”.

HJ: I have an embarrassing past of, you know, Bright Eyes.

Alex Hernandez: I’ve been playing in bands since high school, and I played all the time at Bates but never in a serious originals bands. When I first moved to Portland, I was missing that and I wanted to be in something serious.

HJ: The way I thought about Nando [Hernandez’s nickname], is like, he’s a sort of band nerd waiting for the band to use his skills. He has dreams about tube amps and stuff, what was that dream again?

AH: I was like “Yeah, guys, I had a really weird dream we were rehearsing in some old community center and the closet is just full tube amps and vintage sets that needed to be fixed.

Have you integrated their shared interest in a poppier sensibility into any of your music with the Milkman’s Union? How would you describe your music to the uninitiated?

HJ: It seems like each of our, I don’t like this term, but “skill sets” seem to be complimenting each other pretty well. I was into the singer-song thing more or less, but I always wanted to have a bigger sound.

As a band of three witty, 20-something indie rockers drawing from a songwriting tradition, is there any escaping the inevitable comparisons to bands like Modest Mouse?

HJ: I wish i been more into Modest Mouse, it probably would have helped me out. I guess you could call it post collegiate-ennui rock, people have called me “ennui” as in “Ennui Jamison”.

What is your philosophy on recording final, polished versions of your music versus distributing every demo along the way? [Check out MMU’s February Sampler at their bandcamp site,]

PM: It’s definitely been releasing only the final product, but we’re trying to move away from that. But we do a pretty eclectic mix of music and sometimes the song really needs that polished thing. On one hand we’re trying to work toward polished, great sounding recordings, but there is some tendency to go toward some organic-ism.

AH: We’re all perfectionists, Peter and I are both audio engineers.

HJ: I made list of new songs since “Roads In” and we have like 22 new songs and some of them will never see the light of day. I used to write a song and record it immediately on an 8-track and it kind of very cathartic for me, but now it’s this long process.

Why did you decide to settle in Portland after all attending small liberal arts schools in the state? The real question here is – what sort of aspiring indie rock band DOESN’T move to Brooklyn?

HJ: Portland is AA compared to the major leagues, it’s a good spot to start. That said, I have no intention of leaving.

PM: The decision to move to Portland was very much one not to move too Brooklyn. If we were down there, we would be just another band. Maybe we’re better than some of them, but it doesn’t matter, Portland was just such a more logical decision.

AH: And Portland doesn’t seem competitive, it seems like people are trying to help each other out and trying to put Portland on the map.

Can you see any way in which Portland has influenced your music?

HJ: Well, I put up posters for One Longfellow Square and I feel like a nomad. I’m alone with my thoughts, singing songs to myself.

Small, northeastern liberal arts schools have churned out lots of big name indie acts recently. How would you characterize the college music scene you came up in at Bowdoin and Bates?

PM: Well, there was a thing in our press kit that said “made a splash in the NESCAC [New England Small College Athletic Conference] indie league”. But jokes aside, there is a scene there with the NESCACs plus the Ivy League and schools like NYU producing bands like The Dirty Projectors, MGMT, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Santigold.

HJ: But we were one of the only original bands at Bowdoin — it was a pretty dead scene. Our friends would come to shows but we didn’t really get much love from the institution. I think bands like [Wesleyan University’s] MGMT and [Columbia University’s] Vampire Weekend were probably very famous for the schools they went to. I feel like maybe we can be the answer to those sort of bands.

AH: At Bates, live music was such a huge part of the scene. There were 9 or 10 active bands on campus a semester, two show a weekend, and you would be hard-pressed to see a show where less than 70 people came out.

PM: Yeah, we played at Bates and it was better than any show we played at Bowdoin. There were plenty of bands at Bowdoin, but they were mostly cover bands and party bands, which we attempted to be, but we weren’t that good of a party band, playing dance stuff and Third Eye Blind covers.

Where does the name “The Milkman’s Union” come from?

HJ: I only recently remembered this, but I decided between “Balloon” and the “The Milkman’s Union” when I was 16, driving with my dad to have the album delivered for them to print. I was trying to decide, and finally was like “alright, that’s it”. I’m not sure what the name is exactly, I’ve interpreted for myself since having thought of it as like, the every man’s union with the universe or something like that. Also, I did do a benefit for dairy farmers when I was in Vermont.

What is the long-term plan for the band? Are you focusing more on record deal aspirations, touring and playing shows or settling into the local music scene here in Portland?

HJ: In terms of strategizing what the next move is, it seems like we now have bands like Milagres and Lady Lamb that are just a few steps ahead of us and kind of like providing some sort of road map. There is a little light being shone into our future like, this is what we do now.

But there is a lot of watching and waiting that needs to happen because for all this to be financially viable, we have to have some sort of label backing on our next major release. On my first album, I wrote “copyright, Young Scientist Records”, and a review in a local [Burllngton] paper said “not only has he done all this, but he has his own imprint”. It made me feel like all a record label is you just slap a name on it and all of a sudden it’s something more.

PM: We’re at this place now that we’ve made enough musical friends and some of them are making big moves. It’s nice to be able to watch them do that and figure out what next move is for us”

AH: It’s nice to have friends, but in large part we can thank Peter for relentlessly booking and organizing shows. Our philosophy right now is there is no gig too big, too small, too far away for us to play … within reason. We’ll play to seven people, we’ll play to 100 people. If we are going to a strange town and 10 people show up, it’s good to be there, it’s a good experience.

PM: Every gig is a different opportunity. If you make a connection with one person, that’s a success, that’s what it’s about. Henry and I just played a show on Monday in Portsmouth and there were only 14 people through the door, but half of them bought CDs. Sure it was a small audience, but we made a connection and people dug it.

There have been a couple stinkers along the way, but it’s hard to think of something in last year and a half where I’m like “oh, that was worthless”.

Between tracks like “Brooks Robinson” [after the Baltimore Orioles’ third-base great] and “White Sox”, it seems like you have a minor baseball fascination, what’s that all about?

HJ: I just like baseball. Sometimes I name a song before I write it and I needed a topic not as heavy as my topics usually are. It’s an exercise in something kind of Warhol-ian, something that’s profound because it’s unprofound. So the song is about a specific year in Brooks Robinson’s career and how they would pitch to him. White Sox is about the 1919 Black Sox scandal. I don’t have plan to write any more baseball songs, but it’ll probably happen.

AH: And his nickname is “rookie”

HJ: Latley, because I’ve been feeling static in intellectual life and moral thinking, I’m trying to be very honest in way I don’t actually feel, but if i say things very honestly that I don’t feel maybe I’ll feel them later when I’m singing them. I wrote a song yesterday that was like “spring is coming/ let me be like the cheery tree/ renewed and fruitful.” It’s an attempt to lay my soul bear in front of the audience and myself.

PM: Singing things into existence

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