Interview: Al Burian – Milemarker

Before becoming aware of Al’s work in the long-running band Milemarker, I had first come across his writing in the highly influential zine Burn Collector. The personal zine sits among the vanguard of the 1990s DIY zines with few contemporaries in the terms of impact and longevity. For every Cometbus, Skam, or Burn Collector there are a million one-off, or short lived zines that never reached the same level of impact. In short, Burian is the type of writer who is both personal and curious. His curiosity would push his writing into non-zine pieces in magazines and alt. weeklies. During this all, he maintained one of the most genre-defying and productive bands in the last two decades with Milemarker.

I first became aware of Milemarker as a band when I shared a bill with them in the late 1990s. During the early 00s the band began to increasingly incorporate electronic instruments and vary their sound. Now, a decade and a half on, while many of their contemporaries are no longer working in the same bands – Milemarker has released its most powerful record, and about to take on a North American tour – all this while the band has changed its base to Europe.

Are you writing for anyone right now? I recall a number of Vice bylines from a few years ago.

I’m hardly writing anything these days, which is strange– when I moved to Germany in 2008 my idea was to stop playing music entirely and concentrate on writing. I did that for a few years, and ended up doing columns for Vice regularly for a couple of years. I had a very encouraging editor there who let me write about whatever I wanted and gave me a lot of free reign. I was even getting paid regularly, which encouraged feelings of legitimacy. But after a while I kind of burned out on it for a variety of reasons, ran out of steam and generally got disenchanted with writing content for an online platform.

Did you ever have any issues with some of Vice’s more right-wing bents in the early 00’s?

Sure. When Vice first appeared it was the opposite of everything I was into. Glossy, commercial, sexist, cynical– I guess their rightward bent I just interpreted as the general mainstream American dude attitude. Meanwhile the publications I was associated with in the 00’s, with their earnest DIY left-wing bents, are all out of business now. Times have gotten darker and uglier, which doesn’t make Vice better, but maybe makes a nihilistic attitude more timely. I will say that Vice has become a much more interesting and ambitious project over the subsequent years.

You mentioned a variety of reasons for burning out of writing – did that help motivate you to pursuit other creative avenues with more energy to offset it?

When I articulate my reasons for not writing, I realize that it doesn’t take a psychology PhD to see what’s going on. I can take a step away from myself and see that I’m spouting a bunch of rationalizations and excuses. But sure, not writing has made me more productive in terms of music and drawing. You have to do something with your time…

How did the music come creeping back into the picture?

Some guys I knew in Berlin asked me if I wanted to try out singing for their band. My idea with quitting playing music wasn’t that I don’t like music; it was more logistical. When I moved to Berlin and no longer had a practice space and a bunch of music equipment, I realized it was an unburdening, a huge logistical hassle that I no longer had to deal with. It just seemed like a logical cutting-off point: mission accomplished, now try something new, move on with your life! But then, these guys had it all worked out, they had a space, they had amps, they didn’t want me to bring anything but my voice, and if I was in a bad or crazy state of mind when I showed up that would probably only make the practice better. It’s funny how anti-social, psychotic behavior can be framed in a performance context and become entertainment. I remember this feeling from my earliest band practices when I was a teenager, that dichotomy of “I’m trying to express anger here! How can I do that when I’m having so much fun!” That’s what hooked me initially. And here it was again. So I thought, OK, I’ll be the singer, that’s not really fully getting back into playing music. I joined the band, which became Big Eater, and before I knew it I was playing guitar, and then Milemarker started going again, and now I’m playing in two bands, and back to renting a practice space and worrying about equipment.

How have you and Dave adjusted to the new Milemarker lineup?

Milemarker always had a pretty shifty line-up; every record has had some variation in the musicians playing on it. When we found the other two people, Lena and Ezra, we immediately wrote a record with them. That helps to solidify a band feeling, and it was easy to get used to playing with them through that process. The band history gave us some sort of aesthetic parameters for writing the material, and then later on when learning to play older songs it was easy to figure out which ones made sense to do.

How do you approach collaboration?

I try to find people who have strengths which can bolster my weaknesses, or talented people who might have a weakness that I can counterbalance with something that I’m good at. Music is an obvious example– you need a variety of skills, such as technical-instrumental ability, but also the ability to interact with an audience, and if someone in the band is good at recording that helps. Even if someone hangs out all night at the bar networking that can be a big help, and I’m sure glad not to be the one doing it.

I’ve been working on collaborative comics recently– that is a medium where there are lots of people out there who can draw much better than me. But these people might not have as strong narrative sense or story-telling ability, and that is something I think I can do pretty well in the comics medium, in terms of page breakdowns and stuff like that. I find that a very fun and interesting form of collaboration.

Collaborating is the key as far as I’m concerned. I don’t work well in a vacuum. I like the social aspect of making music, and even when writing, I have tended to do stuff with a fast turn-around. Making zines was always the most immediate way of getting a reaction and response from something that is generally an isolated, solitary activity.

Has living in Berlin changed your approach to music?

The biggest change for me in terms of my musical interests came while I was living in Chicago. I started diversifying, mainly just because there were lots of good record stores filled with cheap records. I’d buy scratched up copies of Stevie Wonder, Motown, weird jazz records– anything I could find that looked interesting and cost three dollars or less. I learned, perhaps a bit too late in life, that if you start your day listening to a Stevie Wonder record instead of Minor Threat and Black Flag, you end up a lot more relaxed and in a better mood.

Berlin is a more hospitable atmosphere than Chicago in general. It’s a very relaxed city. Musically, they even take it a little too far. There is this aural wallpaper of ambient house techno playing everywhere, in every cafe and boutique, during the summer even outdoors in public parks. It’s a little bit like enforced relaxation.

The cover for Overseas in an odd way of the Can record “Monster Movie” – is that just a coincidence, or was there a more direct connection?

I never thought of that connection. The Can robot is admittedly a cool robot. The artwork we were trying to reference is a painting by Caspar David Friedrich.

Milemarker has operated as a band during the span of four US presidents – and dramatic cultural changes – how do you see the band working in the post-Trump Presidential world as opposed to previous decades?

A lot of the dystopian science fiction elements in the bands’ past lyrics are becoming descriptive of current reality, which is not a very good development. It seems to me that this current administration is different from not only the last four presidents but from anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime.­ Though to be honest, I have no idea what to expect, I’m sitting in my apartment in Berlin right now, viewing the USA through the mediated lens of the internet, nervously clutching my plane ticket. I guess I’ll find out what the “reality“ is pretty soon. As far as the band goes, I assume everyone in the audience is going to be aware of the political situation; they don’t need a lecture from us. Our agenda is to make music. That’s not meant apolitically: If I’m going to be optimistic I’ll say hopefully that music can serve as a unifying force, brings people together, maybe communicates something fundamental that transcends the divisive and devious power of words.

Do you ever think of your work in terms of legacy?

I definitely don’t think about things in terms of legacy. I imagine I will fade out pretty quickly after my death, culturally speaking. Particularly given the forms I’ve pursued: LP records, books, comic books. These are all things that had their heyday in the 20th century, except maybe books where you could argue any number of other centuries as the apex, but definitely not the 21st century. I’m resistant to digitization, so that’s another strike against me as far as being remembered. At best I’m going to be a footnote to the more accomplished persons of the past. Not a great train of thought for getting motivated, so I stay focused on connecting with the living while I can. Why dwell on the posthumous?

What art, writing, and music inspires you today? Is there art, writing, and music inspired you at an earlier stage in life that no longer resonates with you?

My interests are cyclical and most things I liked at one time will come back around eventually.

You are in a unique strata of someone who is equally well regarded for their work as a writer and a musician. Creatively, what has been the most fulfilling for you?

Hmm, “fulfilling,“ that’s a weird word. I would say any artistic expression has a chance of being fulfilling if it’s done well. I wouldn’t narrow it down to a particular practice or form, instead I’d break it down more like this: I find the process more or less to be the “fun” part and the success of the results (which depends somewhat on audience reaction) more or less to be the “fulfilling“ part. Making music is generally more fun than writing, although it can be frustrating as well, and writing can be pretty fun at times. But the results of your efforts are a different story: you can have a great time jamming with your buddies but end up making crappy music. That’s fun but not very fulfilling.

I feel like I have a decent sense of my hits and misses, independent of their reception. But it also helps that people come up to me and talk to me about the stuff I’ve done. The continued resonance of certain records, or the Burn Collector zine, makes me feel like those things are artistically successful. They transmitted something, maybe even helped somebody out in their life journey. I guess I’d define fulfillment as the feeling that your work has meaning.


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