I met Myles Coyne through a mutual friend in the summer of 2012, and I have watched him become a prominent fixture in the independent Milwaukee music scene over the course of the last year and a half. His timeless, old skool mug and striking features suggest he could be the self-possessed offspring of Morrissey and Gene Vincent. In fact, he looks like an old musical soul when he’s performing, acoustic guitar slung high, eyes focused on something ethereal. The prolific and indefatigable singer/songwriter not only fronts Myles Coyne & The Rusty Nickel Band, he also plays in Animals In Human Attire, The Fatty Acids and Temple, as well as doing solo performances around town and participating in impromptu house parties every so often. With the help of some friends, he also operates an artistic collective called Breadking. (Here’s the tagline from their Facebook page: Music scene, rock bands, loud, DIY, booking, promotions, punk fest, folk, label(?) yoga, smoke, Wisconsin. ) Combine all that with working a regular Joe-style day job and one wonders when he sleeps, or if he sleeps at all.
On that note, we sat for a chat and some high octane java at the cozy Fuel Café, in a densely-packed, artistically-minded, working-class neighborhood called Riverwest on the east side of Milwaukee. The Rusty Nickel Band was preparing to release their new album, Take Things As They Come, so we discussed the record and a few other things. It was often a free-flowing, stream of consciousness exchange that involved me doing a lot of scribbling as I tried to hear him over the surrounding noise.
Where did you grow up? Tell me about young Myles.
Born in Indianapolis. Grew up in a small town in the U.P. (Michigan Upper Peninsula), only child… no father around… twin beds in Escanaba, close to my grandparents… When that starts to fall apart where is your home? We moved to Green Bay, then after high school I moved to Milwaukee.
What was the first record you purchased?
The White Stripes, Elephant
What was the first record you remember having a powerful impact on you musically, emotionally?
Simon & Garfunkel. They could do anything.
What was it about Simon & Garfunkel that struck you?
The songwriting, the approach they took. The lyrics are really good. They take a really cool, theatrical approach to kind of telling a simple story in a lot of their songs.
When did you start playing music?
When I was younger I had gone through piano lessons, but in high school it started with some other members. Being around band people, metal-stoner friends in high school… I never took guitar lessons. I learned cover songs, Beatles songs, Wilco songs. Most of the artists I like are pop musicians who borrow from each other. Rather than telling a story, take a sentence and re-arrange it, that’s what the Beatles do, re-organization of a sentence.
Do you recall the first song you ever wrote?
Yeah, it’s so dumb… It was called “Sofia Coppola,” it was a pop experiment. I played it once or twice. There was also “Mrs. Malcontent,” about one of my teachers not being content.
How did Myles Coyne & The Rusty Nickel Band come together? How does the songwriting work now?
I joined a band called Temple in high school. It sort of evolved into this… (The Rusty Nickel Band also consists of Caley Conway, Jack Tell, Timothy Stone, Jordan Maye and Chris Thunder.) Sometimes I’ll write a simple pop song and show the band; they attack it from there… They color the record.
Are you happy with the new album? Tell me about it.
Totally happy with it. Thematically, it’s sort of about realizing you have to seize your day. You can’t plan for the future, it’s gonna come at you. Take things as they come. At the same time, it’s a coming of age story. Homesick… Struggling with love… What are you gonna do to make you happy? You’ve gotta make something for yourself, make your own life. I had no money to make this record… zero money…
Who produced it? Who is releasing it?
It was collaborative, with me overseeing things… I love the idea of the Rusty Nickel Band being its own band without me. It’s on Top Five Records. (A Milwaukee label owned/operated by John Van Lieshout.) We did 1000 CDs and 500 LPs, and there’s a bonus EP with the vinyl.
What other projects are you currently involved in?
Temple and the Fatty Acids… Everybody knows I’m a bass player, but they don’t know what I can do… I went to college for audio engineering… I feel like I know what I want to do…
What music are you listening to currently?
The Reptilian, Victor Shores, Father John Misty and Pushmi-Pullyu, from Madison. They’re minimalistic, ambient, sonic, bluesy, trippy. Oh, and Fleetwood Mac – Rumors
Do you share your living space with any animals?
Yes. Suha, an inbred, three-legged tabby cat that’s partially blind and has no tail.
What’s always in your refrigerator?
Peanut butter and jelly, cheese sticks, pizza…
Where can people find you?
I can’t wait for the next record. I already know half the songs that’ll be on it.
Myles Coyne & The Rusty Nickel Band, Take It As It Comes (Top Five)
The first time you hear Myles Coyne bust out on vocals you get the impression that he’s barely containing his boundless muse within the context of the song at hand. He leaps out of the speakers with the kind of raggedy Andy troubadourian immediacy that suggests he’s barely staying on the rails at all. Recorded at Howl Street Recordings in Milwaukee, this album is a fine showcase for Myles’ eclectic songs and his presentation is aided quite superbly by the versatile and very fine Rusty Nickel Band, consisting of Caley Conway, Jordan Maye, Timothy Stone, Jack Tell and Chris Thunder.
Their take on “folk rock,” if you want a cheap and easy identifier, is a culmination of the 60s/70s/80s and 90s, and while I don’t want to saddle them with the useless weight of calling them “alt-whatever,” I know it is necessary to try to frame them somewhere in the musical landscape. Their sound is not really straightforward in any way, instead weaving all kinds of disparate earth-bound sounds together, but suffice to say it’s rootsy in a really good way.
The confessional “My Grandmother’s House,” which appears to be about Myles’ grandmother’s house, and the arc of a family history, is the opening shot, and it could almost pass for an energetic Ryan Adams dropping an upbeat demo track with low-budget/DIY sensibilities. It begins with a drum part that hooks you instantly and leads to a urgently melodic guitar line that suggests they’re chomping at the bit to greet the listener. Myles is a bundle of febrile energy, his voice darting around the room like he’s standing right there next to you. Then, suddenly, they downshift the gears and “Max” becomes a sweet stroll through the chamber-folk forest with Myles showing off the unique yelp in his voice. And then there’s the subtle but sturdy title track, a song Myles should definitely perform someday with the aforementioned Ryan Adams. (Hello, Mr. Adams, if you’re reading this…) “I’m Not Gonna Let Go of You (This Time)” has Myles sounding sprightly and serious at once, not unlike Bright Eyes.
Every song feels like a piece torn from Myles’ coat of many musical colors. Impulses shoot off in various musical directions, but it’s all held together somehow with a flexible connective tissue. His ramshackle musical mind is obviously moving constantly and they play off of that with aplomb (the super swell guitar playing of “Don’t Tell Me”, the meta-melodic mandolin on “Another Side of Myles,” the sparse, perambulated piano of “Chapter III”). The shambolic “Cassidy” is sheer brilliance, with an outrageously cool, angsty vocal part where Myles gets to wail a bit. It’s one of the best songs of 2013 in my house. Animated, earthy and poetical, this album is loaded with sublime instrumental hooks and some complex melodies, but still feels decidedly conversational, like Myles himself; a tireless, largely self-taught fellow who also plays in three other bands, Animals In Human Attire, Fatty Acids and Temple. This is a very impressive effort from one of the best bands in the Milwaukee area. Easily as good as anything Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and The Head and The Heart are doing. Can’t imagine what they could accomplish with a substantial recording budget.