Story by Adam Daniels
Photography by Dorothy Hong
"Do you need a drink?" "Yes, I need four double whiskeys and four PBRs."
It was Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson's record release show at Williamsburg's Union Pool one year ago, and while he was among a roomful of friends, he was not at ease. Robinson's former fiancé obliged the request, assuming it was on behalf of the entire band. This was not the case.
Robinson wasn't a household name in indie rock at the time. But he had a lot of the pieces in place to be one. He had all but conquered Brooklyn through marathon-style touring. There was a close-up of his mug on the cover of FADER magazine, and a camera crew from SPIN was at the record release show waiting to document the event. What transpired after those four double whiskeys could only adequately be described as a shitshow.
He spilled beer on equipment. He picked a fight with a heckler who called him out for singing his songs not all like they appeared on the album, insisting on dedicating every subsequent song to him thereafter. Robinson blacked out just before the third song. This was the beginning of the end of Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson. And the funny thing is, if it wasn't for the occasion, that particular evening at Union Pool would have only qualified as a mere footnote in his story.
The scene is a giant, rock n' roll cliché. No one knows this more than Robinson. He practically grew up on them, an ardent student of rock biographies while coming of age in Portland. One of the first things Robinson mentions when explaining the issue with the way his own story has been written thus far was the way one of his musical idols created part of his own mythology. "Kurt Cobain never really lived under a bridge you know," he says. "He made that up himself."
Cobain and the muddy distortion of 90s alt rock represent just one half of the tones that show up in his music today. The relationship that much more directly spawned Robinson's just-released second album, Summer Of Fear, was his love affair with classic rock. A heady homage to the golden sounds of Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac, it's also a record in which Robinson might have created the youngest divorce rock album ever, devoting much time to the struggles and eventual failure of his engagement to his former fiancé and girlfriend of six years.
But the divorce theme is rarely all that direct in Robinson's lyrics. Rather, it's underlying layer of melancholy that tugs at the album's narrator as he tells various stories. By way of his eponymous self-titled debut, these stories filled the bar last summer in Williamsburg, songs he'd fleshed out while befriending near half the bartenders of North Brooklyn, diving headlong into piles of drugs, sleeping in parks, and wrestling with a heavy brand of cynicism as handed down by his stand-up comedian father. These things came together through Robinson's compulsive addiction to songwriting, a gift in which a lot of people saw a lot of potential. One such song was “Buriedfed," a folk explosion similar to Robinson's relationship with music as a whole: part link to the demons in his own life and part introduction to a string of characters and the way they cope with their own mortality, depression and simple daily existence. The song served as the closest thing to Robinson's autobiographical introduction. Interestingly, a line from that song more closely resembled the crowd at Union Pool's introduction to Robinson that night. "Didn't like people much at all, tasted better with alcohol, you know how that one goes," he states. That's who he was that night: the asshole that baited the crowd to call him on it while he used alcohol to cope with expectations. It resulted in a theatrical breakdown. But that breakdown was part of a self-destruct mission Robinson had been stumbling to almost the entire time he'd lived in New York.
By age 16, Robinson felt compelled to move to the city. At 17, his acceptance to NYU made this a reality. At that point, his idea of the city was carved out much more by those same rock biographies.
"I was reading (Legs McNeil's) "Please Kill Me" and all this stuff about '70s New York and you know like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Talking Heads, The Ramones, just like really sort of wanting to bask in that,” Robinson remembers. “Not even really understanding that New York in the '90s and 2000 was going to be a very, very different place. I think I literally still thought it was going to be like 1979 when I got here." But the punk scenes of '70s era New York are little more than legends whose visual cues had been replaced by condos and food chains by the time Robinson moved in 2000. However, the New York City Robinson stumbled upon had its own bubbling scene.
Within weeks, Robinson found himself in attendance at some of the very first Strokes shows. So while the New York scene Robinson envisioned may not have existed, luck and timing gave him a front seat to the first relevant one in rock n' roll the city had seen since."I just had like a very zeitgeist-y kind of a, experience, the whole time I've been here," he says.
A few years later he would happen upon a sort of invitation to the city's next cultural vanguard: the indie music scene developing in and around Williamsburg. On his way to a Grizzly Bear show he stopped in a thrift store and ended up running into and befriending TV On The Radio's Kyp Malone. They went to the show together, and within a few months he was hanging out with not only Kyp, but the band they had paid to see. Eventually, both would play a vital role in Robinson's music, initially helping turn his tales and words into actual musical landscapes and then more literally with Kyp on the production side and the Grizzly Bear guys backing him instrumentally.
But even while all this was going on, Robinson lived day-to-day life in a state of near-depression, seeming almost un-phased by the encouraging signs in both his musical and personal life. “I treat good things the way other people treat traumas,” he says. “I kind of push them down and try to get over it, you know?" Throughout his time at NYU, Robinson worked and played as hard as he could. Though he ignored class, he wrote songs and dove into pools of drugs and alcohol with equal abandon. He did it all with youthful abandon, albeit with a much larger arc in mind. Romantic only by rock 'n roll standards, it was encapsulated further by one pivotal chapter in Robinson's life and legend: a summer of near-homelessness, carrying a duffle bag and a guitar around while rotating between friends' couches and strung out nights in Washington Square Park and on Coney Island benches. He likens this much more to being a bit of a troubadour than any sort of dire circumstances, but he also admits he "was getting pretty fucked up all the time then, too."
But eventually, that all changed. "I went back (to school), ended meeting somebody who sort of helped me get cleaned up and stuff," he says. That someone was his eventual fiancé. Soon after meeting and falling in love, the two found an apartment in Williamsburg. For a moment, he was on the verge of feeling like he had it all figured out before 25, on the verge of letting himself be happy for a bit without overthinking it.
And then it all fell apart: his relationship and in turn his sobriety. Everything he thought he'd figured out was called into question. Out of this was born Summer Of Fear: a celebration of relapse, depressions and reaffirmed self-doubt.
The concept of Summer of Fear actually began as a screenplay, a running joke between Robinson and friend Christopher Bear, drummer for Grizzly Bear, in which the questionable choices they made each night could be written off as part of a movie rather than some reality rife with consequence. However, somewhat ironically, it is this album born out of the clichés, born out of making yourself a character in your own life, that has the opportunity to finally separate Robinson from his own. It is this album that charts out the personal failures that gave Robinson a second chance to play an active role in his own successes.
Whatever comes next, the Robinson that looks back at you on stage these days is an entirely different creature than the one that created a spectacle that night at Union Pool. While Robinson admits he still knows a few too many bartenders, he no longer drinks at his shows. Headlining a CMJ showcase concert at Le Poisson Rouge the same week Summer Of Fear was released, Robinson could barely get a big goofy grin off his face long enough to look properly solemn to sing about self destruction. He played off of his band, played on his back in three feet of the ground. There's no denying that he was having fun on stage, a notion even he seemed surprised by when he noted, a few songs in, that he was taking a sip of beer for the first time that night.
This man much more closely resembled the one you imagine when you hear his cries and wails on the first record, a man who despite the demons living in his closet is absolutely at peace within music. The more you talk to him the more you realize this may be the only place he is truly at peace. And while his music seems almost painfully tied to these demons, maybe the fact that he can now own them on stage is but one triumph. Whatever it has become, it's forcing the world that already knew him to break the box that contained Robinson before.
Regardless, for now Robinson will go out and relentlessly tour behind an album that champions his own failures and past misadventures. If he can make it through the experience, it might even let his music finally catch up to him. For years now, he's been singing about traumas that have been replaced over so many times in his life they feel like reopening old scars. But who knows, maybe this time next year Robinson will be testing out some happy songs. Whatever those would sound like. The “Ocean's 11” line he supplied un-ironically to sum up his day-to-day existence makes it seem like he might slowly be coming around on his own story, one he's chosen to retell in the third person every night on stage.
"Are you suicidal?"
"Only in the mornings."