FADER 55: Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson Cover Story

July 09, 2008

Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson probably isn't going to make anyone's summer brighter, but he is writing songs of regret and disappointment that are there waiting for us when things don't quite work out, which ironically makes us feel better knowing we have a miserable comrade. You can't be happy all the time after all, but getting your mug on the cover of The FADER is pretty cool, as is the rest of the subsequent media attention. Read David Bevan's story from our Summer Music issue after the jump and make sure to catch Miles playing in New York in the next couple weeks if you're around.

Story David Bevan
Photography Lauren Fleishman

Looking west out of Brooklyn, past the glass castles of Manhattan, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson can see Oregon and every shade of green he used to know. He can feel the quiet he had all but lost. Until he found this spot in Williamsburg, the one with a backyard just within earshot of the water, he had been searching for something

like it. It was here that he felt surrounded by new family—hosting BBQs, playing records, smoking weed and dreaming up riffs in the sunlight. Standing in the lawn behind the house where he no longer lives but still visits just to feel that vibe, he looks down at his weathered Doc Martens. “I used to take such good care of this grass,” he says with a sigh. “We put a lot of love into this yard.”

Every morning during the winter of 2006, Chris Taylor of Brooklyn parlor experimentalists Grizzly Bear and Robinson’s self-described “best friend, producer and psychologist,” would show up here with two cups of coffee. After a high-protein breakfast of eggs, bacon and baked beans, the two worked every day and late into the night. They were recording the songs Taylor and others had been trying to coax out of Robinson for a while. The resulting collection of rooftop exorcisms and twilight explosions has laid dormant for two years, but it will finally meet ears this summer after being delayed by label disinterest and endless Grizzly Bear tours. Its title is somewhat simply Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, the same ten syllables of taffy Robinson uses when introducing himself.

Speaking on the recording of Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, Taylor sums it up with, “When you dig up the dirt, things get dirty,” and that is unquestionably the reason it is such a startling debut. Robinson is willing to backtrack wildly into the corners of his own psychic geography, from the muddy forests of Oregon to the syringe-dappled beaches of Coney Island to the NYU classrooms that saddled him with debt he’s still trying to escape. As dramatic and erratic as Robinson is, his songs never flirt with histrionics, nor do they hide his shameless, troubling relationships with sex and drugs and alcohol. His album is a mess of riffs and poetry you can get drunk on, in the bar or your bedroom.

“Buriedfed”—the album’s tightrope opener, and what Robinson refers to as his “mission statement”—is a cannonball tone poem in which he howls over a simple acoustic guitar and a ramshackle drum beat about kicking open the door of his own casket. The song is new anthem material, transforming Robinson from tortured rock & roll caricature into a stand-in for a generation that needs to be talked down from the ledge. His words purge so forcefully that by the time the song reaches its climax you’re little else but goosebumps and bones. But “Buriedfed” is so raw and promising that it becomes obvious that its first lines, This is my last song about myself, about my friends/ Found something else to sing, are a lie.

Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson’s backstory of addiction and rock bottoms is as biblical as it is trite. But the tale wouldn’t matter as much if Robinson didn’t maintain the self-awareness to acknowledge its unmistakable clichés and, just as significantly, the talent to transcend them. Because beyond the mythology and hazy retrospection, Robinson writes rock & roll songs that trigger tiny earthquakes along your spine. Still, to understand the story of how Robinson made peace with his past, you have to hear more than the man’s sad-eyed songs. You need to meet the kid.

Robinson was born to a black father and a white mother who divorced just three years later. In an origin story worthy of a blues classic, on the night of his birth, Robinson’s great-grandmother proclaimed him to be “the oldest soul in the room.” She died the same night. Robinson received lessons in stage training and misanthropy at an early age. His comedian father—a depressive named Miles Terry Anthony Robinson with a deep love of Woody Allen—took him along on tour, often incorporating his son into his act and delivering show biz wisdom. “We were driving into Vegas and he explained the marquee system to me,” Robinson says, “how the bigger acts go up top and steak dinner is the biggest. I said, ‘Well one day, my name is going to be on the marquee and bigger than yours.’ I was a wiseass, but he raised me to be.” Robinson claims that’s one of his father’s favorite stories to retell and it’s one of the few he offers when describing the “dark, funny motherfucker” that instilled in him the desire to tell stories the way he does.

Shortly before adolescence, Robinson moved with his mother to the picturesque, if not racially monochromatic, wilds of Oregon. He had already discovered rock & roll under the tutelage of his father (who was also a former Zeppelin-touting disc jockey), but he was coming of age in the ’90s to the angsty alt-rock of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Everclear. As he started inhaling rock biographies and listening to Pavement and Sonic Youth, he taught himself to play guitar, discovered four-track recording and began writing songs when his friends weren’t looking. “Punk rock is about rules, dude. I found that alienating,” Robinson explains of his divergent tastes. “I was fourteen and trying to get into hardcore and I remember thinking, Wait, this is like the fucking football team. So I started smoking weed and listening to classic rock.”

In Oregon he became what he describes as the “token” black kid he wasn’t—a lock to win African-American achievement awards he didn’t believe in (he says he has “never been to Africa” and neither has anyone in his family) and the one teachers asked to share a few words every February when Black History Month came around. “People’s conception of black culture is fucking hip-hop. I don’t feel white or black. I feel equally rejected by every race,” says Robinson. “Rock & roll is weird for me because I can’t have my fucking hair in my eyes. I don’t look like the people I’ve emulated to some degree. But I came to peace with that a while ago.”

Robinson juggled high school and psychedelics with relative ease, so in 1999 when Yale and NYU came calling, the choice was clear: go where songs are birthed and tramps like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Jean-Michel Basquiat will themselves into legends. From the moment he got to New York, Robinson drank up and gulped down the city that always ends up swallowing you. He pogoed between the Bowery Ballroom, Irving Plaza and anywhere music was happening and class was not. He skated by, sold pot, shot cocaine, downed diet speed, navigated the cliquish labyrinths of NYU, started bands, melted down, burned money, worked shitty jobs and French kissed Julian Casablancas before The Strokes became The Strokes. He amassed stories. “I felt washed up by the time I was twenty-two,” says Robinson, now twenty-five.

As the summer following his sophomore year approached, Robinson didn’t make plans to go home nor did he secure a place to spend his nights. All he knew was that he wanted to write and record in New York. When a stay on Long Island selling drugs to locals with a friend was cut short by his friend’s parents, he came back to the city and began what he describes casually as his “homeless vacation,” splitting time between surfing friends’ couches and Coney Island benches. “I’d wake up every morning and there would be crabs coming down the boardwalk,” Robinson says. When not writing pages of lyrics on said couches, he spent his days asleep in Washington Square Park or scamming recording time at a now defunct NYU studio. The way he tells it, it sounds like he was backpacking through Europe. “I was just rolling,” he says. “I was living an epic summer.” But when his already very limited resources had disappeared, Robinson finally called his mother to ask for a plane ticket home. When his childhood best friend picked him up at the airport in Portland a few days later, he told him, “You smell like a homeless person.” To which Robinson replied, “That’s because I am a homeless person.”

After he came back to New York that fall with new clothes and new songs, he settled back into the NYU dorm life and met a girl. He copped to being an addict and got clean for her, a condition that Robinson was asked to respect as long as they stayed together. He began building the much-needed family of friends that still exists around him today. He and his girlfriend got engaged and found that spot on South 2nd Street in Williamsburg, but three years and two albums’ worth of material later, Robinson’s post-collegiate tranquility was over. After he and Taylor finished recording his self-titled debut, his engagement dissolved for reasons he’s not comfortable discussing in detail, but can be attributed to life changes that he says lead him back to “unfortunate habits.” He spent the summer of 2007 relapsing hard. Now he says he’s clean, though he smokes weed without pause.

But that moment at Portland International Airport—when Robinson came home for the first time, not as a music sensation, but as a man who put himself through the miseries of homelessness—should loom larger than any other part of his myth. It speaks to the way he looks at himself. There are few moments in conversation with Robinson when he doesn’t point out with a laugh that he’s a “pissy malcontent.” It’s an honest evaluation of himself that fits his manic depressive tendencies and history of extreme behavior. And although he says the best way to look at tragedy is to laugh it off, one hour with him is enough to either charm you, turn you off or test the depths of your personal empathy. “I write songs every day and I always have,” says Robinson. “I don’t think I will stop because I seem to be pretty good at generating my own angst and making the worst out of situations. I’ve passed that point in my life where I want to die for my art. Maybe I’ll die because I’m an idiot.”

Robinson has already recorded a second album with Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, a friend who he describes as “the most encouraging force” in his life. Its current title is The Summer of Fear and is said to be a Fleetwood Mac-influenced adventure inspired by the months just after the idyllic Brooklyn backyard slipped away and everything fell apart again. “I feel like he’s already a classic,” says Malone. “One of my main motivations for working with him and helping him get his music out there is because I want more records of his to listen to.”

Alongside The Black Boys, a band he assembled just after the recording of his first album, Robinson has been touring Brooklyn for the past two years. Their first national tour this summer, untethered from the familiarity of the borough and away from much of his surrogate family, is sure to offer the tempting unfortunate habits he’s turned to so many times before. “I can’t pretend like I don’t want to kill myself, but at least I can be honest about it. Because there are people out there that don’t want you to die,” he says. “I’m totally prepared for this to be the happiest year of my life. I’ve spent a lot of time being bummed out.”

On a Sunday night at Cake Shop in Manhattan, Robinson breaks three strings hacksawing the neck of an acoustic guitar with his hands and no pick. This is the fourth time I’ve seen him and The Black Boys play in nearly two weeks, and

it is without contest the most raucous and terrifying. Between songs, Robinson makes wisecracks about race relations in Kevin Costner’s The Bodyguard and drinks beers like circus gypsies swallow swords. And song after song, he uncages epic screams without ever breaking his smile or lunatic gaze. Before the show, making his way through the crowd and to the stage, shots of whiskey and sweaty bottles of Budweiser in each of his hands, Robinson slowed for a moment when he saw me. He leaned in closely and asked if people would notice he was stoned. We did.

FADER 55: Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson Cover Story