Music Blues: Stephen Tanner Answers Tom’s Questions About Depression, Going Solo & Cooking

Alternative rock, doom, sludge-grinders Harvey Milk need no introduction here and neither does their bass-playing maverick Stephen Tanner who recently released the solo project “Things Haven’t Gone Well” under the name Music Blues on Thrill Jockey Records. Shaman scribe Tom McKibbin wasn’t sure whether to expect extreme doses of sarcasm or one word answers to his questions about depression, “going solo” and cooking, but was instead delighted by a surprisingly candid and sincere interview which touched upon influences and the future of Harvey Milk. Ladies and gentlemen: the man, the legend, the chef, Stephen Tanner…

Stephen Tanner - Photo by John Fell

How has the response been to the album so far, whether it’s a response to the music itself or to the news that you’re essentially releasing a solo album?

Umm, well the stuff I’ve seen all seems very positive and I guess that’s surprising. I haven’t seen any bad ones yet but I haven’t looked. I like the bad ones probably more than goods ones but it’s nice because I never really planned on making a record, it was kind of by accident. But I’m glad people like it. I think people like it. I have friends I gave the record to and they were like “I’m kinda coming around to this” but I think they like looking at the cover more or something. I gave one to my friend who’s a big pot head and I was joking with him and said “Dude I know you’re not going to like this, but you can use it to roll doobies on”” and later that night he sent me a picture of himself rolling a joint on the gatefold which is pretty glorying I guess…

Have your band mates listened to it, and if so, what did they think of it?

They were listening to it the whole time I was making it because I trust those guys and they will tell me if something really sucks. The feedback in the beginning for instance, when I was working on it I sent it to Kyle, the drummer, I was like “Look, tell me what you think, give me some positive feedback or some direction” and he was like “well you know, I really like the music but I think you should try to do something a bit more with the drums” and it’s not just because he’s a drummer. But he was like “Most of it is just downbeats and stuff, you should try to think more out of the box.” And I did. Preston the guitar player went to a music school so he uses a lot of terms where I don’t really know what the fuck they mean. He was like “Well I like it, but it’s a bit monochromatic” or however he explained it to me, so I made some adjustments. But yeah, those guys had a lot of help in steering me to make the best album.

I never really finished it. I spent too much money on it and trying to make it sound better and I got really frustrated and I was like “fuck this, it’s done.” A lot of its not really finished. Then Bettina Richards (head of Thrill Jockey Records) was like “We need a bonus track”. The point I’m getting at is that if you play in a band, you get three people to weigh in on stuff. This doesn’t make sense but it’s easier to come to a decision on something. If it’s just you, its horrifying. At least for me, I mean she asked me to come up with a bonus track and I recorded like 30 different cover songs, I worked endless on them and then I threw them all in the garbage. I couldn’t make a decision on anything. In the meantime I already recorded what I could imagine is the second record. It’s already done. It’s a lot different, a bit peppier and I was like “You know, I’m not even going to put out this first one, I’m going to put out the second one”. I really lost my mind. It took a couple friends to go “dude, you put out the first one, you worked on it, it’s good, you liked it at one point. You don’t like it anymore because you fucked with it so much. You should put the first one out then put the second one out and you just keep going I guess.”  But I don’t know… I’m sorry what was the question?

The question was: Have any of your band mates listened to it?

Yeah, they say they like it. But I don’t know. They had already heard side two of that record when I was down in Athens. Some of the interview or things I’ve read have it a little backwards, I didn’t do any recording in Athens, I had just written a lot of material down there and I recorded it up here. Then I read something that said “Kyle played drums on it.” Kyle didn’t play drums on it; I just used a drum machine. The second half of the album I had actually played and practiced with Harvey Milk before we decided to go on break for a while, so they had already heard that stuff and they liked it.

Music Blues 'Things Haven't Gone Well' Artwork

Were the songs on Things Haven’t Gone Well written with the intention of eventually being recorded by Harvey Milk?

Oh yeah! All of it! When I first got through making the record I sent it to them and I called Kyle and said “You know what, why don’t we just fuckin’ record this as a band?” and he was kind of into it I think but he’s really busy with other stuff. Preston has just had a really hard year, His parents just passed away and he just got a daughter. He’s just got a lot going on and we just weren’t really ready to do anything so I just went ahead with it as a solo thing. But yeah, all of it was intended to be a Harvey Milk record.  I mean there’s no difference. People are like “Oh, this sounds like Harvey Milk” and I’m just like “well yeah! I’ve been doing this for 20 years, what did you expect? A fuckin’ Ska Record?!

What inspired you, besides repeats of 90210?

That’s another thing that’s ridiculous. 90210 didn’t inspire me to make a record. I always watched that show, when it came out I loved it. When I was downstate at Creston’s house he would go to work, his wife would go to work, his daughter would go to school and I was sit on the couch and play guitar and 90210 was on for 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoon. I just loved the show, but the show certainly didn’t have anything to do with any of the music. I always have a guitar in my lap, ever since I was little. If I’m watching T.V. if I’m doing anything, I have a guitar. I guess there could be some weird possibility that it could have something to do with it but it wasn’t consciously I’ll tell you that, (Laughter) I mean how would that even fucking happen?! I mean if I wrote lyrics and I wrote a rock opera about Steve Sanders and Claire’s love that would be a little clearer, but I don’t know (Laughter)… and it doesn’t have to do with anyone’s death.

That’s another thing that I’ve been upset about. I know people have to latch on to something, but I don’t like to see Jerry’s name because it doesn’t have anything to do with it. I’ve had a lot of friends die and it seems like the older you get the more it happens. Jerry’s passing coincided with a lot of other not so great things happening here in New York. I had the time and I had enough money saved up to where I could just fucking leave. It was a terrible decision to do that, but that’s why I ended up going back to Georgia to hang out with Kyle and Preston, but what I didn’t realize is that when I got there Kyle was on tour and I maybe saw him twice. I kind of thought I’d go down there and the three of us would be able to do stuff, because since we were formed we have been a long distance band. We have never come close to being as good as we were when we all lived in the same town when we were young. But none of that happened. I don’t’ know if I answered that correctly…

You’ve said that the time spent at Creston’s house was kind of depressing and that, among other things, they ate a lot of potpies. Did you cook for the family while you were there to try and wean them off ready-meals? 

I did end up cooking. Preston eats potpies but his wife is a vegetarian. She’s a great friend of mine, I love her to death. She’s hilarious. Once a week I would go grocery shopping with her and we would fill the fuckin’ basket up. She would have a list and we would spend a shit load of money. We would get home and put it away and the next day I would look around and say, “there isn’t any food!!” She bought like some grapes, a green pepper, and a can of black beans. Where did the 200 dollars go? It was confusing. But yeah, I did a little cooking there. She was a vegetarian, but she wasn’t the vegetarian that looking for squash or whatever, we are talking like frozen cheese pizzas and shit like that. (Laughter)

For those who don’t know, you’re also a well-regarded chef in Brooklyn – what do you prefer overall, playing music or cooking?

Well, I like them both a lot you know? Cooking is what I do for a living and music is a nice hobby. It would be great if I could make a living doing that, but I’m too old to try to do that now and plus, I don’t want to ride around in a van all the time. I mean it’s very depressing to go to different towns to sit there and wait to play and stopping at gas stations and seeing some young people and you can see where there lot in life is and it’s crushing. It’s not something I can deal with that well…

How are plans for the new restaurant – El Dorado – going?

I don’t even know if it’s called that. I don’t own it, but I cook for the guys that own it. That’s a terrible name and I think they are calling it something else. We talked about calling it “Bananagins” but they don’t want to do anything that I think would be fun. I don’t really know what’s going on, I’ve seen it once and it’s pretty big. I think there is going to be a venue inside of it, which I’m excited about. Other than that, I figured I’d just come up with the menu a couple of days before we open. I just kind of have to see what the space is like. Usually the space will dictate what you are going to end up doing. I didn’t go over there a few months ago to carve my section or say:  “I need this much space!”  Because sometimes having a limited space has a lot of benefits to it so you don’t get too carried away. I wanted it to be called “Bananagins” and it would be sprayed concrete like one of those little roadside places. Like Paul Bunyon style shit, like that style. Like, make the whole place like a giant banana in a beer mug or something! Once again, it won’t have any comedic elements, you know?

Music Blues - Stephen Tanner - Photo by John Fell

Do you have any say on the kind of music that gets played at your restaurant? What would be on the jukebox in your restaurant?

Oh God. That’s a tough one. I would kind of like to just not have any music…I’ve gone to bars before that have internet jukeboxes and I’ll drunkenly put in like $20 and play Slayer’s entire discography and I’ve watched like 100 people leave a bar for doing that! (laugher) But if it were my place…. Fuck man, I don’t know.  You want the place to make money and be able to pay everybody so I guess I would need like, The Eagles Greatest Hits and Steve Miller’s greatest hits and Puff daddy or…”Getting Jiggy wit it” whatever appeals to a big cross section of people, I don’t fuckin’ know! I would just put ear buds in my ears. I don’t even really give a shit. I work with Ecuadorians and Mexicans and they just play what they want to play and it just passes on by. Its horrendous and I don’t wanna hear it but I can just let it pass on by.

What are you listening to at the moment? Do you listen to much new music or do you tend to go back through your collection for older stuff? (I noticed a fucked up sounding, slowed-down version of “Teach Your Children” on one of the tracks on THGW for example – are CSN&Y an old favourite?)

Well, I don’t have a collection of music. I gave all my records away a long time ago because I got tired of moving them around. Then iPods and computers and all came out where you can have a billion records on a little thing, I was like “fuck this man”. I’d say the majority of the music I still listen to is music I listened to when I was 12 and 13. But I do listen to new music, I’m trying to think of what I heard recently that I like…. Hmm, I’m drawing a blank… who was at my house the other night…. Fuck, well I know what I can do! I can look on my computer, go on my iTunes and look at my recently played and that will answer the question…. ok, we’ve got a little “In the lap of Gods” by Queen….. We’ve got a ZZ Top Bootleg…. a bunch of Danzig… Bob Segar… Oooh this song is one of my favorites: It’s by Die Kreuzen, It’s off “Century Days” It’s called “Number Three”. Boy, that’s a tremendously overlooked band. God dammit they are so good! We’ve got some Jesus Lizard, more Danzig, Aerosmith, Cat Power, BBQ killers, AC/DC, Celtic Cross, REM, Zen Gorillas, Jimi Hendrix, LL Cool J, Roy Orbison, Slayer, Joan Jett, Kill Doser, Awesome Color, Dirt, Shit tons of Slayer again, more Danzig, Midnight, Queen, AC/DC, KISS, The Pretenders, Stones, Dirt Bomb, The Who, Fear, Van Halen, Witch Finder General, Iggy Pop, Mouse, Morbid Angel, Skull Shitty, Royal Trux, Led Zep, aaaaand KISS. That’s everything on the recently played.

Harvey Milk are self-deprecating to the extreme – do you guys give a single fuck at all?

Yes, of course we do. It’s just comedy is very important to us. I mean, we always took the playing part very seriously. If we a play a bad show we are not pleased. We wanna be good and practice and all that. Yeah, we definitely give a shit. Big time. Probably to a fault. It’s the non-giving a shit stuff that I don’t know what it is. When people try to help us or something, they get this impression that we are very difficult. But it’s just that we don’t really care about stuff like doing a soundcheck, or doing an interview, or playing on the radio. That we are guilty of being kind of not giving a shit…. but yes, we give a shit. I mean a fuck…

Finally, I have to ask, is there going to be another Harvey Milk album any time soon?

I don’t know about any time soon but what me and Creston have talked about recently is you know, we had a drummer before Kyle, this guy Paul. Paul started a family right when we started playing again so he could really partake in some of the fun stuff we got to do. That always kinda bugged me. When we were a band in the early 90s, there was nothing happening. We’ve talked about maybe doing something with Paul, like maybe a recording or maybe Spring break, playing a couple show. Because Kyle is really busy with the Kurt Vile band. All four of us are really good friends. Even when Paul was the drummer, Kyle would be assisting in the engineering or hanging out and when Kyle would be playing drums, Paul would be around and Paul has always contributed songs even when he wasn’t in the group. So it’s pretty lose.

It would be great if actually the four of us could all get together and do something because Paul and Kyle can both play other instruments besides drums, you know? So, I don’t know. I think Creston needs to get through a little more life stuff and get his kid off to college and kind of see where we are at there. But I’m Telling you man, this getting older stuff kind of slows things down. Lets see, I’m 43 he’s probably 48. Also the distance, not living in the same town.

I mean, I feel pretty confident in saying that we will make another record. But we aren’t those kinds of dudes who put an emphasis that we have to do this or that. We never even said that we aren’t going to play anymore. It’s just one of those things where you will be like: “Il see you soon”, or I’ll see you down the road.” Then somebody will make a call and say: “Hey, you wanna do this?” and you will be like “Yeah, that sounds alright” so it’s basically just that. It will come around at some point…… What do you call that? …Organically? (Laughter)

Things Haven’t Gone Well is out now on CD, LP & Vinyl formats via Thrill Jockey Records and you can also read Tom’s review here.

Band Links: Official | Facebook

Interviewed by: Tom McKibbin
Photo Credit: John Fell