Brothers In Arms
Interview by Pippa Lang
RIVAL SONS are looking forward to returning to the UK in November. Pippa Lang talks to the rhythmic heartbeat, bassist ROBIN EVERHART and drummer MIKE MILEY, about the diverse influences of this band who are indelibly stamping their feet all over the UK this year. These guys have music degrees you know…
"Whatever you do, don't mention jazz," whispers Rival Sons' press officer, conspiratorially. I'm about to meet Robin Everhart and Mike Miley, the phenomenal rhythm section of LA's Rising Sons, whose eclectic mix of rock, soul, r'n'b, blues, psychedelia and (yes) jazz has been blowing a hoolie through the UK this year. A force of nature whose style has evolved naturally from diverse influences, they named themselves Rival Sons for this very reason:
"We all have completely different angles at which you can look at music," explains Robin.
Vastly different musical backgrounds never pulling away from each other but pulling together. Very healthy attitude. After all, as 'Miley' says, "music is music".
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Rival Sons are causing not ripples but waves in rock circles, especially over here. 'Pressure & Time', their first album on legendary noise label Earache (an anomaly that's "stirred up a little controversy and shone the spotlight on us a bit more," Miley comments), was greeted with riotous approval in the UK when it was released in June.
The feeling's mutual, their return to the UK in November a tour they're immensely looking forward to. Their enthusiasm at High Voltage extended itself to playing two sets: on the main stage and the Metal Hammer stage to replace Electric Wizzard, who had to bail out at the last minute.
Watching them play their main set, a friend said, "hey, that bassist doesn't look like he should be in a rock band". I understood exactly what he meant – short hair, flat cap, glasses and a jazz swing as he rippled around his bass, whilst vocalist Jay Buchanan whooped like a modern-day Robert Plant and guitarist/main songwriter Scott Holiday whammied away like a true-blue rock hero.
Robin and Miley paradoxically maintain a sturdy backbone yet, at the same time, lead this magical mystery tour into new, unexpected territories with every twist and turn, so that Jay and Scott have a colourful assortment of 'tunes to dance to'. Miley's alternating jazz fills and straightforward rock beats create some dazzling dynamics.
So, like a red rag to a bull, the very un-Metal word 'jazz' leaps into the fray, to instantaneous reaction. Well, it's hard to avoid, considering these two met at a jazz jam in the first place. A light switches on behind the eyes, as if a Pandora's Box has been opened…
Okay, before we go any further, let me just explain that Metal and rock's lineage reaches back a long way. The two 'genres' didn't simply come into being like some kind of Big Bang explosion. Without classical, rock'n'roll, jazz, soul, you-name-it, Metal and rock wouldn't exist. In turn, Metal and rock will be a force that influences future music. Genres shouldn't fight against each other, but co-operate and integrate. Miley explains:
"People need to be educated, because music is music. I mean - yeah - we have genres, but consider we were opening up for Judas Priest, and the Metal fans were enjoying what we do, and if you talk to most people I know, a wide array of people, including most metalheads I know, they all appreciate r'n'b and jazz…"
Robin (who was brought up in Toronto) and Miley both went to 'music school' (separately), and both have degrees, hence their appreciation of a wide range of genres. Robin:
"School isn't for everybody. Miley and I know enough to forget about it once we were outta there! Work hard when you're there, but when you're outta there, play the music. It's not about counting seventeenth beats."
"After Uni," Miley continues, "I had to listen to The Beatles over and over again just to get the feel, to hear the greatest songwriters ever, simple music for the masses, music with a heart and soul, like love songs…that aren't like the complexity of composers like Stravinsky and Frank Zappa.
"When you're at music school, you're pushing yourself, and they're pushing you to see how far you can take your craft, but then you have to kinda get dumb again. But that doesn't mean the influences aren't still there, like Bach…you just don't have to listen to that stuff anymore, it's kinda embedded in there."
After their respective Uni degrees, bassist and drummer eventually met at the aforementioned jazz jam. Robin:
"I'd just moved to town, and I was trying to pick up any gig I could, and every gig I went to had the worst drummer ever. My Uni was, like, a really good school for jazz drummers, so I was really spoilt. Every gig I did was terrible. But then I got on this free gig, and I'm like, cool, I'd heard the sax player before and I thought 'awesome', and then I met Miley and I thought 'yes!', finally a drummer who actually listens!"
Miley takes up the story:
"I'm also a humungous jazz freak. I was – not intentionally – constantly trying to challenge him, because in jazz, everyone's kinda, like, throwing out their shit, you know, sparring, and you're always testing somebody.
"So I guess you could say we're like the spawn of jazz!"
We talk briefly about jazz musician/composer Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew', the album he recorded after meeting Jimi Hendrix and started recording the day after both performed at Woodstock in 1969. Miley:
"That's when he started taking acid or something - getting into all that psychedelic stuff, and that was the precursor of all progrock…"
"Yeah," Robin continues, "that was the beginning of fusion, when people started fusing jazz and rock'n'roll, man."
"And then all the prog bands kinda took that idea and fused fusion with rock!"
There's a broad spectrum of influences on 'Pressure & Time'. Consider 'Only One', which has a distinct soul feel to it, in both senses of the word:
"Oh yeah," agrees Miley. "There's soul as in Otis Redding, Motown, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, but you can hear the soul in bands like Iron Maiden too. As long as I can hear the heart behind it, it's soul music.
"I mean, quoting directly from the black music of America in the 1950s and 60s. That was Cream's influence – and The Beatles, The Who, they were all ripping off American bluesmen. Everyone's ripping off everyone."
The retro influences don't just eke into Rival Sons' music, but also their recording techniques. Aware of how much closer and more personal music can be listened to these days, through headphones that completely isolate the listener, they were very careful to create the perfect listening experience. Ironically, they used the kind of phasing technique Hendrix and The Beatles achieved, as Miley explains:
"It's kinda weird seeing people locked into their own little worlds everywhere with their headphones on, which is awesome. Most musicians are nervous about that. So we mix things, we pan guitar solos across from one side to the other. Most of the time on a computer, you're not gonna hear that, right? But people with headphones on are gonna hear peeeow! as the sound whizzes across their head from one side to the other!
"We have a bonus track on the CD called, erm, 'Life On The Road', or…'Life For This Road'…"
Robin interrupts: "We keep screwing up the title of this song!"
(It's actually called 'This Life On The Road'…)
"…and we mixed it in that old-school setting way. Drums are over there, guitars one side, bass other side, vocals in the middle…"
Rival Sons know exactly what they want, musically, in the studio and on tour, that much is evident. From the outset, they surrounded themselves only with people they trusted.
"We had big management early on," says Miley. "That situation really worked for us, but there was no way we were going to stay with EMI after they got bought out by some bank called Terra Firma. There's no point being on a massive label unless you're Lady Gaga or someone big like that, they just won't put the work in for you.
"Early on, we got our own agent, producer, people we wanted to work with, not people some record company wanted to have work with us. So I guess we've pretty much been in control of our own career from the beginning."
And they're still surrounded by good people. Talking of whom, the band's PR arrives back and we chat for a while about a trip to LA years ago where she took me to interview The Black Crowes. This prompts Miley to comment:
"We love The Black Crowes. We've been compared to them a few times, but we're a more amped-up version, we're like The Black Crowes on cocaine!"
Which sends the conversation on an interesting new tangent…
Before the two are whisked away for another interview, I mention the album titles, which seem to follow the story of their career to date: the self-released 'Before The Fire' (2009), and now 'Pressure & Time', the latter an analogy of where they are now - in the spotlight and in demand.
"Oh yeah! We didn't premeditate that at all!" Miley exclaims, and the two chuckle at the irony before wandering off. Wonder what the next one'll be called? 'Out Of The Frying Pan'? (Google it!)
For Rival Sons' November tour dates, see our news story: