From the Dead Gray Ashes: An Interview with Harvey Milk

The last studio recording southern sludge/noise rock outliers Harvey Milk left ringing in our ears was back in 2010. In A Small Turn of Human Kindness closer “I Did Not Call Out,” bassist Stephen Tanner’s last note lingers barely above silence. In that same song, the desperate caterwaul of vocalist/guitarist Creston Spiers declares, “In the dead gray ashes/there was grace.” Seven years after that release, the ashes are starting to stir. Messages posted to Harvey Milk’s Facebook page revealed new solo recordings from Spiers using Patreon, a membership platform that allows creators to run a subscription content service. Soon after, snapshots surfaced of Spiers and Tanner co-inhabiting the same space in Georgia. Now, Harvey Milk is back with new recordings, primed to share their creations with listeners in the most raw, direct way possible outside of a live show. With their return, Spiers and Tanner have also revealed a new collaborator eager to create new noise with them: Nazi-punching instructor and Swans drummer Thor Harris.

The new tunes from Harvey Milk pluck peculiarities from their entire eclectic, eccentric discography. There’s the uncompromising dirges of landmark record Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men. There’s the amped-up amphetamine drive and KISS worship that propelled The Pleaser. Even apart from the new tracks, the Patreon page is a treasure chest for Harvey Milk fans. There are demo cuts of fan favorites (“Motown”). An unreleased song from the Life… The Best Game in Town recording sessions (“Fagooch”). You also get songs from side projects, orchestral arrangements, and Leonard Cohen covers that recall Spiers’ “One Of Us Cannot be Wrong” performance. It’s a unique glimpse into what makes Harvey Milk tick, and the result is predictably unpredictable.

But why Patreon, instead of a typical web store or record label? “I guess it’s more of a political/philosophical statement than anything,” Spiers offers in a written statement. “Like in the days of valued trade-smiths, I believe an artist/craftsman’s relationship with their customer is a personal one, and a valuable one. It should not be easily stolen and distributed, leaving the creator often the last one to profit from their art.”

Below, check out Harvey Milk’s thoughts between swigs of tequila on rat-shit burgers and what to expect from Harvey Milk’s new venture.

When did you have the realization that you didn’t want to do anything you didn’t love anymore, and focus entirely on music?

Creston Spiers: I guess it was about a year ago. I ran for president in 2016, a very like Tanner ‘88 type deal where I put up Youtube videos explaining my positions. It was just a soapbox for me, really. Once I got into the Youtube community I started watching other videos, and it changed the way I think about things. I realized that I’ve been working at this job for 20 years that I hate. When it started, there were a lot of good reasons for me to do it; I had a young daughter, I needed health insurance, I needed all those things that the job had to offer. But I no longer did. My daughter is grown, we own our own properties…

Stephen Tanner: He’s a granddad!

CS: I’m a granddad. So I just realized I didn’t need to be doing this anymore. I hated it, it was making me miserable, so I decided I would retire early. And when I decided to put music on the internet I wanted a subscription service where for a low fee I could send someone my music directly every month. I had never really heard of Patreon, but a friend suggested it. So you can put up music, either public or for patrons only. I release 30 minutes of music per month, so for only $36 a year you can get six hours of music. It’s a good deal for the consumer because they’re getting constant music from us, and it’s a good deal for us because we get paid directly by the consumer. Already, over the last 3 months, we’ve made more money with this Patreon page than we have from any label over the history of Harvey Milk.

ST: Which is like $300!

Does it feel strange to share ideas before they’re fully developed?

CS: I see it as a plus for everybody. Stevie and I just finished our first collaboration – it’s not a very serious piece, it’s just us clearing our throats, so to speak. But we put it up the first day, and everyone gets to see how it grows. So for people who listen every day, you can download every single version and have a CD of nothing but one song’s growth. When I was a kid, I would have loved if KISS put out the demos for “I Was Made For Lovin’ You,” you know? I would have loved that from the artist. Outtakes, and rare takes. In the meantime, any time we want to make an improvement we can just do it. I consider that one of the big pluses of this arrangement, to see it evolve into a finished product.

I know the Patreon page was originally set up with your solo material. When did you decide to start collaborating with Stephen again?

CS: Stevie just moved back to the states from Mexico. He moved here to Georgia close to me, so we decided to team up. It was never a case of us not wanting to work together, he’s just been in Mexico and New York all these years. So now that we’re close geographically we can team up and hopefully make some good stuff.

A question I’ve seen from a number of your patrons is if you plan on releasing any of this material in a physical format?

CS: This is it, we’re not putting a record out. We’re not making demos, we’re making products. I’m not a guy who gives a fuck about vinyl. I can’t tell the difference between a vinyl record and a CD, and I don’t think most people can. It’s all bullshit. So we’ll keep putting out our music as we make it, and keep improving it. It may not have the quality or fidelity of a professional studio recording, but honestly my favorite records were recorded with a tin fucking can. I don’t think the quality is about the recording, it’s about the notes. We’re not trying to shop around for a label. Fuck labels, they’ve done nothing but screw us over and over again for years and years. So there won’t be another LP. If someone wants to put one out, what they’ll be using is the recordings from our Patreon page. We’re not gonna do any more studio recordings, we can record well enough in our room.

Stephen, I remember an interview with you talking about your dining habits, and my friends and I used to do what we called “a Tanner special” and grab Checkers and a King Cone.

ST: I love Checkers, but I had to stop going to that one [in Brooklyn]. I saw some of the craziest shit in that Checkers. There was a guy on that block who looked like he was cut from steel. He would just hop over the counter, go in the back, and make himself his own burgers. And he would beat the shit out of anyone who said anything to him. But I had to stop going because I took a burger home and there was rat shit all over it. I was friends with [the workers there], so I think it was intended for someone else.

You basically took a bullet for someone else.

ST: I know, man! I’ve taken enough bullets as it is!

How has it felt collaborating with Creston again?

ST: Like Creston said, we’ve always been best friends, so this has not been a difficult thing. And people who like Harvey Milk tend to be pretty over-the-top. There’s like no middle-ground fans. We don’t have that many, but the ones who like the band are really fucking rabid. So now we can message these people directly and say thank you, because that’s the way we feel. It’s awesome that people are into what we do, and are willing to pay a couple bucks or whatever.

You revealed that you’ll soon be playing with drummer Thor Harris [of Swans, and others]. How long have you known Thor, and how did that relationship begin?

ST: We don’t know Thor at all. I’m friends with Norman [Westberg], who plays guitar in Swans. We’ve been friends for years, and the very first time Harvey Milk played in New York in ‘91 or something he was there. We always used to get compared to two bands, and I didn’t know either band. It was always Swans and Einstürzende Neubauten. But I became friends with Norman, and he’s a really awesome dude. So he gave my number to Thor, and I got a message from him saying, “I play percussion in Swans, do you want to come watch us? I love Harvey Milk.” So of course I was flattered – hold on, gonna take a swig of tequila. [Editor’s note: The rest is post-tequila swig.]

So when Creston and I started doing music again, the two drummers we’ve played with are busy. [Paul Trudeau] has a kid, and [Kyle Spence] plays in the world’s greatest band, Kurt Vile and The Violaters. So he can’t be bothered to play with us, because he gets to ride a bus and hit the drums like a feather or something, so it works out well for him. And I’m just joking, we’re bros. So when we started playing again and Creston was doing a lot of orchestral stuff, I kept thinking of when I saw Swans, I saw Thor with all these percussive instruments. He was the first one I thought of. We haven’t played yet, but he’s gonna come on over from Austin, and we hope it’ll work.

And is the music you’re creating now, is this Harvey Milk or a different entity?

CS: It’s definitely Harvey Milk. Not to minimize the contributions of Kyle and Paul, because they contributed not only songs but also they’re also responsible for the architecture of our sound without a doubt. But essentially Stevie and I are the creators of Harvey Milk, and I don’t think either of them would disagree with that. I actually wasn’t crazy about opening up the Harvey Milk family to someone else; I felt we’ve had enough. If we were going to create something new, I wanted it to be with Kyle or Paul, because they’re the family. But I’m okay with opening it up to a new member if it’s okay with them. Plus, Thor seems like a cool guy, a normal person, good sense of humor, and he obviously has musical intelligence. I’m hoping it works great.


Check out Harvey Milk’s Patreon page HERE, where for $5 a month you can get blindsided by distortion and lawless noise. Listen to their discography over on Bandcamp and assess what your love of their music can be. You can also follow along on Facebook.