Always Love, Never Fear: Harvey Milk’s Creston Spiers Talks Bringing it All Back Home

Even those who count themselves as massive fans of the wild, gorgeous, dissonant oeuvre of Creston Spiers — from fronting legendary sludge merchants Harvey Milk to his solo incarnations and beyond — will likely be surprised and taken with the transcendent maestro’s latest, Brown Dwarf: It feels both intrinsic to his past work as well as a mutation that gives glimpse of what it might have been like if the MC5 recorded Music From the Big Pink rather than The Band.

Which is to say the album is typically atypical, predictably unpredictable, and brilliant.

“Actually the songs were written in 2018 for my patrons on Patreon,” Spiers tells Decibel. “This record is kind of unusual in that all the songs were written right in a row. For that reason I think it has a pretty cohesive sound. You’re right as far as the overall style of the record; I was definitely going for New Classic Rock!”

Spiers was kind enough to take Decibel on a guided tour down his latest rabbit hole…

One of the most gratifying things about following your career is how you…well, I originally was going to say “constantly evolve” but it’s more accurate to say “run to the next edge.” You always sound as if you’re writing without a net somehow. Is that something you aspire to as an artist and have subsequently worked to develop? Or is it just how you’re built as a human being and the rest is instinct?

I would say the latter. I’ve found, especially lately, that it’s best for me to go almost exclusively on instinct when it comes to rock music. Whenever I try to contrive a piece of music — to decide what it’s going to be before I even start — it’s always a dismal failure. But when I trust my ear and go where it leads me, it’s usually much better.

There are exceptions of course: My orchestral work; the heavier more Harvey Milk-ish music on Patreon. Those are all more thoroughly “composed.” But not this record, not Brown Dwarf. It’s rock and roll only.

As a corollary to that, we seem to be short on iconoclasts as a culture these days — despite all the avenues available to bypass traditional gatekeepers, etcetera. I notice your Bandcamp bio describes you as “reclusive.” I wonder if you see a connection between those two things. By which I mean, do you think quote-unquote “creatives” would do well to both take advantage of platforms — i.e. “put themselves out there” — but also be careful to create space far, far outside of that to actually “do the work”?

Yeah I guess I’ve always been a real “do the work” guy and not very much of a “put yourself out there” guy. Probably to a fault. I don’t tweet or Instagram or market Patreon beyond putting a song up on the Harvey Milk Facebook page every once in a while. I would not recommend being reclusive! And I don’t think my being reclusive has anything to do with my so-called creativity. I’m sure it has a lot more to do with my being an asshole.

Obviously not trying to do anything so uncouth as to ask for detailed song origins/meanings. That said, track titles like “Life is Mine,” “There’s A Hole In The Bucket List And I’m On Fire,” “If I Can Dream,” and others on Brown Dwarf suggest a reflective album. Is that the space you’re in?

Lyrics are hard. Usually I’ll just allow sounds to form in my head and allow words to form around the sounds. Once you have a few words — you kind of know what the song can be about. From there on out you just try and write the best lyrics that you can. Sometimes they’re sad and sometimes they’re joyous. I try to write only love songs. If I’m not trying to write a love song, I better have a damn good reason why not.

There’s a couple bands I feel like might be good overarching touchstones for the record — MC5, The Band — and then, more specifically, the intro to “I’ll Do Anything You Want Me To” feels like a nod to Kiss, “Of The Bees” has a Sabbath vibe, the end of “There’s A Hole In The Bucket List And I’m On Fire” calls to mind some of the less radio friendly classic lineup Alice Cooper stuff, “Life is Mine” is slightly warped Cheap Trick-esque power pop… As I said before, it all is run through your unique prism, but the overall atmosphere here left me wondering if you were perhaps drawing more heavily from some musical “first loves” than usual?

Oh, I was definitely trying to rip off all the bands that you just mentioned, except Alice Cooper or MC5. I was hoping to write contemporary classic rock, like songs that would be at home on the radio alongside Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and Kiss and the Cars. And I was definitely trying to write hooks. Hooks hooks hooks.

You have a real knack for teasing grandeur out of dissonance and tones that would be just abrasive in lesser hands. Does that come naturally or are you constantly building and subverting your way to these apotheoses?

Dissonance is something I explore a lot in my orchestral music, and in the more experimental rock music. As for Brown Dwarf: I do really love major 7th chords!

On your Patreon page you write, “I believe an artist/craftsman’s relationship with their customer is a personal one, and a valuable one.” And you back that up by being a prolific and substantive poster. My colleague Sean Fraiser chatted with you about this a few years back, but it was quite new then as I recall and I’m curious how that interface has affected your life as a musician and artist in the ensuing years?

My deal with my patrons on Patreon has totally changed the way I make music, having to set up kind of a rock song factory, so to speak. I have an assembly line going: I always start with the drums, then the other instruments — the harmonic progression/rhythm, the melody. Then always the lyrics and vocals last. I try and do this quickly without second-guessing myself, and keeping as many first and second takes as I possibly can, to sound fresh — and also cuz I gotta get a song out that month!

I have been in a slump since the pandemic scare began. Hopefully I’ll rebound and turn that around soon. But, still, if you look at the page overall — I started it in 2017 and now a little over three years later I have six new, full-length, professionally mastered releases on my page. Not to mention many, many other unanthologized tracks. I believe there’s well over ten hours of never before heard music on there, as it stands now! So I couldn’t be more proud of the page, or more grateful to my Patrons! This record, Brown Dwarf, wouldn’t exist without them, that’s for sure.

We’re ten years out from Harvey Milk’s A Small Turn of Human Kindness. The band’s Bandcamp page still lists the group as an “is” rather than a “was.” Has there been any talk of riding that glorious beast into battle again?

I talk to Stevie and Kyle all the time and as far as I know none of us have any interest in getting the band back together.

You’re releasing Brown Dwarf in the middle of a global pandemic. And we thank you for it! But has navigating the million small and large disruptions of 2020 proved challenging for getting this up and out?

As for the logistics of releasing an album, that’s a question best answered by Jem at weemptyrooms. He’s the man. In general, has the pandemic scare been disruptive to me personally? You bet. But I have hope for the future. I think people are generally kind and smart.

Thank you! It was an honor!

Thank you and the honor is all mine!
Distrust the government.
Avoid mass media.
Fight the lies.
Always love, never fear.