MilkDrive’s elegant album Waves backs sharp and sophisticated originals with a Beatles cover that matches both elements. Innovative high watermarks like “Benny’s Bus” define the band’s adventurous “jazzgrass” hybrid. Think about Punch Brothers and you’re not far off.
CMT Edge spoke with lead singer and fiddler Brian Beken, a former South Austin Jug Band member, about the Austin-based quartet’s excellent follow-up to 2009’s debut MilkDrive Live. (Vocalist and guitarist Noah Jeffries, former South Austin Jug Band mandolin player Dennis Ludiker and bassist Matt Medford round out the lineup.)
“We’re in a band that plays live a bunch, and it was like, ‘We should really be playing some new stuff,’” Beken says. “I started writing some songs, and Dennis started writing, and we borrowed a couple of songs from our friends here in Austin — Drew Smith (‘Papers on the Table’) and Bruce Robison (‘Leavin’’). And before we knew it, we had 10, and we decided to put them on a record.”
CMT Edge: How have you evolved as songwriters since the first album?
Beken: On our first record, I had only written one of the songs. I just practiced songwriting and got more and more confident with it and started keeping some of the ideas and presenting them to the band. [This time] I wrote “Waves,” “Run & Hide” and “The City” and also helped out with the instrumentals on there. A big catalyst was getting those guys involved in some of my preliminary ideas for songs. Having the confidence made things go smoother.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
Man, “Waves” is a song about my journey with songwriting, I guess. I’ve always played in bands but have never really tried to write songs. That song is about me actually doing it. I live in an apartment downtown, so there’s a road right outside the house that’s really, really busy. When my girlfriend and I moved into this place, she was like, “That road out there is really noisy.” I was like, “Well, if you think about it, it almost sounds like waves crashing in on a shore.” When cars drive by, they have this air sound. She’s like, “That’s a funny way of thinking of that.” I took an abstract idea and made a personal journal entry via song.
How collaborative is the band’s writing process?
Usually, I’ll record my ideas here at my place and email it to everyone, and we’ll get together and talk about different parts. We all play different [instruments], so the first thing we do is decide who’s gonna play what. That plays a pretty big role in putting the finishing touches on a song as far as arranging. We try to arrange songs in the most efficient way as far as pulling it off live with a four-piece band.
So, is it intimidating to cover “Dear Prudence,” a Beatles song?
We’ve always wanted to do that. (laughs) All of us are huge fans. I just recently became a huge fan within the past four years. Of course, I’ve always known about the Beatles, but I didn’t really dive in until recently. We have always wanted to do a Beatles song, but, like you say, it can be very intimidating.
First of all, what song are you gonna do? How are you gonna do it? I was driving to a rehearsal one day listening to KUT [a public radio station in Austin] and the jazz pianist named Brad Mehldau’s instrumental version of “Dear Prudence,” and it did not have the straight ahead feel that the Beatles’ did. It had this swingy feel. When I got there, we looked it up online, and everyone was into it. We decided to steal his groove and arrange it ourselves with the Beatles’ words.
Did you immediately know “Tom’s Ranch” would be an instrumental?
Man, we had a big enough handful with that song the way that it was! (laughs) Lyrics never entered our minds in that one.
How much did you improvise while recording?
Most of our songs are set up as a skeleton, and within that skeleton, there are places where there’s a defined melody and where certain things have to happen at certain times, and then there’s sections that are intended to be improv parts. We’ll make a point to take a little section of a song to vote to improv to keep things fresh for us, first of all, and it’s just exciting that way. We didn’t write out any of our solos in the studio. They all just happened as they happened.
Describe working with Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny on “Benny’s Bus.”
We’ve hung out with him at various festivals and jammed, and he’s obviously an excellent musician. He’s a really cool hang, too. We actually didn’t get to share studio time with him. Noam played on that track a couple of months after we had recorded it. We just left holes.
This band and the Punch Brothers balance tradition and innovation. How aware of that are you when writing and playing?
A lot of my favorite songs in the whole world are traditional songs, [but] we don’t really pay too much attention to trying to stay traditional. Everyone else has that same kind of background. Noah’s family was a gospel bluegrass band. Dennis grew up listening to all the traditional bluegrass. But whenever we get together, I don’t think we’re concerned about that so much as we happen to be using traditional instruments to make whatever music we want.