In the summer of 2003, just before electro-rock became the ska of the early century, Chicago’s Milemarker took a break that looked more like a break-up. The group’s aggressive synth-punk seemed too antagonistic—particularly Al Burian’s biting, heady lyrics—to share the mainstream success of bands that followed anyway. As time passed, Burian, guitarist Dave Laney, and drummer Noah Leger played in agit-punk band Challenger, and the odds of another Milemarker record seemed increasingly remote. But two years and a few line-up changes later, Milemarker have returned with their fifth album, Ominosity, and some significant personnel changes. With the new blood, it’s not surprising that Ominosity mostly eschews Milemarker’s synth-heavy past for a more experimental strain of post-punk—but the music remains distinctly ominous and agitated. Before the band left for tour, Burian spoke to The A.V. Club about the group’s existential crisis, its ever-changing sound, and taking things easier.
The A.V. Club: It seems like you guys went on hiatus as the music world warmed up to synth-rock. Did you have a sense of that at the time?
Al Burian: Our main motivation has always been to keep ourselves interested. The ethos of the band would be to go in the different direction anyway, and kind of do something less electronic, or less in the direction of what it seemed like other people were picking up on. There was a while when people were pegging us as this kind of neo-new-wave band, and my goal is definitely to eschew those kinds of labels.
AVC: During the hiatus, did you ever think the band was done?
AB: I never really thought about it in terms of whether we were gonna keep on going. I think we needed to take a step back from it to figure out what we were doing and why. There is that drive, mostly from outside of bands usually, “Well, now that people are sort of interested, you’ve got to keep going, and you’ve got to give them new stuff.” I think that that’s what kills bands, and I think if we had kept going at that pace, we probably wouldn’t be doing anything now. The point for me of doing music has never been really goal-oriented.
AVC: The press release that comes with the record reflects that. It says something to the effect of, “We’re doing well, but so what?”
AB: One thing that I’ve always noticed when I’ve met people who are very successful or success-driven is that they’re usually articulate, intelligent people who have this total blindspot for that question. Because if you asked yourself those things, you’re probably gonna have uncomfortable answers.
AVC: There was a quote in an old interview with Dave Laney that sounds completely appropriate for this record: “That was the idea, anyway. Have people come up and say, ‘New label, new sound, lyrics about love… What gives?” That seems like the approach you’ve had with every album.
AB: Yeah, definitely. I think that once you’ve done something, you’ve done it, and repeating it doesn’t make much sense. What has kept me going in the band is that pretty much every time we put out a record or do a tour, I’m sort of like, “Okay, cool, we did it. We’re done.” It’s that process of coming up with a new way to do things that reinvigorates the project.
AVC: Is it tough to balance avoiding repetition and not making 180-degree turns that could potentially confuse fans?
AB: When we started out, we were probably more confrontational about it. Probably at the beginning of the band, you know, my answer to that would have been like, “That’s cool. Fuck those people,” or like, “If people can’t deal with it, whatever.” I think that now it’s not so much a matter of being sort of affronting, and more just a matter of doing what you feel like doing.
AVC: Do you feel like you’ve mellowed over the years?
AB: I think that it’s okay to make music that people want to listen to. I hope people like what I do, but I’m not super-worried about it—more just worried about if I like it, I guess.
AVC: It seems like you’ve also toned down how intense everyone is about the band in general.
AB: There was a point when we were really touring a lot and we had this attitude of, “We’re gonna keep going until we drive off a cliff.” In the past, I think there’s been some unnecessary psychological hardships that maybe we’ve learned to avoid.
AVC: As far as making things more difficult for yourselves?
AB: Just sort of pushing yourself to do unreasonable stuff, or feeling like you’re martyring yourself—it’s just a band. I think that we maybe have gone a little more from the real intense, short-term goal-oriented [outlook] to thinking about how to pull things off more in the long term. Maybe it’s cool to do a little less here if it’ll give us the energy to do something next year. I spent seven years continuously thinking the band was gonna implode, and after a while you’re like, “I guess this is still going on.”
AVC: Living on edge like that can’t be too comfortable.
AB: Yeah, but it makes for good shows. [Laughs.]