A Scot living in Poland, artist and label boss Neil Milton has seen a lot of changes in his life in the last few years: personal, political and musical. With a visit to Manchester in the pipeline, a slot at Foundations Festival no less, we asked Neil more about himself, his music and much, much more.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s the story behind Neil Milton the musician and how would you describe your sound?
Of late, I’ve been describing my sound, to anyone that will listen, as “C86 in ‘68”. There’s an obvious indie slant to what I’m doing, and there’s definitely a DIY aesthetic to the recordings so far – just on the right side of shambling. And just as the original C86-ers wore their 60s influences on their sleeves, I can’t quite get away from it – it’s all there – vocal harmonies, bright melody, and Rickenbacker guitars.
At times, my story feels a little like an unrelenting rollercoaster but to summarise as best I can; I began playing post-punk and post-rock music in a Glasgow band called Troika back in the early 2000s. After we split, I bounced around in various attempted solo projects but largely spent the most time DJing, until in 2010 I moved to Warsaw, Poland and kicked off a piano-led modern-classical/ambient project. Much of that material was released through Manchester’s own Valentine Records.
I’m very proud of it all but I never took to piano as much as I did guitar, so after an unfortunate arm-break, I began with guitar again, finding myself in the Varsovian post-rock band, The Frozen North. North was a great experience but sadly split after 2 years, and since then, for the first time, I’ve found my voice with this new indie/power-pop direction.
What motivates you and inspires your music, aesthetic and vibe?
I grew up in the wake of a musical family. I knew my dad’s side of the tree were musicians, however, I found recently that in fact one great uncle even owned and operated a recording studio in Airdrie.
They say sometimes these things skip a generation, and though my dad doesn’t play a note – that’s true, he’s an encyclopaedia and obsessive of pop. It’s ridiculous. So much so, he named my brother and I after the 4 members of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I got Neil and Stephen.
It was inevitable I’d grow up obsessed by 60s pop; and not least, my dad’s favourite, the Beach Boys. I was lucky enough not to ever feel like I had to break away from the music my parents’ listened to, instead it informed much of what I found and loved as my own; bands like R.E.M., Belle and Sebastian, Idlewild, The Pastels, BMX Bandits, and Teenage Fanclub all owe more than a nod to the music found on the shelves at home. A combination of all of that infused in me a deep love of harmony and bright, chiming guitars.
Your musical output has developed and changed markedly over the years – was that a conscious decision or a natural process?
Though, for me it’s undiagnosed, it has occasionally been noted that I often show signs of the bi-polar disorder that my mum suffers from – borderline personality disorder also comes up, albeit light-heartedly, in conversation. That’s not to say I’m making light of it, of course. I mention it as I often attribute any perceived lack of focus on one musical style as a result – to some degree, at least – of this.
That said, there is some method in it. I always saw Troika as a post-rock band, despite the fact that this was only about 20% of what we did. The Frozen North was the post-rock band I had always wanted Troika to be, and afterwards, I think I felt I had scratched that itch. The piano years? Blame that on a healthy obsession with Icelandic music, and latterly, Chopin.
Interestingly enough though, the shift from piano back to guitar – and for the first time, singing, was the result of a broken bone – specifically my elbow. I had my arm set at a right angle at the elbow for a month. It was impossible to play the piano, but even with the cast, it was set at a perfect angle to strum a guitar – so I tentatively began playing again and haven’t really looked back since.
Your latest E.P. Singing As You Leave has a quietly political feel to it. Could you tell us a bit more about the motivation behind the release?
It certainly wasn’t supposed to start that way. My debut single (for this new direction, at least), released in May, was shamelessly cheerful summer-pop. I don’t remember exactly what happened to momentarily sour that optimism but sour it, it did.
I’m an immigrant to Poland – a Scottish immigrant. An independence-supporting Scot, living in the EU. It probably goes without saying how disappointing the last few years have been for me. “To guarantee membership of the EU”, we were told, “Scots must vote No to independence”. So, you might imagine the dismay as I look back at, and forward to, at the utter shuttle-crash that is Brexit.
And out of that came Singing As You Leave, the lead track of the most recent EP. It’s an angry, frustrated polemic. I heard someone describe the Brexiteers as “dogs that caught the car” and that gave me enough of a hook to build the lyric around. The title, of course, is an allusion to that absurd spectacle of Cameron singing to himself while walking back through the door of number 10 after his resignation speech.
Of course, since I wrote the song, the world just seems to get worse and worse. Kavanaugh is finally confirmed to America’s Supreme Court, Trump mocked a sexual assault survivor. Poland’s government are making a mockery of the country’s constitution. Boris Johnson just won’t fuck off.
Jeremy Corbyn has made Labour a parody of the worst of itself (and we all had such high hopes, too!). And Theresa May is being largely celebrated because she didn’t defecate herself onstage at her party conference. In a few months’ time – 2 weeks after my 40th birthday – there’s every chance the UK will leave the EU with no deal, and to this day, I have no idea what that will mean for me and my life – and I’m a fairly privileged individual. God only knows what it will mean for some of the worst off among us.
To be fair, though there are little nods here and there, the rest of the record is much less political. For instance, Bird Sanctuary is a nod to finding safety in the one you love. Local Fan is an ode to supporting a lower-league football team.
You also run your own record label, Too Many Fireworks. What’s it like as a musician being on both sides of the fence as it were.
Running a label, I think, gives an artist a really nice perspective on the whole business side of music. I’m much more aware of little etiquettes and courtesies as a label manager than I would be as an artist. Though, that might just be experience and age also.
I often tell younger, newer bands that I feel confident in the advice I give, not because I’m some great success, but that either I or the label have made all the mistakes they might be tempted to, so I can use that experience to point them in the right direction.
What’s up next for Neil Milton and indeed Too Many Fireworks? Any upcoming gigs, new releases on the horizon, other projects?
Unless something big appears unexpectedly, Too Many Fireworks will be on a slow-down. I’ve put a lot into it over the last couple of years and I want to spend the next year or so focusing more on my own music.
We’ll still run our occasional events, and probably put out the odd digital release from the extended family, but just for a bit, I guess there’ll be a break in physical releases. For me? I’m slowly gathering a band around me to play these new songs and to co-write new, new songs, so that’s exciting.
And of course, I’ll be presenting some music of mine in Manchester at the Foundations Festival. It will be part-installation and part-live performance, so that’s going to be a lot of fun.
Other than that, I hope to have the first full-band shows very early next year and next year, I’d very much like to do something special for my 20th anniversary playing music, and my 40th birthday, but what? No idea.