Rhye on stoking integrity, shedding bad blood and steering to success

Overcoming barriers, hard work and infallible integrity is the lifeblood of alt-electronic and R&B dreamweavers, RHYE.

What started out as a lowkey anonymous internet-based side project for Canadian musician Mike Milosh and Danish instrumentalist/producer Robin Hannibal, quickly gained traction without anyone actually knowing their identities. Milosh’s feminine, contralto voice further enveloped their musical enigma, and the pair explored this growing sense of anonymity to create a focus on intimacy through their music.

Their debut album, Woman, was met with accolades world-wide, being described by Pitchfork as “ethereal R&B focusing on world-tilting romantic experience, with gorgeous minimal production that leaves little space between the listener and the songs” –  who backed it as some of the best new music to emerge in 2013.

Shortly after its release, however, things began to turn problematic: the record didn’t satisfy record label Polydor’s first-week sales expectations and they quickly withdrew their support for the project. After going into debt on the first leg of the Rhye tour, Milosh was motivated to become a “monster tourer” and altered his approach to the project so that he could undertake the arduous process of buying out their contract from Polydor.

Following years of relentless touring and an evolution into a predominantly live band set-up (which ultimately saw the departure of Hannibal), Rhye have just released a sophomore record, Blood, and are embarking on a whole new tour – raised and supported by a strong cast of multi-instrumentalists. We recently caught up with Mike Milosh during a brief interim in tour dates to chat about the new record, artistic intent and how being stubborn can sometimes lead you on the road to success.

So you first started RHYE as a side project, but it soon shifted into your main focus. Your 2013 debut album, Woman, was incredibly well received and has since lead to a massive amount of touring – I think you recently said that you’ve played over 470 shows since the album’s release, or something crazy like that! Were you expecting anything like this to come from it? 

No! I mean I had told the manager that I was with at the time that I was going to do like nine to fifteen shows, so when I was negotiating the contract I was telling everyone that’s how many I’d probably do… I did 476 shows by  December, and I just did another four shows last week, so now I’m at 480 or whatever.

Very, very different from what I thought the record was going to be, and I think what happened early on is I have a part of my personality that when someone tells me “no”, I always try and figure out a way to do it. Polydor was quite difficult with me when I released the record – they basically dropped the record within six months of putting it out – and I kind of took that as a challenge and just kept touring. I think I was offended that they didn’t believe in the record, so it’s almost like an “I’ll show you!” attitude, and I just kept touring and touring. Somewhere along the way, I built all these relationships with promoters all around the planet that are just all really sweet, nice people and they kept saying, “Well do you want to play again?”, so I just kept returning and built this audience. I also really started enjoying touring. Performing for people, it’s something very special.

Wow. Touring can be a tough challenge: shows can often be a primary source of income for a lot of artists and an important factor in terms of getting records out there and heard, but it takes lot of aspects to make these tours successful. You kept on touring even after you were making a loss (financially), so was it this “I’ll show you, I believe in this” kind of attitude that kept you going?

Yeah! I think I’m just incredibly stubborn and I like challenges. The first tour I ever did I lost like $50,000 on, and I thought, “Wow that’s a lot of money to lose on a tour, I’ve got to rethink this.” So, I started driving the bus myself; I stopped bringing a tour manager; I stopped bringing a sound engineer; and I just made it that the only people that I tour with is my band and I just kind of do everything else. My managers greatly help with the logistics of it – planning hotels and renting equipment and stuff like that – but it just became this really fun, very quaint thing because there’s no one on the road with us and it’s just me doing everything. It’s actually a lot of fun to drive yourself around and have adventures, and if I want I can stop in a weird, small town in Switzerland and check out a castle, (like you do). Tour managers tend to be a little more high-strung and they’re just trying to get to the venue and I just approach things differently. I think, “Let’s just see some cool stuff,” and touring ends up being a lot more fun that way, and it’s something that I really enjoy. I like the lo-fi nature that we have going right now.

It sounds very cool! Did you find that you had to create a balance for yourself in order to make sure that you were going to get to places on time, while still having that element of spontaneity and fun on the way?

Yeah, you’ve just got to make sure you don’t book a show every single night. It’s also good for my voice to rest between shows, so this tour coming is a little more intense because we’re trying to squeeze in more dates, but normally what I like to do is have touring be on a very sustainable pace in general, so that I’m not damaging my throat and I’m still eating good food and getting to sleep. If we plan things properly with a natural progression through time zones, it just works. It ends up being more fun and you get to meet people and have experiences along the way that are really beautiful.

There’s been several years between Woman and your new record, Blood, which has got a bit of a different sound and feel to it than your older work, particularly with a shift in nuances from both the organic and electronic timbres that shape the style of your music. Was this an intentional change, or more of a natural progression in your writing and recording? Obviously you’ve been touring live for quite some time… did that influence it at all as well?

Yeah! Well, I love playing drums – I went to university for drums, I used to be a drummer and then somewhere along the way I became more of a producer and then a songwriter. This record I decided that I wanted live drums to be on the whole record, so I think that’s the biggest shift. Once I knew that I wanted to be recording with live drums, it really influences the way all the songs end up sounding, and I didn’t want to use MIDI and program or software synths on this record. Everything is played on it is real, it’s not just all in a computer, which naturally shifts the tone a little bit.

I think the heart of the record is still there – because it’s me writing the melodies and lyrics, it’s me singing, it’s my sensibility – but just the sheer nature of having the piano played live and then using techniques to come up with different tones for it. With ‘Please’ and ‘Softly’, we were putting velvet/velour on the piano strings and that’s why it’s got that dead sound and you can hear all the hammers… It’s the sort of things like that which make a tone that you can’t recreate with software, and it was really important to me to get that earthiness.

I’m getting a little bit tired of everyone’s music sounding the same and the reason why is because everyone is using the same software and the same synthesisers that aren’t real and they are all in a computer environment. So, having it be all ‘real’ and playing the drums live, you’ve got every snare hit and the way you’re hitting it means there’s a different energy in there. When you’re using samples there’s not an energy anymore, it’s just a sound. I’m really interested in that mystical side of music where your body intuitively knows how much velocity to hit a snare with, how much velocity does the piano keep with depending with the mood of the song, you get more out of it.

You collaborated with BONOBO on ‘Break Apart’, which was a standout track on his Migration album, and your vocals are an integral part of that song. Were there any inspirations for you when you were writing your part?

Well I was going through a little bit of a difficult time, stuff that the song is about, but it’s just really sweet. He asked me if I wanted to sing on it and he showed me what he was working on, and it was sounding beautiful. We really only had to meet up twice to make that song; we met up once and I threw down some rough vocals that had no lyrics in them yet, and then I had to leave the next day. I was tour in Berlin and I made a mic setup in my friend’s house and I recorded some vocal tracks in her living room, then I came back to LA about a month later and we kind of finished the track. There’s just something really special about that, and he’s a really sweet guy so he’s really easy to work with. Sometimes in life, things just happen at the perfect moment, and when he asked me to do that song, it was the perfect moment for me to write THAT song with him – that’s what was going on in my life.

And your music and lyrics can be very candid and poignant: how do you feel about collaborating with other people when you write in such a delicate and vulnerable style and things come from a raw place like that?

Well, anyone who is going to work with me, they usually know what I’m about. Everyone that I’ve had the opportunity to work with kind of gets me and usually I get them too – I’m not trying to do music with people that are completely out of my wheelhouse or don’t understand what I’m doing.

I think everyone I’ve worked with is quite sensitive as an individual and are not scared to be emotional and vulnerable and all those things, so it works really well. I also made a rule for myself a while ago that I won’t work with people if they’re not nice people, and it’s definitely helped me stay with people that I’m aligned with.

That certainly makes a lot of sense. What about your visual projects? The music videos for ‘Please’ and ‘Count to Five’ off of your latest album have an sincere and also somewhat simple approach, with the common these of emotive free movement or dance. You also do a lot of the photography and directing behind your other artwork. Is there a relationship between your music and the visual aesthetics that impacts your choices for your video and photography work?

I think on a really basic level, the same part of my mind that creates music is also responsible for how I approach visuals. I love photography and I sense a deep link between all the stuff I shot of my girlfriend, Genevieve, for the album with the music and I feel very connected to it. Also because a lot of the songs are about my life with her, right? So I’m shooting her and I just inherently feel the connection, but I don’t know if other people feel the connection when they look at the artwork and listen to the music, but you can’t shake me on that.

In terms of the videos, I directed the ‘Please’ video – I just wanted to try that and it was a lot of fun. The ‘Count To Five’ video, we wanted to have different dancers do their own take on the music from/in different parts of the world and that’s kind of what came back to us. Genevieve and I sat down with the editors and pieced it together; I really wanted to showcase the joy that we saw in a lot of the dancers, and it was really sweet to see that people were having so much fun with it.

Genevieve wrote the video for ‘Song For You’ and I ended up buying a 5K RED camera and I shot about 60% of it, and the hired a DP to help us with some of the stuff that I was going to be in and then we directed it together. It’s not like hiring a director and being hands off and hoping they hand it something cool, instead it’s me and her shooting her best friend and another friend – those are the two actors that we hired for it – so it had a different feel to it. Again, I don’t know if other people are going to feel that, but it’s truly from experiences that we wrote down.

Maybe I’m really obsessed with this idea of not having anything be a product: I’m hypersensitive to this commercialisation of everything or things being packaged products or brands, and everything I put into the world I want to come from a very honest, real place because I don’t think art is supposed to be like that. I’m the antipodes of Andy Warhol: I don’t want this commercialisation in the arts, I want things to be from a very real experience.

Do you have advice for emerging artists who are trying to break through in a similar sphere, but might possibly get caught up with restrictions from labels and recording contracts? You had that hiccup with Polydor shortly after Woman came out and they dropped you pretty quick…

I’ve got tonnes of stuff! I’ll try to keep it relatively concise, or else it’d take hours!
Number one: only work with people who understand who you are and what you’re about as an artist; only partner up with labels that really understand your vision as an artist and aren’t trying to shape you. For example: working with Loma Vista now versus working with Polydor – it’s like night and day. They’re pretty much down with everything that I want to do, and then they help me get it up – it’s a very different feeling from a label that’s trying to compete to with pop stars. It also means that you should probably believe some things on your own first and try and define yourself as an artist before you search for a label to work with.

So, secondly: you probably have to have freedom financially and not make decisions based on money. It’s (probably) best to keep your job and keep whatever you’re doing that makes money for you, and work on music on the side and start to release it and then slowly try to move over to being dependant on music as a career. You don’t want your creative decisions to be dictated by your need for money – it’s not a good intersection. When art and physical obligation meet, there can be a lot of conflict there, so I think it’s important to keep your art protected from the realities of financial pressures that life has. Work a job as a waiter, work a job as a bartender, work as a valet… work any job that doesn’t deplete you emotionally, but allows you the financial freedoms to work on your music.

The next thing after that – I just read this amazing quote from Quincy Jones which basically said “once you’re thinking about money when you’re making music, God leaves the room.” I’m not a particularly religious person, although I am pretty spiritual and I know exactly what he means. You should never make something and think, “I need this to make a lot of money,” or, “I’m trying to make a hit to make money.” As soon as you start thinking that way, you lose the magic and you lose what is beautiful about music; music is beyond materialism, and anything that I can sense is made for the sole purpose of making money grosses me out.

So, I think any artist should really ponder that. If you want to have a career in music, you need to figure out if you’re okay with being broke for a while – that’s where I was. I told myself at a very young age that I’m going to make music no matter what, I don’t care whether I’m living in squalor. I make music because it’s a beautiful light, and it’s a beautiful thing to get yourself in. The moments when you’re creating music… it’s not about what gear you have or how many instruments you have, you can make music with just your voice. I think it’s very important for artists to stay connected to being in the experience of making music, and don’t be in it for any other reason.

That’s my advice.

Wow. Yeah, I think it’s important to not have a viewpoint that could make you crushed or release things that aren’t musically creative, or that you’re not proud of.

Yeah it’s really important! Art’s supposed to change the world for the better, right? It’s supposed to unify us, it’s supposed to bring us together. I think true art is super intellectual and actually acts as a unifier within culture, and I think that can really only come when you shed materialistic ambition.

Very true. And on a lighter note: you’ve got your new tour kicking off imminently, which covers Europe, America, Mexico and Asia. Any chance of coming and seeing us [in Australia]?

We are trying to plan that. Obviously the biggest issue is scheduling, and I regret that I’ve only played there the one time – I had an amazing time so I really want to get back there, we’re just trying to figure it out! The main thing was getting the record out and doing the first round of touring, so I’m hoping we can do it and not just see Melbourne and Sydney, and play a couple more cities in Australia opposed to just flying in and flying out. It’s such a beautiful country geographically, I’d love to just drive around and see some national parks and catch a vibe for the actual land more as well.

Blood is completely lush (by the way), and is out now via Loma Vista Records.   With any luck we’ll see Rhye here sometime in the not-too-distant future too!

Words by FREYA DINESEN

Image: Genevieve Medow Jenkins

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Ex-con(servatorium) music nerd sharing some cents.