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A Frustrating Mess 

Beulah leader Miles Kurosky's dark nights lead to pure pop sunshine

Wednesday, Sep 12 2001
It's a bright, cheery East Bay afternoon, and Miles Kurosky is walking, sunglasses on, talking on his cell phone. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist for Beulah has arrived a little late for our brunch interview, but he lingers on the phone anyway, trying to reassure the caller about something. Finally, he hangs up, offering an apologetic smile.

With his round face, childlike shock of hair, and twinkling eyes, Kurosky resembles a character from a French version of Peanuts. Despite his European looks, though, Kurosky is a California boy: He grew up around Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco in the early '90s. The dot-com boom pulled his San Francisco apartment and practice space out from under him, so these days he lives in an isolated part of West Berkeley -- the kind of neighborhood where everything interesting is a drive away.

Kurosky doesn't have a car, but he doesn't really need one. He's been spending most of his time these days in Atlanta with his girlfriend. You can hear the change of place in his voice: A tease of a Southern accent tugs at his vowels as he explains that the caller he couldn't get rid of was his manager, Jordan Kurland, reminding him to be nice during our interview.

Kurosky laughs it off, but Kurland's warning was probably in order. Kurosky is known for being a pit bull amongst the Hello Kitties of indie rock. Rile him up in an interview, and he'll take a pound of flesh off anything put before him. On good days, he trashes overhyped bands, crappy magazines, British culture -- any number of deserving targets. On bad days, the victims are his own bandmates, especially Beulah's guitarist/trumpeter/ co-founder Bill Swan, whom Kurosky attacked with a beer bottle during one memorable interview.

So it makes sense that his manager would try to exact a promise of civility. But a few hours later, he reveals that Kurland had more specific concerns: Kurosky had spent the previous day contemplating suicide in his Berkeley apartment.

For one of the Bay Area's sunniest pop songwriters, a man on the verge of putting out his finest work to date, it's been a very cloudy year.

Beulah is a band of stories, most of which are rarely told in the Bay Area. Despite selling 20,000 copies of 1999's When Your Heartstrings Break and playing to festival crowds across Europe, the band's six members lead mostly invisible lives locally.

Kurosky often stays in Atlanta. Bassist Steve LaFollette works for the UC Berkeley library, Bill Swan spends his days at a telephone company, keyboardist Pat Noel directs a learning center, and second keyboardist Bill Evans does layout for the East Bay Express. Beulah's new drummer, Danny Sullivan (formerly of Screeching Weasel, Pansy Division, and the Groovie Ghoulies), is the closest the group has to a celebrity, and even he is virtually unknown in San Francisco.

Beulah's low local profile is mostly due to the fact that Beulah seldom performs in the Bay Area. Kurosky figures the group has played three San Francisco shows in the last two years. If the band isn't touring the U.S. or Europe, its members are tucked away somewhere, recording. Or, as is more often the case, they're simply enjoying a hiatus.

Happily unemployed, Kurosky will go wherever Beulahmania seems to be growing. And it is growing. On a recent tour of England, the inhabitants of a small Welsh town chartered a bus to come see the band play in Oxford. After the concert, the excited Welsh fans cornered the band in a restaurant and ran through a cappella versions of their favorite Beulah songs. In Japan, Kurosky found himself followed into the bathroom by a group of stone-faced, staring young men. His immediate fear -- that he was about to be mugged -- subsided when the onlookers broke into sheepish smiles and greeted him by name. They were there to see Miles from Beulah pee. Kurosky, a little unnerved, complied.

It was in Japan, in the fall of 2000, that Kurosky wrote much of Beulah's new album, The Coast Is Never Clear. Kurosky was visiting a friend in Tokyo, doing interviews, and making promotional appearances on Japanese television. Over the eight-week stay, he worked out skeletal versions of nearly a dozen songs, then sent each of his bandmates a tape with a request to flesh out the rough mixes however they saw fit.

As soon as he got back, Kurosky mixed and matched the parts he liked from each member's tape, creating a sonic blueprint for the band's studio dates at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco.

Thanks to a recently inked major label contract with Capricorn, Beulah had enough money both to rent Tiny Telephone and to hire John Croslin, a well-respected engineer who had worked with Spoon and Guided by Voices.

It was at that point -- with the songs laid out and professional help on the premises -- that things started to go wrong. Or, more specifically, Kurosky started to go wrong. The other band members were used to him being bossy and critical in recording situations ("Miles was listening to my mandolin solo over and over again," reads a note from Bill Swan's studio diary. "Another Obsessive Compulsive Disorder moment"). But now Kurosky's unpredictable mood swings extended beyond the point of tolerable eccentricity.

"While I was making the record, I was losing my mind," Kurosky says matter-of-factly. "Or I thought I was. ... I remember telling the guys during the making of the record, I was just like, "I think there's a bad Miles and a good Miles, and I think they're both inside of me, and it's freaking me out.'"

Feeling like something dangerous and uncontrollable was brewing within him, Kurosky went to see a psychologist, who diagnosed him with bipolar disorder. The psychologist gave Kurosky two choices: Start taking an antidepressant like Zoloft or Prozac, or begin daily counseling.

About The Author

Chris Baty


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