You may know Rhye from their critically-lauded album Woman (2013): upon release, its beautifully-crafted intimacy rendered any makeout playlist without at least one or two choice tracks instantly obsolete. To effectively convey that kind of hushed, reverent intimacy in a space as large as Oakland’s Fox Theater is a Herculean task that frontman Michael Milosh and his five live instrumentalists valiantly took up last Sunday, to various degrees of success.
The band we saw consisted of Milosh (vocalist and one half of the original duo that gave us Woman), accompanied by keyboardist Ben Schwier, drummer Zach Morillo, cellist/trombonist Claire Courchene sporting a badass haircut, bassist/guitarist Itai Shapira, and violinist Thomas Lea who dealt with in stride what we were told was a serious crack in his instrument partway through the set.
They don’t tour like other bands do. This, Milosh conveyed to us in an interview prior to the show. Finding “the idea of playing two months solid un-genuine,” Rhye has fewer than nine shows this fall with frequent breaks among them. “I’m working on an album right now. I need to be settled at home, experiencing and living my life to make music. I’m in a really cool creative place right now,” he explained, from his current residence in LA (originally from Toronto, he’s lived in Thailand, Nepal, and Montreal, to name a few). The new album, titled Life, will be a release on his Milosh moniker.
Noting that Rhye had a Facebook following 100,000 stronger than Milosh, we asked him how the collaboration had propelled his solo career into the spotlight. His diplomatic response: “I don’t think it did. I was never in photos, I didn’t talk about it — I left it really ambiguous. It’s only in the last several months that I agreed to have interviews that were about me. I turned down so many things that my label stressed out. [They were] things that could’ve been great, but I didn’t want to be a figurehead or centerpiece at the time. Now that I’m going back to making another Milosh record, I’m trying to figure out how to show people that Rhye and Milosh are kinda the same thing, just two different names. With Milosh, I’m writing and using a lot of the same musicians as the Rhye record. I use five songs in the live show that are not exclusively Rhye. People don’t even know what they’re seeing yet, I mean they’re seeing Rhye, but they’re hearing other songs.”
He lets the music speak for itself. Milosh walks through the crowd before each show — nobody knows what he looks like — and then matches his performance to the vibe he gets. The mysterious aspect adds volumes to the atmosphere he creates, we noted. “I haven’t let a lot of people photograph the shows either, so there’s not much online. I always make it too dark to film. Only recently, did I even let there be light — I used to do candles, but there venues have a lot of fire codes. I like that people don’t know what they’re getting.”
At the high points of Rhye’s Oakland date, like the infectious soft groove they managed to conjure on “Hunger,” the group fed off of one another marvelously, getting the audience clapping along as they bounced through the album highlight, Milosh’s soaring vocals leading the way.
And those vocals are a treasure in R&B. The rich, crystal clear falsetto translates from the album recordings above all else, pitch-perfect on songs like “The Fall.” This song in particular was potentially the highlight of the show. Third in the set after two pretty but less-recognizable cuts (“Verse” and “3 Days”), “The Fall” brought up the energy of the entire auditorium to a palpably excited buzz from its very first piano strains. This moment was not the only time Rhye was able to enrapture the crowd, as a faithful performance of “Last Dance” and several upbeat, unreleased Milosh tracks kept the heads swaying and bopping throughout the theater.
Sunday evening, the lighting was a rather significant hurdle. Rhye had a hard enough job ahead of them filling the Fox with the mood and sound of their somewhat subdued music, and it was made harder still by lighting design that seemed keen on thwarting them at every turn. Obnoxious, inexplicable lighting effects occurred at inopportune moments — a red spotlight bounced around the stage during Lea’s solo, highlighting the violinist only fleetingly; rainbows spewed over the stage and across the back curtain at one point during the show… we didn’t know light design could be so distracting.
He’s never told anyone what the moniker — Rhye — means. But he did say this: “If you were really lucky enough to figure it out, you’d have to have a deep understanding of numerology and how letters and numbers play together and what they actually mean.” Together, he and Robin only did the one record, ten tracks in length. They’re not releasing anything more as Rhye. We likened the Rhye-Milosh complex to an author writing under a penname, but according to Milosh, Rhye was never a mystery. Their names were on the packaging. Some writer had just dropped the “mysterious” adjective, and “everyone ran with it.” Though it was not intended as such, Rhye became “a very interesting sociological experiment.
“Misconceptions are interesting,” Milosh offered. “I’ve never really defined publically what we did, but to say [Robin] did all the instruments would be incorrect. For example, that’s me playing the piano on ‘The Fall.’ And then there’s Thomas playing violin and viola. His sister played the trombone. Robin’s like a producer/arranger kinda guy. We shared the duties; it was a collaborative effort. We both produce very similarly, we both like to work the same way, we both like to play everything.”
The issue of what Rhye are able to play in a concert setting is a complicated one — this we know, because Milosh spent a fair amount of the concert telling his audience so. Robin Hannibal, the other half of the duo that recorded Woman, is notably nowhere to be found when it comes to the touring iteration of the group (in Hannibal’s defence, he also works as part of Quadron). Milosh has released a great deal of his own music under his given name, and it’s debatable whether or not this wealth of material is off-limits when it comes to touring under the more well-known moniker.
This leads to what was the most significantly weak aspect of the show: the frequent addition of extended jams to the end of songs to bolster the show’s length. On “Open”, the most recognized single, this felt especially criminal. A bluesy cadenza that rivaled the song in length drove it into inexcusable territory.
Self-described as a group battling the exploitation of women in contemporary R&B, we couldn’t help but confront Rhye about the uneasiness that arises with the album cover, a close-up of an arched, exposed female neck and its connotations. He agreed. “We knew what we wanted contextually, but I didn’t know the person. I’ve never met the photographer who shot it. It’s not too traumatic, but it bothers me. The photographer did a good job — I have no critique about the actual skill — it just felt like a commercial product. I’ve been really trying to fight against putting something out that is, by nature, commercial.
“There’s a picture on the inside of the album where you can see the girl’s breasts and her back — it’s all meant to be subtle. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at the female form — I mean, go to the Louvre — women have always been seen as beautiful […] My wife thinks there’s a contradiction to it. I’ll shoot photos of my wife naked for an art show, and it’s not objectification, because she’s my wife and I love her. There’s a weird line [here]; I can’t articulate it.” As a schooled photogapher and filmographer, Milosh does a fair amount of his own promotional artwork and does not use Polydor’s images.
Finally, we wanted to know how he and Matthew Hemerlein (Lo-Fang) were getting along. Great, was what we garnered. Having been introduced through Lo-Fang’s drummer — a Torontonian by the name of Paul — Milosh thinks Hemerlein is “the funniest dude,” and will be playing two dates in Mexico with him later this month. We reminisced about Toronto winters (“I think the cold is really good for balancing emotions”) and discussed his preference for Earl Grey tea (he doesn’t drink coffee; unless it’s Turkish coffee and he’s having his fortune told by his clairvoyant mother-in-law).
There was no shortage of positively lovely moments on Sunday, and the crowd burgeoning with couples hoping to feed off Milosh and his band’s sensual energy were hardly disappointed. For what they tried to accomplish and the place they tried to accomplish it in, Rhye turned in an excellent performance at times. We can only imagine the experience it could be in a smaller space, enveloped by the lilting, achingly gorgeous magic that Milosh and Hannibal managed to cook up in the studio — particularly, someplace without rainbow lighting effects.
“Rhye and Milosh are merging. All the musicians I did Rhye with are all the same people for Milosh. All the songs for this new record.. this set has become our set. The live show is going to become its own thing. It’s not Woman, it’s not Jetlag, it’s not the third record. I love working with these people and I love playing live. I hope with the new record we can cull all the people who had a nice experience with the Rhye record and bring them along.”
Article by Logan Hansen
Interview by Joanna Jiang