It doesn’t take long to understand why The Milkstains are quickly becoming one of Richmond’s most adored bands. Their irresistible charm onstage is unmatched, and their live shows are full of unbridled chaos. John Sizemore’s throttling guitar parts state a strong case for his prowess with grandiose sonic expertise. The dynamic duo of Gabe Lopez and Raphael Katchinoff are even more convincing; they’re equally capable of relaying their rhythm section support in favor of Sizemore’s spots to shine, or helping a song venture in unexpected and truly exciting directions. Their songs can shatter the vertebrae of the scene that doesn’t even know where to place them. That’s what sets The Milkstains apart.
As Katchinoff and Sizemore recall, the story of The Milkstains began in 2004. “We were both in high school at the time, trying to find an excuse to play music together,” Katchinoff recalls. Although the two had differing musical interests, they were able to find a common ground in their budding desire to play music. “I know I was more into reggae than John,” Katchinoff says now. “But I think we found a similar place in spaghetti westerns, surf rock and Hank Williams.” The Milkstains began as a duo, and it was an exercise in figuring out their respective instruments, which they did initially by treading through inspired covers.
Whether they were interpreting The Cramps, Minutemen, Dinosaur Jr., or a fuzzed out version of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” one thing was certain–their influences were taking them all over the place. “Whenever I think about doing a cover, it’s [out] of love, and a desire to see what will happen,” says Sizemore. “A lot of that comes from how I approach music in general. I read Our Band Could Be Your Life, and everything I do is based off of that. I was fascinated by the idea that someone could play a CCR song at a hardcore showcase and it just came across as natural. To me, that’s such an awesome way of going about anything.” On the other hand, covers have clearly helped in the formation of The Milkstains’ distinctive sound. If they hadn’t given any of these bands’ songs a shot, they might not have come across the groundwork for many of the songs that they were preparing to write.
Through these exercises in trial and error, the two were able to develop a stronger musical kinship and unspoken bond. “After years of playing together, it’s not a surprise, but John and I can really just develop a song at ease,” says Katchinoff. “He can suggest a drum part and even [coming from] someone who isn’t a drummer, I can immediately tell what he’s going for and we can jump from there.” This unspoken communication is a telling fact about The Milkstains. The force behind their tunes makes this bond not only necessary, but incredibly important. When searching for the third component of The Milkstains, they knew they had to find the perfect individual to fit into the mix.
The search for a bassist wasn’t the easiest, involving as it did a revolving door of candidates. Along the way, KJ Johnson of Moste Potente Potions had one of the longer relationships with the band. Over the course of the year and a half he played with the group, they embarked on their first tour, even making a few festival appearances. The connection with his other band that Johnson provided also helped the group find their way into a welcoming scene emerging in Richmond circa 2009. With bands like Hot Lava and The Color Kittens playing out regularly and making their presence felt, the Milkstains were able to find several kindred spirits in this budding community.
Their biggest fan and greatest source of encouragement in Richmond was the one and only Jamie Lay. “I didn’t really know any of those cats until I started going out to see The Color Kittens. From there, Jamie was like, ‘Hey, let’s start Baby Help Me Forget,’” Katchinoff recalls of his first meeting with Lay. While Baby Help Me Forget may have begun as Lay’s attempt at getting to front a band backed by The Milkstains, it led to the band meeting BHMF bassist Gabe Lopez. Johnson was taking on more responsibilities that took precedence outside of the group, leading to his departure. When he left, Katchinoff and Sizemore asked Lopez if he’d be into joining the band. “I was totally down,” Lopez recalls. “KJ had just had a kid and I was really into what they were doing. It seemed like a perfect fit to me.”
With Lay’s encouraging support, Sizemore found the means to unveil new ideas for the group, and continue to push beyond the expectations that his “surf rock” outfit had accomplished thus far. “I think Jamie might be our biggest fan, and it has been a crazy experience to have someone who is that ecstatic about what I am doing,” Sizemore says. “It gives me a bit of an ego boost, but it also has helped me move the band in directions I may have not felt comfortable to do otherwise.” Lay has since joined the band onstage to sing renditions of Black Flag and BHMF tunes, as well as accompanying them as a second guitarist on original Milkstains tunes. It’s always a welcome experience to see the group joined by one of their biggest advocates, and it serves as a reminder of how a little push from our friends can set us in the right direction after all.
And as if by fate, it was the Moste Potente Potions reunion show last August at which I began to notice the band’s excellent developments. Sizemore exuded a newfound confidence in every musical swoop that was undeniable and endearing. He stepped up to the microphone as if there was no other place he could ever imagine being. Whether it was the confidence bestowed upon him by his musical peers, or just a moment of clarity that helped define where The Milkstains were heading, their set at this show helped solidify their reputation as a live band first and foremost. As far as the rest of the band was concerned, they weren’t waiting in the wings for Sizemore; they were running full steam ahead with him into the night to see what would happen next.
The Milkstains released their first EP, Hot Sauce Cemetery, on local label Bad Grrrl Records a couple of months after that performance. This release was only the start of their relationship with the label, which has also released music by fellow Richmond acts Tungs, Heavy Midgets, and White Laces.. “I had never been on a label [before], and at this point, I can’t really see a reason to work with anyone else as far as The Milkstains are concerned,” Katchinoff remarks.
Hot Sauce Cemetery is a lo-fi collection that helps showcase the band’s ability to bend genres and enrich their songs with varied approaches. Sizemore notes that each song offers a wide range of choices for the band, including that of whether or not to add vocals. “There are times where I become entrenched with the idea of how notes and chords can feel and sound. From there, it doesn’t really become a mission of avoiding vocals, it’s just that the song is perfectly fine as it is.” This is obvious when you place “Stains Theme” and “The Boot” next to “Next Monet.” While “Theme” and “The Boot” are telling arguments for the group’s ability to orchestrate numbers that channel their more obscure influences, “Next Monet” is an entirely different beast. It allows the early punk influences of The Milkstains to take center stage and offer a distinct perspective into how the band functions under the opposing but equal influences of surf and punk.
An element of their blossoming success has been the opportunity to open for many of the world’s finest bands. Lopez immediately points to their opening slot for Guitar Wolf as one of his favorite moments of being in The Milkstains. “That was just so unreal. Don’t get me wrong, there are so many shows that I am so appreciative and stoked to be a part of, but if you had told me we were going to get to open for Guitar Wolf, I don’t think I would have believed you.” At the same time, Katchinoff appreciates any and all opportunities to play music. “I love playing festivals as much as I love playing house shows,” he says. “The vibe at festivals can be so killer, and it is always a great time, in my opinion. With house shows, there is nothing better than being up close and personal with a crowd, and seeing how our songs can make them erupt and go wild. It’s moments like that when I realize how much of a thrill it is to be in The Milkstains.”
The group has made a strong effort to get on the road as much as possible. It can be a challenge when Katchinoff is involved with two other prominent Richmond acts (People’s Blues of Richmond and The Southern Belles), but they have had relatively good luck in spreading the word about The Milkstains. When discussing Fire Bison, one of their recent touring partners, it becomes evident how such relationships make the experiences on the road that much more rewarding. “I think touring with Fire Bison made sense because we are all family,” Lopez explains. “I have known [Fire Bison guitarist] Adrienne [Shurte] for close to ten years and [bassist] Laurie [Lay] for about the same amount of time. I wouldn’t really want to share time on the road with anyone else.” In an interesting turn of events, Sizemore even found himself accompanying Fire Bison on guitar in a way that added another distinct level to their already impressive sound. “I really dig what they are doing as a band, and when they invited me to play with them, it was a great honor. I dug how I was almost able to give their tune a Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds vibe, but more importantly, I was just excited to get to play music with my friends.” Other ventures have included a trip back and forth to Austin, Texas’ South By Southwest conference with several stops along the way. “I love being on tour and I think that’s the way it is with any band,” Lopez says. “Of course, you get back and you feel sleep deprived. Once you get your wind back, though, you just want to run out there again. It’s one of my favorite things that we as a band have been able to find more time to do in the past year.”
Outside of touring, the band hopes to make another trip to the studio to record a proper follow-up to Hot Sauce Cemetery. Many of the new songs that have begun to take shape are making appearances during live shows and radio performances. These songs seem to be taking The Milkstains farther away from the “surf rock” sound. “I never really got the moniker we were given by being a surf rock band, but I didn’t really immediately want to reject it either,” Sizemore says. “It goes back to that philosophy of just [doing] what I want to do musically–that’s where these new songs are headed. Now that the three of us have been playing together for a good amount of time, I think all of our voices are finding room to be heard in everything we write.” There is no date set, but with songs coming quickly to the band, it should be no time at all before they settle into a recording space to create a new entry to The Milkstains’ discography.
When Katchinoff considers The Milkstains as a whole, he can’t help but feel as if there is something more at play. “I’m not sure it’s something you can put down with pen and paper. When the three of us come together to play music, something truly unique happens that is all our own. I would say it’s even more prevalent with Gabe in the band. If anything though, I can say this with complete certainty: I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for The Milkstains.” Sizemore sees things in a similar vein. “I think there is definitely an ebb and flow to [the way] everything connects artistically for me. I have always been fascinated by film and cinema. It’s what I went to school for, and a lot of what I write in The Milkstains is an attempt to evoke the thoughts and emotions I [normally] relate towards film. It’s probably why, when we started, the idea of spaghetti westerns and sprawling desert landscapes were fascinating to me. I don’t know if I could explain why that drew itself to my attention, but I don’t think I need an explanation. It’s the way that it can resonate into something that allows me to express myself through other forms of art that seems more important to me.” It could be said that the early days of The Milkstains were predicated on the films of Sergio Leone, while the present incarnation of the group is finding its cinematic inklings in thoughts of Jim Jarmusch. This seems particularly true when you take into account the influence of Nick Cave and Tom Waits on the direction their sound is currently taking.
One thing that sets the band apart is how far their growing appeal stretches. Having shared the stage with local groups ranging from noise duo MUTWAWA to psychedelic indie rockers The Diamond Center to rockabilly revivalists Chrome Daddy Disco, they are able to turn heads of many different audiences. It may just be a testament to how impressive their live sets have gotten, but it also lends support to the argument that the Milkstains have achieved a timeless quality that both evokes the sounds of the past and lends itself to present sensibilities. Their songs are built from the blues in its rawest form, but their representation of this fundamental building block of modern music carries an unusual amount of weight. Where many bands simply set out to show a crowd a great time, The Milkstains set out to give people a brilliant, memorable experience, regardless of the environment in which they’re performing. But what truly makes their music memorable is their precise execution, their consistent ability to flawlessly put across the thoughts and emotions that drive their musical expression.