Interview: Rhye: “I don’t know if it even matters who I am - it should be about the music”

Rhye: “I don’t know if it even matters who I am - it should be about the music”

Ahead of playing London’s Mirrors Festival - a rare UK gig - a semi-concussed Mike Milosh puts the record straight on what Rhye is really about.

It’s mid-August, and Mike Milosh is concussed, recovering in his mother-in-law’s LA home. “A couple of nights ago someone attacked me with this thing and split my head open,” he explains. “I’m sitting here talking to you with five staples in my head right now.

“If I have to go,” he continues, “it’s because I’m being called by a detective.”

Milosh, 40, is the silky-smooth, androgynous voice behind the mysterious outfit Rhye, so being attacked by his neighbour – a neighbour he says was arrested, charged with assault and was then able to pay all $35,000 of their bail – is really the last thing you’d expect to happen to him.

Then again, Milosh seems such a tranquil being that it’s probably the last thing he expected too. He keeps quiet about the reasons behind the attack, if there were any, but adds, “I leave on Monday for Lithuania and my biggest concern is if I can get the staples out of my head so I can fly. It’s a weird problem to have, but, you know.”

That this is his biggest concern – not the pieces of metal holding his skull together – speaks volumes about Milosh’s unrelenting work ethic. To casual fans of Rhye, a project he initially shared with Danish producer Robin Hannibal, it would seem like he’s been keeping quiet for the last few years, but he’s got numerous other pots on the boil. Not least of these is his moniker Milosh, his Ukrainian surname (pronounced Mee-loash), under which he’s released four albums since 2004, including 2013’s ‘Jetlag’.

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Its travel-weary title is particularly telling of the period that spawned it, describing as it does the year when Rhye was on tour. Milosh grew up in Toronto and has lived in Montreal, LA, Berlin, Thailand and Holland, but still finds touring a big strain. “Polydor was very difficult with me”, he says frankly of the 2013 period, “and they never gave the tour support that they were supposed to”.

The way he now tours is quite unusual. Paying for everything himself – his musicians’ wages, travel, accommodation, food and much more – he plays sets of ten shows, takes a month off, then does ten more. He’s almost been bankrupted twice, once when a show didn’t pay him, and once when one country took 50% of what he earnt in tax. He comments: “When people are like, ‘Yeah well bands can make money touring’, I don’t think they understand how hard it is.”

He does like his own style of operating, though. “Some people go on the road for 12 months straight,” he says, “and I personally don’t know how anyone would do that without going completely insane.” And there’s another reason behind his month-on/month-off approach: “I just could never afford to do [12-month tours]. I don’t have the backing. I pay for everything, they’re hired musicians – I have to run it like a business. It looks like I’m a major label artist but I’m essentially a true independent artist.”

That’s a perception he’s never really bothered to challenge in the press, even though it might do him the world of good. But perhaps that’s because, on a personal level, he isn’t really interested in the stories behind other artists either, and has a refreshing indifference to public image generally. He’ll care about an album long before he cares about its creator, he says, because “I like not knowing that much.” It’s commendably indiscriminate, but it also affects the way he approaches his own press. Rhye is still commonly perceived as a duo, which it most definitely isn’t these days. He finds it “kind of funny” when journalists review Rhye and say how good Robin Hannibal has been on keys, and that’s because he’s had virtually no contact with Hannibal – whom he describes as “a hired producer” rather than a collaborator – since their sumptuous debut ‘Woman’ was released in 2013.

“I’m not gonna say I want people to experience skin orgasms, but I’d like them to have an emotional reaction to it.”

Mike Milosh

At the time, the appetite for more information about Rhye was voracious. As soon as the heady, enrapturing ‘Open’ blossomed into the music blogosphere, most people were asking who the Sade-like woman singing it was. But he insists he wasn’t purposefully secretive about his identity. “I just didn’t put out tons of photos as my press junket. I’m super camera-shy.”

There was also a sense that giving away too much about himself could end badly. Milosh’s wife, Alexa Nikolas, was a child star of Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101, alongside Jamie Lynn Spears. She and Milosh met in Berlin years later, and since marrying she’s become his tastemaker – “she almost curates what’s out there for me” – playing him FKA twigs, A$AP Rocky and Beyonce & Rihanna. But in 2005, she was in the harsh glare of the media spotlight. Nikolas “got in this huge feud with Britney Spears as a 12-year-old” he says. “I wasn’t that vain to think that I was going to be a huge star but I wanted to combat any of the problematic situations that could arise being on a major label. I wanted to be very careful that I was protecting the music and protecting why I do this stuff, because I’m not a glory-hog.

By rushing from the limelight he’s probably gone a little too far in the opposite direction for his own good, but his principles are solid. Because with Milosh, it really is all about the music. He’s very ambitious, but he’s also rarely satisfied with his own material. 
Take Rhye, for instance. Looking back on ‘Woman’, he eschews rose-tinted specs for the perfectionist’s microscope. “There’s a veneer to the record that bothers me,” he says, “like a polish that seems to remove or inhibit some of the emotions that I would like to have come off.” That’s despite recording in long takes, where “there’s no cheating. If I’m going to do a verse it has to be like, I get the verse. I’m not going to cut or splice things.”

After being inspired by Thom Yorke’s natural, unamplified voice at an intimate Atoms For Peace gig recently – “I don’t know if it’s jealousy or awe” – he now tends to end shows attended by thousands of people with an a cappella version of ‘It’s Over’. “I totally change it and make it the roots of that Pergolesi, choral kind of vibe, where my band sings with me as well. It’s almost mystical in a weird kind of way.”

That ethereal, almost supernatural quality seems to be ingrained in much of his music, as though it’s designed to elicit the same profound emotional response some classical music does. A recent study uncovered the reason behind the ‘goosebumps’ reaction to emotive music, describing the sensation as ‘skin orgasms’ – is that something he’s looking to provoke? “I don’t try to cause a reaction in people,” he replies. “To me, that’s a form of pandering. I’m trying to be true to an emotion rather than thinking about someone else’s reaction to it.

“I’m not gonna say I want people to experience skin orgasms,” he continues, “but I’d like them to have an emotional reaction to it.” Same difference.

The most recent example of this ‘failure’ is ‘Right Never Comes’, a track he posted on Soundcloud a year ago, which “just doesn’t stir up the reaction I want from it in myself. It doesn’t achieve what it’s supposed to achieve.”

We won’t be seeing it on the new Rhye record – but he reveals that he’s seven songs into the album, and that its tone is dictated not by Rhye or Milosh music, but something new that has grown out of the 200+ live performances of recent years. “It’s its own kind of entity,” he explains. “It’s not by design trying to trick people into emotions. It is actually much more emotional. It’s soul mixed with classical, if I had to label it with a genre.

“I’m not a melancholy person”, Milosh says on the one hand, but on the other he admits, “the [new] songs aren’t super happy because there have been a lot of tough things that have happened to me in the last two years, and it’s definitely fallen into the record. I can’t really avoid being honest in my songs.” Touring has cast part of this melancholic shadow, he says, but the gigs are set to continue this autumn, with shows in Australia, Europe – including East London’s Mirrors festival – South America and finally, in December, Asia. Milosh’s wife does join him on tour, but it’s still a difficult lifestyle to get used to, especially because he funds it all himself.

Like his recent album title ‘Jetlag’, the new album has significant track names like ‘Waste’, and speaking about its darker subject matter, he says simply, “Touring’s very hard, it puts a lot of stresses on your life. That’s definitely something I’ve come up against and it’s become part of it. I’m not going to blame it just on touring, but it does flush out some situations and puts things under pressure a little bit.”

That he puts so much of his life into his lyrics makes it astounding that he should take the stance he does on publicity and persona.

“I don’t know if it even matters who I am,” he reiterates. “It should be about the music.”

Whether or not that’s self-deprecation, it’s impossible to agree that he isn’t an integral part of his own music. Because to know that Milosh is such a candid speaker and songwriter, such an obsessive musical perfectionist, is to have access to a new lexicon with which to decipher and appreciate his songs. To know that, while recovering from a serious head injury, this laid-back, unassuming musician is worrying about losing his own money, on a tour he’s paid for himself, is to know that he’s a switched-on, enterprising maverick in a persona-obsessed industry that’s almost exclusively unkind to people like him who are unwilling to play by its stringent rules. And when new Rhye music comes along – he won’t say when, or on what label – all of that will most definitely matter.

Rhye will play Mirrors London (31st October), where DIY is an official media partner. Get tickets here.