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Zack Segel and Miles Robbins. Photography Eric Chakeen.

meet pow pow family band, a “circus family” making psychedelic pop

Emily Manning

Miles Robbins discusses his experimental collective and its forthcoming debut album, "All Right."

Zack Segel and Miles Robbins. Photography Eric Chakeen.

When I meet Miles Robbins in Brooklyn, he's getting ready to depart for Vancouver. The 25-year-old actor and musician is filming a top-secret TV show in British Columbia. (Hours before our interview, the trailer for his first-ever studio movie, Blockers, was released. "John Cena throws me through a table!" he laughs.) Robbins hasn't even left the city yet, but he can't wait to get back to New York. The musical project he fronts, Pow Pow Family Band, is soon to release its first record, All Right. "I like making stuff," he says. "I feel crazy if I don't."

It's ironic that a trip to Canada is pulling Robbins away from Pow Pow. It's where he first became interested in making his own music. When Robbins was 11, his mom (Susan Sarandon) was working on a project up north. "I went to visit, went snowboarding, broke my arm, and I couldn't fly back. Because of that, a girl I was supposed to take to the middle school dance told me she was going with someone else instead. I was crushed."

The injury prevented Robbins — already proficient in piano and saxophone — from playing anything. Well, almost anything. "I had two fingers sticking out of my cast, in this weird limp position. Which was perfect for bass guitar!" he laughs. "I started teaching myself bass, then started writing really bad songs about the girl who went to the dance with Teddy."

These days, Robbins is still writing songs. "Whether it's a feeling of love or a feeling of cynicism, if it gets me going, I try to go with it," he explains. "I sit on my bed for a while with a guitar and see what happens. Come up with a skeleton, bring it to everyone. We'll all jam on it, refine parts of it, ask a lot of questions."

Robbins's writing is the only facet of Pow Pow — an evolving coterie of creative folks from across the artistic spectrum — that has remained consistent. He founded the Family while studying at Brown. Over the past six years, it's shape-shifted profoundly, soaking up new sounds, new collaborators. "I feel like the director of an improv comedy sometimes," Robbins explains of Pow Pow's process. "I might be directing it, but I'm not really making all the choices."

For example: drummer Zack Segel (the Family's "patriarch" according to Robbins) isn't even on All Right. Recorded a few summers ago in a converted barn upstate, the clutch of 13 sunny tracks recalls Of Montreal's richly layered pop psychedelics, with flecks of The Velvet Underground's attitude. Robbins and Segel tell us more.

What music did you listen to growing up?
Miles Robbins: A lot of folk music. My grandfather was in The Highwaymen; my middle name is Guthrie. My dad played me folk, The Beatles, and punk rock. He hated the pop music my older brother and sister wanted to listen to on the radio. That seemed rebellious, even though it was just pop music. So I liked it, too. This weird cross-section of Woodie Guthrie, Gang of Four, The Clash, and Britney Spears seemed to become my early tastes. For me, music with words was always foregrounded. I grew up in the era where pop music really put its lyrics out in front. Even if they were just, "Hit me baby one more time."

Zack Segel and Miles Robbins. Photography Eric Chakeen.

How did Pow Pow Family Band come together?
MR: It started in college, when I was at Brown. I was in a lot of classes with people talking about music from this judgemental, analytical, theoretical place. But none of these people were kind of putting themselves out there. In any art school, everyone's just kind of being critical all the time — of each other and of successful artists. So it started as this feeling between me and a classmate of mine, Nara Shin, that was best summed up at the time by LCD Soundsystem's music, which we started to bond over. This very cynical, but funny and clever, lyricism about the pretension of the youth, I guess. "Everyone keeps talking about it, no one's getting it done."

This is Happening came out after Nara and I had started bonding and jamming together. The song "Pow Pow" became a great piece of inspiration. She's a classically trained organist. I grew up thinking that if you speak over an acoustic guitar, that could be considered music just as much as the great classical pieces of Europe. The song's lyrics "You on the outside / Me on the inside / There's advantage to both" — the whole idea of seeing it from two different sides — became an essential thing for us.

In terms of songwriting, I'd create a structure, a skeleton, with words and framing, and then surround myself with people who I trusted who saw music differently to fill in the rest. So it's kind of become this ever-changing project, a weird circus family of chosen friends and collaborators.

What happened with the band after college?
MR: Once we got back to New York, back to the real world, the band broke up, essentially. Everyone got their day jobs and were way more focused on that — myself included. After doing my obligatory time as a waiter and bartender, I was able to make a living as a DJ. Nara went to work for a series of websites. I kept working at home on the record, but stopped playing shows for a while. Then, eventually, we started it up again. That's when Zack joined. So, yeah, the band today is completely different from the band that made the record we're about to put out. But it's unified by the concepts that we hold true. Children's songs for grown-up children. And I like it that way. I think it's more fun to make a live show something different than what you can have on a record.

Tell me about All Right .
MR: We made this record in upstate New York a few years ago, in a barn that we converted into a little studio. We spent this one summer doing all the tracking, hanging out, swimming, painting. We had the structure for a record and kind of slowly flushed it out over the years. I was very hesitant to put it out — just try to see where it could go. We got to a point where we finally felt like it was time.

What about your live shows?
MR: The visual element is something very important for us. We have a Bob Ross player who will do The Joy of Painting at our shows. He's in full Bob Ross gear, and he'll do a psychedelic landscape painting and sing along. He'll talk to people in the crowd while the show's going on. Bob Ross might be joining the band, actually. He also plays bass.

What can't he do?
MR: [ Laughs] It's weird, but a lot of fun. One of my dear friends and greatest inspirations is an artist called Luisa Alcantara. She made this t-shirt for me, did our album cover, and does a lot of our visual stuff. She helps style the stage design, the outfits, she sings on the record. She's a really wonderful part of the family, and her paintings are amazing. Sexual, but based in this magical realism that I love. It definitely informs a lot of the perspective that I write from.

Tell me about that perspective, and about your songwriting process.
MR: I've always kind of identified that the songs that I write, and where I'm coming from when I'm writing, is from the feminine side of my heart. Or, whatever organ to metaphorically represent your spirit. Could be my stomach! It's coming from my liver. [ Laughs]. And that's, I think, why I often perform on stage in dresses, or as a woman.

Has that spirit been with you for a while?
MR: I used to do drag a lot as a kid. I love doing drag! I don't shave my legs, I'm not tucking; I'm very much a guy in a dress. But to me, to present that, and portray a challenging image — or something that is ambiguous or androgynous — helps me in opening up the part of the soul that men, most of the time, are not comfortable acknowledging.

That makes a lot of sense.
MR: I'm definitely not the first person to do it! But when I feel that part of me becoming excited about something, that's when I generally feel like I need to write. A lot of the time, [writing] has to do with romantic feelings. But those romantic feelings often don't have anything to do with love and relationships. I feel quite romantic about nature, and the strangeness of our place in it. I feel romantic about the motherfuckers of the world and how romantically evil they seem to be! Whether it's a feeling of love or a feeling of cynicism, if it gets me going, I try to go with it. I think that the best stuff in the songs comes from the people who have chosen to be in the family. Your initiative to say, "This is a band I want to be a part of" a lot of the time proves why it's essential to have collaborators. You're saying, "Okay, I can see how my voice can affect this, can make this better."

Zack Segel: It does feel like everyone who's ever taken any sort of creative role in the Pow Pow Family Band universe is still very much part of the family. Even if they're not active in creating stuff with us or playing with us, they're still in this big, extended family.

MR: They're our cousins.

ZS: There are definitely a lot of cousins.

MR: We have a lot of talking points, too. For instance, we think that everyone should know The Matrix is a documentary. We think that we should end roadwork — stop spending money to repair the roads and allow them to return to nature. All oral sex should be reciprocated. Also, everyone can pet your dog.

ZS: If you have a dog, don't be stingy about letting other people pet it. Because not everyone has a dog.

You mentioned you've started working on the second record. How's it coming along?
MR: I've been kind of busy in the other creative aspect of my life, acting. As soon as I finish [a T.V. show in Vancouver], I'm getting back to this. We're going to doing a residency at Berlin, release the record, then keep recording the next one.

Have you always acted?
MR: It's very recent. I started doing it as a side gig when I was feeling like I wanted to try something new. It kind of took off a couple years ago. Music and acting are very similar in a lot of ways. They're both empathetic practices. They're both things that require you to go outside of yourself to understand a human experience. It's just in acting, that is to go outside of yourself, to empathize, to become someone else is to do your best to understand and listen to the feelings of another person. Music is to go outside yourself, to be empathetic, and listen to the feelings of yourself. It's this way of removing yourself from yourself to then empathize with yourself [ laughs]. To understand yourself best. And put that into something you can communicate.

ZS: They are both about listening. On a basic level. You have to hear the other musicians to play your own part. And then you have to understand what's happening around you when you're acting.

Would you ever do any acting with your mom?
MR: No. Well, I did a long time ago — a bit part in something she was working on. They're obviously important people to me, and they're wonderful parents. They're really amazing creative individuals who have inspired me plenty. But we also do live in an era where the most fucking roundabout possible way that you could connect yourself to a person of significance will win you whatever. So it's something that I've always tried not to embrace. There are doors that it has opened for me. I've just always tried my best to make sure I was the one walking through the door. It's something that's a part of me. I just want people to listen to the music first.

Hell yeah. Tell me about this residency. Are you bringing in other bands?
MR: Yeah! We try to create a strange, somewhat surreal experience with our shows. We always print out misinformation pamphlets, try to have some kind of visual element that exists before the show begins. There are a lot of great bands in New York, and a lot of weirdos. We're hoping that some of them are down with what we're trying to do. Just a bunch of people not taking ourselves seriously, and trying our best to take the music seriously.

Pow Pow Family Band's "All Right" is available on January 19 via Modern Sky Records.