It's 12:45 a.m. on a Thursday—almost closing time at Turf Club in Golden Hill. The final slabs of meat sizzle on the grill, and the regulars slowly trickle out. In the back corner of the bar, Jeremy Scott and Jackson Milgaten kick back in a cushy booth. They just left practice with their band, Deadphones, and now they're sharing a sweet-tea-and-vodka cocktail in an enormous plastic cup, prepping for a new day.
There was a time when Scott and Milgaten might still be in Deadphones' cramped Mira Mesa practice space, working out guitar parts in another six-hour rehearsal session. But now, they're just chilling. Scott's been reading a lot of Carl Jung, investigating a dream he's had about mythological serpents. Milgaten's been slinging cocktails at Turf, getting his car fixed, cleaning the house—you know, regular-Joe stuff.
"It's so fucking easy, man," he says. "I relax. I sleep. I, like, take care of errands and whatever. And then I come here and I just hang out and pour drinks, and have drinks, and then leave at the end of the night with a bunch of money, and I go home, and I get high, and I work on my website and watch whatever—finish Season 4 of The Walking Dead."
Scott and Milgaten, who both play guitar in the quintet, know what it's like to suffer for craft. Last month Deadphones released a masterful new album of sleek, groove-oriented indie-rock. The album, which took two-and-a-half years to make, only cost them about $10,000—a killer deal considering the pristine production quality. And yet, in their quest to make the best music possible, they paid the ultimate price.
Members of the band tell CityBeat they're throwing in the towel. Though Deadphones aren't "breaking up" officially, they aren't pursuing new opportunities, either. Most of them are moving on to new things: Bassist Garrett Prange and drummer David Mead are now playing in the band Ditches, and Scott plans to go to school and become a psychologist.
For his part, Milgaten isn't sure what he's going to do next. But after a decade playing music—and rising to prominence in the local music scene—he says it probably won't have anything to do with music.
"I think I just gotta take the wife and just fucking go look for something," he says.
Deadphones' sudden fall evokes Greek tragedy. They were some of the most talented musicians in the city; they worked long and hard, and really seemed like they could hit it big nationally. In the end, though, it could very well be that the traits that made them such a formidable, compelling band—ambition, drive, integrity—are the same things that did them in.
Of course, Deadphones have only been Deadphones for four months. Until December, they were called Cuckoo Chaos. The band began in 2007, when Scott first started recording demos with guitarist / vocalist Scott Wheeler. But the current lineup solidified in 2010, and things ramped up in 2011, when Cuckoo signed to powerhouse booking firm The Windish Agency and released their debut EP, Woman.
The ecstatic guitar-pop jams on Woman weren't exactly groundbreaking, but they gave the band a springboard to explore deeper, more original terrain. And as they moved into 2012, they might've become a bona fide national buzz band if they'd simply released more songs like "Super Skeleton," a 2012 single that conjures a lovelorn daydream, with its languid beat and sun-weathered melody.
But during practice one day, Wheeler announced that he was sick of their fun songs. He'd gone through a nasty breakup, and he'd started listening to beat-makers J Dilla and Flying Lotus. He wanted music that would reflect his state of mind.
"I was, like, 'I don't want to play this anymore,'" recalls Wheeler, who wants to keep some version of the band together. "They were, like, 'Why? I love it! I'm having fun.' And I'm, like, 'Well, I don't fucking love it, and if you want me to get onstage and sell people, I have to love what I'm playing."
Holed up in a tiny office space in the bowels of a cold-storage facility, they spent months workshopping grooves and guitar parts, putting each song through a painstaking majority-rules process. Though this might sound like a noble approach to songwriting, the band sometimes went weeks without making progress as they got bogged down in indecisiveness and second-guessing.
"It was awful," Mead says. "Ultimately, I felt like the thinking was done completely outside of the gut."
The hard work paid off, though, because the album is superb. Recorded at Big Fish in Encinitas with engineer Stuart Schenk—an industry pro with a Zen approach—it's got a crystal-clear pop finish, with hypnotic bass and drums serving as a centerpiece for understated guitar licks and Wheeler's Thom Yorke-esque croon.
Late last year, the band made a big to-do about transforming from Cuckoo Chaos into Deadphones, which attracted a lot of attention in the local scene. But, by then, their deal with Windish had shriveled; labels they sent the new album to didn't know what to make of them. Even Lefse Records, a relatively small label they'd planned to use as a backup—owned by their manager, Matt Halverson, a longtime Cuckoo Chaos supporter—refused to put out the album. Lefse was now partnering with a bigger indie label, which strictly wanted to sign established touring acts.
When the album finally came out last month, it was as a digital download on Halverson's tiny cassette label, Waaga. The release came suddenly and unexpectedly, with all the fanfare of a sad trombone. For some members of the band, this was the last straw. They'd wanted a big break; the response was dead silence.
"I felt like fucking George Clooney in Gravity, floating out towards space and my radio cutting out and not being able to get ahold of anybody," Scott says.
It's 3 a.m. now, and I'm walking with Scott and Milgaten aimlessly around Golden Hill. Scott is staring off into the distance, a wounded veteran of the music scene.
"I've redefined music for myself," he says. "The meaning, I've realized for myself, stops at the writing. I don't give a shit about playing in a band. I don't give a shit about playing live—unless it's really, specifically on my own terms. The music, for me, stops when the song is written."
The streets are empty. A new day is dawning. Deadphones might be back sooner or later. Who knows? But whatever happens, the way this went down has disturbing implications. If you're willing to kill yourself for your art—to make something as great as Deadphones—and you still can't make it in the creative sphere, well, you have to wonder: Who can?
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