By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
By Michele Eve Sandberg
By Abel Folgar
By Ashley Zimmerman
Nostalgia is a tricky word." Mike Diaz takes a long pause and surveys his surroundings. It's an unseasonably warm, cloudless day in late November, and we're seated on a park bench at the edge of a small pond in Coral Springs.
In this neighborhood, Diaz and former and now-once-again bandmate Eric Rizzo often met up to wile away the hours, dreaming of life beyond their suburban cul-de-sacs. Today, the guys' plaid long-sleeves and tight-fitting jeans are more suited to Chicago's north side than the land of manicured lawns and two-car garages. But both still call Coral Springs home. Directly behind us is the house where their band's first full-length was recently completed, and somewhere else in the suburban development is Diaz's own home, where early last year, he began recording under the guise of Millionyoung.
"I saw a documentary recently," Diaz continues, "and in it, they talked about the idea that we may be at a point where we're just rearranging old things in new ways because there are only so many unique drumbeats and the tonal range you can hear is only so wide."
If this statement is a half-hearted defense of the electronic music he makes as Millionyoung, Diaz is selling himself short. Nostalgia is indeed tricky because it's about more than merely referencing or recombining past works. For a piece of music to be effectively nostalgic, it must also implicitly evoke the present day. Only with hindsight can we understand the impossibility of recapturing what's come before.
Millionyoung is certainly not the first to be described as nostalgic, especially following the great "chillwave" awakening of 2009, but it's hard to imagine an artist more fully embracing the word's true meaning. Technically, he's 22 years old, but he might feel quite a bit younger. Like many from the so-called Boomerang Generation, Diaz now lives with his parents, and Millionyoung was conceived during down hours in his childhood bedroom.
At the time, Diaz was in school and working at Whole Foods. "[My first EPs] were recorded between the hours of 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.," he says. Given his hectic schedule, a band was out of the question. Millionyoung was the only practical way — frustrating as it was — for him to continue making music.
Those early EPs, Sunndreamm and Be So True, found Diaz toying with the artists he enjoyed in his youth — relying heavily on synth sounds but approached with an unmistakably lo-fi mindset. If New Order and Duran Duran had been paying any serious attention to the indie-rock golden era they lived through in the early to mid-'90s, their records might have sounded something like the Millionyoung EPs. That said, the EPs were as much a product of limitation as intention. "Those first songs, I recorded them, listened to them on headphones or twice in the car, and then posted them online," Diaz says. "I just didn't have the time."
But a lot of other people apparently did. What began as a personal creative outlet for Diaz quickly snowballed via the internet. Thanks to a wave of positive blog notices, Millionyoung secured a publicist and, ultimately, a record deal with indie Old Flame Records. But the accidental success, while far from unwelcome, presented its own set of challenges — chief among them, how to re-create the EP tracks in a live setting so he could tour. "When I started [this project], I had no expectation of playing live," admits Diaz. "The first few shows were just me and a laptop, and I was so busy working the keyboard that I forgot the crowd was there sometimes."
The difficulties in performing his material in real time convinced Diaz that he would need to evolve Millionyoung beyond the initial bedroom concept. He first turned to multi-instrumentalist Rizzo, a bandmate from an earlier project called Control Control, who officially joined the Millionyoung lineup last June. Rizzo also lives at home with his parents, having returned from a stint at the University of Central Florida. Drummer Will Croucher and guitarist/bassist David Steven were brought on toward the tail end of 2010.
According to Diaz, Millionyoung is well on its way to becoming a full-fledged band, with collaboration now the rule instead of the exception. The first full-length, Replicants, bears that out. "This album is a transition," explains Diaz. "Most of the writing of the individual parts is me, but the band structured and put the songs together."
Additional members also brought a welcome rigor to the songwriting process. "Sometimes I still have this habit of not thinking about playing live and just going with what I want [the song] to sound like. That's why it helps to have other people in the band."
Rizzo confirms that the multiperson approach has added a new dimension to the project: "We would have sessions [for the album] where we would just listen and take notes, not saying a word. Then, afterward, we would compare and see what we thought."
Replicants definitely comes across as a more mature artistic statement, but it's never stodgy, retaining the loose, breezy feel of Diaz's early works. The difference lies mostly in the execution, perhaps a product of the band's growing confidence as a live entity. But Replicants also reveals a broader musical vision, with Millionyoung no longer relying exclusively on retrofitted synth sounds but also incorporating touches of classic rock, dub, and Motown into the mix.
According to Rob Mason, owner of Old Flame Records, Diaz was careful to slowly acclimate listeners to his expanded musical palette on Replicants. "The first side is geared toward the older Millionyoung sound, a little more electronic, dancier, and the second half showcases the new, spacier rock 'n' roll direction the band is heading in."
A cynic might read the album as a deliberate attempt to distance Millionyoung from the "chillwave" label, which, like many internet-fueled movements, already seems to have endured several waves of backlash. However, the band insists the shift is an organic one, the natural result of the creative input from newly minted band members. In fact, both Diaz and Rizzo willingly concede a continuing kinship with chillwave's progenitors. "In hanging out with Chaz [Bundick of Toro y Moi] and Ernest [Greene of Washed Out], I can say that we definitely have similar approaches," says Diaz.
For Rizzo, a lot of the similarities among the artists come back to the fundamental paradox that lies at the heart of chillwave: conjuring the sounds of a bygone era via modern technology like the laptop. "What brings us together the most is the problems we have playing electronic music live. The challenge is getting it all to sound like it's one song, not just different pieces of things playing at the same time."
It's an issue that extends beyond live reproduction to the music itself. Millionyoung's album is far from seamless, but then, the fragments seem an essential part of its allure. Chillwave, after all, was never about replicating the past but rather piecing it together from memory.