Milo Greene is charged with living a (white) lie. For one thing, Mr. Greene doesn’t exist in the real world.
“He” is a figment of our imagination, in the spirit of Prince’s glyph, David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and Garth Brooks “Chris Gaines.” But in this case, Milo Greene, like Blondie, is a group.
So just try to find them guilty of this harmless transgression, which doesn't even compare with padding a resume or taking crib notes into a final exam. Hey, they like to tell stories, and some may be more fiction than fact. But their truth lies in the music, and their self-titled debut album to be released July 17 (Chop Shop/Atlantic) is the real deal.
It’s a collection of dreamy sounds, tasty hooks and mellifluous vocals featuring exquisite four-part harmonies that are destined for film soundtracks and TV show treatments. Blending this concoction into a melting pot of genres, the attractive 20-something quintet possesses the head and the heart, undoubtedly drawing comparisons to last year’s breakthrough artists from Seattle.
Milo Greene also might lead you to believe they’re just another up-and-coming Los Angeles-based band, playing for peanuts while trying to make ends meet.
Only time will tell if they’re as honest as Abe, Vampire Hunter. But Milo Greene lives and breathes through the truly, madly, deeply inspirational words of four handsome men and a pretty woman named Marlana Sheetz (aka Venus de Milo).
During a June 11 phone call from the passenger’s seat on a drive to Long Beach, Sheetz (right) testified on behalf of Milo Greene, a band that also includes Robbie Arnett, Andrew Heringer, Graham Fink and Curtis Marrero.
Just remember: The names weren’tchanged to protect the innocent.
Will the real Milo Greene take the stand?
Good luck finding him/her/it. The fictional character was created (allegedly) by Sheetz, Heringer and Arnett to promote their varied musical projects after Sheetz enrolled at the University of California-Irvine and eventually met the other two, who were roommates during their senior year.
Asked how a nice, small-town girl (Placerville, Calif., between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, is best known for the Gold Rush) ended up at a college just close enough to Los Angeles to cause concern, Sheetz played coy.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” she said, laughing. “I don’t think any of us really knew how that happened. I just kinda blame it on the fact that I had zero help with college advice. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no clue.
“I honestly think the fact that it was named one of the safest cities in the United States was really appealing to my parents (Michelle and George).”
With a musical theater background, Sheetz went there to study drama but figured out fairly soon that music was in her blood more than theater.
“I just had a feeling, an instinctive feeling in my gut that said I should be doing something else,” she said, deciding to leave after her first year. “As hippy as that sounds. But it was true.
“Music was actually always what I wanted to do, first and foremost. I don’t know how or why I started playing music because nobody in my family plays or sings or does any of that,” she said about a household that included an older brother, a Motown-mad mom and a Sade fan for a dad.
“So I listened to ‘Smooth Operator’ a lot, Sheetz admitted. “I was kind of all over the place. I’m also a big pop fan. I love really cheesy pop songs and mainstream music. I can appreciate all of it.”
Further educating herself at Recording Workshop (RECW is a music, audio and sound production school in Ohio), then American River College in Sacramento, Sheetz reunited with Heringer and Arnett. With Fink (formerly of the Outline) and later Marrero (who had played with Arnett in Links), they formed what officially became Milo Greene the band in 2010.
Songwriting initially was more like a hobby while the threesome played music just for fun. "We never really anticipated this to be what it is now," Sheetz said. "We never had planned on playing the music live.
“Right now, you can kinda just have a computer and make music at anytime, anywhere. Anybody can be a songwriter. So it was really easy for us to just get together and kinda just jam out and see what the three of us could come up with for fun. And after we did that for a few days, we realized it was something a lot bigger than I think we had anticipated. ... It came out of left field.”
As it pertains to Milo Greene, that’s plausible, your honor. But to get the whole truth, let the testimony continue.
Next witnesses: Dawson and Marie
Sheetz made a solo album, Sitting While Singing, that came out in late 2008. Around that same time, she and Heringer (who also grew up in Placerville) lived under semi-pseudonimity in northern California as a folk duo named Dawson and Marie (their middle names). In June 2009, they released Months Vol. I, a placid seven-song folk album (still available at bandcamp.com) with a theme featuring different months of the year like “May, It’s Raining.” It's easy-listening music Sheetz (jokingly?) called "very grandparent-friendly."
“That was great because we played a lot of paying gigs, which was rare. Still rare,” she said with a laugh. “It is nice to know that I’m not playing weddings and things like that anymore. But that was then.
“As awful as all the gigs Andrew and I used to play together, we learned so much. ... It’s fun to look back on and laugh at.”
How they morphed into Milo Greene might be as difficult to determine as trying to figure out who's responsible for their virtual identity. The man (or woman) behind the name isn't ready to take credit (or blame).
“I think it changes everyday,” Sheetz said demurely. “I don’t know who ... I think it, honestly, I don’t think anybody even knows or remembers exactly. We just know that it happened and we’re glad that it did and it’s just funny.”
Presenting hard evidence
That all-for-one/one-for-all indie spirit follows through on their album. They share songwriting credits collectively under the Milo brand, while Arnett, Heringer and Sheetz call themselves The Cymbal Hands as co-producers with Ryan Hadlock (Ra Ra Riot, Blonde Redhead, The Gossip).
The album, Sheets said, took about two years to record, in settings from Los Angeles to Placerville, including Bear Creek Studio near Seattle, band manager JJ Corsini’s Santa Barbara-area family home in Santa Ynez and a Shaver Lake cabin in central California owned by Heringer’s folks.
Despite all the changes of venue that could create chaos, the record has a lovely, seamless quality with bursts of energy. Arnett provides soulful vocals on the closing “Autumn Tree,” while Marrero’s powerful drum attack on “Wooden Antlers” led Sheetz’s grandparents to ask, “Why are you playing tribal music?”
Yet, that’s offset by Sheetz’s angelic voice, which propels “Son My Son” and “Perfectly Aligned,” the latter a song, Sheetz admitted, written only by Arnett (despite what the credits say). Most of the band simply thought it worked better when she sang it, and the majority ruled.
Sheetz merrily danced around a question about how group decisions are made.
“Well, there’s a lot of staring at each other,” she said. “A lot of head shaking and nodding and sign language, but it can get really confusing. It’s hard when you’re in a group full of leaders because who leads, right? It’s strange, but it works.”
They all have varying degrees of instrumental skills. Heringer, a classically trained guitarist who learned the violin as child, is the most adept, Sheetz revealed.
A big fan of the shaker who also takes pride in her tambourine skills that impressed Bear Creek’s engineers, Sheetz played some guitar with Dawson and Marie and broke out her middle school clarinet on the album-opening “What’s the Matter.”
While it might seem fruitless to try to duplicate the band’s intricate, multilayered studio sound during a concert that’s both electric and unplugged, Sheetz and Arnett fit in where needed to help pull it off, whether they play acoustic guitar, bass or keyboards.
Heringer has given lessons to Sheetz, who divulges (undoubtedly with a smirk), “I’m telling you, this is my secret. You’re not supposed to tell anybody. I don’t know actually what I’m doing, but it also looks like I do.”
They rely on the democratic process to decide everything from which songs to keep to who’s driving the van to who’s hauling the gear. Corsini will often offer his opinion, but Sheetz said he believes in the choices the band makes and stands behind them.
“Nobody’s going to fight really hard on something if they’re the only one that feels that way,” Sheetz added. “And I think we all respect that fact. If everybody is kind of in agreement on one thing, then we just go with it. ... I think we all like to have as little drama as possible.”
Even choosing the album cover required little effort. The multicolored image (left) is an abstract painting by Dan Wooster that hangs in the home of Spencer Williams, who has Heringer as a roommate. The band fell in love with the artwork while recording there and the decision to use it was a “no-brainer,” Sheetz said.
If Milo Greene does indeed exist and that’s him on the cover, Sheetz holds steady under cross-examination.
“It isn’t,” Sheetz offered, “but if you want to believe that it is, go right ahead.”
Stating her case
Sheetz sometimes might feel like the den mother to a bunch of boy scouts, but wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I couldn’t imagine being in band driving across the country with a bunch of chicks,” she said. “No thanks. Too much estrogen. Too much female energy. I can’t handle it. It’s a lot easier being around boys.”
Asked for specifics, she added, “I could go into all the silly things that girls do that I can’t stand, but pretty much boys do the opposite, which I appreciate. ... They don’t whine as much. They dowhine, for sure. But not as much. And if they do, it’s just not as high-pitched and annoying.”
Of course, that’s not always the case.
Sheetz relishes telling one American Horror Story about being a passenger with her four bandmates in a van owned by Heringer that hauls a trailer bought by her dad. They were on a trip to the Grand Canyon en route to a show at the Ogden Theatre in Denver last month, where Milo Greene opened for the Civil Wars.
“We got there and nearly drove off a cliff,” she said. “Because there was a huge bug in the car and everybody started freaking out and I tried to grab it and throw it out the window and ended up just scaring the person who was driving and we were all just screaming. It was hilarious. It was almost like a Dumb and Dumbermoment.”
With Saturday's sold-out show at L.A.'s Troubadour under their belts, everything seemingly is in cruise control right now, though. Milo Greene is preparing for the album release and appearances on Late Show with David Letterman (July 26) and at Lollapalooza in Chicago (August 4).
“It’s kind of an interesting place that we’re at. But I think for the first time, I’m actually the most content about it all. I’m one of the biggest stress freaks in the entire world,” Sheetz said. “If there’s anything to stress about, I always am the one to stress about it. But I’m unusually calm right now about everything.”
As a result of a shared connection with the same booking company, High Road Touring, Milo Greene went on a fall tour in support of the Civil Wars. Two subsequent May dates helped boost their confidence while keeping them humble.
“I think we were extremely fortunate when that opportunity came our way,” Sheetz said just a couple of weeks after those final shows. “As it is right now, our entire fan base of Milo Greene are fans of the Civil Wars. So we owe everything to that tour that we did with them.”
At the May 23 show in Denver (right), where Milo Greene’s set that featured eight cuts from the album and a cover of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” was enthusiastically received, Graham Fink took on the dual role of comic/spokesman.
Referring to the headlining duo of John Paul White and Joy Williams, Fink said to the audience, “I was surprised they invited us back. I thought they hated us.”
Added Sheetz: “Especially after what you did to the guacamole.”
If there were more details to this tall tale, Sheetz isn’t about to spill the beans now.
“That’s just our silly onstage banter,” she said. “I can’t tell you if what we say up there is the truth or not. Things just kind of spit out.”
That’s Sheetz’s story and she’s sticking to it. Even if Milo Greene fails to become a household name, she’s just pleased her parents are happy they’ve come this far.
“Oh yeah, they’re the best,” Sheetz said. “They actually learned how to use a computer and the Internet just so they could go on Facebook and read comments people write. Honest to God. It’s just the highlight of their life.
“So that’s always fun. But I think we’re all reaching for the stars and our hopes are set high and we all want to make mom and dad proud.”
If that sounds too good to be true, you be judge and jury. But the court of public opinion should reach a verdict real soon:
Guilty or innocent, Milo Greene is/are an unbelievable pleasure.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas.