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Secret Guest to Record Pre-Hiatus Live Album at The Royal American: Interview

Photo: Kyle Kilgo

Local music scene heroes Secret Guest have recently announced an indefinite hiatus to their live shows. But with bad news comes some good, as they are to record a live album at The Royal American for two nights. The combination of Thursday, June 14th and Friday the 15th will be an unforgettable experience with this solid quartet, which consists of Brett Nash (vocals, guitar), Andrei Mihailovic (guitar), Scott Dence (bass), and Michael Milam (drums). Alongside this core four will be six other diverse, outstanding Southeastern bands.

On Thursday night, Secret Guest will be joined by ET Anderson, Gláss, and Del Sur. On Friday, Secret Guest will take the stage after Zack Mexico, Faye, and Contour.

To learn more about Secret Guest and their decision to take a long absence, I sat down with the gentlemen over a beer to discuss their history, their presence in Charleston, and what’s coming next.

Sophie Steell: When and how did the band form?

Brett Nash: Michael and I had been talking about starting a band for a while and then one day I guess…

Michael Milam: We had one practice that wasn’t really a practice because we didn’t have any material and just did this long metal jam, forever ago, the first attempt of starting a band.

BN: We didn’t know what starting a band was and we just awkwardly jammed for 30 minutes and said, “I guess this is being a band” and we did that twice maybe… now here we are.

How long was it before you released your first album?

MM: It was once we got Andrei and then Dorian (Warneck) who has been replaced by our dear Scotty…

Andrei Mihailovic: That was like summer 2014.

MM: Brett initially conceptualized the band as a revolving door of collaboration with all of the musicians around town.

BN: Right – and these assholes made it distinct.

MM: Right, these assholes came along and there was a chemistry that happened. We didn’t expect it to work so well but it became a solid line up of the four of us. Then when Dorian left, Scotty has always been very directly involved with our endeavors so that was the most painless transition. But we did record before we played out.

BN: Yeah, I purposely did that because I’ve been in bands in the past where you don’t even get a chance to record because you’re so busy playing shows all the time, so I wanted to focus on getting the songs into recording and then playing the shows.

AM: Yeah, we practiced for about a year before we played an official show. So we started practicing I think September 2014, when Brett approached me at Rec Room at an album release for my old band, Magic Camp, and Dorian was playing in Piano Jazz and that’s how we knew him. Then Brett ended up telling me at Charles Carmody’s place, The Swamp, that Dorian was going to be our fourth member. So that was June/July 2014, then September 2014 we had our first practice. The first three songs we played were “Joker City”, “Decimated Dreamland”, and “Annoying Potions”. Then we played some random shows without really having a name.

MM: Which is where the Secret Guest name ultimately came from, the fact that we were getting booked for shows before we had a name so it was just, “…and a Secret Guest”.

AM: The Wheel Show at Royal American in 2015 is where the name Secret Guest came from. The Wheel Show was when I had a wheel of songs by five of my bands on them as like pie pieces. And this is May… no April 2015. We had a backline set up, and this wheel had maybe had thirty-five songs on it that we’d spin. Then whatever song popped up, that band came up and played the song. When I was making the flyer it was a Wheel of Fortune parody image and Secret Guest fit perfectly in the squares at the bottom of the flyer. Then I think it was a friend who told Brett, “I think that’s a good band name, you should just go with that.”

BN: Andrei even has a list that at the time was over thousands…

AM: I have a band name list. I’m up to 30,000 very bad, unusable band names. Some of them are okay, but we didn’t use any of them, we just went with Secret Guest. I guess we didn’t play a show though as Secret Guest until September 2015, which was the album release.

MM: And it was a complete disaster. It was almost like we built it up too much for ourselves or something.

BN: I got really drunk.

MM: Brett did get very drunk. I was actually completely sober but I was the only one who was sober at all. It was actually one of the only times, cause I’m not a stickler about what condition you’re in when you play but that one specifically I was like, “I want to make sure I can really deliver it tonight so I’m not going to drink or do anything,” but Brett had the exact opposite approach.

AM: At one point his then-girlfriend bought us four tequila shots. She handed them to me and I handed them one by one to Brett.

BN: Yeah, I was too drunk to understand what was going on, but I got one shot handed to me, then Andrei handed me another one and I was like, “Okay”. Then the third one I realized what was going on but there was this shit-eating grin on Andrei’s face like, “I bet you won’t drink this third one,” and of course I took that as a challenge.

MM: Then we had a very classic version of “Joker City” where Brett smashed his own glasses, threw his guitar off the stage, crowd surfed and probably said he wanted to die at some point. Andrei was trolling the crowd at that point asking them, “Hey you like this?!” and kind of bullying the crowd. But it was only uphill from there. Which is kind of a weird expression because going uphill sucks, but going downhill – that’s bad. Then later on we tried balancing it out like trolling the crowd and not totally sucking.

AM: The name itself is a troll as well. You have to know everything is a troll.

So Scott, when did you start with Secret Guest?

Scott Dence: They got a gig at a prom. The PBR Upper Deck Prom, and I guess Dorian was traveling with his wife, and they needed a bassist. And I knew how to play “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette. So, they asked me to the prom.

AM: That was February of 2016.

SD: But I wasn’t necessarily in the band at that point. I think Dorian played another show after that…

AM: Yeah Dorian played about a year of shows after that with people filling in because he had a crazy travel schedule.

Describe your creative process a bit. What is your approach and how have you built your music together?

AM: Well, Brett pretty much wrote everything.

BN (to Andrei): No, you got a few in there.

MM: He did write it though. I’m sorry I’m going to take this one – this is our creative process: Brett comes in to the practice with a riff and a chord progression and a couple of parts of a song. Then we’re all like, “Okay, I guess this is cool,” but then once we all have written our parts to add to it then it turns out to be awesome. I think Brett has this knack for knowing what we’ll provide to it and leave space for us to do what we do. There are a lot of our songs that when he first came with it we thought, “Oh okay, this will be cool – maybe this won’t be one of the best ones,” but they ended up being our favorites. Brett just comes in with a template that once it’s all colored in with everyone else’s part, it comes out beautiful.

BN: Yes, I’m a coloring book.

MM: Yes, a human coloring book.

Who would you say are your biggest influences when you were first starting out?

BN: Back in the Dorian days I feel like the one band that was the bonding of all of us was Built to Spill. And then I feel as it changed to Scott it turned into Guided By Voices.

AM: Wait Scott, who do we sound like to you?

SD: Let’s see – how about – PAVEMENT?

BN: Now you’re just saying what I want to hear.

MM: See Pavement started a band shamelessly ripping off The Fall and that became Pavement. And then Secret Guest created a band shamelessly ripping off Pavement and that became Secret Guest. And then we’ll see what the future holds.

AM: I would say Scott has the best window into what this band sounds like because he wasn’t in it for a year. So he has the outsider and insider perspective. We just get to pretend we sound like our favorite bands but we don’t actually, where Scott can actually hear what we are.

SD: Then I guess Secret Guest doesn’t sound like Pavement to me.

BN: I think the key to a successful band is a band that tries to sound like another band but fails completely.

AM: Yeah, and this might be too inside but a lot of the times for initial songs the title will be: “The band this sounds like.” And Brett had a heavy Polvo influence this run so – Polvo huge influence I’d say.

BN & AM: So to draft up a key of which songs we’ve called what: “Joker City” – Pavement. “Tomorrow’s Been Done” – Built to Spill. “Decimated Dreamland” – Sonic Youth. “Hiddenite” – Polvo. “Annoying Potions” – Nirvana. An example of failing to sound like a band: failing to sound like Nirvana.

MM: I do want to share my favorite insult: I have the video game philosophy that if you’re going towards the enemies you’re going the right way, and your band probably sucks if no one is saying bad things about it. But once people start hating, that’s the sign of success. There was a guy around town he said we’re the Sonic Youth of Charleston, because everybody thinks that we’re cool but nobody actually enjoys listening to it. It’s kind of cool, I embrace that haterade.

How has Charleston influenced you as a group and your music?

BN: As Michael said, hating us just enough to keep us going.

AM: I feel embraced by the Holy City, personally.

MM: I do too – Charleston has been really good to us.

AM: Extra Chill is doing a pre-interview and post story you know. That’s love man.

MM: And it’s not necessarily like we’re a part of a thriving scene of other bands that are doing things similar to us. We’re kind of an outlier. There are pros and cons to that for sure. You can go to certain places, like the triangle area in North Carolina and we’d be one of a ton of psychedelic bands trying to do indie rock. Not that we’re the only band doing it here, but it’s not necessarily the trend within the city. I feel like our fans and Charleston people that come are more passionate because it’s an alternative from this prevailing trend of Americana, alt-country type stuff.

AM: But you can’t really talk about Charleston as a single scene because there are many different pockets. Scott and Brett have represented the nucleus of a very certain pocket in town for a while. Which is the looser, more exciting, not radio necessarily, kind of underground vibe like rock & roll. But there’s also the Makeout Reef crowd that have a lot of this going on. The Oh See’s would influence people, like Dakota O. Del Sur is very Mac Demarco. Hot Showers is very Parquet Courts – just the right amount of bluesy but still garage rock basically. And then Columbia and Charleston are a part of one scene also.

How do you feel this garage rock scene has evolved since you’ve started? And what role do you think Secret Guest has played in that evolution?

AM: When I first got back from Athens in 2010, going to Tin Roof, which is how I met all of these dudes, it was mind-blowing to see these creative and exciting bands in Charleston. It wasn’t really like that when I left in 2006, or so. But I don’t know, the center kind of shifted to Royal American I guess because it’s on the peninsula. But that is just a population shift, we love both venues. In terms of bands though, it’s pretty much the same twenty or thirty people, as far as we’re concerned, doing interesting things, just constantly shifting. I think it’s going to stay insular but it slowly seems to be changing.

MM: There’s also a geographical glass ceiling with Charleston because there’s only so big the scene can get just because of where the city is. It can’t really expand even though it’s trying to in different ways with hotels, but it’s a small peninsula. Limited by its own dimensions.

Let’s talk about this live album that’s coming up. How did the idea for the live album come about?

BN: The first time I really noticed this was our friend Jason (Wornoff), from the Raleigh band Vacant Company. He was talking to us outside of his house show venue called Kosher Hut. He said, “Listening was cool, and then I saw you guys and was BLOWN AWAY,” and we’ve heard it a few times since. Not in a mean way, just that live is where it really comes out. Then, well, I guess, the one way an album can be as good as live is if it’s a live album. And this was even before Andrei made his big announcement. It just worked out that these will be Andrei’s last couple of shows.

AM: Yeah you made that announcement. I would’ve been very happy if nobody knew that these were going to be my last couple of shows.

BN: Oh, I purely did it for promotional reasons. I’m really exploiting you for the band. That’s my punishment for you leaving.

Why Royal American?

BN: Royal American is just such a big part of what we are. It’s where we had our first show, and we’ve played more shows there than anywhere else.

MM: Royal American is the dark horse MVP for Charleston venues.

BN: Mine and Scott’s first band, Boring Portals, was Royal American’s first show.

AM: And Matt (Zutell) is my favorite sound guy in town, and his producing is amazing.

BN: Yeah I talked to him about it before it was through the venue. Matt was involved from the start and it just made even more sense since that’s where he runs sound. And he’s recorded stuff live there before so it just made sense. And he’s amazing in general.

What drove the decision on the other artists okaying the show?

BN: Maybe we went too much of a sentimental focus on this, but I purposely wanted to get bands that are a big part of us. Especially with Zack Mexico and ET Anderson, there’s a special triangle of bands in the Carolinas that have a good connection.

MM: ET Anderson played Hopscotch the same time as us too.

BN: Exactly, which was really special for both bands to do it at the same time. And of course were front and center for each other’s shows. Faye, we played our first show with them in Rockhill, my hometown, and were just freaking out about each other’s bands. They became like brother sister bands so had to get them in there. Del Sur of course, Makeout Reef and all of those people had to be involved for sure.

AM: Yeah, we love them a lot.

BN: That first Makeout Reef show that I don’t think Del Sur even got to play either because it got shut down. But it was supposed to be Secret Guest, Del Sur, Mr. Rosewater, and Orange Doors. Then Gláss I’ve always loved. I didn’t even ask them, they asked if they could jump on the show. They haven’t played a show in years. I didn’t know they were still active. So when they asked I was like of course!

AM: An example of a functional hiatus.

MM: I’m a huge fan too. Its one of the only bands in the region that I think is really evoking Sid Barrett and Joy Division type influences. Not in a forced way but just that kind of music. Definitely like a Sid Barrett-y, post punk, like it’s dark but it’s satisfying. And I’m a huge fan of them too – we really just picked our favorite bands.

AM: And obviously we love Khari and Contour and what he’s doing is a great example of this show not necessarily being one style. He’s more mellow vibes, lyric focused, and something not guitar centric and heavy that is still amazing that’s going on right now. And Khari’s a huge sweetheart, and a genius.

So what is really driving you guys to take this hiatus?

AM: I’m quitting, not just Secret Guest, but all of my bands. I was doing five bands as of February. Something about getting older I’ve gotten very non-obligation.

MM: Being any sort of artist following an artistic pursuit, even when you’re succeeding at some certain scale, its always kind of a curse as well. I wouldn’t necessarily wish that on anyone. You have to know that you got to keep doing that to do it. It doesn’t always make sense. It’s not a practical thing, it’s exhausting. Especially as you get older.

AM: Something Patrick Kindlon, from one of my favorite bands – Drug Church, said recently: when you’re doing this sort of thing, the only success you have – like when you’re playing in a band like this, where we’re not caving to market forces, we’re playing the music we want to play. It very much “is what it is” – the only success is fulfillment. And when that’s gone it’s just work. You look at your schedule fill up and there’s no room for serendipity then you’re just okay, and complaining to people constantly instead of talking it up or being excited about it. And it’s not easy – I mean sorry this is not the perfect model of masculinity, but I wept when I had to tell these guys I was done. I pulled out a bottle of tequila and four shot glasses after a practice.

MM: Yeah it started to dawn on us slowly. He was like wanna take a shot? And pulled out this relatively high shelf bottle of tequila he had brought and four shot glasses. He lined them up and we go, “Yeah dude awesome I love drinking tequila,” and then we’re cheers-ing…

AM: We’re cheers-ing and I go, “We’re cheers-ing over the bloated corpse of my band self,” or something along those lines. I’m done playing in bands, at least for the moment, but I just have to take a step back. I bitch about my student loans all the time. My loans are more than my rent every month, so I have to have a 9-5 job. If that wasn’t the case, if I had just skipped school and played in bands, I would’ve been a happier man for it. Don’t go to school, if I can give advice to anybody – stay out of school.

BN: Do drugs and stay out of school.

AM: That’s right, live in a false paradise. If I would’ve made the right choices, which no one is capable of doing when they’re seventeen or eighteen, I would be fully committed to being on the road and playing music. But I materially can’t do that, so balancing these lives came pretty clear I had to sever ties for the time being.

MM: We all saw it coming, it was definitely harder on Andrei that it was on any of us and it was becoming apparent.

MM: We don’t want to keep going and just get another guitar player and be some half-assed replication of what we were before. Andrei is irreplaceable in a lot of ways, as a person and as a musician. We’re not going to find a stand-in Andrei. The sound and direction will be something new when we come back to it. Secret Guest isn’t dead – and as I said, when we first started Brett wanted this to be a collaborative group. Being a central facilitator of this thing that brought all these different talents to the table, but once we got together we just clicked in this way where we said, “Okay this is the band now”. But Secret Guest’s first album, Goodnight Nothing, is really all Brett with a few guest musicians playing on it. It was always like that, so it will continue to evolve naturally.

BN: But live it was always has been like this, so the live act will change.

As a fan, I couldn’t agree more. Andrei you totally bring such a high energy to the stage.

MM: Yeah, it’s cool for me as an on-stage person, this is one thing I’ll definitely miss about Andrei. There are certain moments in the set where I can rest easy knowing that literally no one in the crowd is looking at me, because they’re all looking at whatever the fuck Andrei is doing.

BN: Yeah, occasionally I’ll sing different lyrics cause I know nobody is actually paying attention to what I’m saying.

AM: Yeah, when I’m doing any of this stuff I love it. When I’m touring, playing a show, at practice, or recording it’s a lot of fun – I still want to do a lot of that. It’s all great when I’m there. There’s just nothing I can do to stop myself from dreading it or being super depressed when It’s just on my schedule and I know I HAVE to do it. Eating me alive, Daddy.