In the sanctuary of a spacious Presbyterian church in West Ashley, Dusty Painter's fingers are wrapped in layers of tape. He's anxious to start banging away on the cymbal perched atop his conga set so he can wrap up our interview (he's late for work). Matthew Herring strums his Taylor guitar and keeps saying how he's "on Mars" playing this early — noon on a Tuesday. Mandolin player Cory Jarrett was up late playing at the Blind Tiger. He's groggy, but it's not showing through when he takes his first solo. Lonnie Root is cool and composed on his cello, as any musician responsible for holding down the low end should be.
Like every unsigned band, the four members of Milhouse are just regular guys — they still have day jobs, and they pick up side gigs to make ends meet. But after seven years together, they may be on the brink of something much bigger.
This Friday, the band releases a collection of rare birds, a six-song EP they recently recorded at Asheville's Echo Mountain Studios with Danny Kadar, the acclaimed producer known for his work with My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses, and the brain behind the smoothness of the Avett Brother's Emotionalism.
Last week, Milhouse toured the East Coast, culminating in a performance at acclaimed venue The Bitter End in New York.
"We worked really hard on rare birds for two weeks straight of 12-hour days," says Painter. "It was one of the most amazing experiences of our lives. Danny Kadar is a magician, just amazing."
Kadar agreed to produce the album after hearing Milhouse perform in Greenville last fall. His influence was more than just knob twisting.
"Danny came to me and said, 'That was really good, but you need to be playing a snare and kick drum because that's boring,'" Painter recalls (at the time he played only hand drums). "I was like, 'Well, it's kind of different,' and he said, 'Well, it's cute, but when's the last time different meant good?' We changed a lot of stuff and had to go through some self doubt. I don't know five. I know zero and 10, so I'm new to the snare and have been hitting the hell out of the kick drum."
Cello player Root has added a loop pedal to his rig, allowing him to texture the string parts of songs, adding music over the melody and "fattening things up." As a whole, the band says they've taken to working out intricate parts for everyone throughout a song.
"It's not just hammering out verse, chorus, verse, chorus," says guitarist and songwriter Herring. "We're trying to utilize what we have to be the best cello/guitar/mandolin/percussion ensemble possible. We can do so much more now than we ever thought before. It's like we've got a collective mind now for the first time."
The sum of their collective creative effort is beautiful, swelling melodies that complement Herring's uplifting songs. From opener "Better Off" to closing tune "Radio" on rare birds, there's not a shred of negativity to their lyrics or sound. That may have something to do with where they play.
"I don't know if it's the acoustics or some sort of subliminal thing, but we always seem to gravitate toward some kind of church," says percussionist Dusty Painter. "We practice in a church, Echo Mountain Studios is an old church, and seven years ago when we started we rehearsed in a church. Hopefully, that's got to count for something."
In celebration of the release of a collection of rare birds, Milhouse will make sure that all who attend the Music Farm show and pay admission will receive a copy of the disc.