James Toth is an artist/musician/writer living in Green Bay, WI. He has written about music and culture for NPR, The Wire, Stereogum, Aquarium Drunkard, and The Quietus, among others, and recently completed a draft of his first book. He currently plays in the transatlantic rock band One Eleven Heavy.
I eyed the band skeptically, sizing them up. The year was 2005, the band was Akron/Family, and my band was sharing a bill with them and David Grubbs as part of the East River Music Project, a series of free shows at the beautiful East River Amphitheater in Manhattan. The previous week the guys and girls in my band saw an ad in Arthur magazine announcing the debut album by this “hermetic sword-swallowing quasi-religious freak troupe” or something to that effect (this copy was likely written by Young God label head Michael Gira) and we scoffed. This was our turf. How dare these interlopers play weird, improvised, vaguely jam band-adjacent music without consulting us first? And that band name. Turns out they weren’t even from Akron!
Unfortunately, after watching the band perform, I had to eat crow. They were great. And hanging out with them afterward, I found that they were also wonderful and down to earth guys. Not a single sword swallower among them. I liked them all immediately, but it was the band’s bassist, Miles, with whom I had an instant rapport. He was shrewd and sarcastic and hilarious and we bonded over noisy punk bands like Man is the Bastard, as well as certain people in the larger scene we didn’t like. We stayed in touch.
We played many shows together over the years. “It was Waaaaaand-erful!” Miles would whisper mock-seductively after I played a solo set, lightly teasing me about my band name. Touche, Mr. Not-Actually-From-Akron.
Whenever we hung out we’d commiserate, discuss records, and talk about Big Things and Big Ideas. You didn’t really talk about the weather or the latest Netflix series with Miles. He was complicated, sincere, passionate, and inquisitive. Existential and deep, a grappler. Like me, he could also be deeply cynical, suspicious of people and skeptical about their motivations.
But here we differed a bit: My own cynicism was the complacent kind. I was typically content to merely complain, to shake my fist at the cruel and unforgiving universe and the fickle music business or whatever, feeling sorry for myself, seeking appropriate company for my misery. But Miles was different. He seemed to forever be seeking ways to transcend his natural inclinations to cynicism. Basically, he was a pessimist who worked very hard at being an optimist — a guy with a hippie heart and a punk rock mind.
When he spoke to you, Miles always — always — maintained eye contact. Those soft yet probing eyes could be very intimidating. Just because he loved you didn’t mean he wouldn’t call you out on your bullshit, but just because he called you out on your bullshit didn’t mean he didn’t love you. He’d challenge you on things you said, unafraid to disagree, and force you to examine comments you might have made flippantly or carelessly. He would have made an excellent life coach.
It makes perfect sense that Miles is the only guy I knew who went head to head with our mutual friend Michel Gira and lived to tell about it. Even after becoming close with Gira, collaborating with him as Miles had, I rarely argued with him and always remained at least a little afraid of him. Miles was not afraid of anyone.
On tour together in 2006 we played at the Knitting Factory in New York. After the gig, we both went to the back room to get paid. The promoter broke down Akron/Family’s payout. They’d sold out the show and also received some sort of bonus. It was a few thousand dollars. Then it came time for the promoter to pay me, the representative for the lowly opening band. “Here’s your $200. Goodbye.”
“God, I’m sorry man,” a visibly uncomfortable Miles said as we left. I assured him there was nothing to be sorry about, that we both knew that this is just the way it worked and neither of us were strangers to the indignity of being a support act. Anyway, I was having a ton of fun on that tour and it really was no big deal.
The next day, Miles and Seth hopped into our van and explained to us that they decided, as a band, to give us a cut of the money they made. I don’t remember if it was $500 or $1000, but it was a lot of money. Of course we tried to refuse their offer but they insisted. They said they had a band meeting about it and it was unanimous and we needed to just shut up and take the money. “You guys are out here toiling just like us, doing the same drives and playing the same places, and we feel you earned more than you received last night. It’s only fair.”
I don’t need to tell you this sort of gesture is unheard of, even in the tight knit network of touring bands. I have never forgotten this generosity.
But Miles made an art of generosity.
On a trip out west in 2017 my wife and I were involved in a harrowing multi-car accident on the freeway that left us very shook. Miles, sensing our anxiety, selflessly and gamely chauffeured us around LA for the better part of a week. Leah and I didn’t have to drive again until we left town, by which time we’d calmed down, mostly thanks to Miles’ radical hospitality and kindness. “Your enjoyment of LA is directly proportional to how much or how little you have to drive here,” he said, a statement Leah has been quoting ever since. He bought us weed, took us to record stores, and hosted us in his home. We talked about cryptocurrency and Sun Ra and our many mutual friends.
Speaking of my wife Leah: I might have never met her if not for Miles and Akron/Family. She and the band were old friends, so when she promoted her final show in August of 2009 at the Bottletree in Birmingham, Alabama — Akron/Family, with opening band Wooden Wand — the guys in Akron/Family insisted she attend the show, despite Leah having already moved to Kentucky for grad school. (In true rom-com fashion, she nearly missed her plane.) I was backstage when Leah arrived. The boys in Akron/Family noticed our instant connection and teased us about it in private. I guess I might have shown my hand a bit when I asked, upon seeing Leah for the first time, “Who is that?”
Leah and I have now been happily married for 10+ years and Leah remains the single greatest thing that has ever happened to me. I am forever grateful to Miles and Akron/Family for being the eager, impish facilitators of our once-in-a-lifetime romance. Miles is inextricably linked to our story.
As other friends have gradually receded from our lives, as friends frequently do, Miles remained one of a handful of people who always kept in touch with us. I never once remembered to call him on his birthday, but he never missed mine.
Last month Miles left me one of his trademark rambling voice mails. It was classic Miles. In three minutes, between long thoughtful pauses and weary sighs, he told me how much he missed and loved me and Leah and how much he enjoyed my podcast, then inexplicably pivoted to recounting his visit to Willie Nelson’s biofuel facility in Salem, Oregon, and informing me about his new job as a weed mule. He told me he’d be driving from Seattle to Portland that weekend and that we should catch up on the phone. I don’t know what I was doing that prevented me from taking his call, but I will be eternally kicking myself for missing what would have been my final chat with my dear friend.
Miles had a close network of friends and musical collaborators in Italy — a country he loved — and he regularly invited me and Leah to visit him there. Maybe make a record.
For a while he was living there in a yurt.
What a weirdo.
Now I’m thinking he was probably capable of swallowing a sword, after all.
— James Toth