The Return of the Music Man

Everyone always says, “I love music!” While I’m not denying the pleasure people get from listening to their favorite band, genre, or recording, some love goes deeper than the surface of enjoyment. When you love a person, usually, you want to learn everything there is to know about them; where they are from, what they do know, and where they are going.

David Milkis, a New York-based artist who has been producing under the alias MiLK, loves music in just that way. Born into it, Milkis is currently engaging with music on nearly every possible front. He creates beautiful sounds using his own two hands, playing the cello and the electric bass. His talent involving physical instruments intuitively blends into his music production, also mixed with his knowledge of music and music theory. The buck doesn’t stop there; Milkis also works in music publishing, working under his label, FREETHE.

I spoke with Milkis back in 2020, around the time the pandemic started. We mainly spoke about FREETHE, and a tape he produced with Bushwick-based artist, IONOYOUTELLME. I was so happy that three years later, I got to hear more about his wonderous life and journey through music. Milkis’ journey with music shows that everything happens for a reason, from his shoulder injury, to becoming a tutor at BMCC. Everything in his life is connected by the currents of music. Now, let’s connect with David.

Milkis as ayoung lad. Photo by his mother, Mara Milkis.

Let’s talk about your relationship with music in general, specifically how your relationship with music started and how that transitioned into your current relationship with music.

Well I was born into music; my family are all musicians going back three generations. My grandparents both passed since COVID, they both lived a healthy, long life of being musicians and educators, and they passed that on to my mother and her brother and then their offsprings; myself and my cousin are still musicians, so three generations of musicians.

We’re all classically trained. My mom is a Soviet refugee; she lived in the Soviet Union so she immigrated and I’m the first-born American here.

Initially, I was enthralled in classical music, being in a classical music family. At a very young age, I started playing the cello. I was six years old, but I was already inside of music; my mom was teaching me. She was a music teacher at a school that she still actually teaches at, where I learned super early about what they call dalcroze, the physical relationship with music. I think I was three or four years old for that.

But yeah, I picked up the cello at six, and that really was the direction: being a classical cellist for a while, until high school, even up to college. Then it started changing. Of course, I’m a New Yorker, I’m not from the Soviet Union, so my tastes have changed. Being here, I’m surrounded by Hip-Hop, Jazz, and then my friend’s Indie Rock, all sorts of different stuff. As I learned to love different genres, I wanted to explore them too. In middle school, I picked up the electric bass, kind of for fun. I didn’t take it seriously until a couple years ago actually. I was kind of on and off, but I started taking it a little more seriously. Now I can very confidently say I can play bass, you know, it’s my second instrument.

When I got to college; the first time I went to Bard [College] at Simon’s Rock – I was a music major there – is where I met, for the first time, music producers, aspiring or otherwise. They were beatmakers, but they were still making music from a production standpoint instead of a performing one. This was novel to me. “How is it made?” I didn’t really think about that too much, so this really inspired me a lot.

I injured myself shortly after; I dislocated my shoulder. I tore all the ligaments on my right shoulder. That was 2015/16, one of those two. I couldn’t play the cello for two whole years. Now, what I thought the relationship with music was, is not. I don’t have the thing that I had the relationship with, teh tool. So, during some mental health examinations and some reflection, I didn’t stay at Simon’s rock; I came back and restarted college a little bit later. I discovered that I was into what I learned at Bard, that this production realm does exist. I was inspired, Iw anted to know more, and I couldn’t play my instrument.

I dove pretty deep into that by learning how to make beats first. My Hip-Hop inspirations will always be J Dilla, MF DOOM, and Madlib, those three. Of course there are many others, but for me that’s like the trinity. There’s only one left and that makes me very sad. They really showed me a taste that I like, a style that I like; a part of Hip-Hop that I’m comfortable making and knowing how to appreciate. It had to do with Jazz which I was already into for the most part. A lot of these producers were using cool, old songs to make new songs out of, that’s such a cool idea to me. Through that I discovered audio engineering – they do go hand-in-hand, they are not the same thing. With that, I learned not only how to make music as a producer, but how to make it happen, period. Recording sound, mixing, mastering, all of that.

That took me to an apprenticeship that I took for two years at Engine Room Audio. It was just the place for me to learn. Interns don’t get paid to do a bunch of stuff. I was paying to be there, but I learned so much. I was around equipment that was way above my pay grade. That was really inspiring as well. At the end of that, getting back into college, I got into BMCC. I was able to use my shoulder more regularly, so I picked the cello back up.
Now, my relationship with music is versatile. I like to play, I like to make, now I like to publish and support it. It’s come from being born into it, all the way to trying to make it happen for other people. Now I’m comfortable with more than just classical music.

Milkis in action. Photo by Alejandro Castro.

That’s really cool how life in general made you diversify your portfolio; it made you step out of your comfort zone, making you redraw those borders. You have a new project out, ‘flawless filth’. I’d love for you to talk about it, especially how it fits into your discography, or any tidbits from the recording process.

First of all, a lot of the beats are not the freshest. I’ve just been holding on to them for a long time. I’ve been thinking about making this for over two years, my girlfriend can attest to that. The name has been in my vocabulary for a while.

I like the name, the dichotomy, the juxtaposition, like, “filth that’s flawless, how does that work?” To me, it’s that underground Hip-Hop style that’s grimy but it goes hard. All that interesting intersection that we’ve discovered in the underground Hip-Hop world where it’s largely sample-based.

So [flawless filth] is a collection of those beats I’ve compiled from over the years; I’ve compiled them and continued to work on them, made adjustments, added some things. Mixed them some more, then I got them mastered by my engineer Ryan Yingst.

This is a very pivoting moment for me, not only in my music career but in my discography. I don’t know if it’s a fork in the road, but I’m deliberately making a change. The previous release is from about a month ago; I released a song called “reflections”, and that was part of my senior project, originally. For me, that project, the upcoming ‘flawless filth’, and in June we’re dropping an album with Rio Azul, those three releases are very much my music. There’s other songs, other projects I’m working on with other producers, artists, singers, but they’re not my music. I may be a producer, or engineer, but in the case of the three releases I mentioned, it’s my composition.

My intentions with ‘flawless filth’ are kind of like a “a farewell, for now”, in terms of being exclusively behind the scenes. Since you last interviewed me, COVID happened, so I wasn’t able to be in front of anything. I don’t know if “recluse” is the right word, but I’ve gotten comfortable with being behind the scenes. The title “Produced by MiLK” is easier than being MiLK. I be making beats for everyone, and helping out, but what about me? ‘Flawless filth’ is the answer to that, and also perhaps the book end or at least a chapter end. I don’t want to say goodbye to this; I don’t want to ever stop making this kind of music, but I want to be a performer.

I had a band that didn’t work out. I’m still developing new projects, new ideas with different people. I want to play on stage or on record with my bass. With ‘flawless filth’, it’s the style I maybe would have made for other people, but you’ll hear it; it doesn’t sound like it needs a rapper or a singer. It functions on its own, it just so happens to fit the vibe of what I would have made as MiLK anyway. Because there’s no rapper or any lyrical, melodic lead, then the beat, the production itself has to speak on its own merit. I think what I did with the songs is just that; I made sure that they’re compelling enough to listen to on their own. You don’t need words, you don’t need a person, it’s there.

Another thing for me; it’s also a series of impressions about how I feel. Some of the titles, you’ll see, are pretty obscure or arbitrary. They do mean something to me, for example, “i grew to like this”, that’s gonna be track five, because I did. The song, the beat, I didn’t like at first, but I named it, “i grew to like this” because I did. There’s one called, “interlude for me” and there’s another one called, “interlude for you.” One is based on how I felt, and the other one is intended for someone else actually, so for “you”, there is a you. Me and that person don’t work together anymore, so anyone is “you” for that one. There’s one that’s called, “it’s not the swing”, because it isn’t. That one has a lot of swing, but that’s not what the song is about. So it’s an impression of how I feel about the moment, when I was making it, but also the beat itself. I changed the titles a bit because they didn’t make as much sense. The last track, track 14, is called, “just nice to listen to”, and it’s literal. I think it’s nice to listen to.

With that in mind, I think it’s going to be a very impactful record for my output. It will be definable, like, “This is what MiLK sounds like”, but it’s also a pivot, a moment of change. After this is Rio’s project. There’s no samples there, only musicians. Instead of me chopping up songs, fully hired musicians to play parts based on beats that I made. I am trying to keep going in that direction, both as a producer and a performer, with more live music and more instruments. I love samples, but I’m a musician, I need to take it to that level.

That is so dope. So, you know how artists can be their own worst critic at times; How do you like your project? 

‘flawless filth’, I’m pretty proud of it. It took so long to put together because I wasn’t sure, because I was insecure, and because I kept telling myself I was busy. I was graduating college, I was looking for work, I was doing a lot of stuff. I could have always made more time, but I didn’t because I didn’t think it was ready; I didn’t think it was good enough to be heard. As I kept going, as I kept getting inspired, helped by other friends, and even colleagues – I did show some of my clients or other artists in general, and they liked it! – As I kept working on them, I noticed it became a cohesive thing, and I’m proud of it. I’m happy that it will be by MiLK, and I’m proud of how it sounds. 

Cover art for ‘flawless filth‘, created by Reed Rudowsky & Julian Zentner.

And when was this recorded again?

[Laughs] Some of these beats are maybe as old as three, even almost four years old. They’re all at least over a year old. A bulk of the mixes were finished around the time I graduated, or before that, and that was a year ago. There are two or three changes and revisions, and a couple months ago is when Ryan finished mastering them.
I also didn’t realize this was a project at first. These were beats that didn’t have rappers, or beats that I made just to make. Eventually, they sounded not similar, but stylistically relevant to each other. I noticed, in reflection, that there is a sort of arc, and I think it’s worth noting that, perhaps this was accidental, it was an intentional feeling of those impressions.

Was there anything going on in your life that may have impacted the album directly? You did mention you had a falling out with a previous collaborator…

They weren’t involved with the project per se, but I made that beat for that person. That person and I’s relationship is not the same, doesn’t exist professionally anymore. I don’t like that, it sucks, but it had to be done. I definitely miss that person, and I think a part of it is, this is how we made music together. ‘flawless filth’ is a reflection of my past relationships, especially with that person. That definitely made it more urgent, because of the change in my life with that person, I had to put it out now, this is a thing I want for sure.

What else changed? Oh, I left my mom’s house, I moved in with my girlfriend. That was a big change; I’m more independent, I’m more self-reliant. I wanted to self-rely on my own music. So that project is by me, and I think a part of how my life changed is in that.

Your music is a snapshot of you, a bit of a reflection, if I may, of where you are. That’s wassup.

The point of that song too, if you listen to it, there are lyrics, it’s a feature. My boy TalentIsAlive; he’s not even a professional lyricist. He does other stuff not in music. I knew him from high school, he was a part of my original original collective idea way back in the day, pushing 6-7 years ago. Because of that, we have a nice rapport and history, so I wanted him to be part of it. He made a really good verse that is exactly what I felt it needed to be about. It’s a reflection; sure, he’s not talking about my life, but he’s talking about life to think about as something to think about in retrospect, and how we should go forward.

There’s also this minute-long intro that is several men discussing and arguing about – it’s hard to say because I mix-matched and resampled and made an argument out of nothing – but it sounds like they’re discussing, “What to do next for the young generation?”, that we have to do things ourselves. There’s a lot of chaotic vocals for a minute before the actual verse starts, I like that a lot. I’m also on that record playing live instruments; I’m on bass, I taught myself and got lessons on the drums last year at Lehman College. It’s also sample-based, so that’s a cool blend of a lot of my stylistic outputs and intentions. I’m there playing instruments, I produced it, I mixed it, etc.

flawless filth‘, available on Spotify. Listen to it above, or save it for a later time!

Looking at the broader picture, how do you juggle creating your own music, with publishing and sharing other’s music through FREETHE? 

Things have to take backburners when they have to. Running FREETHE is hard when you’re a student and also developing your own career. Currently, it’s in the middle of a hopeful renovation and upgrade; I’m making a website with my graphic designer. We do have a couple upcoming clients with projects, including Johnny Storm who I’ve been working with a bit more. I’m hoping for a newer motivation, but it’s been a placeholder, and network/platform for myself, my small community, and other clients, to publish music.

To balance that, I think it’s important to schedule things ahead of time. The way that the release structure happens in terms of publishing, it’s about notice, as much notice as possible will always be your friend. That’s what I tell every client, like, “Yeah, you can give it to me two weeks before you want it to be out, but there’s less time, then. What are you going to do for 14 days, expect social media to know? How?” But that’s not my business, that’s not my responsibility, unless they want it to be.

What I like to do is plan ahead of time, significantly. Sometimes that’s with projects still being developed, for example, Ryan’s constantly working on new songs. He and I will talk regularly; he’s my master engineer, a partner in the business. When it comes to his music, he’ll tell me way ahead of time, that way, by the time the next project is already being made, the one we were talking about is in the process of coming out. That’s why I like the idea that something is always happening. Whether you’ve already made it and you’re making a new one, or you’ve already registered it to get through the publishing procedure, and by the time it’s registered and you know it’s coming out, but you did it a month in advance, there’s more time.

I make time for that, I have to. Now that I’m not a student, there’s more time, a little bit, not really, but less bandwidth is being used in my brain for the educational system. Surely I love to learn all the music things, but I don’t have a responsibility to keep up grades anymore, so that leaves me open to a few more things; I’m starting a string quartet in my classical world, I still hold on to that. We’re hoping to be a crossover string quartet, including some Jazz. Mentioned before that I was in a band, I am now trying to develop a new one.

I work for the music department at BMCC as a tutor and supplemental instructor, so I’m surrounded by music and musicians when I go down there. It’s super inspiring if everyone’s practicing or working on something, whether it’s music or homework that the teacher assigned for music theory. Either I make time, or it’s already in my life.

That’s pretty cool.

Word. Publishing is all about scheduling. Being a musician is about making the time. Running FREETHE is hard work, and I’m learning to take more control of it.

Is there anyone helping you with the publishing, or is it all you?

It’s not entirely me, no. I have my main four partners: my co-founder, Sheridan Grunn, we often talk and just make sure the whole vision is the way it’s supposed to be. Ryan is probably my most regular partner; he’s almost always the master engineer for clients that hire us for label services. Sometimes they don’t, sometimes it’s, “here’s a song. I’ve already mastered it, can you put it out?” Me and my team don’t have to get creatively involved at all. In the case that we do, or if we’re a part of post-production, at the very least, Ryan is involved with mastering/engineering, usually.

We have a nice relationship, my mixing and his mastering, whether it’s my own music or a client’s. Several of our most recent releases, and for a while now, have that exact pipeline. It goes from the artist, to me, to him.

We also have our graphic designer, Julian Zentner. He’s also always helping me; right now he’s developing the website. He is usually responsible for cover art, like I said, when they hire us for label services. It also happens where they’re like, “Here, we have one.” Yeah, I’m not alone, I have people I can talk to. But the work, the administrative work, is usually just me.
There’s five of us in total: myself, my co-founder, Ryan, my friend Eli (Elijah Lacin), and our graphic designer.

A portrait of David Milkis. Photo by Margherita Andreani.

So you were born into music, and it is still one of the biggest pieces in your life. Is music part of a bigger picture, or is it the highway and the road for you, meaning everything?

Music is the big picture. I don’t know anything else. I know that might sound weird and a little sad. I mean, I do other things; I’m a photographer, at least part-time. I don’t advertise myself as a hireable photographer, but I do work for music festivals where I am the photographer. I love working with musicians as a photographer, but see, it has to do with music.

A big part of it is literally, it’s the thing I wake up to do, whether it’s to make it, love it, or be a part of it. It is the big picture, I don’t know anything else. I don’t think you can put me somewhere else and I would be as happy, confident, or competent. It’s just been so many years of being that, and in different ways. 

Career wise, I want to be in a studio, whether that means me as an individual working in a recording studio, or FREETHE is one, somehow, that would be cool. I don’t want to let go of FREETHE, no matter what happens. I want that to be at least a platform, at least a network for independent artists. I’d hope for that to get a little bit bigger. As a performer, that big picture is to play in different groups, ensembles and bands, but all of that is music, so…

I feel like I have the same relationship with music. I gave a quick go at beatmaking, but that didn’t get too far. But I listen to music heavily, and I try to find the music and art in everything.

For me, I like to say to people that I make music and I make music happen. It’s also the reason. I don’t know if I’d still be here if it wasn’t for music. I don’t mean that to be dark, I mean that to be real. It’s the thing that wakes me up.

I get that. You literally would not be you if it were not for music, in general. I don’t know who would. It’s the soundtrack to life. 

Also, it’s like, I am a musician, so I got into a music department where I met my girlfriend. Had it not been that way, that would not have happened. My cat even; I have my cat Shadow because I got involved in some weird Facebook group where someone was like, “There’s a cat, do you want it?”, and I was like, “Yeah!”

It’s the reason I met some of my partners in business. It’s just the reason.

That’s so dope. Please make sure to send a picture of the cat, for reference.

Oh yeah, I’ll send you one.

Milkis’ cat, Shadow. Photo by David Milkis.

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