What was it to discover sex? I remember how it was for me – at my cousin’s house, when he turned the TV to VH1 and we both sat in rapt silence, watching the music video for Kelis’s “Milkshake”. Nothing in my life has been the same since. The other day I saw the video for the first time since 2003 and, while it still bangs, it doesn’t quite fill me with the overwhelming urge to flee to my room and lock the door like it did when I was 12.
Perhaps when this world wraps up and it’s time to do the accounting, we’ll be able to work out the rough moment every generation of kids discovered sex – at least after the invention of recorded music.
I imagine many people discovered a certain kind of sex when collaborators Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal released their first album, Woman, in 2013. Between Woman and Rhye’s second album, Blood, Hannibal left the project. Milosh found himself touring relentlessly, trying to pull together enough money to buy up his recording contract. To this experience, he credits the “live-informed” sound of Blood. There’s Sade, but also The xx, but also Milosh’s voice, which is full of affect – or, what he describes, as “a pretty soft male voice”. He parks it at a breathy high register, lingers over syllables and soars over vowels in a way that conveys horniness but also holiness.
I catch him on the phone during a long drive. His thoughtful pauses lend a serene sense to his words, made urgent by the crackling reception. Of love as a central concern in one’s life, let alone in one’s art, I ask him whether there are limits. He points out we first must reflect on what it is we mean about love.
“A biologist might say that love is a bond that, you know, serves a function to keep a unit together, to rear children that can perform well in a particular environment. But to me it’s a lot more than that. It’s like magnetism. It’s a connectivity. There is an element that feels fated.”
“Fated”, in the way you’re fated to get a parking fine, I wonder. But Milosh draws me into his way of thinking. “There’s been literature and film for generations now about the feeling of love. It is a mysterious thing and [the question] ‘What is love?’
is never really going to be answered.”
We speak about love for a while, marvelling at it like two stoned teenagers. Eventually, talk turns to sex.
Many people have sex to music, something I’ve always found strange. A phenomenon in our culture I’ve been aware of, but only in a distant way. I ask Milosh about the way his music has come to be known as this generation’s sex soundtrack – there’s even a review of one of his concerts entitled, “I Came Like Five Times at the Rhye Show.”
“I see that people interpret [the songs] as purely sexual,” he says. “It is sexual, but that’s because those are real moments for me.” I ask him what he means by a real moment and he says, “The truth.”
Milosh says he’s not trying to sell a record “through a distinction between sex as a commercial aspect of music versus sex as an extension of an intimate and vulnerable space, where there’s love and that love includes sex within it”. He isn’t coy about where his songs come from – about his relationship with his wife, their break-up and his experiences finding love again. “I’m really interested in something that’s real. I don’t like things that are by nature a gimmick, which just doesn’t feel true to me.”
But there’s still perception, the inescapable twin of affect. I sense a bit of frustration in his voice, as if the distinction between “something real” and a gimmick is a real and vital one – and it is, but in the realm of love and desire and intimacy, affect can sometimes be overwhelming.
“I find a lot of string players can capture [the truth]. They can draw the truth. You know it when you hear it because you get the shivers that make you feel like you’re going to cry but you’re not sad,” he says. And I almost understand what he means but I feel he’s describing to me something I’ve always felt is out of my grasp. He senses my hesitation and asks if I’ve ever had “that feeling in your body that nothing else can give”. When I say that I can’t remember, he sounds genuinely surprised. I’m surprised, too. But I’ve never been able to surrender myself to music, so completely, in the way he seems to. Milosh doesn’t fear enmeshment in affect and doesn’t expect others to either, which is as alien to me as anything can be. I get the sense that he’s never been one to cringe and fast-forward through a sex scene in a film or skip a song that reminds him of an ex or avoid sitting at a table at a bar that was the scene of a break-up. I do all these things, and I do them instinctively. I wonder what it’s like to not be like that.
“Not everyone feels the same as me,” he says, “but, you know, for me art is supposed to encapsulate something like that. It’s a really, really important part of being a human being.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2019 as "The catchiness of Rhye".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.