Pile on the Focused Confusion of Their New Album, Green and Gray

Originally published on pastemagazine.com

If you’ve found yourself at a show in a grubby Boston basement in recent years, you’ve probably heard of Pile. People in that corner of the world speak of the band with the kind of reverence usually reserved for hometown legends like Pixies or the Lemonheads. They’ve been the subject of entire albums by their peers and countless homemade t-shirts. But the cult of Pile has developed almost entirely separate from the band over the course of their decade-long career, and on their latest album Green and Gray it sounds like they might have grown past their status as Boston’s DIY mascot.

Frontman Rick Maguire and his band have fought hard for their success, touring relentlessly for years and coming back from each tour a little older to a city that was a little bit different. That feeling of transience only accumulated over time, and when Maguire returned to Boston after touring Pile’s last album A Hairshirt of Purpose, it felt like those roots he’d relied on weren’t all there anymore.

“A lot of things had changed in that city,” Maguire tells Paste. “I was living in a new spot, a lot of people had moved. There were just certain things that I was used to that had changed, and I think maybe some of that was internal too. There was just a lot going on within me that felt alienated from the place that I had lived in for a long time.”

Maguire notes that Boston’s sense of impermanence might have contributed to these feelings. “It’s a lot of students, and it’s people that are there for a short time and then they leave.”

As a result, Maguire turned inward, staying in his room in his new neighborhood of Cambridgeport to write the songs that would eventually become Green and Gray. Meanwhile, Pile welcomed two new members—Chappy Hull on guitar and Alex Molini on bass—and the band was more spread out than ever before, with Hull in Nashville, Molini in New York and drummer Kris Kuss also in Boston. Maguire would spend weeks writing new material alone before bringing the band together to work on it in short bursts.

“We would schedule blocks of time to get together to work on stuff, so it was like I was working on a presentation of material almost,” Maguire says. “Then we would all disperse and go back to where we lived and I would internalize all that again, work on it, edit it and then bring it back. So we did that about three times.”

To make this process easier, and to be closer to his family members who already lived there, Maguire decided to pack his bags and move in with Hull in Nashville. It was a difficult move, one that triggered a lot of anxiety and even panic attacks for Maguire. He channelled some of that anxiety into the album’s lead single, “Bruxist Grin,” a restless, seething track filled with lines about white-knuckling your way through change. Bruxism refers to grinding your teeth, so Maguire’s grin was the happy face he put on for the world while taking that leap of faith to Nashville.

Through the move, Maguire’s solitary writing process and the band’s quick bursts of creative energy, Pile emerged with their most sonically lush, intricately crafted and dynamic album to date. Green and Gray channels all those feelings of displacement, transience and wayworn confusion into a remarkably focused and deliberate project, one that feels aware that the path of least resistance might just be to embrace the change.

“No longer burdened by youth,” frontman Rick Maguire sings at the start of the opener “Firewood.” It feels like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders, and that statement carries through the rest of the album like a tailwind urging it forward. Maguire cites “Firewood” as the most challenging song to write on the album, but also the one that he’s most proud of.

“I’d sort of had that in mind as the opener since I started writing it, so I think I put so much pressure on it to be that,” Maguire says. “The first demo of it is unrecognizable from what it is now. It’s in a different meter, the timing and melody are very different.”

The lyrics on “Firewood” and the rest of Green and Gray are tighter and more directly personal, speaking to visceral emotions too strong to be contained. This emotion manifests itself politically as well, like on the album’s searing midpoint, “The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller.” It’s one of Pile’s angriest songs, two minutes of unbridled rage directed at the president’s advisor who orchestrated some of the administration’s harshest immigration policies.

“From a long line of translucent lizards comes our boy Stephen,” Maguire screams. “That inferiority complex passed down generations.”

But unlike on “Soft Hands,” where the lyrics lend targeted thrust to Maguire’s anger, Green and Gray also holds instances where Maguire’s words take a backseat to the dark, serene beauty of the music. Maguire is no stranger to moments when the sun breaks through the clouds, but they’ve never been this reliable and emotionally staggering. The stakes feel higher on Green and Gray, and its palpable tension is all the more rewarding when the dynamics shift and that tension is released.

Much of the album’s lush, orchestral sound is due to Pile’s collaboration with producer Kevin McMahon, whose credits include Swans, The Walkmen, Gang of Youths and Real Estate. Maguire met him during a solo tour with Titus Andronicus, who McMahon has also worked with in the past. They decided to work together then and there, and Maguire went up to McMahon’s studio in upstate New York for a pre-production meeting about the album.

“I told him that I wanted the record to sound dark,” Maguire says. “Not gloomy or anything like that, but sonically dark, like not a lot of bright or harsh sounds. It’s just a sort of frequency thing that comes off in the recording that I was interested in trying to do.”

McMahon helped Pile stay on track with this vision and gave the band the opportunity to work with a whole set of new toys that they’d only begun to explore on past albums. The results can be found throughout Green and Gray: the soaring strings on “Hair,” the atmospheric synths at the start of “Hiding Places” and the soft keys on the closer “No Hands,” which the band simply referred to as “piano ballad” right up until it was finished.

The band has already begun working on new material out of their new home in Nashville while they gear up for their Green and Gray tour. Maguire says he’s been writing mostly on piano.

“It’s sort of like I’ll take a tiny venture out of what I’m comfortable with each time, but it’s never been a huge leap,” Maguire says on how his records have progressed. “I feel like with the next batch of stuff it might get a lot more odd.”

The members of Pile may not be as young as they once were, but they’ve learned to confront change head on, even if that means gritting their teeth a bit. They’ve got a new house, a new city, a bigger, fuller sound. But they’re still the same band whose raucous, wild songs can be heard spilling out onto the street from houses all across Boston on a cold winter night. Green and Gray finds Pile diving deeper into the strengths that brought them where they are in the first place, while recognizing that things are quite a bit different now, and that’s okay.

The World is Finally Ready for Duster, the Droning Space Cadets of Yesteryear

Originally published on pastemagazine.com

The music of the band Duster is hard to classify. It’s been called many things, but none of these classifications have managed to stick all that well. There’s more natural propulsion behind Duster’s music than slowcore contemporaries like Codeine and Bedhead, and it’s more spaced-out than artists like the Microphones or Built to Spill.

A more apt description of Duster’s music might be a ride in one of those airplanes that simulate zero-gravity. Your feet leave the ground of their own accord, and you spend a few moments suspended there, maybe spinning around a little bit, totally out of control. Then you land back on the ground and feel a little bit dazed and totally confused as to how you got there in the first place.

Duster is a trio from San Jose, Calif. Clay Parton and Canaan Dove Amber founded the band in 1996 and released a handful of cassettes and seven-inches before putting out their debut record Stratosphere in 1998. Jason Albertini contributed drums to three songs on Stratosphere but became much more involved on the follow-ups, the 1975 EP released in 1999, and the band’s second full-length album Contemporary Movement, which came out in 2000.

The band’s brief discography was relatively well-received by critics, but it never really found an audience, and before anyone could blink they had broken up. Their label, Up Records, then home to Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, was experiencing a downturn following the passing of founder Chris Takino in 2000, and Duster’s music had been little more than a blip on the radar commercially. So the band members moved on. Parton and Amber started a recording studio called Low Earth Orbit, and Albertini dove headfirst into his own band Helvetia, which was initially distributed by Parton’s Static Cult label. They were fully prepared to let Duster rest as a droning, hazy footnote to the indie rock explosion of the ’90s.

But now, almost two decades later, Duster has a devoted, even rabid following. Vinyl copies of their albums sell for hundreds of dollars on the online marketplace Discogs. If you ask the right people, Duster are revered as legends and pioneers—not just by fans of the genre but by important contemporary artists—and they’re suddenly poised for a comeback, having played their first shows in 18 years this winter.

The music was always good, so why are people just now starting to come around to it? The answer starts, as with most things these days, with the internet. Duster were painfully obscure in their time, and they mostly relied on Up Records and their friends in bigger bands to carry their sound to new ears. Now they don’t need a label to reach new people. Word of mouth travels at lightning speed, and people no longer have to go digging through record bins labeled “miscellaneous” or “rock/pop” to find a Duster record. If you dig through the related artists for your favorite indie band on Spotify, you’re bound to come across Duster before too long.

Another helpful byproduct of the streaming era is a rising indifference towards genre lines and labels. The fringes of the “rock music” classification are bleeding into adjacent areas like pop, jazz, ambient and electronic music and even hip-hop. Artists who create their own spaces between genre signifiers are no longer just labeled experimental and shunted to the side. That space between genres is where Duster has always operated, and it’s where people are finding them today.

There’s still the pesky business of reconciling Duster’s sluggish, fuzzy sound with the aesthetics of the current scene. Duster have never been concerned with the whims of the mainstream, a fact that’s evident in how they’ve chosen to make their slow return to the limelight. But this time around appears to be different, because Duster’s listen-if-you-want-to attitude is working out in spite of itself, and they fit in now in ways they never did before.

Since 2000 when Duster was last active, and particularly in the last decade or so, guitar music has undergone a radical transformation. It’s now acceptable and even cool to rock at your own pace and play as loud or as quiet as you want. In Duster’s time, the norm—at least in the circles that might actually pick up one of their records—was late-career Pavement and Sonic Youth. It was Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker screaming “Dig Me Out” as Sleater-Kinney, and artists like PJ Harvey and Beck adopting a new sound entirely almost every year. It was bands like Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam desperately carrying the torch for the grunge movement. With all of that going on, it seems almost inevitable that a hazy, unassuming project like Duster would get buried in the detritus of the alternative explosion.

Duster’s entire lifespan fits into the three-year period between Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1997 and Kid A in 2000. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Duster’s sound could also fit neatly somewhere in the aesthetic flyover country between those two albums. Now, Radiohead’s latest effort is a melancholy, mostly slow-burning reverie that feels similarly unconcerned with tangibility or lucidity, and the field is littered with artists who owe at least part of their sound to Duster.

One such artist is (Sandy) Alex G. The renowned Philly songwriter has been putting out ragged, lo-fi weirdo pop since 2013, and his music builds on a lot of the ideas Duster first put forth. Any number of Alex’s songs could fit snugly into Duster’s discography, from the low hiss of “Memory” to the melodic shuffle of “Walk.” Both artists have a propensity for taking truly sweet and beautiful melodies and obscuring them as if underwater, only letting them shine through when absolutely necessary. Duster accomplishes this to great effect on the Contemporary Movement cut “Unrecovery,” with clear, ringing lead guitar breaking through the wall of noise around it. (Sandy) Alex G does something similar on his recent loosie “fay,” building tension with a tangled mess of soft guitar before the chorus comes and opens everything up. It’s unclear how much Alex knew of Duster when he was writing these songs, but there’s definitely some mutual respect there now, as Duster’s first gig in 18 years was an opening slot for him at Warsaw in Brooklyn.

Also on that bill was Harmony Tividad of the L.A.-based duo Girlpool. “I walked in during their soundcheck and I was shocked, just so deeply shocked that it was them,” Tividad says of her experience at the show.

Duster’s music has had a huge effect on Tividad’s approach to songwriting, both on her own and with Girlpool. “It’s poppy, but in a way that’s really subtle and untraceable really, like you don’t know why, it just is, and I love that about it,” Tividad says. “It’s rare for people to trust in a song when they’re writing it… but I think what really struck me about their music was that it was just so trusting in itself and it didn’t seem like it was sacrificing any moment to thinking about what someone else would want to hear.”

Everything about Duster’s music has a sense of deliberation to it, from the motley production and low vocal mix to the unique tone and mood the band brings to each of their songs. Girlpool have this same quality of effortless purpose on their most recent album What Chaos is Imaginary, especially when the duo’s guitars grow big and shoegazey on tracks like “Roses” and “Where You Sink,” the latter of which Tividad cites as being particularly influenced by Duster. Numerous other young bands wear their Duster influences on their sleeves whether they know it or not, like Horse Jumper of Love, The Spirit of the Beehive, Ovlov and Hovvdy just to name a few. They all bring something new and different to the table, but no one has since been able to replicate that implacable honesty and foggy, weightless state that Duster’s music achieves.

Duster just wrapped up a short run of tour dates along the West Coast, and they’re putting out a box set of their entire discography plus a handful of unreleased tracks on March 22. Other than a one-off Instagram post from last April saying they were “recording a bit,” no new music has been announced, although there have been rumors of an EP of new material on the way. Duster’s sound might have changed in the intervening years. It might be a bit more hi-fi now, a bit more precise. But unlike most bands who return after a 20-year absence, change is not a necessity for Duster. They fit in better now than they did when they were first active because their peers today are also their fans, and the indie-rock world has caught up to them at last. If Duster does decide to make a full-scale comeback, it’ll be to an audience that’s finally ready to float away into space with them and not look back.

The Photography of Ansel Adams Is Coming to the MFA

Originally published on bostonmagazine.com

The work of legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams is set to go on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in a new exhibition titled Ansel Adams in Our Time. The exhibition will include around 100 Adams photographs alongside works by the 19th century photographers who influenced him and contemporary artists who followed in his footsteps.

The Adams photographs on display will include notable works spanning his entire career, from his beginnings capturing the dramatic landscapes of the West to his time in San Francisco documenting urban sprawl and the Depression. The famous snow-tipped peaks of 1942’s “The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming” will be featured prominently in the exhibition, as will “Freeway Interchange, Los Angeles,” which was made some 25 years later.

The MFA decided to expand upon a 2005 Adams show to celebrate the recent gift of over 450 of his photographs, this time bringing the iconic artist into the modern day and contextualizing the lasting impact he had on landscape photography.

“It’s roughly the same sized show, but the emphasis is very different,” says the show’s curator, Karen Haas, who currently serves as the Lane Curator of Photographs for the MFA. “He’s this phoenix-like character, and knowing where he was coming from and who he admired seemed so much more interesting than redoing the show we did earlier and just looking at his career in a thematic, chronological way.”

The exhibition will primarily be organized around Yosemite National Park and the American Southwest, which are the areas where Adams first picked up the camera and began his career in the 1920s. It places his early work in the context of 19th century government survey photographers like Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, who shot some of the same views as Adams and inspired him to expand upon their ideas.

As for the contemporary photographers on display, Haas wanted to focus on artists who took inspiration from Adams’ subject matter and technique, but added their own visual or emotional perspective. Some artists included in the exhibition are more clearly connected to Adams than others, but Haas stresses that they are all “in conversation” with his work somehow, whether thematically, aesthetically, or technically.

On the surface, these contemporary artists deal with many of the same issues as Adams: vast untouched wilderness, land rights, natural resources, urban sprawl, and the human impact on the land. But they all bring a unique perspective that isn’t found in the photography of Adams or his predecessors.

“The photographers I chose for that space were virtually all foreign-born,” says Haas. “I think that says something about the national park as a symbol of America. As Americans it’s something we take more for granted, but for foreign-born photographers it seems to have another layer of meaning.”

A good example of this is Binh Danh, a Vietnamese photographer who came to America from what was then Saigon with his family in the 1970s. Danh uses daguerreotypes, a 19th century process that produces images with silvery, reflective surfaces, to capture the national parks of the Southwest. The resulting images allow the viewer to see themselves reflected in the vast, otherwise empty landscape.

Another featured artist is Abelardo Morell, a Cuban-born contemporary photographer who taught at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design for many years. Morell brought a massive tent into the wilderness to create a makeshift darkroom and fixed it with a high-quality digital camera, a periscope, and a mirror. This allowed him to capture some of the same views that Adams photographed and project them onto the ground under the tent, resulting in more impressionistic landscapes in which the cracks in the pavement and terrain under the tent are clearly visible in the photograph.

Haas also focused on including as many women in the exhibition as possible in order to debunk the longstanding belief in the photography world that the Western landscape was the domain of the white male photographer. She highlighted in particular the work of Laura McPhee and Victoria Sambunaris, both of whom capture stark, beautiful landscapes in their work.

McPhee is an environmental photographer who looks at the aftermath of human-caused forest fires and the plant life that begins to take hold after they pass. Sambunaris revisits many of the same sites that Adams shot and captures them in massive, high-definition color prints, some of which stretch up to eight feet across.

Haas also hopes to include a live stream of Yosemite National Park from the viewpoints that Adams documented in his work. Visitors to the exhibition will see the national park as it is at that very moment, and if they stay long enough, they’ll see the light change and move across the valley.

“When we say ‘In Our Time,’ we literally mean the day you’re there,” she says.

The exhibition attempts to impress upon the viewer not just the singular nature of Adams’ work, but also the astounding visual legacy that he left on the collective consciousness of the country, often without us even realizing it.

“For many of us who might never go to some of these places… when we conjure up Yellowstone National Park, the view we conjure up is actually an Ansel Adams photograph,” said Haas.

Jamaica Plain Artists Fight to Save Their Studios


Testimonials from artists working on Brookside Avenue in Jamaica Plain.


It was a bright afternoon in late September and Jamaica Plain’s Brookside Avenue was alive with activity. Birds were chirping, bubbles floated through the air from a humming machine on the sidewalk, and a small crowd had gathered for the 120 Brookside Farewell Fest, an open gallery event with live music, food, and drink. The event was a celebration of the building that housed a group of artists’ studio spaces for decades but is now being torn down by the city in favor of a luxury condo development. But it was also the launch of a new advocacy group called Brookside Artists that is hoping to raise awareness about the need to preserve spaces like theirs in Jamaica Plain.

The condo development on Brookside Avenue is part of a large-scale redevelopment effort being carried out by the city in this area. One of the goals of the project is to convert light industrial sections of the neighborhood where artists have traditionally lived and worked into residential areas.  As a result, many artists have already been priced out of their studios or forced to move to make way for entirely new structures.

“Artists came down here to Jamaica Plain back when nobody else would and sort of colonized the place, and we’re the first ones on the chopping block based on the fact that we  don’t historically have any real power economically. It’s just a case of the bottom line being the bottom line,” said Brendan Killian, one of the leaders of Brookside Artists. “So we’ve decided to rally our forces and try to stop it from happening.”

Killian is an oil painter who has worked at 128 Brookside Avenue for over 25 years. When he heard that 120 Brookside, the collection of studio spaces and galleries just next door, had been bought and scheduled for demolition, he knew he had to do something. The artists who worked in the two buildings formed their own little community, often collaborating and helping to promote each other’s work, and from that community came Brookside Artists.

“For us it’s about artists having a right to live and work in Jamaica Plain. Local politicians and the mayor talk about having neighborhoods in Boston with large cultural zones and artist galleries. But at the same time, the current policies and the market are pushing us out,” said Clive Moloney, a sculptor based at 120 Brookside. “Since the building has been sold, we’ve kind of pulled together. Before that it was just about making art, that’s all that really matters to us.”

However, when the proposal came before the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council Zoning Committee this summer, almost every attendee at the crowded July 19 meeting was in favor of it.

“Part of what happened in this case is the developer came in with a Memorandum of Understanding about things like putting in a privacy fence and whether or not they were going to keep the trees on the property,” Zoning Committee Chairman Dave Baron said. A Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, is a document signifying the developer’s intent to heed some of the community’s demands about a project. “Typically, if there are things a developer can do to satisfy the neighborhood, they will.”

This left the majority of attendees convinced in favor of the project from the outset. In an attempt to win over the remaining holdouts, most of whom were artists, the developer also suggested allocating some of the proposed residential units as live-work spaces that are zoned to function as both workspaces and housing. However, these spaces failed to meet the needs of the artists who have worked on Brookside Avenue for years.

“The space that we’re in now is a workspace only. A lot of artists in this building can’t make the kind of work that they’re making in live-work spaces. When you talk to the greater Boston community, when you talk to government officials, they all offer live-work spaces and say, ‘This is what we can do,’” Brian Wilson said. Wilson is a photographer who uses pinhole cameras to capture light field images and then mounts them on patterned sculptures, something he needs the wide-open space of his studio on the second floor of 128 Brookside to do properly.

When met with opposition on the live-work spaces, the developer finally settled on building three small commercial spaces on the property in addition to the residential units. These proposed commercial spaces would be vastly more expensive than the current rent at 120 Brookside, and despite the developers offering to hold a lottery to allow a potential tenant to occupy one of the spaces at reduced rent, the artists displaced by the project would be unable to afford them.

“At that point the artists who showed up at the meeting were somewhat resigned to it. They saw it as the best they were going to get,” Baron said. “If we had been more alert about the preservation of artist spaces then maybe there could have been a better result here.”

Beyond any hope of saving their building, the displaced artists of 120 Brookside have begun to search for new locations to work from. Unfortunately, the city’s ongoing redevelopment efforts have made it almost impossible to find space with affordable rent in the area. According to Moloney, many of them are even considering relocating to Hyde Park, the next suburb past Jamaica Plain, for its relatively untapped housing market. But abandoning Jamaica Plain is their last resort, and those who have been displaced are still working tirelessly with their neighbors at 128 Brookside to raise awareness about their situation and salvage what is left of the artist community in the neighborhood they love.

“Ultimately what we’re talking about is the death of the art culture in Jamaica Plain. It’s really that critical in my mind,” Killian said. “If we are able to rally ourselves to the point where we relocate or find some stability, some stable place to work, I would absolutely include in that a space where younger artists can come, either at very low cost or for free. Otherwise, there won’t be anyone to take our place, and that’s essential.”

“This space is like a second home to most of the artists here,” said Wilson. “It’s a community outside of our home. It’s a place where we can come and create our work, but also think and visualize what’s next. And without spaces like this, I don’t know where we’re going to be.”






Something Gigantic: A Quest for Answers in the Heart of America

millersBrett and Betsy Miller and their dog Maeby pictured in front of their 2017 Winnebago Travato. Photo courtesy of somethinggigantic.com

On the night of November 8th, 2016, Brett and Betsy Miller were in their Springfield, Missouri living room watching coverage of the presidential election with a few close friends. As the result became clear and the election was finally called, Brett Miller turned to his wife and said “I can’t do this,” and she shook her head as if to say “I can’t either.” It was at that moment that the first inklings of a plan began to form in their heads.

Many people across the country threatened to pack their bags and leave that night, but few will actually follow through. At the end of May this year, Brett and Betsy Miller will. They are embarking on a six-month journey across the United States and parts of Canada to discover how we can bridge the gaps that divide us and begin to mend our broken national discourse. Along the way, the couple will be holding conversations with Americans from all walks of life to try to answer some of these big questions. They plan to document their project, which they are tentatively calling Something Gigantic, with a few long-term writing projects and by blogging, podcasting, and producing music and film.

The Millers found themselves in a unique position around the time of the election. Two months before, they had sold the house they had lived in for most of their entire marriage and were getting ready to break ground on the construction of a smaller bungalow down the street. “What we both meant when we said ‘we can’t do this’ was that the thought of spending the next few months putting the finishing touches on the construction of a house just seemed like complete absurdity because this was just too important,” Brett Miller said. Betsy Miller was set to retire from her job as an elementary school reading teacher at the end of the year and Brett, a forensics and rhetoric professor at nearby Southwest Baptist University, was not far behind her. Their two daughters were out of college and successful in their careers. So when the couple began to take stock of the country’s intensely divided and broken state in the days following the election, they felt like it was time for a big change.

“For the first few days, the thinking was that we were in this unique point in our lives and beholden to no one,” Brett Miller said. “So we said to ourselves, ‘let’s just go, let’s just leave’.” But in the weeks following the election, they began to reconsider their motives. “I’ve never been particularly fond of running away from things, so it quickly turned from a retreat into a pursuit,” Brett Miller said. “This has the potential to completely restructure our society and it’s not okay for us to feel like we just ran away from it. So we had the idea that amidst our travel we would meet people and interview them and try to better understand what was happening.”

After this realization, things moved very quickly. The couple stopped construction on their new home and gave notice that they would be leaving their teaching positions at the end of the year. They sold their cars and most of their possessions and purchased a small Winnebago for the two of them and their dog to live and travel in during their journey. They also began to spread the word about their project and develop a website for documenting the trip, somethinggigantic.com.

However, as the couple’s plans evolved and the world adapted to new realities of division, fear, confrontation, and lack of dialogue, it became clear that their task would be much more difficult than they anticipated, especially where communicating with people with vastly different opinions is concerned. “I’m a firm believer in perspectivism, the idea that if truth exists then we gain a better vantage point on it by gathering more perspectives,” Miller said. “I think the big trick will be finding people who are willing to talk to me on record because what I’ve discovered is that people are becoming increasingly afraid to express their opinions.”

Despite these concerns, the Millers are uniquely qualified to communicate with people on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. They were both raised in very strict conservative evangelical households in the heart of the country and spent the first part of their lives as hard-line conservatives. Brett Miller campaigned for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in 1984. However, that changed when they met each other and started dating in college. “We were both very conservative at the beginning of our relationship, but then we went away from that together,” Betsy Miller said. They began to become increasingly disillusioned with the political right as well as with Evangelical Christianity.

“By 2000 I’d become much more moderate, bordering on libertarian. But then obviously 9/11 happened and the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration got us involved in the Iraq War,” Brett Miller said. “I think it was their decision to go to war in Iraq that was our first sort of ‘come to Jesus’ moment. We put an anti-war sign in our yard and became flaming liberals from that point on.”

“It’s been a long journey, a long transition,” Betsy Miller said. “But somehow we’ve been on the same page through it all.”

Their first-hand experience with conservative thinking and Evangelicalism is not the only thing that makes the Millers exceptionally well-equipped for the task of talking with and trying to understand people with views that are different from theirs. Their experience as teachers will be valuable as well. Betsy Miller was a first-grade teacher for fifteen years before realizing that her true calling was teaching children to read. “What I really enjoyed was problem-solving and helping kids that were struggling,” Betsy Miller said. “My mom very annoyingly always saw the other side of every story. She always stuck up for the other person and helped me learn to give validity to other people’s arguments and try to understand them. That’s what makes me good at my job because you have to try to problem-solve and see what the child is thinking and how they are interpreting things.” Betsy Miller hopes to bring these skills to their project and eventually turn what they learn about human nature and communication into a series of children’s books.

Brett Miller spent most of his teaching career as a speech and debate professor and a rhetorician at the highly conservative Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. “The forensics department at SBU was a pretty progressive department at an otherwise conservative-thinking school, so I was in a unique position to tread that landscape,” he said. “I would challenge students on their beliefs and I was known for pushing boundaries that most faculty on our campus did not, but I respected where I was and that [the university] had the right to define their agenda and their mission.”

The line that Brett Miller walked in his classroom between respecting and questioning students’ beliefs will prove crucial to the project, but he acknowledges that discourse alone will not solve all the problems the country faces.

“I think the idea that this is all a grand academic debate is just not the case and we have to get past that. It seems apparent to me at this point that all the energy we put into establishing the facts and making counter-arguments doesn’t get us anywhere. At this point, it seems to be that the best way to communicate with people who disagree with us is through emotion,” Brett Miller said. “The project is partly an escape and a form of catharsis for us but we also have high hopes that we’ll find something, that we’ll uncover a theme, a trend, or a cluster of ideas that might help unlock this discourse and bring us back together somehow.”