MILK ‘N’ COOKIES: IT WAS LIKE A FAIRY TALE
Legendary power-pop band Milk ’n’ Cookies thought they’d had it made when they got a deal with Island in 1974, but they turned out to be too late for glam and too soon (and far too cute) for the first wave of punk. But their first and only (and brilliant) album slowly built the cultiest of cult followings, surely inspiring all the sweetest stuff on Burger Records and starting hundreds of immortal friendships based on “Whoa, you know Milk ’n’ Cookies?” Though they flamed out in 1978 after songwriter Ian North left to pursue a new wave-ier solo career, some embers remained, and led by co-founder (and in another life, historic remixer) Justin Strauss, Milk ’n’ Cookies have reunited (sans North) for a few shows and a deluxe reissue of their self-titled debut. Strauss speaks now about the first days of the New York scene, their fifteen seconds of glam-rock fame and the remote possibility of coaxing North back into the fold. This interview by Ian Marshall.
You’re from just outside of what would be considered Brooklyn, right?
Justin Strauss (vocals): I grew up in Brooklyn till I was about 8 or 9, and then we moved to Long Island to a suburb. And that’s where Milk ’n’ Cookies was born. Long Island is a bit more yards, and more greens—it’s got a suburb kind of vibe. It’s kind of fancy. The area I grew up in is a nice area. We moved there because they had good schools. It was nice. And I hated it! I was a kid that got into music from the Beatles and was totally an Anglophile and the glam stuff started coming—Bowie and T. Rex. I was into the Buddah Records stuff, the Zombies, all those things. And I was in high school and kind of a loner. They were all into sports and I was a freak that was into this kind of music, and I met this girl in high school and she knew Ian and our original bass player, Jay. We started going out and she told Ian about me, and he was starting this band and she said, ‘Oh, you should have Justin be the lead singer!’ Not that I’d ever sung in a band before, but I guess I ‘looked like a lead singer.’ I mean—I had been in a little band when I was in sixth, seventh, eighth grade with friends. But I was more collecting records. That was my life. I spent all my time in record stores. And my dad had taken me to see the Beatles and the Stones and the Dave Clark Five. I met Ian and Jay and Mike, and my dad was an audio fanatic so we had a lot of tape recorders and audio equipment, so I started recording them in my basement as a kind of an instrumental group. Then it turned into me wanting to sing. That’s how it happened—gradually.
You mentioned the British invasion influence—is that what inspired you?
It was a combination of my father, who always had records around, and seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. After that, I was like, ‘This is the only thing I ever want to do for my entire life.’ I was a Beatles freak. So it was my dad’s love of music and my parents taking me everywhere to see shows—I was lucky.
So you’ve been recording demos in your basement and then …
The band wasn’t even named Milk ’n’ Cookies yet. We all bonded over a love of glam and all the British stuff and bubblegum. It was hard to meet like-minded people, especially in Long Island. We found Sparks, and the New York Dolls—that was a huge huge thing for Milk ’n’ Cookies. ‘Oh, we can do it too!’ These English bands—we’re far removed from that. But here is a band that we could go see, and this was before CBGB or the New York scene—we were going to Max’s to see Sparks and Iggy and it was all inspirational to Milk ’n’ Cookies. We got to become friends with them and it made it seem real. The New York Dolls got a record deal—‘They’re no different than us, so this is obtainable.’ Before CBGB, there were all these little places to play, like the Coventry, where Kiss played. And we met this band the Fast, who were playing around and renting little theaters and playing. They were the first band who asked us to play with them, so we would open for them. They were much more mod. It’s pretty safe to say that Kiss were totally inspired, make-up wise, by the Fast. They were doing stars on their faces before Kiss. The singer from the Fast, Paul [Zone], has a book called Playground, which is a fascinating account of New York at the time. And Paul was taking pictures. There are pictures of me and Ian and everyone. It’s a great read and captures what happened in New York at the time.
As grubby as people make it sound in New York at that time, it was where everything started.
It was really what I would call the center of the universe at that point cuz you have punk stuff, disco stuff, rap, all being born together. I don’t know that we’ll ever see something like that again. It was quite the time to be alive. It was insane, like a dream. New York was dirty, gritty; it wasn’t Disney World like it is now, and I think that spurs a lot of creativity. People could come here and get a cheap apartment—all these great people who came to be could come to New York and express themselves. And unfortunately that’s not really possible anymore. It was a creative time of cultural explosion here that changed the world forever.
Tell me about some of your early gigs.
One of our first gigs was a sweet 16 party. And we got a bunch of baseball uniforms and dyed them pink—pink baseball uniforms at the Coventry. We also had pink pajamas with feet. We were cultivating the idea of a uniform but that didn’t last very long, so we just started wearing different clothes.
When you guys were in that basement cutting demos and you’re about to open your mouth to sing to it … at the time there weren’t a lot of people that sounded like you. Where did that sound come from?
It wasn’t anything I did on purpose. I just had this sound to my voice. The music was pretty hard—it was garage-y sounding and contrasted with my voice. A lot of people didn’t get it, and even after we got signed, people were like, ‘You sound like a girl.’ When I heard the Only Ones, it’s like, ‘Wow, these guys must have heard us.’ The guy who produced their record was one of the engineers on the Milk ’n’ Cookies album, and the cover even had letters like we had our letters. It was a lot of coincidences. As the years go on, I meet more and more people who are like, ‘Yeah, we were big Milk ’n’ Cookies fans!’ Which is great and flattering and cool!
But where were they with their money in 1975?
Looking back on it, it just makes more sense now. The whole glam thing was going on in the U.K. and we were disciples. When I was a kid, I was dying for these records and it was hard to find them. You didn’t go in a record store and find the newest RAK single or the newest thing on Bell. I would write letters to all these record labels and told them I was a writer for some magazine and I got on their mailing list. I would be getting all these records in the mail every other day. I got on the T. Rex promo list, so it was like Christmas every day and everyone would hang out at my house because we rehearsed in my basement. But anyway a lot of people didn’t get the vocals at the time—they thought they were fey and girly. When I sang, that’s what came out, and it got us a record deal before basically any one else in New York. We were just making these demos with vocals in the basement, and sent the tape to David Bowie’s Main Man management and to Sparks’ management cuz we felt that those people might get what we do. We got a letter from Main Man saying, ‘Keep up the good work and keep us posted’ and, you know, ‘we’re not going to manage you.’ And we got a reply from Sparks’ managers saying, ‘We love this, we want to work with you guys.’ Sparks had moved to England and were doing stuff on Island, and they said, ‘We played your tape for the head of A&R on Island and he wants to come to New York and meet you guys and see you play.’ I was still in high school! And they said, ‘We really like you but we don’t like your bass player. We don’t like the way he looks and we would like you to consider another bass player. We know this guy Sal Maida, who just got off the road with Roxy Music, and we think he’d be a great fit for Milk ’n’ Cookies.’ We were willing to give it a shot, so we met Sal and unbeknownst to our bass player had an audition with him and we loved him. He was a total Anglophile record collector. We threw out Jay and got Sal. At that point it was like, ‘OK, we’re coming over and we want to see you guys play.’ We ended up playing for Muff Winwood and Sparks’ managers in my basement near Long Island and got signed that night! It was like a fairy tale. After it was over we went upstairs, and my parents were there—I quit school and I was like, ‘I’m going, that’s it.’ I’d never been to England and here I am, going to England to record an album with my band and Muff Winwood is producing it—the guy who produced one of my favorite records. Everything seemed to fall into place.
Did you go back to school and brag?
I was always kind of an outcast at school and word started getting out: ‘Oh, your band has been signed, and you’re gonna be famous.’ Then everybody wants to be your friend.
Back then, getting signed was like you’d made it!
We went over there and we were put up in this amazing little townhouse in South Kensington, and we would go to the studio every day and record and go record shopping in between. And go to clubs. We recorded at Island Studios and Muff Winwood produced it, the engineers ended up working with Roxy Music a lot and produced the B-52’s. It was a mind-blowing experience.
For me, if I could get off a time machine plane and be in England in 1974 in the middle of that scene, I couldn’t think of a better place. Did you get a buzz going where you got to be surrounded by fabulous people?
Obviously we got to get friendly with Sparks because we had the same management. Roxy Music, Robert Palmer, and the Wailers were recording one of their first albums while we were in the studio. We walked in and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face cuz of the smoke! I didn’t even know what I was hearing—reggae was kind of a new thing.
Bob Marley wasn’t a god yet?
Yeah! It was pretty insane! We’d go to this place called Speakeasy and all these fantastic stars were in there, and every Thursday we’d watch Top of the Pops. The music was so ingrained in the culture there—that music and magazines and fashion and clothes. I still have the list I made of the ‘wants’ that I found. Stuff like Troggs, Blossom Toes, all these records, and I found a lot of them for next to nothing. There was no eBay, no Discogs, just kind of going in record stores and digging. Sal took me to a place called Vintage Records. It was this dirty store lined wall-to-wall with 45s. I spent the whole day in there with him, and we’d come out with piles and piles of records and they were dirt cheap, like 55p, it was nuts—the Eyes EP for next to nothing. We were there almost two months. Then we came back to New York and this New York scene was starting to explore. CBGB came into the picture. We shot the cover and the whole promotion machine was going. They asked us to come back in February of 75. They were going to release the first single and they wanted us to do promotion. They picked ‘Little, Lost, and Innocent’ as the first single, and we were like, ‘Really? When you have a song like “Not Enough Girls (in the World)”? What do we know? We’re not a record company. They must know better.’ And while we were in New York we shot two films—one for ‘Little, Lost and Innocent’ and one for ‘Rabbits Make Love.’ I have not been able to find them cuz they weren’t on video at that point. They got shown on British TV shows. And we began gigging heavily, at like CBGB, playing every other weekend with the Ramones or Blondie, Talking Heads, the Runaways … we were playing a lot.
How did Ian North get control of the songwriting?
It was Ian’s vision, song-wise. He was the songwriter. He was not sharing that, nor was there really much pressure cuz we really loved his songs. He’d make a little demo of the songs, and we’d work it out and come up with the arrangement. And he was very prolific at that time. There are a lot of songs that were never even recorded.
After you came back from London to New York, a new scene erupts, but you’re called back to England to do PR—what happened when you returned?
The album hadn’t been released, and when we got back to New York, there was a bit of jealousy—‘Oh, why was it that Milk ’n’ Cookies got a record deal?’ Then we found out that Island had got cold feet about releasing the album. We got a call from our manager saying, ‘We have good news and bad news. The bad news is Island is not putting out the album. Yeah, you know, the single didn’t do that well—they don’t know if they want this poppy band on the label. It’s not really their image. But the good news is we’ve got Bell Records interested! And [Island] gave us back the album and we can do whatever we want with it.’ We were obviously very disappointed and kind of in shock. The fairy tale wasn’t the fairy tale it turned out to be. We were counting on our English managers to do it. We believed in them, but nothing was happening. We started doing all these gigs in New York and Sire records become interested and gave us a contract. Not even to re-release that album, but to record the Girls in Gangs album. At that point, the whole punk scene started exploding in England and Island Records goes, ‘Oh wait! We have this New York band, don’t we? Yeah, we do—Milk ’n’ Cookies.’ So they decided to release the album right when all this punk was happening, and we’re their New York punk band even though we’re really not a punk band. We get this call from [our manager John] saying Island wants to reissue the album, and we want Ian to come over and talk to them about it. Meanwhile we’re negotiating a deal with Sire. So when Ian gets over to England, it turns into not really—they’re going to release the Milk ’n’ Cookies album but they don’t want Milk ’n’ Cookies anymore. ‘We want to sign Ian North to a solo deal.’ We were like, ‘Whoa.’
Was that true or did Ian spin it that way?
Ian might have pushed that, let’s say. Ian was disillusioned with the band, at this point, to have gone through the fairy tale and the nightmare, and wanted to maybe pursue a solo thing. Which is what it turned into. Although it never happened. And Ian being Ian, at the time pissed it a bunch of people off there and they said, ‘We’re not dealing with this.’ Then he went on to get involved in the punk scene and got a record deal. And we were just left in New York. Sal had already left the band to join Sparks and record Big Beat. Ian had moved to England, and me and Mike were stuck in New York. I was devastated. I get a call from Sal, who says, ‘You gotta come out here [to L.A.] and start the band. Everyone asks me about Milk ’n’ Cookies! Milk ’n’ Cookies are legendary out here!’ I’d never been to L.A. but I talked to Mike and convinced him and we went out to L.A. and put a new band together and started playing shows and after a few months, Sal rejoined the band. We did stuff from the first album, and stuff that would be on the second album. It was a really incredible time to be in L.A., cuz it was the beginning of the whole thing there. We became friends with Rodney [Bingenheimer], and he was very supportive. Elton John’s label was interested in us, and a few other things were going on, but nothing happened. After a year and a half, two years—1978—I started to miss New York. So that was the end of Milk ’n’ Cookies. That’s the basic timeline of the whole mess. My old girlfriend who had got me into Milk ’n’ Cookies calls me and was like, ‘You have to come back to New York. There’s this great club called the Mudd Club, and I became friends with the DJ there and I think you could DJ there—you have so many great records.’ So I get this gig at the Mudd Club. But when I first got back, one of the managers from Milk ’n’ Cookies was like, ‘I want to manage you as a solo artist.’ I loved James Brown and I had this idea to cover this Bootsy Collins record. I had a little demo of it. I met the guys from Stiff who were opening a New York office, and they were like, ‘We love this, we want to put it out.’ And that’s how that happened. Before I did that I actually recorded a couple of tracks that Ron and Russell [Mael] wrote for me, right after they did the Giorgio Moroder, disco-y stuff. Kinda cool, but never came out.
Prior to arriving at the Mudd Club, were you paying much attention to this dance-y vibe that became a part of your life? When did you get the bug for clubby music?
I was always into soul music as well, and collected all that stuff. When Studio 54 was around, me and my girlfriend—we were young, like 17—would sneak in there, and I started buying disco records, too. A lot of people that are into Milk ’n’ Cookies and that kind of stuff are very close-minded when it comes to other types of music. For me, it all makes sense. I love that—I also love disco and house.
It’s hard to imagine other people out of the scene—like Johnny Ramone—being comfortable at Studio 54.
I have always been like, ‘If it’s good, it’s good.’ There’s a lot of crappy punk and glam records and there’s a lot of bad disco records, but some are incredible. Obviously, I really love that stuff, and I recorded it. I always managed to be in the right place at the right time. I was lucky to be around New York in the 70s—the Paradise Garage, the Mudd Club, all these fabled places. Being in L.A. for the whole punk thing—the Screamers, the Go-Go’s. All these things have influenced my musical sensibilities, from punk to disco to house. After DJing all these clubs, I started wanting to get involved in remixing and I’ve been lucky enough to remix hundreds of records. Back then, you weren’t breaking records on the internet—you were breaking records at the clubs. Labels were bringing acetates and reel-to-reel tapes to DJ at the clubs. I became friends with all these labels and I’d be like, ‘Hey, why don’t you let me try something in the studio?’ One thing led to another—one thing becomes a hit and all of a sudden everybody wants you.
Do you think not getting famous with Milk ’n’ Cookies ultimately helped you find yourself and your career?
It forced me to re-think it. It was a very natural process: ‘Why don’t you come back to New York and maybe you can DJ?’ I knew music was something I always wanted to do—as my job or my life and I could never see myself doing anything else. I was obsessed. Things just kind of fell into place. I’m in the unique position of having done all of [these successful remixes] and having done something like Milk ’n’ Cookies, which has now kind of come around. I never thought that I’d be playing with Milk ’n’ Cookies at this point in my life, or that anyone would care. When I started DJing and stuff, I thought that Milk ’n’ Cookies was forgotten about. But somehow or other, I still love this stuff, and I’m still inspired by it. I don’t take it for granted. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, this isn’t what it was … ’ If you just sit around and bitch about that all the time, you’re not gonna do anything creative—you’re not gonna try and push the envelope a little further. For whatever reason, I still have that in me. I still love making records, and being on stage with Milk ’n’ Cookies. Y’know, Ian has a lot of trouble with Milk ’n’ Cookies …
Why isn’t he involved?
Ian’s a difficult guy sometimes. I guess he feels a bit bitter about what happened. He sort of broke up the band when he left for England that time, and probably pushed his solo thing more than the band. And now that he sees that Milk ’n’ Cookies have gotten all this love years later, he has a hard time with it. Ian’s whole thing is that he wanted to be taken seriously as a serious songwriter, and he feels somewhat embarrassed, I’d say, by the lyrics of Milk ’n’ Cookies and the adolescent innocence of it maybe. I said, ‘Ian, Milk ’n’ Cookies is the most important thing you’ve ever done and ever will do—you really need to embrace it and you really need to understand what it means to people.’ There’s a lot of people, especially because of the re-releases, that are finding out about this band, and somehow or other, it still resonates with kids. I am so proud of it. I wish Ian could enjoy it. He is becoming better about it. He came to New York—he lives in Florida now—and I made him go to a party. Somebody played a Milk ’n’ Cookies song, and the place went nuts. Everybody was singing along and Ian was like, ‘Wow.’ He didn’t wanna know about it for years. I asked him to come play with us and everything, but he just can’t seem to … He’s like, ‘I haven’t played a guitar in years.’ And I’m like, ‘You don’t have to. Just show up on stage with us for a couple of songs during the encore, and people will lose their minds.’
You have a different life now that’s not a hundred percent Milk ’n’ Cookies—it must be a little odd for you, to be going back.
The whole pain of the end of Milk ’n’ Cookies was something I didn’t want to think about cuz I always thought it was such a great band and could have been so huge. It was painful that it never seemed to reach its potential. Years later some Japanese label re-released the CD without anyone’s knowledge and I was at a record store one day and saw it. ‘Whoa! What is this?’ All of a sudden all these weird things started happening. I’d see people online talking about Milk ’n’ Cookies and trying to get in touch with me about it. We got asked to do this power pop festival in Brooklyn and so we did that.
Were people surprised you were right under their noses?
What blew me away about the whole thing was that it was all these kids who had discovered the band through the internet or whatever, and who were just totally into Milk ’n’ Cookies. When we stepped out on the stage I was blown away! The kids who knew every song and were singing along!
It’s got a more solid cult following than a lot of things that had some sales at the time.
It’s funny–when we were going to reissue [the record] people were scared to hear some of the unreleased songs. We’d done some demos for Warner Bros. and we were like, ‘We don’t want it to mess with our stuff!’ But it was good and everyone was happy! [The record] was an elusive record for a long time—people were looking for it. Now more people know about it because of the reissue, but before people were really coveting it. The people who are into Milk ’n’ Cookies are like a cult. If you meet someone who’s into Milk ’n’ Cookies, it’s like, ‘Whoa, you know Milk ’n’ Cookies?’
MILK ’N’ COOKIES WITH RONNIE SPECTOR, SHANNON AND THE CLAMS, THEE OH SEES AND MORE ON SAT. AND SUN., JULY 5 AND 6, AT MOSSWOOD PARK, OAKLAND. $35 / 12:30 PM BOTH DAYS / ALL AGES. BURGERBOOGALOO.COM. MILK ’N’ COOKIES’ SELF-TITLED ALBUM WILL BE REISSUED THIS FALL ON CAPTURED TRACKS.