Milkboy blends acoustic tunes and java

Justin Rodstrom

Sailboat paintings hang on the lime green couch-cushion walls.

Hip orange stalactite lighting effects dangle over mocha espressos, plush couches and conversation.

Wi-fi beams out to MacBook computers for the savvy college kid or hip young urban professional.

The pierced cashier is wearing a bright red Flaming Lips Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots T-shirt and a smile.

Tommy Joyner, the owner of Milkboy Coffee and Recording Studios, pauses.

“You play the cello, huh?” he says off-handedly to a young girl sipping from a mug, reading the Inquirer.

“Yes, I’ve been playing for four or five years now.”

“Hi, I’m Tommy, and I’m one of the guys who runs this place and our recording studio across the street,” he says.

“We’re actually looking for a cellist right now. Could I get your number or something?”

“Sure, definitely.”

Joyner hands me a large raspberry tea and surveys the scene and we head back to Milkboy Recording Studios to discuss inspiration, local music and, yes, coffee.

Joyner grew up in a middle class part of South Carolina, listening to big band jazz, rock and anything else his grandmother would let him get his hands on.

“Ever since I heard ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ from Glenn Miller, all I wanted to do was music,” he says. “Then I started getting into KISS, and that was it.

My grandmother bought me ‘Love Gun’ from KISS, even though the album cover was definitely inappropriate for a 5-year old, but that was really my first taste of hard rock.”

He soon picked up the drums and guitar, joining bands here and there throughout his adolescence. Attending college at USC, the musician nearly traded in his passion for a degree in political science.

“What was I thinking?” Joyner says.

“All these guys coming out of college know so much about music; it’s hard to keep up,” he says, bewildered by his decision to study political science over music theory or studio engineering.

After graduating, however, Joyner eschewed a career in political science and relapsed into music, starting his own recording studio in 1994.

But studio life became consuming for the young entrepreneur.

“It’s just running a small business and a recording studio takes so much of your life,” he says. “I remember not too long ago, if this thing was going to work, I had to put in 80-hour weeks. Thank God I’ve got some support now, but everyone still works their asses off around here.”

Joyner has refocused Milkboy Recording Studio as primarily an engineering, mixing and producing studio for local Philly artists.

But as any successful entrepreneur does, Joyner looks to the future of his baby.

“The dream for the future is to one day ratchet up again to full label status, we haven’t released an album of our own in about eight to 10 years now.”

A pet project started by one of Tommy’s new recruits, “Unlabel”, is starting to carve out that dream. With promotions and album marketing the focus of “Unlabel,” Milkboy helps up-and-coming artists get their name out there.

“A lot of these guys (artists) know how to make their art, but they don’t know how to sell it,” Joyner says. “You have to know how to hawk it to people. The process isn’t over until you get the music out there.”

But certain sacrifices had to be made in order to get Milkboy Recordings on two feet. Joyner, now into his 30s has largely had to give up making any music of his own.

“Lets put it this way, my [drumming] chops aren’t what they used to be,” he says. “I play on about six or eight recordings per year. Sometimes I think, ‘Man, I could be the guy playing drums for that band.'”

And as well as things seem to be piping along over at Milkboy Recordings, after three years Milkboy’s other front, Milkboy Coffee, is still bleeding red ink.

With two locations on the Main Line, Milkboy Coffee has that Starbucks selection but with a warmer, hipster cache. Milkboy Coffee has become the live outlet for all the talent Joyner sees burgeoning out of the Philly area, a place Joyner has developed a real love for, with hopes that one day Milkboy can be the catalyst for a new music scene organic to the Philadelphia area.

“All the big bands go off to L.A. and lose their grounding,” Joyner says, lamenting over the line of deserters from the Philly scene.

“They get so overwhelmed by the whole scene that they forget what made them unique, where they come from. We have so much talent here in Philly that is just untapped. The last big bands to come out of Philly were Laguardia and Dandelion.”

That L.A. mentality Joyner loathes has certainly taken its toll on Milkboy Recordings and Milkboy Coffee, robbing the area of its musical treasures in search of the big money and fame associated with the city of flowers, sunshine and broken dreams.

Joyner cites the trend as one of the primary reasons for Milkboys’ current impasse.

“The decisions we make here are so important to whether we stay alive or go under,” he says.

“Unlike so many decisions in your life that you can correct, right now we need to make the right call,” he says.

Joyner is sure that if Milkboy can resuscitate local music, many of its problems will disappear.

Joyner’s partners are currently looking at Milkboy Coffee as a lame duck investment, but the effervescent Joyner is ever the optimist about Milkboy’s future.

“We’re at a very exciting and critical period for us right now,” he says. “We’re at the edge and looking over into the chasm.”