The Michael Miller Interview

Local troubadour, Michael Miller has just released his second album to the public. He’s been making quite a bit of noise in his backyard, but it’s high time that the entire world knows and sings along to Michael Miller. I had a chance to email him a few questions, which he answered sometime in the early hours of the morning.

Brad: State your name and occupation.

Michael: Michael Miller. Songwriter/Artist.

B: This album sounds like a lot more time was spent on production. That’s not to say the last one didn’t sound well-produced, but what were the major differences between the recording of your debut record and this one?

M: Indeed, we spent much more time mixing and mastering than the last one. But I think the biggest difference was in the amount of time spent in the recording. Partly, due to some unavoidable circumstances and partly due to my obsessive, fickle perfectionism. Something with which I had to eventually come to terms was dealing with things not always turning out just so. The engineer would constantly throw at me ‘Michael, you need to embrace the imperfection.’

B: Where did you find all of the talented players on this album? You just don’t hear a tuba on many records these days.

M: My regular bandmates have been playing with me for several years. Everybody else on the album came from my pool of friends, guys I have known for years and years. In fact, I had a tough time limiting the number of players on the record. I had so many choices and it really just came down to timing – who happened to be in town on a given day for a particular session.

The tuba first came as a suggestion from Joe Ongie (co-producer). There was an amazing bass part already on the song by Mark Harmon (the 77s) and it took a little convincing for me to take it out of the song completely. Once I bought into Joe’s idea to try it, it became a matter of finding a tuba player. Debbie (our cellist) had several friends who actually played tuba with her in the orchestra world. So it was surprisingly easy to find. A guy named Roger Keast was our first choice. He also plays a ton of other instruments and that really appeals to me – someone who is a multi-instrumentalist, rightly or wrongly, I expect them to be more “musical” in their approach to playing.

B: How long did the actual process take, from start to finish?

M: The majority of the album was recorded this past year. But a couple songs were actually completed a couple years ago. There were some problems recovering the master tapes (a real rock cliché drama) and potential legal disputes that eventually got resolved. Sometimes good things just take time, I guess.

B: I’ve noticed, going through your site, that you seem to be quite the well-traveled gentleman, not to mention a good photographer. How have your world travels impacted your music?

M: Meeting so many different people from around the world has expanded my universe, certainly, and altered my viewpoint of humanity. Just getting to have lengthy conversations with strangers or exchange opinions, biases, stereotypes in random, chance meetings has had an impact. Getting to live amongst people in their own environment/world (albeit a short time), of course colors everything you do or say or think or dream. Hearing so many different kinds of music first-hand in other cultures has definitely flavored my own sound as well (overtly and sub-consciously). I’ve gotten to imbibe the jigs and jams in the pubs of Doolin, Ireland, flamenco and tangos in Seville, Spain, fado in Portugal, opera in Vienna, sufi chants in Cairo, Egypt, folkloric music in Tunisia and the Muslim call to prayer in Morocco and Jerusalem. Having a carefree, wanderlust and HOPE of getting lost (literally getting lost) in other countries sort of extends and pervades into all areas of life…not being afraid to explore the unknown…not worried of losing track of time…

B: Speaking of being a good photographer, what are some of your other talents?

M: I love to draw. When I am not writing or playing music, I am usually doodling and drawing for my greeting card company. I have been doing it for years, but since it is seasonal – Christmas cards only – I am free to play music and travel the rest of the year. My greatest talent of all, I think, is just being a producer or director. I really enjoy having the final say in everything. I also have a real talent for assembling a great band, or “team” as they say in the business world. Putting people with MORE talent all around you is the key to success. I guess my eye for microscopic detail and design aesthetics is also a talent (or a curse). I’ve put a lot of friendships (and business relationships) to the test with that little talent.

B: What are you listening to these days?

M: Iron & Wine, Ethiopiques vol 4 (charming Ethiopian jazz from the 70’s), Astor Piazzolla, Wes Cunningham, Miles Davis (man with the horn), the latest Coldplay and Tori [Amos] albums (my guilty pop pleasures).

B: Is there a particular artist or group of artists that you listen to for inspiration? I’d venture to say you like Grant Lee Phillips a lot.

M: Yes, I like Grant Lee Phillips very much. I think it was Grant and Jeff Buckley that first let me know that singing in falsetto was really cool or okay (besides listening to the Stylistics when I was very young). The usual suspects, as trite or boring as it sounds, I’m such a sucker for anything Thom Yorke/Radiohead, Elliott Smith, the Innocence Mission. Aimee Mann. I’ve always been inspired by the guys who play almost everything themselves and still make cohesive, brilliant records: Karl Wallinger, Jason Falkner and Jon Brion, to name a few.

B: What’s a day in the life of Michael Miller?

M: Hmm…um, usually I wake up around noon or so after working the night before til 5 or 6am, get my mail, email, make phone calls, whatever, then work on the day’s chores. I have come to finally realize how easily distracted I get and I will work on several jobs at once (whether it is an art project or music project) usually on whichever one is least pressing, putting off what is really important or more urgent for “later.” I always wait until the last minute for any deadline…I think I have been like that my whole life – if there isn’t a flame under me, I won’t feel the urgency to get something done. Before the afternoon is over, as a general rule, I try to walk out on the beach at least once a day – just to get sunlight, if nothing else. Sunsets are so neglected or taken for granted these days. It’s super corny, but I really try to go watch the sunset as often as I can, like a favorite TV show or something. At night, if we are not rehearsing or recording, I am usually working again until the wee hours on songs or art stuff. My days seem so fractured, but in the end, I always feel like I didn’t get enough done or that there weren’t enough hours in the day.

B: Do you have a ritual when it comes to writing songs? Do you go someplace in particular to write or just carry around paper and write when the feeling strikes?

M: I don’t really have a scheduled “writing time” of the day or dedicated place of inspiration. I wish I did. My best songs have come while traveling, I think. Quite often without any instrument in hand. I try to carry a notepad with me or a little pocket tape recorder to grab the melodies or words that float by in my head. I have a lousy memory. If I don’t write it down or sing it into a recorder, I forget it immediately. In the middle of the night, coming out of a dream or the moment I am just about to fade out to sleep, I hear things. I have literally heard melodies or songs IN THE DREAM itself (sometimes it sounds SO amazing in the dream but I can’t recall it when I wake up. Maybe that’s why they call it a dream). I even keep a separate notebook and recorder by my bedside. If I don’t force myself to scribble an idea in the dark, or turn the light on to write something down or record it, I lose it by the next morning.

B: What’s your take on the state of the music industry?

M: There needs to be another revolution or something. I think the pressure from downloads and free music is definitely kicking it in the butt to change its ways. But rest assured, where there is money to be made, they (industry profiteers) will follow. Greed has a way of inspiring innovation. It seems to be in such a flux right now. They’re all scrambling because they don’t know what to do to hold onto their share of the pie.

B: Do you think music downloads hurt or help the industry?

M: On one hand, it is exciting to hear that the supposed “downloads” are hurting major record chains and putting them under or forcing labels to re-think how they do things. I’m just glad that something is happening to change the corporate structure and the little guys voices are collectively making a difference. I love the idea that real music is getting out without the corporate filters telling people what they are supposed to like and that the “playing field” is somehow more equal for indie artists. Downloads definitely make indie music more available to be heard.

I have many friends who really do buy albums after they hear a downloaded sample or MP3. That is the way it is supposed to work. The thrill of making tapes for friends and turning them onto new music is what it’s all about. There just needs to be a way to publicly, brutally punish the abusers.

B: You’re close enough to Los Angeles. How come you don’t play here? Do you have something against us?

M: With the new record out, I think there is now a good reason to play there. Up til now, I have been somewhat hibernating to just finish this [When We Come To] and now I really want to let it be heard. I suspect I will be playing there soon.

B:What are your plans, if any, for a tour on this album?

M: Right now, a tour is in the works for the West coast in late spring. Maybe even as far north as Vancouver. I am really excited to have people hear the whole band because they are so amazing. Seriously, I am so proud to be playing with them. It has always been important to me to have a band that sounded as good as the record and vice-a-versa. I may also be going out solo for some dates in the summer. We’ll see.