Talking with Michael Miller is always an experience like no other. There is this sincere quality about him that only comes from a true artist who is honest about his work. He is very particular about what he does (almost painstakingly), whether it be his music or his artwork – and it shows. It’s this attention to detail and care that has always piqued my interest whenever he puts out a new album. I’m always curious about what surprise will be hidden in songs that are sweet and easy to listen to, put paradoxical at the same time. Michael Miller just released his new album “I Made You Up” earlier this summer with the help of a star studded cast of players. I phoned Michael for an interview and caught him somewhere in Pennsylvania, half way through his tour across the country.
CMP: What are you listening to in the van right now?
MM: That’s a good question. I was just thinking about that today, how it’s almost become my favorite part of the trip. We drive all night after each show to get to the next town, and it’s turned into this special part of the late night, starry drive. We’ve been listening to Beatles rarities, the last Radiohead that Mike [Roe] brought along, the box set with some lovely out-takes and bonus tracks. We listened to a bunch of Coltrane and Segovia, Hendrix – Live at the Fillmore East, and Kraftwerk the other night. Another treat, Mike made me listen to the entire Stephen Stills catalog. It’s been quite an eclectic mix and a chance to hear things I haven’t heard in awhile, or ever. To be honest, I don’t get to listen to too much music at home because I am too busy and I never have this much down time with nothing to do. So it’s been really nice.
CMP: So how’s it going? You are about half way through the tour, right?
MM: Yep. About half way. So far, so good. It has become a smooth routine and we haven’t had one day off yet. There hasn’t been any time to do anything except jump in the car and drive to the next place, get loaded in, play and repeat. The scenery has been amazing, though. Just yesterday we drove out of Canada, my first time there. It was really beautiful seeing miles and miles of corn fields, dirt roads, lightning bugs… and more corn fields… and green, green forests everywhere… such a lovely break from the scenery back home. I haven’t traveled too much since we first started working on the record, which drove me crazy… so this is my first time out of California in awhile and it feels incredible.
CMP: I last saw you playing in Hollywood, and that was with the full band. I also saw you play once before in Santa Ana when it was just you and a guitar. What does your lineup look like now that you’re on tour?
MM: Well, it’s just me and Mike Roe right now on this tour. We are both solo. The last show, right before I left, was a full band show with everybody. This time of year, everyone is out on tour somewhere, so even if I was home I would probably be playing by myself. Sometimes it’s nice to not have the whole band, though, and to get to hear the songs stripped naked. My hope or my goal is to get the whole band out here on the road soon to really do the record justice.
CMP: It looks like Brendan Buckley was a pretty big part of this record. How did that relationship come together?
MM: We originally met touring with Minnie Driver. I was the opener, and he was playing with Minnie, and he and the rest of her band would come join me during my set each night. We’ve been playing together ever since, for quite a few years now, so he has always known the songs and knows how I think. We started this record a couple years ago. There was actually somebody else producing, then some time went by, almost a year went by with nothing. After we recorded all the songs, there were many I just hated, that I was very unhappy with. So, aside from a couple keepers, we started over from scratch and redid everything. Dan Rothchild came in on bass, and Brendan just kind of stepped up and said ‘Hey, what if I produce this with you?’ and wanted to be a bigger part of it. I hadn’t really given it any thought up to that point, you know, I just thought I would do it all myself, but it was great to have him jump on. It was super encouraging, for the most part, because I wasn’t sure where it was going to go. I mean, I had some idea, but Brendan stepped in and made it all cohesive, made it make sense.
CMP: In what ways did the dynamic change, once Brendan committed to the project?
MM: Brendan is a real finisher, and I know I have a tendancy to drag things out sometimes. I hate to reference yin and yang, but he really was the other part of the puzzle to get things moving and make things happen. He, Dan and I started to record all the basic tracks at New Monkey studio, where we had started a year before. Then it made more sense to do the vocals at Brendan’s studio where there wouldn’t be as much pressure to finish it all in one day. Because of our schedules, sometimes we wouldn’t see each other for days at a time, or even a couple weeks. I would go over there from 10PM, or sometimes midnight, until 6 in the morning. There were also a few streaks where he was out of the country doing all sorts of crazy shows with Shakira, I think, while I kept working.
CMP: With this collaboration, were there any surprises and differing opinions of style?
MM: Lots of surprises. But for the most part, everything we did seemed to work out just right. One song in particular, “Between Us And Them,” he kind of took into an unexpected territory. Originally, I thought it was just going to be me and a guitar with a string quartet, and that was how the first round went, but it ended up getting cut. When we came back to the song later, it became this Portishead, loungy thing, growing into something new, and that was mostly from Brendan taking it that way. That was a real surprise. With everyone contributing their own little magic sauce, all I had to do was stay out of the way and let the surprises happen. It was very interesting to see it evolve while we were working on it, sometimes separately and then together; going away, then each of us coming back with new ideas.
CMP: Did the whole recording process take a long time because of the collaboration, or did it just lock into place when you guys got going on it?
MM: Well, a little bit of both. There were certain things we did at my studio or Brendan’s place, mainly because we couldn’t afford to do everything at a big studio. At New Monkey [Elliott Smith’s old studio], Elliott was kind of a freakish collector of analog gear and old Beatles’ gear and microphones, analog tape, some really cool stuff. We had all of that at our disposal, and when I was there the first time around, our friend Mike Terry [Mike engineered the whole record] worked with me a lot on the vocals, listening to a bunch of different microphones. You use your ears to find out what you like the best, and what sounds the best for your own voice, because someone else’s voice might sound better with a different mic. It’s pretty subjective, but after doing that we found this one microphone, one of Elliott’s favorite mics, and we just loved it. I went out and I tried to buy one but they don’t make them anymore. I searched everywhere and I finally found this guy in Nashville who was selling one. I nabbed it and would have it with me everywhere, whether I was at my studio or at Brendan’s, so I could record all the vocals through it, no matter where I was.
CMP: Now I was going to ask about the locations you guys chose for recording the album. Was it intentional to go to New Monkey, is that a place you had been before?
MM: It’s hard to deny the history of that place and the romantic idea of getting to do the record there. When Elliott passed, his family was going to just chop it up and sell it off.
CMP: Which is probably typical.
MM: My friends Joel [from Everest] and Robert, bought it from the family. Along with the studio, they got to keep Elliott’s equipment and gear intact and all in one place. They’ve poured so much money and heart into it, to preserve it and fix it back up, almost like a museum renovation. It was a thrill just being in that space and experiencing the vibe and the ghosts. It’s an amazing sound there. There were other options but it just seemed too perfect.
CMP: You said that you wrote songs, scrapped some and then started over… what is your process? Is it a nibble away at it, or is it just a sit down and go for it? What’s your approach?
MM: I’m very undisciplined. I wish I had more discipline. Some guys can just go in from 9-5, I’ve heard, and sit down and work on songs. They just write songs like a little factory. Mine mostly come from some sort of trauma. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people. It’s the tragedies or the tramatic heartbreaks that trigger or push out the strongest emotions. Then all you have to do is go around trapping them in a jar, like lightning bugs! Sometimes when I am feeling just so shitty that I can’t think of anything else to do, I write songs. [laughs] And sometimes, well every once in awhile, I hear a word or a phrase that just sticks in my head and I think, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s going in a song.’ Sometimes there are lucky little scraps like that. But for the most part, my songs come from a specific incident, or event, and … you know, I’ve been telling this story along this tour and it’s made me think a lot about it, whether it’s obvious to the people that hear them or not… but a lot of the songs are about falling in love with the wrong person. I realize it’s not such a genius, or revelatory, brilliant idea. It’s been done over and over for a bazillion years, but that seems to be a big part of it for me. Learning some hard lessons that pushed out some beautiful songs…
CMP: Yeah, my first time through this album, it seemed very happy and upbeat, it’s melancholy but the pieces don’t sound very sad… then you get into what you are actually singing about, the lyrics, and you’re like, “Wow, this is pretty heavy.” There is a tension, and at the end, there is the song, Million Lonely People. It seems put together as an album, it doesn’t feel like a hit parade, but I don’t know if that’s going too far into it, or… was that your intention?
MM: No, that makes me happy to hear you say that. Up to now, nobody’s really been able to hear the songs and see the lyrics at the same time. A few who have, had the same reaction as you described.
One song in particular, the Munkie song, talks about April Fools day. I was born on April Fools day, so I’ve wondered about how much of my life, if not my entire life, has been effected by that without me even knowing it. You know, it is what it is, I haven’t known anything different, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the tease, or a joke on somebody… and not a cruel joke, but playing harmless tricks on friends or being overly sarcastic. I think there’s this whole side of me that people don’t get out of my songs because the songs seem so serious.
Anyway, in that song Munkie, it’s about someone getting a Dear John letter on their birthday. I started thinking about how terrible and perfect it would be, if every day was April Fools day and you were constantly getting the rug pulled out from under you, or you kept getting pranked, or whatever. Then I thought, well what if every day you had to go through a break up with someone in that same way, like a ripping, shocking surprise that you never expected [laughs] . That would be horrible, and yet I just now laughed about it. I started thinking about how a lot of my songs kind of have this April Fools set up, and then there is this sucker punch, usually somewhere in the middle, and the meaning is sometimes the opposite of what it originally started out sounding like.
CMP: I Made You Up feels like a complete album. Was that intentional like a 1,2, 3 through, or? Did you have a composition of the album in mind?
MM: That’s a good question. We deliberated over that for a long time, between Brendan, Joe [Ongie], and myself. Joe produced the last album with me, and he was very much involved on this one at the beginning, but moved to New York about half way through, and he kind of went out of the picture for a good part of this whole last wave of recording. Joe became more of an armchair producer. I would send him stuff in New York and talk to him on the phone to get his thoughts and feedback. When it came time to choose the song order, we all talked about, “Does anyone even care about the order of songs anymore,” with everyone now picking-and-choosing their own digital compilation mix-tapes. I think both Joe and Mike [Roe] said, “Just make the best record you can, in the order you think it should be. Forget about whether people are pulling songs from here and there.” We went back and forth on a couple scenarios, and there were specific reasons for different songs following each other, but for the most part, they all fell right into place. It was Joe’s idea to put Million Lonely People at the end, because it had this, sort of, upbeat kind of nice, sweet ending to it. I think originally we were going to have Gomer as the last song, but after we decided on Million Lonely People, it made the best sense, and was super obvious, “Oh, yeah, that’s it. That’s the perfect last song.”
CMP: Yeah, having Million Lonely People end the album was a great call. As I was listening to it, and reading the credits and thank yous on the back page next to the lyrics for that song, it was just so fitting.
MM: I was struggling with that song until the very end, right up until the last day before we were about to record it. I wanted to come up with something like a “Row-Your-Boat” layer over the top of everything at the end, something uplifting and hopeful.
CMP: So I was pleasantly surprised to get a note with a hand drawn cartoon in my package that I got with the CD. Are you still drawing a lot for greeting cards?
MM: The art has kind of taken a back seat for a little bit. I still have the cards floating around out there, but with the recording and touring and stuff, the music has been hogging the driver’s seat.
CMP: Is that something you try to balance and do both at the same time, or do you go through seasons of one and then the other?
MM: I’ve just taken them as they come. Doing both makes me very happy, but the music seems to always be kicking the art in the pants to get out of the way.
CMP: Well, you’re only about half way through the tour, what are your plans when you get back home?
MM: There is always a cooling period of a couple days. You know, settling down. Sort of like jumping off a treadmill that has revved up some speed, which is hard for me. I hate sitting idle and I have a hard time relaxing without my silly head trying to solve the next puzzle, or wanting to go go go. But, I suppose I will be preparing for the next tour.
CMP: More touring?
MM: Ya, I will be heading back out in October to hit much of the same territory we’ve been playing. Re-plowing the fields. A farmer’s job is never done. [laughs] That, and just trying to let as many people hear the new record as possible… let it out into the world.
CMP: Thanks for the time, Michael. It was great to chat.