For the record, Steve Miller is still in business
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Recording music never seemed to be a problem for Steve Miller. Through the 1970s and into the ’80s, the routine was that Miller, fronting his eponymous band, would release an album, then watch it head to the top of the charts, with singles like “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jet Airliner,” “The Joker” and “Space Cowboy” making their way into heavy rotation on rock radio. Even when his output slowed down, the pattern seemed to hold. In 1993, Miller released “Wide River,” his first album in five years; the title track became another hit.The recording business, however, was a different story. Miller did well financially with his music; for years after they were released, his albums sold well. His “Greatest Hits 1974-78” went platinum 13 times over, making it the 37th best-selling album ever, one spot behind Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Miller is currently refurbishing a place in Manhattan; he also has homes in Idaho and Washington state. But the machinations behind that success was torturous.”No one understands how annoying the record companies are,” the 68-year-old Miller said from New York. “Each album, it’s like you delivered a child to them, and they say, ‘Oops, I forgot.’ You spend a lot more time working on the record company than you do on the record.”So Miller dropped out of the recording business. After “Wide River,” in 1993, he would go 17 years without releasing an album. He toured regularly, with a schedule of some 50 dates a year, but without any newly recorded material to showcase.”I wasn’t interested in dealing with them, having them come on tour with me, having them tell me what to do. I didn’t have to do it, so I didn’t.”But Miller was also feeling the need for new material – even if his fans weren’t. “I was trapped in a box,” he said. “There’s an audience, and there’s 14 songs people really want to hear. You play 13 of them, and you still hear from someone, ‘Well, you didn’t play ‘Jungle Love.’ But with 14 songs from my greatest hits album, that still leaves about nine songs to a set to keep it interesting and challenging.”Four years ago, Miller inadvertently stumbled across an enormous well of potential material. He hired some high school kids, for 10 dollars an hour, to load his CDs – some 70,000 songs – onto a hard drive. Miller hits the “blues” button and watched, then listened, with glee as 6,000 tracks came up.”I just spent four days pulling stuff up and listening to it,” said Miller, whose earliest groups had been oriented toward blues. “It was the first time I had the blues collection organized like that. I was fascinated by it.”Miller was inspired enough that he made plans to head into the studio. In his years away from the recording business, Miller hadn’t actually stopped recording; he had just stopped releasing his work. But this was different. He gathered his band, and brought in an old friend, Andy Johns, to produce the music. (Andy has worked on records by Led Zeppelin, Joe Satriani and Free; his better-known brother Glyn has produced albums by the Who, Eric Clapton and Ryan Adams.) He added another friend, Sonny Charles, a soul singer from the group Checkmates, Ltd. They went through scores of songs to see what most tickled them; Miller carefully worked out guitar parts.What had started with digital technology soon took a turn toward old-school project. Instead of setting up a digital micro-studio in his basement, Miller found some established studio spaces, including George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, north of Miller’s old stomping grounds of San Francisco, and Universal Studios in Los Angeles, where he spent a month.”It became a reinvention of the old school of recording,” Miller said. Of Universal Studios, he said, “It’s an old room in L.A., old analog with big Westlake speakers. A great room to do guitar work.”Then I got sucked into really working on it. And then really working on it.”In 2010, Miller released “Bingo!” on Roadrunner, a label that specializes in hard rock. The album featured versions of old blues tunes, the New Orleans r&b gem “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” and three songs written by Jimmie Vaughan. “Bingo!” combined pure blues with the Steve Miller Band’s breezier, poppier aesthetic; Rolling Stone gave it a three-and-a-half-star review. The following year, Miller released “Let Your Hair Down,” which was more or less a second volume of “Bingo!” with tunes by Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon.Miller remains on his recording roll. He’s got one album, “Out of This World,” ready to release next spring, a second he’s about to make, and a third in the planning stage. But the next batch of records feature another new approach. Most of the songs feature lyrics from blues songs over jazz tunes: Ma Rainey’s “See See Rider” sung over Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” and a Jimmy Reed lyric over John Coltrane’s “Mr. Day.” Some are played in big-band arrangements, others in trios or quartets.”No one’s done that before,” Miller said. “I wasn’t interested in doing a jazz cover album. This moves it forward. Blues hit a wall in the ’60s and nothing’s happened since then; jazz hit a wall. We hit one of those combinations where you go, ‘Whoa, that’s cool.’ It’s very interesting, very entertaining to me.”Fans coming to see Miller’s show on Friday at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival won’t be getting a dose of the blues, at least not entirely. Miller understands the appeal of his catalog of ’70s and ’80s hits.”They were like summertime, on the road, feel-good songs,” he said. “People like those. It was real positive. It had good harmony, some jazz and blues. They’re really sophisticated songs when you take them apart, but one of the things about my stuff, a 12-year-old could learn to play it.”Adding to that repertoire of radio-friendly songs is unlikely to happen. But at least Miller’s fans have fresh material to look forward to, and Miller is engaged again in the business of making records, if not in the record business.”Now that there’s no record business, I’m really interested in recording,” he firstname.lastname@example.org
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