Interview: Daniel Miller
[2012 has been a brilliant year for independent label Mute. As well as acclaimed releases from Liars, Can, Cold Specks, and Beth Jeans Houghton, label boss Daniel Miller was recently awarded the Association of Independent Music's statuette for Pioneer, recognition for the toweringly influential catalog he has built up over almost 35 years. As home to artists as diverse as Depeche Mode, Erasure and Laibach, Mute has always felt like a true label of love, celebrating the most exciting, forward-thinking music around. We invited Daniel Miller to sit in the editor's chair at eMusic for a site takeover all this week. We interviewed two of his favorite new artists of 2012: Diamond Version and Land Observations. See Miller's favorite albums on eMusic; and read our exclusive interview with Miller below. – Ed.]
Sharon O’Connell spoke with Daniel Miller about his musical awakening via The Normal, his role in nurturing the nascent UK electronic music scene and how his once small, still determinedly individualistic label grew to be a UK heavyweight that also enjoys enormous international clout.
How did you come to record an electronic debut single (“TVOD/Warm Leatherette”) as The Normal when, in 1978, everybody else was into punk?
I was very influenced by punk, but musically it didn’t excite me. The initial burst of energy and laying waste of prog and everything before it was exciting, but it wasn’t going far as a genre. I’d been very interested in electronic music as a fan of people like Kraftwerk and Neu!. I was in bands at school, like everybody else, and I gravitated toward the three other worst musicians in the class, but we enjoyed it. Even though I loved music beyond anything else, I couldn’t see a way of connecting with it on a professional basis.
What was the appeal of the synthesizer over the guitar?
Up until about 1977, synthesizers were really expensive, and way out of the reach of most people, but as cheaper Japanese synthesizers came on the market, they became accessible to people like me. And they were much easier to play than a guitar. You didn’t have to learn chords or anything boring like that – it was more about messing around on it until you created a sound you thought was really good. I bought a second-hand Korg 700-S, so there was no manual with it, but it was pretty clear what the switches and buttons did.
“Warm Leatherette” has been covered by the likes of Grace Jones, Duran Duran and Laibach. What do you make of the latter’s recent version?
I think it’s great. It’s very funny, as you’d expect it to be, and it’s made with great passion. I was very pleased when I heard it.
Are you surprised by that song’s longevity?
In those days, the minimum number of records you could press was 500, and my expectation was that I’d give some to my close friends and family and that nobody else would be interested, so the rest would be sitting under my bed forever. The fact that people are still listening to “Warm Leatherette” and covering it is a great surprise.
What made you decide to move from recording your own music to establishing a label?
My expectations of what my first single would do were very low, so the fact that people seemed to like it and it got really nice reviews in the press I found weird. I couldn’t quite believe what was going on. I never planned to start a record label, but all of a sudden there seemed to be these opportunities to avoid doing any real work. Savage Pencil [nee Edwin Pouncey] was the cartoonist at NME at the time and he introduced me to Frank Tovey [aka Fad Gadget]. I heard his demos and was immediately taken with them. I felt it was something I could really relate to, so I said, “Let’s put a single out and see what happens.” And that was the start of the label.
Why did you focus on electronic music in Mute’s early days?
After punk, the new wave of electronic music was just starting – The Human League and Cabaret Voltaire had released their first singles, Throbbing Gristle had released a single and an album – and people were really suspicious of it. So I was a bit of an evangelist, really. I thought electronic music was the next logical step. A synth was no longer an elitist instrument, and that was an important point. You didn’t have to be a musician; if you had good ideas, you could make music out of electronics.
One of Mute’s distinguishing features now is the stylistic diversity of its roster. How did that develop?
I saw The Birthday Party, and although they were conventional in terms of their line-up, they had nothing to do with being a rock band. I was just completely blown away by them, and I think that helped me stop being so purist. I realized that although I was very interested in electronic music – and still am – what I was really interested in was unique artists, people who were creative and could have an impact on others. I felt that there was a bigger picture that I wanted to engage with.
Have there been artists you were keen to sign to Mute, but failed to?
There are acts we tried to sign but for various reasons weren’t able to. We were very interested in Bon Iver, but at that point we were part of EMI and they had put a 100 percent freeze on signing. I remember fighting very hard for Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Klaxons, but we didn’t succeed with either. Daft Punk, tooâ€¦but they were all a long time ago. There’s been nothing recently, in fact.
How hands-on are you these days in terms of A&R and studio input?
I’m out a lot, but I’m not out every night. But I have a really good A&R team who, between them, have very broad taste. I do the final A&R sign-off, because of course ultimately I’m going to get involved. We always think long-term with our artists – it’s not just about the next record. I’m engaged to a greater or lesser extent in the studio, depending on how closely involved I am with the artist and what their needs are. I don’t really ever step in unless somebody’s lost their way, but I do usually end up putting my oar in. And yes, I do like being in the studio.
You’re about to receive the 2012 AIM Award for Pioneer. What does this kind of recognition mean to you?
There are a lot of people in that community I respect and know very well, so the award is very flattering. I do avoid looking back as much as possible, because I think if you start doing that, you lose it. As long as pioneer doesn’t mean I’m past it, that’s okay!