Roger Clark Miller grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is the son of an icthyologist whose specialty was researching fish that live in isolated springs in the desert and comparing them to their fossil ancestors. Until he was 18, Miller spent part of every summer in the western U.S. deserts on these scientific expeditions. This has had a strong effect on his artistic outlook where the themes of nature, extremes, self-reliance, and a deep sense of time recur in his work. He started piano lessons at age 6, studied French Horn in middle school and picked up guitar at age 13.
In 1969 Miller grasped both improvisation and composition in his founding psychedelic rock band Sproton Layer, formed with his brothers Benjamin and Laurence, and in piano and writing for small chamber ensembles.
Sproton Layer, July 1970
After becoming disillusioned with rock music in the mid-’70′s, Miller attended music school as a composition major. A formal introduction to surrealism and music theory still left him wandering, though better prepared for action.
In 1979 he moved to Boston and co-formed Mission of Burma. Since 1980 he has released over 50 albums, ranging from the aggressive avant-punk of Burma to piano-based music of Maximum Electric Piano, The Binary System and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Never content with a single genre, Miller has covered much territory between those two extremes in solo and ensemble endeavors. His work explores the edge of music combined with a physical performing style and a hyper-active imagination.
M2 recording At Land's Edge
Currently Miller is active in Mission of Burma, The Alloy Orchestra, Sproton Layer, M2, and The Trinary System. In 2013 his composition Vines for Music was performed in the “SICPP Festival” at the New England Conservatory. He has been a journalist/blogger for SLATE, The Huffington Post, a book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, and a record reviewer for The Talk House. He is a frottage artist, and has been in numerous shows selling his work. Miller is an accomplished sound-track composer whose films have appeared at the Sundance and Telluride Film Festivals. Miller also was guest faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design and visiting artist at the Museum of Fine Arts and Berklee School of Music in Boston.
M2: At Land's Edge by M2
Which was the first and the last records you bought with your own money?
First: 45 rpm: "I Want to Hold Your Hand" c/w "I Saw Her Standing There". Bought it when it came out in the USA, age 12. My life was completely changed,
Last: CD: Stephen Drury performing piano music of John Cage. Very enjoyable performances of prepared piano pieces and some not prepared.
Sproton Layer was the band that Roger Miller had in high school 1968-1970 with his brothers Larry and Ben Miller (drums and guitar respectively, Roger played bass)- ten years before Mission of Burma formed.
What would you ask to another guitarist?
First I'd deduce what kind of music they enjoyed. If I found out that this hypothetical guitarist had many similarities to me (unlikely), I'd ask what kind of amps they use and what kind of gigs they play. Different countries, or even cities, have different options. Perhaps I'd ask them where I could find Old Speckled Hen on tap, or Duvel.....
What gear do you currently use?
In Mission of Burma:
Amp: Marshall JMP-50 Combo. The Blues type of Marshall. The metal-sounding Marshall amps don't sound right for me. Despite my post-punk or avant-garde leanings, I like to start with a gutsy, bluesy sound, and go from there.
Guitar: Fender Lead I or Lead II guitars. Most people think they are shit. I got into them when Burma got going in 1980, when they first came out, because no one else had ever used them before. So I could make my mark on them, like a dog pissing on a fire hydrant. To this day I am possibly the most known player of these guitars. Most "good" guitarists shun them like the plague. Which is probably why I like them. (excuse me, Paint it Black just came on the pub house system and I'm going to listen..... I'll get back to you shortly).
I also use a trashy Kay hollow-body electric that I have tuned to 3 low E strings and 3 G# strings (a massive Major Third). I don't use it often now, but it varied the guitar sound on a few albums.
Devices: Custom built fuzz tone and Tremolo device, built in 1980 by an MIT student. The EH Big Muff Fuzztones were starting to go downhill, so Lou Giordano took one apart and built "a Big Muff on steroids". Since my new Marshall amp did not have tremolo (a sound I utilized in the band), he also built me a tremolo box on steroids, the Vacu-Trem. If you play an "E" chord at maximum speed and intensity, it actually amplitude modulates the chord so that it sounds like 7 or 8 E chords are piled on top of each other, all between the actual E pitch and around a 1/4 tone above. In creating both devices Lou went back and forth with me, so they were steered to my interests. Great to have.
Recently I added an MXR envelope follower and a Tokai Distortion device.
Preparations: A full-size brass slide; a 1/2 size brass slide (this doesn't mess w/my fingers so much so I can do all my chordal fingerings and still have access to some slide work); a piece of metal I bought at a hardware store that functions as a slide, but also does some other interesting "jumps" by flopping it back and forth.
In the Trinary System:
Guitar: A 1962 Japanese Strat reissue - an amazingly good guitar. I stripped it and had two of my frottage drawings laser-etched onto it. Looks kinda sharp. Kept the neck pickup. The middle pickup is a '60's Kay, and the bridge pickup is humbucker. These give a good variety of sounds.
Amp: currently, whatever I can get. I don't use the Burma Marshall because I want a different sound. I prefer Fender amps in general. If the band keeps going, I'll probably go for a tube Fender of some sort.
Devices: Vacu-fuzz. Boss RPS-10 half-rack which does pitch-shifting, some mildly lame delays, and a freaky delay that reverses the sound every 1.5 seconds or so, resulting in something approximating a live "Backwards guitar solo." Very spacey. Last night I used a compressor device that was very helpful in getting nice harmonics at lower volumes.
Preparations: That funny piece of metal I use in Burma; Alligator clips; those brass slides I use in Burma, and a fork with a nice curved handle to weave into the strings across the neck.
Which work of your own are you most surprised by?
M2: At Land's Edge, LP on Feeding Tube Records. I am playing prepared piano on that one, while my brother Benjamin deconstructs the hell out of his electric guitar. It's all improv., so we didn't plan a thing. Therefore every time I listen to it I am discovering what we did.
MISSION OF BURMA: Vs. I felt like it was the rock album I'd always wanted to make when we made it, but there was no way to anticipate how its "influence" expanded over time (or so I hear). That's the surprising part.
What's the importance of technique in music, in your opinion?
That's tricky. I am way for inspiration over technique. It's so easy to let technique dominate and fuck up energy and rawness. On the other hand, it's great when musicians actually know what they're doing! It's a rare musician that can successfully blend high quality technique with funkiness. For example, I'd rather listen to Syd Barrett play guitar than 99% of those fusion guitarists.
What quality do you admire most in a musician?
The ability to get beyond the music.
What’s the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar?
Depends on the moment and situation. I don't consider there is such a thing either way without a context.
What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?
Well, it's a lot more difficult to make money off of recordings. People try to paint it good like "You should try to get your music placed in commercials." Oh yeah - that's why I got excited about revolutionary music. To support capitalism.
On the other hand, it's a lot easier to send musicians your work to learn, or to learn theirs.
I honestly believe that with this "everything is here NOW" digital world, no musical revolutions will come again. Revolutions are based on repression, things being held down, people struggling to find something against all odds. Now everything is just THERE. And there's too much of it. It doesn't particularly bother me, but I believe the net result is an overabundance and hence, a loss.
Who knows. Right now I consider this new digital world to still be in a state of change. Things haven't settled down to what they'll become yet. In 20 or 30 years maybe sense will be made of it.
Miller's prepared piano
Vines for Music photograph/score grid
Depict the sound you're still looking for.
Something that expands time in a universal way. Something that is really different but affects more than just avant-gardists. In other words, I'll be looking for it until I can't see any more!
What is your relationship with other disciplines?
I have always been someone who draws. Starting fall 2001 I began my Frottage Drawing phase. Frottage Drawing was developed by Max Ernst based on rubbing surfaces and creating a composition out of them. I pursued it with a vengeance. I've been in both group and solo shows and have sold a number of pieces.
Phoenix Landing, June 13, 2003
I have always written as well. Recently I've written a book review for the Wall Street Journal, record reviews for The Talk House, and was a blogger on Slate and Huffington Post. On the other side of that, I have always written rather out there brief stories. A series called "Insect Futures" was published in a book by Penny Ante in 2009. One of my brief stories appeared in the CD booklet for my band Roger Miller's Exquisite Corpse.
George Bush meets his Maker in Hell,, 2001 (Collection of Richard W. Harte)
I accompanied dance classes off and on from 1972 to 1994, where-ever I happened to be. From 1994-1996, I played piano with an improv. dance group from Boston called Abydos. From 2008-2011 I performed in the New England area with the dance group KinoDance which incorporated film and props as well as dance. I played a beat-up upright piano that I prepared the hell out of. It was a really great experience.
Which Kiss, May 19, 2003
One way I survive is as a soundtrack composer. I have done many documentaries as well as commercials (usually pretty zany). I love working with animation because there is nothing "real" there. A footstep can be a tin can hit with a spoon.
What do you need from music?
A sense of expansion out of the normal world. A release from pettiness.
Tell me one musical work which has provoked a change in your music.
The first Beatles concert on the Ed Sullivan Show. In half an hour I was completely transformed, totally. And that transformation continues to today. Before that, I was a kid who took piano lessons and was somewhat interested in classical music and stuff. After that, rock music was my sole purpose in life. I was a rocker. That has modified over time, but the over-riding feeling - that I need to create a music that will overwhelm me and others - has not changed one bit.
Live @ T.T. the Bear's in Cambridge, MA. Trinary System is Roger Miller, Larry Dersch, and P. Andrew Willis.
What’s your next project about?
Here are four that are currently in the works.
1. The Trinary System, my alternate rock trio:
We are playing two shows the end of May 2014. Our first gig was May 2013. I am developing a less punk approach, more embracing of the whole possibilities of the electric guitar, with a slant on what one might term "psychedelic". But I am not interested in sounding like "a 60's band". I just want sounds that transport one and mess with one's sense of time. Recent rehearsals and material have been very exciting to the three of us.
2. The Davis Square Symphony:
This is for a full orchestra based on film I have taken of traffic patterns in Davis Square, Somerville, where I live. I have assigned meaning to the vehicles and pedestrians and bikes as they appear on-screen, and this becomes string chords, snare rolls, and woodwinds. It will be performed June 2015 in a park in Davis Square.
Half-Moon Pond Photograph, July 2013
3. Half-Moon Pond:
This is for large string ensemble and processed pink and white noise. It is entirely based on a photograph I took at Half-Moon Pond in Vermont. Pine needles and Maple Leaves all have improvised gestures in the strings, as well as tree-trunks and tree-limbs. The sky and mountains and pond will all be highly EQ-ed pink and white noise. Forms of Nature applied to musical forms.
4. The Alloy Orchestra:
I play keyboards in this trio with junk metal. We score silent movies and accompany them live. We tour a lot in the US, and last year in Ukraine and Norway. We score a new film every summer and it is our primary film every fall. We will be scoring Rudolph Valentino's "Son of the Sheik" in July. I am looking forward to this because I love middle-eastern modalities.
5. Sproton Layer:
My first "all-originals" band, 1969-1971, which also included my two brothers Benjamin and Laurence. In 2012 our 1970 recording, "With Magnetic Fields Disrupted" was released by World in Sound out of Germany. Very, and truly, psychedelic. We are working on the second release for World in Sound, titled "Press your Hand and the Whole Room Fluctuates". It will be other recordings from 1969-1971.
Ken Winokur (junk percussion and clarinet), Terry Donahue ((junk, accordion, musical saw) and Roger Miller (synthesizer) together as Alloy Orchestra performing live their musical meditations on two paintings, The Vision of St. Jerome and Veronese's Venus Disarming Cupid, at the [remastered] Gallery of the Worcester Art Museum on December 1, 2013.
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