Adam Miller | Interview | New Album, ‘Gateway’
‘Gateway’ is the first solo album by Chromatics founding member, songwriter, and guitarist Adam Miller. Recorded at Adam’s Los Angeles home studio before and during the demise of Chromatics, and mixed by Chris Coady (Beach House, Slowdive), it is an intimate album of 18 meditational pieces intended to sit at the “gateway” between dream and reality.
Steeped in the traditions of the great six-string, impressionist tone poets like Durutti Column, Deebank-era Felt, and early Cure, the music flows through the lens of Adam’s cinematic, neo-psychedelic, coldwave guitar style. The listener is asked to focus not only upon the notes, but also the space that exists between them. ‘Gateway’ is about the pursuit for calm in the physical realm.
“I like to listen and just let it take me somewhere”
Jenell Kesler: Tonight I have the pleasure of sitting down with Adam Miller, late of the Chromatics and now flying under the banner of Adam Miller & Inner Magic. I caught Adam recently when he opened for the War on Drugs, where I must say Adam, you were more than enthusiastically received.
Adam Miller: Thank you Jenell. It felt like we were.
Let’s dive in quickly, the music of the Chromatics is resounding, yet still very much, all be it synth-pop, straight ahead rock n’ roll. Inner Magic on the other hand is akin to reading a compelling book or watching a movie, one doesn’t dance around to it. For me, your music is best appreciated when I’m able to sit and listen as it unfolds.
That’s a huge compliment to me Jenell because that’s the way I prefer to experience music. I like to listen and just let it take me somewhere. All of my favorite music does this, so it means a lot that you feel that way about mine.
There’s a surprising balance and grace to your sound, where your haunting vocals are nearly part of the music, never standing as a juxtaposition, being more of another instrument if you will, has that been done by design?
I used to write vocals with the idea of them being another instrument that adds to the overall mood, but lately I’ve begun to stray from that. In the past I had always wished that I could sing like my favorite vocalists Françoise Hardy, Marie LaForet, Tracey Thorn and Elizabeth Fraser. To that end I developed this high falsetto ah-la Junior Murvin and Curtis Mayfield who were also weighty influences, to which I added heavily processed effects. But I’ve undergone a lot of changes over the past couple years and have finally grown comfortable with my own natural untreated voice, so much so that I’m beginning to shed this effect in new material. The heavily processed vocals were beginning to feel like a shield, like a tease where I’m leading people in but saying, “Ok now stop here, because this is only how close I’m going to let you in.”
Now I’m no longer afraid of being exposed in that way, so when I started singing in my natural voice like I did tonight, when the band and I performed our cover of The Byrds ‘Everybody’s Been Burned,’ it finally just felt right. My close circle of friends who I trust to give their honest opinions all had very supportive things to say when I finally took that leap. My friend Ruth was like, “I can’t believe you’ve been hiding that voice from us for all these years!” Which was very sweet of her to say. I will admit it was and is still terrifying being so exposed, but now whenever that feeling of fear pops up in my life I run toward it, instead of away from it. Of course the past few years of extensive therapy has helped with that too. (Laughing)
“‘Gateway’ is a soundtrack of inner exploration”
I’ve talked to others who describe your music as a mood piece, though I hear it as an inner neo-psychedelic dreamscape you’re working to define, where ‘Gateway’ is merely the first step of that visionary quest. (Laughing) At times, considering ‘Lucky Star,’ I feel that you are both in and of the adventure.
I am comfortable with saying that ‘Gateway’ is a soundtrack of inner exploration. A lot of it was written as guitar improvisations I would record immediately after waking up in the morning, before my mind could become distracted by the day. It was a visceral and meditative process. So while there was a lot of post-production involved after the initial recording, most of the album was written as a stream of consciousness. It was very important to me that the music have that flair of naivety and exploration, because it’s a quality I listen for in all music. As I began to accumulate more material through this process, a clear narrative for the album began to reveal itself. I had no choice but to call the album ‘Gateway,’ because I knew I was stepping inside of something that when I made it out the other end, I was going to be forever changed.
To that end, a number of the tracks on ‘Gateway’ embrace a less-is-more concept, sort of like pop-art, where you wow listeners with a limited palette, taking them quickly, nearly viscerally where they’d not be expected to go.
I appreciate you saying that because when I was working on ‘Gateway,’ I didn’t know where the album was going to lead me. I just tried to follow the feelings that I always have, that less is usually more. I need the space. I only want the essentials.
Your music feels to me as if you’re in the moment, exploring that moment almost subconsciously. How do you feel when the “moment” is over and you’re forced to live with that moment forever once it’s been pressed to wax?
Well going back to how a lot of the stuff on ‘Gateway’ was improvised, I can say it was mostly all written at the moment. For Chromatics oftentimes we used a lot of first takes as well. There’s frequently just this ineffable quality that exists in first takes that feels more vulnerable and relatable. At least to my ears. I’m more interested in exploration than perfection, so I’m fine with being forced to live with that moment forever once it’s out in the world. I can always revisit those ideas later again if I feel like it. Nothing has to be written in stone.
‘Gateway’ seems almost to be an ambient album, harking back images of Brian Eno’s ‘Before and After Science,’ especially ‘Names of the Lost,’ probably due in large part to a twin guitar structure and effects pedals. Would you speak to the electronics you’re embracing and where you see those electronics taking you in the future?
I’m flattered you say that because I love Brian Eno. I haven’t listened to ‘Before and After Science’ in a bit but it was a big record for me in my early 20’s. My favorite Eno number is probably ‘Evening Star.’ I got heavily into that one in my early 20’s as well and it’s one of those albums I still play around the house a lot, especially while reading a book, it sets such a peaceful mood. It’s also a very physical sound. Whenever I listen to it, it feels like a mist that I’m stepping inside of. That’s a quality I aim to achieve with my own music. But just to be clear, in a way I don’t even feel very comfortable calling it “my music.” I don’t even really know where “my music” comes from. I just try to create the space to coax it out of wherever it’s been hanging around and then hopefully document it before it evaporates or I get in the way of it, which is still often the case.
Do you maintain the script while playing live, or do you feel more free to expand in that setting?
A little of both, most of the songs you saw us play this evening stayed pretty structured just because we’re playing to The War On Drugs’ audience and their audience rightfully expects a high level of quality because The War On Drugs have such immaculately crafted songs. So for these shows with them I didn’t want to leave too much room for experimentation onstage just because if those experiments didn’t quite land it would be a missed opportunity. But there is still always a little bit of improvisation that occurs within the boundaries of our set. I like to occasionally change words sometimes and vocal melodies too, if not just for my own amusement. We’ve also been performing a reimagined version of Chromatics ‘Running From The Sun’ and melding that with the last song off of Gateway ‘Alien Summer.’ There’s a lot of improvisation that occurs when building the bridge for those two songs to meet. Some nights they land smoother than others but it’s always exciting because I never really know where it’s going to go.
Have you ideas that refuse to step through the door with you? And what do you do with those sketches?
I have a billion of those ideas that refuse to step through the door with me for every piece of music I’ve ever released. There are graveyards full of them that occasionally get Frankenstein-ed back together into something else. I keep the sketches in playlists and revisit them a few times a year to see if I hear something new or can envision them with a fresh perspective. Or I’ll share them with other people I’m collaborating with to see if they’re inspired by them. I’m still revisiting material I recorded fifteen years ago. Some of the material on the album was recorded as far back as 2010, I just hadn’t found a way to make those pieces work until ‘Gateway’.
Do you ever fear revealing too much of your inner self, or have you managed to take a third person approach?
I think it’s always scary to reveal yourself, but as I continue to do it, it becomes less and less so. Also a lot of the times when I’m indecisive about sharing something and ask myself, “Is this too much? This is kind of terrifying,” those are the creations that are usually met with the strongest positive response. I think more than ever in this world people want to see authenticity and vulnerability in the artists they follow. At least that’s what I want to see from the artists I admire. Actually it’s what I really want to see from everyone in the world really. So I just try to put that out there in my own work, the qualities I look for in other artists’ work, and hope for in all people really.
I think the ubiquity of social media really closed the chapter for me on the concept of the supernatural artist who teleported down from another universe to bless us with their talents. I used to buy into those mythologies around artists I admired. Maybe those sorts of mythologies were more appropriate for a different era, the fantasy persona of an artist you look up to can be exciting, it can allow the listener to dream and that’s very important but at a certain point it can also feel like an armor that the artist wears to protect themselves from allowing people to get too close. I crave honesty and vulnerability, there’s room for everyone in my world.
With your style being that of a building process, is it possible to get too dense?
Yes, I start to notice when that’s happening because I’ll just be getting more and more frustrated. So when I begin to notice that frustration I usually just stop working on the piece indefinitely and toss it back into the pile to hopefully be revisited later.
And finally Adam, you wear your influences on your sleeve, yet you’ve managed not to sound beholden to them, would you please share those who’ve inspired you?
That’s a fun question. I’m such a lover of music and art. I could keep myself engaged indefinitely with any piece of music, even if I didn’t relate to it on an emotional level. I’m endlessly curious about people and what drives them, and especially what drives them to create. When I create anything I’m always chasing that feeling of what it was like when I first heard The Monkees or Def Leppard as a kid. It seemed so magical and full of possibility. So my goal is to hopefully always recreate that feeling for a listener and for myself. As far as life-long influences, I don’t think you could ever shake The Cure out of me. Lately I’ve been on a big Popol Vuh and Pharoah Sanders kick again, as well as the Singers Unlimited, an a cappella group from the 70’s, I love to hear the sound of voices singing together, especially without other instrumentation. It’s eerie.
Ladies & Gentlemen, the music found on ‘Gateway’ filters in from the deep beyond, or perhaps merely as a musically sustained echo that’s been working its way like a long lost postcard to your front door. ‘Gateway’ breathes with atmospheric lonely guitar washes, over which have been laid hauntingly enticing vocals that neither invite you in nor hold you out, as if they exist tethered in the moment of their being, and are gone just as mysteriously. Adam, thanks so much for taking the time, please tell our readers where they can find you on the world-wide web.
Thank you so much Jenell. I really enjoyed meeting you and getting to answer your interesting questions.
Headline photo: Dug Moore