Richard Neal Miller interview by Vittorio Carli


Richard Neal Miller is a very promising up and coming singer/songwriter who has been making waves in his hometown--Evanston, Chicago. I saw his very well received live acoustic show at Tommy Nevin's Pub in Evanston located on Sherman and Lake in March (If you’re lucky, you may be able to catch Neil at one of the Wednesday night open mic performances, there.) In his live show, he sounded like a folky heir to John Lennon, Syd Barrett, and some of the more idiosyncratic singer/songwriters of the ‘70s.
Miller emerged on the musical landscape in the early 1990’s as a member of God’s Green Earth. The band was on the verge of making a recording, but they ended up fracturing because of the members’ conflicting ideas over the band’s sound and direction.
Miller embarked on a solo career, and produced a well-crafted recording entitled Elysium (1999). His second release, Waiting for the Tide (2000) was very autobiographical, and Neil relied on no outside musicians for support.
Both recordings are available at his shows, as well as on his website at www.richardnealmiller.com . You can also sample some representative cuts on the site. I recently did an on-line interview with Neal. As you can tell from his answers, Neal is a thoughtful singer/musician/lyricist who is well versed in many music related topics as well as rock history

1.When and how did you decide to be a musician?

I realized I wanted
to be a musician at a very early age. By the time I was 5, I was taking lots of
Beatles albums out from the public library. I was blown away by that band
and still am. I know that it's hip to claim them as an influence, but that's
my story. I had a huge Beatles poster up on my bedroom wall when I was in
kindergarten. The Beatles are still my favorite rock/pop band. Anyway, while
I took some classical guitar lessons (which I hated) when I was 11 years
old, (I didn’t learn how to play chords until I was 14), when one of my older
brothers persuaded my parents to buy me an electric guitar and a practice
amp. I taught myself how to play. I have never taken lessons. I also taught
myself how to play drums when I was 15 or 16. There were so many guitarists
who aspired to play like Eddie Van Halen by the time I got to high school.
As a result, I wanted to be able to market myself as someone who was
versatile, and who would be willing and able to play whatever instrument was
needed (within reason). I have a hard time relating to people who only do or
play one thing. If that's what you do...great, but I could never be like
that. I'd go crazy.

2. What led to the breakup of your first band, God's Green Earth?

Factors that
contributed to the demise of God's Green Earth included personal issues that I needed
to deal with, money-related arguments and ultimately creative differences. We
wrote some great music together, but we bickered quite a bit, and it wore me
out. I highly doubt that my old band-mates would disagree with me. I
joined/helped form that band when I was still 17 years old. It was the first
band I sang in. We all loved the album "Facelift" (by Alice In Chains),
which came out when I was a junior in high school. I had been a guitarist
and a drummer, and I knew that my friend's band needed a vocalist, so I
auditioned. We played almost every song from "Facelift" and it sounded
impressive to us. They asked me to join the band shortly after that, which
was exciting and scary. When I auditioned, I didn't intend on "getting the
gig". A month later, I was singing for a band that could cover "Stop" by
Jane's Addiction flawlessly. It was intimidating, and it made me a much
better musician. Anyway, we started playing shows in October of 1992. We
broke up in April or May of 1997. We wrote several songs that I remain proud
of, but the main reason the band didn't survive was because there were too
many cooks in the kitchen. In retrospect, I wanted the band to sound simpler
and more song-oriented, which could have been maddening for my old
band-mates, since they were capable of covering Led Zeppelin. They were
great at jamming out. While there's certainly nothing wrong with that, I
realized it was not for me. I advocate the concept of collaborating with
people, but there was no real leader in that band. As a result, people's
ideas got voted on. It was a democratic situation, which is fine, if you
feel the need to belong to a group, but by the time I was 23, I realized
that I would be much happier working on my ideas at my own pace...not having
to show up to practice the same 3 nights every week, regardless of whether
or not I had anything new to contribute. I'm glad that I realized at a young
age that the routine of being part of a band didn't' necessarily appeal to
me. If the right situation came along, I might change my mind though.

3. How do you approach the process of songwriting?

I generally come up with
chord progressions and record them. Then, I come back to them later.
Sometimes, I'll have a melody in mind too. If I'm lucky, the lyrics will
come to me early, but in many cases, the words come last. I'm not the type
of writer who puts poems to music. I tend to labor over the right phases.
I'll work on a lyric until it's time to record the "real" version. I write
and re-write lyrics, whereas with music, I generally come up with an
arrangement quickly and then I leave it alone. It depends. On "waiting for
the tide", I might record a song a certain way and then months later, decide
to make some subtle changes in the arrangement (while we were mixing). The
album took a while to track, mix and master. Then, once it was done being
mastered, it sat on the shelf for a while. I had no band-mates to help me
translate my ideas on stage, so I wasn't in a hurry to share the album, if I
couldn't have musicians backing me up. (I played everything on my album, but
wound up hiring 3 friends to help me out for my CD release show in October
2002.)

4. How does being a solo artist contrast with being in a band?

In a perfect
world, I think that most solo artists would love to find the right
collaborative situation where they could be happy about their role in the
group, but many artists (including myself) have yet to find that special
scenario. With my old band, I felt like the volume and presence of my vocal
parts could often compete with the guitar parts. It could be a frustrating
experience...and one that I never care to repeat...which is why I do my own
thing and don't collaborate with other people very often (if at all)
anymore. When we were mixing my new songs, I wanted to make sure that the
vocals weren't too low in the mix. I wanted listeners to have a fighting
chance at hearing my words. I figured this was my album, not a band album.
So, when I felt that the vocals needed be prominent, it was a liberating
feeling because I didn't have band-members arguing with me. I remember the
days of fighting with band-mates about making the vocals hotter in the mix.
It was truly exhausting and at times, made me want to give up playing music.
However, by the time I was 23, I realized that I could do just about
everything by myself and as soon as I had the courage to break away from
that band, I did. Since then, I have managed to make 2 self-financed
full-length solo albums. So, the idea of working with other people isn't a
very appealing proposition to me. I'd be forced to work around other
people's schedules, as well as their bad habits. I'd also have to rent a
practice room and debate over what songs to include on an album or in a live
set, etc. No thanks. Maybe being part of a band is an alluring idea for some
people, but if you're the type of artist who can accomplish a lot
independently, then being part of a group can be terribly frustrating and
can make you miserable. I've been there, done that and walked away feeling
slightly bitter about the time I spent trying to convince people to allow me
to lead the way. That probably sounds controlling to someone who isn't able
to accomplish a lot on his or her own, but if you're like me, then you know
what I mean.

5. How does playing for an academic audience differ from playing before a
club audience?

Which do you prefer? I prefer an audience that listens to me
while I'm on stage. This doesn't always happen. You would assume that clubs
would be the worst experience for a solo acoustic performer, but I have
played cafes that were crowded with chatty people and it made me feel like a
human jukebox, at best. I don't write background music, so of course, it's
trying when people overlook what you're doing. If an audience is educated,
that's fine. I want people to hear my music, not talk over it. This is a
common complaint though.

6. Do you think that growing up in Chicago has influenced your songwriting
at all? If so how?

I'm not sure. Chicago is where I'm from, so I would have
to live someone else's life to answer that properly. I grew up here, not in
Boston or New York City or Los Angeles. I have visited those cities, but
despite the lovely winters we endure, I have chosen to keep living here. My
parents and many of my friends still live here. I'd love to live in northern
California someday (due to the warmer climate), but for now, I'll remain in
Chicago.

7. How did you come up with your CD titles?

For "Elysium", I was flipping through the dictionary and stumbled onto that word, which I thought was
intriguing. It struck a chord with me, since I think about death a lot and I appreciated the meaning behind the word. If you don't know what it means, you should look it up. For "waiting for the tide", I wrestled with a few
different titles for the album. I eventually settled on "waiting..." because it's a line in the last song on the album (Clarity). It's very hard to choose one line that captures the essence of an entire album, but that summed it up for me. I wrote and recorded the album at a time where I felt like my life was in limbo...like I was waiting for a nice wave to come along
and take me to a better place.

8. Has being in theater helped you to be more conscious of your audience?

A little bit.

9. The Beatles were obviously an influence. What do you think you took from
them? Their passion and aspirations to be as creative as possible, their
attention to detail, their focus on great vocals and lyrics and their high
level of musicianship. Lennon is still a huge inspiration to me. I love Paul
too, but his songs tend to be harder to play. Same with George's.

10. Were you affected by the recent death of George Harrison or John
Lennon's demise? Of course. We lost 2 legendary artists. I think about them
every day. I only hope they're in a better, safer, more peaceful place now.
Thank goodness we still have their brilliant music to listen to and remember
them by.

11. There are a lot of classic rock influences in your works. Which newer
bands do you admire and what do you think of the current state of the music
industry? As far as artists that have achieved some degree of
commercial success, Coldplay and Pete Yorn are both very good. I like a lot
of bands and songwriters who many people have never even heard of though.
For example, Jon Brion, Jason Narducy and Buddy Judge. As for the current
state of the music business, it's unbelievably sad. If the bands that I
loved were getting the recognition they deserved, then the world would be a
very different place. If you want to hear some cool artists who you might
now have heard of, then check out Evan Johansen, Adam Elk, Scottish McMillan
and Summer Chance.

12. There seems to be a Syd Barrett or Pink Floyd influence in some of your
songs--particularly in your vocal delivery. What do you think of all the
current bands that were influenced by Pink Floyd like Radiohead, Robyn
Hitchcock and Coldplay? Do they justice to their influence? Thanks. I never
really listened to early Pink Floyd, so that's cool to hear. Radiohead is
certainly capable of producing amazing ideas (OK Computer). Like I said
before, Coldplay are very good. I really like their new album. I'm not a big
Robyn Hitchcock fan, but I was compared to him once. He has played with Jon
Brion, a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, who I admire. Radiohead
are one of the best modern examples of a Pink Floyd-like band, in terms of
their eagerness to stretch boundaries, take creative risks and break new
ground.

13. What are some of your specific tasks as a producer and whom have you
produced? I have only produced myself, really, but I'd love to work with
talented, aspiring bands or artists who don't feel comfortable or confident
producing their own work. I have a very good ear for what sounds cool.

14. What are some of the upcoming musical or theatrical projects that you're
working on? Right now, I'm the lighting director for 2 great Chicago rock
bands: Ivory Wire and a brand new band called Rockets Over Sweden. I haven't
written many new songs in a while, but I plan to begin writing and recording
some soon. I might be in a small local musical before the year is over. That
could be fun. We'll see what happens.

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