“The magnificence of it all is really great. We were bad to the bone in the early ’70s.”
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Jorgen Angel/Redferns
Even when he’s singing about robbing castles or sinning, Steve Miller’s songs contain a sense of meticulous control. Maybe it’s due to the harmonies. Or how tight the guitars are. Or the groove. Or the musicality. Or … well, we could keep on hypothesizing, but the results are always the same: Miller has an uncanny sonic ability to honor the past while anticipating the future, ever since he and his eponymous band first emerged as radio whisperers in the late ’60s. To study the scope of Miller’s impact is to study his geographical footprint. He began his blues and jazz education in Dallas as a kid and honed it in Chicago as a young man, only to embrace psychedelia when he moved out west to San Francisco. By the time Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams smashed through in the mid-’70s, he was even embracing life as the pompatus of pop.
In the present, I’m speaking with a mellow and fulfilled Miller, who’s lived in upstate New York for nearly a decade now. The stomping grounds have made it easy for the singer-songwriter to be a visiting member of the Department of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as craft a blues pedagogy for Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he’ll soon be performing two concerts exploring his legacy. It’s clear that Miller wants to keep rockin’ for as long as the guitar gods will allow him, and he hopes he can inspire a new crop of working musicians in the process.
“That’s what I’m trying to teach — how to put a band together and go on the road and entertain an audience to have them remember who the hell you are and come back to see you next year, and the next year, and then 30 years later, to build a career,” he explains. “I’ve somehow managed to do that, and I want to share that information with all these kids.”
Well, I fear this is going to be the same answer to all your questions. [Laughs.] It would be “Fly Like an Eagle.” It was a time when I really matured as a writer and I started writing much better songs. I was developing my music. Things that I had been working on for a long period all came together. “Fly Like an Eagle” is a combination of electronic music and a really funky groove. I put in some socially conscious lyrics and an inspirational message — at least, I hope people think it’s inspirational.
I’m thinking in terms of culmination. I started playing professionally when I was 12 years old. I was in a real band and we were playing all the time. At that point, it was kind of three chords and some blues songs. I grew up in Texas. It was all pretty simple and straightforward. But as I aged I learned more music, got more experience on the road, and then went through college. I spent some time in Chicago with “mature men” like Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and James Cotton — that was a really important period for me. I also spent some time in San Francisco, and that was a very experimental time. You could do anything you wanted to do. Anything.
So when I was playing blues and rock and roll, I was listening, of course, to jazz, but I also loved electronic sound effects. I was trying to figure a way to incorporate all of that into a form of music that you could play on the radio, but wasn’t so esoteric that no one would listen. That was the goal. It took some convincing and some work with the engineers and the record company. Once I got it formulated in my mind, it took about three years of traveling, touring, and playing that to develop what we now think of as “Fly Like an Eagle.” There were two or three different versions of it along the way. I rejected lots of verses, lots of ideas, and lots of different segments over this period of playing it live. Back in those days, we used to play for three or four hours each night, and we were basically touring and playing at what I call “psychedelic dungeons.” Old dance halls, old theaters, stuff like that. There would be a mirrorball in the ceiling with a spotlight on it. That was about it for the light show. We did 200 shows a year, and that was the song that lasted on our set list the longest.
That’s a funny question. I wish I had a list of all my songs in front of me. When we started recording, we went to London and we recorded at Olympic Studios, a very famous studio in London. We started working with Glyn Johns. We sort of learned the “English approach” to recording, and that got to be a big part of our regular working system. We would go in and cut a bunch of tracks, we would think about it, and then we would start doing guitar work. That’s where it got nerdy — when it was time to start doing solos and figure out harmony parts for the vocals. It didn’t sound nerdy, but the actual work itself was time-consuming and made me into a horrible perfectionist for quite a while. It was later when I started engineering my own stuff that I got much more relaxed.
So, let’s say anything from Sailor. Here’s a story for you. There’s a song called “Song for Our Ancestors” that opens the album. We wanted to have what’s now known as the loop — but back then there wasn’t the name for it. I wanted a vocal chorus in the background. I sang it, we took it, and we actually turned it into a physical loop. I was about 20 feet away from the tape recorder holding a pencil. That was about as far out as it got. The tape was running through the tape recorder, going around the pencil, and then back into the tape recorder to make the opening chords on that particular instrumental. I was sitting over in the corner holding the pencil still, so the tape would roll around the pencil and the tape recorder would pull the tape back around. That kept the sound going. Of course, it was a little wobbly, but we thought it was great at the time. But it wasn’t good enough to patent!
Oddly enough, “Abracadabra” was a piece of music I had been fooling around with for a long time. It started as an instrumental, gypsy-blues kind of tune. I wrote this really bad set of lyrics and recorded it. I was going to put it on an album — I can’t even remember which album — and right at the last second I said, “No, no, no, no, no. Wait, take that off. It can be a lot better.” So we took it off. For several more years, I thought about it and I just couldn’t get the bad lyrics out of my head. They rhymed terribly and they were just engraved in my brain. But one day when I was out skiing, I saw Diana Ross out on the mountain and later in another room at a resort eating lunch. I sat down and I started thinking about the Supremes, who I played with when I was a kid back in 1965. I did Hullabaloo, which was a big national TV show, and the Supremes were also on it. I had seen them in person then. So I sat down after skiing, thought of the Supremes, and came up with the new lyrics in 12 minutes.
I’ve never had a chance to see Diana since then. I’d tell her that they were very inspiring when I was a kid and I saw them play on Hullabaloo. They were magical. I loved Motown, of course. I could see the Supremes doing “Abracadabra” very easily.
Usually, they’re all inspired by music or lyrics, so I can’t think of anything that’s really unlikely. They all seem to be part of the work I normally do. Songs have different purposes. I always liked the idea of making singles. Singles are like a puzzle that you put together and they need to have five elements. It has to have a really quick introduction that captures your imagination, because this was all back during the days of AM radio — that’s how you’ve announced your arrival. You have to get out of sleep. The competition was brutal. You were in competition with anybody and everybody to get into the top 10, the top 40, or whatever.
How do you have a great chorus? You got to have a quick story that’s easy to understand. You got to have a really great opening. You got to have some sort of musical hook. “The Joker” was my first really successful No. 1 single. There was no doubt about it. It had that funny opening with the slide guitar part. It had a chorus that everybody could sing. It’s got the story, it’s got the character. That would be a good example of that type of song; the puzzle is finished.
I always wanted my albums to be hard to take off. Once you put them on, I want you to enjoy everything. There would be other pieces of music that would make the singles stand out. They would be almost like segues. That’s where a lot of my segue work and my electronic ideas came into play. “Threshold” is the intro to “Jet Airliner” and enhances it. Things that set up songs that were singles so that you had a variety of music on a record. It wasn’t just 12 singles in a row, kind of like one, two, three. You could relax. The musical horizon would be expanded, so it was really wide and interesting. Then something would come up that would capture your fantasy. That was sort of the ideal.
Oh, gosh. Maybe “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma.” No, it’s “Space Cowboy.” That was a really quick one. That was a song I just made up. We did it really, really quickly in the studio. I didn’t want to put it on the album. I wanted to take it off. Everybody while we were mixing told me, “Are you crazy? You want to toss it off?” And here I am, 55 years later, still a space cowboy. I thought it sounded a lot like “Lady Madonna.” It just sounded kind of familiar. We were just jamming and goofing around. It was something that I never really gave much thought to, let’s say.
It would be all of the T-Bone Walker tunes and Jimmy Reed tunes that I’ve done over the years. For me, those were songs that I just loved instinctively as a child. T-Bone was a family friend and taught me a bunch of guitar licks and tricks when I was 9 years old. Then I started playing Jimmy Reed tunes and actually backed him up when I was 14 years old. I was playing music that I loved. At the time, I didn’t realize T-Bone Walker was the bridge from blues to jazz and that Jimmy Reed was one of the greatest all-time blues musicians ever. He affected everybody all over the world. He doesn’t get the credit that he deserves. Now, I’m singing Jimmy Reed lyrics on top of jazz arrangements. It’s just phenomenal how it all goes — you start learning the history of where this all comes from, how it develops, and how it grows into something new.
When I think of my music process, it has a lot of different elements. It has a lot of jazz. It has a lot of blues. It has lots of four-part harmonies. It has a lot of guitar work in it. So there are different sections, selections, parts, and pieces. I want to teach musicians how to perform. Up until the pandemic, we were doing 70 cities a year, every year, for the last 50 years, with only a few periods of time off. That’s a big part of what this is all about — performing and working with your audience, or keeping your audience in mind.
Most of them. [Laughs.] Not really. I don’t know. It might be Number 5, which was kind of a country-music album that I did in Nashville. It was fun and different, but it was still pretty successful. It sold around 400,000 copies. That’s a pretty good batch of records back in the day. Actually, a great record that’s even more underrated is Italian X Rays. I forgot about it. That was the very beginning of digital recording. We were the first group at Capitol Records to use the digital tape recorder. It was a very experimental kind of record. That one came out and just sort of disappeared. But it’s got some great songs on it.
It would be a few years, from 1973 to 1976, when I was extremely prolific. I wrote more No. 1 hits later, but that was a batch. That was about 25 really good songs that lasted forever. My process is that it usually starts with a guitar and I’ll have a musical idea. I love to play guitar — I could sit and play guitar for two hours every day. I listen to these ideas musically and then I’ll start thinking about lyrics, and putting things together, and trying to get the whole concept or the idea into about a dozen songs. Where is this going? What is this about?
I was ready to throw it all out, but my wife convinced me otherwise. She would be like, “Oh, come on. Let’s go to the warehouse and listen to stuff you did 40 years ago,” and I would be like, “Nah.” [Laughs.] My thought about it was like … Look, when I make an album, I know what I’ve written and I know what I’ve done. When it came time to put something out, I took the best that I had. If I didn’t put it out, I don’t particularly want to go back and listen to it. Yet, my mind has been consistently blown with what we’ve found and listened to. It puts things into perspective. For example, my wife found a whole lot of recordings from the early ’70s that are just amazing. We were playing so well and I had no idea.
One of the things that she found was another studio version of a song called “Industrial Military Complex Hex.” We just love it. It was one of those songs that just was out briefly and disappeared, but then we were jamming and it got a lot better after we recorded it. We recorded it too soon, you know? That’s one of the things about material — you like to let it age, grow up a little bit, be able to think about it, and not have to do it too quickly. This one really got better later. When my wife found it I went, “Wow, who is that?” She said, “Well, honey, I mean, that’s you.” Oh! That’s really cool.
I’ve had a lifetime of playing music. There have been different stages of my performance, my writing, my career, and the musicians that I’ve worked with. I actually have recordings of mine from 1957 and 1958. That’s a large body of music. When you go back and listen to it all, it changes your perspective on when you were really good, when you were right on the money, when you were a little lost, when you were maybe looking and searching, and other times when you just had it. The magnificence of it all is really great. We were bad to the bone in the early ’70s.
I’ve pretty much put it behind me. I got so many phone calls from strangers and letters from people I didn’t know wanting to talk about it. One guy had a pile, one-foot high, of documentation about the Hall of Fame. I looked at it. I think the Hall of Fame is getting a little bit better. It’s very different for every year that they put the ceremony together. The year I was inducted, I think they were just making a television show and didn’t care about us at all. It was really not a pleasant experience. It means so much more, I think, to the world, than to the people who actually were running it.
That’s why I was fairly upset with the stuff that I went through with them. We weren’t even introduced to each other, the inductees. They never got us together. They never asked us to help them do anything or mentioned any of their programs. Their whole thing was, “Get your ass up there, get off the stage, we’re making a television show. Go sit in that room on that metal chair, we’ll call you when we want you up. If you’re not on, you’re off. Good-bye.” It was unbelievably rude and uncharacteristically cold. I felt really bad. I felt bad for everybody that was inducted that night. But when you saw the show, it just looked like everybody had a great time. They were really good at cutting and editing. But I think it’s getting better. I think they’re growing up a little bit. There’s so much more that they could do, besides just being the snooty rock-and-roll place where their favorite people get eulogized. They could do a lot more teaching; they could do a lot more work. I never heard from anyone at the Hall after that. It was just like, next. I wouldn’t be interested in working with them.
A perfect example would be to compare it with Jazz at Lincoln Center. One has taught 40,000 students. It’s got active programs all the time and is constantly teaching, expanding, and making a difference in people’s communities. I would love to have seen the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame do something like that. But, yeah, I’ve pretty much moved on. I have other things to do.
It’s a word that has grown. It came from a different word and it’s always changing. The meaning is up to the user. There’s no actual definition. Can I even define it myself? Absolutely not. [Laughs.] I always think of something funny when “pompatus” comes up. I was talking to Paul McCartney one time about writing. He’s such a great writer. He told me, “If it rhymes and if it works, it works. Don’t worry about it.” It was kind of a relief to hear that it didn’t all have to be absolutely brilliant. It was just something that popped up. I have probably received a hundred letters from lawyers asking me what the word means, because those lawyers want to know and define it themselves. It’s just weird. It’s one of those things. What the hell does it mean? The fact that nobody really knows what it means makes everybody curious about it. Good luck trying to find out.
The NBC musical-variety series, which, despite its big budget and constant rotation of stars, only aired from January 1965 to April 1966.
Also, Les Paul was Miller’s godfather. His early musical connections are pretty astonishing.
Just a random sampling: “Take the Money and Run,” “Rock’n Me,” “Swingtown,” and “Jungle Love.”
When Miller was inducted as part of the Hall’s 2016 class, he used his backstage press conference to say how “unpleasant” the entire experience was due to organizational incompetence and greed. You can watch his full remarks here. Soon after the ceremony, Miller claimed he was going to investigate the Hall and “get these guys.”
The Black Keys, who inducted Miller, later revealed they were “uncomfortable” with Miller’s behavior that evening.
The entire stanza from “The Joker” goes: “Some people call me Maurice / ’cause I speak of the pompatus of love.”