Daniel Miller interview: Pure electronic music

Daniel Miller spoke with Marko Kutlesa about Mute Records and Novamute, the highs and lows being a label owner and his part time role as a DJ.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 10th Jul 2017.
Originally published: 3rd Jul 2017

As founder of Mute Records, the label responsible for providing a platform for the likes of Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure, Renegade Soundwave and Goldfrapp, Daniel Miller is simply one of the most important figures in the development of British electronic music.

His label, founded in 1978 to release Daniel's own first single 'Warm Leatherette', recorded as The Normal, went on to add the likes of New Order, Kraftwerk, Liars and Laibach to their roster, the latter two of which are responsible, alongside a singles retrospective from influential German band Can, for Mute's most current releases.

Influenced by the pop music of his youth, the experimental music of German bands like Can and the DIY ethic of punk, the entry to making music for former film school student Miller came via the easy accessibility to synthesizers in the late 70s.

His debut single, later covered by Grace Jones, was a surprise hit which he followed with an album made under the alias of a teenage all synth group called The Silicon Teens. After releasing the music of bands like Fad Gadget and DAF, Miller signed Depeche Mode and released their first single in 1981. The band would soon become a worldwide sensation, leading lights in a new wave of British led synth pop. The label expanded to cope with the band's success and when their chief songwriter Vince Clarke left, his later projects such as Yazoo and Erasure also appeared on Mute Records.

Miller founded the influential side label Novamute in 1992 specifically to release the contemporary electronic music known as techno. Novamute was responsible for early releases by Plastikman aka Richie Hawtin, helping to establish his reputation across Europe. They also released music by the likes of Luke Slater, Speedy J, Throbbing Gristle, Miss Kittin and Cabaret Vøltaire. Having been silent for the best part of a decade, 2017 sees Miller relaunching Novamute.

Daniel Miller now DJs regularly, often at Berghain and Sisyphos in Berlin where he gets opportunity to display his love for techno. Indeed it is for the latter club that Daniel will DJ at Egg in London on 15 July. Prior to doing so, Marko Kutlesa caught up with him for a chat about music and both of his labels.

Hi Daniel! How are you? Where are you?

Hi there. I'm good thanks. How are you? 

With which artists are you going to be kicking off the new season of Novamute? Will you be revisiting any of the label's back catalogue, perhaps in terms of new mixes for older material?

It's all happening on the 5th July. I can't possibly say a thing. We're just confirming the first three releases. We've no plans to revisit older material. But really I can't say anything about it right now.

In the past on Novamute you had a link with Tresor and Berlin, you also had a link with Detroit. Do you think maybe Berlin has now eclipsed Detroit in regards to being a capitol for techno music?

I wouldn't like to say. I think there are an awful lot of links between Detroit and Berlin, especially through the Tresor club and Dimitri Hegemann who ran it. And there still are lots of links between him and Detroit.

I think Berlin was, and still is, in a very different situation to Detroit. The possibilities for the underground culture to grow were much better in Berlin than they were in Detroit on some really basic levels, like curfews, things like that. 

As the wall came down there were a lot of disused buildings in east Berlin, just as there were a lot of empty factories in Detroit. The location of Berlin, at the centre of Europe, accessible to all the other European countries within two hours flight, plus the atmosphere of the city when the wall came down, the availability of space and pretty much ungoverned parties, gave it a huge start. 

Of course it was known as a centre of culture before the wall came down for geographical and historical reasons, although not for techno. 

I interviewed Detroit producer Carl Craig not long ago and he recounted a story about one of his earliest visits to London, where he was taken to a warehouse and allowed to rifle through the entire Mute Records back catalogue. He described it as being like a kid in a candy store. Do you remember the earliest occasions that you started to encounter these young, American dance music producers?

Once Novamute was up and running we had a regular flow of people coming through the office, so that was the early 90s. We had a warehouse in the office full of our stock and so when artists were visiting we just used to say help yourself. The techno artists had a lot of influences outside of techno, they were getting Can records and Depeche Mode records, whatever was around.

Looking at Novamute's back catalogue it seemed to be techno that most appealed to you rather than the slightly earlier Chicago house music. Would you agree with that and can you explain it?

I would definitely agree with that. I wasn't the primary A+R person for Novamute, we worked as a team. There were other people, especially Pepe Jansz and Seth Hodder, who were running the label and who were closer to the scene. I used to go to the clubs, I used to love working with the producers, but they were more inside it, they knew more what to put out. 

We started it as a techno label, it wasn't a house label. Rhythm King, which was a previous label we were associated with, was more of a house label.

I recognised the roots of techno as being something that I could closely relate to basically. That wasn't quite the case with house. House, to me, at the time, felt more like disco. We're talking about the first time I heard it which was mid 80s, to put that into context. I understood it, I quite liked it, I could see why it was doing well, but I just couldn't connect with it on the same level as I could with techno. Techno was coming very much where I was coming from; pure electronic music. 

I read that among some of your earliest influences were German bands like Can and Neu and then the punk scene. To me, that is the music made by rule breakers, experimentalists. What was it about the music that directly preceded and was happening around the same time as those bands that you and others didn't connect with and which meant that some change had to occur?  

I grew up in a very particular moment of musical history. My teenage years were in the 1960s. I was into music from before I can remember. All sorts of music. When the first wave of British bands started, the Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks plus The Beach Boys, it completely took over my life. I didn't understand it when I was 10 or 11, but looking back things changed so fast between 1962/63 and 1966/67. 

If you look at The Beatles from 'She Loves You' to Sgt Pepper's in just a few short years, there are so many examples of that, part of my musical experience had been this constant change. And then at a certain point in the late 1960s that dynamic slowed down and it wasn't so much about change anymore, it felt like doing other versions of what already existed. So, instead of playing great blues songs, bands would do 20 minute blues jams, which I wasn't that interested in. Self indulgent, the beginning of prog rock. 

So, I was looking for something. And I found that in Germany. Like you said, they were breaking the rules. They were coming from somewhere else. It felt like they were creating a whole new culture. It wasn't just the music, it was the painters, the filmmakers, it felt like they were creating a whole new German culture. I found that very exciting. 

I liked some of the glam bits too. I'm not allowed to say it anymore but I really was a huge fan of Gary Glitter. Incredible production. But I had pretty much disconnected with Anglo/American music by that time. And then punk happened. And that's why it happened, people just wanted that energy back. Punk was really a kind of 60s phenomenon, even though it happened in the 70s. People wanted that attitude, that energy, that sense of danger, which had completely gone from British and American music. 

The Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things were dangerous when they'd started, they were scandalised on a daily basis in the Daily Mail or wherever. You bought into that danger as a part of it, the rebelliousness. It had completely gone by the mid 70s. It was all very acceptable music. But punk brought that back and then lots of different interesting things grew out of punk.

How did you feel when you heard Grace Jones was going to cover 'Warm Leatherette'? She'd been recording more in the disco vein until she released that album in 1980. 

I was bemused, I suppose is the right word. It was very early days for me, I had only just put the record out and I didn't have any publishing deal or anything. Island Music called me and said, “We'd like to publish 'Warm Leatherette'” and I said “Why??”. They said one of their artists wanted to do a version of it but when I asked they wouldn't tell me who it was at first. I was thinking of the Island roster at the time. Bob Marley was still alive at the time and I was thinking it definitely isn't Bob Marley wants to do a cover of 'Warm Leatherette'.

When I found out it was Grace Jones it was, like, "Cool. Why not?" I remember hearing her version for the first time and laughing, not because I thought it was bad, but just because this icon had done a cover version of one of my songs. For me, it was just hilarious. And flattering. 

Also, what did you think of David Cronenberg's movie that was about the same JG Ballard book (Crash)? 

I thought it was pretty good. But I'm a big Cronenberg fan. The whole JG Ballard thing came about because I studied film and a friend and I who were at film school together tried to try and write a film script for 'Crash' when we left. So, I kind of had this vision of what it could look like. I think the biggest disappointment was that it wasn't set around the suburbs of London, which I think gave the book a very special atmosphere.

It was set in Toronto, because of the whole film funding thing in Canada they have to film it there. I thought it was well executed. As good as it could have been. And it was banned in lots of places, which is incredible really. 

With the fabricated public personae of Silicon Teens you've said you were trying to create a teen pop band whose instruments were only synths and drum machines. Do you feel that in any of Mute's later signings those dreams were fully realised?

Yeah. I think Depeche Mode became that. They were teenagers when I met them and they'd chosen synthesizers as their main instrument. To me it was really obvious it was going to happen. It wasn't some big revelation. It just made sense that would happen and I was waiting for it. Depeche Mode were one the bands who... they didn't become the Silicon Teens, but they took that idea forward. It wasn't their idea to do so, it was just natural for them.

They said “We chose synths because they're easier to carry around”. I don't think that's really true, but that's what they said. They loved electronic music and it had become possible because of the technology changing. If you wanted to be in a band previously you had to choose to be a bassist, guitar player, drummer or singer but the development of the synthesizer gave you another option, which sometimes was also cheaper. 

So, it was obvious it would happen, it was just about when and who it was going to be. 

You had to rapidly expand Mute Records in order to cope with the success of Depeche Mode. The expansion of a label can bring financial responsibilities that simply just have to be met by repeating success, yet looking at many of the label's subsequent non Vince Clarke-related releases, Boyd Rice, Fad Gadget, DAF spin offs etc. you were continuing to champion some deeply experimental and non conforming artists.

Were you mindful of that or did all those artists sound like pop music to you?

It was more the other way round really. I actually thought Depeche Mode were pretty experimental band. And they were. And they still are, to a certain extent. 

As I said, I grew up in an amazing period of pop music, then I got completely absorbed in experimental music, so those things live very comfortably together in my consciousness, in my musical loves. To me there's nothing contradictory about that. If it's good I enjoy both equally. For me that's not an odd combination of artists really, that's just natural for me.  

Which of the artists you worked with on either label do you feel should have attained major success but didn't?

The ones I always cite that should've done was Renegade Soundwave. They just imploded as a band. They had too many internal battles. They were fighting the world, but they were also fighting each other. It was very difficult to take it beyond that. It was so sad too because they were such a great, great band, I loved them very much. I still love those records. 

The Birthday Party single and then Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds were radical departures for Mute. Why was the music of these punk balladeers suitable for Mute yet you felt you had to found a new label in Novamute to release what was essentially just a contemporary extension of electronic music?

Well Birthday Party came along a long time before Novamute. I suppose, for a moment, I was flying a flag for the end of guitar music. Because the old format, for me, had had its time. Then I saw The Birthday Party and I completely revised my thoughts.

I thought they were the most incredible band I'd seen in a very, very long time. They used their instruments and vocals in such a different way that I found really exciting. They weren't really punk. Punk was great for the energy, the rebellion, but it wasn't that great for the music. Really, the music was kind of conventional.

Whereas The Birthday Party's use of those instruments was completely different and very adventurous. It wasn't so much about the instrumentation as it was that they were making an amazing sound. That was what I was interested in, great sounds. And great songs.

The way you described them then, them using guitars and voice in a different way, it totally reminded me of how I might describe Wire.

Exactly, yeah. They were another band like that. I never really thought of Wire as a guitar band. Again, because they used the sound of their instruments in such a different way, an unconventional way. I liked the idea of things sounding like they weren't being played by musicians. 

What informs you nowadays in your newish part time role as DJ?

I'm pretty narrow in my musical out put as a DJ, the kinds of things that I play. It varies, but I play at Berghain quite a lot and that's fairly specific. It's got to be what I like. I know what I like, I'm quite open but I know very quickly what I like and what I don't like in techno. So, I try and explore the things that I like.

I'm not a professional DJ in the sense that I do four gigs every weekend. I maybe do 20 a year, so I can plan a little for each gig that I do. Sometimes I know the venue, others not. If I'm playing at Berghain or Sisyphos in Berlin, which are the places I play most, the audiences are very Berlin, but very different. I try and find things I think will work and one of the things I love about playing those places is that I can play the stuff I love. I know that I like the kind of music that the people who go there like. Sorry, that was a very long winded answer!

Catch Daniel Miller at Egg London for Berlin Berlin on Saturday 15th July. Tickets are available below. 

Tickets are no longer available for this event

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