The last time PSNEurope was in a room with Daniel Miller, it was the extreme opposite of our current meeting. Today we’re in the compact, newly completed Mute Studios in Hammersmith.
The previous occasion was the vast Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, watching Kraftwerk perform The Man-Machine as part of their 2012 eight-night residency in London. “I remember the gig,” begins Miller. “What did I think of it? The surround sound was incredible and tastefully done, the visuals worked really well.
“I knew them – not well – but we’d had a few meetings over the years. They know what a huge fan I am, and they don’t think I’m insulting electronic music – which is quite good!” he laughs.
No one could ever accuse that of Miller. He has always been a champion of electronic experimentation, innovation and off-kilter thinking. From his early foray into stripped back electro-punk with The Normal and Warm Leatherette, to signing Depeche Mode, Erasure and later Goldfrapp to his Mute label and techno acts including Luke Slater, Richie Hawtin and Speedy J to the NovaMute spin-off, Miller continues to sound the horn for the sonics of synthesizers like few others.
“We took over the Kraftwerk reissues project,” he continues, “and they thought being on Mute was a good idea, which was incredibly flattering. I was lucky enough to get tickets for all eight nights at the Tate. I thought it was fantastic: everything Kraftwerk do just works, nothing jars…”
This last remark reveals, and underpins, what Miller wanted from the design of his new Mute studio, which will be used as a writing, recording and mastering space.
“The thing that sets us apart – apart from that it’s a nice space to be in, Dan’s a really good engineer, and we have some really nice outboard – is that it all works. There’s no endless fiddling around the back! It all works and is usable, and that’s important.”
There’s always been a studio at Mute HQ. (“I’ve always felt it’s important to have a studio in or close to the label,” says Miller.) The imprint, originally established by Miller in 1978, was acquired by EMI back in 2002, becoming independent again in late 2010.
After leaving the major, Mute set up an office and studio in Hammersmith; and when the lease ran out on that space, the label moved over the road to the current location. That move precipitated the design and building of the room in which we now sit.
Renowned consultant Nick Whitaker was responsible for the acoustic design, while Pete Hoffman and Miloco Builds undertook the construction. Whitaker designed Mute’s first big studio in Harrow Road in 1986 – with its Amek mixing console – as well Miller’s home studio. The label boss worked with Whitaker, Miloco Builds and Jigsaw24’s Ian Duncan (“my technical director of some 15 years, I suppose”) to finalise the design.
The room is isolated and reuses the RPG acoustic panels from the old studio. Miloco Builds incorporated a machine room and a storage area into the facility, while maintaining natural light and cleaning up the power supply.
“I don’t come from an engineering perspective, I come more from programming,” Miller says, gesturing at the racks of keyboards. “Of course, this studio is not built for me, it’s built for clients - but you don’t want to be standing around trying to find the right cable or MIDI channel, do you?”
But you could work in here? “I do work in here! So I was quite specific about how it should be put together. The whole thing about analogue synths is the spontaneity – but the whole process of how you work has to be spontaneous too.”
Analogue synths, then: the studio’s real firepower. Miller fell for them from the very beginning, recording Warm Leatherette with a Korg 700M and a TEAC four-track in his bedroom. He’s been a collector ever since.
“There has to be a reason for having a studio rather than ‘some guy’ doing it at home, which is what we have here. People can’t get this stuff at home.”
An ARP sequencer, a Roland System 100M, a Russian Polyvox, an original Korg MS20, EMS Vocoder, Moog Minimoog, Roland 303, 808 and 909… nope, you certainly can’t get this stuff at home. Miller opens a drawer to reveal a Stylophone and an unidentifiable Russian drum machine. There are Launchpads and Ableton and Pro Tools too, of course.
“Everything you could want, the new and the old…”
His new favourite thing is the recently released Arturia BeatStep Pro, he notes. “Two sequencers and a drum machine; CV/gates, USB and MIDI. I was in the studio at the weekend, doing some bits and pieces, trying to get things in sync from different worlds... it was like 1980 all over again!”
Did the love of analogue and spontaneity influence the choice of the SSL Matrix console as the studio’s centerpiece? “We looked at a lot of different ways of mixing, doing it with controllers, etc. We knew what we wanted, we knew we had space limitations, and we went through a lot of options… the Matrix seems to be serving us extremely well.”
Ultimately, then, what does Miller, now 64, want to achieve with this room? ”In general: a mixture of the people who work here, people on the label and people who rent the studio – we’re working with Miloco on that side of it. I’ve spent so much of my life in studios, happily, I’m very conscious of it being a creative space, something that functions: I want people to feel comfortable in here, and I think they do.”
Miller’s legacy, if you will, has been to sign independent thinkers to his independent label. Music with teeth, with vigour, with something to say. Does he still feel that way? “Put it like this: I wouldn’t still be doing what I do if I didn’t have that [feeling]. It’s a lot of work, but I love the work. We choose our artists very carefully and try to work with those who bring something new. The world doesn’t need another label chasing the same acts, so we go our own way, and that’s an important part of being an independent - in your thoughts and your actions. As a label we don’t have a sound as such. What’s in common is that they write great songs, be it Nick Cave or Martin Gore or Will [Gregory] and Alison [Goldfrapp].
”When someone sends in a tape – well, not a tape, a link! – we instinctively know what isn’t a Mute record,” he continues. “It’s not just about the music; you’ve got to be able to work with the artist and share a vision, otherwise it gets very messy. The people I work with, they are all independent spirits, they don’t want to be told what to do, which is fine because I don’t want to tell them what to do. I want to be there if they want to know what to do.”
Miller continues to “mess around” with electronics at home, he reveals. “I try to keep the making of sound, if you will, a hobby. This [label] is my work life, but at home, it’s open ended – so I mess around and enjoy myself. If something comes out of that, then OK – it’s also a bit of a research tool, so I can say, ‘Yeah, maybe you should use that envelope generator…’”
There aren’t many label bosses who could give that kind of advice to his protégés. Kraftwerk would be proud.