Daniel Miller Interview

Mute Records

Daniel Miller has been a personal hero of mine since 1981, when I first bought ‘Speak & Spell.’ Mute Records was the first independent record label I loved, before I even understood the difference between majors and indies. When I look through my record collection it’s filled with bands either on Mute or one of the sub-labels, bands like Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure, Sonic Youth, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., Labradford, Jon Spencer, Christian Vogel, Goldfrapp, Add N To X… well, you get my point.

I got to meet Daniel after I asked him to remix a track of mine in the brief time I was on EMI. At the end of 2000, I twisted his arm to let me interview him. This interview also appeared in the May 2001 issue of synthpop magazine Lexicon.

Jyoti : Hiya Daniel, are you ready for your in-depth interview?
Daniel : Go on, fire away!
Jyoti : Why did you first form Mute, how and when?
Daniel : I wouldn’t even use the word form cos it always sounds too grandiose to say that I ‘formed’ Mute but the first release came out in early 1978. And that was TVOD/Warm Leatherette.
Jyoti : And that was you!
Daniel : That was me.
Jyoti : Whatever happened to the Normal?
Daniel : Retired, hurt. Nothing since ’78 but I did some touring with Robert Rental who sadly passed away recently. There was a recording issued of that collaboration by Rough Trade which is difficult to track down but we’re [Mute] thinking of re-issuing it.
Jyoti : How were you involved with the Silicon Teens?
Daniel : I did it – that was me. That album was recently re-issued on Mute. I’m a huge Chuck Berry fan and I wanted to see what it would sound like doing him on synthesizers.
Jyoti : But did you move to being the Mute supremo because you were too shy to do the band stuff, as has been previously suggested?
Daniel : Not really, no. I was a frustrated musician all my life. I learnt guitar, saxophone and other stuff but I really couldn’t play at all. I was in bands at school but always the worst, I gravitated to the bottom of the league! Part of the whole thing about electronic music was that I had these ideas which I could now get down without necessarily being a conventional musician or songwriter.
Jyoti : But you totally wrote Warm Leatherette and TVOD?
Daniel : Yep – it’s not a Grace Jones cover version!
Jyoti : So you’re saying you don’t class yourself as a songwriter and yet Warm Leatherette has now been covered by quite a few people. Not bad going for someone who doesn’t consider himself a songwriter.
Daniel : But I’m not a songwriter! I think if you’re going to be creative in that area, you have to have the need to be involved. It’s like writing a book, it’s very hard to do if you haven’t got a real passion for it. And I don’t have that feeling. I don’t want to be a songwriter – I liked doing it and I was trying to make a certain point. In 1978, I was trying to make a point that there were cheap synthesizers out there, you could become involved, trying to link that in with punk. In fact, you don’t even have to learn the punk three chords, you don’t have to be a musician, all you need are the ideas and you can come up with something interesting.
Jyoti : So would you call the early Mute a punk or post-punk label?
Daniel : Ah, well it was both, in a sense. It was literally, chronologically post-punk but punk was one of the inspirations behind it. It wasn’t the only inspiration,
there were other factors that came together that made me do it. But the punk ethic was there, the do-it-yourself, fuck-the-establishment attitude. I had that attitude since I can remember but punk focussed it from just being angry. Another factor was my love of electronic music and the last one would be that electronic instruments became affordable to people like me, rather than only wealthy rock stars. Musically, I felt that punk ran out of steam very quickly. The energy was there but a lot of it was speeded-up pub rock, which I hated. But as a spirit, as a sense of adventure it carried on, inspiring people who weren’t making punk, from Joy Division to The Human League to whoever. My primary thing was this new aesthetic, which I couldn’t imagine approaching a conventional record company with. I also liked the idea of just sticking out a single on my own. It was a heady mix of the aesthetic, the economic and the political. There was a hippy element as well but then most punks are hippies.
Jyoti : In the first five years of Mute, what are personal milestones for you?
Daniel : Well, the first single, of course, cos it got the label going. It took me a year to decide to release another record. I was living in London, at my Mum’s and I’d got to know the people at the Rough Trade shop. I was playing live a lot, helping out at Rough Trade. Then I met Fad Gadget and loved his music and wanted to stick it out. Between 79 and 80 there was Fad Gadget, the Silicon Teens, DAF, Non, Robert Rental.
Jyoti : A lot of those releases are now considered the birth of industrial music. You seem to have very broad tastes?
Daniel : It’s my generation, maybe. I’m old enough to remember rock’n’roll (just) and to remember the British beat boom as a young teen, the Kinks, Beatles and Stones. I was just old enough to be appreciative of the underground stuff in the late 60s, leaping onto things like Can and Amon Duul. So I grew up with a lot of great pop bands and experimental music as well. There was a point that music seemed to stand still and I wanted to hear strange things that you’d never heard before. So, I’ve always been a big pop fan.
Jyoti : Don’t you think it’s strange that there’s only the one Mute?
Daniel : How do you mean?
Jyoti : Well, you’re an independent label and you have artists like Labradford, who I love but can’t imagine in the charts. At the same time, you have great pop bands like Erasure and Depeche Mode.
Daniel : Well, I can’t explain it! It’s just my musical taste – it’s the result of all my varied influences. If I have the opportunity to work in all those
areas, I will. I’m excited by having hit records but not for just the sake of having them. If I can get a band I believe in into the charts, have a track actually become popular then that’s brilliant. But I find it equally exciting to release a record that may not chart but that is innovative or experimental that may only sell a few thousand.
Jyoti : I remember seeing you at the Add N To X gig before you signed them and you were excited about them like a kid
Daniel : Yeah, you have to feel that way. And I feel that Add N To X are a band that should be on Mute and that we, as a label, can do more for than anyone
Jyoti : What are the various Mute labels.
Daniel : Well, Mute, obviously. There’s the Grey Area which is specifically a re-issue imprint. If we can get hold of old stuff we like and can work with, like the Industrial Records catalog, we’ll put it out. When they ceased trading, they offered the catalog to us and we were really happy to take it on. There’s also Can, which was unbelievable for me as huge fan, an incredible opportunity. Other stuff on there includes early Cabaret Voltaire, Soviet France, SPK and some other things we’re after. Then there’s Blast First which is run by a guy called Paul Smith. I met Paul in the mid-80s. I’d been locked in the studio for a year, helping to make Black Celebration and I came home, switched on John Peel and I heard these two amazing tracks. One was by Head Of David and the other by Big Stick. So I phoned up Rough Trade and asked about them and it turned it they were both on Paul’s label, Blast First. He heard that I was interested and got in touch. We had a chat and he was saying how he wanted to keep his label going but was low on money, but he’d got this exciting new band called Sonic Youth. So I went to see them and they were amazing, of course. (I’m not anti-guitar, I’m just anti the way most people play them!) But Sonic Youth were fantastic so I formed a partnership with Paul. And then, because Sonic Youth were well-respected amongst their musical peers, before we knew it, we had Big Black, Dinosaur Jr, Butthole Surfers and others who were the predecessors of grunge, I guess. All these modern, experimental guitar bands were suddenly on Blast First and it was a fantastic period for the label.
Jyoti : So basically, in 1989, you had most of the best techno and guitar music in the world working with Mute.
Also in that period we were working with Rhythm King who had a lot of the early house acts, like S-Express and Bomb The Bass. So, all round, it was a pretty exciting time.
Jyoti : But you haven’t changed that much because nowadays you have the guitar side of Mute covered with bands like Jon Spencer.
Daniel : Yeah, that’s right. And again, he’s one of the few guitar acts that I think is fantastic, I’m very happy to be working with him. Anyway, after we parted ways with Rhythm King, we decided to concentrate more on the dance side so we formed NovaMute, out of in-house personnel who were into this area. It ended up being up an artist-based label with people like Richie Hawtin, Luke Slater, Speedy J, Christian Vogel, 2nd Gen. What happened with Blast First is that America woke up to its own music and bigger labels offered those bands big advances. People like Geffen who either wanted the bands in worldwide, exclusive deals or not at all. Paul got a bit deflated by this and it took a bit of time to get going again but when he heard Pansonic, he loved that and that, along with bands like Labradford, was the start of a new wave of Blast First releases. Jyoti : Here’s an opportunity for a free plug: of current Mute releases, what are you most excited by?
Daniel : Well, it’s a bland answer but a truthful one – I’m excited by it all or else I wouldn’t release it. But of the newer acts we’ve started to work with over the last couple of years, I think Goldfrapp is fantastic. Alison Goldfrapp is an incredibly talented singer and Will is an outstanding arranger. Add N To X we’ve talked about… Echoboy is just one of these guys who’s got music pouring out of every orifice. He comes from a very trad background, having been a Britpop band called the Hybirds, which I’d never heard of. They were dropped by their label soon after the release of their debut album. Richard Warren [Echoboy] split the group up, used his publishing advance to buy musical gear for his home and started experimenting in a more Krautrocky area. He’s progressing all the time and he’s a very accomplished musician in trad terms, which is unusual in the current are he’s working in.
Jyoti : How does it feel having been such a huge influence on whole swathes of Black electro and hip hop? All those people inevitably have copies of Kraftwerk and Gary Numan but also Depeche Mode and Yazoo.
Daniel : Well, I want music to push forward and not be retro. If Mute’s ever inspired people to do that, to progress, well that’s the whole point of what I’m trying to do. That’s what was so exciting about working with Depeche, they were great pop songwriters but they were also into experimenting with new sounds. I sit at home with my synthesizers making great noises but when you can put those experiments into the pop form, that’s thrilling. I listened to Black Celebration all the way through, for the first time in ages, and I was pleasantly surprised. I think we achieved a lot with that album. We were into people like Einsturzende Neubauten and Test Dept., so those influences came through. That album seems to be the favourite of a lot of hardcore Depeche fans.
Jyoti : Don’t you think that if Martin Gore was in a more trad guitar band, he’d have gained a lot more respect as a songwriter?
Daniel : Well, that may be true to a certain extent in Britain. But in the US and Germany, I think he gets that respect. Also, he did win an Ivor Novello a couple of years ago. He’s a very modest guy but he was pleased by that and it was a moving thing for me to see. Sometimes you can get close to someone and forget how much they’ve achieved but when you see someone’s history played out like that, in three minutes of videos, it’s pretty amazing.
Jyoti : I like the subversion of classic Mute pop, in the charts but with edgy lyrics like Master & Servant.
Daniel : Yeah, there was a moment there in the 80s when you had Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Heaven 17, all chart bands who were producing stuff that wouldn’t be allowed in the charts nowadays. On the other hand, I do think it’s good that kids are listening to pop music again now, that died a little in the 80s, but I’m glad that’s back. You have to have that original thing, that hooks kids when they’re young and then their tastes broaden. If they’re not listening when they’re twelve and thirteen, then they won’t be listening later, you have to have that excitement.
Jyoti : Did you have a Mute 20th Birthday Party?
Daniel : No. I’m not a big celebrator of the past – there was no Mute 20th birthday party because I’d rather look to the future. Also, I’m not a very sociable, party type person.
Jyoti : Why do you think Mute have survived and so many other indie labels have gone down the tubes?
Daniel : I think we had a lot of breaks. We started working with Depeche and that was a band with two great songwriters in it, which then split into two bands. Now that’s a lucky break! You can work as hard as you bloody like but you still have to have the breaks. Then with bands like the Birthday Party/Nick Cave, we gave them a place where they could grow at their own speed. The same with Moby, eight years to get to the point where we’re at now, which probably wouldn’t have happened on another label. But who knows? You can’t ever say what would have happened.
Jyoti : Finally, Daniel, where do you see Mute in twenty years?
Daniel : In 2020? Fuck knows! I look at people who I respect in the business like Seymour Stein and Clive Davis and they still have that genuine enthusiasm, that passion for music. I hope I’ll be like that. I don’t think I’ll get bored, sometimes I get frustrated, like during the mid-90s big Britpop explosion which I didn’t like and couldn’t see how Mute fitted in. I hated Britpop and if you weren’t doing it, the press weren’t interested, it did my head in for a while. So I don’t think I’d stop from boredom but from it being so much hard work, making endless plane trips, forever chasing things. But the next few years are looking very positive, we’re selling records, doing what we want to do, releasing great music.

Copyright 2001 Jyoti Mishra