PCC’s Vintage Interview with the Great Singer-Guitarist

By Paul Freeman [2007 Interview]

Still going strong, Miller is currently on tour with fellow 70s icon Peter Frampton. A new “Ultimate Hits’” package is being released in September, 2017.

Our interview with him took place 10 years prior, upon the release of the 30th Anniversary Edition of “Fly Like An Eagle.”

Former Bay Area resident Steve Miller looks forward to bringing his band back to Shoreline Amphitheater.

“I still have so many friends in the area,” said the iconic guitar/vocalist. “A lot of people come out to jam. Big Brother & The Holding Company, Greg Kihn, The Doobie Brothers will all be there. It’ll be a lot of fun.”

It’s with fondness that Miller, who now resides in Washington State, remembers the 60s scene in San Francisco. “It was magnificent and very rare,” he said. “The older I get, the more I go, ‘Wow! What an unusual time that was!’

“When I was in it, when I was a kid, I thought, ‘I wonder if this is what the 20s were like?’ Because it was always, ‘Oh, the Roaring Twenties’ — with all the music and the drinking and the partying, a fairly exotic decade that was different from anything else.”

But the music and art of the 60s has been unmatched by any other creative movement since, Miller said.

“There hasn’t been anything like what happened in San Francisco, not in my lifetime, nothing that’s even come close. It had nothing to do with hype, nothing to do with corporations. What happened in San Francisco had everything to do with some sort of giant energy involving music, literature, art and science. It was just an amazing occurrence. These things don’t happen that often.”

Miller’s latest release is the 30th anniversary edition of the “Fly Like an Eagle” album. He relished taking the analog tapes and creating a 5.1 surround sound mix. Thirty years ago, he attempted quadrophonic mixes, but wasn’t satisfied with the results.

“They just didn’t work well enough. It’s funny, it took about 30 years for everybody to figure out, ‘Hey, let’s add one more speaker, or two — a subwoofer and a center speaker. That might make it better,” Miller said, chuckling. “And of course, it did. This 5.1 version is the way the record was originally designed to be heard, but technically couldn’t be heard that way.”

The new release includes a DVD with a documentary and a 2005 concert with guest stars Joe Satriani, George Thorogood and Carlos Reyes.

Miller loves performing as much as ever. “I’m one of those annoying people who feels like the luckiest guy in the world. I just look forward to every concert we do — Oh, woe is me. I gotta go play lead guitar in a rock ’n’ roll band tonight. Doggone it!” He laughs. “So it’s really fun.”

Nowadays, the band performs in about 50 cities a year, unlike the 200 cities a year they used to visit. “We’re not killing ourselves these days. It’s a fairly modest number. And we have a great audience. Our shows are very well attended.”

The demographic for the band extends way beyond Baby Boomers.

“People are surprised when they come to our concerts, because probably 70 percent of our audience is between the ages of 10 and 20,” Miller said. “It’s a real honor to play for them.”

Miller says his music seems to appeal to young kids. “I think it’s mainly because of the harmony and the positive lyrics,” he said. “It’s always fun to sing ‘The Joker’ in front of 15,000 kids who are all laughing and having a good time. There is nothing hard about that at all.”

Miller deftly balances nostalgia and new ideas. “It’s a given that our audience wants to hear the greatest hits. They know us for those 14 songs, because classic rock radio plays them so much.”

The rest of the 140-minute set affords the band some freedom. Even the hits don’t sound the same from night to night.

“The truth of the matter is, a lot of the hits lend themselves to having spontaneous solos,” Miller said. “Tunes like ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ can be 18 minutes long and anything can happen. It’s more like a forum for discussion that has some verses and choruses at the front and at the end.

“That keeps it fresh and interesting for us. We’re never playing by rote, note for note, over and over, boring ourselves to death, night after night. That kind of thing will kill your creativity pretty quickly.”

Miller’s musicality began taking hold at age five, when his godfather, Les Paul, introduced him to guitar. While a schoolboy in Texas, Miller formed his first band. He showed classmate Royce Scaggs (nicknamed Boz) a few chords and invited him to join him.

At 16, Miller began college, but left six credits short of a literature degree. He had planned to be a teacher.

“After five years of college, I told my parents I wanted to go to Chicago to play the blues,” he said. “I had decided I wasn’t going to be happy unless I was playing music. I thought my dad was going to hit me with a two-by-four. But my mom said, ‘That’s a great idea. You’re young. You’re not married. You don’t have any responsibilities right now. Go try it.’

“The general thing is to not encourage a kid musically. If you’re a parent, you don’t want your kid to be a musician. You want them to be a doctor or a lawyer. You want them to be able to support themselves and take care of themselves. I always tell people, if they have kids who are talented, ‘Look, it’s not about them becoming professional musicians. It’s about developing their brains and developing emotionally. Playing an instrument is one of the greatest things you can do in your life, whether you ever make a dollar doing it or not. So let them pursue it, develop it.’”

Over the course of his career, Miller has taken large chunks of time off to pursue and develop other fascinations, including navigating an oceangoing vessel and creating large-scale art combining painting and photography.

“Running a large boat in the ocean, learning all that, took quite a while — sonar and radar, taking care of dual engines and generators and all the boat systems and running a boat from Seattle to Alaska, all that kind of stuff. That was about a five-year project.

“I love to paint. And I’ve always loved photography. So I’ve been learning and working with a new photo printer that does photo prints that are 44 inches wide and can be up to 200 feet long,” Miller said, laughing, “which is really wild. So my project now is I’m printing a lot of my pictures on a special canvas and then painting with my own photography. It’s just for creative fun. And some of it is pretty interesting. I listen to music the whole time I’m doing all this stuff. I have a big sound system that’s on. But it’s a chance to do something besides just concentrate on music.

“It’s always good to do different things and to not be in a rut,” he said. “You can go through your life and all of a sudden realize, ‘Gosh, I just did the same thing for 25 years. Wow!’ It’s important to stop and to learn different things, get out of your world that you’re real comfortable in and stretch yourself out in different ways. So I’ve taken time in my career to take time off and learn completely different things, learn new skills, do different things. I find when you come back, it always seems to refresh creativity.”

Music remains his foremost creative passion. “Before I got to San Francisco, I was already a professional musician and had done a thousand gigs. So it wasn’t like I was a naive little kid. I was young. But I started work when I was 12 years old.

All my life, I wanted to be a musician — not a celebrity, not an entertainer, but a musician. That’s what I wanted, my entire life. By being around people like Les Paul, Charles Mingus, T-Bone Walker, some really great, great musicians, I understood from a very early age that this was a profession, a lifetime commitment. And that’s what I wanted. So I didn’t get sidetracked by a lot of the things that sidetracked a lot of people in any scene, but especially in San Francisco. There were so many drugs.”

Unlike many of his 60s rock peers, Miller managed to sidestep the pitfalls of drugs. “I didn’t get hurt by all the pot and the acid and everything in San Francisco. Or in the 80s, all the poor people who became addicted to cocaine, who tried that drug and thought that was going to be great. I always just sort of went, ‘You know, I’ve got work to do… and I need to be clear-headed for it.’ So I was able to bypass a lot of the part of the scene that damaged and destroyed a lot of the people,” he said. “A lot of them were really lost. But when you’re talking about Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, they were just in their late 20s.”

Technology and the music business have changed dramatically over the years. What remains unaltered is Miller’s musical fire and integrity.

“There was a time when I was making recordings by taking two stereo tape recorders and ping-ponging back and forth. And it was pretty esoteric. And there were probably a couple hundred people in the country who understood how to do that. And in my wildest dreams, I never thought that anybody could go to a music store and buy a 24-track digital machine for $800 that was a 24-track or even 124-track digital tape recorder with a mixing console in it… and effects, and echo.

“So what I was fascinated with, a lot of people are fascinated with. Everyone’s playing an instrument and everybody’s making music. And what could be better?

“I make my living at something I’m kind of illiterate in — it’s all feeling and emotion. It’s not writing music formally and studying theory and applying classical techniques to what I do. It’s all very, very simple.”

Miller has been able to maintain his creative spark. “I think that’s because I have total control of my work. That was the most important thing that I got for myself, was artistic control, so some corporation or some corporate kind couldn’t come and tell me what I had to do. So it was up to me.

“And, of course, I’m my toughest critic, probably. Over the years, I’ve learned to not be such a tough critic on myself. It’s okay, I’m a human being and things don’t have to be perfect,” he chuckles. “That’s been very helpful.

“And then the fact that we’ve been successful and when we go out to do concerts, people come to see us and they have a great time and we have a great time —all of those things keep me fresh and alive. If I was going out and playing to places that were a third empty and the business guys were, ‘Oh, we’re not selling tickets,’ it’d be a lot different.

“So the balance of all of these things — good business, being able to be spontaneous and keeping certain elements alive in the music, not playing by rote — that’s what allows me to continue to be creative. And doing it in moderation.”

Miller is currently recording acoustic, blues, jazz and rock tunes, picking pieces from the different styles, so he can assemble albums like “Fly Like An Eagle.”

“A greater variety of sound makes for a more interesting listening experience,” Miller said.

Audiences remain eager to listen to Miller’s music. “I try to bring a lot joy to people and make them want to sing themselves.”

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