Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ben Miller 13 Questions

Ben Miller (Benjamin Rush Miller) is an rock and avant garde guitarist born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has formerly been a member of such Detroit/Ann Arbor bands as Sproton Layer, Destroy All Monsters and Nonfiction. Destroy All Monsters, in particular, still a cult favorite, was a big part of the proto-punk Detroit/Ann Arbor scene. He is the younger brother of Roger Miller, a founding and current member of Mission of Burma, and an identical twin brother to Larry Miller, also a former member of Destroy All Monsters. Both of Ben's parents were scientists.

Sproton Layer Ben Miller Laurence Miller Steve Smith  Roger Miller

Miller collaborated with Laurence particularly through the 1980s and early 1990s. Since Miller is a right-hander and Laurence is a left-hander, their 1980s power trio Nonfiction had a rather powerful visual symmetrical stage presence—the guitar and bass each pointing outward, away from the centrally positioned drummer. Laurence and Ben would typically trade off on bass and guitar, with each preferring to play guitar on his own compositions.

Miller was also instrumental in the founding of Ann Arbor avant-garde label Bulb Records, having recorded the early releases in his basement studio.
While living in Chicago, he joined Dirty Old Man River as their prepared guitarist.
Over the years, Miller collaborated with his brothers Roger and Laurence on the M3 project, and recently a project with Roger as M2.

Destroy All Monsters members Ron Asheton, Niagara, and Benjamin Miller. 

Cultivating his technique since the early 80's, ben Miller/degeneration creates a sonic tapestry that defies standard guitar playing. Using a self-modified Gibson Kalamazoo, Miller produces a dense multiphonic soundscape by outputting several pickups through separate FX chains. With the addition of Casio SK1 8-bit sampling, transistor radio, analog synth and tapes it is difficult to discern where any one sound originates or where it is heading - and it is of this subliminal nature that Miller adheres to.

Miller's degeneration explores "prepared guitar" as a form of sonic degeneration. His self-modified mulitphonic instrument is equiped with several picups; 1 humbucker in standard placement, 1 humbucker suspended above the 1st fret, 2 piezo contact pickups (headstock/body) and a Hexaphonic pickup outputting each string separately. 

The bridge is not a saddled bridge - instead completely smooth so that the detuned strings are mobile and free to slide back and forth across it enhancing the guitar’s erratic microtonal sound. The aforementioned pickup that hovers above the 1st fret increases this microtonality further with the sounds that appear from this “opposite” side of the fretted/manipulated string. This is what provides the Stereophonic field according to the pickups in standard placement.

The guitar is placed on its back with its six strings strung below standard tuning with intonation more often arbitrary. Strings are excited by metal slides, springs, combs, chains, bows, eBows, etc. and "prepared" with binder clips, bolts, screws, and other found objects. String-sounds also occur below the bridge, above the nut, and from the guitar body itself. 

The use of a guitar pick and the traditional approach of playing a "guitar neck with frets" is rare. Retaining this unique mulitphonic output, Miller adds a score of FX pedals, a Casio SK1, analog tape, transistor radio, vinyl and the liberal use of a Bixby tailpiece. First altered in 1982, "The Zoo" (a deconstructed Gibson Kalamazoo) was one of many oddities integral to the sound of Ann Arbor's willfully obscure GKW (God Knows Who).

Currently Miller performs solo multiphonic guitar, composes and conducts for The Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra, explores analog tape deck abuse with The Magnetic Tape Operatives, and tours with The Glenn Branca Ensemble.

Which was the first record you bought with your own money?   

The Mothers of Invention "Freak Out!" because of its psychedelic cover. I didn't like the record except "Brain Police" and "Trouble Every Day."

What were other early records you bought?

Taking Tiger Mountain - Eno, an Edgar Varese double LP, The Music Improvisation Company - Derek Bailey etc., Skies of America/Science Fiction - Ornette Coleman.

What would you ask to another guitarist?

...would you like to try these binder clips?

What gear do you currently use?

...a Gibson Kalamazoo that I modified in 1982. I capsized the neck pickup and suspended it over the first fret. In this way, I outputted the different tones from either side of a slide, capo or fingertip panned L/R. Later, I attached inexpensive Piezo contact mics at the headstock and near the bridge also panning L/R. The 6 strings are usually mis-tuned at random and far below standard pitch stretched radically with a Bixby tailpiece enhancing micro-tonality further. I also use a Hexaphonic pickup that routes all 6 strings separately with each string running through a different effect panned hard L/R i.e. E/A, D/G, B/E.  All this runs into two Fuzz Faces (vintage/reissue - used only occasionally), a Boss Stereo Volume pedal and a Digitech Stereo Tremolo.

From there the Left side goes into a Digitech Dynamic Filter while the Right side goes into a Mooer Pitch Box routing back stereo into a Boss DD-7 and an Alesis Stereo Compressor/Limiter followed by a Mackie 10-channel mixer. Included in the mix is a Casio SK1, a Boss SP-202 sampler, micro and mini cassette players, and a transistor radio. An Alesis Quadraverb Plus is used for the Mixer's effects send/return function. My Set-Up changes regularly depending on units broken, sold or recently purchased. Active Guitar Preparations are as follows: various metal slides, long screws, combs, chains, cello bow, eBow, hand fans, etc. Static Guitar Preparations are as follows: springs, binder clips, metal finger nail files, lint traps and other found objects. String-sounds also occur below the bridge, above the nut, and from the Guitar body itself. The use of a Guitar pick and the traditional approach of playing a "guitar neck with frets" is rare.

Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?

EYELANDS UNDER EYELID (Gulcher Records, 2010) because the recording was done in three days and then mixed right away with very little editing. It was also a newly developed direction; a very slow moving dense ambiance. I felt it was a particularly cohesive body of work.

What's the importance of technique in art, in your opinion?

in my youth I was not concerned with technique instead attempting to break boundaries relying solely on my Ear. Later I found technique to be vastly important. However because standard technique is often used to express standard ideas, I began to develop some of my own. When freely improvising, my creative motivation is driven by intuitive listening with a deep faith in the unexpected. To an extent, I don't consider Technique on a conscious level. I immerse myself into what is being played while hearing what is not being played - paying attention without paying attention. In this way, the sonic climates I find myself in senses their own details of the flow with an end result of my becoming the sound.

Do you remember any useful advice from another musician?

A: Plenty of good advice and suggestions from brothers Laurence and Roger in terms of holding onto the firm belief in one's innate creative impulse as well as focusing on what is immediately in front of you rather than the many ideas that spring up seemingly at random - something that can quickly become problematic if one is to finish a project in a timely fashion!

B: Percussionist Matt Weston agreed with me that using alternate tunings without fully understanding their harmonic implications is a good way to open the creative mind and deal with the unexpected.

Where are your roots? What are your influences?

Too many to count, but here goes a rough estimate in rough order: Classical and Romantic Music, and Stravinsky due to my father playing records throughout my early childhood, the British Invasion, some garage rock, the psych-rock movement i.e. Hendrix, Barrett's Pink Floyd, early Soft Machine, Cpt. Beefheart, Tyrannosaurus Rex, .. John Cage, Stockhausen, .. Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, .. Eric Satie, Messiaen, Ligeti, Arnold Shoenberg's 12-tone method, .. early Eno, Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, some material by Wire, Skinny Puppy and Einstürzende Neubauten, .. Fred Frith's work amazes me, though I am not an avid listener and can't say he has had much of an influence. In fact, no prepared guitarist that I know has. I view Syd Barrett's creative antics and Derek Bailey's disregard for melodic form to be more of a primary influence. Oddly enough I did not hear Keith Rowe until I saw him live in 2000. I continue to keep my mind open to further influence, but there is much I dislike about "Music" in general.

What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?   

A: While the internet has done a service to "artistic exposure" it also makes everything so accessible that people no longer need to step away from their monitor screen or their MP3 players to experience Live Performance or search out a record at a record store - a pre-internet experience. I think most musicians these days have a difficult time selling physical merchandise. Audio downloads  are the norm and much of that is done without paying.

B: The popular interest in what is considered Sound Art (which focuses on Sound rather than the Technique to learn how to play a complex instrument) is both a positive and a negative. Some non-Musician Visual Artists for example have a fresh perspective on creativity through sound. One does not need to know Music Theory to express oneself in Sound. However, if you have a few hundred dollars to purchase a couple dozen guitar pedals or elaborate software for your laptop, it seems automatically accepted that this Sound Artist is expressing New and Experimental ideas. "Experimental Musicians" are now a dime a dozen - almost as common as what Bar Bands used to be in the 60's and 70's - many lacking an original spirit or thought-out execution of what is intended to be Avant-garde. Due to the immense access to all genres of music from all parts of the world literally at our fingertips (via the Internet), the Discovery Process is no longer what it was. The rare magazine that reports on Music overseas, or a record store that features imports, or even a Library is rarely used. So this "effort in research" no longer exists. To an extent, this gentrifies revolution.

C: Recording, editing and mixing is incredibly simplified and sped up through digital processes rather than the use of physical tape. Miracles can occur! However it is often too easy to do what used to be the impossible. Because of the decrease in creative effort and decision-making, the actual Creative Process has significantly changed - for better and for worse. It is really up to the Artist to ultimately decide whether or not their Editing is still genuine to the original impetus of the recorded material. This is crucial in my opinion. Just because you can record 100 tracks for 1 song doesn't mean you should. There is something to be said for the use of an analog 4-track reel to reel Tape Deck. Limits are a good thing.

D: Lately there has been a resurgence of Vinyl and Cassette. Though looked on as less than digital quality, the physical aspect is returning to the "treasure" it once was. Besides, when a hard drive has a melt down - there goes your Downloads.

Depict the sound you're still looking for.

"Trust The Unknown" _anon

What is your relationship with the prepared guitar?

A:Most often I am using Active Preparation - mobile objects - rather than Static Preparations at specified locations on the strings. At times what I do sounds like a broken guitar or sometimes not like an actual guitar at all. It seems I am searching for the lowest common denominator in sound - that perfect glitch or a full cloud of ambient onslaught. I always use Transistor Radio to provide the same thing; either passing quickly through Stations or using a mis-tuned frequency for a static backdrop to play against. The intermittent use of FX pedals and tapes is very important.

B: I have had very enjoyable performances and recording sessions with Prepared Pianists; my brother Roger on our M2 album "At Lands Edge" and with Hyperpianist Denman Maroney on our EXOPHILIA CDR "Canalization".

What do you need from music?

I don't understand the question. I don't feel I need anything. It is there for me to do something with. I definitely do not need it in the grocery store, clothing store, elevator or public bathroom. Music is everywhere these days. It's a nightmare.

Tell me one musical work which has provoked a change in your music?

There are several, but the first real change-provoking record was Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The sounds that Syd made and the erratic structures in songwriting - along with the other members of P. Floyd - was so magical. Syd's solos were not solos, they were energy. That record literally paved a road for me, something I could embrace, something to steer me away from the hideous norm on Top 40 AM Radio as well as much of the so-called "hip" music of those times.

What’s your next project about?

my newest release (May 2014) is COLOR OF SOUND. This was initially a collaboration with my twin brother Laurence's Documentary of his psychedelic art work which he refers to as COLOR OF WATER. I recorded numerous tracks for his DVD and since much of the material was not used in the film, I released COLOR OF SOUND as a stand alone audio project. I am very pleased with it.

As for Projects beyond this, I am recording a symphony that I composed for NYC's Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra. Also, I've been collaborating with Franck Vigroux as TRANSISTOR. We are now recording our third LP with a tour in Europe this November.


Selected Discography

The Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra
In C (CD) 2012 Living Records, June 2012

At Lands Edge (CD) 2
012 Feeding Tube Records June 2012

Ben Miller / Degeneration

Eyelands Under Eyelid (CD) 2010 Gulcher Records, distributed through Living Records
Live Performances and Radio Broadcasts (CDR) 2010 Tigerasylum Records, distributed through
Living Records.
Polar Shifts (Cassette) 2010 Obsolete Units, distributed through Living Records On Sale HERE
Sirens of Phobos (CDR) 2007 Living Records
Layer (CDR) 2005 Living Records
Over and Out (CDR) 2004 Living Records
Intercom (CDR) 2001 Living Records

Third Border
Return Return (CD) 2010 DIY
Sun of Water, Sea of Light (CD) 2006 Radial Records
Third Border (CDR) 2004 Living Records

Unearthing (CD) 2001 Sublingual Rare Editions
M-3 (CD/Cass) 1993 New Alliance 057

Twice Removed
One Full Turn (CDR) 2002 Farfetched Records

Dirty Old Man River
The Saddest Movie Screen (CD) 1998 Radial Records
Ageless (CD/LP) 2000 Radial

Side Effects (Cass) 1983 GKW Tapes
Live Perspire And Be Phosphorous (Cass) 1984 SBD
After Effects (Cass) 1985 GKW Tapes
Us & Them (Cass)
1988 GKW Tapes EC0.04 (Cassingle)
1988 GKW Tapes (never released)
The Feeling (Cass) 1990 GKW Tapes (never released)
Color Inventory (Cass) --- GKW Tapes (unmixed)

Cruizin' Ann Arbor (LP) 1982 AAMP Compilation
Walking Sideways Talking Backwards (Cass) 1984 Neoteric

Blackout In The City (7" EP) 1979 Black Hole

Destroy All Monsters
You're Gonna Die/Bored (7")
1977 Cherry Red / Revenge
November 22nd 1963/Meet The Creeper (7")
1978 IDBI / Cherry Red / Revenge
Day Of Diamonds (7" EP)
1979 Black Hole [also incl. Cary Loren]
Broken Mirrors, rehearsals & shows 1977-1978 (CD)
2003 Farfetched

Sproton Layer
Lost Behind Words (7") 1991 New Alliance 802 recorded 1969
With Magnetic Fields Disrupted (CD/LP/Cass) 1992 New Alliance 055 recorded 1970

Other Recordings
Marianne Nowottny What Is She Doing? (CD) 2007 The Abaton Book Company .
Lori Bortz / Elliot Sharp A Modicum of Passion (CD) 2005 The Abaton Book Company .
Bill T. Miller Orgy of Noise  Live Bent(CD) 2004

The Empty Set
Wandering In Wonder (7" EP) 1986 LALA
Lost In A Ryptide (12" LP) 1986 LALA
Roman Holiday (7") 1992 Bird Cage
Thin, Slim, None, and Flunkie 1996 Bird Cage

Roger Miller
No Man Is Hurting Me (LP) 1986 Ace of Hearts