Daniel Miller at Mute Records, 1981
'Mute Speak', New Musical Express, 2nd May , 1981
Interview with Mute Records boss Daniel Miller
It's fair to say that Depeche Mode's success was helped in no small part by the group's close working relationship with Daniel Miller and his independant record label, Mute Records. This early interview with Miller in New Musical Express (May 2, 1981) goes some way towards illustrating and explaining the reasons for the effectiveness of this ongoing, working partnership. Down-to-earth, funny, uncompromising, pioneering, modest... these are all qualities which Miller shares with the nascent Depeche Mode.
Words by Vivien Goldman.
"When I’m introduced to people they all look in horror at me, and say – that’s Daniel Miller?!?
"Which suits me perfectly. That’s what I like. They all expect some kind of Steve Strange character. That," continues Daniel, gleefully chopsticking at the seaweed on his plate, "makes me very happy. That I’m still Normal. Not quite right.
"I’ve never fitted in, I suppose."
His smile works better than underfloor heating.
Daniel Miller, also known as The Normal. Also known as The Silicon Teens. The earmaster behind the various works of Fad Gadget, DAF, and now the chart-enterers Depeche Mode. Founder and pilot of Mute Records. Grace Jones covered his "Warm Leatherette", the flip of his epoch-making "TVOD", positively the first synthesiser weird pop single, released in ’77.
The strangeness of that sound is difficult to conceive of now, with synthesisers almost as common as electric typewriters (both keyboard instruments). Daniel’s newscaster evenness, the accent plummy after months of yobspeak, rattling through a terse morse code of images, all ominous as the froth on bursting pods (really, they’re human clones…).
The rhythm was all machines! If things carried on this way, regular human musicians would be redundant!
They were to become clichés in their turn, but moments like the growing entry of random radios, coupled with the teen-appeal of lines like "I don’t need no TV screen, I just stick the aerial into my vein" were shiny new currency then, suggested a marginally less bourgeois origin than Daniel’s bedroom in Golder’s Green.
But that is precisely the glory of Mute. The incongruity of a professional drop-out from a media-conscious middle-class immigrant background, a man who looks more like a messy college lecturer than a pop star, setting the controls for a swathe of svelte synthesisers.
At the time Daniel made "TVOD" he wasn’t in contact with any other musicians. He basically worked in complete isolation, with only the early works of Neu, Kraftwerk, Can and Klaus Schulze pointing vaguely in similar directions. And they weren’t making independent pop singles, either.
He’d just got back from working as a disc jockey in Swiss clubs – this was before the synthadisco boom, so it was down to Abba and Schlager music; heavy metal.
Daniel had already scored some Normal musical credentials; "I played with groups when I was at school. I suppose that’s what decided me to work alone.
"I was really frustrated. I couldn’t play guitar" – I flash on hearing Daniel and Fad Gadget condemn a record with their ultimate insult: "Ugh! They’re a guitar band!" – "I couldn’t express myself musically.
"When I was 14 I used to play noise alone in my room, using metal objects to hit the guitar with. I was always arguing about music with my friends, people in the band. I had very strong ideas. Everybody always thought I was nuts. Our band was terrible. We used to play at dances and parties. That was the best thing about it – we were the worst musicians from all the bands in the school (King Alfred’s in Hampstead) so there was no pressure to be good musically…"
Which helps explain why, when Daniel returned from his Swiss DJ excursion in ’76, he yelled "What the fux this?" with great glee on hearing The Ramones. He loved the noise. He adored the lack of guitar solos.
"Guitars? Well… they have their place. I like Keith Levene, and Marco when he was with Rema-Rema. They’re not using the guitar in the traditional way. It used to play along and provide a rhythmic backing for the voice, then play a melody in the middle, but its function was becoming circular. It was just repeating itself, not leading anywhere in music.
"The good guitarists now are the ones that have been listening to synthesizers. Guitarists used to think they were getting better because they were playing more notes to the minute, playing longer solos, jazz-rock riffs, meaningful classical influences. In fact, it was the same with keyboards and drums too – quantity is quality.
"Not to mention the sexual role of the guitar… I’m not clear on my ideas about this, but it’s – the guitar as truncheon. Why women in bands play guitar, I think that’s really strange. In many ways it’s a very offensive male instrument…"
All of which is in contrast to the synthesizer, which Daniel sees as one of those instruments you can play best when you can’t play at all.
Thus, inspired by the new-found punk do-it-yourself philosophy, Daniel decided to go back to work in the "crushingly boring" field of editing TV commercials, freelance, to raise the money for a £200 Korg 700S synthesiser in early ’77. Then he bought a TEAC four-track, 7½" per second, with small reels, and started mucking about for fun at home – again, without realising that Cabaret Voltaire, Human League and Throbbing Gristle were up to the same japes. Then he decided to make a record, after hearing about The Desperate Bicycles’ self-production.
"I never thought of approaching a ‘major’ label. I didn’t like them because they’d ruined quite a few of my favourite bands – like Can, Faust and Klaus Schultze with Virgin. Maybe the companies just thought it was cool to sign those bands, and didn’t have much judgement of what was good.
"The idea of being an independent appealed to me because if I’m working with someone else I just tend to put the load on them, it’s more personal than ideological" (more power then to Mute’s doughty Hildy Swengard who carries her load like a feather – even down to sneaking the workaholic Daniel off to surprise holidays to prevent total collapse) "So I rented an echo unit for three days…"
Daniel pressed up 500 of "TVOD" / "Warm Leatherette". "It was just the same process as film – you cut, process, approve… I thought nobody would be interested at all. The only thing remotely like it was Kraftwerk. Punk was big then, and getting very boring. I’ve sold 30,000 by now – and that’s just from England. It’s also been released in America, France and Australia.
"When I took the test pressing into Rough Trade, they just loved it and said they’d help me press 2000. I was dead chuffed. Although I didn’t know any music people, I’d heard of Rough Trade, and I knew they were supposed to be – quite cool."
Since the unprecedented success of his single as The Normal, Daniel hasn’t released anything as a solo artiste. Officially, that is. Why?
"I was taken aback by the good reviews. It made me a bit nervous. Does that make sense? I thought I was making a record no one wanted to listen to or buy. I didn’t even want it to be liked all that much. Then I thought – what’s the point of making another record?
"But I was besotted with electronic music. I felt that this was what people should be doing, or listening to, there was so much you could do with it…"
Flash back to Stiff Little Fingers’ first big tour, when "Inflammable Material" had just come out. Daniel and Robert Rental performing on the same bill.
All the black leather’d pogo puppies staring bemused at these two unlikely figures, unglamorous in all the ways expected of people that get up on a stage before a young audience. Quite a polite response, considering so many people seemed to dislike it…
What of the established idea of the musician as poser, extrovert style-setter? Where do you stand with that one?
"I feel like I’m in a different world, musically and ideologically. I don’t feel that I have anything to do with rock and roll music or ideas – not then, anyway. Now I’m more realistic. For example – the Mute night that John Curd’s putting on at the Lyceum. [To read the NME review of the Mute label night, which appeared in the same issue, see 'The Hip Drone Is Connected To The Thigh Drone' in Appendix A ] Life is so full of contradictions.
"It’s hard for a band that if they want huge chart success they still have to follow the old routines, like touring. Some bands, like PiL, get away with it – great band. They should be on Mute, then they’d really go places!
"Yes, I fought against the idea of a Mute night for years. There were all these Rough Trade tours and Factory nights – I hate all that corporate idea. But Fad Gadget and Depeche Mode wanted it, Curd phoned me up and in a moment of weakness I said yes. There aren’t even enough Mute bands to fill the whole bill!
It’s the variety of those few bands that makes Mute so intriguing. They encompass Fad Gadget’s exploitations of dub and bleak rhythm, with those kinky words, the gentle Boyd Rice’s Non extravaganzas of noise – remember the 45 with two holes that could be played in either hole at either speed? That’s some form of liberation, eh what?
The soft-spoken man from New Mexico’s eyes light up as he thrills the ideas of sheer NOOIIIISSSEEEEEEE! "Some melodies are too rational, they structure your thoughts. It gives people a sick impression if the world."
Then compare and contrast with DAF’s bang-bang Teuton rock, the first people Daniel saw that successfully combined synth with the dreaded guitar (even though they’ve now slipped off to Virgin, Daniel’s favourite "major"), and Depeche Mode’s ruffled and frilled glamour-teen synth pop.
DM are less eccentric than most Mute artistes, or perhaps the most obviously timely. Daniel was drawn to them because he loves their songs. The four youths stand in a line staring down at their synthesisers onstage, looking rather like Elizabethan schoolboys studiously bent over their books. Two of them are still in jobs they don’t like, two are unemployed and broke; yet they actually rejected various big money "major" advances. Are one of pop’s new Hot Properties daft, or what?
Vince: "Mute are one of the most honest companies going. We like the one to one way of working. We spoke to all the ‘majors’ and found they weren’t nearly as pleasant as they first appeared, we were a bit dubious about them. I suppose we were just lucky to meet the right person at the right time…"
I couldn’t actually see Daniel twisting Vince’s arm behind his back as he spoke; but then, every "major" label said it was impossible for Depeche Mode to reach anywhere near their full pop potential with Mute, and now that they’re happily tucked away in the charts with all the luxuries of complete control, it does seem as if they will have the best of both worlds – for a while at least.
As to Fad Gadget (Frank), Daniel met him when he was sharing a flat with Sounds’ Edwin Pouncey, who was then a cartoonist drawing the "Savage Pencil" strip. Edwin told Daniel about this geezer who used to lock himself up in a cupboard with a drum machine, and Daniel was instantly intrigued.
It was another right time, right place happenstance. Daniel was "in a very bad way mentally", trying to decide whether he should go back to film editing, or what. Recording reams of reels at home, disliking everything; still so staggered by the success of "TVOD" that it verged on intimidation.
Rough Trade helped him through the crisis by giving him a job in promotion. "I was really bad at it." Meeting Frank decided Daniel to work with other people’s music, that it was just as interesting to him as doing his own things.
Fear of flying; or realism? Daniel’s at least as conscious of his shortcomings as he is of his positive attributes. He says that Depeche Mode write better songs than he ever could, that both Boyd and Frank are better on stage than he could ever hope to be.
And because he’s sufficiently drawn to them to work with them on Mute, yes, he supposes they do reflect different bits of himself, more adequate externalisations of talents that Daniel recognises as there, but not quite there enough.
It’s in the studio that Daniel relaxes into his element, with no need for public image or mask. Mixing at live dates, fingers flying over the board, Normal at the controls.
For those that love a jape and a bit of mystery, Daniel’s greatest wheeze is probably the whole Silicon Teens escapade. Remember The Silicon Teens, the world’s first school-age synthesiser pop band, two boys and two girls? Darryl, Jacki, Paul and Diane, obvious heart-throbs worthy of a centre-spread in Photo Love.
"Yes," says Daniel, "I thought that if I was head of EMI, that’s what I’d pay a million pounds for right now, a two-boy two-girl electronic pop group. So I made one up.
"It was just a bit of a joke, really, which got a bit carried away."
The Silly-con Teens’ "Memphis Tennessee" and "Let’s Dance" are champagne pop, they tickle your ears and make you giggle. Daniel recorded them in his bedroom before "TVOD", with the help of his Chuck Berry Songbook.
"I still love Chuck Berry. I listen to blues. That’s where the guitar belongs, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s."
Rough Trade’s Sue Dunne, a rock and roll connoisseuse, was chatting with Daniel about cover versions one day, and he played the old tapes to her for a joke. It was only when Rough Traders encouraged him that it even occurred to Daniel to release the tunes that were to provide Mute’s greatest financial security, and purchase the luxury of being able to afford to work with DAF – they’re expensive, because they’re a group, not a solo weirdo.
Daniel would have released the single as The Normal, but decided that was a bit boring. When the record became a hit, Radio One airplay and everything, Daniel decided to form a group for promotional purposes.
"When Radio One asked us to do an interview, I didn’t want to blow it. Fad’s quite useful because he can look very young if he wants…"
Daniel corralled Frank and a woman called Priscilla as Jackie, and coached them the night before the interview. The idea was that the other two couldn’t get leave from school.
"It was great, like a performance," gloats Daniel. With comedian Keith Allen playing the role of the manager, "Chas Barton", and Daniel playing himself, they trotted off to be interviewed by Richard Skinner for Round Table. "I think Richard Skinner half-sussed it, but he went along with the joke."
New Musical Express, true to form, were less gracious: "They phoned me up and got really aggressive – "Will you admit that you’re The Silicon Teens, or we can’t print the story!" I refused. Some people have no sense of humour!"
The Silicon Teens album represents Daniel going along comparatively meekly with rock and roll traditions (hit, single, album, tour… group… ) and tends to pall, apart from the odd instant party flashes. It did fulfil the function of ensuring Mute’s survival via a distribution deal with Phonogram.
"At last I was hated! I did compromise on that album; I did some originals, which was a mistake. Sounds said it was an insult to my rock and roll heritage! Perfect reviews. I enjoyed doing it, and I enjoyed all the reactions."
Plus, there was DAF waiting on the corner like Mr Right…
"They weren’t playing rock, or funk, they weren’t relying on past rock traditions at all – which I suppose is the criterion of what goes on Mute. Like Non – no compromises. I’ve always liked that. And a way of not being serious, even though you’re serious about the music in a way." [That's Depeche! -BB]
Daniel thinks it’s important that he never liked Eno ("too much like laid-back muzak"), Roxy Music, David Bowie, or any of the people he was supposed to like.
Now he and the other intrepid synthesiser explorers of the mid-‘70s have spawned a new generation. Only five years for the new frontier to transmute into prefab housing estates with pocket handkerchief gardens.
What does Daniel think of all the pretty, stylish boys who’ve been toying around with half-baked no-heart half-dance ideas? He shakes his head.
"Bad. Very disappointing. It seems as if nothing’s happened since "TVOD" and the Cabs and Throbbing Gristle. It’s all pop stuff, like Landscape – jazz rock played on synthesisers. Horrible. The synthesiser’s not a musician’s instrument."
Daniel shrugs, looking for all the world like a harassed supply teacher. Then brightens, reassuring as a TV announcer.
"Ah, the old clichés. They still ring true…"
Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only. Photo of Daniel Miller by unknown photographer. Reproduced without permission.