Steve Miller certainly has the qualifications to be inducted into the Rock and Roll…
- Posted on Sep 3rd 2010 5:30PM by Steve Baltin
Lester Cohen, WireImage
"Whenever I got to the very tippity-top of the charts and was ruling the world for a minute, I always ducked for a minute," Miller tells Spinner. "I didn't want that crown." Miller also didn't do a lot of press, instead happily touring and playing for his legions of fans. But now with a new album, 'Bingo!' -- his first in 17 years and one particularly near to his heart, as he takes the blues songs he grew up loving in Texas and turns them into Steve Miller Band tunes -- Miller is cranking up his visibility once more. In a wide-ranging interview, Miller speaks about the importance of music education, how being one of the biggest rock stars on the planet in the '70s wore him out, and why it took him so many years to warm up to the Rolling Stones.
How is the tour going so far?
So far, it's just going great. We put a whole new show together, incorporating the new stuff from the album along with the greatest hits. It's totally changed the way I look at my material, so I'm really enjoying it. The interesting thing for me is that two songs that I was pretty much done with were 'Livin' in the USA' and 'Space Cowboy.' We worked out the original version of 'Space Cowboy.' We always sort of tossed 'Space Cowboy' off as just a joke and so we've put it back together and it's going over quite well.
Then we end the show with 'Fly Like An Eagle' and we have a student from Kids Rock Free, the free music lesson school that I've been working with for the last 10 years, is out touring with us. We bring Dylan Brown out and he plays with us and that just tears the house down because everybody just loves the idea of music education, surprising. When you bring it up, you get a real surge of almost anger from everybody in the crowd about that. They're glad to see something done about it. This is a school, we've given 12,000 kids free music lessons in 10 years. It's a great, great design for a program like that; it's very economical and it works really well.
You've updated the stage design and you've been a lot more visible in press. Does the new album push you or give a reason to do this stuff you haven't done for years?
It gives you a vehicle to do it and this has been a real serious project. At my age, I don't want to screw around; this is sort of the last hurrah for this scale of event for us, I think, just because of time and the way business is. I know I'm 66 and I look at people who are 76 years old and I wonder, "Wow, I wonder how much longer I will be able to do this." Right now, I feel great. I'm up and at 'em and having the greatest time in the world, but I can tell you that the last 10 years went by in about 15 months for me.
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You have to. I'd been working since 1956 to 1973 when I got my first hit single, literally. We had made five albums in two years or something that Capitol squeezed out of us in the beginning, so by the time 'The Joker' was a hit I was exhausted. By the time 'Fly Like an Eagle,' 'Book of Dreams' had come out, I had been working seven days a week for 11 years nonstop. So I was exhausted. I remember walking off the stage at a football stadium gig in Louisville, where I was really angry, and there were only 40,000 people in the stadium and I remember giving my guitar to my tech and saying, "I don't care if I ever do this again." And you see this happen with everybody, where they kind of dry up and some people can come back and will go out, like U2 would be a good example of a band that came along, put out some good records, then all of a sudden ran into a dry period, then instead of just going out and drying up, they just made 200 or 300 million dollars or whatever they just made. In that point in my life, I went and bought a farm [laughs]. And I said, "I don't care if I ever do this again. I am absolutely exhausted." And I was, so I took a lot of time off, and when the '80s came, there was such an anti-'70s-group kind of feeling. And I literally thought my career was over.
You mentioned the critical bashing you took in the '80s, but your music is still hugely popular on radio and with fans, showing that people really connect with the music.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I'd be the guy on the radio that you can't move. If I was a 15-year-old kid, I would be so sick of Steve Miller I wouldn't be able to stand it, because when I was a kid that's just the way the radio was. It was controlled by a very few people, you couldn't get played on the radio, they weren't interested in anything you did. We had to fight long and hard to get played on AM. But later it feels really great.
As you started to evolve as a music fan, what were the records that had the same staying power for you the way Steve Miller Band records have had for fans today?
The Beatles were very important to me; they really changed things in a way that nothing else did. When I first saw the Rolling Stones, I thought, "What a bunch of f---head idiots. Look at that f---ing Mick Jagger, that's the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my life." I grew up in Texas, where there were 20 really good, great blues bands, guys like Delbert McClinton, who were the real deal. I thought the Rolling Stones were just a joke. They didn't really play real blues, they didn't really know what they were doing, I didn't get it at all. And when the Beatles came out, I kind of went, "Wow, what creativity, what an amazing thing." And each album came out and they just got better and better and better; that really influenced me. And then I met the Beatles in 1969 when it was all falling apart, and I worked with McCartney and I actually got to watch them record some of their songs, I realized then and there just what an amazing talent they were and that influenced me.
Did you ever end up getting the Stones?
Now I like the Rolling Stones; the stuff they did in southern France, I know they had Ry Cooder in Olympic Studios for about three months and they were thinking about using Ry to replace Brian Jones, then all of a sudden they sounded like 'Honky Tonk Women,' that was the element for me that made the Rolling Stones really, really good. From that point on, I did enjoy the stuff they were doing, but it took me a long time to get there. Yeah, I run into Keith [Richards] every now and then. I'd hang out with McCartney, and McCartney's been in my house and we recorded at his studio, he recorded at my studio, and we worked on stuff. Last time I saw Keith, I was up in Canada, I ran into him in an airport. We both landed at the same place at the same time and I talked to him and was amazed at how rough he looked. Daylight at 2 in the afternoon it was like, "Oh, my God."
What have been your favorite collaborations?
Of course working with Paul McCartney in his studio and being in my studio and getting to work with him, that was really great. Of course jamming with Les and knowing Les all my life was amazing; playing with Freddy King, same thing with Howlin' Wolf, playing with Muddy Waters, unbelievable; playing and touring with Cannoball Adderley, just a phenomenal experience. Playing bass and working in Lightning Hopkins' band, unbelievable; playing rhythm guitar in Buddy Guy's band in Chicago, great experience. It just goes on and on, working with John Handey, the jazz musician, unbelievable. Playing with Taj Mahal, those kinds of things, working with great artists, and I've sure I've left out a bunch, but the list is long and prolific and wonderful. And I've learned so much from each and every one of these kinds of people and it's really been the joy of my life to actually get to do those things. Sometimes when you're out there playing with Joe Satriani, like on this album, was just wonderful. I can't tell you what it was like when I used to listen to Bonnie Raitt records. I just wanted to find her and marry her, I thought her voice was so beautiful, and then later in life to have Bonnie come out on the stage and play with us, great fun. Same way with Taj, just all those people I mentioned, you can make that list and that's probably a quarter of it.