When Dominic Miller isn’t out on the road or in the studio with Sting, he takes time to maintain a very successful solo career. David Mead talks to him about his latest solo release, Ad Hoc…
Sting has kept Dominic Miller very busy over the last 24 years. Recording sessions, world tours, TV appearances… They’ve even co-written a couple of tunes, most notably ‘Shape Of My Heart’. But Dominic refers to his role in Sting’s entourage as “my day job” and after a busy day at the office, Dominic makes it his business to add to his own prestigious collection of solo albums. The first solo CD came out in the mid 90s; entitled First Touch, it featured moodily beautiful nylon string melodies over atmospheric backdrops with the occasional fiery Latin influenced instrumental on the side. After First Touch there was Second Nature, followed by Third World… you’ll have noticed the emerging theme of numerically sequential releases, I’m sure! But after Fourth Wall, things changed; on his fifth album, entitled November, gone were the gentle nylon string ballads – and the numeric sequence – only to be replaced with some fierce electric playing. Things returned to normal – at least in part – with 5th House, which saw the classical guitar come back out of the cupboard, but there were still a couple of electric tunes present. His latest album, Ad Hoc, sees the nylon string come back to centre stage.
I began our conversation by asking what had happened with November… why the break of character?
November was different: I went off-piste! Basically, every two or three years I have to make a record because it’s like documenting where I am in my musical trajectory and I feel like I should do it because there are people who are interested and it warrants me going out on tour and doing some gigs. Now I feel that the acoustic is the thing for me because that’s my sound. I was just going through a time in my life when I wanted to rip on an electric guitar and just get away from the sequential thing. I look at some of the great electric guitarists who have done instrumental albums like Larry Carlton, for instance; really original stuff. Jeff Beck; well everyone knows what he’s like – and John McLaughlin more for the writing side. I just wanted to get on that train and I discovered through the process of making November that I’ve got a long way to go! My sound on an electric is more of an accompaniment thing because I’ve been working with Sting and doing sessions for so many years as an accompanist and a colourist. I’m not a melodist on an electric in the same way as I am on an acoustic. I feel that I can get more sound and control of timbre on an acoustic than I can on electric. But it was a great exercise and I absolutely don’t regret it – and I’ll do it again, it’s just that right now, acoustic is my sound.
The previous album, 5th House, saw a partial return to acoustic, but it still had a fairly strong electric personality.
5th House was my LA album. Every album has got a sort of theme to it and so I went for some powerhouse session players like Vinnie Colaiuta and Jimmy Johnson. It’s a real muso album and I really enjoyed it. I’d always wanted to do an album with Vinnie; I’ve worked with him for 20-something years, but to see him work on my project was really great.
Out of all your solo albums, it seems that First Touch remains a firm favourite with the people who come to the live shows…
Yeah – in fact, next year is going to be the 20th anniversary of First Touch, which, as you say, is still everybody’s favourite and so we’re going to do a re-release of it with some bonus material and we’re going to do a concert tour playing the whole album. I think it’s sort of de rigueur these days, a lot of people are doing that – going out and performing a complete album. So one half of the set is the album and the other half is just a load of other stuff.
When did it occur to you that you wanted to do another purely acoustic album again?
When I’m not touring with Sting, I spend about two months out on the road with my band and we take both my electric and acoustic rigs. I realised that when I was playing the electric songs, they’d be going well and everything, but I was looking forward to the acoustic segment, because I felt that then I would be more in control. I always write on acoustic anyway and I wrote a couple of tunes for the new album on an acoustic and I just thought: “Why do I need to do this on electric?” Actually the first tune, ‘Exiting Purgatory’, I originally thought of as a kind of heavy Zeppelinesque riff, but then I thought that it had more depth on acoustic. I can make it sound heavier on acoustic than I can on a Les Paul! Where is the logic in that? I love the contrast of playing as if you’re riffing electric style on an acoustic – and vice versa. In the same way when Jeff Beck plays electric I sometimes think that he has the touch of an acoustic player; he’s got such a wide palette of sound. So really that’s it; I thought, this is where I’m home…
The first track on Ad Hoc, ‘Exiting Purgatory’, sounds like a soundtrack to a classy TV detective drama, like Sherlock…
Oh, really? [Laughs] Well I take that as a compliment! Actually I’ve heard a lot of people say that it’s very cinematic. I think it’s got a narrative, that’s why we did a sort of dodgy video so we could put a bit of narrative into it. My music is like that; everyone says: “Oh your music is like film music…” and I’ve been to the Park Hyatt hotel chain around the world where they play my music sometimes – they play First Touch because I’m on their playlist – and sometimes I take it as a compliment and sometimes as a bit of an insult because it’s background music, you know? I suppose it is a compliment because I’m on that particular radar, and people are having their business meetings and talking and eating their expensive starters and I’m sitting there in the same lobby thinking: “Don’t talk over this bit, there’s a really good bit coming up!” I have a day job and that job is as an accompanist; I’m a session player and I’ve got to face it because it’s a fact. I’m not like a solo artist, so if my music sounds cinematic or TV orientated then sure, I’ll take it.
Dominic has already had some music featured in movies – 1994’s Leon, for instance, which was directed by Luc Besson.
Yeah, I did a segment for them where they wanted me to customise ‘Shape Of My Heart’ for them – sort of improvise over that theme. It was a good experience and my lines are open to do film music it’s just that it’s a very closed kind of community. I’d love to get into it and I do believe that I’d do well with it but what a lot of people don’t understand about film music is that you have to work with a producer, a director and a whole team and they are very much in control. Unless you’ve got the stomach for someone saying: “You’ve got to change this and this and this…” you’re not going to make it. For someone to tell you that you have to cut this bit and that bit – you can end up taking it personally. I mean, I take music really seriously and I don’t make music for other projects, I make it for myself and so I might struggle a bit there, you know? With my ego as it is, for someone to ask me to change something… [laughs] I like to have solidarity and control because my day job is where I absolutely give myself one hundred percent to somebody else’s project. But when I’m doing mine, I like to be 180 degrees the other way and have total control. So making film music would, I suppose, be a compromise; but, like I said, my lines are always open!
Do you have a sort of cinematic image in mind when you’re writing?
Yeah, it is graphic; I can “see” it. Every tune has a colour, a temperature or an odour, you know? I always feel that I’m lucky because when I sit down to write I just get a little moment of inspiration. What I do is I turn on the [mental] wi-fi for inspiration and it’s almost like going into a trance. I turn it on and what I get is like a clue – a little riff or the contrast between two chords or a little moment and you think: “What was that? I’ll take that.” But that’s just a clue, like one across in a crossword puzzle, and you’ve got to finish it. It’s no good just repeating it over and over again because then you’d be letting down that gift. Every tune has got that one moment that I can totally isolate, which is not necessarily the moment you might think it is, but I work backwards or forwards or sideways towards that moment and compose that way. I don’t profess to be a great composer or anything but I’ve got my way of doing it that works. Every album I do I discard more than I actually use, but I know when I’ve got a good idea. That’s really what it takes to be a composer, because I know plenty of guitarists who don’t know when they have a good idea. I’ll say: “What was that? Why don’t you work on that?” and they’ll just shrug and tell me it’s nothing. You’ve got to know it – know when you get the clue – and then you get moments of luck and inspiration or you start going off on tangents and then it might turn into something completely different. Or you’ll go into another tune which is totally different and discard the original “one across”. But without it you wouldn’t have got to where you are. It’s a fantastic journey…
What is the current main guitar for your acoustic material?
I’ve got a new K Yairi, which is similar to the one I have been using except that it’s black. All maple, it’s a Torres model… Acoustic-wise, I’ve got everything I need in the food chain: I’ve got the Martin and a few Yairis – as long as I’ve got a good steel string and a good nylon I’m good to go.
How have you developed your touch and tone on acoustic?
A lot of it is right hand technique. Where’s it going to sound good? Down near the bridge? Or near the neck? All these different places where you can get your sound and be in control of your instrument. I like to be in control and I feel that I am, you know? It’s almost like riding a horse in that you’ve got to be in control of the beast, you don’t want it to be in control of you. I see a lot of guitarists who are not in control; they do all this amazing stuff and it’s really impressive, but the ones that I like are the ones that I’ve mentioned who care about sound, like Larry Carlton or Lyndsey Buckingham, who are both session players which is probably why I relate to them. It’s just practice; it’s getting the sound that you want.
Just being in control of the sound is key for me and all the dexterity, the licks and playing fast and all of that – I’m not one of those people. I’ve invested all my life as a player in getting a good sound: for me, that’s king. I wish I had practised more, but I had six kids, two marriages and I’ve got a family… I’ve got a life, you know what I mean? So I’ve got to use my time carefully and I’ve dedicated it to getting a good sound.
Are you precious about mic placement and things like that when you’re in the studio?
No, it’s not my job. I don’t know about mic placement – it’s all about delegation, let the engineer deal with it. But I do have a good pickup on my guitar and so we’ll usually do the pickup and a mic. I’m interested to see how different people mic guitars, whether it’s Neumann or whatever, but a Shure SM57 is good enough for me. It’s all good and I don’t obsess about it. There are some engineers who do and I’m very interested to see how they do it, but they can do what they want because it’s not my job. When I’m on a session, my job is to play as well as I can and it’s their job to make it sound right for the track.
Do you DI live or use a preamp?
It depends what the gig is. When I’m doing my band I use the black Yiari and just DI and it sounds great. The key to playing DI is to monitor really low or else you get all kinds of problems. It’s tricky, but you don’t want to hear yourself too much, you want to hear the house more because it’s good for intonation and you don’t want your monitor in front of you, have it to one side because then you’re not going to have a feedback problem. But when I’m doing the big shows with Sting in arenas I can’t use the Yiari because it’s too loud and so I’ll use a Guild Paloma which is an unbelievable solid body nylon string that I’ve been using for a while. They don’t make them any more. The Gibson Chet Atkins nylon electric is also really good; I think that’s probably one of the better ones.
So how is the rest of the year going to unfold for you?
I’m just about to go over to New York to do some rehearsals with Sting and Paul Simon and after that we’re doing a full-on American arena tour, which is really exciting. We’re going to play with him and I’m excited about it because I’m going to play a lot of acoustic on it and I’m going to be playing with Paul, too. That will take me up to the end of March, then I’ve got some time off and then I’m going to tour with my band for the new album. I’ve got a great band, we’ve been together for nine years now and so it’s become a really good little unit. So that’s what I’m going to do after touring with Sting… Then I’m going to watch the world cup and so I’m closed for business!
Dominic Miller’s Ad Hoc is out now.