Entries in John Miller_interview (1)

Saturday
Nov062010

John Miller talks to Lonesome Highway

 

John Miller has been a lifelong country

music fan, his heroes include icon Hank Williams.

John was also the vocalist/frontman, guitarist

and principal songwriter with Glasgow’s Radio

Sweethearts. He now performs solo or with his

band The Country Casuals.

He has released three solos albums One Excuse

Too Many, Popping Pills and his current album

Still Carrying A Flame, as well as two album

with the Radio Sweethearts New Memories and

Lonesome Blue.

What was the spark that made you decide to write

and play country music as against any other genre

you listened to growing up?

I’ve always had an inclination to sing. When I was

a toddler, according to my mother, I would put on

a regular show in the front room just for her.

This involved standing on the dining table (my

first stage) with a dolly-peg for a microphone

belting out Beatles hits.

I had very varied tastes in music as I was growing

up. When I was at school my friends and I had a

reputation of always being in on the very early

days of the next big thing. I was very into punk

rock in my early teens closely followed by a brief

period as a ska loving skinhead. I remember being

very excited at hearing U2’s Boy and Crocodiles

by Echo and The Bunnymen who quickly became

my favourite band. I was content with that until

1984 when, at the age of 20, my infatuation

with The Smiths began. Their debut album was

released one week before my 20th birthday. What

a gift that was.

When I was 16 I sang in an indie band who were

kind of Echo and the Bunnymen meets The Walker

Brothers. At least we thought so (ha ha). We played

a load of shows, mainly in Glasgow, but sadly never

got to make a record.

The main influence in my life was always Country

Music and has been pretty much the one musical

constant for as long as I can remember. When other

people scribbled pop band names on their school

exercise books I would be writing Hank Williams

in the fanciest font I could manage.

Hank was, I guess, the main influence for me but I

was also exposed to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and

Jim Reeves who were almost household names in

the UK. I listened to loads of other great country

singers too, people like Merle Haggard and Waylon

Jennings, and later I would go out and discover

the earlier Country Greats who had influenced

them. Artists like Wynn Stewart, Bob Wills and

Lefty Frizzell.

So, even as an 18 year old playing Glasgow indie

clubs like Maestros (the King Tut’s of it’s day)

I would be happily playing Hank songs at the

soundcheck. This led to me fronting The Hank

Williams Memorial Band formed in late 1983 to

commemorate the 30th Anniversary of Hank’s

death. Interestingly enough the drummer in that

band was one Craig Ferguson (of Late Late Show

fame).

I suppose eventually a country band was inevitable.

Once you had made that decision how did you set

about bringing it to reality?

I actually stopped making music soon after the

Hank thing. That lasted for almost a decade but

I knew if I ever went back it would be to make

Country Music.

My chance came about when Duglas Stewart of

the BMX Bandits introduced me to their drummer

Francis Macdonald.

Frank and I hit it off and he quickly became one

of my best friends. We’d talk endlessly about music.

He liked Gram Parsons and I introduced him

to some older Country Music. One day I pitched

the idea of forming a Country band and very soon

after Radio Sweethearts were born.

The first Radio Sweethearts album was produced

by Kim Fowley, not a particularly established

country music fan and someone who is finding

celluloid fame now in the new Runaways biopic,

how did that happen?

Kim was actually in town to work with BMX Bandits

and Frank persuaded him to stay on and spend a

day recording a single with Radio Sweethearts.

The night before we went into the studio Kim

made me sit down in Frank’s bedroom with an

acoustic guitar and sing every song I had written

while he sat with a sheet of paper giving them

marks out of 10. I still have that sheet of paper.

The next day we were waiting on Kim and Frank

arriving at the studio when we got a fax from Kim

listing the songs he wanted us to record. Unfortunately

the band hadn’t even HEARD some of

them which led to a frantic effort to teach them

the songs before Kim arrived. One fraught 18

hour session later we had 15 songs recorded and

mixed.

These songs formed the basis of the New Memories

album which was released in the US under a deal

brokered by Kim and later, with extra tracks, in

the UK on Francis Macdonald’s Shoeshine label.

Talking of Francis MacDonald (of Teenage Fanclub),

he has been there from the start writing

songs on both Radio Sweethearts albums as well

as playing drums. He was also your label boss for

a couple of albums, how important was he to you?

Frank is a real go-getter and is now a very successful

band manager as well a being a label

boss. Being naturally lazy and entirely ignorant

of the music ‘business’ I wouldn’t have got anywhere

without him. He was the one who found all

the Radio Sweethearts guys within what felt like

5 minutes and was certainly within days of the

band idea being mooted.

He also organised shows and recording sessions

where I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

He continued to support me even after the band

split, playing drums on and releasing my first two

solo albums. He plays drums on the new album

too and continues to be not only my very dear

friend but also a great person to go to when I have

any questions about the business side of things.

Your influences come from classic 50’s to early 70’s

country as well as inspiration from contemporaries

like Dale Watson and Tom Armstrong who draw

from similar sources but has that style of country

music lost it’s path in the dash for cross-over mainstream

success?

You’re absolutely spot on about my influences. I

love lots of Country Music from those decades.

Nashville was producing some great Country Music

then but I think I’m much more influenced by

the California sound of singers like Wynn Stewart

and Merle Haggard.

Meeting people like Dale Watson and Tom Armstrong,

and also Robbie Fulks, was definitely inspirational

for me. It was amazing for me to find

and become friends with people who shared my

idea of what real Country Music was.

The so-called mainstream Country Music of today

bears little resemblance to the Country Music I

know and love. Dale Watson has been very vocal

about it and even states that he doesn’t want his

music to be known as Country because that term

has been hijacked by some other kind of music. I

wouldn’t go that far (ha ha).

To me what I’ve always regarded as Country Music

is still and always will be ‘Country Music’. I just

don’t think of that other music as ‘Country’ at all

though I can see a funny look in some people’s

eyes when I mention that I play Country Music.

I don’t think the confusion is such a problem in

the UK though as a lot of people still have a great

affection for the real thing.

Another factor for the music seems to be, on this side

of the Atlantic at least, the need for some audiences

to listen to nothing but old cover songs. Has that

been a drawback in getting your songs across?

I don’t know how it is in Ireland but we have a

very strange beast here which is known as ‘The

UK Country Scene’. I’ve never been very closely involved

with it, though I have occasionally dipped

my toe in the water, but it seems to resemble no

other ‘Country Scene’ on the planet.

There are a whole load of ‘covers bands’ around,

some of whom are excellent at what they do, but

all of whom seem to be doing much the same

thing.

You can often see 3 different bands over a weekend

at one club but you can safely bet they’ll be

playing the same songs. The sad thing is that

that’s what the audiences seem to want. I guess

there’s a comforting familiarity about it.

There are some bands on the scene who play some

original songs but there’s very little scope on the

UK scene for a band doing predominately original

material. Saying that, I have found some clubs who

are happy to listen to what I’m doing so there is

some hope that things may change.

Another substantial part of the Country Music

scene now is the Linedancing fraternity. They often

have no real interest in the music unless they know

which particular dance accompanies that tune.

Sadly, the linedancers are not confined to the UK.

I recently saw a linedance exhibition in the street

in Grindelwald, Switzerland and have had them

turn up at my bigger shows in Germany.

I don’t mind them too much if they’re dancing at

my show but it does irk me a little bit that I can

tell they’re not really listening to the music. They

generally spend half the song discussing among

themselves which dance they think will fit and

barely get into their stride before the song is over.

It amuses me to see that and I generally follow up

with a song in a different tempo just to confuse

them. The old fashioned waltzers and two-steppers

need no such debate of course. They simply hit the

floor running and have much more fun.

I guess it does make it difficult to get my music

across in those circumstances but I feel it would

be wrong for me to compromise too much. I can

only do what I do and hope for the best.

At this stage in your career what are your expectations

for your music and where it may bring you?

I never ever expected to be a ‘star’ but at one time

I expected I would make a living with my music.

I realised a long time ago that neither of those

things was going to happen. It disheartened me

for a while and for almost two years I turned my

back on music completely. I then spent another

couple of years slowly working my way back in,

still unconvinced if I really wanted to or not.

Once I got used to the idea that it was simply a

passion and not a career I became much happier

again. I made my new album with no expectations

except to share my music with friends around the

world and, hopefully, recoup my costs. If I do that’s

great, if I don’t that’s also great. The main thing

is I’m getting out there and sharing my music. It

would still be nice to make a living though (ha ha).

That you’re still writing and recording is a testament

to your need to get the music out there. You

also play live with your band the Country Casuals

which aspect of the process do you enjoy most?

Yes, I realise now there is still a need inside me

for my music to be heard, or as I prefer it, shared.

This, I imagine, is the case for all music makers.

The writing and recording process can be fairly

stressful as I am on my own mostly and there is

a nagging insecurity that asks if you’re doing the

right thing. I always think my music is never any

good until someone comes up and tells me it’s good.

Playing live is completely different. Your audience

will soon let you know if they’re enjoying the music

or not. Although the lead up to a show, the

arranging and travelling and such, can be tiring

or stressful the time spent on stage is such a thrill.

You can build up a relationship with an audience

that can never exist in a writing or recording environment

so I guess it’s safe to say that playing live

is my favourite part.

Plus the big bonus is that you get to meet some

great people at the live shows. I’ve met a lot of

people that I now regard as personal friends and

that I regularly correspond with.

The inspiration for the material, for telling the

stories, is part of a tradition in Scotland; one of

the root sources for the strands of music that wove

into what became Country Music. Do you feel a

part of that tradition?

Yes, very much so. I feel a great sense of pride in

the historically recognised fact that Country Music

evolved from the music of Scottish and Irish settlers.

I’ve lived my whole life in Scotland but my grandfather

was from deep in the south of Ireland and all

the songs my Mother learned at his knee I learned

at her knee. To me those songs are very much from

that same tradition. Maybe that’s why my songs are

often very melancholy?

Do you think Country Music will ever come to the

fore in the UK where it has little support on mainstream

radio and TV?

I think Country Music in the UK had it’s heyday in

the 70s when they used to have the massive Wembley

Country festivals and Country Stars appeared regularly

on the Val Doonican Show and even Top Of

The Pops. Sadly, I don’t see that ever happening

again. Even the most mainstream Country show in

the UK, Radio 2’s Bob Harris Country, is restricted

to one hour on a Thursday night.

On your myspace page you have also listed acts

like The Beatles, The Clash, The Smiths and Roxy

Music in your influences. Does that add a layer of

inspiration to your writing or are you just a fan?

Mainly I’m just a fan albeit a slightly obsessive

one at times.

Your music is up there with the best of contemporary

country. Does it frustrate you that it doesn’t

achieve broader recognition?

It’s very nice of you to say so. Thanks for that.

‘Broader recognition’ is a strange thing. I’ve no

idea how it comes about although I suspect a lot

of money and a lot of lunches help smooth the

way. Unfortunately I don’t have the resources to

go along that route. Being a truly independent

artist nowadays I don’t really have much clout or

knowledge for that matter and rely solely on the

good auspices of people like Mark Lamarr who

play my music solely on it’s merit. I suspect there

are some people I’ve sent a CD to who haven’t

even listened to it. That’s the price I pay for being

a ‘UK Country Artist’. Some folks can’t see past

that.

It’s odd that the people who consistently have the

least problems with me being a non-American act

are the Americans themselves. They seem to like

my music just fine.

The fact that the majority of the UK media choose

to tar everyone on the UK Country scene with the

same brush is extremely frustrating sometimes.

I have to point out that I do get a fair amount of

support from some sections of the UK media but

there is still a certain level of unecessary resistance

out there.

Do you have some favourite songs that you have

recorded that you feel hit the nail on the head for

you in terms of writing and recording?

Wow, that’s a tough question to answer. Off the

top of my head I’d say I still have a very soft spot

for Heart On The Line from the second Radio

Sweethearts album. Also This Pain Inside and,

from the latest album, My Dreaming Party. I also

love Two Into Three Won’t Go from my second

CD. Whether they are benchmark recordings or

not I couldn’t say but I like them as songs.

What’s next for John Miller?

Who knows? More of the same I would guess. I’d

like to play and see more places including a return

to the Emerald Isle someday. I’m open to offers

(smiles).