|The Long-Winded Wisdom of Blake Miller
The Moving Units front man shares his thoughts on music, the industry and the art of the live stage
February 28, 2005
by Ashley Graham
From the depths of the Los Angeles music scene a band has emerged that is a breath of fresh air. Their music is reminiscent, but itís also new. Their style is informal and not another premeditated tactic. Their live show is exciting and unrefined. Their approach is simple and their efforts are admirable.
Moving Units donít exist on hype and they donít exist on calculated analysis of current trends. Instead, they rely on the energy and passion of their music and their live performances to capture their audienceís attention, and keep it.
The product of the creative union of lead singer Blake Miller, bassist Johan Boegli and drummer Chris Hathwell, Moving Units has emerged after years of experience in and out of music. To better understand their intriguing approach, I sat down with Miller before their recent show in Seattle in the midst of their tour with The Secret Machines and Autolux.
Short of committing a great injustice to his words by splicing and dicing our interview, I choose to instead provide it here in, nearly, its entire form.
Ashley Graham: Tell me how the tourís been going.
Blake Miller: Itís been great. Smooth as silk.
AG: Why choose this tour?
BM: Our favorite outlet is live performance. We always like to experiment and use new ideas in subtle ways and each night on a tour you can get into that mode with your stamina and you get into a flow and itís a really good grooming period where you start feeling your way in the dark and see what the next creative idea might be. Itís a combination of playing songs from the record for the audience and being in the moment. Weíre not the kind of people who learn to act and then demonstrate it every night in the same way. There is a certain kind of life that the live shows take on.
AG: Whatís the makeup of the crowds as far as you can tell?
BM: Itís a little more diverse than usual because all three bands have their own stylistic differences. In this case I think itís good because a lot of people like to experience something different. Itís probably a little different than a lot of other bands might do it. I think weíre reaching new fans and trying to figure things out.
AG: So is it a lot of your fans? Or a lot of fans of the Secret MachinesÖ or?
BM: It depends. I mean, every night we get both. Kids come up and say ďWeíre so excited, we came to see you and we saw you before,Ē and then you get a lot of people who say ďWe had no idea who you were, but we were really blown away by the setĒ and that really connect with it. We have a lot of younger kids who have liked our band, so this is a different kind of vibe because weíre playing a lot of 18 up, 21 up [shows]. I think thatís just a part of the process. We did a tour before that was all ages and all the kids came out. Now we do another tour reaching out to an older audience that might not go to the all ages show, because everyone wants to be comfortable in their own environment around their own people.
AG: What kind of differences do you see between your headlining shows and shows where you have a spot like this?
BM: Thereís a totally different headspace that you go into when youíre a headliner. You take on a lot of the responsibility of the whole vibe of the night and how everything feels and thatís a cool challenge that weíve had on other tours. In this case itís kind of cool to realize that weíre showing up and all we have to do is focus on our performance. Thereís a certain sense of liberty there because you donít have to worry about as many of the details. You donít sweat the details and just get off on losing yourself in the moment.
AG: Do you think then that your music is better suited for the live show?
BM: We have a lot more to say as a band and weíve made just one record. That record speaks for itself, I think itís a good record and itís exactly what we were about when we wrote and recorded it. Itís the kind of record that finds its audience. I donít really compare recording to a live performance because I just feel like theyíre totally different mediums. In the studio thereís a static vibe that kind of controls in most cases and you get broken down into components, but thatís kind of interesting in its own context. And then what we really enjoy the most is the reckless abandonment that you can inject into a live show. Everythingís one take; youíre there in the moment, the audience is right there, thereís no cell phone calls interrupting the performanceÖ youíre just right there.
AG: Pressure too, though?
BM: I donít feel the pressure. The pressure we get comes from inside. For better or worse weíre sort of impervious to external pressure and thatís probably why we took so long to finish our album. A lot of people were like, ďYou gotta get that thing out, you got your buzzĒ and we got a lot of press off the EP. In this industry itís all based on building on your hype and itís bullshit but itís also the reality of the business, so you gotta kind of choose where you fit in. We just realized that success isnít the goal, itís nice to get that validation, to get success and kind of experience it, but ultimately weíre most interested in being possessed by the abstract spirit that we feel within ourselves and that we share as three people in a band and we try to exercise that in the most raw, visceral way possible.
AG: Were you guys in other bands before this?
BM: We were, but we usually answer that question as this: we were but we never really did anything that bears mentioning at this point in time. We all kind of kicked around in different bands and drifted out of bands and into bands and a lot of things that didnít happen. This is the first band weíve had where weíre like ďWow, this is a real band, weíre going to put out records, weíre going to tour, build a fan-base and build an identity.Ē At this point everything has just been a rehearsal for right now.
AG: But obviously itís added to right now.
BM: Of course! Itís just like life; everything you go through in your life is preparing you for the next experience around the next corner. I suppose without realizing it we were all sort of following some sort of fuzzy impulse and all the experience weíve had playing with other people or writing songs or messing around in the studio, sort of gave us the background that we all share as a band.
AG: How do you find that coming from LA shapes the band or the music? A lot is made of the ďNew York soundĒ or ďNew York style,Ē but what do you think that LA has thatís different?
BM: I think that LA is a real challenge. You canít be soft in LA and expect to actually do something of merit. Some people might feel like itís easy to move to New York and tap into the zeitgeist thatís already there and the romance of that city as a cosmopolitan environment. But, to be honest with you, these are things you think about in hindsight, because when we got together to start a band nobody sat around looking at magazine covers trying to figure the odds of whether weíd be on one of those being from LA or New York. We couldnít give a fuck, we just want to play the music. It just so happened that we all drifted into this sort of weird atmosphere that defines a place like Los Angeles, almost a sort of alchemy that hangs in the air and you can tap into it and get an exciting, creative vibe or you can tap into it and be swallowed by the perversion thatís also present there. Iím fascinated by that energy, that confrontational aspect of being in an environment that challenges your soul to actually seek out likeminded, creative people who have some sort of imagination and something to offer and find a way to distill the superficial aspects of that city. Itís an interesting combination of forces going on there.
AG: How do you guys respond to reviews and critics? Do you read reviews?
BM: Sometimes theyíre amusing; sometimes theyíre good, sometimes theyíre bad, but it doesnít really have a personal impact on us. Weíve kind of taken a weird tangent in life, weíve veered off the normal course of being a normal American who goes out and gets a piece of pie, so for that reason we feel sort of like what weíre doing is a personal expression and it comes from a very abstract place just like any other musician whoís trying to search those darker recesses. So for a critic to comment good or bad is kind of irrelevant to what weíre doing as a group. Critics are sort of a strange cancerous byproduct of peopleís obsession with culture and itís not for me to say whether thatís right or wrong. If you need to occupy your time with a magazine article then good for you, and if you derive some sort of meaning from what that critic has to say then good for you too, but I think ultimately music is an emotional expression and trying to turn a band into some sort of academic analysis to interpret in some form seems a little disconnected from the original intent.
AG: You guys get different comparisons, everyone does. Does that ever get frustrating, to get pigeonholed as that one sound, or does that not even really matter?
BM: Ultimately it doesnít matter, because the music speaks for itself. Thatís the way I look at life; some people are always going to be popular, some people are always going to be the cool people and get all the breaks and some people are always going to stumble their way into perfect situations and get all the success and thatís fine. I didnít make up the rules. So, itís like weíd rather not hear that weíre like anyone else, but at the same time we donít agonize over what critics have to say because we know who we are as people. We have a real soulful bond as people and thereís no real industry-insiders pulling the strings, so we donít have to watch what we say and watch our press profile because we connect with people on a very basic level. Thereís not a lot of pretense and if you like our music and you connect on this emotional wavelength and you also just like the kind of music that we write, our melodies and the feeling of it, then I feel like youíre going to decide for yourself. If you could wave a wand and every band could be a critical darling that would be an ego rush and that would be hard to resist because weíre all human, but at the end of the day itís conjecture.
AG: What do you think youíre putting out there thatís a little different, that sets you apart?
BM: There're a lot of bands that have got the right style going on and the right flare and copy enough popular music from the last few decades that theyíre able to amalgamate all those elements and kind of put a commercial spin on it. I think weíre the exact opposite, better or worse thatís just the way we are. The edges are not polished, weíre existential beings, we just are who we are. Weíre just weird, desperate people who felt like we needed to escape the doldrums of life through music and playing in a band. Thatís what we do differently than other bands; thereís no inhibition, thereís no formula, itís a painfully raw and unabashed expressionist approach. I think thatís something that Iíd like to see a lot more of with bands. Iíd like to go to a show and watch a band wring themselves dry of spirit and emotion. I want to be touched by that experience and feel like I connect with them, even if I never meet them or know them, because for a moment in time thereís that universal thing we share. Weíre human beings, we have this conscious mind that can dream up all these possibilities and knows the reality of what day-to-day life is, limitations, and when you can transcend all of those pedestrian details of life and you can connect in this abstract way without being too brainy about it, without being too overtly political about it, and connect in a real human and emotional way, I think thatís an amazing experience.
AG: It doesnít happen enough.
BM: No, it doesnít. The artists we are most inspired by were able to take that step outside of this paradigm of entertainment culture.
AG: It seems a lot of bands are just tired. Do you see that?
BM: For sure.
AG: You see bands on their last three tours and itís the same set and itís the same stance and the same talk in between songs and itís just tiresome.
BM: Exactly. It smacks of a real showbiz-y approach. We didnít grow up in showbiz, we donít have showbiz parents. Modern showbiz is a pariah as far as weíre concerned. Weíre into theatre of the people, thatís what this is about, people just throwing away all of their preconceptions about how entertainment works and the notion of the exalted performer as being this larger than life figure and the audience being this mass conglomerate adoring figure. For us itís just that weíre interested in cultivating that spirit. Do whatever you have to do in rehearsal, play your stupid songs eighty million times to learn all your riffs, thatís fine, have the confidence to put on a live show technically and musically, but just forget that when you walk on stage and thereís an audience there and realize that this is never going to happen the same way ever again, all of these people are never going to be in the same moment so just enjoy the fact that this is something really special and just spontaneous.
Iím really into that idea of this as theatre to a certain degree, and itís not reality in the sense that everyone is choosing to leave their lives behind for a moment and go to this theatre, or this club or whatever, and take part in something collective - the idea of having some sense of strong aesthetic concept and identity that defines what youíre doing musically. But thatís just sort of the framework, and within that framework there has to be a real, bloody heart pumping and flesh pulsing. Thereís gotta be something that youíre touched by. Thatís the long-winded version, I guess.