Some people call him the Space Cowboy; some people call him the Gangster Of Love. Suffice to say Steve Miller is one of the very greatest West Coast blues-rock guitarists. He first played in public as a precocious five-year-old with family friend Les Paul, and, now in his late 60s, he's still on top of his game, enjoying the acclaim for new albums Bingo! and Let Your Hair Down, and making up for lost time when the music business gave up on him in the 90s. These days he combines his time recording and touring with being a professor in the music department at the University of Southern California. He knows what he's talking about.
Steve Miller Q&A: “I don't use my life to sell records. Who cares what I do?’
Rock's grumpy old man Steve Miller on fame, the Grateful Dead and why kids should think twice about becoming rock stars
When you arrived in San Francisco in 1966 you loved the social phenomenon but didn’t rate the bands there. Why?
There were a lot of ‘folk musicians’ who’d seen A Hard Day’s Night and heard the Rolling Stones and wanted to be pop stars but they couldn’t earn $25 in Texas; they could barely tune their guitars. They were terrible. The first time I saw the Grateful Dead I went: “Whuh?” They were a rag-tag buncha folks. I’d already played 2,000 gigs before I got to Frisco. I wasn’t impressed.
Did you participate in the LSD scene?
Of course. I’d taken LSD 25, from the Sandoz lab in Switzerland, with a Doctor of Philosophy at university in Madison in 1965. We had books, music and deep discussions. By the time I got to the Monterey Festival everyone was taking Owsley’s acid and it became trivialised: let’s put strychnine, speed and cat food in! Acid should be taken in the right circumstances; driving downtown, tripping, to rough places like the Fillmore West, wasn’t a great idea. I stopped in ’68 because drugs and work didn’t mix. I like to be clear-headed and fast on my feet.
Who is the most awkward musician you’ve worked with?
Much as I love him, it has to be Chuck Berry. When the Miller Band backed him, at Bill Graham’s request, first thing he said at rehearsal was: “Okay, no one take a shave or shower until we’ve played.” Just before the gig, he disappeared and returned loaded as a zombie on downers. We backed him all over California for two years and he got more and more annoying. At the Carousel Ballroom he got shitty with us on stage. Afterwards he came to my dressing room and I told him: “Hey. Fuck you, Chuck. Get your own fucking band, get your own fucking amp and get the fuck out of my dressing room.” He was fine from then on. A lot of blues guys are real cranky.
Have you made any drastic career errors?
I can’t remember [laughs]. In 1967 I was signed to Fantasy Records, and I told the MD that Creedence Clearwater Revival were never gonna make it. I got lost at the Rainbow Theatre in 1972 - pure Spinal Tap. I wandered the corridors and ended up looking at the audience through a grille, standing next to a 200-year-old turd. I didn't produce my own records for too long until The Joker. That was a mistake.
Why has your 1972 album Recall The Beginning... A Journey From Eden never officially been released on CD? Do you hate it?
That and Rock Love sold so badly, Capitol disowned them. But Journey From Eden is a serious piece of work. My wife Kim loves it. Rock Love bombed because they stole the master tapes off me and put the album out a week later unmixed. We were a cash cow and I was too stupid to say no. I should get the masters back on both albums. I think I will, actually.
You keep a watch on your personal life.
I’m a musician, not a celebrity. My mother told me when I was small: “Fools’ names and foolish faces are always seen in public places.” I don’t want to subject loved ones to pop-trash gossip. I’m not comfortable with it, and I don’t need to use my life to sell records and tickets. Who cares what I do?
You had a semi-hiatus in the 80s and 90s. Was that a mid-life crisis?
No! I was still touring, but I lost interest in records and radio. I was fed up with the hustle. In 1983 Abracadabra was the number one song in the world and then overnight everything changed. I was like a dinosaur – go away, we’re sick of you! I’d had a magnificent run, so I thought my career was over. I bought a farm and spent three years doing nothing but that, until I woke up one morning and I was so bored: “What the fuck am I doing?!” I’m a musician not a dairy farmer.
What was your salvation?
Classic rock radio. I realised in 1989 I’d been on top of the mid-line charts for 206 weeks and didn’t even know. I toured with the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd, and David Gilmour encouraged me to return. I got inspired to play live. By 1990 my hits record was selling 1.5 million and I toured on that for 10 years. And then got tired again.
Do you have any words of wisdom to pass on?
I tell my students that becoming an artist is difficult. Pursue your dream, but learn about publishing and accountancy before you look for a gig as a trumpet player. Kids now are so naive, most of ’em couldn’t organise a flight from Frisco to Portland. The ones who tell me: “I wanna be a rock star,” I say: “Nah, get a job in a clothing store instead.”