INTERVIEW WITH PHIL MILLER
(Pascal Bussy – London – 1982)
Let’s talk about your life during the last three years, since the last National Health album. Many people thought you had disappeared…
Actually, since the release of “Of Queues and Cures”, I’ve been very active. I’ve been playing a lot of shows. First a two-month tour through Europe with National Health, then, last year, concerts with different musicians, friends like Lol Coxhill, for example. That same year, 1981, I made two albums: “Before a Word is Said” and the new National Health. But in 1980, I had become a bit lazy, I took time to do other things and also to reconsider certain things.
How did the opportunity to make these two albums come about?
Mainly thanks to Jean-Pierre Weiller, who founded this interesting new label in the US, Europa Records. “Before a Word is Said” is mainly an Alan Gowen record. He chose the musicians. First he contacted me, then Richard Sinclair, and finally he asked Trevor Tomkins to play the drums. He also chose the musical material, mainly new material that we had written shortly before, but also some material that National Health had played on their last tours in 1978/79. Alan Gowen really wanted to make this record, as did “Two Rainbows Daily” with Hugh Hopper. But ‘Before a Word is Said’ was obviously more in the context of a band.
Did Alan know that this was his last album?
Yes, I think so. At the time we finished the record he was in too much pain and he knew that, barring a miracle, he would die a few weeks later. In fact, we had to do some of the final edits without him, he was in so much pain that he couldn’t do them, he was already on a lot of morphine.
You mean he didn’t hear the whole record finished?
It’s hard to say. He didn’t hear the songs completely recorded, but he knew the music. For example, we took out some superfluous seconds…
How would you describe the way the recording went?
It was a kind of co-operative venture between the four musicians, the producer and the sound engineer. And you know, we were recording in Alan’s living room…
Not in a studio?
No, it was done at home. There was really no other way to do it. Even if he’d been perfectly healthy, we would have recorded it there, because we wanted to do a kind of live session. “Before a Word is Said” is really recorded live, not track by track. It’s a good stereo recording and I think it’s a good way to record, if it’s done properly. It’s also very simple and very comfortable. We had a 16 channel desk, two Revoxes and a very good sound engineer.
Are you saying that this could be an alternative to the traditional way of recording an album in a studio?
No, not an alternative, you can’t replace the technical advantages of recording in a big studio, but it’s as much about the spirit that permeates the music. You play your part and when it’s on tape, you can’t edit it anymore. You can take out an entire section, that’s what we did, but you can’t re-do a few notes in a guitar solo or a bass line. And then the mixing was done as we were recording. That’s why I was talking about a cooperative work between all the people involved; the sound engineer had to mix while we were playing; in fact, he and the producer (J.-P. Weiller) gave us very constructive criticism.
I was very surprised when I first listened to of this record. I expected to hear “sad” music, but it’s not a sad album, it’s quite happy in fact…
In fact, the title track was written for a friend of Alan’s who had just passed away. It’s quite a mournful piece, although you can also find some joy in it. It starts with children’s voices ,contrasting sharply with the violence of the bass line. It’s a bit like the meeting of birth and death. But apart from that, I agree, it’s a rather cheerful record. The overall impression is not sadness. There’s also something else you could say about it: like many people when they approach death, Alan felt a kind of strength…
You mean a kind of strength in his final moments?
Yes, that’s what I mean. And he wanted the atmosphere of the recording to be right. It was very good for all of us, including Alan. He was sitting in front of his keyboards, playing solos and chords… He liked doing that, that’s for sure.
Did you record the National Health album, “D.S al Coda” in the same way?
It was of course tragic, because Alan had just died, but at the same time we felt we were rejoicing in his life, even though it had been cut short. And the best way to express that joy was to record his music.
How did the idea for the record come about?
Jean-Pierre Weiller again! With the final National Health line-up, three years ago, Alan Gowen, Pip Pyle, John Greaves and I had toured the US and rehearsed many of Alan’s songs. He wasn’t entirely happy with what we did, but we thought it was pretty good. Most of these pieces were played live but never properly recorded. The best tribute we could pay to Alan was to do it. We rearranged those pieces and made the record.
Just after his death?
When he died, we organised a benefit concert for his wife, so we put together and played most of these pieces after three days of rehearsals. It was obvious that Dave Stewart would join us.
What about that benefit concert?
It was in a club in London. There were a lot of musicians there, all friends of Alan’s. At first there was a little set by Dave, Pip and Rapid Eye Movement. Then I played a few things with Elton Dean, Richard Sinclair and Nigel Morris. Then Hugh Hopper and Pip Pyle played together a bit. Then there was Jimmy Hastings with Jeff Clyne, Trevor Tomkins and Phil Lee, one of Alan’s earliest musical associates. And finally, of course, the quartet with Pip, Dave, John and me. There were many different things, many different combinations of all these people involved. It was very good. I don’t know if it was good musically, but it was very, very nice to do, very beautiful…
And just after that, you did the album…
Pip and I had a chat for a day or two after that gig and we felt we should use the rush of sadness we were feeling to do a bit of work.
Are you happy with the result?
Oh yes, I love the record!
Can you explain its title “D.S al Coda”?
It’s a musical play on words with the term coda, which means that when you arrive at a certain sign, you must go back and repeat a certain passage until the end. We found the record itself to be a kind of coda…
The album was released under the name National Health, does that mean the band still exists and could start touring again?
No, it’s just for the record. Actually, yes, maybe we could play one or two shows, under special circumstances, maybe to promote the album a bit. But the band doesn’t exist on a solid, long-term basis anymore, maybe one or two weeks of rehearsals, one or two shows and that’s it.
You seem to be tired of long tours through Europe…
No, I like it, but not with this band. Dave Stewart is very busy at the moment, Pip Pyle has some projects, John Greaves has some, and I have ideas of my own to pursue. I’d love to play National Health music live, but not for weeks and months on end.
What are your other projects?
The main thing I’m working on now is a duet project with Richard Sinclair. I say a duo project because it won’t just be a duo, we will also use other musicians. But we want to write all the music.
So, at the moment you are mostly writing?
Yes, and I’m also working on some arrangements, writing parts for the bass, the keyboards, the guitar…
Are you thinking of the very simple songs that Richard came up with for Caravan or Hatfield and the North?
Yes, there will be some very simple things, but I will also do some more complicated things. I would like to mix the two aspects, it’s very interesting to write simple melodies and also work with very complex structures.
Do you have other projects?
I’m mostly focused on this album with Richard. It’s a big task. I spend most of my time writing. I also play with other people when I can. I want to expand my writing over the next six months. That means working on the instrument as well. This future album is really about Richard and I coming together, we want our two styles to coexist.
You don’t have the same approach: you write and read music, Richard has always been a rather intuitive musician…
That’s true, but we have the same interest in simple melodies, and more generally in the same kind of music. We also want to use other instruments such as flutes to change the sound. With Richard’s pieces, I would also like to develop his basic ideas without taking away his particular style.
And he would do the same with your compositions?
Yes, and I think Richard always did that in the bands he was in. He’s a great musician, he listens to others. For example, on “Before a Word is Said”, he brought a lot to Alan’s compositions and to mine. I wrote a song especially for him: “Above and Below”. That’s the way he works, he takes the time to absorb the music and then he recreates it in his own way.
I’ve just heard that he’s playing in Caravan again, is that true?
Yes, and I think Caravan just finished an album in their original line-up, with Pye Hastings, Richard and Dave Sinclair and Richard Coughlan.
About your live performance, in the different bands you’ve worked with, do you play more or less regular things, or quite improvised on a more flexible basis?
I don’t mind playing completely written music on stage, I think sometimes that’s what the material requires. I like to do both. When I feel like it’s the right context to improvise, I like to seize that opportunity. When you feel it, do it, that’s great, but when you don’t feel it, just don’t do it! I think it’s good to start with a written basis and play, and then, if the understanding between the players is good enough, you can let the music go and follow it.
Which band did you have the best memories of playing with?
Oh, I loved them all, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, and the various National Health line-ups, I loved them immensely at times. I really liked the final NH line-up with John Greaves, Pip Pyle and Alan Gowen. If I really have to give a preference, I would say the concerts we did with that quartet in Europe and in America. When National Health started, I liked it of course, but I was not in an easy position, it was a bit difficult to adapt, and also the material was jazzier. But when John Greaves joined the band, it was very good to play together, there was a really good spirit about the music and also great playing…
How do you see the evolution of your instrumental technique since you started ?
Um… Very slow ! I could say that I am adapting better, that I can hear the music better in terms of concentration. Obviously, I can still develop my dexterity, the actual handling of the instrument, but at the moment, I’m not playing much, I’m concentrating more on composing.
Don’t you practice every day?
Oh yes, every day, but not necessarily on very complicated things like intervals, scales, etc. I like to play for the sake of playing, looking for ideas. Sometimes I’ll play electric guitar, sometimes acoustic, sometimes with a pick, sometimes just with my fingers. Most of the time I work without pedals or effects, just an amp, I come back very often to the natural contact with the instrument, what you can get directly from it. That’s very important, I think.
Which guitarists do you like?
What a terrifying question! Fred Frith, George Benson, Philip Catherine, John McLaughlin…
… Frank Zappa… ?
Oh yes, both his compositions and his guitar playing, all his unusual rhythmic ideas that nobody else does on the guitar. I also like bebop guitarists and people like Pat Metheny.
And your very first influence?
Django Reinhardt, my mother used to listen to his records when I was a kid. I thought it was wonderful that someone could play guitar like that. It was very mysterious for me…
And when did you start playing yourself?
I had always played on other people’s instruments, and I started playing seriously at a very early age.
Do you remember your first gig?
Yes, I think it was with my brother Steve and other friends. We were playing very basic stuff, but there was a good atmosphere. Musically, it was a bit pathetic… One gets better over time, no matter what you do…
What is your brother Steve up to?
He’s a carpenter, he makes furniture and houses.
Do you mean he’s given up music?
No, he still plays a lot, and he’s very keen to play more. He does some concerts around where he lives, in small clubs. But he mostly plays for himself. He realised that it was too hard to make a living from his music, and he loves his job as a carpenter. He is more of a carpenter and a musician than a carpenter who has given up music.
What about you? Do you have other jobs?
No, I work from time to time transcribing other people’s music, to earn some money. But all the little jobs I can do are always related to musical scores – I have no other skills!
What kind of music do you listen to? Do you buy many records?
No, I don’t buy many records. I mostly listen to the radio, to jazz programmes. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t find in record shops.
Do you like “jazz-rock”?
There’s a big problem with jazz-rock: it’s a musical genre that has no heritage, and I think the results are very uneven. It’s like the blues boom of 1976. A lot of the “jazz-rock” repertoire is bastardised – these pure jazz lines, very loud, etc. But on the other hand, Weather Report is a wonderful example of creative work that uses rock, references to Japanese or Hungarian music, gypsy music, etc. I like them a lot.
Do you like the hits by bands like Human League or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark?
No, I don’t really like music made by machines.
What was your last great musical discovery?
Mike Westbrook. I heard him on the radio. Also, Stan Tracey sextet and octet. They are really brilliant compositions. I’m always keeping up to date with what’s on the radio… I wish I had records but they’re very expensive! I listen to a lot of music. I don’t like to stick to one specific genre.
Do you like Robert Fripp’s work?
Not really. It’s still sort of machine-made music. I don’t really like the use of tapes. Maybe a little bit on stage, to give a special colour here or there, but that’s it. Fripp is probably a very good musician, but I don’t find his ideas very interesting.
In which countries do you think National Health had its best audience?
Hmmm, I would say France and Spain where, despite very bad conditions, we played some good shows that people really liked. In America, too…
Can you talk about the atmosphere of this American tour?
The audience was very receptive, there was a lot of energy. They were small crowds, about 200 people, sometimes 500. We played small clubs and the audience was made up of… fanatics! They were all very enthusiastic, to say the least… They even knew our music better than we did!
Are you happy to have this kind of fanatics in France, England and America?
Yes, of course, and I hope they like it. As long as they don’t have an obtuse mind, I think it’s good… Very often, unfortunately, these people don’t like other kinds of music, which is a shame. The world is full of fantastic musicians and exciting music!
Interview conducted by Pascal Bussy in London in the spring of ’82
Listen to Phil in this short conversation with Henk Weltevreden on the process of composing.
Read historic interviews with Phil and others.