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Interview with Robert Miles

img  Tobias Fischer

You've mentioned that „everyday life experiences“ exert an important influence on your tracks. How does this process of translation work?
Every single track I produced in my life has been the product of an experience I had in that particular period. „Children“ was done after my father showed me pictures of child victims of the war in Yugoslavia back in 1994. 23am was a reflection of trying to express myself but having to deal with the ‘major label’ artist-machine attitude. Organik was entirely conceptualised while travelling in India and still trying to gain my artistic independence. Th1rt3en, meanwhile, is the product of the last six years of events, a mix of very different and strong experiences that have shaped my life and music like I could never previously have imagined. In each of these works, there is a reflection of me and what happened around me at different stages of my life.

How do you look back on the particularly difficult time of 23am?

I now release my music on my label Salt Records and own the publishing rights. That’s the consequence of the events from those years. After the success of „Children“, I'd moved to London with no knowledge whatsoever of the language. I was naive and trusted the people around me as well as their directions, as any other person coming from a small town would have done. As soon as I understood what was going on around me and could finally speak English fluently, I started fighting to get my artistic freedom back, set up my own label and publishing company and making the music I wanted to make without having to compromise. It’s been a long and difficult learning curve. But today I am happy to know about the legal and business side of things and to be in artistic control of my music. At least if things go wrong I'm the one to blame.

Would it be correct to say that after Organik, for a while, recording a new album simply did not seem the most important thing on your agenda?
After Organik was released, I moved to Los Angeles and started focusing on producing music for advertising first and then, after a while, for movies. It’s always been one of my big dreams and aims to get involved with the soundtrack world as I felt that my music somehow sounded ‘cinematic’ or ‘visual’. After delivering music for different brands such as Gucci, Adidas, Nike, T-Mobile, Jaguar, Playstation and many others, I managed to get my first independent movie score project under my belt, placing five tracks originally included on Organik in various movies, such as Bourne Identity, City of Ghosts and Derrida. I gradually got involved with bigger projects. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling at ‘home’ in Los Angeles. I missed my friends and family and decided to go back to London, where my label, Salt Records, and publishing company, Hardmonic Music, have been operating since 2000. I started producing the Miles_Gurtu album in 2003. During 2004 and 2008, I produced several undergrounds UK acts and kept working on various soundtracks for the USA. I have been living between London, Ibiza and Berlin since 2006. In 2008, I became a father. During all these years, I was also putting together several demos that in due course became Th1rt3en. On top of all of that, I bought a five hundred year old farmhouse in the heart of Ibiza and have been remodelling the property since 2006. An enormous task and very time consuming! Is that enough for a ten years span? I like to keep busy and do many different things - architecture, design, video editing and gardening are some of my main other interests - as long as they are creative. Hopefully I won’t have to wait another decade in order to release a new project! I am actually already working on what could become the next album.

How much music was composed but never released as part of this process of defining and arriving at the sound you were looking for?
I think I already knew what sound I was looking for since day one. At that time I just didn’t have the experience and the privilege of getting to know other musicians. So the music and the production was more basic and simple. You had to get the best out of very few machines that, for that time, cost a fortune and weren't easy to use for a beginner.
Over the years I managed to progress and come up with a more personal sound, exploring different genres of music that I like to listen to in my rare moments of free time. It requires a lot of work and dedication - and of course having an open-minded girlfriend that accepts the fact that some days you may end up spending some fourteen to sixteen hours in the studio. I have some 120 unfinished tracks in my archive that have never been released and that have, step by step, brought me to where I stand today. I sometimes love to open those files and very often I'll find  ideas for new material. It’s as though some of the music was not ‘ready’ yet and needed time in order to ‘blossom’.

What are important factors of this personal sound?

The most important thing for me is to create music that will stand the test of time. It’s a big aim, I know ... but I feel like I’m on the right path. And that with every new album I am getting closer and closer to achieving it. I like to produce good sounding records. Many of my friends and family think I'm obsessed with detail and that I'm a perfectionist. They may actually be right, considering the amount of hours I still spend in the studio after a record has been mixed, working on the sound design side of things.

Why did you decide against continuing the path you so fruitfully explored on Organik and Miles_Gurtu?
For the same reason I didn’t do another album like Dreamland in 1997. I don’t like to repeat myself and I’m always looking for new challenges and new sonic experiences in my productions. It goes in phases. When I first moved to London in 1996, I was totally blown away by the many different genres of music that were present on the scene at that time. And after several trips to India, I fell in love with the country's culture and music and decided to explore it in more depth. At that time I met Nitin Sawhney and Trilok Gurtu which were, in different ways, pioneering the IndoBrit scene in Europe. I also met Bill Laswell, and decided to work with all of them on Organik and Miles_Gurtu. The work with Trilok was a huge achievement for me as I was exploring jazz for the first time. Trilok recorded his parts in three days only and each of the musicians invested their input and skills into the project. The recording sessions were great fun. I was overwhelmed by the amount of positive feedback from the UK media when Miles_Gurtu was released in 2004. It gave me a lot of energy and self-confidence to continue exploring other genres as well. Soon after, I started getting involved with more indie rock bands and projects and, consequently, my music started shifting in that direction. I wanted to do a more alternative rock orientated album and one of my long time favourite guitar players, Robert Fripp of King Crimson, accepted to be part of the new project experience, together with the extremely talented Dave Okumu from The Invisible. And that’s when Th1rt3en started to take its definitive shape ...

A reference given with regards to Th1rt3en is Miles Davis's work on Bitches Brew.
I discovered Miles Davis at the age of nineteen, when a good friend of mine introduced me to his music. I thought it was futuristic on a first listen and didn’t really understand the essence of it. When moving to London and listening to it again, I managed to open my mind to those sounds and arrangements. Since then, my music has contained jazz elements. The first part of Th1rt3en is definitively exploring a more jazzy approach, while the second half gets a little more progressive.

Miles was always one to embrace progress and technology, too.
I always like to compare how we used to make music only fifteen to twenty years ago. I started with electronic music and at that time all we had was a sampler and a keyboard – and, if you were lucky, an Atari or Commodore 64 with the first version of Cubase, the one with the little fly, remember? Musicians and producers were really trying to have their own identity and were putting a lot of work in finding the right sounds. That's reflected in the music they made and most of those records still sound pretty damn good today - many of the new DJs generation are playing them once again. Today, anybody can make a record in a couple of hours in their bedroom. There are a million software tools that give you ready made loops, melodies, riffs, you name it. And most people use them just the way they are without even trying to personalize that sound and to set themselves apart. Today, most electronica records sound pretty much the same. Within a few minutes of listening to these records, it’s pretty easy to understand what software or what samples were used to produce them. I’m definitively not one of those who want to be part of this.

One part of making your records sound personal and different are the guest musicians you're inviting to the sessions. What are qualities you'll look for in them?
I usually have a pretty clear idea of what I want to achieve when I decide to bring the musicians into the studio. Some of them have played on all my albums since I started using live elements in my music and we know each other well and have a chemistry while playing and recording music together. Sometimes I have worked very closely with guests musicians while at other times they recorded their parts in their own studio and then sent me the results over the internet, ready to be included in the composition. It depends on the project really … For example on Miles_Gurtu I only programmed the chord progression and some ambient beds for each song and then asked every musician to jam and improvise on top of these structures. That’s why the album sounds so fresh and jazzy I guess. As opposed to Organik or Th1rt3en, where together with the musicians we  sat down many days - or nights, really - in the studio trying out different sounds options and recording many different takes for each song, until we were happy with the outcome.

What does the album format still mean to you today, in a time dominated by single-track-downloads and the gradual disappearing of physical formats?
It means a huge challenge for the music industry. After decades of taking advantage of the fact that the only formats available were vinyl and cassette, making people pay absurd amounts of money for a record and making enormous profits, which most of the time didn’t end up in the artists' pockets, they found themselves totally unprepared for the Internet and lost so much control on the way music gets delivered to people. It’s a good lesson for them. The movie industry should learn from it too, as they will end up on the same path soon as download- and upload speeds will increase even more globally, if they don’t try to find a way to use the Internet instead of trying to shut it down.
The only sad thing is that artists were paying for it then, because of greedy labels and managers and they are still paying for it today, as most people download their music for free and there is less money available for recording good music. It is curious to see how modern technology is currently set for mediocrity instead of quality. We have all these futuristic gadgets available but listen to music and look at images that have been compressed so much that their resolution and quality is totally lost.
Things around us are changing at a fast pace and there are people that are totally not embracing the digital word of today and love to listen to their music on vinyl, through a good valve amplifier. We could compare this to the way people eat and live in this modern age with their fast food, fast living, fast consumption of anything around them. Only time will tell what’s right and what's wrong.

In a former interview, you once said: „Big records are always nice, but that's not why I'm working.“ Could you attempt to describe what music means to you?
Just imagine a world without any sounds around you, movies with no soundtrack, no parties, no records, no radios, no musicals, and no sonic depth or imaging around us at any time. We would go crazy after the first day. Music and sounds in general are so much a part of our life that we don’t realise how much we depend on them and how much of our emotions are unfolding from it. Everything around us is music, from the most annoying industrial noise to the most delicate sounds of nature. So I guess music is as important as oxygen, salt or sunlight. It’s the one art that people can’t live without. On a more personal level, music to me is the medium that allows me to talk to the world, to express myself and with which I spend many appreciated hours in solitude - exploring the many faces of the art and its magic.

By Tobias Fischer

Robert Miles Discography:

Dreamland (Deconstruction) 1995   
23am (Deconstruction) 1997   
Organik (BMG) 2001
Miles_Gurtu/ w. Trilok Gurtu (Shakti) 2004
Th1rt3en (S:alt Records) 2011

Robert Miles

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