“Sam Miller isn’t your guitar-and-stool singer-songwriter entrancing the crowds of your local granola-lovin’ coffee shop, Sam Miller is a man with a big, gothic vision and ‘You Need To Hear It’ is the first, epic realization of that vision.” —Sound on the Sound
Despite the amount of attention the multi-instrumental music philosopher Miller has garnered and the work he has produced, and however accomplished he looks on paper, he shares the common frustration of an artist that he could’ve done more with his time; that maybe he should have done things differently.
“I’m already basically some grown-ass dude with nothing to show for myself other than this shitty mustache,” Miller said with a sad, bewildered smile. “I understand the mechanics behind this machine and I see how to play the game. I didn’t even understand if there was a machine or game coming up till I moved to Seattle with nothing other than the idea of being a musician, and so I put a certain pressure on myself to attain legitimacy as a musician.”
Sometimes he wonders if he should be doing music so wholeheartedly, as he is always getting roped into playing with other bands, leaving a less-than-ideal amount of time to focus on his own work, though he also thinks there are perks to appreciating the little time he does have. He feels he has led himself through a maze, to where he’s deep enough into it that there’s hardly a point in turning back.
“Cause you have to get to the finish,” he said. “It’s like I swam halfway across some lake. It’s like I could turn around or I could keep going. I really do feel like I’m right around halfway. The lake analogy implies there’s some promise in swimming across. I feel like I’ve been spun around in so many directions, I don’t know which direction is which.”
But only a few months ago, Miller managed to play seven shows in five days at Seattle’s City Arts Fest, one of the city’s biggest annual music festivals. By the kind of luck that can only come from sheer force of will, he went from not being in the festival at all to playing with three bands on the roster, as well as the getting to showcase his own solo set. His life appears charmed, and it is, a lot in thanks to his attitude and perseverance. He immersed himself in Seattle’s scene by playing in lots of bands. When you’re immersed in a scene, you spend less time thinking and more time doing. And if Miller’s not actively doing something, his mind is whirring away with plans, doubts, theories and dreams.
“I know I’ve had some bad advice,” Miller said. “Being discouraged from partaking in numerous projects and endeavors — concerned I’m going to spread myself thin. And I think that has been undoubtedly to my advantage. It’s a lot of work but it’s very rewarding, and I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve done.”
He practices semi-constantly: at least an hour per day on piano, an average of 15 hours a week recording other bands in the studio and about two hours a week practicing bass or keys with other bands. He also spends about half an hour a day playing guitar and writing songs — the piano is louder than guitar and covers up his lyrical ideas, while his preference for either instrument comes in phases.
“My creativity flourishes in the night when I don’t wanna wake up my roommates, when I’m singing under my breath,” he said. “No matter how late I get home that night, whether it be 2am or 4am — wait, that sounds embarrassing, let’s not say that. Depending on when I get home, I pretty much always pick up the acoustic guitar and lightly strum and sing random nonsense under my breath. It’s how I reflect on the day.”
The assertively patient Miller is from the school of thought where you don’t allow yourself a backup plan to fall on. He goes after what he wants and gets it, all the while feeling like he hasn’t achieved anything particularly special. We don’t hear about his failures because he doesn’t talk about them, nor does he go out of his way to build himself up in coversation. He doesn’t blow his load all over the Facebook wall and every move is carefully thought out, unless it’s spontaneous.
When we spoke on the phone, Miller was at Sister, Albuquerque’s newest bar, and had stepped outside to walk around the quiet Tuesday streets of downtown for the interview while looking for an outside electrical outlet to charge his dying phone. His music career started in Albuquerque, where he played bass for Ryan McGarvey and drew crowds with his award-winning Americana slop band, Grand Canyon. Half of Grand Canyon would later turn into Jenny Invert.
“I always felt like it was this raw feeling that you had to convey — you had to beg for a few people’s attention in Albuquerque,” Miller said. But for the past year he has been refining his impulses and paying more attention to detail, using music in ways he hadn’t thought to before. And being in so many different projects, as well as sometimes working as a visual artist, he has started producing more work under his real name.
“It’s something I can take with me anywhere I go,” he said. “Really I want two outlets. I want to sit around in the studio and layer tracks on top of each other and come up with stuff for myself. And I want to put that up and share it with people without testing it out under Jenny Invert. I want a name where everything comes together. My own name, the name my parents already came up with, will suffice. And I’m not interested in coming up with another band name that two years down the line is going to hurt my ears to hear. And I think that’s inevitable.”
In France, the great chefs historically start off as dishwashers and work their way up, learning the basics and appreciating all inner workings of the kitchen. In the end they are well-rounded culinary artists who understand the entire process. And in the same way, Miller recognizes the merits of pacing himself and knowing his place. It’s a realistic and pragmatic approach to fulfilling his dreams.
He has no interest in going after and landing a record deal, which has become a semi-standard sentiment among people in the music industry because the payoff isn’t worth it unless it’s perfect. Miller says he may or may not mean to say the following:
Miller: “I can do that kinda stuff on my own. You gotta be a whole package these days.”
Pyragraph: “Do you think people who go after record deals are losers?”
Miller: “No, I don’t think they’re losers. It could really help you out to have someone else’s clout behind you. There are different types of agents, for booking especially. I’m Mr. No One speaking on behalf of some random band. We will make you no money, but we want money from you. That doesn’t make any sense. It’s hard to get guarantees for your band, but it’s more about paying the place and building a genuine following and working your way up from smaller to bigger clubs. Getting a big show right off the bat isn’t really the best way to try. If you play really small places like coffee shops — and if you come through town several times and play there — you connect with some bands that have something going on; stepping it up and moving to a larger venue when it’s appropriate, you’ll be doing the right thing for yourself as your own agent. But if you get an agent that gets you guarantees on venues that are too large for you. “This band is worthy of this pay” when they’re not, and you get a guarantee and then you don’t bring anyone in — they do a headcount and you didn’t bring anyone in — you’re not making a good name for yourself in the eyes of those people. It’s a matter of knowing what you’re really worth and trying to build that in an intelligent way and that’s what a good agent would do anyway.”
He takes caution to not get swept away by the sails of his dreams, which will probably spare him some of the illusion-shattering heartache that, in the end, can be the downfall of any artist who is not business-savvy.
“Your ultimate goal shouldn’t be clouding your vision of reality,” he said. “That’s what I was explaining when I was talking about how you have this big idea of this abstract goal or accomplishment ahead of you. You become trapped in it and all the little things you have to do in the day to day seem tedious and unimportant. And you realize that’s what it’s really all about. That person with the car and the job and comfortable bed and the actual plan may really have it better and that may be why most people try to do that. It’s not everyone’s actually an idiot. Maybe I’m the idiot. I just wish I could back to New Mexico and start all over again. I don’t know if I would’ve moved here. Good thing for whimsical, meaningless decision-making, otherwise I wouldn’t exist.”
Photos by Will Miller.