As founder of Mute Records in the late ’70s, Daniel Miller can claim to be one of the most influential figures of modern electronic music. After setting J.G. Ballard’s controversial book Crash to motorik synths with The Normal’s single “Warm Leatherette,” Miller was one of the first people to apply the DIY punk ethic to synthesizers.
He might be best known for a long and fruitful relationship with Depeche Mode (in addition to releasing the group’s first single in 1981, Miller co-produced their first five albums and continues as the band’s sound consultant), but over the years Miller has worked with a who’s who of trailblazing acts, including Throbbing Gristle, Wire, Nick Cave, Moby, Richie Hawtin, and The Knife among many others.
In this excerpt from his recent RBMA Radio interview, Miller talks about the Berlin scene in the ’80s, as well as his recently rekindled love of DJing.
There’s always been a lot of romanticizing of Berlin in the ‘80s. You were actually there. What was it like first traveling there?
Well, we had just started to work with The Birthday Party and a few things happened in a very short space in time. They were recording at Hansa Studios and I was interested to hear it. They’d been raving about it to me. I went there for a couple of days and sat in the Hansa Studio just watching really. I was just interested to know how they recorded and how they related to each other, which was obviously pretty strange, but it was good.
At the same time we’d just decided to work with Gareth Jones for the third Depeche Mode record. He was coincidentally working at Hansa Studios at the same time in the mix room. He knew I was downstairs, so I came up to say hello, and I walked into this room that seemed like it was kind of a technology palace. There was a total state-of-the-art SSL desk, big ENT digital reverbs. All stuff I’d never really seen before.
He said, “Oh, we should mix the record here.” I said, “You’re joking,” I thought it would cost a fortune. But actually when we looked into it, the exchange rate between the Deutsche Mark and the Pound was very favorable. Also, the German government had very favorable grants and tax laws. It actually was very relatively inexpensive to work there.
The other thing that happened in those two days I was there was I met Blixa [Bargeld] for the first time. That was like a big Berlin injection, shall we say, of input. A lot of artists gravitated to Berlin back then because there was conscription if you were a German citizen, unless you were a Berlin resident. Another reason was that you could live there for pretty much nothing. There were tons of empty buildings, huge lofts and factories you could just move into.
In Berlin, you could get a meal at midnight. It was a revelation.
The other thing about London at the time was that literally everything closed at 11 PM. You couldn’t buy a drink or anything and we tended to work 12 hours a day. 11 to 11 were natural hours for us to work – or later than 11. In London, you could just go home and that’s it. You had no sense of life, really, outside the studio, which is kind of depressing. In Berlin, everything was still open. You could get a meal, if you wanted to, at midnight. It was a revelation.
Most of the things that people talk about... It’s romantic in a way, but it’s damaging, too. A lot of people were heavily into drugs and alcohol because it was there and it was easy. There was no pressure to work because you could pretty much live there for nothing. It wasn’t all good, you know. A lot of people were damaged by it. A lot of people came through it very strongly.
The next real phase was when the Wall came down. I wasn’t actually physically in Berlin when it came down, but I was there a few days afterwards. I was there on the first New Year’s Eve, which was unbelievable because it was still complete chaos.
Of course the scene changed a lot. In Berlin, Nick Cave had a big influence on the local musicians, but there were also bands who’d been there before like Malaria and DAF. There was a lot of Berlin music, but it was kind of guitar ... I wouldn’t call it rock, but guitar-oriented.
The so-called Krautrock thing meant nothing in Germany at the time. Well, it did mean something: People hated it.
Then, of course, the whole techno thing started. It was very interesting. Some of the people who were into guitar music gravitated very quickly to it, and some really rejected it. It was very interesting. That was another incredible time because all the buildings were being repatriated to the original owners from before the Second World War, whether it was a house, a factory, a shop, a business or whatever. It took a long time to find those people and many of them they didn’t find – they were dead or had no relatives.
Those buildings became available to use. I don’t really know actually if it was illegal. I think it was tolerated squats, because they’d rather have the buildings used for something than just rot away. That’s when all these great clubs and bars and Tresor came about.
I think what you just said about the bands and the electronic music scene being a contradiction, in a way, is strangely still the case, especially in Berlin. I find Berlin very difficult for bands nowadays. Do you have this impression?
Good question. I’m not really looking for it that much. There was a period of German music around the late ‘90s that I was really into. Bands like Kreidler. A lot of the guys who were on City Slang. Schneider TM. They were more electronic, but still a band, and I thought that was great.
I was kind of sad that it didn’t really develop or influence other German musicians. It’s typical. The so-called Krautrock thing meant nothing in Germany at the time. Well, it did mean something: People hated it. German kids that I knew, my contemporaries, hated it. They could not understand how I could like Kraftwerk or Neu! [But] I think it’s more difficult to be in bands now.
When we grew up, things were not very exciting in England.
In general. Especially if you live in a city, because if you’re a kid and you’re music orientated and you could sit at home with a laptop... I mean it’s a completely different experience. It’s so much easier to get involved in music if you’re doing that. Just basic stuff, like rehearsal space, is really expensive. And getting around a city like London, it’s crazy, with your amp or drum kit.
There are so many barriers to it, which is good too, because that means that the ones who really want to do it will do it. They’ll figure out a way. I find the bands now tend to be coming from much more middle class roots – in the English sense of the word – because they have some money or their parents can help subsidize them more. The working class kids are doing beats on their laptops with their cracked software. That’s a very broad generalization, but I really see that, especially with bands, it’s really come from upper middle class, well-to-do families.
What brought you back to DJing?
A few years ago Regis was doing a party at Berghain and he asked, “Do you want to come and DJ?” I said, “At Berghain? You’re joking, right? That’s like playing your first football match at Wembley.” He said, “It’ll be fine, we’ll give you an early start, it’ll be very chill.” And I got the bug, basically.
Then a friend of mine is an agent, and I’d asked her if she’d represent me so I’ve played various other clubs, Sónar, Japan. It’s been great, I love it. I keep it very separate in my head from Mute. Yes, there might be a couple of mixes on Mute that coincidentally fit into my set, but I’m not there to promote Mute, I’m there to have fun. It’s not work.
What I like about playing techno and listening to it, is that it’s a very narrow genre.
I sometimes have the feeling that, nowadays, there are fewer people with radical ideas about life in general and about how a society should function working in music. Also, there are less grand inventions when it comes to technology than there were in the ’60s. Inventions back then, when it came to rethinking society and rethinking technology, were linked to music. But now I feel like maybe that’s not the case anymore. How do you feel about that?
When I was growing up, music was the only thing. There was nothing else to do.
People were completely engaged with the music for a number of reasons. If you were a certain age, it separated you from the rest of society. It was such a different time. The post-war period, in Germany especially – whether it was film, art, music – really wanted to separate from the generation before them.
In England, too. When we grew up, things were not very exciting in England. Radio was pretty rubbish musically, very middle of the road. Television hardly existed. Most people didn’t even have a TV. We wanted to be excited by something, and then music came along. It didn’t come along, we discovered it.
I remember at school every morning you’d be discussing about the latest. It was divided, it was very tribal. You couldn’t like the Beatles and the Stones, you had to choose. Everybody of that generation was 100% engaged with music. And, of course, that’s not the case anymore because technology has given people a lot more options, a lot more choices in the way people consume music and other stuff.
I don’t know if it actually happens to you, but what is like when you’re surrounded by people in a club who are a lot more conservative than yourself when it comes to mindset?
Well, if you go to Berghain or somewhere at lunchtime on Sunday, it’s a great atmosphere. What I like about playing techno and listening to it, is that it’s a very narrow genre. In order to be good, you have to be really good to stand out.
I never go clubbing in London. When I have gone [recently], I’ve always felt kind of uncomfortable because I’m so much older. If I go clubbing in Berlin, nobody gives a fuck. There are a lot more people of my generation who go clubbing in Berlin. I think that’s really one of the reasons I love Berlin so much.
I remember I was DJing at Berghain, and a couple of kids came up to me. They didn’t know my background at all. They just saw this old guy DJing. “You’re an inspiration to us, because it means that we can still be doing this in 40 years time,” they said. That was really moving to me.