For an artist who adopted the moniker theNormal, Daniel Miller’s life and career have been anything but. In 1978, he one-upped punk rock with an analog synthesizer: Since the keyboard required no musical knowledge whatsoever, he reasoned, it must be even more punk than an over-driven Gibson Les Paul. He founded his own record label, Mute, in order to distribute the Normal’s one and only single, “T.V.O.D.” / “Warm Leatherette,” and before long, Mute had developed a tidy little roster of like-minded acts, including a fledgling synth-pop act called Depeche Mode.
The rest is history, as Mute evolved into one of the definitive independent labels of the succeeding decades. Reflecting Miller’s own extraordinarily catholic tastes, Mute embraced everything from Diamanda Galas‘s avant-garde shrieks to Nitzer Ebb‘s shuddering industrial, and from Liars’ abrasive psychedelia to Erasure’s anthemic dance-pop. A succession of sub-labels covered even more ground: Rhythm King and NovaMute for dance music, the Grey Area for post-punk reissues, Trophy Records for Moby’s various aliases, and Blast First for the really out-there stuff.
After seven years under EMI’s major-label umbrella, Miller recently took Mute independent again, but you’d be forgiven for never having noticed: Unlike many indie music brands, Mute has “always tried to take the background when it comes to the records we release,” says Miller. “As a label, we don’t want to be at the front of the project.”
On Mute’s identity:
I know that MUTE has an identity, and a lot of people have a different perception of what that is, but really, the key to us is our artists, not us as a label. For instance, we never had one person doing all our artwork, like quite a few independent labels did when we started. Which is fine, I don’t have a problem with that; it’s just a different way of working. We always try to be a bit more in the background. So the identity of MUTE as such is important up to a point, but it’s really the identity of the artists that we work on most.
On going indie all over again:
Technically speaking, what I did was that I left EMI, I started a new label, and I made an arrangement with EMI that allowed me to use the name MUTE and to exploit some of the catalog, etc. A quarter of the artists who were out of contract came with me, or were dropped by EMI so that they could come with me. A few of the artists stayed at EMI but I continue to work with those in an A&R capacity. Most of the staff in the U.S. and U.K. and Germany moved across to the new company.
I think when we joined EMI, it was a very different time for EMI, and it was a different time for the industry. There are a lot of things that we wanted to do together that were exciting, and there were certain people I was involved with at EMI who knew MUTE very well, and understood what MUTE was about and were behind the purchase of MUTE. Unfortunately, as things changed, management changed; EMI got sold, obviously, and in the end, we really weren’t quite as aligned as we were when I started, and both parties felt that. I certainly felt it. And they agreed, but they still wanted to be involved with MUTE or with me, anyway, so we came to this agreement. And I feel that it was exactly the right thing to do at the right time for me, in the context of the business and for where music is right now.
On the democratization of the music industry:
I think that democratization started with punk, or just after punk, with the first flurry of independent labels that sprung up, including MUTE, 4AD, Factory, Rough Trade, in the post-punk era. That was the beginning of where we are now. Obviously, the democracy was like Switzerland as opposed to India, perhaps, in terms of size. But nevertheless, a trend was set, which now obviously has expanded hugely. And that’s all part of independent labels started by people like me or Geoff Travers or Tony Wilson, who knew nothing about the music industry and just wanted to do it, or bands who did it themselves, like Crass — there are just lots of stories from around that era of the possibilities opening up. And the technology is a huge, important part of that. Obviously, when people think about technology now, they think about the internet and working with computers, but even then there was a massive technological revolution in the late ’70s which helped people like me make my records at home.
On musical overload and the explosion of influence:
I think we have the potential to drown, but there are lots of very nice, luxury liners that help to guide us on our way. I think the problem is you consume a lot more but you spend much less time with each thing. You know, in the pre-CD era, or even the CD era, you used to save up, and you’d buy a record, and you’d take it home, and you’d listen to it over and over again. You’d try and listen to it in the record shop to make sure you liked it, then you took it home and you listened to it endlessly. Now you download it, listen to the first 30 seconds, then, “Oh, I’ll skip to this one, skip to that one.” It’s a different experience. I’m not saying that it’s better or worse, it’s just a different experience. I can’t really comment, I can’t bring anything new or reveal any great thoughts about that. I just think it’s great for bands because bands, young bands these days, have incredible musical history to draw from if they want to. I really notice that, and I really enjoy working with young artists who can refer to obscure ’60s tracks as much as they can come modern indie-pop or hip-hop tracks.
Another thing I like is that people seem to be a lot less genre-based in their listening, or history-based. They’ll just as happily listen to a ’60s track as they would to a modern pop track. They don’t have prejudice against when a record is made, the same way we did when we were younger. I think they are slightly in awe of the stuff that was made in the past, rather than saying, “What we’re doing now is much better.” A lot of them, I think, think what was made in the past was better, so they’re in awe of it.
In the late ’60s, I had a German girlfriend — incidentally, really, nothing to do with being a Krautrock fan — and I went to visit her a few times. She hated Krautrock, and all her friends hated Krautrock. They all thought it was German and it was rubbish, you know, the real thing was Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, and that was it.
I saw a lot of shows in the U.K., in the early ’70s, with Faust; I saw Amon Duul. I used to drag my English friends out to those shows, with mixed results.
On why Krautrock invented punk:
I was listening to [bands like Can and Amon Duul] a long time before punk rock; that seemed like punk rock to me at the time, in terms of wiping away the past. And then when you actually dig a bit deeper into what a lot of those punks were listening to, they were listening to a lot of that Krautrock stuff, interestingly enough. The very first punk-rock record I ever heard was the Ramones, which I had heard on John Peel back in ’76. I didn’t know what it was; I turned it on halfway through the song and thought, “Oh, what’s this? It sounds like a new Neu! album.” If you listen to Neu! 75 and you listen to some punk-rock stuff, it’s the same. All that kind of stuff was punk rock — not musically, but punk in its attitude, actually. Nobody called it that at the time, but retrospectively, even bands like Hawkwind were very much in that fuck-you kind of world.
On his first encounter with a synthesizer:
I was at art school. We had a visiting lecturer, a guy called Ron Geesin, a sound poet who had worked with people like Pink Floyd. He came in to give us a talk, and he’d just bought the synthesizer. It was the Synthi AKS, which was a suitcase thing with a pin matrix — a classic late ’60s synth, British made. And he brought it in to show us, really; he knew about as much as we did about it at the time. He was very much into musique concrete before, cutting up tapes; he hadn’t used a synthesizer. So we were all just crowded around, turning knobs and sticking pins in the pin matrix. It was like, wow. It was a revelation. You can just make all this great sound.
On getting his first synth:
Synthesizers were so expensive at that time, it was impossible. In the early ’70s, the cheapest synthesizer you could buy was a Minimoog. And they were the equivalent now of 10,000 pounds, maybe? Big, famous musicians had them, basically, that was it.
I had lusted after them — they were thousands and thousands of pounds. I was still at college, and I had a low-paid job, there was just no way. But they became cheaper, and I got a better paid job, so the two things kind of coincided.
At the time, when I decided to take that step, I didn’t think anybody else was doing it at all, or would do it. But it was very logical for me. I worked with a cheap, simple synthesizer — it wasn’t a big, complicated modular synth. So it was very simple to use. Much easier to play than a guitar, so I thought, that must be much more like punk, really. Because the whole thing is accessibility, and anybody can do it. You didn’t have to learn three chords; here’s a synthesizer, you just have to press one note, and you can get a great sound. From there it was about the idea.
A few words on three current MUTE artistsâ€¦
We didn’t actually sign them; they were signed by EMI France. The way it works, in major labels, is you send the records out to America to see if any of your major-label partners are interested in putting it out, and nobody was amongst the EMI people. So they approached us, MUTE America, because we had a good relationship with the EMI France people. We jumped at it. I didn’t think [the band] was going [to develop] in this direction [of Hurry Up, We're Dreaming]. But then, I’m used to being surprised by these things.
Apparat’s somebody I’ve known personally and musically for a long time; he’s been involved with a label in Berlin called Shitkatapult who I’m very close friends with. They approached me and said would MUTE like to release this, because they felt it was bigger than something they could handle. They’re a great label, but they’re quite small and have limited resources.
I really just heard the record. The first thing is, you’ve gotta hear the music somehow. Whether you see them live or you hear a tape, you take it from there. It’s about the music, and it’s about the people. As I said, I knew the people around him better than I knew him, but I knew him a little bit, and that was all fine, because we’d known each other for a long time. Then it was about what he wanted to do, the plan, and that seemed really — his live show is fantastic. And that’s kind of what made me think, this is moving in a really strong direction. Focused. He was focused about what he wanted to do with it.
It develops in that way. There are a lot of boxes that have to be ticked before we sign an artist.
The second album, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned , was much discussed, but I was not ever apprehensive because I trusted the band to make a great record, and they have done [so] with every one of their releases. Liars have a strong artistic vision, which means they make very special and different albums each time. They are always challenging and completely follow their own path, outside of current trends, yet they are one of the most influential and forward-thinking bands around.