Back in the limelight with the 'Play On' album, John discusses his approach to songwriting and his move towards a solo career
Last month saw John Miles return to the limelight with a new album 'Play On'. For the first time, he has been working in a solo capacity, backed up by some of Britain's top session musicians and a large orchestra.
He first shot to fame in the mid-seventies with three hit-singles 'High-Fly', 'Music', and 'Slowdown'. His popularity continued to grow with the release of three albums for Decca: 'Stranger In The City,' 'Zaragon', and 'More Miles Per Hour'.
In 1981 he signed to EMI and following the release of the LP 'Miles High' in September of that year, he embarked on a major British tour. Since then he has spent much of his time at his home in Sunderland writing, and last year he spent some time in Munich at the invitation of composer Eberhard Schoener to appear in a special live TV concert.
Ian Gilby interviewed Miles shortly after the release of 'Play On' and sets the ball rolling by asking him what equipment he's now using.
"At home I've got a Yamaha acoustic piano, a couple of guitars, the ones I use on stage, which are a Strat and a Les Paul Standard and I've just got myself a Drumulator which I'm trying to figure out. When I'm songwriting, I just use the drum machine and piano or drum machine and guitar and put the song ideas down in that kind of form.
The way I write is with my partner, Bob Marshall. I write the music and Bob writes the lyrics. Usually about 70% of the time I come up with the music first, then sing a melody line without lyrics and give it to Bob.
How do you come up with the music then? Is it simply a case of sitting at the piano and doodling until you find some chords?
Most of the time you have to because your time is often limited when it comes to writing. The best songs are always written when you're sort of sitting watching TV and you get a little idea in your head, then nip into the music room and the song's finished in half an hour.
When you've got a new album to do, do you consciously sit down and write new material for it?
Yes. When we finished recording the current 'Play On' album, Bob and I had a talk because we've always had a problem where there's been too long a gap between album releases. What we've done in the past is have an album out and go out on the road to promote it, toured for two or three months and then when we've come back everybody has been screaming for new stuff and if you haven't got any then you're in trouble!
So this time we said 'OK let's use the time that we have between albums to try and get some material together for a new album'.
We started preparing the songs for the 'Play On' album over a year ago. We were thinking about what kind of album to do and when we did get the songs together, I just went down to Whitehouse Studios in Chelsea, which my manager owns. It's a 24 track studio and there I did a better quality demo with piano, guitar, drum machine and vocals. That was the given to Terry Slater, who was head of A&R at EMI at the time; and then it came down to finding a producer. That was really where the time gap came in because Terry said 'who do you want to use?', and I said that I'd love to use Gus Dudgeon because of his previous work with Elton John and because I'd always fancied working with him, but never thinking that he would be free to do it because he's obviously a very busy man.
So Terry got the demos to him and he liked the songs and said he wanted to do the album, but then we had to wait a while because he was already committed to finishing off some other projects. I think it took about a year to get the album done from start to finish, but our actual studio time took only about seventeen weeks.
Just getting back to the writing, do you come up with an idea and approach Bob or does he supply lyrics to you?
Well occasionally he supplies lyrics, but on this album the bulk of the material was started by me and he was given very rough demos and he worked from there.
Did Gus do any pre-production work with you?
He didn't, no. We talked about it quite a lot, and we thought about the songs and how we should treat them, but we didn't actually physically do anything.
Before we always worked within a band format, and then it was easy because we were a kind of working unit and when we came off the road, we'd get some songs together and get a rehearsal room and work them out that way. But this time I decided to try and use a different format and when I first met Gus he said 'well how do you want to do it, who do you want to play on the album?' and I thought I'd try and find out who the best players are and get them in and see if they're interested in doing it. He'd already been working with the rhythm section that we used which was Graham Jarvis, Martin Jenner, Paul Westwood and Pete Wingfield.
I was confident that it was going to work because I think those people are very adaptable. They're the top session people and they do a lot of road work; I know Graham and Martin do anyway. They play with Cliff Richard all the time and Wingy, Pete Wingfield, plays with everybody: everything from TV ads to the Sugar Hill Gang. He used to be in the Olympic Runners, for instance. He's been around a long time and he's a very adaptable musician.
I didn't believe that session men would be that involved with our project. You always get the impression of session men as being the sort of people who come in, sit down, read off the score, do it note perfect, take the money and that's it. But it was like working with a real band again.
It was probably the first time that I haven't played on all the backing tracks when they were going down. I think I played acoustic piano on three of them, and the rest of them all I did was just sing guide vocals. It was so relaxing not being involved in that stage because in the past I've always been the one to have to try and get it together, and actually physically be in the studio while it's going down: if you're doing that you can't really get a feel of what's happening in the control room.
How much influence did Gus have over you in the running of the session? Is he the sort of producer who sits back and lets the engineer set everything up?
Well, we used an engineer called Graham Dixon who works with Gus all the time and he's a very good engineer; he got all the sounds together. Gus was more involved with things on the artistic side than the musical side of it. He's got a great pair of ears, he really has. For someone who is not a musician to have ears as good as that is incredible, I mean he can't play anything. He can't explain something to you musically if it's wrong but he does have a knack for explaining it to you so that you know what he's trying to get at.
He tends to get the best out of everybody that works for him, and I found it very hard work. I worked much harder than I've ever worked with any producer before. Gus really is a perfectionist.
Just from my point of view when it came down to vocals. In the past when I've done the vocals on the other albums we've done maybe three shots at it just to get into it, and maybe recorded three and taken the best complete take. But with Gus he would leave something like 10 tracks over for a lead vocal, so we would do ten runs at it. And maybe after six runs there were parts that were constantly good in all of them and there were other parts which needed to be talked about and re-done. So the other four tracks we would use to re-do sections.
There were probably about two or three tracks on the album that the vocals just went straight through. It depends how hard the song is to sing and the key of the song, and as far as tuning goes, Gus is incredible. I would sing a line or something and he'd say 'come in and have a listen to this' and I would listen to it and he'd say 'well that last line was slightly flattened' and I'd say 'what?' Then he'd do it again and it was, very slightly, but those are the kind of ears he has. So a lot of the time I spent going back and repairing things like that.
Isn't that a problem because in a lot of rock music you're not singing perfect pitch all the time and a lot of it is portamento, sliding up to notes?
It is a problem, yes. I thought that by delving that far into the vocals we might lose a bit of feel and I was a bit worried about it, but we didn't in the end. In fact I think it helped the feel on some of the tracks.
Gus works very hard at trying to retain the same feel and obviously to retain the same sound which is to do with... how far you stand away from the mic and the actual power that you have to give from the voice. That's what took the time really, but eventually he ended up with what he wanted.
Moving on to the vocals, have you actually had singing lessons of any sort?
No. I was in the school choir, the church choir and the school opera, that kind of thing. I often wonder how valuable voice training actually would be because at the moment Gus has just finished working with Stephen Bishop and he still goes to voice training lessons. When you listen to Stephen's voice, it's pretty much note perfect and the sound of it is really good. Maybe I should go to singing lessons to try it out.
What about your involvement in the songs once the backing tracks were down, what sort of time period did that take?
The backing tracks were down in three weeks, the whole lot, that was 13 songs in three weeks. In fact when we were in the studio we had 10 or 11 songs and I remember getting towards the end of the backing tracks and Gus turning around and saying 'do you fancy writing another couple, to see how it goes...?' I don't know whether he does that all the time to people, but he threw me completely, and I didn't want to give him the impression that I didn't want to.
So I went home and stayed up all night and wrote two songs, and one of them ('I'll Never Do It Again') ended upon the album. The other one also turned out great but didn't fit the mould of the album, and anyway there was also too much music to go on the album, so it ended on the B-side of the new single.
Were you conscious when you were writing the songs to try and aim at some sort of market, or did you write what you want?
I think we were mostly trying to aim for the American market to be totally honest with you, because that's the kind of music I enjoy playing. I find that it is much more musical than anything else, especially to sing. There's more scope for actually playing better as well. I think American players have a better feel.
Going back to the sessions, what did you put down first over the backing tracks?
We did keyboards over those first with Pete Wingfield and we also got Duncan MacKay in to do some stuff, because they're both very good players and they both have different styles. Pete is an American/funk/synth kind of player, clavinet/organ and all that kind of stuff, while Duncan is a real sound man; probably because of the people that he's worked with. 10CC and all that — he just wants a certain kind of sound and it's there straight away. He's very good at that and he's also got a great feel.
Duncan was using a Yamaha CS 80 and Pete was using a Prophet, Clavinet and Hammond. I think all Duncan used was the Yamaha.
Do you ever touch synthesisers yourself?
I play them if somebody sets them up and gets the sound for me! I suppose it's easier these days with the Prophet and stuff. I had a little mess about with the Prophet... the guy who was on the last tour with us had a Prophet and I was just messing about with that and I found that quite easy to understand. But going back to the early days, I remember trying to get sounds out of MiniMoogs and stuff... and that was awful. With the Prophet you've got the memories so you can modify the sound. I've been thinking lately about getting a Prophet or something, mainly to write with.
I was wondering why you never really got into synthesisers. You've got them on the album but they're never really prominent.
I don't know why. I think probably I'm more in the old school of singalong than getting very heavily into the technical side of it, although the way music is moving now it's got to be worth thinking about.
Just the fact I've bought my Drumulator will open up a lot of areas. It'll depend on how much I want to explore. I think you can go with those things and still retain the style that you have. These days every record that you hear on the radio sounds pretty much the same because it's using a Simmons kit or whatever, a LinnDrum, the same hand claps. And they've all got pretty much the same kind of brassy Prophet sound. If that is going to be around for a long time, then you have to move with it.
I think it comes down to the fact that people are just not taking enough time to get something personal. It's too easy just to stick a Prophet down and get a brass sound, set your LinnDrum up and away you go. I think it will always come down to finance too. Studio costs these days are incredible. Maison Rouge (where the last LP was recorded) was something like £600 a day.
You've never actually thought about getting your own studio just to cover cost?
Well I've never really had to, because as I said before my manager's got a studio called Whitehouse Studios which I use and before that he used to have Orange Recording Studios in Old Compton Street, and that was also 24-track. So I've never really had to do anything at home. If I want to do anything I'd rather go actually into a studio environment rather than be at home because you can get totally cut off and get involved in it; you don't have the kids running in and out.
How much of the keyboards did you actually play yourself?
I just played acoustic piano on three tracks and that was it. 'The Right To Sing', 'Take Me To My Heaven ' and 'I'll Never Do It Again' — I played piano on that but that was an overdub.
Did you drop the band for financial reasons or did you just think it was time for a change?
It was both really. At the time of disbanding the group, we were going through heavy litigation with Decca Records. We couldn't record and we couldn't gig so it was just financially impossible to keep the band going. Then when things came together again I got another deal and I thought I'd try and go for something different just to get away from it all, because I think people tend to see the same faces and think 'well, here it comes again... there's nothing new coming out of there'. That's basically why I went for a new musical direction.
I didn't mind relinquishing control of the actual playing side, because I respected the people that I got in.
I remember talking to Bobby Columbi — he used to be the drummer with Blood Sweat and Tears and he now works with Capitol and EMI in America — and he said 'You should really get the best players that you can. You should get players that make you feel slightly inadequate because it will make you work harder'. I always kept that at the back of my mind and it does work, it really gives you a kick and makes you work harder.
Moving back to guitars, you played virtually all the guitars. Why did you feel you needed another guitarist?
Well, most guitarists have got different styles. We used two guitarists on the album, Martin Jenner and a guy called Jerry Donohue who used to play with Joan Armatrading and now plays with Steeleye Span. So he was more into the kind of picking thing, the rhythm thing, and Martin was very into the detuned stuff which I'm not. I'm basically just a sort of standard tuning guitar player. As a guitar player I would rather just play pieces of leads, riffs and so on, and leave the really good rhythm playing to someone who can take care of it. And again if we do go out on the road I would like to use a guitar player to give me more freedom to do vocals.
When we went out as a four-piece I was having to do rhythm guitars, lead guitars and voice, and even singing a bit of backing vocals in between, so it didn't really give me any time to concentrate on any one thing. On the 'More Miles Per Hour' tour I was running about left, right and centre. I was running across doing synth lines that were necessary because we didn't have another synth player with us, so in the end I thought it was getting a bit silly. I think what people want to hear from me is good vocals and a bit of guitar and a bit of piano, but there was just too much going on and I found I didn't have time to relax on stage because I was constantly thinking of what was happening next.
Which songs did you actually play lead guitar on — all of them?
Yeah, all of them. I did a split solo on 'Close Eyes Count to Ten'. Martin Jenner plays the first half of the song and I play the second half, and that just came about as an accident really. He was doing little fills and rhythm stuff on it and when it came to the solo he just started to mess about and he finished up actually halfway through the solo. It was such a nice run I thought we really had to use it: it was the perfect lead in for another guitar to take over at that point.
How much work do you actually put into the guitar solos, do you plan them out beforehand or is it all feel?
No, it's all feel. It's just a case of going in really. We did all the guitar overdubs inside the control room, which I really prefer because you hear the actual sound which is going to be there. I find it really strange to have to go out in the studio with a set of headphones on and play the solo; I just feel so small.
So were you actually DI-ing your guitar, then?
No. I used the Mesa Boogie in the studio with an extension cab. We had about 10 mics on it which was unbelievable. I tried every kind of mic on it and we used combinations of each; we put a lot of ambience mics on it, very close mics, mics from the back, mics from the front, and that was all down to Graham Dixon really. He's very good with guitar sounds.
When you write the songs do you specifically leave sections where you want the guitar solo?
Yes. It might not necessarily be a guitar solo but I know where the solo should be.
I spend quite a lot of time with the guitars, but it depends really. I think the solo on 'I'll Never Do It Again' was probably the one that took a lot of time. A great deal of time was spent on the guitar sounds, but not so much on the playing.
Which guitars are you using?
On the album I used the Fender Strat which has got two DiMarzios on it. I used that basically because I love the tremolo effect. But the guitar I used mostly was the '59 Les Paul Standard which I've had for a long time now.
How much importance do you place on your guitar?
Well, I've had in my time three Les Pauls and the one I've stuck with has been the Sunburst because it feels right and it's got a lot of power as well. There's a lot of variation between Les Pauls as to the power of the pickups, and I found one that was really as powerful as I needed it to be. I used to have a '57 Switch master which was also a very nice guitar but it had three pickups, and I couldn't play with three pickups; I had to lower the middle pickup... because it just used to get in the way. It's my style of playing — that is where I play.
What sort of involvement do you have on the mixing side once the album's all recorded?
I was there all the time, I wanted to be there all the time. If there had been some reason why I had to be away from the studio, if I'd had to be away doing gigs, I would have left it to Gus and completely trusted him. But he didn't mind having me around, it didn't inhibit him in anyway and I did pick up on the odd sort of little thing, mainly levels of lead vocals or levels of guitar. He was actually going for a total sound and there were maybe a couple of little things that I thought should just be slightly louder at points just because they gave something a kick or feel; I would suggest that and then take a back seat and just let him do it.
I would hate to be a producer and have the artist behind you, standing with the faders and all that, shoving them up and bringing them down. I don't think he would like that either.
You've never actually wanted to do that?
Well I have tried it. When we did 'Miles High' I was totally in command of that and I didn't really enjoy the mixing stage.
Who produced that?
I did. I enjoyed everything about that album apart from the mixing stage because mixing can be so boring, and you can get stale very easily. You can get very tired listening to the songs over and over again. Also, when Gus mixed our album he insisted on doing it on a ½" machine at 30 i.p.s. which was dead expensive. But the quality is so much better.
Getting back to instruments, what amplifier do you play the Les Paul and the Strat through?
I use the Mesa Boogie. I used one on the last tour. I haven't got one. I tried one out with the intention of maybe buying it but after the tour, I knew we couldn't gig again for a while so I didn't think it was really worth it. When it came to doing the tracks, I immediately went for a Mesa Boogie because again it is a very adaptable amp — it's great for both live work and studio work — and I went for the one with the graphic EQ so I could modify the sound.
In the past you used to have an Orange amp...
Yeah, they used to be great amps, Orange amps, the early ones. I had one particular Orange amp for ages, until it actually physically fell apart, it just wouldn't work anymore. That was when a guy called Mac was making the amps and they were very good quality amps, everything in them was good. The components were great, but they got bigger and bigger, went into factory production and then it just wasn't as good.
What type of effects are you using?
Well, on stage I basically use the voice box, an ADT and flanger. I used an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress at one point. On the last tour I also used an MXR Phasing unit. There's some great new things coming out... the new Boss stuff is great.
I've never really tried guitar synths, but one of these days I'll probably end up having a go at one.
Is that because you're going to have to set the sounds up yourself? Is that why you haven't used one so far?
Probably, I'm basically very lazy! I'm essentially an old school guitar player who likes a guitar to sound like a guitar."