Steve Miller Breaks Down His Most Iconic Songs

Steve Miller recalls the songwriting, gear and production that turned five tunes into solid gold.
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Miller photographed in San
 Francisco, November 1967

Miller photographed in San Francisco, November 1967

“God, I was so uptight when I was making this stuff. I should have been a lot more relaxed,” Steve Miller says with a chuckle when discussing his new release, Welcome to the Vault. The 52-song box set features 38 previously unreleased tracks along with a DVD containing 21 live performances. Taken together, they provide an unprecedented look into Miller’s creative processes via song demos, live cuts, outtakes and rehearsals.

“Most of the stuff on this album I didn’t release myself,” Miller continues. “It took someone else, my wife Janice in particular, who would listen to these other versions of tunes and say that we should release them. As you grow older, you realize you’re kind of a perfectionist about your own work, and it gets kind of silly, but it is truly difficult to let your rough ideas out there.”

Being able to watch the great Les Paul work in his home studio and growing up in a family that enjoyed the company of top blues and jazz artists of the 1950s certainly gave Steve Miller a good start. But it was his talents as a guitar player and songwriter, coupled with his sheer ambition, fearlessness and drive for perfection, that allowed him to evolve, in a relatively short amount of time, from a hard-hitting blues rocker to a performer of experimental music to a megastar whose parade of hits in the 1970s carried him on a tidal wave of popularity that the established forces in the radio and record industries simply couldn’t control. A true force of nature, Steve Miller made music on his own terms, and his stories about how he did it are inspiring.

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“FLY LIKE AN EAGLE”
FLY LIKE AN EAGLE (1976)

What led you to use synth sounds when this record was being conceived?

I was always interested in electronic music and had been listening to [experimental music pioneers] La Monte Young and Stockhausen in the early ’60s, before I even got my recording contract. I was ping-ponging with tape recorders and doing reverb things and stuff like that, and when the Echoplex came out, that was a really great device for me. You could do the little short rockabilly slap-back stuff as well as really deep space kinds of sounds, all with this little tape loop and the moving playback heads. We used to do a lot of electronic music and sound collages when we were playing in San Francisco in the ’60s, and I’d be doing all this feedback and stuff. It was pretty avant-garde and out there.

Onstage circa 2013.

Onstage circa 2013.

How did you apply that element to the title track?

“Fly Like an Eagle” is just a funk tune that I started working on about three years before I released it. We were on the road all the time, and we played in a lot of rooms where there would be a mirror ball with a spotlight on it, and that would be the light show. And we would play these very long sets. “Fly Like an Eagle” could be like a 15- or 20-minute thing that went in all kinds of different places because of the freedom of the whole psychedelic music scene. We were a jam band really, and were able to play anything we wanted.

What was the process for turning it into the album version?

I started developing “Fly Like an Eagle” with Gerald Johnson on bass and Gary Mallaber on drums - a great session player from L.A. - and the groove just kept getting better and better. I kept working on the lyrics, and I got it to where it was beginning to turn into a song with verses and a chorus.

We recorded and mixed the song once, and spent about five or six thousand dollars, and I didn’t like it. There was something missing, and it just didn’t feel like the song the way we played it live. I recorded it again at Capitol Studios in L.A. and then again at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, and I still didn’t like the way either of those came out.

Finally, I recorded it at Pacific Union in San Francisco, where I had Joachim Young on [Hammond] B-3, along with Gerald Johnson and Gary Mallaber. It was just an amazing combination of guys that day in the studio, and I got the basic track that sounded and felt the way I wanted. We cut, like, 25 tracks there in 11 days, and we did them as a trio. But I had to cut “Fly Like an Eagle” with Joachim on keys to get it going the way it was supposed to.

You worked extensively on the song after that, right?

Yes. We mixed the 16-track down to stereo on my portable 3M eight-track machine, and we put a sync tone on the third track. When I took it back to my home studio in Novato [California] to do all the overdubs, I had a stereo mix plus a sync track, so I had five tracks left to do all my vocals and guitar parts. That’s how I did everything on Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams. I’d just sit there and record until I was happy. I did the vocals over and over until I had them the way I wanted. But I also wanted it to feel spontaneous. I didn’t want that kind of dead studio perfection. I wanted to capture the energy and the fun of singing harmonies.

We actually mixed “Fly Like an Eagle” three times before I released it. That was a big deal, because we didn’t have a lot of dough, and to go all the way through the mixing and then say, “Nah, we’re not going to use it” was a hard decision. And then to do that two more times was really a big deal! But I didn’t want to put that song out until it was really right.

Miller plays a left-handed Strat backstage at Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium, San Rafael, California, September 1972.

Miller plays a left-handed Strat backstage at Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium, San Rafael, California, September 1972.

What guitar did you use?

It was a Stratocaster. I played it through my ’59 Fender Bassman and had the Echoplex in line to give it a little bounce. The repeats played out in triplets the way I had it set, so it was a staggered kind of delay that added a nice effect to the guitar.

Can you describe your home studio at the time?

It was really just my living room, but it was a good-sounding room, with a lot of big plate-glass windows. It had been a patio, and I had it enclosed and turned it into a room where I could practice and play music and feel like I was outdoors at the same time. I had a custom eight-channel board that Dick Swetnam made for me. Dick was the lead technical engineer at Olympic Studios in London, and he made these beautiful consoles. He made a little board for Paul McCartney, and I saw it and asked if he would make me one. It cost about $5,000 and it had four separate little mixers for the headphones, which was great, because back then musicians were never allowed to control their headphone mixes - you had to ask an engineer to do that. I think I was using an Electro- Voice RE20 for vocals, and I put a lot of my vocals through a Shure Level Loc that compressed the hell out of everything. On my guitar amp I used a Shure SM57. It was just that simple.

Did you also do the synth parts at your home studio?

No. I’d had the Roland SH-2000 when I was working at home and was running it through an Echoplex, but I decided to try putting some effects with the synths on top of the final mix. Those sounds were overdubbed in one pass after I mixed the tune. That Roland synth and the Echoplex are now on display at the [New York City] Metropolitan Museum in the Play It Loud exhibit.

A funny thing also happened when we mixed “Fly Like an Eagle” for the last time. When we transferred it to the 16-track, we were using a tape that had been bulk erased, and there was this little beep you could hear that was repeated from the bulk erasing. And it’s the fadeout you hear on that song.

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“ROCK’N ME”
FLY LIKE AN EAGLE (1976)

What was the genesis of this tune?

I’d been working on “Rock’n Me,” but I didn’t have it quite finished when I was asked by Pink Floyd to come and play a festival in Knebworth, England. I didn’t have a band together at the time because I was worn out from touring and was working on all these songs for the album. So I kept turning them down. Finally, I told my agent that I wanted $100,000. I thought that would just stop it, but they said okay, and it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

How did you get a band together to play the gig?

I called up [bassist] Lonnie Turner, Les Dudek and the drummer Cosmo from Creedence Clearwater [a.k.a. Doug Clifford] and asked them if they wanted to go to England in a week to do this show. We rehearsed in my living room for a day, and then we flew to London and went and did the gig. I knew that I was going to be fodder for Pink Floyd. It was an outdoor festival, so that meant I’d be playing right before them, into the sunset with no lights on the stage, and then they’d come out and everything would be magnificent. I wanted to kick their ass, so I worked really hard and finished up the lyrics to “Rock’n Me,” and that was the first time the song was ever played. It went over really great, too, as I recall.

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“SWINGTOWN”
BOOK OF DREAMS (1977)

Welcome to the Vault has two versions of this song, and the alternate track has an entirely different beginning.

Right. The version we didn’t use has this whole musical section up front that was really good. I sometimes wonder why we didn’t use it. I was working with a friend named Chris McCarty, who’s a really good songwriter. He’s from Texas and we grew up together. It’s funny, because nobody liked his songs because he was such a rough singer. But every time he would play a song for me, I’d say, “God, that’s a great tune. Let’s work on it.”

He had some ideas for “Swingtown,” and I thought it was a really nice tune. When you listen to the two different recordings, you hear the one that has a prelude that goes, [sings] “Rest easy in the noonday sun…” It was almost like a little musical when he brought it to me. I said, “Let me work on this.” So we worked up the tune together and finished it up.

Miller in his home studio in the 1970s. “It was really just my living room, but it was a good-sounding room, with a lot of big plate-glass windows.”

Miller in his home studio in the 1970s. “It was really just my living room, but it was a good-sounding room, with a lot of big plate-glass windows.”

Why did you opt to put a shorter version on the album?

Back when I was releasing singles, two minutes and 30 seconds was the limit for radio. If it was even a second over, they wouldn’t play it. Radio was really dictating things, and sometimes you’d make a song that was exactly two minutes and 30 seconds and they’d cut your guitar solo out. It was really a harsh, crude radio world, and they were controlling everything. I’d been through this period where AM radio wouldn’t even play my music until “The Joker” became a huge viral hit and they had to play it. Like everybody else, I was working to try and get on the radio with hit singles, and so my final version of “Swingtown” that went on the album was a lot shorter than the original track. Now when I listen to the original cut, I think we ought to get that back together and do it that way live, because it sounds really good. That’s an example of how the powers that be can mess with your creativity!

You’ve said that the synth-sounding parts on that song were done with a device called the Condor Innovator.

Yes. The Condor Innovator was a synth that you plugged your guitar into with a special pickup on it, and it would make your guitar sound like a flute or violin or a piano, or this or that. And I found this very funky kind of clavinet guitar tone on it that I loved, and that’s what I used for the basis of the rhythm section. They didn’t make a lot of Condor Innovators, but it was a very cool device and one of the first synths for guitar. It was pricy, though, and it didn’t succeed because nobody wanted to spend that much money. I think it was like $2,000 back in the day. When I got mine, I knew I was going to use it on “Swingtown,” so that made it worth it to me. But when I tried to use it on the road, it was just a pain in the ass.

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What guitar were you playing at that point?

It might have been my Ibanez Iceman, because I had those around then. I was working with Ibanez, and they were also making me special pickups. So it would have been the Iceman through the Condor Innovator and into my Bassman.

There are two alternate versions on the Welcome to the Vault set. Can you explain those?

I think the first one was done at home with a drum machine and a Teac four-track [tape] machine. That’s the one that’s kind of slow and almost hillbilly sounding. I just had the idea and was trying to work out the tune. A lot of my songs are all about the harmony parts and choruses, so I would just be looking to get a basic track so I could try the harmony vocals, because they were the really exciting parts to me. Then I tried a different version, probably a little faster, and I went to the studio and showed the song to Lonnie and Gary, and we knocked out a rhythm-trio version of it and I built it from there.

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“THE JOKER”
THE JOKER (1973)

“The Joker” was a very different kind of song for you at the time. How did you develop it?

That was one of those songs where I wasn’t sure what I was writing. It was so different than anything else, and it wasn’t a song where you’d go, “Now there’s a hit single. Let’s put that on the radio.” I didn’t know it was going to be a hit or think anything about it, but when I played it for the guys at Capitol, there was a kid at the playback meeting who said, “I kind of like that ‘Joker’ tune. I think it’s pretty cool.”

It was really simple. I played it on a Guild 12-string acoustic tuned down to D, and I was playing it in the G position. It had this nice little ring to it, and it was a real lazy kind of tune. When I finally got it all together, I was in L.A. and my band consisted of John King on drums, Dickie Thompson on keys and Gerald Johnson on bass. I had a very specific written bass line for Gerald that I wanted him to play, and when we cut the basic track it had a really great feel. We recorded all the tracks for “The Joker’ at Capitol in two days, and then I sat around and did the overdubs.

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Your guitar solo is instantly recognizable. How did you come up with it?

I was trying to figure out what I would do for a solo, and I had my Strat, which I’d set up for slide, and I ran it through a Leslie speaker. I think I had an overdrive pedal, and, of course, there’s wah on it for the wolf whistle. The song was literally done in two hours. We cut the track, I did the overdubs, and it was finished. It’s an odd tune. I didn’t know if it was something I really liked when I was working on it. But there are a lot of things I really liked but didn’t put on my records. It dominated the air for a year, and all of a sudden I had this huge hit single from a song that was really just a country blues kind of tune.

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“ABRACADABRA”
ABRACADABRA (1982)

This song took an unusually long time for you to develop. What’s the story behind it?

It was an interesting conundrum, because I had the music for “Abracadabra” for three years before it came out in 1982. I loved playing the music, and I had all the sections down, but I couldn’t come up with lyrics that were good enough for the music. I had it recorded with a different name and different lyrics, but at the last second I said, “Wait, take that song off!” Paul McCartney had told me that he wished he had taken more time with a bunch of his tunes, because they made their stuff so fast back then. I kept thinking “Abracadabra” was such a cool piece of music but the lyrics weren’t good enough. I kept trying to rewrite them, but I couldn’t get the original bad lyrics out of my head, and I couldn’t come up with anything better either.

So I just let it sit for a while, and one winter I was skiing at Sun Valley [Idaho] and I saw Diana Ross on the mountain. I had played with the Supremes on [the TV show] Hullabaloo in 1965, so I had seen them live and knew what they really were, which was phenomenal.

I was thinking about Diana when I went home for lunch, and I just thought about what the Supremes would do with this song. After that, I wrote the lyrics to “Abracadabra” in 15 minutes. I just sat down and I could see them saying, “I want to reach out and grab ya.”

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All you had to do then was re-record the song?

Yes. I had the track already cut and had done all the overdubs, so I went back and reworked it and sang all the round and rounds and did all those parts over and over until it all made sense. I put it together and took it to Capitol, and they hated it. They said it was awful and that I was finished. It was amazing, because I had just sold a billion dollars in records for them, and they were just dropping me! But I had a deal with Phonogram in Europe, so I said, “Okay, if that’s the way you feel about it.”

I cancelled my tour in the States and I went to Europe, and when I got to London to start the tour, the record was number-one all over the world - except in Japan and the United States, which were the two markets that Capitol controlled. Phonogram had my world rights everywhere else, and when I got back to the States, it was number-one here too. It turned out to be my biggest hit.

The song had such a different feel compared to anything else you’d done. Did it present any challenges in the studio?

We cut it in Studio B at Capitol with Gary on drums, and yeah, it was a little challenging because the reggae-vamp guitar thing was hard to play. I had to do a lot of takes to get just the right tempo and feeling and put it all together. And then I had to do a guitar solo. I couldn’t figure out what to do on the solo. My girlfriend came into the studio, and I just did this big wolf whistle with my guitar when I saw her, and everybody in the studio went, “Yeah man, do that!” So that’s how we got the solo done.

And the guitar was?

I played it on a Strat and ran it straight into the Bassman. I got that amp in 1959, and it was actually my brother’s amp in the Marksmen Combo [Miller’s first band]. In 1959, we were working and we finally had enough money to get a couple of Fender amps. He got a Bassman and I got a Concert. That’s what I used all through high school and college and through my time in San Francisco. I still have the Concert, and it’s a great amp.

What else do you remember about that session?

David Cole was the engineer, and working with him was really great. Kenny Lee Lewis was on bass, and we just had it all going, and it was a real fun session. The song had a really good vibe, but it was more like a European pop vibe. It was actually the number-one single in the world in 1982, I think just before Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

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