Afterlife aka Steve Miller has been an active member of the ‘chilluminati’ since 1994. Well known for his contributions to compilations for Cafe Del Mar, Cafe Mambo and his own albums, and releases for globally respected labels like Defected Records – notably a blissful remix of UK chart smash Roger Sanchez – Another Chance, his Midas touch has guided a generation of chill fans and producers alike.
This week sees him release his new album ‘Ten Thousand Things’ which he describes as “a Taoist description of the universe made up of the 5 elements.” From The Glade in Glastonbury to regular spots all over Ibiza, his blissful considered DJ sets have captured the attention of everyone (including a delighted DJ Sneak who, eyes closed next to the DJ booth, stayed to hear him play until 6am).
UK Editor Simon Huxtable wanted to find out more…
Hi Steve, wonderful to meet you, thanks for finding the time to chat. So the album drops pretty soon and it’s pretty spectacular. Could you expand on your Taoist description of the album for us?
I adopted the Taoist philosophy early in life as a simple and natural code to live by and it’s served me very well. The Tao Te Ching was written by Lao Tzu around 600BC and has been a major source of inspiration. It taught me to listen properly to music, to hear the detail, to feel the emotion conveyed by a piece of music.
I decided I wanted to make a solo album of a lot of melodies that had been running through my head over the last 2 years but due to remix work and other collaborations I couldn’t start until last July when I eventually cleared the decks. Leafing through the book I came upon the 5 element statement and realised it applied to music in as much as there is the voice, melody, rhythm, texture and emotion so instinctively that was my starting point to focus the ideas I had.
Do you feel spirituality and downtempo music go hand in hand? Are certain types of music predisposed to being more cerebral; more spiritual?
I don’t think tempo has much to do with it. Music is a far more sophisticated method of communication than words can ever be, connecting people in a special way when words become superfluous. Just looking through a friend’s recollection can reveal volumes about them. When I hear a piece of music that I love I become more alive, have more energy and feel deeply happy either dancing or horizontal. I guess any piece of music can be classed as spiritual by the people uplifted by it, but for me, it’s just the best way to spread the love. It brings like-minded individuals together.
The new long player is wonderful. Can you talk us through the development of the album – Ten Thousand Things from conception to deciding on the final order? How long does a track take you to make?
Thanks! That’s really encouraging, because when I started out in 1994 I considered myself as simply an electronic artist, and then chill out came along and I was considered to be in that category, along the way I was influenced by remix work that demanded I stick to my original style to a greater degree than I would have liked. I got tired of being asked to do a remix in 2014 that sounded like something I had done in 2001 so eventually saying “No more”, I decided that this album should give me complete freedom again.
It’s like starting from scratch and that’s very exciting. The whole chillout genre became a dirty word around 2003 because everybody jumped on the bandwagon, then last year it was suddenly deemed back in fashion, everything goes in cycles, proper house music is back too and evolving beautifully. If this album is categorised as chillout I don’t mind because at least I am evolving again and that’s the most important thing. The length of time it takes me to make a track all depends on how happy I am with the production. Most tracks take me up to half a day to write if I’m in the right mood but then production can take up to 2 weeks for some tracks. A lot of that is listening and making small adjustments over time.
Then, I will master the track, sometimes several times, until it feels right. I never hyper-compress which loses dynamic range so if I don’t think the track is sonically strong enough I go back to the mix and find out why then correct it. I started every track on this album with the melody line first, then chose the instrument that worked best to create the intended atmosphere and finally brought drums into the mix. That’s pretty much the way I remix, letting the groove of the vocal or melody decide how the drums should work with it.
We understand you wanted to take a more analogue approach on this album using keyboards, a TR8 drum machine and Cubase for its more analogue sounding audio engine. Do you think modern electronic music has lost some of its uniqueness by being manufactured ‘in the box’?
I have always used Cubase since Cubase 5 when it adopted the Nuendo audio engine which I used previously as it the closest to analogue according to Elliot Scheiner and he should know. I use Cubase more like tape rather than a quantise grid. I think the danger with virtual instruments is that they are virtual, have presets and a mouse for editing gets in the way of the writing process for me and setting up midi controllers is too tedious. I realised that I prefer a hands-on instrument like the guitar and bass I use, but my old keyboards had died one by one so I acquired a Moog sub 37 and a Prophet 6.
This allowed me to get the sounds I wanted very quickly and alter them during performance and tracking in an expressive way which didn’t obstruct creativity. The sound shaping is infinite, they feel like real instruments and were so much more satisfying and inspiring to use that I just bought another Moog – this time, a Voyager – a spaceship for sound galaxies. The Roland TR8 is lovely, again hands-on controls allowing you to tune everything exactly how you want it, play live, play sequences, make loops or midi control. That together with a Korg wavedrum and some acoustic percussion caters for beats.
I think there’s a lot more “less unique” music about, but that’s a result of the sheer weight of numbers of people who make music solely on a laptop using various genre producer CDs (a whole industry in itself) which is, by its very nature, restricting and the fact that it is all available online for easy access. It’s a relatively new phenomenon. There’s still a lot of brilliant new electronic music out there, it just takes longer to find than it does in a record shop. I prefer the record shop experience.
I love the fact that I can afford to record professional quality audio at home and manipulate it easily in ways that were impossible for most people even 10 years ago due to cost. The real fun to be had is when you use whatever is at your disposal to create something that’s interesting and feels good. If you’re making music then you need to learn how to play an instrument, if you’re painting then you need to learn how to handle your materials, photographers need to learn how to use a camera properly. The more you learn the less you are restricted in realising your vision, and the more you want to learn.
For cost reasons alone, I mix “inside the box” these days but I have a lot of analogue studio experience which has been invaluable to understanding the analogue modelled plugins which I use. It’s important to understand gain structure across a virtual console and also in the plugin chains to avoid digital distortion which, unlike analogue distortion is horrible, and also to run a dedicated clock to which the DAW computer runs as a slave. It makes an incredible difference to the clarity and timing of a track.
Brian Eno’s seminal Music for Airports was your introduction to Ambient music. As a young man, what drew you to his music and who else moulded your musical palette around that time?
I heard that album for the first time in the late 80s when I was touring with a reggae band. I grew up playing the piano and as a teenager would often sit at the piano playing simple tonal melodies almost trancing out listening to the spaces between the notes as they faded away. I was amazed and very encouraged to discover that you could actually make an album like that and that people would buy it.
It was hugely inspiring for future plans and I identified with his attitude towards a studio as a creative instrument in itself. I was heavily into dub at that time and loved the artists we supported like Sly & Robbie and Third World. Then I heard “Echoes” by Wally Badarou and became aware of his earlier work with Grace Jones. He was trying to create a virtual studio. One keyboard, voice activated powerful computer and some monitors.
It sounded like a great idea at the time and indeed resembled my own studio up to a year ago except for the voice control (total voice control of a DAW would be brilliant, music software developers please take note). I see he’s also playing analogue synths again. I think he, Herbie Hancock and Frankie Knuckles were major influences on my later work.
Over the years you’ve worked with a dizzying array of artists. Who were the most inspiring to work with and who did you learn the most from?
The first would have to be Karl Pitterson who engineered Bob Marley’s Exodus album and produced Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution. I did all the session keyboards on his own album and he taught me to trust my instincts completely, never to be afraid to pick up a strange instrument and start playing it, and most importantly how to play really tight rhythmically which takes a lot of focus.
Secondly, K-Klass who showed just how much work and dedication it takes to make a record sound really good, paying scrupulous attention to detail really pays off. When I was involved in a couple of their remixes it was daily 12-hour sessions for two weeks per remix, lots of listening and tweaking and lots of fun at the same time. I still maintain that if you’re not having fun in the studio then either delete the track and start something new or go to the pub.
Spending time in Ibiza has no doubt been an inspiration over the years. Where do you like to go on the island to escape the craziness? Or do you embrace it?
To escape I go north and stay with friends, usually, there’s a studio involved. For craziness, I prefer private villa parties with the real crazies that don’t take selfies all the time!
As I mentioned in the introduction, you’ve had some amazing DJing experiences. As someone who has experienced the highs and lows of both touring and residency, which, given the opportunity would you plump for these days?
Touring, every time. Despite air travel being a mostly tedious experience these days, I love new places and making new friends. I would get bored very quickly with a residency no matter how cool the venue.
Social media has become critical to the modern artist’s promotional arsenal. How do you find the experience? Has it come naturally?
I’m constantly amazed how much remix work I get from facebook. Labels tend to use the messaging service as a first point of contact and it’s nice to keep people updated on your releases and gigs. I’ve made some great contacts with DJs, radio stations and musicians which would have been almost impossible otherwise. The social side of it I avoid as I prefer to talk to people face to face either on skype or in person.
Well, it’s been wonderful to chat Steve. We wish you all the best for the album, I’m sure you’ll do very well. In closing can you tell us about your DJ schedule heading into autumn and any tour info for the album?
I have a full studio schedule until next March so no gigs until next summer when I hope to play some of my favourite venues like Pikes and La Torre and maybe go to Japan so, thanks to social media, all will be revealed in due course once the gigs are confirmed.
I will, however, have another album coming out in September on Secret Life Music – working title “Afterlife Remixed” with remixes from Steve Cobby, FSQ, Coyote, Max Essa, Chris Coco, Simon Mills and A Man Called Adam. Also worth checking from the same label will be two singles from No Logo (me and Pete Gooding) called “Wireman” and “Tangerine Scream” with remixes from Leo Mas and Rune Lindbaek so it’s all gone Balearic, again.