Daniel Miller is best known as the owner of Mute Artists (formerly Mute Records, but the original name didn’t come with the sale by EMI) and as The Normal, the artist name used for the release of “TVOD”/”Warm Leatherette.” The son of Austrian refugees, Miller grew up in North London with a love of Kraftwerk, Can and Neu! and worked as a DJ before buying a Korg 700s and recording his first single. Modest and uncomfortable in the limelight, Miller performed as The Normal with Scottish electronics pioneer, Robert Rental, but found himself happier in the studio and working behind the scenes with his record label than standing on the stage himself. He discovered and propelled the careers of Depeche Mode and others, but over the years has also been seen lending a technical hand to Thomas Dolby and Soft Cell or producing The House of Love. Miller still records as Sunroof! with his close friend and Mute producer, Gareth Jones.
To launch our new feature, Shine On, we’ve picked out a number of songs to reflect the breadth of Miller’s work as a producer, composer and performer. The constants are a well-developed sense of arrangement, an instinct for unique sounds that are often detuned or shaped in unexpected ways, and a feeling for driving rhythms. These reflect his Krautrock influences but also the effort that comes with closely reading the manuals to his collected synthesizers and then throwing them away.
10. Missing Scientists – Big City Bright Lights
The synthesizer credit on this 1980 release is granted to one “Jacki” and a co-production credit on the A-side goes to “Larry Least,” but both are pseudonyms for Miller. “Jacki” was one of the mythical players in Miller’s Silicon Teens fantasy pop group, while “Larry Least” was a name he adopted as a reference to the producer, Mickey Most. The reggaetronica style is one that is not commonly associated with Miller, though he was later to contribute to On-U Sounds’ legenday Pay It All Back compilation a few years later.
9. Voice of Authority – Fuh Fuh
When On-U Sound released their first sampler album, Pay It All Back, in 1985, it cost the same as a single and was packed with the juiciest reggae/experimental tracks from Adrian Sherwood’s burgeoning stable of artists. It also contained this short and peculiar composition by Miller, featuring early sampling technology.
8. Thomas Dolby – Radio Silence
In the early 1980s, it was known that, if an artist needed help with some complicated synthesizer set-ups, or the use of a Synclavier, Miller was the go-to person. He did production work with Soft Cell, but less well known is his contribution to this 1982 Thomas Dolby song.
7. Alex Fergusson – Stay with Me Tonight
Another 1980 production effort credited to “Larry Least,” this single from Alex Fergusson (Alternative TV, Psychic TV) is clearly programmed/performed by Miller. At the time, Ferguson was experimenting with the move from punk to electro-pop, a path charted by Mute Records. This single appeared on the Red Records label.
6. Silicon Teens – Sun Flight
Miller’s Silicon Teens project was, for the most part, a series of covers of rock standards, like “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Just Like Eddie,” but it also yielded a couple of original Miller compositions. “Sun Flight” is the one that gets remembered best, as it combines themes of space travel and synths in a way that was not totally dissimilar to a later Mute release, “Fred vom Jupiter” by Die Doraus und Die Marinas.
5. Fad Gadget – Lady Shave
The strength of Miller’s songwriting and production work came out most strongly in his work with Frank Tovey (aka Fad Gadget). Miller took songs written by Tovey and turned them into brooding electronic classics with the menace of punk but a style of their own. The early Fad Gadget singles became an outlet for Miller’s creativity, where he could stretch his one-fingered compositional style to the limits. “Lady Shave” is an exceptional song from a number of standpoints: the sequenced bassline that carries the song is electro-minimalism incarnate; the studio itself is played to generate tones based on an electric shaver; and the unconventional top line is distinctively Miller.
4. Duet Emmo – Or So It Seems
The most achingly beautiful pop song ever made, we’ve called “Or So It Seems” before, and this collaboration between Miller and Wire refugees, B.C. Gilbert and Graham Lewis, shows Miller at his one-fingered best. Lewis’ vocals are like threads of glass spun around the core of a grumbling bass-line and bells, but the build-up and release of tension in the song is 1982 shot-through.
3. Sunroof! – Hero
Miller’s occasional project with Gareth Jones, Sunroof! has largely been responsible for covers of Krautrock classics, like this legendary Neu! track. The vocals here are provided by the extraordinarily beautiful Alison Conway, who has appeared as A.C. Marias on Mute and made a number of videos for the label.
2. The Normal – TVOD
If you put out a record by yourself, while living in your mum’s house, the last thing you’d expect is for it to be covered by Grace Jones and adopted as the title for her album. Such was Miller’s luck with “Warm Leatherette,” which Jones’ producer probably heard played by DJ Rusty Egan at the Blitz club. An attempt to make punk music with synthesizers, “TVOD”/”Warm Leatherette” came out in 1979, while the DIY spirit was still strong, and it is the springboard for everything that followed. We’ve picked “TVOD” for this list, because it gets less attention but shows off techniques like tape cut-up that link the single to the industrial scene that was taking shape at the time.
1. Depeche Mode – Shout
The influence of Miller on early Depeche Mode is very clear from their recordings. While a major label would have polished their sound and image beyond recognition, Mute and Miller brought out the experimental side of the band and gave them room to explore sounds and rhythms that were less obviously commercial. One of the best examples is on this B-side to 1981’s “New Life,” which is driven by sequenced drum-like sounds and the simplest synth line ever.