Recently, singer-songwriter David Michael Miller gave Blues Rock Review the inside scoop on his journey from singing in church as a child to more recently touring the country with his band. Despite a hiatus several years back, the guitarist feels a pull to the blues scene that’s as strong as ever. With a sound that might be best described as “modern traditional,” the release of his second solo album is no doubt, anticipated.
Take us to the beginning – how did you get started with music?
You know, it started in the church for me. I was raised up with half my family [being] Pentecostal with Protestant circles on the other side, [who were] a little bit more conservative. So, I had those two worlds, which was interesting. My grandpa on the one side was an Evangelist. You have some pretty wild stuff happening there – I remember going to tent meetings and revivals. But, growing up singing in church, that’s what I remember from the little age. I was singing on my grandpa’s radio show at four, just singing spiritual hymns and choruses and that’s how it got started.
You have an interesting story because you started getting into music very seriously and then you stopped, right? You took a break?
Yeah, there [were] a couple of starts and stops. One is when I was a young man in high school [playing] in bands. Then in college I was looking to do music, trying to figure that out and did an internship in Nashville at a large distribution company that at the time owned some studios and I was having a hard time seeing myself in the industry. I mean I just saw it as kind of… for the lack of a better word, corrupt. I guess it seemed to be ruled by businessmen and I was trying to find the art in it. So I ended up getting married young and that was my first detour really; a…major detour where I kind of put that on a back shelf and worked every job I could to help support this young family that were starting out. [I was] trying to figure all that out and worked my way through it and eventually got more and more involved in the church and became involved musically in church. [I became] a worship leader and had a worship team on Sunday mornings. Then I did a small album but was it was more focused to a Christian audience. It was nothing commercial – that wasn’t really the focus. The focus was work. I started building a tech company doing software design and had folks working for me and we did a lot of fun stuff. Music was always kind of on the side or the back burner, you know what I mean? It wasn’t the focus. It wasn’t really until two years ago where I had gotten out of running my own business [when it became the focus]. I went to work for somebody else for six years [and] that was going well and then they went though some change. All the people that hired me were let go and then my day was not long after that. My whole team got wiped out then I was like, “What do I want to do? Do I really want to do this, or do I want to do what’s always been this passion of love that I’ve always had?” And that’s really [what] the last few years were like. We were just working as hard as we could and put out a great product and did some incredible shows trying to figure out how to lift this rocket off the ground.
So you are essentially a new artist even though you have been a musician for a very, very long time in the industry.
I would say so, yes. I would consider myself a new artist.
You have two solo records out – Poisons Sipped and Same Soil. You have a very wide range of things that you are able to accomplish vocally. This is one of the things that I really enjoy about your music, it doesn’t matter what setting you are getting into, you are able to just vocally, completely command it. Tell me about your vocal influences.
Growing up, it was listening to gospel music. I listened to a wide range of stuff but I remember listening to Andrae Crouch and BeBe and CeCe Winans and some great gospel music. But I remember hearing on the radio R&B and soul and everything from Motown all the way up through. I remember listening to Ray Charles, B.B. King, and blues and a little bit of Bill Withers even though I didn’t know who he was, I just knew a couple of his songs. I started listening to some guys, [thinking], “Man, they’re singing from some place deep.” That is what inspired me and that’s what I’d do in the shower. But I didn’t usually let that stuff out in public because it seemed a little out of place on this white country kid, like, “What am I doing trying to let myself out like that?” So it took me to pretty much be a grown man before I let myself off the hook and let myself be myself.
So when it comes to your vocal approach, when you sit down to cut a vocal or figure out what you want to do vocally, are you consciously drawing on people like Andrae Crouch and Marvin Gaye? Is it like that, or is it just how you feel?
It’s just how I feel. I can’t say that I consciously do it, [but] I’m sure that it happens. There’s a song that I wrote with my old band many years ago and that whole tune is just about all the influences that I have. It’s one of those things where I don’t think you always know, even though [you] do. I remember on my last album, the one before Poisons Sipped, I do remember singing a line and going, “That was so John Legend. What was all that about?’” And I recognized it. But sometimes it’s not really a conscious thing, I just try to sing what I feel, and what the lyrics and the emotion or even the moment is bringing out and however that happens, is how it happens.
Okay, so it’s just flowing and you’re just kind of being yourself with the music. What about songwriting? How does that come about?
It’s interesting. Songwriting has always come easy. I never felt like I had to reach too far for an idea. Ideas always come in. My phone right now is full of little messages to myself: here’s a line or a here’s hook – it’s just something that I’m hearing. I think where it becomes interesting is what happens with that idea. Every once in a while, a song comes out done. It just floats right out like it was pre-written and handed to me. But sometimes it’s like a concept or a feeling that I’m trying to communicate and with those I kind of have to let it come out when I’m ready. So I’ll run over the line and if something keeps going and I feel that there’s a flow, I’ll keep moving with it. If I feel that I’m hitting a stopping point, then I’ve learned not to force it because when I force those ideas, they never seem to stick with me. They feel like manufactured versus homegrown.
Talk to me a little bit about the progression from Poisons Sipped to Same Soil. You did one solo record that went pretty well. Does [your band] Miller and the Other Sinners happen in between and then Same Soil?
Poisons Sipped started off as just me trying to communicate what was going on in my life. It was something I felt I needed to do and I had no intention of releasing it other than just locally. I wasn’t going to try pushing it out in any fashion, but I wanted a producer because part of my struggle in releasing products is always trying to self-produce. I couldn’t figure out how to get past that initial recording. It just wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t capturing it and I would be hard on myself and it would never be released. So I found this producer, Jesse Miller, who is a wonderfully talented producer artist up here in Buffalo, and he listened to my stuff and he said, “Man, I know the rhythm section you’ve got to work with,” and he introduced me to Carlton Campbell and Darick Bennett of The Campbell Brothers. I wasn’t really familiar with those guys up to that point but as soon as I found out who they were, I dove in and listened and thought, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” We went to the studio and we tracked about eleven songs in about eleven hours. These guys just knew where I was coming from. It was amazing. I’ve never connected with a rhythm section in that way before – and I’ve had some great rhythm sections. It was on another level. Really, what happened is through the recording of that album and then having the Campbells’ say, “You have to get this out there. You need to do something with this.” As I started to go toward that we kind of started gelling into something and that something at first was David Michael Miller with members of The Campbell Brothers. Who wants to promote that? So it became Miller and the Other Sinners. As that band was forming, I also made an acquaintance with Mike Brown. He is the guy who recorded, engineered and co-produced Same Soil. He brought me down to his room. He’s got this killer studio called Temperamental Recordings and it’s been on American Pickers. He showed me his studio and I’m thinking, “I’ve got all this material that would work.” He was describing how he records and how he uses this minimum mic … and I’m thinking man the songs that I have and a couple that I want to write, together would be killer in this space. So that really is how that second album came about. At the same time, we started recording our first Miller and The Other Sinners EP. We now have about four songs that are close to done that I wrote that are kind of a continuation of Poisons Sipped with that feel and that kind of an arrangement. Working with Carlton Campbell from the Campbell Brothers to record so now we’re doing it together, producing it together and getting everybody in the same room and the same page. It’s a little harder because they’re all busy, so we’re trying to move together toward making Miller and the Other Sinners the big stage band. That’s the dream. I had the opportunity and I didn’t want to pass it up because I knew there would be a time frame in getting to the first note of the Miller and the Other Sinners album. So I took advantage of it and went in and we came out with this album. It feels pretty good. This was what I was looking for with these songs that were raw and were paying tribute to me as the foundation of what I do and how I do what I do, which is all blues and soul and kind of that old country where country and blues were walking down the same road together. That’s the stuff that really moves me and I wanted to do that and I wanted to bring that out in this album. Now we’re promoting that album and touring that album with the goal of introducing Miller and The Other Sinners. We’re playing material from both albums and what’s going to be on the new album and trying to get the people ready for the big thing.
The band that you worked with on Same Soil – is this The Campbell Brothers?
Only on a couple of songs. I kind of wanted it that way because I wanted the sound different since this was going to be – at least for a while I envisioned – my last solo record. The record’s going be moving on and it will be Miller and The Other Sinners and it would be more of a collaboration in those key players. In this album I picked musicians that I played with in Buffalo that I just felt were going to give the songs justice that would give me the feel that I had in my head. On some of the songs I used Robert “Freightrain” Parker who was just inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame a week or two ago. I also used Shannon Street. Shannon’s been drumming with me for the last six years and he’s started to play a lot with Bobby. And with the rhythm section, I kind of knew that for certain songs they’d give me a certain kind of feel. I did use Carlton Campbell from The Campbell Brothers on a few tunes: “Got Them Blues” and “If You Hear Me” and “Born to Lose.” And Ritchie Valentino because they’re a cool team for bass and drums that give a little bit of gospel flavor and funkify things just a little bit. I just knew that would work. I had the opportunity to work with my son, who actually in just a little bit we will be doing a rehearsal, and we have him play on, “Shoes to Shine,” he’s the drummer on that. And my nephew Nick Peterson is on that. Jim Ehinger is all across this album. Jim plays organ and keys on this. I’ve been working with Jim now for a while. If you look up his resume, it is amazing. He has toured with Bonnie Rait. He has toured with Albert Collins. You name an artist and he’s probably done shows with them, done sessions with them and it’s pretty incredible. I used a couple of saxophone players including Jason Moynihan and Barry Arborgast. When I can do the big band those two guys together is a show in itself. Mike Brown is on there playing some percussion and other instruments like banjo. A couple of bass players pitched in as well. There was a couple of moments like that that happened. For the most part these were guys we worked with in some capacity around here and I knew that they would add the right flavor to theses songs.
There’s some great guitar work on Same Soil. Are you playing the lead guitar?
Yes, I did all the guitars on the album; all the electric guitars, the acoustic. Obviously Mike Brown did some mandolin and some tenor banjo but other than that, I think I did everything else.
We talked about vocal influences, what about with the guitar? You’re obviously a dynamite guitar player as well.
Oh, well, thank you, well there’s a bunch of them. Obviously, I think it’d be silly to hear some of the stuff on there and not go, “Hey did you ever listen to Derek Trucks?” Derek’s a hero of mine, he just is. I actually made a fool out of myself with him the other night because we got back stage passes. I opened for him once in Buffalo a year ago. So we went back stage talked to the folks, talked to him and you know I always stick my foot in my mouth around him for some reason. He’s just a humble, wonderful dude and a monster (in my opinion) of phrasing. I can almost hear words when he plays. It’s incredible. He’s a big influence. And I learned a lot from jamming with the Campbells’ – Darick Campbell and Chuck Campbell and some of those guys… then trying to vocalize like that on my 335 you know, that’s kind of cool. But then I’ve listened to a bunch of guys. Joe Bonamassa was an influence on me for a while and I got the chance to open for him as well years ago. [He is] a guy who can pretty much play whatever he wants, stylistically. I love listening to B.B. [King], man, I really do. To this day, he’s quite a player but even in his simplicity …[it’s] the right notes, the right space, the right feel at that point in time. I’ve drawn from a lot of those guys and local guys. There is an incredible guitar player around here by the name of Tommy Z, whose last album was really great. I’ve learned a lot from watching him play and just trying to absorb it. But mostly I try to play like I sing. I try not to learn riffs. I just try to play what I would try to sing because I want it to be an extension of my voice.
You mentioned different things about the Buffalo scene. Could you talk a little bit about that? From what I hear, there are some very cool things happening in the Buffalo music scene.
Oh absolutely. We’ve got a strong blues society here – the Western New York Blues Society. There’s a lot of cool events – not just blues, there’s all kinds of music happening in Buffalo. I travel a lot …and [when you’re traveling] you can go into a really great club on a weekend and you can hear that band, that killer weekend band, and go, “Man, they’re good.” If you come to Buffalo on a Tuesday night for an open mic, that’s what you’ll hear. That’s a Tuesday night open mic band. We’ve got a lot of incredible, talented music and an incredibly nurturing music scene here in Buffalo – people jamming with each other. There are so many gigs: you can work a lot in Buffalo as a musician and that’s great because you can sit in with guys and learn on the job and I really think that’s where great music happens: where you get inspired by the guy next to you while you are on stage. And so we have a lot of that going on. I call it the “Austin of the North.” I think we get paid a little bit better, but it’s that kind of a thing [where] you know you can pick a night and there’s a dozen clubs that have great music. You just go to one and enjoy it. That’s the Buffalo scene.
Well, David you’re not just hanging out in Buffalo – you are doing some touring. Tell us about the tour – what’s the band, is this Miller and the Other Sinners? Where are you going to be touring?
We’re taking a few of the Sinners. We’re doing a four-piece band and tomorrow we head out to Pittsburgh and we’re doing some shows through Pennsylvania and come back up to Central New York the following week. Then we’re heading down again to Pennsylvania, and we’ll work toward the Philly area then to Northern Virginia, and then a few weeks later, we head out for a five-week tour that’s taking us out to 14 states. We are heading out to the Midwest. We are opening for Shemekia Copeland on one of those dates, but we’re heading out through Illinois and Iowa and Kansas, Denver, New Mexico, Phoenix, Utah, back through Kansas and Tennessee and Ohio and home. We’re all over the place for five weeks, which I’m really excited about. Even beyond that we’re booking right now on the East Coast and then down into Florida in January and February because, hey, I live in Buffalo – it’s nice to get out during that time of the year.
So there’s a method to the touring schedule, I see. There’s some ulterior motives here.
Completely self-serving – no question about it.
Okay, David, that’s pretty much it. Is there anything you would like to add or promote or talk about here before we wrap up?
Well you know I just think that obviously we all know that the music industry is in a weird spot. We’re all trying to figure out how to make it work. I have respect for anybody who is trying to figure it out. We still need people to support our music, both our live shows and maybe pick up an album… because that is still a part of the picture. That’s how we try to do it. So we encourage folks to not forget about your local musicians who are throwing it down and offering their CDs up at gigs. Take advantage of it and try to help them make more art.
Interview by Lou Lombardi