PROFILE: Allow Adam Miller To Be Your Guitar Meditation Guru
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
The Chromatics founder talks to us about his first solo album Gateway, his personal guitar idols and meeting David Lynch
Written By Ryan, Transcribed By Troy
(The following article is an abridged and editorialized version of an hour plus conversation that I had with Adam Miller. If you'd prefer to listen to that, it is available on Spotify within this article, and on Apple Music here )
The concept of "guitar mediations" is one that most people on Earth are likely familiar with, even if they have never heard of that term. The slow crawling opening to Metallica's "One" is a one of my favorite examples. With no lyrical hints or nods, and before drums even have a chance to interject, Kirk Hammett is telling a vibrant, slightly jaded but still bright little tale of his own. It's rhythmic, it's explorative, it's all things at once. Maybe a more direct and niche example would be odd and colorful work of the 20th century masters The Durutti Column, a band I was unaware of until speaking to Mr. Adam Charles Miller. When I was a college freshman sweatily looking up bands like Chromatics and Glass Candy on YouTube to impress a crush, I never would've anticipated that the former would become an all-time favorite of mine. Going even further, I never thought I would have an interaction with either band, never mind a friendly discourse. I guess that's the one good thing about Instagram, it really is the connective tissue between dreamy fandom and for lack of a better term, making shit happen.
I have been in casual correspondence with Adam Miller (Chromatics guitarist and founder) since last year. Since we first spoke, the group has sadly disbanded and has split off to pursue various solo projects. Singer Ruth Radlet released a cover of an Elliot Smith track, Nat Walker teamed up with Ida No of Glass Candy to form the new band Fawn, and production wizard Johnny Jewel is forging ahead with his cult electronic label Italians Do It Better. Not to spoil the conversation I had with him, but many people are unaware that like New York's Dirty Projectors, Chromatics started with just one man, Adam Miller. So for Miller to be left to his own devices, just him and his guitar once again, feels deeply poetic. As a result, the music on his first ever solo LP, Gateway, has this assured calm to it. Tracks like "Night Bloom" and "Blue Energy" feel like night drives through an infinite road, while more traditional guitar cuts like "Hologram" are almost ritualistic in their intensity. No vocals, just small vignettes projected directly onto your soul.
With that being said, the timing couldn't be better to speak to Miller about a plethora of subjects. It's clear from the music that he creates that he's at a point in his life where reflection is deeply important. By this, I don't mean that he's living in the past, quite the opposite actual. Miller has been through it all, passed the checkpoints of what one would call "success" in the music industry. Now, he is focused on more important endeavors, like making music without artificial commercial considerations like streams or movie placements. This is Adam Miller, by Adam Miller, for Adam Miller. A pure artistic expression by someone with a deep passion and purpose, full stop.
Ryan: When did you learn how to play guitar? Like, when was the first time you picked up a guitar?
Adam Miller: In sixth grade, which was like 1991.. But I was lucky because my cousin was, maybe eight years older than me. And he was in a band in the D.C. area. He was kind of connected with the Discord people and Positive Force. I can't really describe positive force, but their name describes it, like they are doing positive things in the community and it was associated with Discord. He was in this band called Blinds, then he went on to be in this band called Godhead. They had this gothy cover of Eleanor Rigby in like 1998 that was kind of popular. They did pretty well in Germany, my cousin made a living, he still makes a living off of music. But before all that, in his early 20s, his band would come through on tour and stay at my parent's house. And I'm like 13, my cousin's like 21/22, and I'm just like, "How do you play Smells Like Teen Spirit"?
Ryan: That's always how you start playing, right? I tried to pick up guitar, like in fifth or sixth grade, and all I wanted to do was play My Chemical Romance. Don't teach me this fucking Beethoven.
Adam Miller: Yeah, exactly. I did take guitar lessons for a little while, some classical lessons. But the teacher actually stopped teaching me because he told my mom he didn't want to teach me anymore because I wasn't practicing. If I was a teacher, I probably would have fired me as well. I took classical lessons again for a teeny bit, maybe like 10 years ago. And it was really mind expanding. Just [the teacher] showing me all the things that I was doing wrong with my hand position from a lifetime of just doing things in my own weird way.
Ryan: It's interesting how you've been known as a guitarist for such a long time. Fans even consider you an iconic guitarist, and you're still learning new things and learning foundations.
Adam Miller: I think that anybody who just wants to always be learning new things, and expanding. Even with the classical lessons that I had for that two month period like 10 years ago. I know it still helps me out. It helped me to re-think the guitar in a different way. Because I had never really considered using different notes. I used to think of a guitar sort of, like a block of sound. Whereas now, after playing and taking the classical lessons. I was able to see it more like a piano is laid out, with the lower part and the higher part.
Ryan: So scales? That kind of stuff?
Adam Miller: Well I don't know any scales. That was one of the reasons why I stopped too. [The teacher] wanted me to learn how to play music, and I just wanted to do band stuff. The band was on tour a lot. So it was really hard for me to stick with lessons consistently. I also don't know how to read music, I've always played by ear. I tried to do it for like a half an hour, but I was like, I cannot. I just don't use it at all. I just don't get it. I don't relate to it. I don't want to do it. I mean people can do it and do it really great. It just didn't speak to me, I guess.
Ryan: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Going more into something relevant to Chromatics. If I'm not mistaken, Chromatics started as a solo project, with the song "Beach of Infants". Is that true?
Adam Miller: Yeah, I had done a tape beforehand that I only made like 20 or 30 copies. I think it had "Beach of Infants" on it too. "Beach of Infants" was the first song I ever wrote for Chromatics though, so yeah, it did sort of start as a solo project. I've always wanted to include other people in the band. I was in another band before, and it was really frustrating. Like the songwriting process, it would be like five of us in a room, and everybody had an opinion on what needed to be done. But in my opinion. I mean, I think the music that we made is neat now, but at the time it felt like too many cooks in the kitchens sort of thing. For myself, I was just like, I had my four track and I had a drum machine. I just started writing music on my own and I was like, Man, I like this so much better than what my other band is working on, and like we don't have to sit and try to convince somebody for two hours that we can do things this way. So it did start as sort of a solo project, and then it sort of morphed. I never played solo by myself. It was like, my friend, Michelle and I. Then she joined and then my friend Devin, then Devin and Michelle, and I, and then Devin and Hannah and I. There've been lots of people after that, but then it kind of really settled into the lineup in 2006 that people kind of know.
Ryan: Yeah, Johnny. All of them. I wanted to ask you also, I know that you link edback up with Dave Gardner.I know he mastered the first single, right? Did he also master the entire new album?
Adam Miller: Yeah, Dave is just such a great guy. He's one of those people that loves to pass on knowledge to people and he's always been so helpful. I mean, ever since I was like 15 going to shows, I'd go see his bands. He was really more into recording and mastering. I think he was the engineer and/or mastering engineer at Amphetamine Reptile. Do you know what that is? Like, Helmet?
Ryan: Oh, sure. Yeah, it's like a punk rock label. Of course.
Adam Miller: He worked there for a while, and he was just always really helpful. He would give all my friends and I help. He helped record vocals for an old band that I was in at a really nice studio, like totally for free. I love Dave. He lives in LA now. He's continued on his path, and now he's a very professional mastering engineer. So when I'm starting a new step in my life, I go back and touch base with somebody who was so helpful to me back then. It just sort of felt like the right thing to do.
Ryan: Yeah, that makes sense. He's like the master of mastering right?
Adam Miller: Yeah. Yeah, he just mastered all the Bad Brains reissues that was pretty cool. It's pretty cool to just get to have friends that just do cool stuff like that, you know?
Ryan: Definitely. I wanted to ask you, It’s really quite interesting to view your career as a sort of sonic journey. From the post-punk of The Vogue, onto the straight up punk of Chromatics phase 1, then kind of funk and pastel daydreams and cinematic stylings of Chromatics phase 2, and now onto your brand new solo album, Gateway. Your guitar has kind of been the creative link, with each progressive stage getting softer and more abstract. How would you describe your sound palette in 2022, and why is now the time to give the world that sound palette with Gateway?
Adam Miller: Well I think as an artist, I just try to do what feels right for me. I really love instrumental music, my tastes have kind of drifted towards that. Especially more in the past five or six years. I wanted to make a record that sort of continued on in the lineage of things that I liked. It wasn't trying to be anything other than me being honest, raw, exposed and very minimal. As long as I can, step out there and just be myself, and don't try to be anybody else. I think that there's obvious reference points, you can tell that I'm a big Durutti Column fan, you can tell that I'm a big Maurice Deebank fan, you can tell I love Asha Temple and stuff. But all those people are like, way, way beyond my skill level. It's like those people are just virtuosos. I tried to make my own sort of DIY interpretation of that based on my limitations. Because for me, I know that emotion is the most important thing over technique.
Ryan: It makes you unique in that way, let's say, you did all those classical lessons, and you tried to be in their shadow and tried to be a virtuoso too, you're just gonna end up with making the music that they make. And then what's the point, right?
Adam Miller: Yeah, I know that I have my own point of view. When I was younger, I definitely wanted to be like other people. I definitely was just like, “Man, why can't I just be like, The Fall or something?” I think when you're younger, it's easier to do that. I feel more secure in myself now. So I'm fine with myself.
R: Yeah, be your own guitar hero.
AM: Oh, yeah. Maybe not hero, but my own guitar guy.
Ryan: Now going into these two singles so having listened to both singles, “Night Bloom” and “Erosion” many times, what I can gather is that the record is 18 phases, motifs, and moods. What particular mood were you trying to convey with each of these two songs? Maybe for "Night Bloom," for instance.
Adam Miller: That song in particular, it was very strange how I came up with it. I had written a piece of music that I really liked, I thought that the music was good, but I just found the presentation of it wasn't good enough. I didn't like the rhythm of it, and t just sounded a little derivative. So what I ended up doing was play like these kind of long drones with the guitar with volume swells. And I just sort of played on top of this track that had drums, and it had a drum machine and, obviously, guitar on it. So I played the drone over it. And then I played another drone over it. And as I was playing the drones. When I played the second drone, I didn't listen to the first drone. And then what I did was, I pulled all the music out, except for the drones. And so the drones weren't even recorded, they were responding to each other. The bass was kind of removed out of it. "Bass" meaning like bass level, not like bass frequency. And when I did that, I was like, Whoa, this is awesome. Like, I'm into this. Then I slowed the tape down, and just gave it a heavier sort of feel. And I'm really happy with the way that it turned out. It has kind of an emotional character too.
R: I'm definitely excited to meditate to the album when it comes out. I do transcendental meditation now and again. Are you into meditation?
Adam Miller: Yeah, so I meditate every day. My wife went on a silent 10 day meditation retreat. And it pretty much just changed her life for the better. So they have an app, and it's a man saying very few words, and he's just telling you just, pay attention to your nostrils, that's all you're supposed to do. And it's very helpful for me to focus. When I notice that my thoughts start to drift towards something else, I'm just like, pay attention to the breath, your nostrils or whatever, it just brings my mind back. I feel like a lot of Gateway was sort of recorded kind of like guitar meditations. Like a lot of times, I'll just wake up and I'll start recording something. I'll just play guitar for like 10 minutes, half an hour, and I just kind of record it directly to CD. And when the CD fills up, I import it into my computer. And just put it in a playlist, I don't even listen to it. Then maybe like a year later, I'll listen to it and then I'll just sort of put it on in the background. I'll be like, “Oh, this is pretty cool.” Or like, “this is not good” or whatever. I can listen to it with more critical ears. So then for Gateway, I turned a lot of that stuff that I recorded that was just raw and improvised into the album. But that's also how a lot of Chromatics songs kind of came out. A lot of times it was just me with a drum machine and a guitar that was the basis for a lot of songs.
Ryan: "Dust To Dust" is one of my favorite Chromatics songs. Is that like a similar kind of thing? Because that's a very guitar centric track.
Adam Miller: That one is. There's a lot of collage stuff. But the guitar stuff definitely came out of stuff like that, for sure. Definitely. No doubt. Funny you say that, I'm sure I could dig up the demo somewhere where that melody came out of. So it's sort of just like a melody notebook or something.
Ryan: What I love about Chromatics music since you're like open to talking about it a little bit. You and Ruth almost duet with your guitar, and her vocals. Your tones are so unique. I don't know how to say it but they hit my brain in a certain way. To go a little bit back into your influences, and the song "Dust To Dust". The song “Red Indians” reminded me of that a lot actually.
Adam Miller: Yeah, man. That song is awesome. I love that song. If you listen to that song and you listen to Metallica and "Nothing Else Matters", [it has a similar quality to it]. I wonder if Metallica took influence from that. But I mean, Maurice Deebank was a classical player. So it's probably kind of like a very classical motif. And I think Kirk Hammett is like a classically trained guitar player. But definitely those old Metallica records when they have like the pretty guitar parts that stuff has always been a really big influence on me. I mean, I love Metallica period, the opening of "One" that's so good man. So good.
Ryan: Honestly, that's my favorite part of their shit too. Before it gets crazy and the solo starts ripping. It's like "Welcome Home Sanitarium", "Fade To Black", guitar meditations of that sort. It's great to hear that you were influenced by that because "Dust To Dust" rings to me. It reminds me of Metallica, in a great way.
Adam Miller: Interesting. Yeah, I would have no I would have never put that one together. But now that you say it, I can see that for sure. I would love to hear Kirk Hammett's notebook. I heard that he records a bunch of stuff into his phone all the time. Like little riffs. I bet there's so much amazing music in there.
Ryan: So continuing more with music you were influenced by, I was also listening to some Robert Smith of The Cure. The song, "A Reflection" is something that definitely reminds me of your playing and the kind of music that you're trying to make. As far as guitar meditations go, would you say that's accurate?
Adam Miller: Yeah, that song has always been a big influence on me as well. I love that song so much. I always have. I love the space of those early Cure albums. I just think they're so fantastic. I mean, I love most Cure albums, but especially Seventeen Seconds and Faith. Those recordings really do sound like another sort of dimension or something. It sounds out of this world. It doesn't sound like it exists in this world.
Ryan: Yeah, I love the gothy era. Like Cocteau Twins, and stuff like that is something I really love. Their guitar tones don't remind me of Chromatics but it's the same kind of thing, like the guitar meditations and the opening of let's say, like, "Heaven or Las Vegas" or something. I could see that as a guitar meditation now that you brought this guitar meditation thing into the play. I kind of see it in a lot of music that I love.
Adam Miller: I could sit and listen to the intro of "Heaven or Las Vegas" over and over and over again and just listen to that. The rest of the song is just as amazing. But I really love Robin Guthrie's guitar playing for sure. I liked some of his solo records too. I haven't heard all of them. But everything that I've heard is pretty amazing. Actually, they're kind of more similar to what we're talking about with guitar meditation style, sort of like drifty soundscapey stuff that's really really good.
Ryan: And then Durutti Column was an obvious influence. I didn't know this band before you introduced them to me, but I've been listening to them a fair amount. And "Love No More" is one of the songs that kind of reminded me of your stuff a little bit.
Adam Miller: That's kind of a later era. I like the later era stuff, too. I haven't listened to it as much. My favorite one of theirs is LC, it's their second album. But pretty much everything that they do is great. I love Durutti Column, they're just fantastic. It's like one of those bands that I had always heard of, and I could never find the records anywhere and then when I found LC in 2004, my mind was so blown because I just can't believe how much mileage he gets out of just one guitar and six strings. It's pretty incredible.
Ryan: Going into your Instagram. I'd be remiss not to talk about your different experiences based on some things you posted. First off, I want to talk about how you played a show with The Fall in 2003.
Adam Miller: I don't even know how, maybe we knew the promoter, and they asked us to open up. They knew that we were Fall fans, and thought that this would be a good combination. It was really fun. I mean, it was really cool to see. I feel really privileged that we got to play a show with them. It was kind of like a dark vibe from them. It didn't seem like it was a very happy atmosphere. But that's just sort of my impression as an outsider. I know bands can have their own weird ecosystems, and maybe they're just having a bad day.
Ryan: Yeah, it’s interesting meeting people that you're deeply inspired by. You get this idea of a person in your head, or you think meeting them is gonna be like this or that. And then you meet them.
Adam Miller: I know what you mean. I've had experiences like that before, too. I've just tried to look at everybody as just a person, I don't really put people that I admire, like, their creative work, and put a person on a pedestal. It's kind of easy to do that. Because if you really like their music or whatever it's easy to project a lot of things onto them. But at the end of the day, they're just a person, just like you and me, so they're going to be subjected to the same peaks and valleys or faults or whatever. So I've never learned to not hold anything like that against somebody.
Ryan: That's fair. Moving onto the next question, Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel. And obviously, the Karl Lagerfeld brand, you were able to talk to him for like a moment, right?
Adam Miller: Yeah, it was really unique and ird and surreal and fun, just like another sort of once in a lifetime thing. We didn't really talk to him that long, but it was just sort of funny. It was photo op time and he was like, “I think you will go very far. I think your music is… It is divine!” It was kind of like a caricature of what somebody would say, but I mean, it's Karl Lagerfeld, so that was awesome. You know what I mean? It was really cool to talk to him, we got to give them this sort of art book. Like, art books/lyric books, when Kill For Love came out, just a very small like Kinkos small run. And I was able to give Karl some because the drawings that I had done in them were inspired by a lot of fashion stuff. I don't know if he ever looked at it or whatever. He gave it to his handler. But, you know, maybe he revisited it. I wish I could talk to him some more. He seemed like an interesting guy, but he's no longer here.
Ryan: Yes R.I.P. to the fashion legend. Absolutely. There’s one more legend that I want to mention, David Lynch. It's just so crazy to me that Chromatics, number one, were on the show. You guys are pretty much like the Julee Cruise of that episode essentially. Can you tell me a bit about the whole photoshoot and what I saw like a banquet or something like that you guys are playing at, the whole experience. Maybe you could tell me how that came about and maybe what meeting David Lynch was like a little bit?
Adam Miller: Well all the Bang Bang Bar scenes were shot on a weekend in this place in Pasadena. David Lynch was just very nice and really gracious. The Cactus Blossoms recorded their bit before us. And then we went up there. He was like, “Hi, I'm David, what's your name?” With his hand outstretched. “Adam.” “Adam, nice to meet you.” And then he goes around to the rest of the band and does the exact same thing and names all of us. He's like, “Are you guys all ready to work today?” And we're like, “yeah.” Then he goes, “good deal!” And then we just did it and shot it. I think we did one or two takes of “Shadow”, one of “Saturday”, and then some other people shot and then we shot with Julee Cruise. In the second last episode or the last episode, she has a band behind her, that's us. Alex from that band, Dirty Beaches was in it playing saxophone. That was really cool. And then we played at the opening premiere, after they showed it at the Ace Hotel in downtown LA. We played it. The party was at Clifton's Cafeteria. We played a few songs for the private party there, which was pretty cool. That was really neat. And I think we took another picture with him there. I said hi to him. He's very approachable and friendly in that way. It's just that I didn't really want to bother him. I had nothing else to say other than to just be gracious and thank him for the opportunity. And I'm still grateful for it. Because it's definitely exposed a lot of people to our music, it's sort of now immortalized in the season.
Ryan: Super iconic, especially playing by Julee Cruise.
Adam Miller: Yeah, that was really cool, and after the party, this woman who was in just like one scene, she was this Hollywood actress. She got really, really, really blackout drunk. And we ended up giving her a ride home in like West Hollywood. I somehow figured out what her name was. And then afterwards, I sort of Googled or searched her, and she was in the original Ghoulies. Do you remember that movie? That was pretty trippy to me, because that VHS cover used to scare the hell out of me at the video store when I was a kid with a ghoulie popping out of the toilet. It's just so iconic. So that was really weird. Kind of worlds colliding. That night was pretty weird. Los Angeles is a weird place.
Ryan: Absolutely, it's one of the strangest places I've been (laughs). And then the last person I want to talk about a little bit. Maybe it's like a sensitive topic. But I want to talk a little bit about Ruth Radelet because I know that you guys have a really close relationship. So how did you guys first meet and what have you learned from her over the years?
Adam Miller: I think I met Ruth. She may have had a Chromatics show in 2002. Or maybe a time before then. I basically just view Ruth as like my sister. She's the sister Natty (Miller's Brother, drummer for Chromatics) and I never had so I love Ruth so much. We talk a lot. I've definitely learned a lot from her, she's very solid in her values. And it's pretty inspiring. And so I feel just really lucky to be in her life and be her friend. She's definitely like a lifelong friend. Like my parents love her. We can talk about anything. We don't always agree on everything, but that's fine. That's sort of like the brother/sister dynamic. We still work on music together. Right now, it's just sort of fun exploring and trying new things. I really love the music that we worked on together. It will come out one day, we're just not sure what we're gonna do with it yet. We're just sort of like sitting on it till whenever it feels right.
Ryan: Are you talking about Chromatics or just you and Ruth?
Adam Miller: Just Ruth and Natty and I. We just share ideas a lot. Or it'd be like, I sent her a song to see if she could write some vocals to it. I don't like to use the word “killed it” because it has too much association of toxic masculinity to me, but yeah. I mean, she sent it into outer space. I'll tell you that. I couldn't believe how awesome it was. So we're gonna do something with that eventually, but she's working on her stuff. She'll send me music and just ask for my opinion, or I'll send her my music and ask for her opinion. Same with Natty, same with Ida from Glass Candy. It's just trying to be like a supportive environment and just try to help each other whatever way we can. I would definitely be a different person if Ruth was not such a big part of my life. I'm really grateful for her.