Record Heads: No other label boss has done more for electronic music than Daniel Miller

Meet the man that has given us Mute Records since releasing his own single as The Normal in 1978

If you’re going to have dinner with Daniel Miller, do your research first. “I refuse to go to a restaurant with music – what the fuck, you know? A restaurant forcing me to listen to music is like me forcing a chef to eat my food.” Thank God Mute Records invited me to their pretty inhouse studio to talk face to face with their founder, and that we are sitting in silence. Behind me are four of the finest synthesisers in the UK; one was Gary Numan’s another Depeche Mode’s. In front of me sits Miller, a fine sartorial sight, spectacled and smart with his welcoming baritone voice echoing around the sound proof room. “It is important to me to always have a studio close or in the building for a number of reasons,” he says. “One, it brings the artist and the label closer together, which I think is important, and I think just from a convenience point of view, we are working upstairs rather than across town, so it’s easier for me to have a listen, but I also want a creative space.” Miller smiles warmly as we turn to take it all in. “It has always been a part of Mute, this is the way we work.”

Daniel and Mute have a clear methodology, which is no surprise for a label formed in 1978. And yet Mute remains relevant in 2014, risky, even. “I didn’t know anything about the industry back then and I didn’t know how to do things, I just knew what I thought was right and so it’s quite important to try and keep that sort of naivety or innocence as much as possible…” Miller tells me, who’s thoughtful in conversation, with an enduring enthusiasm for what he does. “I know a lot more now, but I am trying to preserve some of that innocence or amateurism, if you want to call it that, really. Not cynical industry, you know. I am learning all the time, but I am trying not to learn too much.”

36 years ago Miller knew very little, and with a single he recorded himself as The Normal he strolled into Rough Trade Records. “The idea was to try and sell them a box of singles or something,” he says. “I didn’t have a concept of distribution and I played it to Geoff (Travis) in the backroom where the warehouse was and I really couldn’t tell if they liked it or not and then afterwards they were sort of muttering to each other and they said we would like to distribute it for you… so I said what does that mean?’ Miller chuckles at the memory. “Then they asked how many I was going to press, I said 500 as that was the minimum you could do, but they said we think you can sell 2,000 so go and press 2,000 and they gave me a little bit of an advance on the distribution so that was it really.”

Just like that, Mute was born, a label that in today’s market is often credited as being the first indie. If it wasn’t quite so dark in the studio I could swear Daniel was blushing. “I don’t think we were, sorry; we were part of a group of labels who started at roughly the same time, like Factory, 4AD, Beggars and Rough Trade. Actually Rough Trade records had just started and I bought the first single that came out on Rough Trade, which was Paris Maquis by Metal Urbaine, which I loved, a French electro punk band, and I used the label. I thought, well, it’s Rough Trade so they must know what they are doing, so I looked at their label and their sleeve and I just copied some of the information.”

So RT001 may have been the technical template but Miller has always been an innovator and Mute Records is his creative mirror. The sonic experimentation of his first release polarized those who heard it. He explains: “The first person who heard my single was the cutting engineer. I won’t say who it was but he said don’t give up your day job, which is fine because he was an old hippy, so if he thought that, then I knew I was on the right track. Then I remember a big moment for me was the women at the pressing plant listening to the record, they were middle aged ladies who were listening to endless records, one day it was a punk rock then next it could be a pop record, they were just listening for crackles and pops, you know, and she said to me, ‘that was interesting, we haven’t heard anything like that before,’ so that was nice.”

In 1978, Miller was taking his first steps as a pioneer in electronic music, and everyone, including those at Rough Trade, thought he would and should continue with Mute. Miller himself wasn’t too sure, and tells me: “My intention was not to start a record label. I was going to put out one record and that was going to be it, so I spent quite a lot of time thinking what’s next.” What came next was a likeminded artist called Fad Gadget, a project named Silicon Teens and US noisemaker NON, all of who were precursors to the labels turning point in 1980, with the arrival of Depeche Mode. “I saw Depeche for the first time play at the Bridge House, towards the end of 1980 in Canning Town, and then we decided to work together, to put out a single, nothing more than that.” Daniel’s excitement and demeanour subtly changes when I ask if he knew what he was onto – if he saw the commercial potential.

“I definitely didn’t think I could boost my label to the next level no, that wasn’t really part of my agenda at all,” he says. “The bigger decision at the time for the label was when we decided to release albums, as with Fad Gadget. I just thought, wow, this is an amazing band. I was a pop fan though and I understood that Depeche made great pop music, in an unusual way perhaps for the time and they were very young but I couldn’t believe what I heard when I first saw them in terms of the songs, the way they were arranged.”

And how does an intuitive independent label deal with the acceleration a band like Depeche Mode gives you in business terms?

“It’s a big jump and you suddenly realise you are responsible for other peoples careers and you have to be more serious about it. Well, I was always serious about it but you had to make sure that things got done. Also, none of these people had contracts so they were in a position that they could leave at any time, but they put their trust in me and I wanted to make sure that I did the best job possible with them whoever it was. That was very much the case with Depeche.”

Hang about, no contracts? Mute Records were one of the first labels to work on a 50/50 split, a model still used today by self starters and true indies and Miller’s rightly proud of this artist friendly set up. “Literally, in the first five years of Mute I didn’t speak to one lawyer or one manager,” he says. “The bands came in and we didn’t do contracts, we did profit share deals. The first contract coincided with the first time we worked with a manager. It was just a new experience, that was all, and I realised that that was where it was going.”

So things got big quick but Daniel Miller’s roots remained. After producing his first single on a 4 track tape recorder and working closely with Frank Tovey of Fad Gadget, the Mute boss slowly became proficient in the studio and his artists harnessed that know how. “When Depeche came along it was the same thing again,” he remembers. “I was getting better at programming synthesizers so we just learnt together; I helped them along with that and I ended up co-producing their first 5 albums, but nowadays I am not really into record production. What I like is intervening at certain points in more an A&R role which is usually the beginning the middle and the end leaving out everything in between. I don’t force myself on the situation but hopefully people welcome me in to that part of the process.”

Throughout the ’80s, Mute effortlessly surfed between success (with bands like Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Erasure) and working with such prophetic, cutting edge labels as Blast First (home to Sonic Youth, Big Black and Dinosaur Jr). It was these joint ventures that allowed Miller to explore his broad musical tastes and working with a fresh new label called Rhythm King would give him his first number one single. “I realised there was a whole new world of music that I hadn’t really been paying attention to through all my time with Depeche. Rhythm King was run by two guys at that time – James Horrocks and Martin Heath. I liked the music but they were the experts – there is a real difference. I can tell when it’s good but somebody needs to tell me that one is slightly better than that one, so we started the label, which ended up with Bomb the Bass, S’Express, which went to number 1, and Betty Boo. I mean, it became a pop label; it became a pop label because dance became pop at the time.”

Then came Britpop and a challenging time for a left-field label like Mute.

“That was totally alien to my sensibilities,” says Miller. “It was everything that I didn’t get into the music business for, do you know what I mean? To me it was like moving backwards and all I wanted to do was move forwards. The music media and mainstream media, there was just no room for any other music. New Labour, Britpop, I just hated all of it, you know, and it was a tricky time for us, partly because I didn’t sign very much and partly because of the bands we had signed didn’t fit into that space towards the end of the ’90s. Apart from Depeche, who kept going, we didn’t have a lot.”

The cavalry arrived in the form of an artist that Daniel stuck by through thick and thin, despite having just released a punk album that had alienated his dance audience. “Moby happened and ‘Play’ sold 10 million records. That turned things around for me and for the label… and for Moby. We just stuck to our guns really and I didn’t want to get caught up in that, because I thought it was pretty awful… listen there was some good songs in the ’90s, no question about that, and there were some pretty good bands, but generally, as a whole movement, I thought Britpop was terrible and I wasn’t interested.”

A huge seller, ‘Play’ was an LP that opened up doors for Mute and Miller entertained working with a major for the first time. His longstanding relationship with the president of EMI Continental Europe, Emmanuel de Buretel, led to a controversial takeover. “He saw Mute as being part of EMI but working outside,” Daniel tells me. “I cant remember if he used this word or not but he didn’t want our label to be infected by EMI. He wanted us to learn from EMI and for him to learn from Mute and we could just carry on doing what we do so it was a really good deal and it was a nice environment to work in.”

Miller insisted, as ever, that his label would have their own studio at EMI, but what happened wasn’t part of the masterplan. “I think the space that we were allotted was the post room or something, so we really needed to have studio space so a friend of ours who does a lot of live work and has got a fleet of live trucks had a spare one. Fuck knows how that happens but we rented it off him and we parked it in the car park in EMI and we just worked in the corner for a couple of years. It was great and EMI used it too so it worked for everyone, although a lot of people didn’t know what it was and when they heard it was a studio they couldn’t quite believe it!”

Mute has been independent once again since 2010, and the company seems to be untainted by the experience. “Yeah we are much better off now,” Miller nods. “I realised when I left that it was very hard to get things done there that were slightly out of the ordinary. I always wanted to try new ways of doing things and there was a huge amount of bureaucracy to get a decision made for anything [at EMI] and I kind of got worn down a bit by that to be honest. When I left and I had the freedom to do what I wanted, I realised I was censoring myself and that is one of the worst feelings you can have.”

Now Mute Records have once again embraced their independence, just like before they have their own studio and have maintained their visionary status. We rise, shake hands and part but not before Daniel tells us he’s got plenty more to say. For a man whose label retains such celestial artists as Nick Cave whilst pushing forward with the likes of Liars, it’s no surprise to hear that.