Hailing from London, this UK-based alternative rock group, The Miller Test, have an infectious, energetic and highly engaging sound. We speak with the band about their debut album This Funk Is Political, future plans and much more.
How was The Miller Test formed?
It’s all a bit hazy. Some of us have been playing together for a quarter of a century, having come together from the remnants of a handful of 90s groups, including trip-hop band Ruby and ramshackle indie-country outfit The Tin Apes. The Miller Test have just kept on writing and playing together – crazy to think This Funk Is Political is the first time we’ve seriously looked to record anything.
One prompt for this was Emma (vocals) joining the band a couple of years back. She’s someone we’ve known forever, but then she and Mink (vocals, guitar) got together and we realised she had the voice we’d been looking for… all a bit Fleetwood Mac, really. We’d always wanted to get a richer sound and Em’s range of vocals have helped us find something we think is truly unique.
What about the band name? How did you come up with The Miller Test?
The Miller Test is the US Supreme Court’s assessment of whether or not material is obscene and therefore not subject to first amendment protections. A couple of friends were watching a documentary about it and called up Mink to tell him this had to be the band name. We agreed.
Can you tell us about your debut album This Funk Is Political?
The first thing to say is it’s not a funk album. Though there are funky bits, there are as many thrash bits, pop bits, gospel bits, etc. This band likes to shapeshift and the songs seem to require it.
So why the title? For one thing, like Nancy and Lee said of Some Velvet Morning, the words just rhyme in our heads. For another, funk is a nice old word with lots of interesting archaic meanings, mostly to do with irritably blowing smoke in other people’s faces. As a description of a particular state of mind, well, it feels like there’s much to be in a funk about right now, politically speaking. As wars sold on media lies fail to prop up a precarious imperial world order, an increasingly Orwellian state is literally making it hard to breathe.
The best protest songs, like Woody Guthrie’s, or Bob Dylan’s, or Waylon Jennings’, are less about big ideas than about the people affected by them. That’s what we were trying to do with This Funk Is Political. The track ‘Cola Mambo’ is about the oil wars, but it’s told through the eyes of the squaddies fighting them. While ‘Bigger Soul’ tackles terrorism and the extremes people will go to, it’s also a love story with a kitchen sink-setting, like something from early Scott Walker or Morrissey. The idea for ‘Better Than You’ came at an anti-Trump rally in Trafalgar Square, but the song describes the dreamlike carnival atmosphere that consumes the narrator rather than going for the obvious target.
What was the writing and recording process like?
We’ve been writing songs for as long as we’ve been together, so we had a lot of material, much of it pretty polished, or as polished as we get. Matt (guitar, keys) likes to follow Eno in that you should never do the first thing you think of. You can hear that thinking in a song like ‘Up, Down, Sideways and Strange’ which we’ve attacked in all kinds of ways over the years – banjos, violins, you name it – before hitting on the arrangement you hear on the record. Yet there are also songs like ‘Better Than You’ which was improvised out of a jam in a couple of sessions just a few weeks before we went into the studio.
So while some of the songs on the record were written a while back, this wasn’t a curatorial exercise. Even with the older stuff, there was still loads of improvisation, new ideas, new discoveries. Ramsgate’s Big Jelly Studios is a big old church full of weird old kit, the perfect place to work like that, and in John Winfield, we had a fantastic producer who totally got it.
Not too many producers are also vocalists, but that’s the case with John and it made a world of difference to the sound of This Funk Is Political. Em and Mink, along with guest vocalist Catherine Earnshaw, spent a load of time at John’s place in Broadstairs working on harmonies, as well as all the squeals, yelps, grunts and groans. Um, yeah, the human story is never far away in The Miller Test.
Which is your favourite single?
Sam: ‘Better Than You’ – it came together very quickly and is a very simple but effective song.
Matt: Yeah, ‘Better Than You’, for the same reasons…or ‘House of Flops’ – great rhythms all round and very distinct phases in the song.
Emma: I like ‘House of Flops’ too. The conversation between guitar and bass in the instrumental is my favourite bit on the whole album. I love the song’s undercurrent of meanness.
Gav: It changes all the time, but right now it’s ‘Cola Mambo’ – absolutely unique!
Mink: ‘Love My Criminal’ because we weren’t at all sure it would make the album and, as a result, took a very relaxed approach to recording it. Now, it gives me goosebumps.
If you could change on thing about the album what would it be?
The release date. We should have done this years ago. On the other hand, we didn’t get the sounds we wanted until more recently, so perhaps it would have been a far less rich album.
If you could tour with a single artist (living or dead) who would it be and why?
Gav: Bowie or Prince probably. The perfect balance of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, songwriting and artistic integrity.
Sam: Led Zeppelin. The excess would have been a sight to behold, but only as long as I got to go on The Starship.
Matt: I dunno. Steve Albini maybe just for all round intensity. I would probably not last long.
Mink: The Highwaymen. Four extraordinary talents for the price of one and the scene on the tour bus means they edge out the Wilburys.
Emma: It’s got to be Debbie Harry. What a dude. Someone who really plays with her voice, takes risks and has that brilliant rockstar insouciance without seeming at all arrogant. Love her.
Describe your music in a single sentence.
We love your description of the album: “riotous, restless and too catchy by far”.
What does the future hold for The Miller Test?
We’re booked to start work on a second album next month. Like This Funk Is Political, it will be a mix of old and new songs all recorded for the first time. We’re just finishing some demos now and it’s shaping up to be a bigger beast with a hard blues/gospel feel.
We’d love to tour or even just play a handful of album launch gigs. Like everyone else, we’re watching for the first opportunity to get out there. Oh, and we should probably mention there’ll be a new single from the album, ‘Better Than You’, next month.
What do you hope people take from your music?
Look, it’s pop music, so we’d be bitterly disappointed if some people at least aren’t jiggling away to it in lockdown; but, as we’ve said, they’re also protest songs. They’re political songs albeit taking positions that are seldom marked with neat party lines, so there should be some provocation. The songs’ protagonists, so often unsympathetic, are above all else hoping for empathy and understanding.
Audiences that get all that while shakin’ that ass – raging while they dance, laughing as they bleed – well, that would be perfect.