That big ol’ “Jet Airliner” Steve Miller sang about on one of his band’s five Top 10 singles has gotten a lot of mileage given the peripatetic life Miller leads.
Forty-one years after forming the Steve Miller Band, the namesake lead guitarist still tours 45 cities a year - “out for 10 days, home a while, in and out, my wife travels with me and we have a great time,” Miller, 63, says in a friendly phone chat from his Idaho home.
“Most neighbors would kill for the job,” he jokes.
Raised in Dallas by a pathologist father and a mother who enjoyed singing jazz, Miller was surrounded by music early on. Electric guitar pioneer Les Paul (“How High the Moon”) was his godfather and mentored him. He’d find initial fame in San Francisco’s fertile psychedelic scene in the `60s playing blues-rock. (Boz Scaggs was originally a member of the Steve Miller Band and Paul McCartney was a guest on the 1969 track, “My Dark Hour.” Miller returned the favor on a couple cuts for McCartney’s 1997 CD, “Flaming Pie.”)
But Miller would find a lasting legacy shifting his music into more radio-friendly fare.
The Southern California pop/rock scene of the mid-‘70s, populated by touring mates the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, another act that started in the `60s blues scene, gave the Steve Miller Band a catalog of jukebox favorites that seemingly will never go away: “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jungle Love,” “Swingtown,” “Rock `n’ Me,” “Take the Money and Run” and, of course, “The Joker.”
(“Fly Like an Eagle” was recently reissued for its 30th anniversary, with a striking 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Unfortunately, the first 125,000 copies had to be recalled and destroyed when Miller noticed his copy had a sync problem between audio and video, he says. It has since been corrected.)
“My goal was to be a musician and not a celebrity rock star. Adults were my inspiration, people who had careers like Miles Davis who looked at music as being a lifetime of work. I always made my records with that in mind. I wanted these things to sound good. I worked hard at recording spontaneous performances so they didn’t sound belabored.”
Whatever he’s done, Miller hit upon the magical formula as far as classic rock radio consultants’ tests go. Miller’s mid-period music, that window from 1973’s “The Joker” through 1982’s “Abracadabra,” consistently ranks high in listener polls and practically ensures your kids’ kids will still have “the pompatus of love” in their vocabulary thanks to “The Joker.”
“Most of my hit songs are ... rock with lots of harmony and kids like harmony to sing along with,” Miller says. “I know I always did. The lyrics are generally positive… . I get more airplay now than I did in the `80s and `70s. It’s made a big difference, the exposure level is high. We worked hard at doing good shows and our audience ranges from 10 to 70. That’s the honor of this music for me, the young kids are still interested in it.”
Interested in iPods and downloading, too, and this subject area can cause mild-natured Miller to talk a blue streak about the evils of Apple’s Steve Jobs, stealing music, the loss of audio fidelity on mp3s and compact discs, why “American Idol” is perhaps not such a good thing, and the risk of hearing damage from blasting “Jungle Love” on those little earbuds iPods employ. (Lower the volume, he urges).
“I always love making albums, but I haven’t thought in terms of giving Steve Jobs anything. I think of him as the S.O.B. who made the machine that rips and burns and stole the business. So much intellectual property is being stolen. Musicians have been unable to stop it,” Miller, who has an iPod, says in explaining why “Wild River” was his last mainstream pop album 14 years ago and a follow-up isn’t likely.
That isn’t to say Miller hasn’t been writing new music, it’s just that the act of releasing it on an album today makes less sense than it once did when LPs like “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Book of Dreams” were instant bestsellers.
“The record company is in flames, a death spiral. The radio deal is so goofy. It’s such a bad environment to release product now. Why go into the studio and spend $400,000 to produce a record and you don’t know if anyone will play it on the radio and you don’t know if the record company will be in business and everyone is going to steal it,” Miller opines.
“The plane’s going 198 miles an hour with the wings on fire and it’s beginning to spin. I’m not sure what to tell you to tell the truth.”
It certainly won’t be “American Idol” to the rescue if Miller has his way: “There may have been some great people on it but I never watch it. Can’t stand it. I’m not interested in that desperate vocal style, it’s like watching a Broadway show, the over emoting is so much it makes you tense. I did 1,000 gigs before I had to put a record out. It’s not like I made up something on a computer and had a hit and had to go dance on stage.”