When Daniel Miller decided to marry in the local Registry Office, he picked up the phone and invited long-time friend and collaborator, Gareth Jones, to stand with him as the papers were signed. Beyond attendance, the invitation came with one special request. Jones was to arrive with his modular synth suitcase in hand and play a set to the crowd — just to friends and relatives, Daniel insisted.
Miller, the founder of Mute Records, and Jones, the producer of many wonderful records by Depeche Mode, Erasure, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, are no newcomers to a collaboration. They’ve worked across the Mute catalog and, since the mid-’90s, have released a handful of remixes under the Sunroof moniker. Only now, in 2021, have they come together to release their first album of original music together.
The eight-song release, Electronic Music Improvisations Volume 1, reflects the depth of their personal history and their playful attitude to music-making. The album took form as the pair set boundaries on their output, beginning with a healthy dose of pre-dinner improvisation. Applying limits on time, equipment, post-production, and their rig, Miller and Jones landed on an album of curated improvisations — not just a collection of jam sessions, Jones would say.
Miller maintains that it’s liberating to limit yourself. Electronic Music Improvisations Volume 1 speaks to the value of boundary setting, how less is more. The listening experience gives you room to explore, with no explicit song titles to anchor your interpretation or linear track progression to steer you towards a fixed endpoint. Miller and Jones have sought to create soundscapes for our enjoyment — whether that be for sitting by a lake, as Miller mentioned during the following conversation between myself and the Sunroof duo, or when smoking a cigar on Zoom, as Miller gloriously was during this very conversation.
What made you two come together for this album?
Jones: We have been friends for decades and colleagues for slightly longer. So in a sense, it wasn’t the coming together to make the album that was special; it was actually deciding to do it. Daniel and I had a very enjoyable improvisation session in my little studio in East London before going out to dinner and a concert one night. We just looked at each other, and it became clear that we should actually pursue this project and try and finish some other tracks, potentially make something to share with the world. Most of our improvisations, we haven’t really shared. I don’t think we had any grand design at the beginning. The grand design was to try and complete something and have it based on decades of collaboration and friendship.
Miller: We laid out some rules for ourselves. We decided we didn’t want to do long pieces and then spend hours editing them. We said, let’s do like five or six-minute improvisations, and that would be it. We started from a blank canvas and didn’t discuss what we were going to do, what kind of music we were going to make, or what it would sound like. We just started playing, and when somebody got a sound out, we just built on that.
What steers an improvisation from a playful pre-dinner activity to something you’re happy to package up and add to your public catalog?
Jones: With improvisation in any category of music or art, it’s about paying attention to what the other people are doing — or the other person’s doing in this case. Sometimes we came away with something that we were happy to add to the catalog, and sometimes we didn’t, and it went in the bin. We couldn’t really tell upfront what was going to happen; I think that was part of the fun. Really, we just wanted to have some fun. We really enjoy our modular synthesizers. And we thought, well, this is a lot of fun, let’s just discipline ourselves a bit more. We got together a few times in the space of the year and we made the record.
And tell me, how satisfying is it collaborating under your own name rather than producing other peoples’ works?
Miller: Working together on other people’s projects taught us a lot about our own music, our own musical likes and direction and visions. When you’re working with other people or when you’re producing other people, your main goal is to help them realize their vision and to help them along the way wherever needed. Whereas when you’re on your own, it’s kind of liberating because you weren’t thinking about somebody else’s vision. You’re just having fun doing your own stuff, you know.
Jones: We’ve hinted at this already, but you know in the past we’d done jam sessions that had no beginning and no end. And they just kind of went; it was hugely enjoyable, but those were like our training runs. We tried to focus the best of that into shorter pieces, and for us, that was the distinction between a jam session, which was rambling, and an improvisation where we were trying to say, let’s see if we can create a focus piece in five or six minutes.
You’ve mentioned how important it was in the past that modular synths were so affordable relative to other technology and instruments. Today, is affordability still so relevant in driving creative output?
Miller: In terms of creating electronic music, it’s never been more affordable. I mean, if you have a computer and you can download software, a lot of it’s free, not all of it, but it’s not hugely expensive. That said, it’s much more difficult these days to have your music heard; I saw somewhere that there are 60,000 songs uploaded onto Spotify every day. But forget the sort of marketing side of it, the actual creation and distribution of music has never been easier and more accessible to people. Modular compared to how it was 20, 30 years ago is much more affordable, but it’s not cheap. But the great thing about it is that because it’s such an open system, you can start very small with just a few modules in the case. And then, as you want to develop that system, you can expand it. With Eurorack, it’s an open system. There are hundreds of people making very interesting modules that you can mix and match between them.
Jones: That’s what makes it so addictive because when you’ve got an open system, you can always add to it. One thing that we did with this album, we used subsets of our systems, we had smallish racks. We both honed our systems down to a rack that we can carry in one hand, in a little case, and that was also how we got together. We decided to get together with these racks — I would turn up on the tube or just sling it in the back of the car. It was our equivalent of turning up with a couple of guitars. We were trying to be minimal in that sense as well, not just in the time sense.
Do you think creativity is unlocked through these constraints? Are rules essential in distinguishing improvisations from jams?
Miller: Yes, but I think it depends on the individual artists. But for me personally, having limitations definitely helps.
Jones: Yes, it’s huge.
Miller: It’s a huge thing for me personally. Getting the very most out of a small system is in some ways more creative than rambling around a big system. I find that even in my own work, whenever I’m in my studio, I’ve got a bigger system, but I still don’t use it. It takes longer to get somewhere because you’ve got too many options in the way.
Jones: I’ve applied this widely in my creative and artistic work. This idea of a manifesto, drawing up a manifesto, limiting ourselves, I think it’s hugely creative. Sometimes we recorded to four-track stereo out of Daniel’s rig stereo. I have my rig limitations, time limitations, equipment limitations. I find that it resonates with a lot of the artists I work with. People like it; we draw a box and say, let’s make something in this box. And even to the extent of drawing up a written manifesto, this is what we said we do. We had a few bullet points that we shared over the weekend when we chatted about the concept, and that’s what we stuck to.
Is it quicker to produce an album of improvisations or is there still a lengthy post-recording process before anything is published?
Jones: We didn’t even listen to the recordings for six months. Then, at last, we had a bit of distance where we were able to say, well, one or two of these pieces aren’t too bad, you know.
Miller: Sometimes, it’s difficult to separate the music from the experience of making the music. You need to listen to the music in a different context when you have separation from the experience; only then can you be more objective about it.
Miller: I learned a bit about the importance of distance from my street photography. Quite a lot of photographers in that genre of photography don’t look at their pictures for months, because making music and taking photos is much more than just the act of taking the pictures and the music. You have to look at a picture or listen to a piece of music with distance so you can forget about the experience and just listen to the music.
Jones: I do a bit of dabbling with watercolors as well. I learned through my work with watercolors that it’s very important not to judge the work immediately. Most of the paintings I do, I look at them, and I think, oh, that’s shit. But I learned not to do that because if I just make a painting and then look at it a week later, I think, oh, there’s something there, it’s not too bad. And then two weeks later, I think, oh, this is pretty good, and then a month later, I might show it to a friend and say, look, I did a painting, what do you think? For me, it’s not just a perspective; it’s just that in the moment, I’m very harsh on myself. Perspective helps me negotiate with my inner critic that has stopped me doing my own music for decades.
And why is it that peers like Vince Clarke and Martin Gore, as well as yourselves, are increasingly keen to experiment with minimal, low-fi electronics?
Jones: When we started creating music, it was all very minimal. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I started, resources were very limited. I had an eight-track tape recorder, a four-track tape recorder, and initially, one synthesizer. So, it’s not a new thing, but what we chose to do with Sunroof was to set these boundaries again. We realized how much fun it was to work with boundaries. So many of the great records that I love over the decades were made on 16 or 24 tracks. Now we’ve all got like 500 tracks available in our computer, and like Daniel said, modern technology is wonderful, but, you know, it can be a bit depressing as well sometimes. So, it’s a coming home again 40 years later.
Miller: The thing that’s important for me is that when I first got a four-track and a synthesizer, that wasn’t a limitation; that was an incredible liberation. To have four tracks and have a synthesizer was incredibly liberating. I remember my very first overdub; I thought, this is unbelievable. The possibilities here are amazing. There’s always a limitation of some sort now because when we have access to more instruments and more tracks, you realize what’s the benefit of that? You want to feel liberated again in a way, and it’s kind of liberating to limit yourself.
Continuing with the theme of limitations, how do you think the physical limitations imposed over the last year have impacted the type of work being created? Has that kind of restriction been liberating or constrictive?
Jones: Well, for me, it was extremely liberating because I struck up a relationship with a friend, a young woman artist, and we co-wrote and completed a record completely remotely. That would never have happened outside of this modern technological world that we’re in. I found the fact that we were separated allowed us to approach this record in a very lowkey way. It started with me doing a few synth overdubs on one of her tunes. And that grew into something quite remarkable that I can’t imagine would have happened outside of the crazy lockdown and the fact that we were both in tiny rooms, separated by a thousand miles and enjoying each other’s musical input.
This album is just one of many collaborations in your shared history, and I’m interested to hear what you consider the highpoints of your collaborative lives?
Miller: It must be Depeche Mode’s “People are People”. We came to the studio in Berlin, set everything up, and it just sounded fantastic straight away.
Jones: I was going to say that it was a different kind of collaboration. One of my favorite collaborations was when Daniel got married; he invited me to do a little bit of music in the registry office. So, I took my little modular suitcase down and noodled in the background, just to friends and relatives. That’s definitely the high point in my musical relationship with Daniel.