He Speaks To The Pompatus Of Love: Steve Miller On 50 Years Of Touring And ‘Keeping It Real With Audiences’

Steve Miller
Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
– Steve Miller
YESTERDAY AND TODAY: Steve Miller performs at the 31st Annual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 8, 2016.
As one of the most prolific recording and touring artists in American music history, Steve Miller believes he is fulfilling his higher purpose. “I always wanted to do this all of my life,” he told Pollstar while prepping for another year of touring with another superstar of the ’70s, Peter Frampton. “When I was 5 years old, man, I wanted to be a musician until I died. I don’t know why I understood that, or why I wanted to do that. I was hanging out with Les Paul, he looked like he was having fun.”

Visionary guitar maestro Paul was his godfather, the result of Paul’s close friendship with Miller’s pathologist/jazz aficionado father and amateur singer mother, who encouraged Miller’s musical endeavors as a pre-teen guitar wunderkind and surrounded him with legendary musicians including Jimmy Reed,

Miller, 74 years young, formed his first band, The Marksmen Combo in junior high (which included Boz Scaggs), as a Dallas pre-teen and embarked on a professional music career that has essentially never stopped. A 50th anniversary vinyl box set Complete Albums Volume 1 (1968-1976) is coming out in May, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer is still assembling ever more cuts and rarities for eventual release to hardcore fans. 

A key player in the musical paradigm shift of the late ’60s in San Francisco, Miller hit his commercial stride in the ’70s with classic hit songs like “The Joker,” “Take The Money And Run,” “Rock ’N Me,” “Fly Like An Eagle” and “Jet Airliner,” songs that have captivated crowds in venues of all sizes for decades. Miller – and Frampton as well, for that matter – are able to remain powerful touring acts because of their stellar musicianship and the work they’ve put into crafting accessible songs and staging compelling escapist concerts that deliver night after night, year after year. Clearly, Miller loves what he does.

And so do the fans. According to Pollstar Boxoffice reports for the last 36 months, the Steve Miller Band has played 72 shows and earned an average gross of nearly $223K. Some of the group’s larger shows included an August 2016 stop at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in Woodinville, Wash., which grossed $490K and a double bill in 2015 with Journey at the Austin360 Amphitheatre that earned $751K. Miller is represented by Paradigm agent Dan Weiner.

“We’re not there to screw around,” says the ever-professional Miller of touring. “We’re there to play a lot of great music, live music, right in front of them, for real. No samples, no vocal loops or any of that kind of shit. Just perform and play real. Because we kept it real with our audience for 50 years, they keep coming back, I guess. God bless them.” 

Pollstar: What are you up to now? 
Steve Miller: I’m in the middle of working on the 50th anniversary recording box set; I’m at that point in my life where I’m looking at the whole thing, including 4,000 pictures and 10 hours of music and 20 hours of video and trying to put it all together. 
I’m working on a book, a documentary and a show with Marty Stuart at Jazz at Lincoln Center on early American music and Delta blues and Appalachian music. I’m also working at the Metropolitan Museum on a new musical instruments gallery and we’re starting our tour Saturday night in Victoria, on Vancouver Island with Peter Frampton

I always thought you should do a book. 
It’s the book everybody always thought I should do. I’ve been reading biographies and thinking about writing my own. When I was in college it was comparative literature and creative writing. I was going to be a writer and a teacher and a journalist. One semester of not having a band, I went, “Nope, that’s not going to work for me. I got to play music.” 

You did the right thing. 
Writing a book’s a real project. I’m serious about it. I moved to New York about five years ago and I’ve fallen in with so many smart people and good writers. It’s just really a great place to be if you’re going to be doing this kind of work.
You also fell in early on in your life with legendary musicians. 
I don’t know how my parents got to be so hip, but they were. Charles Mingus used to come over to the house. Red Norvo, Tal Farlow, Art Van Damme, Les Paul, T-Bone Walker, James Moody. Those kind of people would be over at the house on Sunday afternoon for a little barbecue, smoking and drinking and hanging out. Then we’d go see them play. It was pretty amazing. 
What kind of influence was T-Bone Walker?
When I was 9, T-Bone used to come over to the house, he was a family friend, and play parties and hang out. I have lots of recordings of T-Bone from 1951 and ’52. Watching T-Bone was how I learned to play melody guitar. That’s how B.B. King learned to play melody guitar. You heard T-Bone Walker on the radio and went, “Hey, I want to play electric guitar.” T-Bone was just such a bridge from old country blues to modern rock and roll electric guitar. That’s how I learned to play. That’s the basis. My basic foundation is Jimmy Reed, Bill Doggett, T-Bone Walker and Little Walter. That’s what I grew up listening to and playing. 
What’s the process of finding tracks for your retrospective been like? 
We found all kinds of great tracks I forgot about. I’ve had a lot of help from my wife Janice (Ginsberg Miller), who’s been listening for months. She’s a very objective listener, whereas I’m not. My attitude is like, “Hey, if I didn’t release it, it wasn’t any good. Believe me, if I had had one more song, I would have put it out.” That’s not real good for a retrospective. 
How far does it go?
It’s going to be an overview, a retrospective of everything from ’68 to 2018 with a 100-page book and box set and I’m working on photographs. We’re working well with Universal, they’re doing great box sets and we’re in the A-line series. You can do a Pink Floyd and release nine CDs or 12 hours of music. My approach is I want to do a retrospective, an overview and then I want to continue on with more box sets to delve into…maybe they’ll just be a serious look at Fly Like An Eagle, for example.
When you hear stuff you did 50 freakin’ years ago, do you have any recollection of what you were thinking at the time?
Oh, yeah, 90 percent of it. I was working on the artwork at about 11:00 last night. I came down to get a drink and Janice was listening to some music and said, “Hey, let me play this for you.” She played some sessions I had totally forgotten about and they were just unbelievably cool, spontaneous and really good. I’m sitting there going, “What is this?” I think it was just after I met Norton Buffalo. I’m in the studio and I think it’s John McFee [of the Doobie Brothers] playing steel guitar, we’re playing blues, and Norton’s playing harmonica. I’m singing, making up songs and we’ve got some great changes and some great stuff. There’s parts and pieces that I totally forgot about, [but] I usually can remember everything. 
When you started out, did you have any thoughts about longevity and making music that would last?
I always had a bunch of self-implied rules and regulations: I always took my audience very seriously. I never wanted to just toss something out. I didn’t want to make an album that had one hit and 11 songs that were recorded in 45 minutes and stuck on the album. I always worked very hard to make my records sound as good as they could technically sound at the time. It was very obvious to me early on that what I really wanted to be was a musician. Not a celebrity, not a pop star, not a this, not a that. I wanted to be able to make records, produce concerts, do tours. Those are all things that I love to do. I’m getting ready to go out on my tour and there’s nothing like, “Oh, jeez, I got to go out and do this.” It’s like I can’t wait to get the hell out of town. 

– Steve Miller And Les Paul
THE GODFATHER: Legendary guitarist Les Paul, a family friend, with Steve Miller in 2004.

Is that because you mix it up and you don’t see it as a grind? 
When you do a 50-city tour, concerts 41 and 42 might be a grind. We always rebound and try not to get ourselves worn out or tired when we’re trying to work. We turn down a lot of gigs to keep the pacing so guys can go home after a couple of weeks for five or six days and then back out. That makes it a lot more doable. We tour every year, though this year is a lighter year. We did 70-some odd shows last year. This year’s about 51 cities. 

You’ve performed with many great players. What makes a great band member?
A great band member is a team player and has the whole concept. I have a great band. Every time we go out to play, it’s like we’re a basketball team and we’re in the playoffs. We don’t want to screw it up. We don’t want to blow ourselves out. We don’t want to do a bad show. The bar is set very high and everybody’s working toward that bar. 
If you got a guy who’s moody and pouty and wants more of the spotlight or is dissatisfied with the material or something, then that makes it very difficult. That’s what in the early stages made me make The Steve Miller Band. I’ve had the same guys for so many years, Ray. I’ve had the same truck driver for my instruments and amps and stuff for 28 years now. Kenny Lee Lewis [guitar, writer, producer] has been in the band 35 years. [Drummer] Gordy [Knudtson] has been in the band 30 years this year. [Keyboardist] Joseph Wooten’s been in the band almost 25 years now.
How about your crew?
(Scott Boorey)’s been mixing the sound 25 years. They were all sort of handpicked from all over the United States over a period of time where we found the kind of guys who all went like, “I’ve always wanted a job like this. This is exactly what I want to do. I want to produce a stage show that’s really great. I want to make sure your stage is perfect every night.”
What makes a bad gig, where you show up at the venue and say “Oh, no”?
The way the audience is being treated. If it’s being done in a way where the crowd isn’t being treated well or they’re not comfortable. They can be standing but if it’s a bad situation and there’s security that weighs 300 lbs. and is hopped up on coke and wants to beat somebody up, that’s a bad gig. I’ll stop that stuff right away, because I can see everything from the stage. We’ve played some gigs where there was really bad behavior by the building people in the unions there. They all got busted and arrested and eventually sued by lots of different groups. A bad promoter can cause a lot of damage. 
At this point, I doubt you’re running into a lot of that. 
Yeah, we know all the locals and generally don’t run into problems like that. My guys suss it out, but every now and then it happens. It’s not a perfect world. 
Has your rider changed a lot?
No, it’s been pretty much the same forever. We don’t have much of a rider. We like a clean dressing room. We like real dishes and not paper plates and plastic cups for the crew. Towels. We’re just real straightforward. Generally, when we show up, our crew is a very easy, it’s real professional and quick, smooth and easy.

Bands, your contemporaries in the late ’60s and ’70s, they worked, man. They were out there and put on shows for the people. I think the payoff a lot of bands now have is they are still able to go out and in many cases are some of the most successful touring acts out there
I read an article that said baby boomers are the last generation where the whole country is kind of locked-in together. From the baby boomers on, just gotten more and more diversified and more separate. As a country, we seem to be holding on to what we’re calling classic rock music.
I just saw Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel at the Garden and ZZ Top, and they’re great. They’re great shows. I saw Al Green, too, he’s great. There were a lot of people that worked really hard and all signed up for this job. The thing that’s really amazed me, Ray, is I’m reading different people’s biographies. Let’s say Keith Richards’ biography and Brian Wilson’s biography and you’re reading and you get to this point where they all say, “Jimmy Reed, Bill Doggett, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry.” Then you listen to songs and you go, “Yeah, I was 12 when that song paralyzed me, too. Jeez, this is really weird.” You go to the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis and you walk in there and think, “God, I played with half of the people in here.”

Steve Miller Band Photo Archive
– Steve Miller, Chuck Berry And Lonnie Turner
LIVING IN THE USA (L-R): Steve Miller, Chuck Berry and Lonnie Turner in 1967 on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

You’ve worked with just about everybody of note in rock ’n’ roll and blues at one time or another, but a lot of them have fallen by the wayside or gone off the 
rails for whatever reason financially or in their personal lives. You’ve kept it going pretty damn smooth. What do you credit that to?
My dad was a doctor and I worked in his lab. I was around healthcare providers and professional musicians. At a young age, I knew working in a nightclub was serious business and I didn’t want to take any drugs that slowed me down or sped me up.
I got a really great education when I was young and my dad really sacrificed to put me and my brother in a great school. It was tough, but it helped me a lot. Then later when I got 
to San Francisco I started seeing kids who didn’t know the difference between show business and life. I remember watching people just go by me in San Francisco going, “God, I’m never going to make it. I’m screwed.” I remember living in my Volkswagen bus for a half a year. It never seemed to me like, “Oh, yeah, I knew T-Bone Walker” and therefore I get a pass or something. I had to learn, I had to work really hard, but I did create and get opportunities.
You also made a lot of good decisions. It’s almost like you’re the Forrest Gump of rock ’n’ roll, except that what you’re leaving out is that you’re a great artist who can really play, write songs, sing and perform. 
Well, thank you. I remember when “Fly Like An Eagle” came out [1976], we were playing in 2,000-seat theaters. Within a period of nine months, we went from 2,000-seat theaters to hockey arenas to big arenas to football stadiums. The light shows and the sound systems had to be invented for that. 
A big part of all of this was being fast on your feet and learning how to invent new stuff. It wasn’t like it is now where you go, “When I grow up, I want to be like Beyonce and I want to have a 50-truck tour and lasers.” Showbiz was like the Dick Clark caravan with nine bands on one bus doing three songs a night on the Cavalcade of Stars. When I started, that’s what show business was. 
When did this tour with Peter Frampton come together? 
We did the first show last year. We had played together a few times five or six years ago and I kept thinking, “Man, that was really fun.” We jammed. I immediately said, “Peter, come on out and jam.” He was all for that. 
The very first night when Peter came out and we started playing, the whole thing turned into magic. It just went, “What just happened?” The excitement level got to where it used to be like when you’d go see Cream or Jimi Hendrix or something. Something happened that was just great.

That’s something I would have seen when I was a high school guy in ’77, say. Why is that still viable now?
Peter Frampton’s never had a bad band, ever in all the shows I’ve ever seen him do and I’ve known Peter for 51 years. In the beginning, he used to open for me when we were doing theater shows, we were playing the Fox Theatre and the Paramount Theatre and we played like 100 of them a year. It was like the vaudeville circuit with 2,500 people, those kind of little theater shows we did in the late ’60s, early ’70s. I did a bunch of those shows with Peter. He always played really great and always entertained the hell out of the audience. Our goal is to bring joy to our audience. That’s really what it’s all about is when you come to see the Steve Miller Band, it’s not you come to see the hippest thing or anything snarky or that kind of thing. It’s to have a really great musical time.