08/17/2012 12:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Real Renaissance Man: A Conversation With Musician, Composer, Producer and Recording Artist, Marcus Miller


A Conversation with Marcus Miller

Mike Ragogna: Marcus, how are you?

Marcus Miller: Doing well, Mike. How are you?

MR: Very well, sir. Can you tell us what the creative process was like for your new album, Renaissance?

MM: Well, for the last 18 months, I've been using different musicians and a new band, some really great young musicians who I've been finding primarily on the New York scene. I'm really excited about it. The band is showing so much energy and passion through the music. I really wanted to make an album with these guys and write music for these specific personalities to showcase this sound that we've been working on. I didn't want to make this album a big production like a lot of my other albums. I wanted to strip this album down and have it be about the composition and about this new band. It's kind of a return to the old style of making music, and that's why I called the album Renaissance.

MR: Can you tell us a little bit about how you chose some of these cover songs and what inspired you to write some of the new songs?

MM: Well, the songs that I wrote for this project were kind of a result of just living life and playing with this particular band. I really tried to figure out a way to showcase the way that we play. In terms of the songs that we covered on this album, that could be something as simple as me walking down the street and having an old bass line from a song I love pop into my head, which triggers me to think that we should play it. If you can imagine yourself on the stage playing it, and you can imagine a new way to treat it so that you're not just rehashing the old version, then it's probably a good idea.

MR: "Tightrope" features Dr. John, and that's your single overseas, right?

MM: Yeah. The song is originally by Janelle Monae and it was produced by Big Boy. It was a big hit for them. I heard it on the radio and immediately loved it because I thought it had a great New Orleans flavor in the undercurrent of the song. I thought maybe if we played, we might be able to bring that flavor out more. Of course, I thought to myself, "Who else can I get but Dr. John to bring out the New Orleans flavor of a song like that." I called him up and told him that I needed him for the song, and that I was gonna need him to rap in the song, so he'd better get his mouth ready. (laughs) So he joined us on the song and we had a great time.

MR: Marcus, you're known mainly for your bass and sax playing. What is your musical background?

MM: I'm from a very musical family. My father played the organ and the piano in church on Sundays. His father was also a piano player, along with my cousin, Wynton Kelly, who actually played with Miles Davis in the fifties. He played on the classic Kind Of Blue album on the track "Freddie Freeloader." So music was in my family. When I was about 10, I started playing the clarinet because they offered that in the public schools in New York where I grew up. Ultimately, I wanted to play R&B and there isn't really a spot for clarinet in R&B, so I moved over to playing sax. After a while, I found that I still wasn't very comfortable playing sax, so I gave the bass a try and immediately knew that instrument was home for me. I really started to put my energy and time into playing and perfecting my bass playing until I eventually became a professional and started working with Miles Davis. When I was with Miles, I was making demos for him of the songs I was writing so that he could hear them before recoding anything. On a lot of the demos, I was playing the horn, and Miles encouraged me to bring my horn back out. That's how I came to play all of those instruments. When I'm producing, I play keys and usually the bass clarinet, bass guitar, guitar, and drums. I was one of "those kids" that played everything. A lot of my friends were such great athletes that the coach would give them the keys to the gym to practice whenever they wanted, My music teacher gave me the keys to the music room.

MR: You mentioned that you worked with the legendary Miles Davis. Do you have any stories about working with him that you can share?

MM: Well, Miles was in retirement for the second half of the seventies, from about 1975 to 1981. In 1981, I got a call from him saying that he was going back into the studio, which was a big surprise to me. I had heard rumors that he was thinking about making a comeback, but you never know whether or not to believe rumors. The next thing I knew, I was on the phone with him and he was asking me if I could come into the studio in a couple of hours. So I ran to his studio and the next thing you know, I was working with Miles Davis. He asked me to be in his band and, of course, I said yes. I played in his band for a couple of years, then I told him that I wanted to leave because I wanted to focus on composing and producing. He gave me his blessing, and a couple of years later, I called him to tell him that I had some new material for him and we began to work together again. This time, though, I was working with him as a composer and producer while playing bass with the band. That's when we did Tutu as well as a film score called Siesta, and an album called Amandla. Tutu was our first collaboration, and it was probably the most surprising to people because we had come up with a new sound for Miles in the eighties, which was pretty different from what he had been doing.

MR: Wow. You're also being a little modest because as I understand it, you wrote most of the material on Tutu.

MM: Well, I started off writing the song "Tutu" along with one other song. That was supposed to be my contribution to the album and they were going to be using other producers to do other songs. But they enjoyed what Miles and I had done together so much that they wanted us to finish the album together. That's how I ended up doing so much on Tutu. As you can imagine, it was an amazing blessing and an incredible opportunity for me because all of a sudden, people knew who I was. It was a very cool thing.

MR: So not only did you work with Miles, but you are also a Grammy winner producer who has worked with the likes of Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, Bob James, Chaka Khan, and the list goes on. How does your process usually work in the studio? Do you have a heavy hand in producing, or do you usually allow the artist to do their thing?

MM: It really depends on the artist and what the artist needs. Sometimes the artist needs or is inviting me to really create another sound for them, other times the artist has a clear vision of what they want to do and they just need me to help them realize that vision. Miles was at a point in his career where he was very willing to let me create a new sound for him - I played most of the instruments and made most of the tunes. He would just come in and listen to what I had, then leave and I would go back to work. But when I worked with Wayne Shorter, he really had a good idea f what he wanted to do. My job was just to make sure that that happened and that we had the right musicians and studio so that he could get it done.

MR: Nice. You were also in a band with Eric Clapton, Joe Sample, Steve Gadd, and David Sanborn called Legends, right?

MM: Yeah. I actually went to Clapton and I told him that I wanted to put an album together that was like funky jazz and I wanted him to be the guitar player, nobody special. (laughs) He kind of laughed because I'm sure he knew that there wouldn't be any situation where he was just a guitar player and "nobody special." But he did like the idea of just being a guitar player. At the first rehearsal, I handed him a sheet of music just like I handed everyone else a sheet of music, knowing full-well that he can't read music. (laughs) He looked at the charts, then turned them upside down to see if they would make any more sense that way. (laughs) Then he'd take the track back to the hotel at night and come back the next day knowing the song better than anyone else in the band. It was a really great experience for us, and I think he enjoyed it as well.

MR: You've produced many albums and worked with so many artists in the studio that I bet you can't help but have had an influence on them. Plus how can you avoid adding a bit of your signature sound to each of the tracks, right? Take, for example, your work with David Sanborn.

MM: I was just glad to be able to add my part. When David Sanborn first called me, it was to work on the Hideaway album. I couldn't have been more than 19. I remember I was still wearing braces. When he called me, we instantly hit it off. I only played on one song on that album, but in between that album and his next, we both ended up in the Saturday Night Live house band together. I auditioned and got in, then a couple of days later, Sanborn showed up. He was amazing because he was the first musician that I ever saw that, when he played a note, everyone in the room stopped what they were doing to see where that sound was coming from. His sound was so powerful and commanding on the alto sax and I had never seen that before. I would keep that sound in my head, and eventually, I started writing tunes for that sound. We ended up developing a relationship where I was writing songs for him and eventually producing his albums.

MR: Marcus, you have had such an amazing career and have worked with so many incredible artists. Do you have any advice for new artists?

MM: Well, there's no one way to make it in this business. Every artist that you speak to has a different path that they took to get to their success. The thing that you have to do is to make sure that you have a unique point of view. There are a lot of artists who sound a lot like other artists and they have nothing to set them apart. The thing that makes you special is your point of view, especially with musicians. A lot of musicians give me their demos and each of the four tracks on the demo sound like a different artist. The thing about being an artist is that what you're really presenting, besides your technique and your sound, is your point of view. That's what makes you an artist as opposed to a really great side man. So, I would say that you really have to try and figure out who you are and how you hear music and commit to that.

MR: Nicely put. That actually brings me to a question regarding all of the film scoring that you've done. Do you use that same approach when scoring a movie?

MM: Well, there's two ways to score a movie. One approach is watching the scene and letting the scene tell you what to do. The other way is to try to impose your sound on the movie, and to make it work no matter what the content of the movie is. I tend to lean more towards the first approach knowing that my particular sound is going to come through anyway. In other words, if the scene is funny, you have to come up with something that doesn't sound like slapstick humor, but it still has to have humor in it. Because I have a certain point of view, my humor is going to come out through that music no matter what. So, don't worry so much about your personality because that will come through anyway. You really just have to serve the scene and make sure that the music helps the scene. When you're composing music for a movie, your main objective is to guide the viewer emotionally through the movie. The music tells them what to feel. If someone says something that's kind of sappy but you put the right chord behind it, all of a sudden, it sounds profound. You really have a lot of control in a movie, so I try to use my musical personality to bring those emotions out.

MR: For example what you did with "Da Butt" in Spike Lee's School Daze.

MM: Yeah, man. That's a fun song. I never met or spoken to Spike before he called and told me that he was doing a movie with a big cool part with big rear ends. (laughs) He told me he needed it to be called "Da Butt," and he wanted it to be the dance sensation across the nation. So I drove around New York thinking about lyrics for a song called "Da Butt." It's not as easy as it sounds.

MR: (laughs) And can you tell us about the best part you never played, the Seinfeld theme?

MM: Well, I'll tell you. I've scored movies where I use my thumping and plucking bass sound, and producers have called me and asked if they think it'll be okay to use a Seinfeld reference in the music. (laughs) Usually, I'm like, "Woah, it's like that?" I don't know the name of the guy who created that theme song, but he kind of made that sound almost a cliché that you have to be careful with. Otherwise, people will think it's Seinfeld. He didn't even do it on a bass guitar, he did it on a keyboard.

MR: Marcus, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule. It's been a real pleasure.

MM: The pleasure was all mine. Thanks for having me.

1. Detroit
2. Redemption
3. February
4. Slippin' Into Darkness
5. Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song)
6. Jekyll & Hyde
7. Interlude: Nocturnal Mist
8. Revelation
9. Mr. Clean
10. Gorée
12. Tightrope
13. I'll Be There

Transcribed by Evan Martin