Looking for Neural Pathways — Donald Miller in conversation with Alan Licht

In celebration of the release of Donald Miller’s Transgression!!! LP we've just published a conversation he had with fellow VDSQ guitarist and writer Alan Licht exploring the roots of his acoustic practice, formative relationships with Jack Rose, Davey Williams, his work in Borbetomagus and the overarching unity of his artistic approach.... album's unique addition to the Miller discography. Both Transgression!!! and Alan’s new book Common Tones, a collection featuring selected interviews with artists and musicians are available now.

Donald Miller, self portrait, pastel on paper, Spring 2019

Donald Miller is best known as one-third of Borbetomagus, a power trio in the truest sense of the term. Along with saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich, the three improvise sonic maelstroms usually conjured by modernist classical orchestras or free jazz big bands, by harnessing electricity in a way more often associated with old-school power electronics. Indeed, Borbeto found a crossover audience with industrial fans and the indie rock cognoscenti in the late ‘80s, and the breadth of their occasional sparring partners—everyone from Hugh Davies to Voice Crack to Missing Foundation’s Adam Nodelman to Hijo Kaidan—attests to their appeal within the wide world of noise.

Donald has maintained a solo practice throughout, and in fact I first saw him play not with Borbetomagus but in a duo with William Hooker at a record store in 1988. He had a solo electric guitar cassette out back then called A Little Treatise on Morals which documented his approach of using metal files on the strings—combined with a dexterous use of a volume pedal, he was truly the hellspawn of Keith Rowe and Derek Bailey. Plucky youth that I was, about a year later I approached him about doing an interview for a fanzine. He graciously accepted, and over umpteen vodka and orange juices at his pad in Flushing, Queens, he regaled me with loads of stories about his life and times, not to mention introducing me to the music of Scott Walker and yes, the Henry Flynt cassette which I later, in turn, introduced to the masses via the first Minimal Top Ten list in Halana magazine. He talked about John Fahey being an influence, which was interesting to me not only because I had just started listening to him myself at that point but because it seemed so far removed from his electric playing. This was well before Jim O’Rourke and others from the ‘90s generation of improvisors had begun citing Fahey’s influence.

Now, thanks to VDSQ, we finally have evidence of Donald’s acoustic side. From Basho/flamenco-esque rhapsodies to bowed guitar drone-a-thons to beyond-the-pale slide guitar fantasias on blues chestnuts that might make even the Great Koonaklaster himself blush, Transgression!!! is everything and nothing you would expect from Donald.

—Alan Licht, New York, November 2020

Alan Licht: I remember you playing 12-string at the Fahey memorial concert at Tonic in 2001, was that a new endeavor back then, or had you been doing it for a while?

Donald Miller: Oh no, no, no, hardly, it’s sort of a well-kept family secret that I’ve been doing this all along. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid.

AL: Did you have a 12-string when you were a kid? Or was it 6-string acoustic?

DM: No, I got my first 12-string when I was 19. Some friends of mine had that Epiphone and were going to basically smash it against the wall [laughter]

AL: A la Animal House [laughs]

DM: …breaking a lease on their basement apartment on Riverside Drive, I was like what the fuck?! And they were like, oh of course, we should give it to you, Donald! I took care of it and I’ve spent a great deal of time doing that just as I have with my classical guitar work—it’s never really changed, honestly. It’s just something that I’ve always had in the background. As a matter of fact, Michel Henritzi was supposed to put out a 12-string album, which I almost got together but he folded his label before I could get him the recordings. Then my friend Danny Presnell put out a very limited—an edition of 6, I think (laughs)—he was supposed to put it out as an official label release that he was doing, back in 2005, that was recorded in this haunted house in Asheville North Carolina. So he still has those recordings, including a very long drone piece, which is quite nice, which I actually dedicated to Michel.

So this is the third 12-string project that is actually hitting fruition.

AL: So your 12-string style and the electric style really evolved in parallel.

DM: Oh, absolutely. I had both the Epiphone and my Rickenbacker at a time when I was heavily concentrating on trying to finalize my own sound, something that would differentiate me from my heroes, etc. something that was identifiably Donald Miller. Having grown up in Maryland, and having John Fahey as this giant figure of the Maryland guitar scene, which also included a lot of other heavyweights—Roy Buchanan had sort of moved there, and Danny Gatton. I could say that John Fahey music destroyed my life [laughter]. Seventeen was the big year, for me; it was the end of my junior year, in high school, and that summer I really began concentrating on the Fahey recordings that were floating around the Montgomery County library system, Requia basically being the big one, which would explain a lot. I was listening to a lot of new music, I was listening to a lot of free jazz, at the time, which inevitably led me to hearing Derek Bailey a couple of months later and, you know…

AL: Right, the rest is history.

DM: Exactly. And I’d already heard Xenakis, my dad had a copy of Electro-Acoustic Music, which was a regular on the turntable as well. Yes, I was that weird that young (laughs). This dancer I’m working with now asked me how far back these pieces go, and I said I mostly just improvised this stuff over the last few years and then I thought wait a second, no I didn’t—there are actually a couple of pieces on the first side that really go back to when I was 17, or in my early 20s, when I was first living in Brooklyn and came into a fairly stable place in my life so I actually had time to practice.

AL: What I was really struck by in listening to the album is the syntax of your playing is the same as on the electric—once you differentiate the textural and harmonic content and whatever else, the way the phrases line up…if you A/B it with A Little Treatise on Morals, and listen closely, I think people would be surprised at how similar it is.

DM: I’ve had a number of people comment, other guitar players, who were stunned after years of having to share bills and stages with Borbetomagus, that putting a Martin in my hand would suddenly turn into a whole different ball game, but would still be identifiably me. I’ve heard a number of other syntactical commentaries, so yeah. It all comes from the same place, it all comes from the same mind.

AL: Or the same nervous system.

DM: (laughs) Exactly, thank you. It’s one of those life-long things, it was like that for Francis Bacon and it’s always been that way for me too.

AL: A couple of the pieces reminded me of Robbie Basho, I was wondering how much of an influence he was.

DM: Believe it or not, I began listening to Basho much later, and I’ve never quite gotten the same kind of heartfelt thing. I love it, and I certainly did all of that raga stuff, because it’s a natural thing when you start playing around with these tunings. And originally I was coming out of classical work, which for guitar is a lot of Spanish composers, which fits with flamenco. That became one of my focuses, that was one of the things that I was working on privately, to keep my chops up.

AL: Can you talk about some of the people that pieces on the record are dedicated to? Starting with Jack [Rose], I don’t know how much people know about how close you and Jack were, and how much of an influence you were on him.

DM: Yes. Oh god. Jack Rose was one of my best friends; back in the old flip-phone era I had three people on speed-dial: my wife, my main music partner down here, Rob Cambre, and Jack. We would yak guitar shit, usually drunk, at night (laughs). Back in the old days, when I lived in New York and he lived in Philadelphia with his wife Laurie, they were up every weekend so we would just hang. And yes, he did hear my 12-string work quite a lot back then, he was still playing electric in the early parts of this, and we did have one particularly whiskey-sotted night where we had spent the entire night listening to my Fahey collection, and it wasn’t long after that that, after a lot of different ruminations and so forth, that he eventually went to all-acoustic. And that was the rest of his career, which was of course brilliant and way too short.

I was, I believe, the second person besides his wife that he told—he called me in this very somber voice, “Donald, I just want you to know that I’m going totally acoustic.” And it was interesting because it was sort of like you’ve got, say, a paramour in a particular town when you’re touring that you’ve been going to see and they sent you a letter sort of like, I love you but I’ve got a serious boyfriend now. We had a lot of splinter groups and I played with Pelt a lot, and I would have to be committed to doing structured acoustic piece if we were going to continue working together. It was like that too, “this is going to affect my relationship with everybody and I just wanted you to know, blah blah blah.” It was very sweet, I was very touched. And I did give him lessons, mostly about fingerpicking techniques, very little of which you actually hear on [my] VDSQ record, I’m mostly using a plectrum, a copper plectrum. I just ordered a new batch because I’d been nursing my last one for about 20 years (laughs).

AL: What was it about that piece that made you decide to dedicate it to Jack?

DM: Oh probably because it was something that I had played for him during one of those encounters in New York.

AL: And Davey Williams.

DM: Yeah, fallen comrades. I did the same thing with Little Treatise. We only played together a small handful of times and they were mostly fairly informal situations, we never had a formal gig together, but we were very fond of each other’s work. Since I moved down to New Orleans I was a little more in touch with him, although he was a very private fellow and I tend to be a little bit that way myself, so Rob Cambre was the interface because he had been dealing with Davey since he [Rob] was a guitar prodigy puppy coming up. Davey was one of the local Gulf Coast heroes. We met very very early on, the free improv scene was quite small.

AL: I would think that Davey and LaDonna [Smith] were putting out their records around the same time as the first Borbeto albums.

DM: Right before, it was right before—the second half of the 70s. I think they already had one or two albums out when I met them, when they were doing John Zorn’s School, with [Eugene] Chadbourne and my old compadre from Sick Dick and the Volkswagens, Mark Abbott, on one of his homemade modular synthesizers that was in a little toy erector set, very very cool. I don’t think Mark’s pursued such things, I think he just went into business. When we met he was in the combined Masters/Doctorate program at the newly formed Computer Science Department at Columbia and had been, like my dad, a complete math nerd. Originally from New Orleans, and also grew up in Taiwan; and he taught me how to cook, I am grateful for that. We did do some interesting shit together way back in the day.

AL: What about Squeaky Fromme?

DM: She was this absolutely gorgeous black cat who came in one winter solstice after much coaxing and she made it to16 and unfortunately just recently suffered a severe stroke and stumbled around with a great deal of assistance for about six weeks and finally passed away. Squeaky was a huge part of my life and was beloved by everybody who ever came over here.

AL: So we needed to clarify between the Manson girl and the cat (laughs)

DM: Yeah, that was just my name for her, she had this cute meow which was sort of squeak-esque. She had just passed and I was doing the notes for the album, so…

AL: The other people you mention as inspiration on the record, and some of the track titles, are associated with surrealism.

DM: It’s all part of the deal. [I was] pulling out a lot of surrealist writing and poetry and so forth, looking for neural pathways, shall we say (laughs) into coming up with something that would verbally coherently put together a commentary on the music.

As an artist, besides Francis Bacon I’ve been very heavily influenced by Austin Spare and I have been for a very long time. The band that I formed down here with Rob and Vanessa Skantze is the Death Posture, that was very early in 2002, just a handful of months after we moved down here. And yes the cover photograph for Transgression!!! is my homage to that, going along with Steve Lowenthal’s bit about having the guitar that was used for the recording on the album cover, but it’s one of Spare’s most famous drawings, and that was one of the many uses of the title that he employed over his career and life.

It was from George Herriman and Krazy Kat that I got the album title. The mouse is brained with the flying brick, as usual a perfect shot into the back of Krazy Kat’s head, Offissa Pupp going “Transgression!!!” with three exclamation points. Having hung out in a fairly transgressive art scene in New York for a number of years, that seemed fairly perfect.

AL: Or just doing an acoustic record, given your reputation, is transgression, right?

DM: I was about to make that point, yes, thank you. That’s terrific.

AL: And what about “Spoonful”?

DM: That’s been a showpiece forever, and believe me, both of those first two12-string projects featured that. I did it at the end of the Fahey tribute gig.

AL: How did you first encounter it? Did you first hear Howlin’ Wolf’s version, or someone else?

DM: Well, [Cream’s] Wheels of Fire, there was that

AL: I’m sure that’s how I first heard it.

DM: Probably the first version I heard, for fairly obvious reasons; I was a big Cream head, particularly for Jack Bruce rather than Clapton, interestingly enough. When I finally heard the Patton, I think I was still in high school. I had a very hip geometry teacher, Richard Brady, and he had a great record collection, including an old 78 collection. He’s the first cat who played me Ayler, he turned us on to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He would say, look, I’m not queer—which was the term at the time—but if you want to come over to my house over the weekend and just sit around and listen to records, that would be great, and that’s something that I’ve been doing myself forever. In a music scene that is spread by experience and by the documents, the recordings, and studying them, that’s how you learn, for a music that you don’t go specifically to a conservatory to learn.

AL: Or that’s not on the radio either.

DM: Or definitely not on the radio either. I had a lot of mentors because I was ravenously starving for this kind of stuff, loved every second of it. Anyway, going back to “Spoonful,” it was probably my senior year of high school at Brady’s apartment in Georgetown. And it was probably the same afternoon that he played me Spiritual Unity for the first time, so we can blame him for that too (laughs). It just struck me as an absolutely gorgeous piece, and later on I began adapting it, because I had been interested in slide guitar. I still miss my Coricidin bottle, that was a real treasure. Because I had read that Duane Allman had used a Coricidin bottle, that was why. Being a kid with a lot of allergies I took Coricidin as a kid, and they were glass bottles back then and they were great for slide. And the thing that I learned, in evolving the vocabulary of one’s instrument as free improvising and New Music people tend to do, the glass bobbin was not jagged but so it wouldn’t slide around too much it had a grasping type of surface, and when you used that on the strings, it was a nice sound. (laughs). Don’t forget, I was the new kid on the block with Chadbourne and [Henry] Kaiser at that point, that was one of the things that I was able to throw into the mix.

AL: So what else needs to be said about this record?

DM: Don’t be scared of it [laughter].

AL: Does it need to be played at maximum volume? [laughter]

DM: Hardly. Let’s just say that it’s not a flash in the pan, this is something that I have been doing since I was 17, and I have continued to do it. As Ira Cohen referred to Angus MacLise in his introduction to Map of Dusk, MacLise was a close-kept family secret, now he’s getting documented. So it’s a bit like that except I’m still alive, and able to enjoy it. I hope people don’t freak out too hard, and enjoy it.

Donald Miller, Self Portrait, pastel on paper, March 2021


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