Roger C. Miller (Mission Of Burma, Trinary System et al.) on…
Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (Columbia, 1967)
In the fall of 1968 I was in eleventh grade and psychedelia was in full swing. I was playing in bands, idolizing Hendrix and Cream, and listening to the most far-out sounds I could find. My dad, who played piano in college and was always supportive of my music, suggested my brothers and I go to the ‘Contemporary Directions’ concerts at the University of Michigan Music School in Ann Arbor where we lived. Here we’d hear the latest avant-garde ‘serious music’ – Stockhausen, Terry Riley, etc. This had a profound effect on my thinking. We’d get stoned in the afternoon and go see the MC5 at the free park concert. Then, at night, get stoned again and see the latest avant-chamber music. It all merged.
In early 1969 my parents went out square-dancing and my brothers Laurence and Benjamin and I borrowed a cheap webcor tape recorder, toked up, and had a jam session on my current band’s equipment in the basement. We were amazed at the spontaneity that resulted, how we let go of all the rules. We were no longer playing blues-rock – we were just going where-ever we felt like. And it made real sense! Upon listening back, we realized the closest thing these jams sounded like in the real world was Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”. From then on, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was a driving force in my life. Someone had been there before me, and that was where I wanted to go.
Syd Barrett’s interests were certainly as much Stockhausen as The Beatles (and, though I didn’t know it at the time, AMM). His guitar solo in “Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk” was once described to me as the ugliest guitar solo ever recorded. I loved it. Richard Wright’s intuitive interplay with Syd is all over the record. As a keyboardist, it’s clear he had studied music more than the other lads. But his playing never comes off as studied – he’s rippin’ it right along with Syd. While Waters usually holds down some semblance of a root chord, those two created interactive sounds rather than endless solos. Like thoughts melting and reforming, sometimes forgetting where they were ten seconds earlier.
This was no longer the extended neo-blues of Cream: this was another category entirely. I’d gathered extended thinking from “Tomorrow Never Knows” and deconstruction of the electric guitar via “Third Stone From The Sun”. But somehow Barrett and Company blended these things into a continuous whole that I could grasp, integrate, and work from.
And Barrett’s child-like demeanor fit my personality more than the macho posing of, say, Jim Morrison, or even Hendrix when he went that direction. His blend of fairy-tales and dream-like material appealed deeply to me: I still have dreams I wrote down at age seven, and have kept a dream journal since 1972. In many ways, psychedelic drugs create a state where you are dreaming while fully awake. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes amazingly fun.
The 1969 jam session mentioned above lead directly to the formation of my first all-original band, Sproton Layer (with my two brothers). The unusual juxtaposition of riffs and sounds, so similar to Floyd’s improvs, became part of our language. And the child-like innocence was there, too. Not as a knock-off, but as a resonance. For years, I could think of no one other than Syd Barrett that was my ideal.
I have grown up and matured as a musician, and Barrett no longer imposes as deeply on my music. Yet you can feel elements of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn even in Mission of Burma. Last year my new rock band Trinary System covered “Lucifer Sam”, adhering as close as possible to the original. Why mess with a masterpiece.
Curiously, Syd’s given name was ‘Roger’, like in one of my previous favorite bands, the 13th Floor Elevators, where Roky’s given name also was ‘Roger’. I kept my name ‘Roger’, and perhaps that’s what saved me: unlike those two heroes of mine, I went through my acid phase and came out pretty much in one piece.
Notes On The Artist:
Having properly started his music career with brothers Benjamin and Laurence Miller in Sproton Layer in 1969, Roger Clark Miller is best known for his subsequent co-leadership and vocalist/guitarist role in Boston’s highly influential post-art-punk quartet Mission Of Burma. During Mission Of Burma’s initial run between 1979 and 1983, the band yielded a pair of singles, the seminal Signals, Calls, And Marches mini-album in 1981 (as profiled in a previous Artists On Albums feature by Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo) and the still remarkable Vs. LP in 1982, alongside a series of other studio and live recordings that eventually emerged on archive releases in the years before and after the band reformed in 2002. Mission Of Burma’s still ongoing second epoch has brought us the respectably solid studio album run of 2006’s ONoffON, 2006’s The Obliterati and 2009’s The Sound The Speed The Light for Matador as well as 2012’s Unsound on Fire Records.
Outside of Mission Of Burma, Miller has also spread his multi-instrumentalist and compositional talents amongst a myriad of other musical outlets over the last three and a half decades – too numerous detail in full here – more often than not featuring his piano/keyboard-playing skills to the fore as much as his knack for guitar and bass. This has included, amongst many other projects, more experimentalist work with Birdsongs Of Mesozoic, Maximum Electric Piano and M-3, instrumental accompaniments to silent films as part of the Alloy Orchestra, post-jazz explorations as one half of Binary System, guitar-driven avant-rock with No Man and a series of genre-hopping solo records. Additionally, Miller has stretched himself into composing classical scores, film soundtrack commissions, work as a visual art and book/record critiquing.
Most latterly, Miller is focused on yet another band, in the shape of Trinary System. The still-fresh Boston-birthed trio finds Miller leading the charge with the able assistance of Lawrence Dersch and P. Andrew Willis. The threesome’s promising self-released debut download/seven-inch combo EP, Amplify The Amplifiers, which appeared to not enough fanfare last year, extends upon Miller’s blistering psych-infused solo-traded “Big Steam” b/w “Dream Interpretation” 7” from 2012. Shifting through snaky garage-blues (“Dave Davies”), sinewy early-Burma-like twists and churns (“This House” and “Chemical Stew”), elegiac Sonic Youth abstraction (“Living By Flashlight”) and pummelling Jesus Lizard-indebted swamp-punk (“HOV-1 Violator”). In-between localised touring, Trinary System are gearing-up to record a full-length release this coming summer.