Daniel Miller’s Depeche Moment
Daniel Miller is the founder and chairman of Mute Records, who released all of Depeche Mode‘s albums with the exception of the new one, Delta Machine. Mute started with Miller’s own project The Normal, famous for their 1978 song “Warm Leatherette”, and also released his concept synth-pop project Silicon Teens. Miller released Depeche Mode’s first single in 1981, co-produced their first five albums, and continues to act as a sounding board for their albums to this day, making his relationship with the band their most enduring. Photo of Daniel Miller by Luci Lux. Interview by Lisa Blanning.
I first saw Depeche Mode play live when they were supporting another band on Mute, Fad Gadget, at a pub in the East End of London called The Bridge House in Canning Town, roughly October 1980. I thought they were amazing. It was one of those moments when you can’t quite believe what you’re hearing or seeing. It was just three kids, really—two of them were 18, Dave was 17, and Vince was 19. They had these kind of New Romantic clothes and dodgy haircuts. And they had three simple, monophonic synthesizers teetering on the edge of beer crates. Dave had a little uplight thing to make him look gothic or spooky or something. They had a little drum machine to do the rhythms, and Dave just stood completely still throughout the whole concert. I can’t remember which song they played first; I thought, “This is amazing, but they probably just played their best song first and the rest is going to be not very good,” but it just got better and better. They were great pop songs. They were really well structured and really well arranged, based on just a drum machine and three monophonic synthesizers. The melodies, the counter-melodies to the vocals were great. It was kind of perfect, almost. Perfect in my head for what I wanted.
So, afterwards, I went backstage and said, “When are you playing again, I’d love to see you again.” They were playing The Bridge House following week supporting somebody else, so I went back to see them. I said, “It’d be great to do something together, I’d love to put out a single.” They basically said, “Okay.” I just said, “We’ll do a one-off single and see how it goes.”
Soon after we agreed to put one single out, their profile just grew very quickly. They were from Basildon, which is outside of London. They’d done a couple of small gigs. Canning Town is in London, but it’s not anywhere that journalists go, particularly. They played one show upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s, which is the West End. But very quickly after we spoke and agreed to do the single, the press started to catch on. So, there were a couple of supporters at Sounds and NME and places like that. Then they played more shows in London, and very quickly it was apparent that they were getting a big following, and then the majors started to show a lot of interest. But the band said, “Well, we’re going to do this one single with Daniel, and see how it goes.”
I went to have meetings with them and these major labels, to a certain extent because I thought they might be able to offer something that I couldn’t. I didn’t have any money, really, and I didn’t have a great international structure. But what I did have was a real understanding of what they were doing. I wasn’t just jumping on some bandwagon; I think they recognized that. And they knew the history of the label, which was quite short at that time, but still had a history. They could see that we saw eye to eye, they knew that I understood what they were trying to do; rather than, “Oh, this band looks hot, let’s try to sign them.” They were heavily pursued by other labels for a short time. You know what it’s like—at a certain point everybody’s interested. I think the band just said, “Woah, hang on. Let’s just see how it goes with Mute.” And we did the first single, which was “Dreaming Of Me” and it did quite well, went into the lower end of the chart. So we said, “We’ll do another one,” so we did “New Life” and that went to number 12 in the UK charts, sold about 500,000 copies, and was on all over the radio. It gave me the power to help set up a structure outside of the UK, and we were off and running.
I can’t remember if they asked me to go to the meetings? I don’t really know. We became close quite quickly because we went into the studio almost immediately. I took over their live sound in the beginning. I was their driver. There was one other Mute employee at the time, and she also drove them around a lot to the gigs. So, between us, we were essentially managing them, I suppose, up to a point. Stevo [Pearce], who ran Some Bizarre, put together the Some Bizarre Album, and he asked if we could put a track on there. So we recorded the original version of “Photographic” to put on that album. Even though Fletch and Martin were working and they all lived outside London, we started to work together quite a lot.
They knew about the single I made [“Warm Leatherette”], and my Silicon Teens project as well. I think that was one of the things they really liked about Mute—that it was electronic, but there was a poppy element to it. And I helped them in the studio, I kind of co-produced. I wasn’t a producer, really. I’d hardly spent any time in the studio, but I knew a bit more than them. I knew a bit more about synthesizers than them, so I was able to help them get the sounds they wanted and stuff like that.
They became successful quickly—within the first year, they’d already become quite a successful band. They got more people around them; they didn’t have a manager, but they had an accountant, a lawyer, an agent, and I was the head of the record company. I worked on the first album with them, I was their sound guy pretty much for the first album, as far as I remember. I co-produced the next four albums with them and later on with Gareth Jones. I stopped doing their live sound, obviously because I couldn’t carry on touring all the time, and I had my limits as a live sound engineer, but I was better than the ones they’d had before.
When I look back on it, I can’t quite believe it. We did five albums in five years, from 1981 through to ’86. I was in the studio with them for pretty much that entire time. And when I wasn’t in the studio, I was putting the records out. The last album which we did together, Black Celebration, was quite hard for all of us. After that, we all thought, “Let’s get somebody else.” I’d run out of steam in the studio with them, and it was time to get somebody else for them to work with.
Right up until this album—obviously the last couple of albums were Mute/EMI, but essentially on Mute—I’ve had a sort of A&R role. What that means is that I don’t spend all the time in the studio, but I’m there in the beginning when we listen to the songs, when we decide on the direction, the kind of thing we’re looking for, the producer. Then they get on with it, I go in from time to time and have a listen and make comments and so forth. And between sessions, I sit with the producer and go through tracks. So, I’m involved with the record, but I’m not producing it, certainly. I suppose my job is to try and keep it on track.
With Delta Machine, very specifically, we had a really clear idea of how it should sound right from the demos. I think part of my job was to keep that concept on track. People get lost in the studio sometimes. I don’t know what you call it, just putting my oar in. They can take or leave my comments, but that’s it, really.
I knew that they could reach beyond the subculture I was involved in because it was already different. They were pop. It was leftfield in the sense that they were electronic, but basically the songs and the presentation were quite pop. And you could feel the time was changing in the UK anyway about perceptions of what pop music was and what it could be. This was just after punk, really, and everything was changing. People were extremely open. ’78-’82 was an incredible time in the UK in music, because people were just like sponges for new ideas. And I think people like Depeche and Human League and New Order and Soft Cell, OMD—who were all part of a similar generation—these were leftfield, underground bands who all of the sudden found themselves in the charts. So Depeche Mode fitted in with that very much. I could see that potential.~
Published March 24, 2013. Words by Lisa Blanning.