This month, as part of its 11th anniversary celebrations, long-running 'pan-Asian' event label Antidote is winging in Daniel Miller for a few dates in Beijing and Shanghai. Miller is best known as the founder of legendary UK label Mute Records, which carved out its own distinct corner of the post-punk landscape and launched the careers of Depeche Mode and Moby. Mute started with 'Warm Leatherette', a cult-hit single by Miller's own one-man band, The Normal, and successively went on to release wave after wave of forward-thinking post-punk and electro, seemingly always one step ahead of the zeitgeist.
Miller will DJ a set of minimal techno when he visits Beijing this month. Ahead of that, Time Out spoke with him about the bridge between punk and electronic music, the subtleties of techno's enduring appeal and how insane it was to see Slovenian industrial band Laibach perform in Pyongyang last year.
You got back into DJ'ing relatively recently, right? How?
Yeah, it was a few years ago. Regis from Sandwell District was doing a party at Berghain in Berlin and wanted me to play. I said I can't, I haven't DJ'd for years, but he said, 'No, you can do it.' So I did, and really enjoyed it.
What kind of music do you play now? How has your aesthetic or approach as a DJ changed?
I haven't done that much DJ'ing in my life. I did some really early, in my early twenties. Then in the '90s and early '00s me and a friend did a lot of playing around with loops, which is not really DJ'ing. It's only in the last few years that I've done real club DJ'ing. It's basically techno, I'm not using vinyl, I'm using digital files. So it's very different from when I was a DJ when I was 21.
As someone who experienced the successive births of punk, industrial and techno, how did these genres co-exist back in the '70s and '80s?
What punk did was really… it was a break with most of the things that had happened before. I think for my generation, people in their early twenties, we really loved music but got disheartened by the things that had been released in the mid-'70s. Prog rock, singer-songwriter stuff, it wasn't very exciting and not very experimental. What punk did was inspire people to be much more open-minded about music.
I've always been interested in electronic music. Of course, punks hated electronic music, because it was misrepresented as prog rock in a way. Most people hated electronic music. Musicians in general hated it because they thought it wasn't real music. So actually, electronic music was more punk than punk rock was. But a lot of people started getting into it around that time, because cheap synthesizers started coming out, home recording equipment became more accessible. People didn't have to book recording studios, and could just experiment with sounds. Industrial music came out of that era. The term was coined by Throbbing Gristle, it was the name of their label. They were one of the first of that post-punk generation to experiment with electronics. The term techno didn't really come until about ten years later, in the mid-'80s. And of course that came out of Detroit, but was very influenced by what was happening in Europe with bands like Human League, Depeche Mode. They were hugely influential. So it all kind of relates in a way.
Daniel Miller at Mute HQ, 1981
Do you think artists today have it easier or harder, now that genres like punk and techno have lost their novelty or their experimental core?
It's harder and easier. The tools that you have available to you now… I wouldn't say they're better, but they're much more accessible, and there are a lot more of them. You can download free things from the internet and play around on your computer and compose. The way of making music is probably easier. And of course, a lot has been done, but that doesn't mean you can't be original. It's harder, of course. In 1975, just before punk, everyone probably thought, 'Well, everything's been done in music now. We've had the Beatles, we've had the Stones, we've had the Grateful Dead, all the singer-songwriter guys, the psychedelic movement.' That's what it felt like at the time, like everything's been done and now we're just going backwards. Punk broke that cycle down and inspired more people to do all these interesting things.
You could pick almost any moment in recent musical history and say 'It's all been done now.' After Revolver or Sergeant Pepper or whatever, people said, 'Well, that's it.' It clearly hasn't all been done. It's just that we don't quite know what it is that's coming next, which is what makes it exciting.
You've always seemed to embrace eclecticism with the Mute roster. Could you boil down your guiding mission or aesthetic into one golden rule?
There are a few rules. I seek out what I believe to be original music by people who are really talented artists with a long-term artistic vision. Those are the kind of people I'm interested in working with. It has to be beyond excellence, it has to be the best there is of whatever they're doing. Those are the kind of people I like to work with: people who are ambitious, who work very hard. It's not about genres particularly. It's more about the quality of the artist.
What artists or genres do you find most interesting today?
It's not really a genre, particularly. I love electronic music again. I think it went through a period where it wasn't moving forward in an interesting way. I love techno. Since I've been DJ'ing I've been engaged with techno much more, which I've really enjoyed. What I like about techno is the limitations that it imposes on the producer. Because for it to work in context, there are certain rules that you have to follow and that's what I find exciting about it. It's the kind of minimalist aesthetic that I've always loved. I don't think people necessarily appreciate that about it, to many people it all sounds the same. But I love the subtleties. It's not just club music for me. That's where its natural home is, but really great techno I can listen to at home with my feet up. I like how it's still experimental and still challenging to make it work in an interesting way.
How will Brexit affect your bottom line or your cultural circle?
It's really hard to say right now, because nothing's been negotiated. We're still in the EU as we speak. Looking at the negotiations from a business point of view, I don't think it's going to make that much difference. But it's hard to say. I think it could be problematic from the cultural point of view, possibly. A lot of British musicians live in different parts of Europe now, obviously they're going to need visas and work permits. But it's impossible to say right now because nobody really knows. It could be more difficult, but not impossible. I remember before being in the EU, it was more complicated crossing borders in a band with all your equipment. It didn't stop bands touring, it was just a bit of a hassle.
You went to Pyongyang last year to see Laibach. That must have been pretty insane… What sticks in your memory about the experience?
It's otherworldly, in a way. It's like you know you're in a place called North Korea, but you're not sure if it's actually North Korea. It's got this dreamlike feeling about it. Put Laibach into that context and it becomes a very, very bizarre dream. It was so beyond the imagination that it was possible that this could have happened.
Highlights were the concert of course, which was a success. I sat next to the Syrian ambassador to North Korea, that was a highlight for me. I stayed on for a few days after Laibach left, so I was alone with the guide, because you can't go anywhere without being escorted. Hanging out was quite good. There's a massive museum in Pyongyang called the Museum of Liberation with a lot of exhibits about the Korean War and liberation from the Japanese. And there weren't any people in the whole museum. Those kinds of experiences are really odd.
Visiting a music school was great. There was a big music school, 5,000 students I think; we went there with Laibach and were shown around. You know, the North Korean government really encourages musical talent. You hear Western Classical music on the radio wherever you go. That was a bit surprising. And not being able to talk to anybody in the rest of the world for a week was great.
You also visited Beijing at the time, right? What did you get up to here?
Yeah, I visited Beijing en route to Pyongyang. A guy I know, Ed Peto, was my guide for two days. I met quite a few people in the independent music scene there, and I visited Dada, the club where I'm gonna be playing in Beijing, and met Michael [Ohlsson]. It was great to meet people in the music scene. It was a very brief visit, but really interesting. I'm looking forward to coming back.
Cover photo by Diane Zillmer