Steve Miller's new release, Bingo!, his first new studio album in 17 years, is a collection of blues covers.
Steve Miller is back in the game — and playing by his own rules as usual.
The singer-guitarist has just released Bingo!, his first new studio album in 17 years. But if you think he spent that time painstakingly crafting new material that can stand next to ’70s hits like The Joker, Jet Airliner, Rock’n Me and Take the Money and Run, think again.
“I’m 66 years old, and I don’t give a f--- about that stuff anymore,” laughs Miller from his home in Ketchum, Idaho. “I don’t even think about it.
“If I wrote new originals, you’d just go, ‘Ehh, not as good as Fly Like an Eagle.’ That’s just the nature of the game. Nobody wants to hear new originals — nobody.”
Instead, he’s banking on the belief that what his fans really want to hear are blues covers. Bingo! — the first of two discs he cut — finds Miller applying his distinctive double-tracked space-cowboy vocals and strummy guitars to classics from Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Jimmy Reed, along with newer fare from former Fabulous Thunderbirds axe-man and fellow Texan Jimmy Vaughan.
While gearing up to play Bingo! in Toronto and Montreal in the coming weeks, the outspoken rocker talked frankly about the death of his longtime sideman Norton Buffalo, his undying love for record executives and how time kept on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ away between CDs. Here are the highlights:
Why has it been 17 years since your last CD?
The main reason is just record companies. The last album I put out was in ‘93 with Phonogram. They were just absurd to work with. It was just such a waste of time and so annoying. We were gonna do an 18-month world tour. We got to Australia. The first gig was for 80,000 people at a racetrack — and I found out they had only 3,000 CDs for sale in the entire country. I take those kind of things personally. So I grabbed the manager of Phonogram in Australia by his necktie and pulled his head down on the table and started TALKING! TO! HIM! After that, I just went, ‘I don’t need this.’ Life was good. We were selling a million records a year because of classic-rock radio. We were touring. And it was so pleasant to just remove those guys from the equation. But I’ve been recording all along. I just go in the studio, cut a bunch of stuff, pass out a few copies, forget about it and go back to the road. I did an acoustic recording. I did a bunch of jazz tracks. But this was the first serious album I had done. I didn’t know how it would turn out. But it just kept getting better and better.
How did you pick these songs?
Well, the first thing was I hired a bunch of 13 year olds and paid them $10 an hour to load my entire CD collection into my computer. That actually went on for a couple of years. Then one day, I hit the blues button. And 6,000 songs came up. I got fascinated. The next thing I knew, it was four days later and I had culled 6,000 down to about 170 songs. I had grown up with a lot of these songs. I grew up in Texas in the ’50s, before radio became homogenized. We heard a lot of blues and R&B and country music. And these songs were big hits in the late ’50s and early ’60s in Texas.
But you never had any desire to write new material?
When people my age write their own stuff, you can smell the burning brain tissue. If I started writing songs, I wouldn’t be as optimistic as I was when I was younger. They’d be songs about politics and the IRS, and who cares? Whereas this stuff is really joyous, great music. And we put as much work into each one of these as you would put into your own songs. It wasn’t like we just sat down and knocked them out. These things have been slowly simmered over a long period of time. The effort that went into the guitar playing was just as great as the effort that would go into writing lyrics. So for me, it was really a satisfying deal.
It must be weird to go out and play without Norton (Buffalo, Miller’s longtime harmonica player, who died in October).
Yeah. We played together for 33 years — a lot longer than some marriages. He was such a partner. And it happened so fast. You hear people say that, but it’s true. We had just finished a 29-city tour. He wasn’t feeling good at the end. He called me the next day and told me he had brain cancer and lung cancer. And he was gone 60 days later. It was just so unexpected. And it’s heartbreaking to not have him there. But that’s what happens when you get old; people you love start dying. Life becomes kind of bittersweet. Tours and record projects become more important. You want to make the most of your time and you wish you had a couple of hundred more years, but you don’t.
In light of that, don’t you wish you’d put out more albums over the last 17 years?
Nah. I think my recording history is full and magnificent and has done quite well. And the fact that I didn’t have to go through all that BS with those record company people has been absolutely delightful.