Daniel Miller Interview: Mute Records & The Synth Britannia Revolution

The Quietus talks to Mute Records head honcho about synth pop, his record label, and Kraftwerk's synth that he bought on eBay

It’s fitting that the current series of Kraftwerk reissues are being released in sleeves printed with the Mute records logo. For that label that was arguably the first to take up the baton that their astonishing new sound had laid down and run with it though the outer fringes of electronic noise — and of course, with groups such as Depeche Mode and Erasure, rampant through the pop charts. Mute founder Daniel Miller is one of the talking heads on the wonderful new BBC documentary Synth Britannia, but we thought we’d give him a bell for a more in-depth natter . . .

When did you first encounter Kraftwerk?

There were the first two albums, which I heard but wasn’t really taken by. Autobahn was the one that really grabbed me, that was ’74. Year zero. I was listening ot a lot of electronic music already, and I was listening to a lot of bands who used electronics, Can, Neu! and Faust. I was listening to Carl Shcultz a lot, which was very droney, which I was very into at the time. And then Kraftwerk came out of nowhere and it seemed to make so much sense to me, it brought my musical future and past into one place. Pop element that I really liked, and the interesting electronics.

Is it strange that a lot of early electronic music has been lumped in with post punk music? Groups like Kraftwerk and Suicide were around long before punk

I don’t like the term post punk, because for most people that’s jagged, angular, Gang of Four style music. Suicide were the exception. Obviously Neu! were a punk band before punk, Hawkwind were a punk band before punk. What happened was there was a coming together of a number of things that caused all these people, including me, to make music at that particular moment. There was the work of Kraftwerk or Giorgio Morodor and the electronic stuff that had gone before. There was the inspiration of punk to go out and do what you wanted, and the DIY revolution, and then the first cheap synths coming out. Economics and pop music are always closely linked. People in the late-50s couldn’t afford a Fender Stratocaster, but when the cheaper versions came out it enabled them to make rock and roll music. In the same way we weren’t able to afford MOOGs and ARPs in the 70s, but when the early Korgs came out it was so different because we could afford it.

How long did it take to master your first Korg?

I was doing stuff day one. It was pretty simple, I was immediately recording, right from the word go, and I was learning as I went along. On that particular synthesiser they used very odd, unconventional terminology that didn’t relate to what you’d normally use. That was the first synthesiser I had so I thought it was the industry standard terminology, terms like ‘traveller’, ‘expand’ but nobody used that apart from that synth, and I had to relearn all that.

What reaction did you get as The Normal from punk fans?

I toured with Robert Rental, who had also made a single on his own. We’d met through a Throbbing Gristle gig. We were only going to do one show, but we got offered a Rough Trade tour with Stiff Little Fingers, we did that, and it went down pretty badly, with quite violent reactions. It was quite good fun, we were never in danger of our lives, and we almost didn’t want to go down well, but there was always a clutch of people who after the shows were really into it, and that was really encouraging, You always felt like they were going to go on and spread the word.

The documentary makes a lot of the built environment, the society that was around in Britain at the time, did that feed into The Normal and your music?

It didn’t have a direct influence, but there’s no question that was around when I was working in that environment. it was a pretty grim place, that time in Britain, it wasn’t a direct reaction to it really. I recognised a lot of in the JG Ballard books, that obviously had an influence, but I was doing it in a vacuum, it was all my world in my own head, as far as I was concerned.

Were the electronic groups taking a more intellectual approach than punk?

I don’t think so, I think we were absorbing our contemporary culture. We were reading books and watching films. Wire or Gang of Four were taking a very intellectual approach.

I always see Wire as quite removed from the rest of the guitar groups of the time though…

Wire were in many ways an electronic band who used guitars. That’s what I always thought of Wire as. They couldn’t play their instruments very well, and the way the music turned out sounded quite electronic.

Did the speed of technological advance affect things?

The technology was moving already. Part of us lot, the Synth Britannia lot if you want to call it that, we got on board the technology moving train, and it carried on moving. Originally you had to play everything by hand, then pretty soon basic sequencers were around, then basic computers, it all moved pretty quickly. There were things like the Roland MC4 that came along in 1980, 81, which was a very basic computerised sequencer, which was available to people who’d had a hit – it was expensive, but not super expensive. One of the natures of people who want to create new sounds is they want new synthesisers to figure out ways of creating those new sounds. So you’ll notice, including me and the Human League and various others of those groups, we all started off with one little synthesisers and ended up with fucking banks of them. I don’t really know any of those other guys that well, but we’ve always ended up accumulating things over the years. I don’t really collect synths, apart from my one purchase which is the Kraftwerk synth.

Ah yes, in the doc there’s the ‘Autobahn’ Do you have a go on that?

It wasn’t really working when I bought it, but the guy who does a lot of maintenance work in the studio has tried to fix it, and it nearly works now.

Was this the last time Britain could really lead the world?

I think it was probably the last British new form of music. The introduction of electronics into music, obviously hip hop, drum & bass, techo, it all comes from that, you can trace it all back to Kraftwerk really. What we did, and what some of the Germans did at the time, was bring it to a more populist level, German groups like DAF and people like that. It’s hard to say… I was taken slightly out of context on the programme, I keep saying it’s not a very English form, but the context of that was more in terms of the media, not the people who made it or the people who llked it.

A lot of it sounds very British, in terms of aesthetic and lyrics…

Yeah there’s a slightly eccentric view of life which is very English. And we invented the hovercraft, for fuck’s sake. The Americans obviously invented hip hop and made it huge, which is their usual thing, but we invented the computer, the internet, the jet engine, and the Americans usually make it in their own image and sell it back to the world. In the 60s we did it and sent it back to them. Anyway, when I said it’s not very English it’s very much the media response. They felt they had to deal with this, and then as soon as some fucking fourpiece rock band comes along, they go after that, because that’s where their heart is.

When Gary Numan had his breakthrough with The Pleasure Principle, how did that change things?

I didn’t really know his stuff, it came from nowhere a little bit. I was quite surprised by it. I quite liked it, but I think all the early pioneers – and I think that came across in the programme quite well – were rather taken aback by it. Like Phil Oakey said, we felt that’s our chance gone now, Gary Numan’s taken it. But I wasn’t really going for the pop thing anyway at that point, so it was a mixed feeling. I didn’t think it was that great, I thought well if that’s what electronic music is then I’m not sure how I feel about that, but on the other hand if people are listening to this, then maybe there’s room for something else.

Did it open doors for Mute artists?

I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I suppose it did in a way… our records sounded very different from Gary Numan’s records, his used guitars and drums and bass, certainly on the first lot, but ours were different. It was all part of a change. fter punk, I think people were really desperate for new things, there was this openness, and that was the door we all got through when Gary Numan had that first hit.

Were you surprised how Depeche Mode were received?

With Depeche that was the first time I thought this is real pop music. That’s what I said to them when I first started to work with them, I said ‘let’s do a single’, I’ve got no idea how pop music works, but I am a fan of pop music and this should be a hit. It is pop music, and let’s not pretend it’s anything else, let’s see how we go and if it doesn’t work out go somewhere else. So we didn’t do a contract, we just put out a single and they were reasonably happy with how they went, we put out another single and that was a hit, and the next was an even bigger hit and it just went on from there really.

No, not really. I knew they were hit records, I felt they were great pop records, and I felt the time was right for those records to come out, we weren’t in the middle of some horrendous Britpop thing. They were homemade really, there was no pop expertise behind them. There was no marketing expertise behind the record, we were doing it by the seat of our pants. I was producing it, but I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, I just knew slightly more than they did. As time went on we got more people involved in the marketing and promotion side of it, but at the beginning it was just us. We were very confident about it, I wouldn’t say we were arrogant, but we were very confident, because all the major labels were saying to Depeche – because by that point everybody was trying to sign them – everybody was saying ‘oh you’ll never have a hit with Mute, you’d never have international success with Mute, they’re too small, they don’t know what they’re doing’. That definitely inspired us all to make it work, so we really went for it. Our intention was not to put out a nice single and then for somebody else to pick it up, we were trying to prove that we could do it ourselves in an industry that was changing very fast.

Looking at the way that Mute developed, was it conscious to put out records by NON and Neubauten as a counter to the pop?

NON was a very early Mute release before Depeche. I met Boyd Rice really early on soon after The Normal came out and we did some work together. That was Mute 004, so that was pretty early. Neubauten and stuff wasn’t really a counter, I just wanted to do the music I like. I really love pop music and I really love experimental music, I just don’t like much in between. My teenage years were in the 60s, and that was the golden period of pop music in British history. I was very into music when I was a kid, obsessed by it, and that remained with me, and as time went on I got into much more experimental things, and that stayed with me, so that’s always been what it is really.

Do you think labels too often forget that they can do both? Looking at Mute in the 80s you had huge hits with people like Erasure on one hand, and working with Diamanda Galas on the other…

I think a good independent label will reflect the tastes of its owner and the people who work there. A major label is trying to make money for their shareholders, it’s two different things. You look at Domino, I think Domino’s great because it completely reflects the tastes of the people who work there. Whereas Universal doesn’t really reflect the tastes of the people who work there, it reflects the needs of the company. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just two different approaches. The music I put out being Diamanda Galas and Erasure – even though they worked together and were huge fans of each other – it made sense to me, they were logical releases to me. I am the only person who likes everything on Mute, and that’s that really.

Full details of the BBC’s Synth Britannia schedule:

Synth Britannia

Friday 16 Oct, 9.00pm – 10.30pm




Synth at the BBC

Friday 16 Oct, 10.30pm – 11.30pm, BBC 4

Synth performances from the BBC archives including Roxy Music, Human League, Ultravox and Eurythmics.

6 Mix – Gary Numan

Saturday 17 October

9.00pm-11.00pm, BBC 6 Music

Gary Numan joins the dots between electronic music and 21st-century synth pop

6 Music Plays it Again

Tuesday 20 – Friday 23 October

Midnight – 00.30am, BBC 6 Music

The Great Bleep Forward (4 part music doc). Andrew Collins explores the development of electronic music.

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