From Brisbane to London (feat. Jake Miller)

Since beginning as a studio assistant in Australia in 2008, Jake has worked in studios around the world including Abbey Road, RAK, Strongroom, Flux Studios, 301, Sing Sing and more as an assistant, engineer and mixer, and eventually as a producer himself. Working across a wide range of genres, from conventional synth and guitar pop music, to avant garde electronic and contemporary classical music. To date, Jake has worked with the likes of Imogen Heap, Aurora, Femme & Alison Moyet through to Dreller, Jesse Davidson, Dama Scout, Puma Blue and many other established and emerging independent artists. He’s also had the privilege of working with London Contemporary Orchestra, the UK’s premier contemporary classical ensemble – well known for their work with Radiohead and Jonny Greenwood on both commercial releases and films such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread”.

Can you please clearly outline all your current musical projects and professions which make up your life as a professional musician?

I guess everything I do falls somewhere on the spectrum of Producer, Mixer, Engineer, Musician, Writer and… un-qualified Therapist/Psychologist? It’s confusing to me what it is I actually do, sometimes.

How do manage your time to make room for each of these commitments whilst keeping yourself financially independent and living a relatively balanced life?

I can’t honestly say there’s any intentional organisation or prioritisation of any one of them, other than that I will just gravitate to whatever will make me happiest at the time while still making rent. My social life is 90% musicians I work with, anyway. So it’s all one big amorphous thing.

Of all your skills (performing, recording, mixing etc) can you specify the order in which each of these skills pays relevance to your income? For example, does mixing make up most of your income etc..

Producing/Mixing/Recording are all more or less tied at the hip… with mixing being the only thing I occasionally do separately to the rest. I tend to choose just a few projects to get invested in, but I’ll see them through from early demos to the day it all goes off to mastering… and increasingly involved even with the execution of releases and things like that. I like to work with people who I think can genuinely benefit from my input. As amazing as it seems for those working with established artists 100% of the time, that comes with a whole other set of challenges that can often be a hindrance to doing something original.

My good friend Leila Arab and I are working on starting up a record label together at the moment, to kind of complete the circle and be able to have total control over what we choose to work on or invest ourselves in.

Do you have a method or personalised criteria to help decide whether to take on a new project or opportunity?

It just has to make me excited about making music. Whether that’s because it’s already great and just want to be involved, or because I think there’s something I can do to help make it better.

Do you remember when and why you focused on being an engineer and not a performing musician?

It’s just something I kept coming back to and always finding something new to enjoy about. Having a career in it just occurred in parallel to enjoying it and trying to find new opportunities for improving at it … but I was also very specific about wanting to become good at it on a professional scale. In the last 2-3 years I’ve gravitated away from engineering as an occupation, though. Now I work mostly as a producer, and often as a mixer, but even that is normally just a bridge to working together on something new in the future.

When and why did you decide to relocate from Australia to London?

I’d wanted to go for a long time but I finally did in mid-2013. Reason being, I was just unhappy in Australia and found myself wanting more than what was on offer. I’ve found the Australian music scene has (or has had in the past) a pretty poor attitude towards paying people for their time in music. I recall a lot of musicians had an attitude that a studio or engineer should feel privileged to even be considered, and would constantly tout the “I have no money” spiel … always forgetting that they lived in a small community, and you’d inevitably see them spending probably $300 in a weekend on drugs and alcohol… or going on lengthy holidays and what not. I was always baffled how some people could have the nerve to ask you to work for free to realise their artistic vision…. with a beer (or even a $20 cocktail) in hand… bizarre.

That’s not to say London is a utopia… budgets are still tight and you have to be resourceful all the same. But I’d say, across the board people are at the very least much more aware and appreciative of the time and energy that goes into making a recording/production. Almost everyone in London is from somewhere else and has travelled here for more or less the same reason as you. Few have the comfort of living at (or even near) home, living in that bubble… so there is a sense of community amongst artists since everyone seems to be in the same boat. No one’s going to stand there and ask you to to make sacrifices without making some themselves, not with a straight face. At least not the people I’ve been working with, anyway. They’re often even quite forthcoming about trying to compensate you in other ways. Whether it’s royalties, commitments to repay you over time, or some kind of perk – an introduction or some equipment. There’s always an exchange. It’s rare they’ll ask you for “something for nothing”.

That’s just one, very boring side of things, though. Artistically, I’ve found musicians here are much more daring and individualistic. I think Australian musicians can suffer from the isolation – of course, some thrive, too! But there are also far more radio stations, venues, festivals, labels and everything here… as well as all of Europe at your doorstep. It certainly allows for a lot more freedom and many more avenues for different forms of success – as a musician or music professional of any description.

Can you please share what key differences you noticed in the industry and your personal career once you got settled in London?

A key difference in my specific part of the industry would be: There’s room for everyone. I had a few strange, alienating experiences in Australian studios. People are very guarded and protective of their jobs or positions of power, always wary of potential usurpers or competition. In London, I find people are happy to take time to meet you and find some way for everyone to survive. But there’s also a lot more work to be done here… so I guess that makes sense. Even places like Abbey Road, the day I walked in for my first day there in 2013, everyone was really interested in who I was, and were all so friendly and accommodating. I remember having quite an emotional ride home that night. I’d never really experienced that kind of instant, unconditional kindness in a studio full of strangers before. It instantly gratified all the trouble I’d gone to relocate here.

I know you went to great efforts to be a “fly on the wall” so to speak, with a number of engineers at various studios in both Australia and London. Can you describe how you made these arrangements and share some of the key skills you learnt throughout these experiences?

Just emails and saying hello. You just have to have a bit of persistence and pluck up some courage – it helps to try to strike a balance between seeming capable and wanting to learn at the same time. I have a lot of studio managers and owners tell me how many assistant applications they throw away from young “producers” because they already seem to think they know everything and are just looking for a studio to get free time out of. A bit of humility will go a long way… keep the brown-nosing in check though, too.

How do you manage to stay up to date with new gear and instruments given the constant and rapid developments in technology?

There’s no good answer for this, I’m just a nerd and I like knowing what’s happening. Lots of engineers and producers prefer sticking to what they know, but I really enjoy changing my tools all the time and seeing what comes out of it. That’s not to say I don’t have a handful of tried and true pieces of equipment or software I use every session.

Do you have any pet peeves when working with a band in the studio?

Egos or paranoia getting in the way of making better decisions.

Do you have an opinion on digital vs analogue gear? How does this relate to the choices you make as an engineer?

Whatever works… I enjoy working both ways and they both have their pros and cons. The only thing you can’t do something good without is good source material… ie “A song”.

What would you say are the key skills you need to create good mixes?

Perspective, and your best attempt at objectivity when it comes to removing your ego from what’s best for the mix.

Do you have any “go to” reference mixes that you regularly use?

For guitar music… probably stuff like Deerhoof, Autolux, CAN, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead.

For electronic stuff, maybe some Björk records, Aphex, Ryoji Ikeda, Sakamoto/Alva Noto collaborations.

Then I’m also into lots of classical and contemporary classical music by Messiaen, Ravel, Satie, Chopin, Arvo Pärt and Morton Feldman.

Have you found a correlation between your interests in music listening and your strengths as an engineer? For example, does your love for guitar based music match your strengths as an engineer?

I think it certainly helps… I still find sometimes after a long period of not working on guitar music that it always comes back quite naturally. A natural sense of what’s right… where maybe in other areas of music, I have to consider the decisions I’m making a little more carefully.

Do you spend time composing your own music? If so, can you explain what your interest in composing is and how you go about sharing your music?

I’ve always had projects where I’ve added parts or edited existing parts with the artists, and sometimes I write on my own just for fun… but now there are some things happening that will mean some of the latter will get heard. But it’s involved a lot of stripping those things back down and re-arranging them for a completely different context. It’s taking time but it’s going to be good, I think.

How have your interests within music changed over your career? For example, has practising become less of a priority and recording original music is now more of a focal point?

Yes, definitely. Although I find I go out of practice much slower than I used to because all the time between practising I’m still in studios listening to and working on music all day. I’m definitely more focused on the production end of things now, informed by engineering/mixing. The technical side of things has become more of a tool for getting places faster when making musical decisions. It’s great to have that side of things practised to a point it feels quite natural so that when you are “in the moment”, so to speak, you’re not trying to remember rudimentary things about recording or sound manipulation to get to where you want to go.

If you could simply create more time for yourself, how would you use it? For example, would you invest in more music-related skills or study, or spend more time at home etc..

If I could create more time for myself only… I’d probably wind up working in it, but ideally, I’d probably spend it doing more music outside of work.

Regarding the digital world, how much time and energy do you invest in social media/online presence vs face to face meetings, networking and branding etc

Zero investment in online presence. I mostly just meet people face to face or over introduction by email. But that’s increasingly being taken care of by my manager now, too, so I can get on with music.

What’s the most valuable career investment you’ve made to get to where you are now? Is there anything you wish you did differently that in hindsight you feel would’ve positioned you better?

Moving to London. I don’t think there’s anything I’d change, really, apart from having a little more patience, so that the waiting would seem a little more bearable.

If you could only practice three things what would they be?

I honestly have no idea.

What would you say to someone wishing to be prepared for a career as a professional engineer?

Well, I actually don’t like engineering much. It’s become a bit of a means to an end, but it’s a skill I like having and I’m glad I invested the time in getting good at it. I guess the first thing I would say to someone who thinks they’d like to be an engineer is “Are you sure you know what that means?”. Because engineering alone is a pretty thankless task. You’re just a living, breathing tool for someone creative to utilise. If you’re happy to be that person, then go for it. If what you’re actually looking for is a less rigid creative role… it may not be for you.

Where would you like to be in 5 years?

Here, but hopefully getting paid more and flying around a bit more maybe, too. I’m heading to LA later this year for some work, that’ll be fun.

If you had to play in one band only, who would it be?

Jeez… Melt Banana?

If you could pivot to another occupation, what would it be?

Probably the tech industry.

Have you ever wished you weren’t a musician or felt stuck?

Guy Sigsworth once said to me “You don’t really just do music out of choice, you ‘catch’ it… then you feel like you don’t really have another choice anymore.” – or something along those lines. He’s right, I think. You reach a point where the pull towards it is stronger than any desire for stability or normalcy you have, so you just make it work for the sake of not losing your mind doing something else.

Do you have any other hobbies or interests outside of music?

Technology, scientific news… I dunno… girls? Is that an interest?

If you could study with any musician who would it be?

Olivier Messiaen, hands down.

Do you have any plans to return to Australia any time soon?

I’m not 100% sure… it’ll happen sooner or later, lots of family and friends still there who I miss. But I don’t imagine I’ll ever come back to live.

Any other comments or insights you wish to share?

Nothing that won’t make me look like (more of) a wanker, I’m sure. I think I’ve done enough rambling now.

If you want to find out more about Jake head to:

jakemiller.com.au

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