In Conversation: Sunroof’s Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones Discuss Their Debut LP 40 Years in the Making
The Mute Records founder and Depeche Mode producer talk collaboration, modular synths, and the influence of Kraftwerk on their new record.
Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones have long been two of the most respected and risk-taking names in experimental European-British electronic music. When Miller wasn’t busy forging his own path as a lo-fi, analog electro-punk music maker (1978’s “Warm Leatherette” as The Normal), he was making the world safe for equally adventurous electronic artists courtesy of his label Mute Records. Wire, Depeche Mode, Yaz (or Yazoo, depending where in the world you live), Fad Gadget, Moby, Nick Cave, Erasure, and Goldfrapp made Mute their starting gate and longtime home, turning Miller into a man equal parts mentor and guru.
Jones wasn’t far behind Miller when it came to innovative electronic pop. Getting his feet wet engineering John Foxx’s minimalist solo debut Metamatic in 1980, Jones went on to produce Einstürzende Neubauten, Fad Gadget, Tuxedomoon, and Wire while transforming Depeche Mode from twee electro-pop to something dark, harsh, and industrial on albums such as 1983’s Construction Time Again, 1984’s Some Great Reward, and 1986’s Black Celebration.
With Jones and Miller quickly becoming part of each other’s lives and sounds, it was no time before the two electronic musicians began experimenting with each other. Titling their modular synthesizer improvisational jam session duet/production gig Sunroof, the pair followed the lead of fellow Mute artists Chris Carter and Martin Gore by focusing on blunt, concise sound portraits with the release of Electronic Music Improvisations, Vol. 1, their first full-length after 41 years of friendship and collaboration.
From the confines of Zoom and the comfort of Berlin (Miller) and Buckinghamshire (Jones), Sunroof opened up about forging a friendship and making noise over the past four decades.
What do you two recall about your initial meetings and what you first liked about each other?
Gareth Jones: Even before our first meeting, Daniel was a synth wizard—certainly from my perspective. I was on a steep learning curve by the time I got into the studio with Daniel and Depeche Mode. Mostly, what I was learning about then was how to craft melodies. It was a mix of Daniel’s focus and understanding of developing songs that really impressed me. That, and the fact that he was a bit of a genius on the synths. He had an ARP 2600 and a wonderful ARP sequencer at that time—still does, I think. He was able to dive into new sonic territories with ease. I admired that greatly. Plus, he did hire me, so that was a bonus.
Daniel Miller: The time that we met, the label and I were getting ready to embark on a new Depeche Mode record, Construction Time Again, and the band and I were looking for a different approach. We’d had great experiences up to that point with Eric Radcliffe, but we felt that we needed something else. We were referred to Gareth by John Foxx, with whom he worked on Metamatic, and immediately seemed to be that “something different.” I appreciate that he called me a “synth wizard”—bear in mind, we met in 1982, and I had started in 1978—more of an apprentice, really. The wizards were the people I looked up to, such as Klaus Schulze and Kraftwerk. Anyway, Gareth’s experience at that time—beyond Metamatic, which was a pop record, certainly more structured—led him to believe that Depeche Mode was a little too poppy for him. Which was good. We also thought that, and wanted to change things up a bit. Things came together quickly, and Gareth took us down a road filled with left turns, which we liked, so it was a perfect match.
“I think I’ve tried to carry each of those elements of Kraftwerk’s music and technology forward. You put Kraftwerk through your own prism, and what comes out, for each of us, is quite different.” — Daniel Miller
How much of an effect have your heroes continued to have on your music, Sunroof in particular? Or has there been a need to jettison that which your initial influences wrought?
DM: When I listen to Kraftwerk’s albums, there is a purity there. There’s tons of space, and though it was a dirty word at the time, each album is a concept album. And they expressed those concepts extremely well. Though they could have worked with any and every bit of electronic equipment, they were actually quite limited, on purpose. They only used a few tools, but pushed each of them to their limit in interesting ways. I think I’ve tried to carry each of those elements of Kraftwerk’s music and technology forward. You put Kraftwerk through your own prism, and what comes out, for each of us, is quite different. If you try to copy Kraftwerk—which, oddly enough, I did try to do in my early days…it sounded OK, but it was through my prism of interpretation. I would never jettison anything on that. I still listen to and learn from those albums, and have made them part of my personal aesthetic. It’s like, “Fuck, how do they make it so good?” I should know by now how they get those sounds, but I don’t.
GJ: I feel the same. When you experience great art, you take notice of what effect it has on you and your work and spiritual development. There’s no escaping their inspiration. But Kraftwerk is just a part of the wide-ranging influence on our work. There’s no real direct line between Kraftwerk and Sunroof. The Electronic Music Improvisation record is not intended to be structured songs, not through Kraftwerk or anyone else, really. The only conscious concept, I think, is that we decided to make a series of short pieces, improvisations. Other than that, there was no overarching concept about what the record should be about.
I know there have been many, many improvisations between you in the past, but no album to speak of—why did the two of you start on this new album?
DM: Ever since we’ve been enjoying modular synthesizers and the Eurorack, we started mucking about. We’re friends, and enjoy having a meal, a chat, and hanging out in the studio. There’s a long history of this interaction between us, and on the back of that history we just got the idea that some of this music was so great, let’s actually try and finish some of these pieces within a particular time frame. That’s where the purity Gareth mentioned earlier came in—we had a fairly pure manifesto about what we were going to do in terms of time limits: their duration as well as the amount of time on which we’d work on them. There are, however, some long, extended jams on SoundCloud—the Abbey Street sessions—if anyone wishes to hear our ’90s improvisations.
GJ: We’ve done a lot of sessions for our own pleasure without a thought of releasing them.
In the context of Electronic Music Improvisations, what is so crucial and cool about modular equipment?
“There’s a moment where I am genuinely at one with the modular. I am completely connected to the music and the machinery. You really feel as if you are a part of the instrument.” — Gareth Jones
GJ: One thing that I absolutely love is that you can’t save a patch. You build something and it’s unique to that moment.
DM: I definitely agree with that. Also, you build your own instrument, in a way, by deciding what module you want to use. It’s not a fixed system like a standard synthesizer. You press a key, you get a sound—everything is pre-wired, under the hood, so to speak. With a modular, it’s your own system, chosen from the millions of modules out there. Every connection you make, every subconscious decision, starts making sounds that you never had before. You’re starting from scratch every time.
GJ: Plus, it doesn’t have a keyboard. That’s bold.
And all modular synths are highly physical in their practice.
GJ: Yes. The Eurorack module invites physical interaction. You can actually interact with a number of parameters all at once. Neither of us are virtuoso, dexterous geniuses, but we have 10 fingers each, and we can move more than one parameter at a time. Especially with some of the newer, more modern modules. The flashing lights and knobs really do invite physical interaction with the box—something that both a child and someone of my advanced age gets.
There is something conversational about the process that comes through on this album.
GJ: Absolutely. That is something we most note about modular: the conversation. It is a conversation with the instrument, one that can surprise you, often, depending on the patch that you build. That is truly fantastic if you have a mindset that allows you to go with it.
And a willing, good conversational partner next to you. Can you steer the conversation with a particular build out of a patch?
“You might say something to the instrument, and they might say something back that you don’t expect. Quite often, my modular will say, ‘Fuck off, Daniel. This is shit. Try a different conversation.’” — Daniel Miller
DM: It’s a two-way conversation between instrument and performer because it’s unpredictable. You might say something to the instrument, and they might say something back that you don’t expect. Quite often, my modular will say, “Fuck off, Daniel. This is shit. Try a different conversation.”
Plus, Gareth, you mentioned earlier something of a spiritual component to the Sunroof improvisations.
GJ: That’s because there’s a moment where—and I can only speak for myself—I am genuinely at one with the modular. I am completely connected to the music and the machinery. You really feel as if you are a part of the instrument.
That’s the very definition of Kraftwerk’s “man machine.”
DM: As a modular person, I find that all very appealing. It’s always a blank canvas. It’s always a one-time proposition, unless you record it. I love that.
GJ: That’s very positive and very powerful—and a large part of our improvisations, Daniel. That kind of ritualistic, shamanistic element of the improvisations where we just go into the zone, a place where we are at one with our instruments, and at one with each other. Then a sound happens. And that is truly quite magical. FL