all images courtesy of Caleb Miller
What did you do last year during the COVID-19-induced lock-down? With the live music world coming to a screeching halt suddenly last March, a lot of musicians were left scrambling. Many used the time as a much-needed break, while some took the time to reflect and write new material.
Multi-instrumentalist Caleb Miller decided to take things in a slightly different direction.
“I like to say I’m in a lot of bands, infrequently,” laughed Miller. “But with everything shutting down, it became difficult to get things going with any of those. And being a teacher, suddenly both of my passions had disappeared.”
“It was confusing and devastating.”
Miller had an octet ready to perform on Saturday, March 14th, and also had projects he was participating in the two days prior. After licking his wounds, he buried himself in his studio the following Monday with a plan.
“I had so much visceral confusion and energy and fear and doubt… and I just wanted something to do consistently,” he explained. “Something I could control, just for the sake of it!”
I know personally that when things started shutting down, I had several concerts cancel immediately, but I found doing Zoom interviews as a way to return to somewhat of a norm. For Miller, it was no different.
“It was a process, and by executing that process it became nourishment for me,” he continued. “It became a routine I could live in, and gave me a lot in return.”
From Monday the 17th all the way through the end of May, Miller deliberately made time to sit down and create at least one song every day.
“One per day felt like a good starting point. There were some days where I did two,” he paused “but that became too much. All in all, I created 110 songs.”
You read that right. 110 songs in (roughly) 77 days. Not only did Miller record almost every instrument and lend his voice on the album (with female vocals and violin done by Carolyn Cline), but he also did all of the production and mixing.
“I’m not an audio person by trade… I’d say I’m more audio curious,” he chuckled. “It was a big time learning experience for me. I knew how I wanted things to be done, and I’ve ended up using that knowledge I gained in projects I’ve done since then.”
“I proved to myself that I could do those things from there, and I’m better for it.”
Of the 110 songs, Miller snipped and sliced his way down to only 67 to create Portage, his first solo record in over a decade. When I asked him if the number of tracks was symbolic in any way, Miller shook his head.
“110 was just what I stopped at. I told myself I was going to do at least a song per day until I got tired of it, and that’s where it happened,” he admitted. “I told myself that I probably wouldn’t be able to trim it down properly if I made any more.”
“Otherwise it would’ve been overwhelming to me… and that whole point of the record was about how overwhelmed I felt. What would the purpose of continuing be if it added to that feeling?”
“As far as the 67 I ended up with, it just felt like the right place,” he continued. “I’d kind of listen to them in random order and pick here and there what felt right going together.”
But how could you possibly keep the same theme going for 67 tracks? Miller says it wasn’t so much a theme as it was the feeling of it all.
“The most common feeling was… well, I’m just gonna put something in front of me and do it!” he expounded. “In all the other bands I’m in, there’s concept and structure and whole ideas. It was nice to get close to something that wasn’t that.”
“Some days I would just sit down and hit record, but other days I’d pre-write something or lay out a process and try to fulfill it.”
I’m not even sure if ambitious is the correct word I had in mind as Miller explained his project to me. Hysterical, berserk perhaps. But as I dove into the 2-disc epic, I discovered a subtle brilliance that I found myself at a loss for words to explain.
Somehow, and by some majestic stroke of genius, Miller had managed to capture the feeling of the pandemic in his music. It’s not that the songs were specifically written about how he felt, it was more that he used his feelings to guide the musical notes he produced. It’s hard to explain, but I know that if you spend more than 5 minutes with the record, you’ll understand.
The majority of the tracks are in the 1-1:30 range, with a few 3 minute pieces sprinkled here and there. Miller says that while there isn’t a concrete order in which you have to listen to things, the songs did start to come together in sections.
“There were definitely different types of tracks, the most dominant of which was me just throwing shit at a wall,” he laughed again. “Density was a big trend of a lot of the songs. Eventually I separated them into categories like “melody”, “wall of sound”, and “mostly harmony”.
“As I started putting it all together, I’d find that 5 or 6 would go together, and then another 15 had a similar feel. At a certain point I got to a place where it was somewhat sectional…” he trailed off, thinking aloud “I guess the word I would use is perpetual. It doesn’t really end at any point, it just keeps going.”
“At a certain point I just arrived at the 67 that I have now. When I was making the music, I was more concerned with getting it done rather than the order.”
A quick look at the titles might have you questioning Miller’s sanity during the pandemic. Things like “Lots of Bitterness and One Hundred and Fifty Dollars”, “No Nails, No Rails, Just Grit”, and “The Walls! Not the Tunnels” definitely help to paint the picture of how many of us felt during the lockdown. When I mentioned this, he whipped out his phone and showed me a list of what felt like 500 different possible titles that he had just jotted down.
“Certain tracks speak to me in different ways. I often think that people go to music for particular emotions and responses,” he clarified “and I was like, hey, I just want something that makes me feel.”
Pretty wild, huh? The most common titular theme, of course, is the feeling of being overwhelmed by a world that was seemingly spiraling in a potentially unknown direction. There are names like “An Ode To Hysteria”, “The People Are Grumbling”, “All is Wasted”, and even a track called “Griefing” that seems to literally just be Miller crying over a fuzzy hiss.
The album is flush with different pianos, guitars, keyboards and drums. There’s also saxaphones, flutes, insanely distorted vocals and other samples of sound that cannot be pinpointed. If you feel like it might sound a little chaotic, you are 100% correct.
“Most of my projects are jazz-adjacent or DIY, so I know how to do things my own way and make it work.”
The song that initially piqued my interest in the project is the first single, titled “Whoever Promised You a Rose Garden Was Lying”. The song (and accompanying video) legitimately reminded me of how brain-fogged I felt during the sleep deprived month where I was jobless at the beginning of the lockdown.
Many of the songs remind me of things that I felt or saw around the world during the months where we were all told not to leave our houses except for emergencies, and Miller says that was somewhat intentional, if only because of the influence of the world around him.
“Being removed from the world, only to be transported somewhere else and placed back into it… that’s essentially what Portage means,” he explained. “It literally means taking a boat or something from one body of water to another. I felt like the concept fit not only what I was doing, but what was happening all around the world.”
“We seem to have ended up in the same place, too; but it’s totally different. We’ve been accelerated, slowed down, and moved from Point A to… well, gosh, who knows?!”
Miller said that he took a few weeks away from the record after recording the final track last May, and then tweaked and tinkered with it for several months before putting the final touches on it back in March. During that time, he’s worked on getting the rest of his musical affairs rolling once more.
“I’m still working on getting that octet out there. I’m doing Sun Trash, Francis Bacon Band… I’ve done a couple other records with other people…” he counted on his fingers “like I said, I’m in a lot of things, often! My next goal is to start a new band, something jazzy.”
“I don’t think I’m prolific, just consistent.”
Portage was released on July 23rd through Miller’s own label, Very Much Recordings. It comes with a companion piece- a short story written by Trek Micacchione, titled Baba’s Snooze.
“I did a lot of canoeing and kayaking in the Great Black Swamp area as a kid with my family,” he explained. “My dad loved the word ‘Portage’ and I knew it was the perfect fit. Trek’s story encompasses the feelings of sleep deprivation, swamps, portaging, etc. And the album artwork is also photos of the Black Swamp area, superimposed over driftwood from there.”
Now, I’m not here to tell you that you should listen to the entire piece of music in one sitting. At right around 1 ¾ hours, it’s a heavy undertaking that would challenge even the most disciplined of minds. But I will tell you that the album has a lot to give to a variety of people, and I think that anyone who wants to tickle their eardrums while exploring their mind would find it worthwhile to at least hit shuffle and let the current carry you for a few tracks.
In fact, on the album’s Bandcamp page, Miller encourages listeners to “deal with” the record however they may choose.
“Let it ride, skip some tracks, skip a BUNCH of tracks or sit back and sip it all. “
And considering what it took for Miller to pull it out of himself, and especially considering what we all went through last year; what have you got to lose?
You can find more about Caleb Miller’s many projects here, and purchase Portage here.
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