Flexibility in Music and Life: Allison Miller

New York based drummer Allison Miller, has made a name for herself in the last few years touring as a drummer/percussionist with musicians as diverse as Dr. Lonnie Smith and Natalie Merchant. At the time of this interview she JUST completed a tour promoting her new solo project BOOM TIC BOOM.
Miller began playing the drums at the age of ten and while still a teenager was featured in Downbeat magazine’s “Up and Coming” section in 1991. After graduating from West Virginia University she moved to made the Big Apple her home and she has become a highly in demand session musician. I caught up with Allison as she was in the midst of preparing a live video at Austin City Limits with Brandi Carlisle, with whom she is currently performing.

By Tom Berich

Tom Berich: Allison, you seem to have become pretty successful in a variety of different styles. Do you find yourself gravitating toward one over the other?
Allison Miller: I have always been the type of musician who thrives on variety. I thoroughly enjoy all the different styles of music I play. Each genre fulfills a particular need. For example, jazz and other types of improvised music fulfill my creative and spontaneous spirit. Jazz also requires extreme fine-tuned listening and rapid musical communication with the other musicians on the bandstand. I thrive in this context. Playing more popular music (rock, singer songwriter) fulfills a LOVE of coming up with the “right” drum part and feel to compliment a well composed and produced song. I think there is genius behind well produced lyric-based songs…where a song becomes magic because of a sum of all its parts!… when the lyrics, the harmony, the rhythm, the arrangement, the instrumentation compliment each other, creating a beautiful, emotional, magical masterpiece.

Tom Berich: How do you prepare yourself for going from one style to another, for instance, on one hand, you’ve been known as a jazz drummer (Marty Ehrlich, Dr. Lonnie Smith, etc.) and then some people might be surprised to know you’ve toured with Ani Defranco and Natalie Merchant.
Allison Miller: Over time, I seem to have developed the ability to glide between genres rather seamlessly. I think it has just come from maturity. Of course, there are certain technical exercises that keep my technique in tip-top shape for all genres. I practice the Alan Dawson’s “Rudimental Ritual” religiously. This exercise is great for maintaining a “light” touch, 4-way independence, and speed. I also stretch before each show. This is very important. Listening and appreciating a broad range of music is also important. I always make sure I am listening, practicing and playing to ALL types of music.

TB: What are some of your musical inspirations both as a drummer and composer?
AM: Well Thelonious Monk’s tune “Brilliant Corners” from the album “Brilliant Corners”. I love how the melody works so well in both a slow walking tempo and double time. A lot of that comfort has to do with how seamlessly Max Roach glides to and from each feel. This change (every chorus) continues throughout the solos. Sticking with the Monk thing, a few of my favorite drummer moments: Ed Blackwell’s solo on Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” from the John Coltrane/Don Cherry album, “The Avant-Garde”. His solo is so alive and assertive, yet very melodic, and somehow, extremely rudimentary. It is brilliant. You can hear the melody during the whole solo. Monk melodies work great on the drums! Also, the way Tony Williams comps behind Herbie Hancocks solo on “Oliloqui Valley.” And then all of Freddie Hubbard’s solo. Brilliant. So musical, supportive but commanding. Innovative while never losing the “pocket.” So dynamic! Oh, and one last inspirational moment: The way Tony Allen pushes through his fills like a wave overtaking the band, giving that extra little push that brings the momentum of the band to the next level. Check out his playing on: “Na Poi” and “You Go No Go Die” from the Fela Kuti reissue “Yellow Fever/ Na Poi.”

TB: Congratulations on your new solo project BOOM TIC BOOM. How did this come about?
AM: I wrote all of the music for BOOM TIC BOOM in August of 2008. I had about four weeks off from touring. I was feeling very creative and decided to sit at the piano every morning, as soon as I woke up. Before I even had coffee (this is a big deal for me). I would sit at the piano and just let my fingers take over. It was great! I let the creativity flow and was too sleepy to let my brain get in the way. Most of the music that came out of this writing spurt ended up on the new album. And, most of the inspiration came from important women in my life. I did not plan this. It just organically happened. And then, of course, Myra Melford (piano), Todd Sickafoose (bass) and Jenny Scheinman (violin) took my music and ran with it! Which is exactly why I wanted them in the band. I wanted to hire musicians whom I admire for their creativity and authenticity. I wanted musicians who would just do their “thing” and make my music come alive while still staying true to themselves and their respective musical voices.

TB: You obviously spent some time honing your chops in New York, but relatively speaking you’ve become fairly successful in a short time. Are there any etiquette tips or systematic steps you’d recommend to a drummer (or any musicians, for that matter) about to relocate to the Big Apple or any other large music town?
AM: Well, without trying to sound cliche, I would say treat others as you would want to be treated. Also, know that it takes great discipline to be successful. Talent CAN go a long way, but talent and discipline are unstoppable. Always be early to gigs! Band leaders really appreciate this quality in a side musician. Always be prepared, and not just for performances, but for rehearsals and auditions as well. Never stop being curious and never stop learning! Practically speaking, keep healthy in both mind and body. Also, (and this is VERY important to those just about to make the big professional adjustment), have some money saved when you first move. Big cities, especially New York, are very expensive and it will take a while before the gig money starts flowing regardless of “contacts”. So, have a bit saved up so you can spend your time networking and not flipping burgers!

TB: You’re on the road fairly often, can this inhibit proper practicing at all? AM: Well, obviously, I can’t practice as much as when I was home and didn’t have as much work. Back then, in order to get up to the caliber I felt I needed to be, I would practice up to 8 hours a day. I needed to practice that much so any lack of proficiency (in a particular style) would not get in the way of expressing my musical ideas. I practiced a lot of 4-way independence exercises, focusing on my ride cymbal. I would also transcribe many of my favorite drum solos, and played along to 100s of recordings, and learned melodies on the drums. Now my practice is much more condensed. I get more accomplished in less time and I get more exhausted in less time. It is as if my brain works in overdrive now. “What” I practice has changed as well. I always maintain my technique by routinely executing Alan Dawson’s “Rudimental Ritual,” either on a practice pad or with brushes on a hotel room pillow. I also warm up with specific Tony Williams independence exercises that Lenny White taught me. I still play along to records but I feel like I get just as much out of listening to records away from the drum kit. Now, my practicing often happens away from the drum kit. I practice concepts and hope to “get out of my own way.” I can then apply those creative concepts to the drum kit with hopes of becoming more musical and creative and tapping into newness and freshness. I hope to “stay in the moment” and allow myself to be as creative and authentic as possible. I guess my practicing has become less hands on and more “esoteric”-for lack of a better term. Life outside the practice room seems to teach me as much as life inside the practice room. It is more about how I want to execute an idea, rather than if I can execute an idea. It is more about the intention and musicality behind each stroke than the technique needed to execute it. The technique is already there.

TB: While on the road, how do you go about maintaining a home life?
AM: Home life! Ha! Well, it is difficult. I am fortunate enough to own a nice apartment in Brooklyn. I keep my home clean and cozy at all times. So, when I come home from the road, I immediately feel comfortable and relaxed. This enables me to make the transition from road life to home life smoothly. I also have friends that help me out (mail, bills, plants). I also have close friends all over the world, whom I consider family. They represent “home” for me. I get to visit with all of these close friends while touring. Their presence brings comfort and that sense of being “home.”

TB: Is a solo project hard to manage/maintain when you’re busy on other projects?
AM: Yes, sometimes it is difficult to maintain all of my solo projects while I am busy playing in other projects. But, I enjoy diversity and I love being busy! I love the challenge. So, each varying project ends up feeling like a respite from the other. I mean this in only a positive way. Kind of like jumping back and forth between a cool pool and a jacuzzi. Swimming around in a cool pool feels amazing for a while but then you start to get a bit cold. So, you jump in the hot jacuzzi and it feels amazing! But, after about 20 minutes you start to get a bit too hot. You decide to jump back in the pool and that first second in the pool takes your breath away and perks you right up. Then you get used to the temperature and, after a while, a bit cold again. Time to slip back into the jacuzzi! Diversity is the spice of life!

allison miller is featured in Issue 2 of Tom Tom Magazine

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