An outspoken, controversial and cheerful, Steve Miller spoke by telephone an hour before he began rehearsals in Minneapolis Monday afternoon for a 17-city tour.
A UW-Madison student in 1962-65, Miller also played in Madison blues-rock bands the Ardells (with Boz Scaggs and Ben Sidran) and the Night Trains.
These are excerpts from the interview.
Question: How do you put together a set list – do you start by knowing you have to include your 10 or 12 most popular songs?
Miller: “It’s 14, Tom. (laughs) We always have to play the greatest hits and there are 14 of ’em. Our audience really loves those songs and that’s what they want to hear.
“This particular tour is one I’m looking forward to because it’s `An Evening with …’ That means we get to play a lot more music, some blues, some stuff from the ’60s. There’s no opening act. So we’ll be doing 28 songs in two sets for about three hours.”
Question: Do you still expect to see a young, college-age audience on this tour?
Miller: “That’s all we have. It’s always a very young audience and it’s been that way for nine years. Every summer when we go out, people always say, (his voice squeals) `I can’t believe your audience is so young.’ There it is. You’ve seen it; now get out of here.
“If it was a bunch of guys my age (52), there would be about 300 of ’em there. It was a big surprise in ’88; everybody was really shocked. We did a jazz/blues tour and our audience was all teens between the age of 15 and 20.
“This is the 20th anniversary of the release of `Fly Like an Eagle’ and those people are in their early 40s now, and they kind of come for a nostalgic look. But 90 percent of our audience is between the ages of 13 and 25 who listen to `classic’ rock radio.”
Question: Are you recognized when you walk down the street?
Miller: “Nope. I have a charmed life. I put on those Ray-Bans and I’m the `Gangster of Love.’ Then I take ’em off and I look like Steve Miller’s lawyer.”
Question: You were living in Dallas during high school. How did you choose UW?
Miller: “I had an older brother who had come to the UW for a summer school session and came back with a glowing report. (laughs)”
Question: You pursued music full time in Chicago just before graduating from the UW.
Miller: “I was planning on being a teacher, literature and creative writing. But I was more serious about music than about that.
“When I looked at the guys who were teaching, they were all 40 years old and teaching the same thing year after year and arguing about the size of their desk. So I stepped out with about six credits to go (before graduation).”
Question: Tell me about playing music in Madison during college.
Miller: “It was gigs at fraternity houses, gigs at dorms on the lawn, gigs down at the Rat (Rathskeller). We were a great band. We did a lot of blues, Motown stuff, the Rolling Stones. We were the hot band on campus. We’d play five times in a weekend.”
Question: It must amaze you that `classic’ rock stations keep playing your music.
Miller: “Three years ago, we thought, `They just can’t play us anymore.’ But they did. We’re a core group on `classic’ rock radio and that means we’re on the radio all day, all the time. It certainly generates a new audience for us.
“Then radio came out with the ’70s format! It’s increased our airplay 30 percent. We had hits in the ’80s, too, so look out! (laughs) But it’s good music. It’s easy and it’s fun to sing.
“I made a conscious decision years ago to write more positive music than negative music. In the long run that’s had a lot to do with it. It’s hard to get real excited about the music today.”
Question: You live in the Seattle area. What do you think of that music scene?
Miller: “I think a whole lot of the Seattle scene is sort of heroin-driven. I wasn’t going to go down to some club and watch Pearl Jam hurl on the audience. That’s not really music. It’s more of a social phenomenon than a musical phenomenon. My music is based on jazz and blues. It’s pretty timeless. It’s held up very well over the years.
“A lot of (Seattle music) is just social angst. I can understand it, but whether people will be humming those tunes 10 or 20 years from now, I kind of doubt it.”