Interview with Celebrity Drummer Allison Miller

Allison Miller is a drumset goddess who has toured with the likes of Ani DiFranco and Brandi Carlile, as well as leading several of her own bands, including Boom Tic Boom, Honey Ear Trio, and Big Molasses. Despite Allison’s nasty bout of cold and demanding tour schedule, dapperQ had the pleasure of experiencing a Skype tour of Allison’s apartment, as well as meeting her dog Otis. And I guess we talked a bit about fashion or music or whatever.

dapperQ: I have to get this question out of the way first because it is too ridiculous. Wikipedia tells me your music/you were “featured on The L word”?

Miller: My music was licensed for The L Word. I played on the soundtrack for The L Word too; a lot of the drumming and percussion that you hear, either on the ambient tracks or actual tracks, is performed by me.  I am also in one episode. But I’m just an extra.  It’s the episode where Jennifer Beals goes to New York and she is walking into the W hotel.  I open the door for her.

dapperQ: The one where she almost hooks up with the senator?

Miller: (laughs) Yeah, that one.

dapperQ: Wikipedia also tells me you are a US State Department jazz ambassador. What?! That sounds so official.

Miller: That means I’m important. (laughs) I haven’t done it in a long time but I used to go to other countries as a US State Department Jazz Ambassador, teaching jazz, giving free concerts, and working with local musicians.  The program was supported and developed by The Kennedy Center.  I went to Africa one year, and a couple of years later  I went to Southeast Asia – so, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Bangladesh – some really great countries.  Another year I went to Eurasia: Kazakhstan, Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. These are all countries that we wouldn’t normally tour.  So, basically, the US was paying for us to go and have a cultural exchange and teach about jazz, an American genre.

dapperQ: Was it boring having to play jazz standards?

Miller: You know what? I try to not let the b-o-r-e-d word enter into my life. If I do find myself leaning toward that five letter word, I change the situation, y’know what I mean? Because life is too short, and I know that’s cliché but…I didn’t start drumming when I was eight to compromise what I love to do. With the State Department stuff, I was never bored. because I was with my friends playing music I love.  We would take classic jazz compositions and put a twist to them. Make them more modern and more fun…I always have fun. So when you’re traveling like that and meeting interesting musicians, it’s not boring. It’s super exciting. Also, I’m such a…I hate the word foodie, but I’m such an eater. I’m game to eat anything you put in front of me. It was wonderful to experience all the different cuisines from Southeast Asia, Africa, Eurasia, and Asia.  I probably do have some food allergies, but I just ignore them and eat everything (laughs).

Allison Miller 1Photo courtesy Allison Miller

dapperQ: Who are you working with now?

Miller: Right now I’m pretty much just doing my band…well, bands, because I have a few.  My new album, No Morphine, No Lilies is coming out on April 16th so, I am preparing for the release.  I’m also freelancing with a few singers, and a few jazz artists, but I’m not working with one specific singer right now. I was touring with Brandi Carlile a lot, but scheduling conflicts made it difficult for me commit to long touring.  I’ve also made a decision to be home more, giving myself time to compose, practice, and hang out with my girlfriend and Otis.

dapperQ: Since the drums are a non-pitched instrument, how do you compose tunes? Do you think more in terms of rhythm? Do you write at a piano?

Miller: No, I mostly think in terms of melody. I always write my tunes on the piano. I don’t write on the drumset. In fact, I write on (brings computer over to piano to show baby grand)…this baby grand.  It’s an old J. C. Fischer. I inherited it from my drum teacher when he died. This is my apartment, by the way (picks up computer to show around apartment). And, I write on upright bass too. I have a few bases and guitars over there. I never write on the drums, always on the piano or the bass.

dapperQ: Do you like to write fully composed out pieces, or more tunes and charts?

Miller: A bunch of my new compositions are more thru-composed. I’m starting to lean more towards that, but I also like writing really simple melodies and letting the improvisation build the piece. I come from a straight ahead jazz tradition but I don’t really have any interest in my music being interpreted that way.  So, I put together players who don’t come from a straight ahead jazz tradition: Todd Sickafoose, Jenny Scheinman,  and Myra Melford.  They take my songs and turn them upside down.  Plus, everybody in my band plays so many different styles of music.  I want all those different styles represented in the band.

dapperQ: All of the drummers in the world are going to hate me for this question, but I’ve always been curious… does it ever feel limiting to be a jazz drummer and improviser, working with a non-pitched instrument?

Miller: I find the drums to be extremely interesting. They can be played in a very melodic way. You just have to tune them melodically. It’s not gonna be a perfect pitch, but you can get pretty close. Each drum has countless sounds. So, I could take one drum and bend the head to make different sounds. I could play one drum with bells. One of the things I love to do is take one piece of my drumset and come up with as many sounds as possible. Being unconventional, like taking my winter hat and slapping it against the drumhead. It sounds really cool. Or, sticking a tube into a hole on the side of the drum while I hit it, which changes the pitch. You can do lots of fun things to keep it interesting. I’m also perpetually fascinated with using four limbs independently. The different combinations you can come up with using two hands and two feet are endless. One of the things I’m currently working on is writing a book, a technical method book. It will basically explore all of my different four-way independence ideas.  I’m already teaching a lot of these ideas to my students. If I bring an exercise to my students and they grab onto it, I know it’s a good one, but if they don’t it’s probably not quite ready.

I’m really nerdy. I will sit at my drums, practicing for hours, coming up with different 4-way combinations. I’ve been drumming for thirty years and I’m still thrilled by it.  Does that mean I’m just simple?!

Allison Miller2Photo courtesy Allison Miller

dapperQ: What?! No way!!!                                     

Miller: (laughs) People probably say this to you, that you’re so lucky that you know what you love to do. A lot of people go through their whole life not knowing what they want to do, but I found what I love from a really young age. I’m lucky. I never feel bored when I play and every time I play the drums I get excited. I’m so lucky that I’ve basically been making my living doing the same thing for thirty years and I’m still excited by it. I’m really grateful that I found that.

dapperQ: Has it been difficult to make a career as a female drummer in such a male-dominated field?

Miller: Y’know, I’m always really wanting to support young female musicians because I feel like young girls aren’t encouraged to pursue their dreams. It’s better now than it was even when I was little.  When I was young, I was obsessed with drumming and there wasn’t gonna be anything that stopped me. But, not every young girl is gonna be so obsessed. So, I feel like if young women were more encouraged, then they wouldn’t have to be “over the top” crazy about their instrument to pursue it as a career. I know a lot of men who have careers in music that aren’t as dedicated to their craft as I am, but I don’t know any women like that. Women have to work twice as hard to get anywhere, especially in music.

For a while I wanted to buy a brownstone in Brooklyn and just have it be a clubhouse where girls could come after school and try out all kinds of different activities. One floor would be a drum hangout, the next floor would be for photography, and then the next floor would be for visual artists.  Maybe someday I’ll make this happen.

dapperQ: In the “I’d Hit That” interview you mention playing your teacher Walter Salb’s gigs as like a little teenage girl dressed up in a tuxedo. Looking back, what do you think about that?

Miller: Well, I was always a tomboy. When I was little I refused to wear girl clothes and I only wanted to wear boy clothes and my mom was totally cool with it. Then I became a teenager and, all of a sudden, decided I wanted to wear girl clothes.  I must have been confused by peer pressure.  As a teenager I thought the tuxedo thing was really stupid and I didn’t like it. But, now I’m back to my tomboy days, and love wearing men’s clothes.  I haven’t worn a tuxedo in years but if I did wear one I would get a custom made fitted tuxedo and it would be awesome.  It’s hard to find guy’s clothes for women that are my size.

dapperQ: It seems like there’s a clean-cut functionality to your style, probably from, y’know, drumming.

Miller: Yeah, I don’t really know how to word this, but I only like to wear clothes that make me feel…how do I want to say this…badass. (laughs) When you’re playing the drums, you’re in command of the band. And, it takes a lot of confidence and a lot of…I hate to say ego, I just mean, like, it takes a lot of confidence to get on stage and hit drums and be in control, relaxed, and comfortable. So, when I wear clothes that make me feel icky, I don’t like to play. If I wear a pair of jeans that are too tight, or if they don’t feel right, then for some reason I start to feel insecure and I don’t want to play drums. I don’t want anything to be compromising my confidence when I’m performing.  I like to feel tough and badass in my clothes. I also have specific drumming shoes.

dapperQ: Do you dress differently when you tour with different artists?

Miller: I don’t tend to work with mainstream artists that are very particular about dress. I have some friends who play with artists who have stylists who dress the band, but I don’t really gravitate towards those kinds of pop gigs.  For instance, Ani Difranco didn’t care what I wore on stage.  I could wear an undershirt and the same pair of jeans for multiple concerts in a row and she wouldn’t care.  On the other hand, Brandi’s band had more of a “band look” so I ended up dressing the part, which I quite liked.  Brandi’s method of requesting me to wear something particular would be buying it for me.  Brandi is a very generous person.   I got a few very nice shirts for Christmas and my birthday and stuff like that. I also never wore vests before I started playing with Brandi.  When I join a new band and meet new people, their fashion has an influence on me. Sometimes I go shopping with my own band mates. The bass player in Honey Ear Trio, Rene Hart, has let me be his personal shopper. I said to him, “Meet me on fifth avenue, let’s go shopping,’ and then I basically dressed him. (laughs)

dapperQ: As a female on the shorter side of things, what are some places that you like to shop?

Miller: If I’m shopping without a strict budget, like if money is not a concern, I like to shop at G-Star. They cut the men’s shirts small enough that they fit. I also like Diesel, Ben Sherman, Club Monaco, and Paul Smith. But when I’m on more of a tight budget I go to Uniqlo. This shirt I am wearing is Uniqlo. It was probably $20 and it’s great. Another place that’s not as cheap as Uniqlo but is still good is Topman, the British company.

dapperQ: Any final words of fashion advice?

Miller: Always hang your clothes up! And also, it doesn’t matter what you wear, if you wear it with confidence then people will think it’s fashionable.

For more on Allison Miller, visit her website.

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