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"Closing the Gap Between What I Hear in My Head Versus What I Can Create with My Hands" - An Interview with Chromatics' Darling Adam Miller

Updated: Jan 5

My first encounter with beloved synth-pop powerhouse Chromatics was their 2014 Cherry (Deluxe) album. The album’s namesake track, “Cherry”, served as the bittersweet soundtrack to my university years. Following the group's split in 2021, I found myself yearning for music of similar sound and caliber to that of Chromatics. Luckily, the group’s founding member, Adam Miller, answered my prayers, along with some questions I had the privilege of asking over the previous weeks. 


Miller is a long-time musical artist, having both mastered and innovated in the realm of dark, dreamy indie rock. His extensive musical talent can be found in a variety of projects. Now he finds himself exploring a solo career, producing sounds that are unabashedly his own. 


The early days of Chromatics saw Miller doubling down on vocals and guitar. Following the band from the beginning a distinct sound shift occurred through the most well known assembly of Chromatics: including Miller, Ruth Radelet, Johnny Jewel, and Nat Walker. Together, the four achieved a deviously glamorous synthy sound, decorated with hypnotic vocals and cooing guitars. When Miller, Radelet, and Walker announced the disbandment of Chromatics, each was freed to pursue their own independent musical journeys. As a result, Miller has released one full-length album, Gateway, and one EP, Illusion Pool. The latter explores his vocal debut, as for the first time, Miller’s voice stands independently atop the familiar tune of a reverberating guitar. 


Speaking on the Chromatics-eque sound of his newer work, Miller explains, 

“The only style of music I play is Adam style and that style is always influenced by the things that I am experiencing and feeling in my life as I am creating and the drive to be as authentic in my work as possible."

"I don’t see the music I’m creating now as any different from the music I’ve created with Chromatics, just an extension of that sound. If anything, some of the material on “Illusion Pool” was originally written around the time Chromatics released “Kill For Love” in 2012 and I’m still working on song ideas I had from back around that time, and from even earlier before. It’s just taken me a while to figure out the best way to present those ideas, and then decide if it even felt right to share them, which it has.”



Photo credit: Jake Bottiglieri


Illusion Pool is a love letter to the sounds of Chromatics with an original twist. On track 2, Everybody's Been Burned, Adam puts a spin on David Crosby’s song of the same title, it's a breakup song, reimagined through breathy vocals and uncompromising synths. In the song Adam sings, “But you die inside/ If you choose to hide/ So I guess instead I'll love you”. When asked about the gravity of this haunting lyric and why the original song resonates with Miller, he replies, 


It’s always fun to sing somebody else’s songs and impart your own meaning onto them. It’s even more fun to sing along with music you love and unknowingly get the words incorrect only to find out later."


"I don’t know what David Crosby’s original intent with those lyrics was but to me, they’re about facing your fears. Choosing to no longer run away from pain. Being grateful for what you have even if you have been burned, because as the lyric goes, “Everybody has been burned before.” Nobody is special or above anyone else for the "burns" and scars they may have experienced. Experiencing pain can either destroy us or it can make our hearts bigger, more accepting, and compassionate towards those who lack the ability to face their own pain. It hasn’t been easy, but that’s what I will continue to choose to do. Speaking from personal experience though. If you continue to run. If “you choose to hide” as the song says. You will continue to suffer because you never extinguish that fire. You just keep returning to it, only to be burned again and again. You can probably deduce from my answers, that I’ve gone to a lot of therapy over the past few years.”


With such an extensive discography, the creative process for Miller is something that must come naturally. Miller transitions with ease from vocals, vocoders, and guitars. 

When asked about this process, he explains,

 “My creative process is quite holistic, it is fed by every element of my life. Creativity is a pervasive component of my existence no matter what I do, even if I try to ignore it. To be honest I’ve tried to ignore it before, and it almost drove me crazy! So I can’t ignore it. It’s only that music and visual art are the main vehicles through which I share a lot of that creativity. But even if I’m cooking or cleaning, I’ll often be trying to figure out if I can harmonize with the hum of the appliances, or humming a melody that plays along with the noises being generated by my tasks. I don’t know where that comes from. Maybe it’s because there is a history of artists and eccentric personalities in my family. Maybe it’s something I developed from an early age to entertain myself with mundane chores or to cope with situations where I felt like I didn’t belong. Maybe it’s a combination of those and other things?"


 "When I feel a hit of inspiration, especially with music, I do my best to document that inspiration as quickly as possible. I record a lot of vocal ideas, new lyrics, on my phone while walking around too. A walk is usually the best place for having lyrics and vocal melodies materialize. But I never have a goal to do something like, “I’m going to write a song about world peace, or global warming.” I wish I had that ability, and honestly I am in awe of people who possess that skill. For me it’s always about documenting the emotional big bang of creativity. Figuring out what is being said and how I can help mold it into something presentable that I would want to see or hear out in the world. And do so without reducing the emotional impact of that initial burst. Hopefully enhancing it. That is the ideal."


"If there is a pervasive dogma that I’ve followed, it’s that less is usually more. Ornamentation and dressing things up can be beautiful if done tastefully and well thought out but can also dilute the emotional impact of things. At least for me. The music and art I am always drawn to feels emotionally direct to me. I want somebody to make me feel something more than “hey look at me, I need your attention because I feel empty inside and I relish your attention to fill that void.” And that’s with no judgment towards anybody who would choose to do that. I certainly understand that desire. I’m just as susceptible to those feelings as any other person is. To be honest, as someone who has experienced what others might view as success or critical acclaim, if you don’t learn to silence those types of feelings early on, it can drive you to the point of insanity. I’ve seen it happen many times.”


When it comes to maintaining inspiration in his creative pursuits, Miller explains:

“I am pretty much always inspired. What motivates me a lot of time is trying to close the gap between what I hear in my head versus what I can create with my hands, my instruments, and my collaborators. Sadly I don’t think I’ll ever reach a point where that gap is closed but maybe that’s where the magic of creativity lies. I often think about the quote on the back of the Sonic Youth record that says something like “once the idea leaves your head, it’s already been compromised.” That’s a great quote and a wise lens through which to view creativity.

 

A lot of times when I hit a block with something I’m working on I’ll just keep trying to force it. I’ll keep re-recording the same part on my guitar over and over and over again for hours. Obsessing over some minute detail. Losing sight of the bigger picture and causing the magical power of creativity to slip away and transform into frustration. The past few years I’ve gotten much better at honing my sense of when that is waiting around the corner for me. Now if I detect that happening I take a break and distract myself by doing something that’s still productive. Like cleaning our home for a bit or walking our dogs. It gives my brain a rest and helps to clear the jam. I’ve also finally learned to be easier on myself if unblocking the jam takes longer than I hoped. Forcing things is the antithesis to creating good work and the fast track to burnout.


I would say a lot of what inspires me is chasing after a feeling I had, usually from childhood. Like when Natty and I were kids we would visit our grandparents in Chicago and I would get to stay in my grandmother’s study. Late at night, I’d listen to The Sugarcubes on my walkman and stare at the spines of all the books on her bookshelves. Wondering to myself what sort of things were happening inside those pages. It was a sense of mystery and discovery. Somehow by creating, I am always hoping that I can escape back into those sensations I felt.

 

 Circling back to closing the gap between what I hear in my head versus how I’m able to execute. A great example of this to share would be the last song on my new EP “Vincent.” I came up with the riffs and idea for it back in 2008 but was never satisfied enough with my ability to fingerpick the guitar parts that it took me until 2023 to think that I might even be able to pull it off.”





Something that struck me about Gateway and Illusion Pool was its cinematic sound. Miller's dreamy, nocturnal music has found its way into a variety of films. Increasingly apparent in his music video and art direction, making movies in the form of music is something synonymous with Miller. When asked about the relation of his sound to the film sphere, Miller explains, 


“The cinematic angle has long been a big part of my music. That was never something that was intentionally set out. It’s more something that happened naturally. Chromatics have been unbelievably lucky that the film industry took notice of our music and continue to use a lot of our songs for film and tv to this day. I am very grateful for that. I am part of some exciting things in that sphere that are slated for the future but for the moment I’m required to keep quiet about them. I look forward to the day when they will be shared.

 

I love film but believe it or not I don’t watch that many films and have not seen many of what people consider the masterpieces of cinema. I try to stay disciplined with my time. I usually won’t permit myself the space to both watch movies and read books so I tend to only allow time for reading because I feel it’s better for me (and is less hours of my life spent staring at screens).

 

There are some films though that have left an impression on my psyche and continue to influence my music. Especially the psychological aspect of my music. Instead of seeking out new films, I tend to revisit those same films repeatedly over the years because I notice new things that I missed before or find new ways to appreciate them. The first of those films would be “The Tenant,” I find the psychology of that movie so creepy and claustrophobic. I love how as the film stretches on, it just gets weirder, more awkward. The viewer’s sense of reality and the main character’s sense of reality grow increasingly nebulous. I’ve probably watched that film at least 15 times since I first ever rented it at the video store. The next would be Fassbinder’s “Fox & His Friends.” That was a film that when I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it even existed. Again I’ve probably watched that one many times throughout my life, other Fassbinder films too, like “Lola,” “Martha,” “Ali: Fear Eats The Soul.” And then after that it would be “The Brood.” As deranged and unsettling as that movie is, I find the late 1970’s color palette of the film calming. Maybe it resonates with me because I was born in the late 1970’s. That’s my best guess.

 

To conclude the interview I was curious to know if Miller had a project or song he is most proud of in his career thus far, to which he expressed, 


“I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily anything that I’m most proud of. I don’t release or share things that I can’t fully stand behind or haven’t done the best I believe I could’ve done for them. But I also understand that’s a luxury. As a creative person, especially if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to have an audience outside of yourself, it can create all sorts of pressures because it feels validating to have people respond to your work and you hope to sustain the attention. If you’re already an insecure person in other aspects of your life, that awareness of the outside can really funk with your mind. If you don’t learn to reign in those feelings, they can destroy you. It’s always a confluence of factors, nearly all of them out of our control, that allow something to break through and catch hold of the zeitgeist. The only control I do have is to create something that I feel satisfied with and hope that it might resonate with others.

 

 It’s an honor that anybody feels motivated to listen to anything that I am working on or have been a part of. Especially in this world where our consciousness is constantly under siege by all types of stimulation and things competing for our attention.

 

 I have a deep well of songs and ideas full of beautiful moments that have still yet to reveal to me the best ways in which to share them. That pool becomes deeper with each year that passes. If I were to have a song or project that I am most proud of, I would say it’s always going to be the one that most recently got rescued from the bottom of that well and can finally be shared with the rest of the world. That’s a great feeling. As long as I remain inspired to help those moments grow into something bigger, I’ll always have something to keep me from losing my mind. Or to accelerate me losing my mind. Whichever way you choose to look at it -laughs-



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