Ten years ago I interviewed a hitherto unknown underground dance music artist about the pressures of living up to a massive overground chart hit. During the course of the interview, Robert Miles described clearly how conflicted he was – despite selling 13 million copies of his debut album, he would be quite happy to disappear completely and return to a life of anonymity. A decade and a half after the fact, it seems that Robert Miles got his wish.
Originally published in 24/7 Magazine, November 1997.
ROBERT MILES: MARRIED WITH CHILDREN
One day you are playing out your favourite tunes as a DJ in your local club. The next thing you know, you are the biggest selling dance artist in the world. Stuart Buchanan meets Robert Miles as he learns how to cope with Children.
“The freedom we lost cannot be reconquered cheaply, but however high, it is a price worth paying” – Robert Miles, sleeve notes, “23am”.
There are few artists, that given the option, would even consider the sheer career trajectory of dance artist Robert Miles. It has been so swift and so radical that Miles has had little or no time to assimilate everything that is happening around him – to essentially deal with the infamous “price of fame”. Suddenly, he is not just successful, he is an international commodity. Sales in the last two years have now topped over 13 million world-wide, making him dance music’s most bankable asset. Now everybody wants their pound of flesh, everybody wants to see their investment soar to stellar heights and every member of the CD buying public wants to get inside his head.
Yet less than three years ago, Miles was happily playing out psychedelic trance tunes in his native Italy, making his mark as a DJ and playing at selective underground gatherings. ‘Children’ came to him after his father returned from an aid mission to the former Yugoslavia. The track was nailed down, the plate cut and suddenly everything changed.
“To be honest, the first time I played ‘Children’ in a club in Italy, I was very scared about the feedback from the people on the dancefloor. But the reaction was so huge and massive, I thought to myself ‘what’s going on here?’ and I knew at that point that I had something very strong in my hands. Of course, I never knew exactly how big it was going to be and all of a sudden I was projected into the pop star system.”
Miles’ underground was now overground and whatever he thought of ‘Children’ (he still considers it to be an ‘underground’ track), his former allies were starting to cast him in a different light. “That record was played more or less by all the underground DJs (including the house DJs even though it wasn’t a house record) and then of course it became this big hit that everybody knows and people say that it’s not underground music anymore. When you find yourself in that dimension, it’s very hard to work at the core because a lot of people know about you, they start to talk about you, all the media talk about you and suddenly you’re not an underground person, even if I feel that I am. So it’s a very hard game – everyone’s against you, all the underground scene comes against you. I really do understand what the underground thinks of me, because if I was in their shoes, I would probably be thinking the same thing.”
From the outside, much of the criticism levelled at him would be considered valid – for example, why DJ with trance, techno and hard funk only to release laid-back and accessible grooves? “When I’m DJing I really like to play experimental stuff and underground music, but when I produce – that kind of music comes from inside, it’s something that you cannot stop. I’ve tried so many times to produce the same music that I play as a DJ, but I don’t have the power to stop what is inside. But at the same time, I don’t really want to take the underground scene and put it into the big market, because I don’t want to mis-represent anybody. I’m just trying to ensure that the kind of people that hate club music are now able to listen to it step by step. Of course, I really want to release experimental music, but to get the masses to listen to that you need time and I need to build up slowly.”
His altruistic mission was cocked askew by the inevitable slew of copy-cat acts that attempt to stage a spectacular act of bandwagon-jumping. “Suddenly the chart was full of similar stuff , but no one had the same success because they didn’t have the same flavour as ‘Children’. I had to get out of that situation because everything I wanted to do and say was completely broken by all the other people that were copying my kind of music.”
Miles does not see himself so much as a vanguard, but he believes that he has certainly made a pioneering mark in the history of dance music. “The one thing that I am very happy about is that I made people accept that we don’t play shit music in clubs – we actually play very good music. A lot of people, after ‘Children’, started to go into underground clubs and to listen to that kind of music and now they love it. So I don’t think that everything I did was wrong, because a lot of people didn’t know Future Sound Of London or other types of experimental music before and now they’ll listen to it. It doesn’t matter what happens now or in the future, because I’m happy that I did something for the clubs.”
If ‘Children’ was genuinely such an act of benevolence, then Miles has paid dearly for it. He has, at all points on his current ley-line, refused to play the system and, more often than not, refused to be photographed. Miles is the epitome of the Nineties cultural renaissance – the face means nothing and the cult of celebrity has been ripped apart. Artists such as Leftfield, Underworld and FSOL, have shifted hundred of thousands of units but have still remained unknown in the public eye. Miles has gone one better – rivalling sales for artists such as The Spice Girls and Oasis during 1996 whilst still harbouring his anonymity.
With the release of his new album ’23am’ (Deconstruction), Miles has taken this notion to its logical conclusion. The face has been entirely removed and all that remains on the sleeves, promotional posters and videos is nothing more than a silhouette. Perhaps this truly is the death of the artist – or may it’s just a very clever promotional scam to fuel the public interest.
“There is one thing that I really don’t like – which is that people think that I always wanted to be a pop star, or that I love being a pop star, which is absolutely not true. I really don’t want to play the pop star system – I don’t feel myself as a pop star or think of myself in a commercial way. The title of the album comes from a message that I got from my broken answering machine – it said ‘you have three messages, Sunday 23am’. I thought that it was perfect because 23am can be, in a certain way, an imaginary time in which you find yourself, which fits well with the silhouette on the cover – that’s Robert Miles the pop star, not Robert Miles the real person. It’s a double personality, which is also a double reality – a lot of people want to see me as a pop star, but I’m not in that frame of mind at all. I think the title works well with that idea because it’s something that can exist, but doesn’t exist in reality.”
However, Miles is still buying into the media game – this interview, the videos, the hundreds of thousands spent on promotion. Many artists have built a successful career without such trappings – they have refused interviews and kept themselves hidden (Portishead’s Beth Gibbons being an obvious example), but Miles is content to take a more cautious and phased journey back into public obscurity. “The problem is that when you’ve sold 13 million copies, people want to see your face, they want to read about you and if I stopped doing all the promotion then nothing would actually get off the ground and I really want to be able to do more music. I know that now, step by step, I can cut down the promotion – if today you are Robert Miles that sells 13 million copies and then tomorrow you are the silhouette on the ’23am’ cover, then maybe the next step is that I am no one and nothing and that’s the way I want to go. But it’s impossible to give it all up at the one time, you must take your time. I have people saying to me ‘okay, now you have a position, you can do what you want, we can sell a million records’, but I have to tell them ‘I really don’t want to be here, I want to be back where I was’, but it takes time.”
From listening and watching Miles talk, you get the impression that his calm exterior belies the turmoil and confusion that simmer underneath. “The whole thing is a bit of a mess – trust me, it’s very difficult to be in this position. There are a lot of people that want to be in my position, but if they could actually do it they would go absolutely crazy. What I’m trying to do is to be very relaxed and to continue to do what I have to do. I know that some people will be for me and some people will be against me and we’ll just have to see what happens in the next year.”
Those twelve months may well see Miles embark on another project, perhaps under a different name altogether. He cites a range of influences on a spectrum leading from Robert Fripp to Goldie and LTJ Bukem, and of course there is his European trance background to consider. ” I really want to start another project because I work in that side of music, I really enjoy and support underground music. The project will probably be more the kind of music that I play as a DJ, but it’s not to show people that I can do both kinds of music. It’s something more personal and maybe it’s just so that I can show something to myself.”
We can look at Robert Miles an interesting anthropological experimental. If he can continue to sell millions of records and simultaneously eradicate his public persona, then we may well find ourselves with a unique concept on our hands. Perhaps we may well get to the stage where art can finally triumph over celebrity and Robert Miles, for one, will be happy. But the late twentieth century is truly an age where consumerism is largely fuelled by iconography, where leisure and entertainment is entirely built around the shallow foundation of looks over content – we must ask ourselves, do we really want to bring down such walls? Would we prefer to be surrounded by faceless music and nameless entertainment? Is that what we want? What we really, really want?