…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead is a drummer’s dream gig, largely defined by tribal tom pounding, unexpected rhythmic devices, and a sense of drama unrivaled in modern rock. Judging from his previous recordings, the band’s recent main man at the kit has been working up to the job for a couple decades.
by Stephen Bidwell
Ajourneyman of heavy music since his migration from Baltimore to Santa Barbara in the early ’90s, Jamie Miller has kept a full schedule with a variety of projects, not only as a drummer but as a producer and guitarist as well. You may know him from his early work in the ’90s metal band Souls at Zero and the recently re-formed SoCal hardcore faves Snot, but if you haven’t heard his current work with …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead or Vanishing Life, you’ve got some catching up to do.
MD: How did you connect with Trail of Dead?
Jamie: I’ve been with the band for about five years now. We’ve done two records together, IX and Lost Songs. They’d expanded to a six-piece, but the original lineup was four guys who switched instruments, and I think [leader/multi-instrumentalists] Jason Reece and Conrad Keely missed doing that. [Several other band members departed prior to Miller’s hiring.] They were looking around for someone who could play drums and guitar, and I guess my name was the first one that popped up on their radar.
MD: You’re playing guitar live as well?
Jamie: I’m playing about 90 percent of the drums and adding guitar here and there.
MD: What’s the recording process, since you’re spread out so far geographically?
Jamie: We did the last album at a place called Sonic Ranch in El Paso. I live in Long Beach, Jason and bassist Autry Fulbright live in Austin, and Conrad lives in Cambodia. We’ll demo at home any way we can, and then we get together in Austin for a few weeks and jam as a band.
MD: Live, Trail of Dead hits you like a train. On record, though—especially on the latest album, IX—a lot of subtleties come out.
Jamie: The idea was for the four of us to go into a studio, à la the Beatles’ Let It Be movie, play together, and see what happens. The songs were born out of jams, but it wasn’t like we were in a tiny room with the amps on 10. It was more like, “Oh, we’ve got this chord progression—wow, it sounds cool on the piano.”
MD: You worked with Austin-based producer Chris “Frenchie” Smith [the Darkness, Jet] on the Trail of Dead albums.
Jamie: Frenchie did some really neat stuff. We tracked drums in an enormous live room, and he miked up the drums with the same models and techniques they used on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album. That was sort of his touchstone for the record. Oddly, even though we were recording in this airplane hangar of a room, the drums are the driest they’ve ever been on a Trail of Dead record.
MD: The group has almost twenty years’ worth of material at this point. What was the process of learning the catalog?
Jamie: When I joined the band, Conrad sent me a list of about thirty songs to learn, not specifying whether to learn them on drums or guitar. So I listened to each of them, and knowing how Jason plays the drums, I could recognize who played drums on which songs. I went through and guessed which songs I would play drums or guitar on, and I was pretty much right.
MD: That’s one way to do the homework.
Jamie: It was really fun, as it made me listen to the music even deeper, because I had to say to myself, I think this is going to be me on drums. When you’re trying to listen to a specific instrument, it makes you listen a lot closer.
MD: How did you come to the drums in the first place?
Jamie: My father’s side of the family is all musicians, and he and my uncle had a band. Apparently I jumped on their drummer’s kit at three years old. They thought it was their own drummer playing, turned around, and it was my dad’s three-year-old son playing.
I just joined bands and played all the time, and I did school band in middle school, but other than that I’ve had no formal training. I can read music just from the little bit of training I got, though, so when I go to sessions I’m not completely lost.
MD: And what led you from Baltimore to L.A.?
Jamie: Sometime after high school we had a huge snowstorm, and I said, “I’m moving somewhere!” An old drummer friend of mine, Shannon Larkin, had moved out to California to join Ugly Kid Joe, and he suggested I come out and join another band, which ended up being Snot. So as soon as the snow melted, I jumped in my car, drove to Santa Barbara, and met the guys in Snot, and I’ve been here ever since.
MD: Who are some of your drumming influences?
Jamie: My favorite drummer is probably Budgie from Siouxsie and the Banshees. That’s sort of my favorite band, and he’s always been my favorite drummer. Whenever I hear one of their songs, I can hear his drumming and know that it’s him. I love drummers like that. It’s not necessarily that they have a signature sound, but rather a signature feel. Of course I love Stewart Copeland and John Bonham and Buddy Rich. People think that’s weird, but I’m a huge Buddy Rich fan.
MD: How did Vanishing Life come together?
Jamie: Autry from Trail of Dead was like, “Hey, man, we should start a punk band!” I think we had just seen Off! at a festival. Then we ran into Walter Schreifels [Quicksand, Rival Schools] and told him about this idea, and he was like, “I want to sing on that.” Eventually I recorded two demos, playing all the instruments, and sent them to Walter. Within a day he sent it back with vocals, and those two songs [“People Running” and “Vanishing Life,” available from collectrecords.org] are the ones that we just put out. Then we ran into Zach Blair from Rise Against, and he was like, “Can I be the guitar player?” And the band was born.
MD: Do you do anything to stay in shape to play all this heavy music?
Jamie: Not really. The other guys in the band are like, “How are you able to play all that and not even break a sweat?” It’s just from really warming up, I suppose. My wife runs a yoga studio and taught me a few stretches, and then I use those gigantic Vic Firth Chop-Out sticks, and I’ll just bang on ’em all day long, keeping the wrists limber.
MD: Can you name everyone you’ve toured or recorded with in the past year?
Jamie: Trail of Dead, Snot, Vanishing Life… I did some guitar work with Billy Ray Cyrus, and I’ve done a few sessions that I think ended up being incidental music for a TV show or movie. Every once in a while I’ll get a call to come out to L.A. for a session and have no idea what it’s going to be for. Those are always fun. Every once in a while I’ll fill in on drums for Chris Olivas in the band Berlin. That always brings me back to hearing “Take My Breath Away” at my junior prom—now I get to play it once in a while.
Tools of the Trade
Miller plays a Q Drum Co. set in the United States and a Kirchhoff kit in Europe, each featuring a 16×26 bass drum, a 10×14 tom, a 16×18 floor tom, and, on his left, a 16×16 concert floor tom. His snare is a 6.5×14 Ludwig Supraphonic. Miller’s Sabian cymbals include 14″ Paragon hi-hats, a 22″ AA Medium ride, a 19″ HHX X-Plosion crash, and a 20″ HHX Evolution crash. His DW hardware includes a 5000 series single pedal that’s been in use since 1997.
Tough to Pin Down
Jamie Miller’s drumming can be heard on a diverse selection of recordings. Though Miller’s an ace at fitting like a glove in each setting, consistent qualities come across after repeated listening: a muscular but unstrained feel, a penchant for slyly slipping in offbeats that keep the more basic patterns from becoming stagnant, precise but not overused hand/foot combinations, and uncommon but still pummeling tom rhythms. And Miller is happy to whip out a 32nd-note blitzkrieg when the spirit calls.
To hear an early example of the type of cool tom-based patterns that Miller would later explore on powerful Trail of Dead tracks like “Lost Songs,” “Heart of Wires,” and “A Million Random Digits,” listen to “My Fault?” from Souls at Zero’s 1995 album, A Taste for the Perverse. Following that band’s dissolution, Miller joined the Santa Barbara act Snot. Though usually thought of as a hardcore act, Snot had a rare ease with shifting dynamics, giving the remarkable vocalist Lynn Strait tons of structural and emotional support. Miller provides rock-hard punk-funk grooves throughout the group’s classic, but unfortunately only, full-length album, Get Some (Strait was killed in a car crash as they were working on new material), spewing out blistering fills and rubbery post–Chili Peppers grooviness all over the LP.
For further examples of Miller’s flexibility, check out theStart’s 2007 album, Ciao, Baby, which is closer in vibe to electro-pop architects like Missing Persons and Garbage than to any thrash or punk recording. Miller works the hi-hats and four-on-the-floor bass drum like a West Coast Clem Burke and squeezes lots of life out of the drum-machine-ish tones. Still another side of his playing personality can be heard on Perdition Hymns by the contemporary stoner-blues-rock group Night Horse, which runs the gamut from the Queens of the Stone Age–style desert riffage of “Rollin’ On” and “Blizzard of Oblivion” to classic Allmans/Black Crowes territory on the 12/8 throwback “Same Old Blues” and the slightly shuffled steamer “Black Clouds.” Adam Budofsky