Corey Miller

Music and art have been inseparable for the tattoo icon since his earliest experiences as a drummer on the L.A. punk scene. Today his work is seen on TV, in national ad campaigns, on drumsets, on albums—and on the cover of this issue—but his passion and humility haven’t diminished at all. MD editorial director Adam Budofsky gets a firsthand account.

Trust. For drummers, the ability to instill it in other people is part of the job description. Good players take naturally to the role: “Guitarist, go on and take your cosmic trip; bass player, knock yourself out doing your best Jaco Entwistle impersonation— everything’s under control back here.”

Trust isn’t something I easily allow myself to feel, though. It’s not as if I’m a control freak; I just prefer to be the one taking the wheel on long road trips, or the one counting off the songs. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to give myself a tattoo, so I have to trust that to an expert. Preferably one who’s a drummer.

Which is how I ended up here, sitting in a vintage dental chair in Upland, California, and having a remarkably detailed rendering of a family heirloom etched into my left shoulder.

I’d wanted a tattoo for ages, and a couple of years ago I found the right image: a heavy, brass, Japanese-style fish pendant that my mom wore for years. It was my favorite keepsake of hers that I held on to after she passed away; something about it perfectly recalls her humility and artistic nature, and I’d often carry it around as a reminder to, first off, always strive for a high level of artfulness in whatever work I do, and second, avoid being a jerk to people in the process.

Around that same time, at the NAMM convention in Anaheim, California, my friend Lisa introduced me to the drummer and tattoo artist Corey Miller, who was appearing in the reality TV show LA Ink. I told Corey that I liked his work and that I’d especially enjoyed the scenes where he talked to his clients about the stories behind their body art. He was polite and thankful but seemed somewhat out of place among the throngs of networkers that populate a NAMM show. Later, as I got to know more about this self-made man and his experiences living and working on both sides of the proverbial tracks, I’d have that notion confirmed, and I’d understand more about it.

If Miller is one thing, it’s sincere. And though he considers himself blessed to have been given the opportunities he’s had to share his art with an enormous audience, he’s unimpressed with people who’ve attained success but who show little integrity. Punk rock in the best sense, Corey identifies with the outcast core of the culture he serves, but he steadfastly refuses to dis the “soccer moms” who make up an increasingly large part of his clientele. Not just a gifted independent thinker, he’s a standup guy who’s unafraid to admit his own human foibles and, more important, determined to learn from them.

He’s also, at forty-five years old, at the peak of his abilities in both tattooing and drumming. Music and art followers tend to be intrigued by people who excel in both fields. There’s often something to be learned about one discipline by looking at it through the lens of another. When we met at NAMM, Miller had already crossed platforms in a sense, having recently designed a drumset for Ludwig and heads for Remo.

Lisa suggested that I interview Corey about his unique career and the ways that music, drumming, and art intersect for him. And maybe get my tattoo while I’m there. Well, all right then…

When I arrived at Miller’s Six Feet Under tattoo parlor, I saw none of the studied rock-star nonchalance or the clinical indifference you might expect from a sprawling art and music space owned by a TV celebrity. To the contrary, visiting Six Feet Under is like hanging out at the home of your favorite uncle—you know, the one with all the great stories about being a photographer for National Geographic or touring the Northwest with Mudhoney. Paintings and neatly arranged art objects fill much of the walls in the main room and nearly every nook and cranny in Miller’s personal inking studio, serving the dual purposes of setting a vibe and giving customers plenty to look at during long sessions, such as the four-hour one I was about to embark on.

When you trust people, you can learn some interesting things—about them, and about yourself. As I sat back and prepared to find out what an inking needle feels like, Corey recalled the beginnings of his curious life path….

Corey: My music and my art both came from rebellion. The punk rock scene is what got me into music. Anybody could play it. Honestly, the first record I played to—I wish I could say it was something a little harder [laughs], but it was the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight”—that “boom-bap, ba-boom-bap.” Luckily, my dad bought me a drumset—a CB-700—and by seventh grade I was in a punk band called the Degenerates. That was the scene in 1979 or ’80.

MD: Where did you grow up?

Corey: Right here in Upland. The thing that put us on the map was the Pipeline Skatepark. It was one of the coolest skate parks in the world. Its pipeline was modeled after the one we have in our mountains here. We’d go up there and party, and kids would skate.

Anyway, then I got into a second band, one of the meanest, coolest bands around. They had a really bad name: Manson Youth. You know, punk rock is all about pissing people off, and boy, that sure did it. But we did well. We made a compilation that Pushead did the cover art for, and we played with bands like Fear, Suicidal Tendencies, Channel 3—all those early staple bands. I got to see them all: Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, the Adolescents. I just saw X and the Adolescents and Social Distortion a couple weeks ago. The punk rock scene—when it came out, it was such an abrasive hit to rock ’n’ roll, and I love that we were totally right. That stuff’s stronger than ever! And it’s great seeing buddies of mine who’ve totally made it.

MD: What got you into tattooing?

Corey: There was a band that I wanted to be in, and they had this little insignia. Black Flag had the bars, and they had their thing. So I got a little old straight pin and a razor blade and did my first tattoo ever, on myself. I rubbed that ink in—“Oh, cool!”—it was a little dedication. But at fifteen, sixteen, the farthest thing from my mind was becoming a tattooist. I used to draw on my bass drum heads and stuff. Everybody did it; it’s nothing original. I’d draw on my snare too. God, I wish I saved some of them! I was always drawing. Then I slowly started tattooing. I made my own homemade machine. I never formally apprenticed, like a lot of guys do these days. Basically I was playing music and had a group of fans and friends who wanted to get tattoos. We’d sit around and watch [the 1980 documentary about the early L.A. punk scene] The Decline of Western Civilization and tattoo.

As time went on, I consistently tattooed and played drums. In the early ’90s I got in a band called Rumble King. We were playing gigs with Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and we opened up for the Blasters at the House of Blues in Hollywood. We did a few albums and toured around. It was jump blues and swing, no guitar. Then I sat in with my buddy Steve Alba’s band, Powerflex 5. It was all guitar-based instrumentals, and I really liked it. Bill Bateman from the Blasters ended up taking my spot in Rumble King. We’re all still buddies; they’re a really good band. But Powerflex 5 is the funnest band I’ve ever been in. We’re total spaghetti-western gumbo. We’ll take a classic surf tune and in the middle of it break into “Neat Neat Neat” by the Damned. This spring we’re playing in Tampa, Baltimore, Texas…. Hey, could you stand up and face that way for a sec? [Miller is ready to draw the initial sketch on my arm. It occurs to me that this is the most unusual setting I’ve ever conducted an interview in.] So, which way is the fish facing?

MD: I think the way you have it.

Corey: Yeah, right? Okay, good.

MD: So, did you keep playing drums as your tattooing work increased?

Corey: The only time I really took a break from drumming was in 1987, when I got my first job at a tattoo shop. When you’re in a band, you usually play on Friday and Saturday nights, and my hours were on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

It took me a while to get into a tattoo parlor. It was a very closed industry back then, a complete 180 from what it is today. People wouldn’t tell you anything, basically for fear of you taking what you learned and opening up a shop down the street. Tattooing was this sacred, dark art.

MD: When did you get back into playing drums?

Corey: When I started working in this other shop and then opened my own shop, I started making time to play music again.

MD: What year is this?

Corey: I opened my first shop in 1992. It ended up in chaos, and I left town and then came back and started from scratch. I’ve been at this location for fifteen years now. We opened up in 1997, on April Fool’s Day.

I remember the pain that came to my hands when I started playing again. I told myself, Never let that happen again—keep playing. Like now, with Powerflex 5, we practice religiously on Mondays. But it’s been like that for years. It didn’t matter whether we were playing in front of big crowds—although it is an amazing feeling playing in front of a few thousand people. But sometimes it’s just as amazing to play in front of three people when you know you’re moving them. That’s pretty much all I need.

MD: Your career as an artist has been anything but low key for quite a few years now—interestingly, many of our readers probably became aware of you through your design work for companies like Ludwig and Remo.

Corey: As a kid I was lucky to meet Todd Trent, who was our local retail guy. He’s a big name in the drumming industry now and was huge with Ludwig for years. I got to tattoo him, and I was like, “Yes—I got an in with the guy!” [laughs] But in ’04 or ’05, tattooing was becoming very popular, and I went to Todd and said, “Hey, let’s do a tattooed drumset—how cool would that be!”

Now, I’m not the first one to do it—I didn’t know it then, but Hanky Panky did a drumset, which I just saw recently in an encyclopedia. He’s a curator and a tattoo artist in Amsterdam, and he’d done this thing for the Chili Peppers. But nothing’s new, man. We all imitate and replicate and take a little something from the past and put it into our new thing. It happens in tattooing and in music. Every once in a while someone comes up with a new beat or a new style, and that’s nice. But it’s good to always acknowledge where stuff comes from. Like a good friend of mine, Lyle Tuttle, says, “The only stuff you don’t know about is the history you haven’t read about.” Anyway, Todd was like, “Man, that’s a great idea.” This was right at a time when I was about to open a huge window and change my life…a little bit.

Corey Miller

MD: In 2007 LA Ink premiered.

Corey: Right. Being on TV, in a reality show, was a complete contrast. I mean, I was a big name in the tattoo industry. But Six Feet Under, that name came from being completely underground—no advertising. It wasn’t a morbid thing; we weren’t goth. But the mentality of it was, you had to know how to get here. And the next thing you know, I’m on TV. I’m sure that sparked the interest of Ludwig.

I gotta hand it to them—it was pretty ballsy of Ludwig to do this. They did decide to go with something more standard. I’d done flash art since the early ’90s, and they felt safer going with an established thing, and I was fine with that. I love the old white marine pearl drum finish, so we decided to go with that and make it look aged. I picked a lot of my favorite drawings from over the years, and we went back and forth a few times. It was cool—I got to be involved with the whole process.

MD: Had you done much commissioned work before that?

Corey: I’d done album covers, I did some artwork for Cheap Trick singer Robin Zander, I designed a guitar for Metallica’s James Hetfield—this was all before the TV show. And recently I did Face to Face’s album cover. But to this day, it’s one of the hugest honors having my name on a Ludwig drum. And believe me, it doesn’t go to my head. I’m very humbled. This snare drum that Ludwig just did is apparently doing real well; some bands I know are even using it. And I’m not thinking about the money. I’m like, “Dude, if they come to town I can totally get backstage!” [laughs] We used to sneak into gigs when we were kids. It’s like, now we’ve arrived.

MD: You recently designed a bottle for Tuaca Liqueur.

Corey: It’s actually a loop in my life; a guy I tattooed in my living room twenty-five years ago became a distributor for them. They filmed all these cool videos of me and covered my history of tattooing and art and music. In the videos I’m playing my beautiful Ludwig kit with the Remo heads I designed.

MD: What do you say to people who focus on the commercial aspects of these types of jobs?

Corey: You can stand back and say, “Yeah, commercialism at its best…” But it has nothing to do with that. It might, down the road, when Preparation H gives me an endorsement for sitting on my ass all day! [laughs] But this stuff has been a hundred percent from my heart, man. To have all these elements come together, you just have to stick to what you do. I remember one of the first things I did on the TV show, I said, “So remember, kids, ditch school, go play your drums, and tattoo your friends—look where it got me!” [laughs] And they’re all like, “My God, you can’t say that!” But I do tell people: If you want to be an artist, draw every day.

Sometimes I beat myself up about getting to hang around with these master musicians. But my wife reminded me last night, “You’ve been doing this forever—you just didn’t get a record deal. It’s not what you strived for.” And it’s true, I didn’t strive for that. I strived for sitting in a tattoo shop every night. People hear about things like my going on tour with Metallica—which all came to me because of my artwork, long before the TV thing—and say, “It must be great to do what you love.” But you can almost resent that, like, “Hey, man, this is hard work.” And not only that, the shit I put myself through in the late ’80s coming up in the tattoo business, all the bad elements…

MD: You mentioned earlier that LA Ink changed your life “a little.” How so?

Corey: After four years I’m still trying to figure out what all this was about. I went into it pretty green and not knowing what a huge machine television really was. And it was reality TV—if it had been a union show, I would have ended up sitting on a pile of cash. Reality TV doesn’t give you that. But what it gives you is exposure. It’s like having a hit record. So it’s a true blessing—I got work from people like Ludwig, for instance.

I came from that real underbelly of tattooing, that dark code of ethics. But I figured the cat was out of the bag at that point, and what an incredible opportunity it was for me. Out of thousands of tattoo artists out there—some that are a lot better than me—I have the opportunity to do this. Then again, I’ve seen great tattoo artists get on camera and clam up. I think being in music probably prepared me for that. Eventually, though, I realized that this is a pretty divisive, manipulative thing. Reality TV really does thrive on the worst behavior in people.

MD: How are the principles of music and art similar to you?

Corey: Like in music, it seems that almost anything can be done in tattooing; people have gotten so good at it. But over the years you do have to pay heed to what has looked or sounded good. You know, a ’40s-style tattoo isn’t just this bold-line, simplistic drawing. There’s a true science to it, and there are guys from back in the day who didn’t have the Internet to learn the art; they wrote letters from Japan to North Carolina and Hawaii…. People like Sailor Jerry, these were real guys.

Some people come around and think anyone can do this. Well, yeah, I guess anyone can stab you in the arm and put some ink in there, and it’s gonna last just as long as a masterpiece. But you can bang on a tin can and then bang on a nicely crafted maple shell with a tuned head—one’s gonna sound a little more pleasant.

MD: You mentioned that you never apprenticed as a tattooist. Did you ever take drum lessons?

Corey: No, I’m self-taught. But I’ve actually never wanted to take drum lessons more than I do today. There are certain things that I just never learned. I watched this video on Neil Peart, and that dude went and learned how to play traditional grip. Man, if you don’t push yourself, you’ll never get any better. I feel obligated to push myself. I mean, to get to hang out at a Ludwig event with Alan White of Yes and Matt Sorum and all these new-school guys—I owe it to myself and to the drum community to learn some new shit.

I put my heart and soul in drumming. You know, like many kids, I came from a house that was kinda crazy. I had a lot of free time because my parents were apart. But all you need is a slice of support, like I got from my dad. Now I’m the most lenient dad, but I tell my kids, “Piano, it’s the one thing you have to do.” I’m gonna stick with that and have them introduced to music, because it was never about getting paid for me. I can go and make quite a bit of money off my celebrity, but nothing makes me happier than going into a local dive bar and playing for a couple drinks and fifty bucks. That’s my soul. It’s nice to get paid good money too. But luckily I’ve made some good decisions, and I try to be a good person, and I think karma will bring you good things back.

Okay, we’re gonna get started now. [Miller gives the inking machine a few test buzzes.] It’s a little sting, so just ride with it. [An apt metaphor for the life of an artist, I figure. Let’s do it.] Yup, this is basically what it’s all about….