On February 8, 2015, Mark Edward Miller passed away from a pulmonary embolism. We who knew him miss his human form, but we also know that his essence remains whenever we gaze into a flame or hear an explosion. For many years, the drummer M.E. Miller was an enigma to me, but once I met him and we became friends it was all very clear.
During the late Eighties as a high school kid, I constantly scoured obscure books and magazines for information about weird music. Because this trivia was difficult to come by, a sort of natural sieve existed allowing certain connections to be made quickly between scenes and movements throughout the lineage of Twentieth Century avant garde music. The links running through Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, Punk, No Wave, Free Jazz, etcetera and ad nauseam were clear to me even back then. Locating the actual records while trapped in my Podunk hometown was the hardest part.
New York City appeared to be the crucial loci for this kind of contrarian culture and I looked upon it back then as a mythic, albeit scummy Shangri-La. My obsessions with late-Seventies’ No Wave nihilism and Sixties’ Free Jazz cacophony eventually led me to the body of work made by the “Downtown” free improvisers stationed in Manhattan. Although still technically in progress when I was discovering it, the early documents from this scene intrigued me particularly. There’s something about the initial output from any movement which is often charged with a raw, crackling excitement of pure, unadulterated newness.
Names would pop up repeatedly, including Mark’s. He appeared on really crazy, almost non-definable records by John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Material, Peter Kuhn, Golden Palominos, Ambitious Lovers and Carbon. Sometimes it was difficult to tell what Mark’s exact contribution was, either because he appeared with other drummers or his approach was just plain inexplicable. In addition to drumming, he also did “singing” of some sort, but once again, it was all rather obscure. For example, on John Zorn’s “Pool”, Mark E. Miller was credited with “percussion, vibraphone and contact microphone”. The result was an alien barrage of brittle timbres of unknown origination. Hilariously, he later revealed to me that his approach to “vibraphone” was to take all the metal bars off the actual instrument and bash them together savagely in a big pile. The result was bloody-minded chaos and I loved it, even if instinctually at the time.
So, seeing this name Mark Miller over and over and wondering what he actually contributed, plus not having any pictures of him to go by, led to my equating Mark as some kind of magical, unattainable Yeti in the saga of the music. Whenever I would randomly run across a fellow New Music adherent, they rarely knew anything concrete about him either. To anyone outside of that tiny hive of bygone activity, Mark Miller was a complete mystery.
By the late Nineties, I was a touring musician and percussive brutalizer in my own right. On one East Coast jaunt I found myself in NYC one balmy afternoon, perusing old vinyl at Downtown Music Gallery, when all of a sudden Elliott Sharp walked in the door.
Elliott started chatting with the owner, Bruce Gallanter, and I began trying to get up the nerve to ask that burning question in my mind. I walked up to the guys, said “Hi”, and then asked, “So what’s the deal with Mark Miller?” Both of them laughed. Elliott told me that Mark was amazing, a sort of legend in the scene and proceeded to regale me with a few anecdotes backing up this lofty reputation. The first had to do with Mark clearing out a gig in 10 seconds flat after lighting a quarter stick of dynamite in some sort of inspired attempt at a musical special effect. The more elaborate story involved Elliott’s big band at The Kitchen, with the performance ending prematurely by Mark dousing his drums in gasoline and sending a burst of flames 20 feet in the air. They both mentioned crazy, barely attended gigs by Mark’s group Toy Killers, co-led by another iconoclastic drummer, Charles K. Noyes. These tales absolutely galvanized me in my quest to get to the bottom of this seeming maniac’s story. I stuck all these tidbits in my craw and kept scanning those endless footnotes, waiting for my revelation.
As my research persisted, it appeared that Mark Miller came to New York in the late Seventies from Southern California on a musical exodus with other like-minded West Coast musicians like David Sewelson, Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb. Mark’s earliest releases were on the independent Theatre For Your Mother label (which I assume was at least partially, if not totally run by Horvitz). On David Sewelson and the 25 O’Clock Band’s 1979 LP “Synchro-Incity”, the loud, brutal, but oddly halting drumming style that Mark would later perform in groups with myself almost thirty years later was already fully crystallized. Mark was into abstraction, but he craved a level of pure visceral affront in conjunction with it. Mark dug rock music and he desired a similar physical impact in his own art, as obtuse as it could be conceptually. Typically, Mark would create these short vignettes of blustery drum hoopla, before inexplicably stopping silent and waiting some unpredictable duration before entering again. It could be as maddening as it was brilliant. Hence, the appeal to a young artistic gadfly like myself.
Mark was around at the genesis of the long running Golden Palominos (lead by drummer Anton Fier) and contributed some bizarre fringe elements to their 1983 debut album. On several tracks, he is credited on turntables – Mark proudly believed he was the guy who pioneered bringing turntable scratching inspired from early hip-hop into other contexts. On the song “Hot Seat”, Mark’s nails-on-chalkboard vocal screeching is as distinctive as it is harrowing. He told me that the physical effort he made to execute that sort of split-tone singing could only be sustained for about 30 seconds before obliterating his vocal chords and I believe it. Of course, there was probably a way to get the same effect with a less debilitating technique, but in a way, the blatant self-sacrifice of the gesture was what he really valued. Mark wanted to help bring a bucket of blood to whatever he did. He couldn’t help himself. Although by the time of this first album, Mark wasn’t really a first-call member any more, he toured with the live band at soon after, playing bass (something I think he had limited experience with) and vocalizing.
For me, the elephant in the room remained the enigmatic Toy Killers. Up to the point I finally actually met Mark, the primary document of the group was a single live compilation track, “Victimless Crime” on an obscure 1983 compilation album. Of course, it turns out Mark was out of town when the band did that particular gig, leaving the other main Toy Killer Charles Noyes to hold down the fort along with regular guests Arto Lindsay and Thi-Linh Le. Charlie’s hilariously random, arrhythmic drumming on this track has been one of the primary influences on my own personal style for decades now, but I asked myself once again: “Where was Mark Miller?! Who is this guy?”
Cut to the West Coast, circa 2006. I was living in Oakland, California and playing in experimental rock bands as well as working regularly in the local free improvised music circles. My bassist buddy Damon Smith and I shared an affinity for the most austere, modernist musical effluvia, so naturally the name Mark E. Miller came up from time to time. At one point, Damon called me, blurting, “Larry Ochs found Mark Miller!” Turns out, Mark had been living on the West Coast for many years and never really found or sought out his peers. It’s hazy, but maybe Henry Kaiser and Larry had been talking about Mark and Larry tracked him down and asked him to do a gig. Something like that. Damon and I got in touch with Mark and started hanging out with him and calling him to play as well.
At the time, Mark seemed totally perplexed that we knew (and cherished) his past musical contributions. It seemed like he realized the value of what he did but ultimately thought nobody really cared about it. We did what we could to prove that we begged to differ. Guys like Damon and me were direct acolytes of the aesthetic groundwork people like Mark Miller lay down. As a matter of respect, we felt if we could use our own meager resources to help him out – with gigs or whatever – it was our pleasure and our personal tribute. I think with the encouragement of people like Larry, Henry, Damon and I, Mark found a second musical wind during his final decade on the planet. Mark’s concepts remained extremely OUT – to this day, he remains the most bizarre musical mind I have ever encountered – but we all bolstered each other in some kind of musical-outcast support group.
As I got to know Mark, I consistently bugged him for info about Toy Killers. He was a little hazy about some of the details – Mark’s hard-partying days were long gone, and apparently many of the specifics remained there – but what I could get out of him helped a definitive picture to gradually emerge. With the aid of Mark, Charles Noyes, Bruce Gallanter and others, I gained access to a sizeable cache of live and studio recordings of various Toy Killers line-ups and spent many hours trying to reconstruct the chronology and compile a posthumous document worthy of the band’s enduring subterranean reputation. In late 2008, I released Toy Killers’ “The Unlistenable Years” CD anthology on my now-defunct ugEXPLODE record label.
Featuring 25 recordings made through the first half of the 1980’s, “The Unlistenable Years” features Mark Miller and Charles Noyes with a rotating cast featuring John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Elliott Sharp, Arto Lindsay, Wayne Horvitz, Nicky Skopelitis and other notable musical adventurers in a campaign of pure sonic chaos and mayhem. Mark was very proud of this release and it gave him a lot of satisfaction. I was not only glad to have answered some of my own questions with the project, but it also made me happy to help Mark get some recognition I know he had long given up on waiting for. We even did a handful of neo-Toy Killers gigs in Oakland and New York after that and kept in touch, even after I left the West Coast for New York.
Over the past half-decade and change, Mark kept ruminating on and tinkering with some new Toy Killers recordings he had cobbled together over the course of various disparate sessions. A year ago, he presented me with what he thought was the final running order of the new release and I have to say, typically, it was bewildering! True to form, Mark’s vision was unique and extreme through to the end. Somehow he had taken what were technically clean, balanced recordings and distorted them beyond what most people would consider listenable. It was as if Mark wanted to express the ultimate dissonance he felt inside of him. I think he knew very well the struggles he was up against with his health and his music was one of the ways he dealt with it. I think this new Toy Killers stuff was not so much for the listening pleasure of the general public, but rather, a direct expression of Mark’s acceptance of his eventual transition away from this mortal coil. It remains unreleased, but perhaps we will issue it as a testament one of these days.
I could probably keep writing and writing, but it will never do justice to the breadth of experience Mark had on this planet, nor should it. His musical activity was just one small part of the saga. Mark Miller was in my life (directly) for less than a decade and I am just one of the many people he communicated with in his journeys. He leaves behind a complex legacy shared by many friends, peers and family members. He travelled the world and had interests far beyond what I have covered here. Like us all, he had his ups and downs. He got his hands dirty and worked for a living. He has two smart daughters out there, continuing his innate agenda in their own ways. Other people saw Mark from different angles, and this is only my side.
I guess what I want to get across in this essay is the following concept: Sometimes the effect we have on others is never known, but that shouldn’t stop us from striving to have that effect. It seemed mind-blowing to Mark that I had pondered his musical work for so long before meeting him. But, we actually did meet and I tried to give back some of what his contribution meant to me as a creative being. Mark Miller was part of a cycle of inspiration and creativity involving countless individuals, but as he travels out there in the cosmos, I just want him to know once again that he mattered to me and that I wish him well in his voyage.
Now, Mark, go out there a blow yourself up some solar systems real good, buddy.
-Weasel Walter (Retrovirus, The Flying Luttenbachers, Behold the Arctopus, Cellular chaos)
Brooklyn, New York, February 24, 2015.