Michael Miller is the nicest dictator you'll ever hear. He admits to cracking the whip perhaps too easily upon the backs of his mates in Michael Miller Crusade, the quartet that accompanies the Seal Beach resident's brooding acoustic ruminations. "The reason [my band's members] are so great is because they're so malleable and open to what I say," Miller confesses in his adenoidal trill. "I'll hear a melody or hymn in my head, sing it out, and they translate what I'm singing. It's dictatorial, power-hungry, I agree, for me to oversee all the aspects of our music. But I like it."
In fact, this obsession with his tastes and only his tastes has given the guy a Rasputin reputation on the local alt-folk scene. But Miller is a benevolent audio autocrat, using his slow-building fame to promote not only personal projects, but also his favorite local bands—anything so that the world listens to what Michael Miller likes.
Most salient in the Miller sonic schemata is the Michael Miller Crusade, of course. The group's members—Chris Holowaty, John Macelwee, Debbie Lemmi and Buster Priest, mastering instruments ranging from a traditional drum/bass/rhythm guitar setup to cellos to freakin' glockenspiels—follow Miller's every lead to create multilayered melancholic pop symphonies. Various strands of Americana emerge from the gentle mélange—mournful mandolin twinkles, burping tuba bass lines, even the stray accordion raga inspired by Miller's yearly world treks in search of rarified melodies.
Fronting this beautiful mess is Miller himself. Micromanagement is a demanding mistress, and in Miller's stage performances there are no accidents, happy or otherwise. They're tight like James Brown's backing band (not "as tight as," but tight "like") in that you sense Miller has planned in detail every note, every bridge, every apparent improvisation.
Despite that kind of interplay between band and master, Miller, a scruffy blond, still emerges in performance as the loneliest soul since Job. Proficient on various instruments, Miller limits his Crusade contributions to an acoustic guitar that rings of moonlit porches and a voice that is an idiosyncratic moan aspiring to be a drawl. His lyrics speak of traditional troubadour maladies—hurt, loneliness and solitude are regular features—and exhibit an individualism wrought from battling furiously against the cruel world.
But Miller is far from alone. There's the willing and supportive bandmates, of course. And over at KUCI-FM 88.9, they play Miller with the regularity of pitchmen brandishing apple peelers on an infomercial. These are the situations when Miller the egomaniac transforms into Miller the benevolent big brother.
"The DJs have just been so gracious to let me appear on their programs whenever there's a show coming up for us," says an appreciative Miller. Then his voice drops to a mischievous octave. "They allow me to play for about an hour, then let me be a guest DJ for hours at a spot. I don't even play my own stuff during those opportunities—on the contrary, I have this secret burning love to turn people on to other bands. Being a guest DJ is the perfect place to do that."
Miller's insistence on manipulating popular taste isn't limited to the Crusade and the occasional radio slot. He hosts Send Me a Postcard, an alt-folk summer concert series at the rustic-futuristic Costa Mesa mall The Camp. Commencing in early June and ending this Saturday, the series has featured acts of Miller's choice every week. Some of them include local loves Wonderlove, Long Beach fave Brett Bixby, LA-based Aeon Spoke—and the Michael Miller Crusade, naturally.
"I had been doing shows with The Camp's promoters for the past couple of years, and so they trusted my judgment," explains Miller when asked how he got such an influential post. "The only stipulation promoters gave me was that it would be great music. I wasn't going for an around-the-fire campy feel to it even though The Camp has an outdoor campsite. It just turned out that way.
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"Being that I was the host and booker, it ensured that we'd play," continues Miller. "But I mostly just introduce the bands and then concentrate on running the sound for them. Exposing people to other groups was my main reason for hosting."
The Send Me a Postcard turnout has been so positive that there's talk that Miller will host another series this fall. Miller smiles at the prospect of another platform to promote his music worldview—and his music worldview only.
"It's a double-edged sword, to limit myself in disregarding outside input," remarks Miller. Then he sighs. "But I've always been a perfectionist. Besides, I like being in control."
The Michael Miller Crusade perform with Wonderlove, Aeon Spoke and others at The Camp, 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 444-4267. Sat., 6:30 p.m. Free. All Ages.