Precision loops accompany Jeff Miller's solo act
Jeff Miller released his first album, “Trying to Be Cool,” in 2004, a year after he graduated from college. The Upper St. Clair native is now a touring musician based in Nashville, a husband and father of two young children.
The singular “musician” is no mistake. Miller tours as a true solo act, with just a guitar and equipment that allows him to record and instantly play loops. On his most recent album — fittingly called “Loops” — Miller's lush and evocative instrumentals recall guitarists such as Phil Keaggy, Adrian Belew and Keller Williams.
Miller performs a free show April 11 at the Coffeehouse in Village Hall on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.
Other local shows include April 7 at Skibo Cafe on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, April 8 at the 19th Hole Bar and Grill in Chippewa and April 9 at North Country Brewing in Slippery Rock.
Question: Your new album, “Loops,” features contributions from Phil Keaggy, one of your musical influences. What was that like?
Answer: (After they met), he told me he would love to get together and play. Well, sure, you didn't have to twist my arm, but I still wasn't convinced it would happen. … We got together, he took me out to lunch and then went to his home studio where he's been recording most of his recent albums, and played for an hour and a half. He then offered, if I had any upcoming projects, to play on them. And I was in the middle of recording this instrumental album.
Q: Are listeners ever confused at live performances when you use loops?
A: Definitely. I try to do a quick demo at a lot of my shows because I can tell when I play sometimes that people are looking incredulously at me. They think I've triggered a sample instead of recording it live. ... After a couple of loop-intensive songs, I'll stop and say everything you've heard is live in the sense that it's performed in front of you first, then I'm recording and playing it on top of a little instrumental bit.
Q: How long did it take you to get comfortable using loops?
A: I tell people who are trying to get into loop it's like learning a new instrument. It took me about two years before I wasn't make mistakes at shows.
Q: Do you ever tour with a band?
A: I wish I had a regular band. For touring purposes, the idea of going out with a band does not appeal to me because of the logistics of it. I don't know how touring bands that aren't established do it.
Q: Your current tour starts in Tennessee and North Carolina, goes through Western Pennsylvania and stops in Virginia and Washington, D.C. Are you comfortable being a modern troubadour, going from town to town on your own?
A: I've been touring like that since I moved to Nashville. I did one tour before I left Pittsburgh just to see what it was like, and it went terribly, but that was because I didn't plan it well. But I'm now used to doing it; I've got a network of friends and fans who have become friends who host me whenever I'm on the road. So in that sense, I'm never really alone.
Libby Rodenbough of the band Mipso is reached the day after her beloved North Carolina Tar Heels beat Kentucky to advance to the Final Four of men's NCAA Basketball Tournament. She and her bandmates were playing a concert in Iowa during the game and caught the end of the close contest via a laptop.
“It was a heart attack-inducing last couple of minutes,” says Rodenbough, who sings and plays the fiddle. “Then, we went back on stage for the second set very triumphant.
Mipso, a quartet from Chapel Hill, N.C., also has been winning fans, fusing traditional bluegrass music with elements of Americana and folk music on its new album, “Coming Down the Mountain.” The band also features Jacob Sharp, mandolin and vocals; Joseph Terrell, guitars and vocals; and Wood Robinson, bass and vocals.
Mipso performs April 6 at the Hard Rock Cafe, Station Square.
Question: The music has its roots in bluegrass, but on “Coming Down the Mountain” it seems you've expanded your musical palette with the addition of drums and keyboards.
Answer: We just felt that the song called for that. Even on this album there are some songs that are a lot sparer. “Cry Like Somebody” is just acoustic guitar and voices, and that's a form we feel really comfortable in, but we thought some of these songs were just asking for more production. And we were interested in trying new things ourselves, instrumentally.
Q: So the music is not purely bluegrass?
A: We're drawn to a lot of music, old and new, and we try not to be specifically beholden to any of those sounds. We're not trying to perfectly re-create anything from the '40s or '50s. And we're also not trying to frantically keep up with the trends.
Q: There seems to a fair amount of religious imagery on the new album, notably in songs such as “Water Runs Red,” “Hallelujah” and the title track. Is there an inherent spirituality in your music?
A: In our songwriting, we're all pretty much shooting from the hip. We're coming from our upbringing and experiences, and we all grew up in the South. Jacob and Joseph and I, who wrote those songs, grew up going to church, and we're familiar with Christian imagery. We're interested in that stuff. … As people who are interested in storytelling, you can't help having an appreciation for those stories. That's the tradition we're most familiar with.
Q: You joined the band in 2014 after playing with Mipso part time. Why did you decide to become a full-time member?
A: The boys had been doing it for a year before I joined full time, and they were having such a good time. And much to my surprise, they were able to pay their bills. It didn't occur to me that was a real job prospect. When I saw that it was and was thinking about what else I might do — like any 20-something, I might waitress or been a barista — I thought it was going to be more interesting and a rarer opportunity joining a band and traveling around the country playing music for people. Now that I look back on it, it just seems like a no-brainer.
Q: Mipso was on the KFC float in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2015. What was that like?
A: Surreal is the perfect word for it. For one thing, every time we go to New York it's like an extended stress experience, trying to get around. You're staying on somebody's couch in somebody's tiny little apartment. But that time we were picked up at the airport in Escalades. We stayed at a very nice hotel in Chelsea and was escorted everywhere by a driver. The morning of the parade, we had breakfast on this tour bus. To my left was Pat Benatar and behind me was Questlove, which is definitely different from most breakfasts that I have. There's probably been no one who's had that same breakfast experience.
Details: 412-481-7625 or hardrock.com/cafes/pittsburgh/
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.