Cepia Tone

Huntley Miller May Have Been a Drum 'n' Bass Man, But He's a Laptop Magician Now

Huntley Miller and I are shit-faced. Luckily, we don't stand out: The throng at Fat Kid Wednesdays bassist Adam Linz's end-of-summer party abounds with revelers far tipsier than us. Which is a little scary; it's just past midnight, and Linz has taken great pains to ensure that the booze won't run out before the bacchanal's projected 5:00 a.m. end.

"It's probably best that I didn't DJ tonight," says Miller as we slip into the only (relatively) quiet area in the spacious apartment: Linz's bedroom. As always, the six-foot bassist-turned-laptopper, who records under the name Cepia, is dressed casually, in black T-shirt and boot-cut blue jeans. But I've never seen him in a trucker hat before. When I mention the anomalous headgear (complete with patch that reads "Orange County Choppers"), he's quick to indicate that he's not trying to party like it's 2001. "This is a souvenir my girlfriend picked up," he says, "and I really need a haircut."

Originally slated to take a shift at the decks along with Linz (a.k.a. DJ Pat Morita), Young Morgan, and wunderkind Jonathan Ackerman, the would-be DJ bailed when he learned that his slot could easily be filled by someone else. "I'd have just wanted to play A-Ha, Simple Minds, and Man Parrish."

Besides, Miller has ample (non-seasonal) reason to celebrate—and to take it easy for a minute. Only two days earlier, his first Cepia solo album, Natura Morta, dropped on the prestigious Ghostly International label, home to Skeletons & the Kings of Cities and Matthew Dear.

Not that he has much in common with the Brooklyn post-everythingers or the techno heartthrob (or even with earlier musical incarnations of himself—more on that in a minute): Like his Dowry EP, released on Ghostly in 2005, Natura Morte is all-instrumental, highly melodic, and informed by everything from hip hop to classical music, to, well, Simple Minds. But while the earlier release skewed toward extended explorations, the new one is concise. Most tracks clock in at three to four minutes; a couple of ambient ones are even shorter.

"I do have an interest in long-form stuff," he says, settling into the bedroom's only chair. Roughly half the size of Myth, the room is a minimalist's dream: three matching abstract prints on one white wall, a kick-ass stereo, and a few pieces of furniture, including the king-size waterbed that I flop onto.

"I have a lot of fun with it. But over the past couple years, I've battled to figure out how to say what I have to say concisely. And I always keep things moving: four bars, change, eight bars, change, and so on. I feel like I have to. You have to compensate for everybody's ADD, including your own."

Miller's foray into musical omnivorousness began a few years after he switched from guitar to bass in the sixth grade, back when he was attending grade school in Edina, and still played sports. "I was really shocked when I met—or re-met—(2001 MMA Artist of the Year) Matthew St.-Germaine a few years ago and found out he was this experimental music dude," he says. "I knew him as a mean-ass little football player."

Initially obsessed with learning every one of John Paul Jones's parts on every Led Zeppelin record, Miller, now 30, broadened his horizons quickly as he passed through adolescence. Junior high found him playing in cover bands and delving into the early works of Fishbone and Red Hot Chili Peppers. "I was listening to hip hop as well," he says. "Like a lot of 13-year-olds, I went for the shock-value stuff. I had the first couple Geto Boys records, which were unbelievably filthy."

Working his way backward in time, he was into funk, soul, and jazz as a high-schooler. After graduation, he attended Music Tech and studied under virtuoso bassist Anthony Cox, who introduced him to guitarist and vocalist William "Bill Mike" Michel, then at the helm of indie-rock vessel Tugboat. Dave King and Eric Fratzke had recently jumped ship to concentrate on Happy Apple, and, in 1997, Michel welcomed Miller aboard.

"We got a rehearsal space and all kinds of things started happening for me," Miller says, cozy in his stable seating unit. Remembering that I threw up the last time I landed on a waterbed, I find myself getting seasick. "That's when I started playing with (Fat Kid Wednesdays drummer) J.T. Bates." Miller also started playing live drum 'n' bass in Suki Takahashi and Poor Line Condition around the same time.

After excusing myself to grab some water, I run into Bates in the hall. The party is filthy with drummers and bass players; just as Bates is about to leave, Mystery Palace drummer Joey Phillips shows up. Good generational spread, too, as Phillips, not yet 25, shares kitchen space with silver-haired jazz monster Alden Ikeda.

Inevitably, the apartment harbors a few guitarists, probably lured by rumors of the fete's equitable m-f ratio. A few minutes after I return to the bedroom, who should appear but Bill Mike himself, luxuriously bearded and cheerful as always. "Someday, someone'll do a Minneapolis drum 'n' bass family tree," he says, "and Huntley will be at the roots."

Shortly after the turn of the century, Miller started concentrating on electronic music. He formed Grid with Bates in 2001. In 2002, he sold his bass gear, bought a Mac, and hasn't looked back since. (He does still own a few choice pieces of hardware, including a vintage Roland Juno 106 synth.) Apart from the occasional skittering beat, neither Dowry nor Natura offer so much as a glimpse of Miller's d 'n' b history. Same for the 2006 collection Atlantic Blood, which found him remixing the likes of Dosh and Fog.

His weapon of choice is MAX/MSP, an extremely powerful software package with a learning curve steeper than the Washington Monument. Miller builds all his sounds from scratch, guaranteeing a healthy measure of originality out the gate. Then he composes. "I always start out with something loop-based," he says, "often, the core of the track. I let it play over and over and write around it. Then I go back to the original part, which, by then, is usually fucking bugging me. Sometimes, I'll do variations on that part. I'll just let it ride for three minutes or however long the tune is; I'm okay with that now more than ever."

Like many artists who make elegant, complex electronic music that's also highly accessible, he's none too keen on leaping into the IDM (intelligent dance music) pigeonhole, either. "I'd never want to chain myself to any narrow genre designation," he says. "I just don't think like that. Plus, I don't keep up with IDM, don't listen to the newer stuff, whereas I do listen to the Current. They've been playing the fuck out of Natura Morta. I'm really interested in songs, memorable songs: My all-time favorite piece of music is this version of 'You've Got a Friend,' from one of Donny Hathaway's live albums. He's playing in a small club and the room is electric. Everybody in the audience is belting out the chorus. I cried the first time I heard it." 

CEPIA performs SATURDAY, OCTOBER 20, at the KITTY CAT KLUB, 612.331.9800

Cepia
Natura Morta
Ghostly International

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