Slugbug is Paul D. Millar, an electronic artist whose music could be described as prog punk, weird punk, new wave, zolo, or spastic, synth-based chaos. He’s created a number of albums under the name Slugbug, and he occasionally performs live, complete with videos, keyboards, reel to reel, and a fully functioning traffic light. He invited us into his home studio recently to discuss his penchant for electronics, his childhood in Waco, Texas, and his role in Gary Wilson’s backing band, The Blind Dates.
When did you start playing music?
PM: I think that I first conceived of the idea of playing music when I got a tape recorder, which was maybe when I was five. I inherited a standard stereo cassette recorder, and I had a Walkman, and I figured out that you could connect the output of the Walkman into one of the mic inputs on one channel of the stereo tape recorder and record something else on the other track at the same time, and in that manner overdub and put the second stereo tape in the Walkman and do the same thing again. But I didn’t actually conceive of playing music until long after that—it took me probably until I was a teenager to discover that the guitar sounded better if you pressed down some of the frets.
You were just playing the strings with no note differentiation?
PM: There were germs of song ideas, but they were primarily rhythmic. I wanted to create a melody but didn’t have the know-how. And then I took some guitar lessons from a guitar teacher and learned how to play blues and, boy, that fucked me up.
[laughing] How so?
PM: Because I should have been learning how to play Bach on the piano or something. I don’t know if I’d have the same attitude about keyboards now if I’d been forced to play piano.
You didn’t take any piano lessons growing up?
PM: No, never. My mom teaches music theory at Baylor University in Waco, and she plays the piano very well and sings very well. So I was around that, but I guess she never tried to force me to try to study music.
So you learned how to play guitar first?
PM: Yeah, and never to any degree of ultimate success. Now I’m around a bunch of guitar players all the time, and I can’t play, but I’m fine with that. I let them play guitar.
Your first release was Shoe Eatin’ Time, correct?
PM: That’s not correct. It depends on what you consider a release, because I put together collections of material that I considered albums, but I never widely distributed them. As a teenage shut-in, I would send things to my pals on the Internet of 2003 and get feedback in that way, but it was never disseminated to a wider audience until after I moved to this city.
It’s funny that you use the phrase “teenage shut-in,” because, to quote your bandcamp site, “Shoe Eatin’ Time was recorded in Waco, Texas, October 2005-April 2006, when Paul was allegedly attending high school.” Tell me, why “allegedly”?
PM: Well, I did attend high school, because it was easier than the alternative, really. I mean, you don’t want to get in trouble.
PM: Towards the end, I just slept on my desk for probably about 75 percent of the class periods. The education’s a joke, most of it’s multiple choice, and I could think, well, it’s probably this way or the other, and I just used a bit of logic to guess my way through these tests. When the essay questions came up I was fucked, but usually you could just leave them blank and you’d still get a D or something.
PM: So I did terribly in school, didn’t care. I knew how I was going to end up.
What do you mean?
PM: In a comfortable niche, I guess.
Could you elaborate on that?
PM: Well, I work on audio equipment and record music and repair broken stuff, and nobody really goes to school to do that, I don’t think.
So you were doing that even in high school. How did you get into it?
PM: I started building and repairing electronics probably at about 16, after the four-track broke, because I thought, hell, I’m never going to get another one of these, because it was Waco, you know, there are no musicians around. And I didn’t have any money—I could have had a job, but I just didn’t have a job, I preferred to be creative. So I figured out how to fix the four-track, and then I started—I really wanted a synthesizer, I had never had a proper synthesizer, so I built my own from plans that were provided. I did not design it at that point, but I just built it over about an 18-hour night, when I was supposed to be sleeping in high school, in a spurt of mechanical creativity.
That’s a long night.
PM: That’s how excited I was.
How exactly did you build it? What kind of synthesizer was it?
PM: Well, it was a basic analog monophonic synthesizer. It was a design called the Sound Lab, which is still available, and this guy provided print circuit boards that you could stuff with your own components, but I wasn’t going to pay 30 dollars for a printed circuit board when I was 17, so I made one in the garage.
How did you make it?
PM: Toner transfer etching drill press. I need a reference or something.
[Paul takes out a namplifier for an electric piano]
PM: All the inputs and outputs of a circuit are on these terminals, you connect power to it, you’d put the piano signal in here and get a speaker output on the other side, and then everything is done with components, resistors, capacitors, transistors, integrated circuits. And they are soldered into this board and connected via traces that run between these solder dots that you see here, and the way this pattern is created is that the board starts covered with a very fine layer of copper, and then a pattern is transferred to that with some kind of ink, and it’s chemically etched away, leaving only the parts that are supposed to conduct. And then you drill the holes for the components and solder them in, and then you have a circuit board.
PM: Yeah, so I made these in my garage in high school. I’d say it’s a very common and usual thing for an electronics hobbyist to do. It doesn’t seem special to me. I was just trying to do everything myself, which is fun.
And you learned from plans on the Internet. You didn’t know anyone who could show you how to do this in person?
PM: No, I did not. It seemed to be a very isolated sphere. There may have been other weirdoes in that town doing that kind of stuff, but it seemed to me that I was the only one.
So I want to go back to that description that you have up on your bandcamp. It continues by saying that “this recording is a fascinating formative-years document of the man that would become known as the Steely Dan of punk rock.” Has anyone ever actually called you the Steely Dan of punk rock?
PM: No, but I would like them to, perhaps one day. [laughing] You know, I like energy, I like directness, but I also like complexity and intricacy, and those things don’t seem to meet too often in popular music. So I liked that everybody was yelling and having a good time in punk rock, but the music was boring, and I don’t know, that’s maybe because my mom listens to classical music or something. So yeah, I wanted to, with maximum energy, put out the highest level of interesting complexity that I could at any given time, and that level has certainly increased I think. The next album is not going to be any less complicated than the last one.
I would place you in a firm tradition of idiosyncratic composers, starting perhaps with Todd Rundgren or Gary Wilson and R. Stevie Moore in the ’70s, and continuing today with artists like Ariel Pink who work primarily on their own and use all sorts of musical equipment, a lot of it electronic, to create these expansive worlds of music that weave in and out of traditional pop sensibilities and structures. Tell me, do you see yourself as part of any sort of lineage of artists?
PM: Well, I would like to be identified with all those people you just mentioned—in due time, I don’t want to jump to any comparisons. But what you said about creating a multilayered sort of world definitely holds true to me. I tend to think of a recording, a two-channel stereo recording, as an individual world unto itself. And you could construct any sort of sound idea in there, not necessarily including words, and it could be very strong so long as it was consistent with its own internal logic. Even Todd Rundgren made some music like that, which sounds like noise, but you listen deeper and there’s some very logical progression of sounds going on there. The Residents?
PM: They don’t conform to any previously existing style. I hope that made sense. [laughing]
I would say your music is one part isolation, two parts humor, three parts anxiety. One of my favorite lyrics comes from “Living in a Dome”: “If your powers are mental, your angst existential, it’s not accidental that you end up in your own dome.” And one of your songs is called “Nervous Man Music,” which is a label that you tag all of your music with. How much of this represents your true persona, and how much, if any, is self-conscious aesthetic?
PM: If anything I would say it represents a parody of my true persona. The best way to approach those issues, to me, is to make jokes about them. That’s better than brooding or wallowing, I think. Like “Oh everyone hates me, I’m going to kill myself. Everyone hates me.” I don’t care. I’m going to do my own thing.
That’s probably a better way to approach the subject.
PM: I’m going to do my own thing with the intent of spreading the message of how much I enjoy it to others, because I do believe in the music being very inviting to the listener. It’s sort of educational.
PM: That’s a difficult word to explain.
It’s certainly an unexpected way to describe it.
PM: I get that feeling from friendly, open-sounding melodies and bright synthesizer sounds, and it just seems like whoever created the sound is trying to say “Everything’s actually ok, come listen to this.” It’s kind of empowering, as a person, to hear a good sound and know that you are capable of appreciating it.
On another of your songs, you say that you “can’t find the weird life.” What exactly do you mean? What is the weird life or the weird world that you’re looking for?
PM: Something of a nebulous concept, where something unexpected could happen in interpersonal relationships, where you might hear a weird noise or do strange activities with people you meet. It’s very much a kind of breaking out song. I wrote that just before I changed cities.
From Waco to Austin?
PM: Yeah. It’s easy to come up with that sort of sentiment when everyone around you is just constantly talking about trucks or guns. And it all seems very ordinary, and you imagine that there are interesting things going on somewhere else.
Did you find the weird world here?
PM: Just about, almost. I’m always looking further, I guess. It’s just the nature of consciousness.
So tell me about Truck Month. It’s been a long time in the making—since what, 2010?
PM: Yeah, that’s about when I started working on that.
You were still living in Waco?
PM: Yes. Some of it was recorded there.
A lot of these songs appeared in different forms on various EPs and other prior releases. Why so many iterations? Was it a difficult album to make?
PM: Not particularly. It’s not like I worked on it all the time, but I would kind of work up the energy to put together a whole track. The hardest thing is not coming up with the individual parts but thinking of the best way to lay them out, which isn’t necessarily the standard A-B-A song structure. I always felt that I wanted to break out of that a bit. So there are several existing versions of most of those songs, and I tracked everything on this eight-track, which is actually the same one that John Maus and Ariel Pink use, the TASCAM 488. It’s very easy to use, and it’s immediate, the mixer’s built into the unit. Not the greatest sound quality, but it sounds fairly good, better than you’d think eight- tracks on a cassette would sound. So I used that as a scratch pad. It still had enough tracks that I could plan most of what I was going to do on the final version. And then there could be some sloppiness, some worse drumming on the cassette version, than when I finally made the song in its final form, and to do that I used the big eight-tracks, or the bigger eight-tracks. Real machines.
What’s the difference?
PM: There’s much higher sound quality on the eight-tracks, and you can actually edit the tape itself. There’s this block on the machine, and you use a razor blade to slice the tape, and you can tape two segments together to make a fast jump cut.
You can tape... ?
PM: Yeah, with sticky tape.
And it doesn’t mess up the play?
PM: It does not. So if you looked at any one of my masters, I put together a lot of stuff and even fixed drum performances by just adding pieces of tape together, moving things around.
How many pieces of tape will be on a master?
PM: I’ve not counted on my master reel... There are at least a dozen of them on every song.
PM: In order to actually mix down the song from the eight-tracks to the two stereo tracks, since there’s so much that happens in these compositions, there’s no way I could control the level and the panning on every individual track by myself, so I mixed all the songs down to small segments and then cut those segments together, and the result is seamless. And I think that was a pretty common technique when people were using this as the primary technology for making music. But I feel like something about this workflow engenders a very organic and friendly quality to really anything you record. It’s just a lot of work. You get somebody who can’t play something correctly and you try to record them... They might be used to Pro Tools, where you can really add things together, and you can really take the life out of everything. But not having the opportunity to so accurately fix your mistakes I think results in a more pleasant experience in the final product.
Why did you call the album Truck Month? It seems somewhat out of place with your otherwise technology-driven imagery.
PM: I mean, trucks are technology—not very good technology. But truck ads, that was part of that central Texas, nowhere cultural experience, where wherever you’d see a TV you’d have a million truck ads blaring at you: “Come on down to Bob Sykora Ford, where it’s truck month, every February!”
Is that an actual commercial?
PM: No, but close. There are some samples of truck commercials on the album. I didn’t know if they still showed them or anything, I didn’t have a TV anymore. So when I was finishing up the album I thought, Shit, I need some truck ad samples on here! And I scoured through this pile of TV recordings and videotapes until I found just enough.
There’s a great picture on the record insert of someone—I presume it’s you—standing in front of an arsenal of keyboards. How many keyboards were used in the making of this album?
PM: Something like a dozen. Everything that was used was carefully enumerated on the info grid.
Yes, I remember that.
PM: So there was a series of main instruments that I owned, and there were a few that were borrowed or something else that were noted on the side.
So more than are actually in this room right now.
PM: Yeah, that’s true. I have gotten rid of a couple of things.
Why so many? What do you get out of it that you couldn’t do with just a few?
PM: Well part of it is my technical dorkiness, but I don’t regard that as an end to itself, to say “Hey, look at all these synthesizers that I have!” They all sound different. It’s not like a guitar. Every guitar sounds exactly the same.
PM: And you wouldn’t tell somebody to play a digital guitar.
That would be really interesting. You would just play it on a keyboard then—the guitar preset sound.
I recently stumbled upon an article called “Synth Secrets” over at soundonsound.com.
PM: Oh, I’ve read all those. That guy is very smart.
There were 63 parts to it.
PM: 63!63 synths for 63 secrets.
What do you think? An ambitious project?
PM: Yeah. I thought there were only about 18 of those. Is he still writing them?
I don’t know, I didn’t check the date on the last one.
PM: That’s been going for awhile then.
Yeah, it was definitely a years-spanning endeavor. I didn’t read them all, but I probably should.
Besides making music as Slugbug, you play bass as part of The Blind Dates, Gary Wilson’s backing band. How did that come about?
PM: Friend of a friend kind of deal. When he came in to town for SXSW in... I think it was 2011, he released a record on Western Vinyl, a label in Austin. And he was doing kind of the Chuck Berry find- a-pickup-band-in-every-city thing, or he had an East Coast band and a West Coast band. And some of my friends who are in the band Pataphysics—Jason Chronis, from Belaire and Voxtrot, and Pat [Healy] and Sam [Vandelinder], three-quarters of Pataphysics at the time—Brian from Western Vinyl tapped them, because he thought they could play his music, and he knew they were all great fans, and I had been introduced to Gary Wilson at that time, too. It was pretty soon after I moved here, and started hanging out with those type of people. So they put together the pickup band, and then Jason later had to bow out, because of a commitment to his other band, Tele Novella, which was just getting started. So I replaced Jason on bass. And I had played bass in Pat’s band before—I was the bass player with Pataphysics for about a year—and during that period I recorded a whole lot of material with them, where I set up all the mics and did all the sound manipulation and stuff. My friend Sam Vandelinder, who was in Pataphysics, too, we ended up leaving and had our own band called the Tucker A&M Perry foundation.
What happened to that band?
PM: Two of the members moved away. It’s unfortunate, we had a great drummer named Nick Hennies, who’s in a band called the Weird Weeds. He majored in percussion at UT, and he was the funnest, most joyful, precise drummer you’ve ever heard. I’ve got a master tape in there of the whole album we recorded, but it hasn’t been released yet. We have to sit on it for awhile.
I see. So you’ve been playing with Gary Wilson for a couple years now?
PM: Oh, no. The first time I ever played with him was on the European tour, and that was just in May of last year, so just a year ago. The group all practiced in Austin, and Pat did a surrogate Gary impression—he’s very good at impersonating Gary Wilson, one of his favorite musical artists. So we went through the set and sent Gary a recording and were like, this is what it’s going to sound like.
With his part being played by Pat?
PM: Yeah. And we all ended up in London. And that’s the first time that I’d ever met Gary, in the van, in London.
So you didn’t meet him in 2011?
PM: Oh yeah, I did, briefly. But not at length, not to the point where he knew who I was.
He seems like a fascinating person, someone whose public image and artistic identity seem strikingly at odds with who he really is. Half the time he’s writing songs about imaginary women, and he’s got mannequins attached to his body, wrapped up in plastic tape and writhing around in flour. But then I hear that half the time he plays lounge music in traditional combos, performing background music in family restaurants.
PM: I think that’s true. He did a great lounge set on a Farfisa organ that they provided for us in Ghent. We were trying to tour with a Nord simulated Farfisa. It was very crucial to the sound to have that original combo organ in there, and there’s a Nord that has a decent simulation. And then we show up in Ghent and they actually found one—this is a 50-year-old instrument, and then we used it in the show. He was really excited to see that. But yeah, he plays a mean lounge organ.
What do you make of that sort of duality?
PM: It doesn’t strike me as out of the ordinary at all. I feel it’s often the duty of the artist to project a larger than life persona. I kind of want everything to be fantastic—that’s why I do what I do. If I was into realism and authenticity, I would be an engineer or something—some other kind of engineer.
It’s funny, considering the name of his most famous album, You Think You Really Know Me? How well do you think you know him?
PM: To the extent that I know that he’s a nice guy that probably shares a lot of commonalities with me—your basic social anxiety and stuff. Also, I don’t imagine that he was the way he is now in 1977. He’s probably mellowed and matured quite a bit.
How well do you think I, or anyone, would be able to know you in any meaningful way from listening to your music?
PM: I hope so. I hope that I’m not putting up some wall of falseness. But I do want to portray myself and my experience through comical exaggeration.
I feel that there are certain artists that use their art or music as a means of bridging their interior lives with those around them; they use it to connect to the world in ways that ordinary communication doesn’t allow. Paradoxically, it’s artists whose music seems the most insular, artists like R. Stevie Moore, who release prolific amounts of music with no ambition of fame, no desire for the typical trappings of success, that seem to be reaching out the most. Even hermits like Jandek send their music out into the world as some sort of indication that they’re alive and doing something, but then you have artists like Henry Darger, who never shared his work with anyone, who created these rich imaginary worlds solely for his own amusement or for whatever other motivations may have driven him. What do you think of that phenomenon, and where do you lie on that spectrum?
PM: I think that it’s selfish, really, to create and not share. There’s a great Talking Heads song about that.
PM: [singing] “You can’t see it ’til it’s finished!”
PM: You have to be sure that it’s really good, but you have to take risks, and some people are afraid to fail by putting something out of lesser quality. But I don’t really feel like I ever have been—I certainly hope not, but I also hope that I’ve never put out any crap. But I don’t get to control that... My take on it is that you as the artist cannot predict how anything will be perceived, so it’s imperative that you take your wildest idea and don’t dumb it down for anyone’s consumption at all, and put that out into the world.
Interview by Sean Redmond.
Photography by Ali Copeland.