Interview with Guitarist and vocalist Jeff Miller from New Monsoon

With two guitars, piano, bass, vocal harmonies, and an army of percussion that includes drumset, Tabla, congas, and more, New Monsoon have conquered stages across the country with their freewheeling improvisations. Now listeners will experience the focused power of the band’s imagination.

By Randy Ray

HGMN: How does it feel to be nominated for Jammys New Groove of the Year?
Miller: The Grammys are a high honor, but The Jammys are the focal point for people in our scene. We want our fans to vote for us. We'd love to win.

HGMN: How was the Langerado Festival in Florida last weekend?
Miller: Before our afternoon gig (New Monsoon played from 1:15-2:15 on Saturday, March 12), I was looking out at how many people I could recognize and I saw smiling, happy faces. It was a warm atmosphere and vibe; some people who might not have seen us before were excited about the promise of what was to come.

HGMN: How was the late night gig?
Miller: Great. We went from the festival to the show and played for an hour and a half before Particle came on. We tried to bring a little daytime into the night and ended on a strong note. But it was pretty intense. Crazy flying out at 8am on Friday morning and traveling all day. After the late night gig on Saturday, we had to catch a plane at 8am Sunday morning--6,000 miles in two days!

HGMN: We talked for a while about your feelings about festivals when New Monsoon came into Phoenix last month. Let's talk further about that. How are they different from a normal gig?
Miller: Some festivals can be logistically tricky for us. When we fly-in for a festival, we don't have a lot of our own gear. Band equipment and sound check at a club allows for anywhere from an hour to three hours to setup. At a festival, we get a half hour, if even that. We had fifteen minutes to setup at Austin City Limits; but we did it. Friends in the audience told us we were dialed in from the first notes.

What about festival distractions?
Miller: I'm usually focused on the show. Quite frankly, if I've got a good amp and a guitar stand, I'm happy (laughs). I do have to say this--although we have a very short amount of time to setup, all the guys involved with setting up the equipment make it a good experience. Every time. The thread between all of these festivals from Langerado to Bonnaroo to High Sierra is how well the [organizers and staff] treat the bands. We feel like we're being treated as human beings in a positive and non-threatening environment. I mean...just to get a bottle of water when it's really hot out is a big deal. We get treated very well. Festivals mean different things to different people. They are really vital to the people that go. People are taking ownership of their own musical lives. [The music in our scene] isn't promoted on MTV or radio. It's underground music.

HGMN: What's that festival where--I can't pronounce it--
Miller: Wakarusa. I really love the name. Don't you? I just heard about it this year. I keep asking: "When are we playing Wakarusa?" [NM plays the Wakarusa Music Festival on Saturday, June 18th in Lawrence, Kansas--the home of famous beat writer, the late William Burroughs.]

HGMN: I'm going to try to catch you guys in Snowmass Village in Colorado [June 17--Chili Pepper Music Festival] and at High Sierra--that's right in your backyard, right?
Miller: High Sierra is like your favorite camping picnic--where you'd want to go. Lots of class and heart. [High Sierra Festival: Thursday, June 30-Sunday, July 3 in Quincy, California.]

HGMN: Wasn't Phil's [Ferlino, keyboardist] first show at High Sierra in 2001?
Miller: Yeah. It was our first festival experience. We call that the PG&E show [Northern California utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric]. We kept blowing the breakers! Phil had just moved here after having a rough time driving cross-country. [Various vehicle malfunctions are recounted that would have taxed even Neal Cassady]. I had known him for quite a while but this was his first gig with us. He and I drove up to High Sierra together and that was it after that.

HGMN: I received New Monsoon's Live at Telluride Bluegrass Festival last week.
Miller: Do you like it?

HGMN: I can't believe how good it is; you guys are really tight.
Miller: Can we talk about Telluride?

HGMN: Sure. I'd love to--what was it like to play at the festival last year?
Miller: Gift from the heavens. Elements that needed to happen happened. We weren't going into the show thinking we were going to record it for release. We listen to our shows sometimes, but we've usually played six shows since that show so...Telluride captured daytime mountain energy--nature and environmental things that the whole band is into: beautiful festival, location, great acoustics--at one moment, I envisioned my guitar sound coming out over the crest of the mountain (laughs). Places like Telluride allow you to take the audience into spaces that are more cerebral.

HGMN: New Monsoon played at Berkeley, California's radio station KPFA on March 2. How did that go? [KPFA is the Bay Area radio station where host, writer and musician David Gans airs his Dead to the World program each week. The station is also the home to folk, bluegrass, jazz, progressive, world and improvisational music among many other wonderfully diverse offerings.]
Miller: KPFA helped our development in the Bay Area and the people at the station are very supportive. They've been playing us for a while. I'll have people come up and say, "Hey, I heard you guys on KPFA the other night." It's a little tricky when we do radio gigs--we're a big animal (laughs). We push the limits of the equipment when we show up. Nathan Omernick, our soundman, always does an amazing job getting us to sound right. Nathan's the 8th member of the band.

HGMN: You've also played at San Francisco's legendary Fillmore. That must have been amazing. Every time I've gone to the Fillmore it is as if I've left the decade behind and I'm transported to some otherworldly place. I saw Johnny Cash and June Carter in 1996 before his disease kicked in and, man, that show was fantastic. What was it like for you to play there?
Miller: Everything you'd imagine it to be. Physical elements of the venue play into the music quite a bit. I got there at 4 o'clock on the day of our gig and checked the room out. Walked on stage and stood there, had a moment to myself, absorbed the souls that had been in that room. Bill Graham's there every night (laughs). Got his soul in it! Playing at the Fillmore is like we made it to the Taj Mahal.

HGMN: You played a sold-out show at The Independent in San Francisco recently. [Adam Haft, one of the two members of the NM Artist Management team, e-mailed me a few days after the sellout to let me know how excited he was about the weekend homecoming gig, March 5.]
Miller: There were moments in the show where we grew an inch. In the middle of the show, we played a short acoustic set with Ben [Bernstein] on a standup bass and then we finished with John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic. Allan Scott, the Independent promoter, has really supported us. He's been great to us. Can't say enough about him. Check out The Independent show. I think the show has been posted. [It and I have downloaded the sweet beast after this interview. The tapes bear out Haft's and Miller's enthusiasm--a gig that places New Monsoon on quite a lofty plateau going into the summer: languid majestic notes leap from my headphones and sink into my bloodstream like nitroglycerin daggers--timeless, powerful and solid--love this 3/5/05 blend. Check it out, indeed.]

HGMN: Isn't it maddening to have audience access to every show via taping?
Miller: I used to go back-and-forth about this every day. I've given this a lot of thought. I write the set lists and I try to read what I feel is going to be the energy of the show. The audience paid to see the show. It doesn't matter if we're sick or tired. As professionals, we have to take ownership of what we put out. It's an honor to be thought of worthy of recording every show. Think of it like's like we're playing a Serial Show, like a Soap Opera: tune in tomorrow to see what's on--'let's hear last night's show.' Somebody out in Minneapolis can hear us in San Francisco because they couldn't get out here, but next time when we come to Minneapolis he can come see us. I'm 110% in favor of taping. It helps the music scene and creates modes of communication effectively. And the technology is only going to get better.

HGMN: New Monsoon has been working on a new studio album. How's that going?
Miller: It should be out in the late spring or early summer. It's a song-oriented album. We went inside the songs--they're good and self-contained. At live shows we take the audience on a journey--ebb and flow. For example, at Telluride there was a tapestry that rolled through the whole show. The studio is a laboratory. We want each song to be its own color, whether it's saying "this song is going to blue or this one will be brown" while each one stands on its own. We focused a little more on tightening the songs to keep the attention of the listener so, if they want, they can choose Track 5 to listen to, or Track 2. Subject matter and lyrically--there's a thread in the music that captures a time in the band's life. I can't say enough about how excited I am--all the elements are falling into place and you can't think of two better producers [Paul Kimble, the excellent producer and bassist from Grant Lee Buffalo and Michael Shrieve, the original Santana drummer. Remember the Woodstock film? You don't? Stop reading for fifteen minutes and check out the carpet-bombing Santana sequence. Shrieve's that amazing cat that plays a Keith Moon/John Bonham behemoth solo with a Latin funk fury that surpasses pretty much every live percussionist over the last 30-odd years. He's recorded great music with tons of musicians since then, but that Woodstock performance by its youngest performer (19!) is quite a calling card.]

HGMN: How are the new songs going over in your shows?
Miller: We're getting great feedback. Some of the new songs are held off from shows...we started recording last year and we needed new material in our shows but we still wanted to preserve a few for the new studio album. We're really excited about this year and the upcoming tours, festivals and the album that's coming out. I don't have anything bad to say about 2005.

Live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is out now. New Monsoon begins their next tour on March 30 in Iowa. Check out for tour dates.