New Soul Orchestra

The New Soul Orchestra are the most ambitious soul band since Earth, Wind And Fire blew the world away in the 70s. The brain child of siblings Michael and Dan Miller and musical director Chris Phillips they set about creating a musical force which while harking back to the records of old, managed to push the genre in new direction. The 13 piece group have just released their debut album in the States. featuring songs such as "Sweet Sweet" and "Mr Shy" which sound like timeless classics from the vaults. Designer Magazine caught up with singer Michael Miller to discuss the journey which led them to where they are today.

Q: Soul music has meant different things through the ages from what people traditionally refer to as soul music to over produced almost R&B soul music that we know now. Somewhat confusing the New Soul Orchestra make old school soul - explain the sound to someone who hasn't heard you before?
A: New Soul Orchestra is a new take on an old concept.  Traditional instruments and live arrangements hark back to the old-school records of the 60's, 70's and early 80's, but rather than just retread the past, NSO pushes the genre in new directions.  We think of ourselves as inhabiting an alternate universe, where soul and R&B didn't degenerate into tongue-in-cheek deconstruction or mindless resampling.  Also, there aren't any saxes!

Q: We did an interview last year with The Temptations Otis Williams who felt contemporary vocalists "riff" too much. Have you always just tried to convey the melody and emotion rather than vocal operatics?
A: Yes, definitely, I agree with Otis Williams. I also call them vocal "acrobatics", and it seems to be so prevalent in contemporary R&B and Hip Hop, at least with most artists here in the States. It's like each singer is just trying to one-up the last one with some amazing chop. Most of the time, the emotional
aspect of it -- whether it relates to the song or the singer's own feelings -- just doesn't come into play, and if they're not doing it for those reasons then what are they doing it for? Otherwise, you're just "flexing your skills" for the listener. That's just not my bag (for lack of a better way to put it!)

Q: How do people react to a white singer in a traditionally black genre?
A: Hmmm. Well, I can't say we've been exposed to a large enough audience to really gauge the response adequately. For the most part, I haven't really  encountered any particular reaction either way. I mean, being from New York, I'm often up against a somewhat jaded / heard-that-already audience, where I'm most likely not the first cross genre artist they've heard. But when you're just doing the music that your heart tells you to do, that you sincerely enjoy doing, then I think it goes over well regardless of where you are.

Q: Have you always played and performed the music you do or did you experiment with different genre's before this? Is this your first true band or have you played in other bands previously.
A: Myself, along with my two older brothers, Dan and Barney, and a good friend we grew up with, formed a blue-eyed whiteboy Funk / Pop-Rock group called Miller Miller Miller & Sloan. We were sort of the Jacksons meets the Osmonds meets Hanson. I played drums, with both my brothers on guitar and our friend on bass. But we were very precocious and already quite prolific as songwriters, and we all played and sang good harmonies together. For it's time (around the Post-Punk/New Wave scene) it was different and very ambitious musically, especially considering how young we were.

As for myself, I grew up on all sorts of music and bands/artists. I mean, I had my Kiss and Black Sabbath days as a little kid in the late 70's, partly due to the influence of my brothers and partly just being a white kid, frankly. But, it must have been in Junior High School that I saw a poster of Earth Wind & Fire, and if there was a turning point where I latched on to a genre, that was it. I can remember immediately trying to sing like Phillip Bailey. Just that whole energetic, gospel-like spirit of the music hit a nerve in me.

Q: In the UK at the moment, New York is very much seen as a rock orientated city with bands like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs breaking through here. How much of an influence did the city have on you musically.
A: Is that how New York is seen? Wasn't aware of that. But, yeah, I guess with The Ramones, Talking Heads, Lou Reed, etc., that makes sense. I'm not sure how much of the New York music scene, per say, had an effect on what I listened to or grew up on, except that maybe the city's shear multiculturalism opened my mind and ears to a lot of different styles of music.

Q: It's taken 4 years to see this project finally come to fruition. How hard is is managing such a big group?
A: Yeah, it's definitely been challenging, but anything worth doing usually is.  We owe many thanks to the numerous people who stuck with it and put their love and soul into the project.

Q: The genre of soul is quite a well-mined genre. There's so many tracks recorded and so many new ones being unearthed in the vaults. How do you make sure you don't simply become a pastiche? What do you feel is there to add new to the genre?
A: Well, genres don't really run out of ideas; people do.  In film, for instance, the western encompasses a long, historical period from "The Searchers" to the contemporary "Unforgiven".  Great TV sitcoms span "I Love Lucy" to "Seinfeld".  Musical genres such as Jazz, Rock & Roll, and Hip-Hop continue to produce innovators decades after the first seminal records were made.  So, why should it be perceived any differently when it comes to our style of music, when it's done well? All genres have a brief flash of initial success, followed by a period of slow growth and eventual rebirth; the karmic cycle continues...

Q: What response have you had from fans who saw all the legends first time round? Have any of your heroes or inspirations seen the show or heard the record - what feedback did you get?
A: The live shows have been great -- small venues so far, but incredible enthusiasm from the crowds. We hope to take the show on the road real soon! Maurice White was privy to some earlier incarnations of the NSO sound, and expressed a deep appreciation for what we were trying to do.  He continues to be an inspiration to the band, and was a strong influence in our decision to commit to a focus on live arrangements with strings and brass.

Q: You've mentioned before that you're open to remix ideas - it's quite a progressive vision for the band?
A: Yeah. It's important not to live in a vacuum.  Just as the best mix artists utilize the classic records to collage their sonic tapestries, we feel that NSO can be another color in their palette.  In the end, if it helps revitalize the sound we love, it can only be a good thing.

Q: I've noticed you have released the album on your own label. Are there plans to seek major label attention and take the band to the next level on the next album with a named producer?
A: If the vibe is right, sure.  We didn't come this far just to re-engineer the band's sound and image at the whim of an A&R staff, so the most important factor will be commitment to our artistic vision.

Q: You see "The Libra Way" as an explanation of what your trying to do. Could you explain to our reader what this song is all about so they can gain a clear understanding of the band?
A: Well, there's certainly a big element of romanticism in Soul/Dance music in general, I believe, which would also explain what draws me to this type of music, being somewhat of a hopeless romantic. As for "The Libra Way" theme, that's just more of a personal statement, a self-analysis of me struggling to get to the truth of what makes me fall in love or become attracted to someone. I find myself struggling with the meaning of a lot of things, actually -- the existentialist in me, I guess.

Q: Do you have any plans to take the band out of the States in the near future or have you got to build up a profile at home first?
A: We'd love to take our show overseas. Besides, if anything, the UK and other European countries are, in a lot of ways, more enthusiastic and receptive to this genre than here in the States.  This might be partly attributable to the fact that this sound, whose roots are Jazz, Blues, Big Band, etc., originated here, so it's not such a novelty.  It's taken for granted a bit, I think -- sort of akin to a New Yorker having never visited the Empire State Building or  Statue of Liberty, because it's right in their own back yard!  (We've been to both, but only once or twice in our entire lifetimes!)  But, yeah, we're open to any suggestions.  The resources are there to play in Europe or Asia if the situation is right.

New Soul Orchestra's self-titled debut album is out now
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