Sunroof: ‘Our creative partnership flowered early just through mucking around with synths’

Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones carry the convivial air of old friends as they tee up answers for each other in our Zoom chat about their long-running musical partnership, Sunroof.

Gareth Jones, left, and Daniel Miller of Sunroof. Picture: Diane Zillmer
Gareth Jones, left, and Daniel Miller of Sunroof. Picture: Diane Zillmer

The pair first met at John Foxx’s studio The Garden in Shoreditch in the early 1980s, but it’s taken nearly 40 years for them to finally complete an album, Electronic Music Improvisations Volume 1.

Back in 1982, Miller, founder of Mute Records and a pioneer of synthesiser music under the guise of The Normal, was looking for an engineer with whom to work with on Depeche Mode’s third album.

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“John Foxx recommended Gareth because they’d worked together a lot in the past,” he remembers. “We wanted to change (Depeche Mode’s) sound and how we worked a bit, the workflow, and we met Gareth and he seemed very open to all those ideas so we started working on Construction Time Again. It was immediately a very creative partnership.”

In studio downtime, when the band had gone home for the day, the pair began their own experiments on modular synthesisers. Their improvisations would continue on and off over the ensuing decades.

“We dived straight into the music,” says Jones, whose production credits include several key Depeche Mode albums as well as records by Erasure, Wire and Interpol. “These days I would probably spend a while getting to know someone before I committed to a studio session; in those days I just rocked up for work. Our creative partnership flowered early just through being in the studio and mucking around with synths and samplers.”

Although they released the occasional remix and “studio jams” on Soundcloud over the years, it was not until 2019, as the pair were due to attend a Grygory Lygeti concert at the Barbican, that Jones finally managed to talk Miller into what would eventually become Electronic Music Improvisations.

“I don’t think we embarked upon this voyage intending to put an album out, we just said let’s meet with the intention of completing some shortish pieces and see where it takes us,” he says.

Miller says: “One of the important parts of this was making a few rules about what we did about the process, which would help us finish things, rather than just endlessly going on for hours and hours hoping that something would come out. We tried to make it more focused.”

Miller likes the “open architecture” of modular technology. “With a non-modular synth – the Mini-Moog is a classic but there are many others – the modules are inside the box but they’re pre-connected, so there’s a limit to what you can do with them. They’re great instruments, they’re convenient for a lot of things but it does limit the kind of interactivity that you have with the instrument,” he explains. “Whereas a modular is like a completely open, white canvas, and you can plug anything into anything and create sounds that you would not be able to do with a traditional synthesiser. I think it just invites experimentation.”

“The blank sheet of paper thing was very important to us,” agrees Jones. “It was part of our manifesto with this project. You can plug up the modulars ready to go, which personally if I was doing a little gig I would do that so I didn’t make a fool of myself, but our manifesto with this project was to turn up with nothing plugged in, so each meeting we had was like a blank drawing board. We didn’t do much talking, we were guided by our long relationship, our shared love of electronic music and the time of day, the place we were in, the tea we were drinking, whether we were going for a curry afterwards, whatever. We were trying to do real improvisation.”

“We were improvising the sounds as well as the music itself, so in that sense there were two levels of improvisation,” Miller says.

The eight instrumental tracks on this album were created in highly civilised two-hour sessions before an evening meal. “We’re both busy in our day jobs and so we were limited by time,” Miller says. “We generally met after work before dinner. We did various versions of each improvisation once we got something going, but the sessions never lasted more than two or three hours.”

“Sometimes we might pop back for an hour after supper if we were particularly enthused,” says Jones, adding such discipline was needed to finish the job. “We know we can churn out electronic music and noise for hours and entertain ourselves and some other dedicated freaks but it was very important to us to finish,” he says. “We know what a mountain it is to do editing when you’ve got a five-hour improvisational piece and you’ve got to edit it down to 20 minutes, that’s like a year’s work almost. So we also had this idea of a five or six-minute canvas. We were recording in a computer, that’s all we used the computer for, so we set the window of the computer to be like five and a half minutes long, and when it got to the end of the window we stopped, and if that hadn’t worked out we discarded it and made something else.”

A basic template for their endeavours was provided by the concise solo work of Chris Carter, once of Throbbing Gristle, and Martin Gore, of Depeche Mode. “We are both fans,” says Miller. “They work in very differently from each other and from us, but they showed it can be done. These pieces by their nature can go on but I think their conciseness was a signpost for us.”

“It was so important for us not to be long-winded,” says Jones. “We’ve done some long-winded jams at the Abbey Road sessions in the 90s. We wanted concise improvisations this time.”

The mood-shifts in these pieces have drawn comparisons with jazz. Miller also cites the influence of German avant-garde group Can. “The thing about good improvisation, and I hope the way worked, is that you’re listening all the time,” he says. “You’re listening to what the other person is doing and you’re responding constantly to whatever they’re doing, whether it’s rhythmically or tonally. We were not just two people doing our own thing, so to speak, we were listening to what the other person was doing and in that sense it is like other kinds of music.”

“The deep listening is very important,” says Jones. “Not only are we listening to each other, we’re listening to the whole mass of the noise that we’re making together. Sometimes I don’t know who play what any more when I listen to our record, and even in the making of it sometimes I would grab my headphones and try to pre-listen to what I was doing to make sure I was changing the right bits of sound.”

“It really melts together in that sense,” agrees Miller. “For a lot of it I haven’t got a clue what I did or what Gareth did, it’s not important to me, it’s about the whole thing.”

Miller would like Sunroof to perform live “at some point”. He says: “I enjoy playing modular live, I’ve done it a few times as a solo performer, to do it as a band would be really exciting. It’s always very on the edge when you’re performing live with modular, like all improvisation, you’re putting yourself out there and hoping that something sparks. There’s no composition there. We wouldn’t try and replicate what we did on the record at all, it would be impossible but also not very interesting.”

Jones says he would be “totally up” for live improvisation. “It’s a scary prospect for me, I’m by no means an experienced performer,” he says. “Daniel at least has done quite a lot of DJ-ing. I’d be scared but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s seat of your pants and that energy, pre-match nerves, adds to the intensity.”

“One recent performance that I’ve witnessed Gareth doing was at my wedding,” Miller says. “He performed at the register office, which was great.”

“That was a particularly special moment,” Jones says. “I was delighted to help celebrate the nuptials, but also I think that was my first solo modular performance ever. Daniel and his wife asked me to make a bit of background music, but it was awesome. People were kind enough to say they quite enjoyed it, so that helped me to move forward.”

Miller smiles. “It was a very musical performance, it was very appropriate for the setting, shall we say.”

It’s 42 years since Miller founded Mute Records, initially as an outlet for The Normal’s single T.V.O.D./Warm Leatherette. “I made that record because I’d got into making electronic music in a very basic way, as a typical bedroom producer,” he says. “Part of it was to put it out there. I believed in electronic music as the future of music. Up to that point I’d suppose you’d call it elitist, instruments were very expensive and completely out of reach of ordinary people. One of the things that I was trying to say was ‘Hey guys and girls, you can make electronic music, you don’t have to have any actual musical background, it’s just about putting your ideas onto tape, and you can do it in a way that’s less expensive than making a rock record with traditional instruments.

“I started the label with Fad Gadget, that was the first release that wasn’t mine. I don’t think I’ve changed very much. It was very much about giving artistic space to the musicians, not dictating what they should do, helping them to realise their vision, not trying to impose my vision on them, and that’s the same today, really.

“Mute was started as an electronic label but we broadened out because I like lots of kinds of music as well. If I recognise a talent or something unique about an artist who plays acoustic guitar and sings then that’s as valid for me. Electronic music, I suppose you could say, is at the core of what Mute’s done, but it’s not the only thing.

“Of course, over the 40 years the industry’s changed hugely. I think I haven’t changed as much as the industry. The guidelines are the same now as they were back then.”

Electronic Music Improvisations Volume 1 is out on Friday May 21.