In his straw hat, overalls and KFC goatee, Rick Miller may not look like the owner of the area’s best studio, but redneck culture has been good to him. As leader of Chapel Hill’s Southern Culture on the Skids, Miller’s released more than a dozen LPs and EPs, including three for major label Geffen, helping fund his studio, Kudzu Ranch, in Mebane. While Miller was into music, he was a visual artist, not a musician, when he realized what he wanted to do with his life.
“When I first saw The Cramps was when I decided I’d like to be in a band. I saw them way back in the late ’70s,” says Miller. “We started playing as a way to drink some beer, meet some girls and have some fun. Because art is really wine and cheese.”
“Back then, the music and art scene were really intertwined,” he continues. “We did a few gigs and the response was good, and it was like playing music live and performing was such a different thing compared to painting, which is such a solitary thing.”
Founded in 1985, SCOTS went through a number of lineups before settling on what’s become their classic composition with Dave Hartman and Mary Huff in 1987. Their big break came on their Geffen debut, Dirt Track Date, with the release of the radio single “Camel Walk.” Like many classic pop tracks, it was practically an afterthought, added to the album at the last minute at engineer Marc Williams’ request.
True to his nature, Miller’s studio doesn’t look like most you’d visit. The large, cinderblock, garage-shaped room was designed for comfort.
“I want to make it fun and comfortable. No wood paneling, no ferns, no clocks. Everything’s polka dots and bright colors. We have velvet paintings of Wiley Coyote and The Roadrunner on the wall,” says Miller. “I didn’t want to make it like a studio; I wanted to make it a clubhouse, where you could come to have some fun. When I decided I thought, ‘What’s the decor going to be like?’ The only thing I looked at was a picture of Lee Scratch Perry in the studio, and it had stuffed ducks and this huge speaker right in front of his face, an Altec Lansing painted turquoise or something. I thought, ‘That’s it.’”
“I tell people it’s like a really nice band practice space with one fabulous collection of equipment,” says Williams. “The casual thing is the most important thing. It’s all about creativity and being loose and having a good time, because that’s when it happens.”
For Miller, it’s a great way to downshift after being on tour, and warm up to recording a new album.
“I like to make records, and it’s fun to make music with other people, and it’s fun learning about this stuff. You always need something to learn. It’s a really big toy,” Miller laughs. “I’m not really a producer–I’m in a band. That’s how it started. But it gives me a nice perspective and I can get along with artists, because I know where they’re coming from, whereas some producers from the other side might not. Producing makes you want to play. I can’t wait to work on one of our new albums (the forthcoming live DVD or new studio LP), because I’ve got lots of ideas I’m going to steal from the bands that have come in here.”
For a kid who started out reading Mad Magazine and going to matinees and drive-ins, seeing movies such as I Drink Your Blood, it doesn’t seem so strange where Miller landed.
“My parents bought me guitar lessons with these beatniks. I remember going up there and it was acoustic guitars and sandals. They were doing ‘Greensleeves’ and stuff like that,” Miller says. “I stuck around for two lessons. My mom would drop me off. I would pretend to go to the lessons and instead would go to the smoke shop where I could look at dirty magazines. So music and what I liked–at a very early age, I made a connection.”
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