Who's Running the World? The Miller brothers' prolific musical output spans genres, decades, and all of 2022
When running down the famous musician alumni of what is now known as Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School, the list is pretty much always the same: Bob Seger, three members of The Stooges (Iggy Pop plus Ron and Scott Asheton), and Bill Kirchen of solo and Commander Cody fame.
But the most prolific musical grads with the most varied and creative musical styles who matriculated at the place formerly known as Ann Arbor High School are undoubtedly the Miller brothers, Roger and twins Laurence and Benjamin. The three of them formed the psychedelic rock band Sproton Layer while in high school, making an album in 1970 that went unreleased until 1992: the well-praised With Magnetic Fields Disrupted.
The brothers are the sons of Robert Miller, a University of Michigan ichthyologist, and Frances Hubbs, who together studied fish in desert springs as well as their fossil ancestors.
Roger left Ann Arbor to pursue composition studies at CalArts and then moved back across the country to Boston where he cofounded the influential art-punk band Mission of Burma in 1979. He also continued his experimental work exploring improv and prepared instruments and performed soundtracks to silent films in the Alloy Orchestra. He lives in Vermont now and continues to pursue creative endeavors, from art to music.
Laurence and Benjamin have moved around, too, with the latter living in Chicago and then New York City between 1993-2014. But they have since circled back to the region where they grew up and continue to conjure an endless series of creative projects tackling every genre, from serial compositions to children's songs.
As with Roger, the twins' musical output continues to this day, with Benjamin usually exploring the further edges of sound on new recordings and Laurence digging through his endless supply of tapes from throughout his career, cleaning them up, and releasing them on Bandcamp. The twins (and sometimes Roger) also still perform together in various new or revived projects.
In the summer of 2022, I realized all three Miller brothers had albums coming out—some new, some reissues, some unheard—and also discovered a few recordings by them from earlier in the year that I missed.
One of those releases is by a nervy, new wave-era trio called Nønfiction that Laurence and Benjamin helmed from late 1981 to spring 1985—and the group was reforming for a one-off show at the 2022 FuzzFest in August at The Blind Pig, though it would feature Ben's son on drums rather than original member Bill Frank.
I emailed the twins to find out more about that band (and some of their other recent releases) with the intention to do a Nønfiction profile before the concert, but Laurence was diagnosed with COVID a week before the gig, and the trio had to cancel its FuzzFest appearance. (Benjamin has since gotten COVID, too, and is still feeling the effects.)
Rather than abandon the quotes Laurence and Benjamin sent me for the now-stalled feature, I decided to incorporate them into a post that highlights the Miller brothers' numerous 2022 releases—including a new album from Roger—that Pulp had yet to cover this year. (Links to the articles featuring all of the Miller music we've already covered are at the bottom of this piece.)
The Miller brothers' circuitous musical journey deserves an in-depth interview and probably requires a map to follow accurately—perhaps a future Pulp project?—so consider this article a brief introduction to their long creative histories by way of the new and old music they released in 2022.
Nønfiction, Who's Running the World?
Benjamin offers a brief history of Nønfiction:
Formation: After Destroy All Monsters, Laurence and I formed The Same Band. 1980. I leaned toward an art-rock direction and that was my goal. I much enjoyed the likes of early Peru Ubu, preferring that over many of the punk bands of the day. I played both guitar and sax in this band. There were bouts of improvisation and with a rhythm section, Lar and I could afford two-guitar interplay. Still, the focus was definitely songwriting. After a year, our bass player left for NYC, so we continued as a trio called The Other Band. 1981. That was more weird, but still focused on songwriting. Also, increased partying. The following year, the drummer left the group. That's when Nønfiction started. 1982. The premise was to get it together and try to “make it.” We went through two managers. The writing was more commercial and a bit more serious, though we still maintained an avant-garde edge.
Influences: There were influences; Adam Ant, U2, Psychedelic Furs, XTC. However, we weren't trying to emulate any one band or one sound. We just wrote LOTS of songs and rehearsed them; 99% were very uptempo. Not punk, per se, because the songs were rather complex and tight. But the energy was high.
Recordings: Cloud Ten Studios was the studio that Mike Gould had going. He recorded a couple of the tracks. Our soundman David Howles recorded the rest of the tracks. Not sure where. I don't remember much from those sessions. These versions were never released before. Nønfiction had up to four sets of all original material. We would have loved to put out a couple of LPs, but alas, it was not in the stars.
After Nønfiction: I first sobered up in 1983. By early 1985, I felt like I was through with "doing the rock circuit." It wasn't what I wanted to do anymore. I didn't like the impinging pressure of trying to succeed in the post-punk popularity contest. I'd much prefer to do exactly what I wanted and let the chips fall. So, I bowed out, bought a house, built a one-man lawn care company, and did the family thing with children. I was surprisingly happy. I had a group called GKW (God Knows Who), which was considerably more avant-garde than the other bands I'd been playing in. We opened up for the Ann Arbor 16mm Film Festival in 1983 and were nearly booed off stage. GKW released a handful of cassettes, only playing about four times a year.
Laurence Bond Miller, Larger Than Life and Windowell
After Nønfiction broke up, Laurence recorded the music heard on another release recently put on Bandcamp, Larger Than Life, which features him playing all the instruments. It has more of a power-pop vibe, perhaps a precursor to The Empty Set and, later, the Windowell band, whose music can now be heard on an unearthed album released under Laurence's name. (Several collections of music by The Empty Set have also been released on Bandcamp.)
Laurence gives us some insights into his immediate post-Nønfiction life:
My songwriting began to change as I entered therapy in the early "daze" of Nønfiction. It was at this time that I began "white-knuckling" the sobriety bandwagon as well. [Nønfiction's] "Ryptide Zone" was actually a happy song about the little family I had begun a few years prior. Sadly, that all fell apart in 1983, and I had to regroup. Life changed In the process, and I began looking at life differently with new romances and a loftier approach to songwriting. This was partly fueled by my new single-fathering experience with goofy toddlers in my space 24/7. Good times. And I was no longer listening just to The Ramones, Television, and Joy Division but rather Adam Ant, XTC, Psychedelic Furs, and Robyn Hitchcock. The Empty Set bloomed out of the ashes of Nønfiction as most people know, taking the symbol "ø" from the band name logo as the new perspective. It would be several years later before I finally got sober.
The Mister Laurence Experience, Lammy Rillerson and the 3D Newz
While all the Miller brothers genre hop with abandon musically, Laurence also switches up his personas, inhabiting the gamut from avant-glam performance artist Larynx Zillion to the kids-tune king Mister Laurence. As he was winding down the Larynx Zillion's Novelty Shop, in 1998 Miller introduced The Mister Laurence Experience, which released 12 albums, numerous music videos, and a community TV variety show, and the full-length film Growing Grapes for the Future! That movie's soundtrack, Lammy Rillerson and the 3D Newz, was recorded in 2012-2013, released in 2014, and made it to Bandcamp in 2022. The Mister Laurence YouTube page includes tons of performances as well as excerpts from the TV show and film.
Miller & Katsumi, ...like rain in the ocean...
Laurence Bond Miller, Unplugged in Dreamland
In the mid-to-late '90s Laurence booked acoustic musical acts at the Ann Arbor’s Gypsy Cafe, which is now the Peoples' Food Co-op's Cafe Verde. He met Katsumi Nagae while making videos and films at Ann Arbor's Community Television Network, and the two formed a brief-lived duo, ostensibly so the Gypsy Cafe could have a built-in opening act when needed. (Laurence and Benjamin also had an acoustic duo in the 1970s called Brainal Unit.)
Unplugged in Dreamland was a 2004 solo CD release meant to document what Laurence considered to be the best tunes he wrote for The Empty Set and the Miller & Katsumi duo. The acoustic guitar and voice album appeared on Bandcamp in October 2022; ..like rain in the ocean... showed up in July.
My Biography, ...is yours
Katsumi Nagae also joined Laurence in My Biography, yet another brief-lived band, once again exploring the garage/power-pop/new-wave axis he had touched on previously with Nønfiction and The Empty Set. The quartet only recorded four songs in a studio, but ...is yours compiles seven additional odds and sods. My Biography also performed at The Blind Pig in 2009 as part of the memorial tribute concert to The Stooges' Ron Asheton, with whom Laurence and Benjamin played in Destroy All Monsters in the late 1970s.
Empool was a 1976-1977 art-punk-noise project ostensibly led by Laurence that also featured Benjamin, Roger, and friends. Laurence and Ben then brought their Empool sensibilities to Destroy All Monsters when they joined that band in 1977. In 2018, the Miller brothers started working together again under the Empool name, letting their free-improv freak flags fly on a two-song single in 2021 and the seven-track Instrumental album released in November 2022.
In 2020, Benjamin and Jarrod Ruby teamed up to create ThoughtCrime, a terrific 2021 album of art-rock that is one of the catchier collections in this particular Miller brother's post-Nønfiction oeuvre. It's 14 songs of quirky pop with nods to glam, post-punk, and prog.
Ben Miller / degeneration, Mariana Trench and Unidentified
In 2009, Benjamin recorded a 19-minute experimental audio interpretation of what it's like to travel 36,000 feet below sea level into The Mariana Trench. His solo live performances of the piece as Ben Miller / degeneration were accompanied by a film created by Orin Buck, and that visual work was paired with the soundtrack for a DVD/CD-R release in 2017. In June 2022, Benjamin put Mariana Trench on Bandcamp, giving even more listeners a chance to slap on some headphones and dive into the depths of dark-ambient audio.
Ben Miller / degeneration reemerged in 2016 with the music heard on Unidentified, "a composed soundscape" inspired by a UFO encounter that was meant to accompany a dancer. He wrote the piece during a residency originally designed to be a sound and dance performance. It was recorded during a 2016 residency at Anis Gras, an arts venue and creative studio near Paris.
Porcelain Hammer, The Dreamer's Wheel
Benjamin's Porcelain Hammer started as a one-man exploration of solo multiphonic guitar, but The Dreamer's Wheel—a six-song document that came out in April 2022—features the full-band version of the project, including violinist Mike Khoury, cellist Deanna Lee, and percussionist Mike List. The music on this album traverses freak folk, new music, psychedelia, and noise.
The Nebrellim Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra, "Every Room"
All of the Miller brothers are multi-instrumentalists, and one of Benjamin's is the saxophone (it's what he played in Destroy All Monsters). In 2007 he released a limited lathe-cut single "Every Room," a spooky, edgy, avant-chamber-music piece that features Benjamin overdubbing up to 15 tracks of soprano, alto, c-tenor, baritone, and "simulated c-bass saxophones." He put the recording on Bandcamp in March 2022. Side note: This virtual orchestra was something of a warm-up for the 12-member Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra, which Benjamin formed in 2008.
Ben Miller, Traveling in the Dark
This 2008 album documents another effects-manipulated solo-saxophone project by Benjamin. He toured behind this album in France and the U.S. East Coast and finally released it online in November 2022.
Ben Miller, Going Places EP
In February 2022, Benjamin released Going Places, a four-song EP that explored 12-tone compositions and one 11-interval piece. He recorded everything himself, playing electric guitar, alto saxophone, a "simulated" bass guitar, and cymbal.
The Fourth World Quartet, Grand Bland Vapid Rapids
All the Miller brothers have studied composition, and The Fourth World Quartet features all three of them along with with friends and collaborators. The group started in 1975 when all the brothers attended Thomas Jefferson College—a small art school in Allendale, Michigan, just outside of Grand Rapids—and they put their music studies to use by composing works that spanned classical, jazz, and improvisation. Their earliest recordings were collected last year on the album 1975, released by one of the world's foremost prog/jazz/modern classical labels, Cuneiform Records. Grand Bland Vapid Rapids follows as an online-only release that came out in September 2022 featuring 1975 live recordings and rehearsals the group made at Thomas Jefferson College, a house party in Ann Arbor, and at Grand Valley State College. Roger doesn't appear here but mainstay saxophonist Jack Waterston is present and the trailblazing prepared-piano player Denman Maroney—who was an instructor at Thomas Jefferson College—appears on two tracks.
Because of the renewed interest in The Fourth World Quartet, Benjamin and Laurence are digging through their archives for old scores, arrangements, and recordings for a new project:
BENJAMIN: The Fourth World Quartet's 1975 was released last year on Cuneiform Records with very favorable reviews. This prompted us to begin a rather massive project incorporating notated compositions from 1973-1975. Some of the material was written for The Fourth World Quartet but never rehearsed. Other pieces were played only once. Some were never played. Months of work have gone into this. We were fortunate to get Denman Maroney, who played piano in The Fourth World Quartet, to lay down some tracks. And Donnie Davis who played alto sax in The Nova Mob with us in Boston in 1974. Other musicians have chipped in for overdubbing various instruments; baritone, tablas.
LAURENCE: The unnamed-as-of-yet '70s project was spawned from the success of Cuneiform Records releasing recordings of The Fourth World Quartet. The basic impetus behind this brand new collection was directly inspired by that whole process and the many rave reviews received.
Digging up old analogue tapes, finding the original charts, and reading journals. Compositions were composed between fall 1973 and early 1976. Ben and I began uncovering our old charts in the fall of 2021, resuscitating them gradually over the remainder of the year as I brought my [clarinet] "chops" back to life after a 45-year hiatus.
We remained committed, detailing it all in the spirit of the original material as it was intended, reviewing and comparing all our homemade recordings from back in the day. It was very important to us that we keep true to the material, while leaving ourselves aesthetically open to fresh interpretation.
Truth be told, it took surgical precision using needlepoint stitching in the audio software editing process. At times I had to record my parts just a handful of measured bars at a time—cutting and correcting various discrepancies in timing and intonation, meticulously, continuing forward from there, track by track. It’s been almost as if painting by numbers.
You can hear a bit of the "unnamed-as-of-yet '70s project" below, which Benjamin describes as "a rough mix of a composition I wrote in 1975 for the not yet formed Fourth World Quartet while I was attending Thomas Jefferson College. I play alto sax, guitar, and bass, and Laurence plays B-flat clarinet."
Roger Clark Miller, Eight Dream Interpretations for Solo Electric Guitar Ensemble
Roger Miller has been exploring looped music since the 1970s, first with his brothers and then later in Mission of Burma, where his stomping art-punk song "Nu Disco" got twisted up by time-bending tape loops. Dream Interpretations for Solo Electric Guitar Ensemble—released in August 2022 by Cuneiform—is his latest recorded exploration of looped music, and it started as a live-performance project in 2018. Miller uses an electric guitar and three lap-steel guitars—two of which are treated with bolts and alligator clips, the other with its strings tuned in unison to E—and runs them through a bevy of effects pedals to create percussive effects, tonal tension, and an enveloping soundfield. Spooky music for spooky times.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
For more information, visit the Miller brothers' well-maintained websites:
➥ "Friday Five: The many guises of Laurence Bond Miller and Benjamin Miller" [Pulp, April 1, 2022]
➥ "Friday Five: The Laurence Bond Miller edition" [Pulp, December 24, 2021]
➥ "WCBN's Radio Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa offers up Sproton Layer and Ramones rarities" [Pulp, November 10, 2020]
➥ "Bring the Noise: Benjamin Miller's Porcelain Hammer and Mark Morgan explore the far side of music" [December 12, 2019]