From the aisles of a Chicago grocery store, We Are The Willows front man Peter Michael Miller found time in his busy schedule to chat with us about his upcoming projects and life on the road. While making his way from the produce department to the snack aisle, we discussed everything from apples to Buddhism and what we can expect at the show this Saturday at Mike ‘N Molly’s.
Peter Michael Miller: Just so you know, and I hope this doesn’t bother you, but I’m doing our grocery shopping while we chat.
Smile Politely: Not at all! I appreciate you finding time to talk amidst a crazy schedule. What’s in your shopping cart so far?
Miller: Well I just got in store, but I’m looking for extra-large Fuji apples because they are basically a meal—they’re so huge.
SP: Make sure you add honeycrisps to your apple rotation. They’re a real treat and we’re almost at the end of their season.
Miller: I’ll have to do that.
SP: So, getting down to business, do you refer to We Are The Willows as a solo project or a band?
Miller: That’s sort of been a huge question within We Are The Willows. It’s become stranger to answer that question and I think now I’m finally getting to a place where it’s feeling more like a band. It started out as just me in my basement writing tunes and recording everything and then sporadically having friends play with me live. It’s getting to a point where the songs on the next record just won’t make sense for me to play by myself on my own anymore. I think that’s the indicator that something has moved from being one person to being a band.
SP: Can you put your finger on a specific moment or song when that transition happened?
Miller: Yeah I can–mostly with our new songs. I did a solo tour last March where I played out a bunch of the newer material and there’s one song in particular called “We May Never Grow Old” and I played it and it just didn’t make any sense without everybody else. It’s really dependent upon everyone being there, playing their parts. Right now we have a cellist, violinist, drum, bass, guitar, keyboards. . . and every single instrument and person is becoming an extremely necessary part of a song actually being communicated properly. Without the drums, (the song) just wasn’t itself.
SP: The song had more personality than you were able to present on stage by yourself?
Miller: Yeah. And in the past all the songs I’ve ever written and recorded are always a lot bigger and louder on the recording than I can pull off live, but the heart of the song is still there. And more and more as we’re becoming a band, the heart of the song is maybe there but it’s a lot less clear. We Are The Willows is definitely a band now to answer that question in a really precise way.
SP: That’s gotta be an interesting thing to watch as the originator—going from a solo project to a group effort.
Miller: Yeah, it’s been an interesting thing. A lot of the songs are deeply personal to me and to let people into that has been an interesting process in and of itself—but totally worth it for the sake of the songs.
SP: Who’s touring with you now?
Miller: Our drummer Stephen, an electric guitar player named Jeremiah, a cellist named Hillary, a violinist named Leah, and our friend filling in on upright bass. His name is Travis.
SP: How has the song writing process changed since becoming a band?
Miller: As we’re sort of discovering how each other writes and what each other tends to do, it’s a lot easier to come from my song that’s just on guitar or piano or something and to imagine where it can go. It’s been an incredible process. It’s quite a change from what I used to do.
SP: You guys have been playing a lot of shows in the Midwest. What’s been your favorite place so far?
Miller: I absolutely love a place called Fairfield, Iowa. The people there are incredible.
SP: What makes them incredible?
Miller: There’s a culture of people there that I’ve never found anywhere else. That’s largely due to the fact that the school a lot of people go to there . . . the curriculum and their practices are based in Buddhist ideology so all of the kids there have grown up meditating twice a day, which, as far as my experience growing, is up a really different experience. It’s a small town—10,000 people—in the south east corner of Iowa, and there are all these terrifically artistic and creative people who are in this town in the middle of nowhere. And in that way it’s such an amazing little oasis in Iowa. It’s incredible.
SP: Are you incorporating anything you learned from Fairfield to your experiences on the road?
Miller: Not in any sort of formal sense but we all kind of have our things we do to reenergize. I spent a lot of time on the road all over the country and it’s just so important to find something that levels you out and taps you back into yourself and distracts you from whatever situation you’re in. I think that’s really, really important.
SP: Reading through your bio, something really stood out to me. It states “. . . We Are The Willows is about imagination. It’s about understanding the world and re-imagining it in a new way; in a song.” What have you learned about the world through re-imagining it through song?
Miller: [Mutters something pertaining to a band mate’s cracker selection] W agree that crackers are indeed an on-road staple:: The first record I put out is called A Collection of Sounds and while I was writing and recording that record—it was the most miserable time of my life. I mean, things objectively weren’t that bad, but I was going through a lot of transitions. (I was) really unhappy. And in that record I used a lot of daily noises—traffic, people talking a café, or the students at the preschool that I taught at—I recorded all these things and incorporated them into the songs and this idea that these sounds could be transformed into something musical when they in and of themselves had nothing musical about them . . . that sort of principle helped me to realize that I was really unhappy at the time but I can change that. I can transform that, you know? Transforming this musical landscape led me to realize that I could transform my own emotional landscape. For me that’s a big part of why I do music and where the songs come from.
SP: What can we expect at your show on Saturday?
Miller: We’re playing four songs that’ll be on our next record. Our next record in going to be kind of a synthesis of about 350 letters or so that my grandpa wrote to my grandma in the 40s while he was stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. So all these songs are based on experiences he writes about in these letters to my grandmother. I think for anyone who is familiar with We Are The Willows they are going to hear something new in the sound. Sonically, but also lyrically, things have a different tone. That’s something I hope people would be interested in thinking a little bit more about when they come in to see us.
We Are The Willows will be playing this Saturday at Mike ‘N Molly’s with Evil Tents, The 92’s, and the Awful Truth. The show starts at 8 p.m. Here’s a sneak peek at some of the material they’ll be presenting at Saturday night’s show—a demo of a new song entitled, “Dear Ms. Branstner”.