Being labeled as a genre's pioneer can be an exhausting role, sometimes allowing these once forward-thinking musicians an opportunity to rest on their laurels. For Blake Miller, the frontman and lynchpin to Los Angeles' dance-punk act Moving Units, rest isn't an option. Not just content with working under Moving Units' banner since the band's inception in 2001, Miller has ventured headlong into dance music, collaborating with the likes of Steve Aoki and Le Castle Vania. After a breakup, a shift of naming rights to Miller and a span of six years, Moving Units released its full third album, Neurotic Exotic, last September. Ahead of his set at Bar Smith as part of Friday's Viva PHX festival, Miller took some time at his Silver Lake home to talk with us.
There's been a number of incarnations of Moving Units since the inception of the band. What is the most current state of Moving Units like, and how does it musically differ, aside from the breakup, of the band in years past?
We've always prided ourselves on challenging expectations a little bit and exploring new ideas, so I feel like that's something we tried to do again on this most recent record. I wanted to really explore some production ideas and some sound design that we hadn't really tried before. We worked with a producer that's really talented in that sort of department. He has a lot a sound design knowledge and a lot of interesting ideas about how to break out of your comfort zone in the studio and that's what we kind of did on this record -- instead of jamming all the songs like we've done in the past, in a rehearsal environment, I just brought really raw ideas like hooks and vocal riffs into the studio without a complete blueprint.
It also allowed a lot of accidents to happen because we were really just sort of experimenting in the studio using digital technology to quickly be able to change arrangements and stack layers and make choices that aren't really possible when you're jamming in a room live. We then kind of took that concept and married it with the instrumentation we're always been really fond of -- really heavy bass lines, funky, angular, disco-esque guitar parts on top of all this interesting production design that's whipped together in a frenzy.
Talk me through the frustrations of the six-year period between Hexes For Exes and Neurotic Exotic, since you seem to be a musician who has a hard time keeping still.
At the time we weren't really conscious of how time is slipping by. I think that that tends to happen to certain artists. At the time I was also really invested in a few other project, I had my hands full juggling a few different things simultaneous. For instance, between the releases of Hexes and Neurotic I worked on some electronic projects, for instance, Lies In Disguise with Le Castle Vania in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and we were doing a lot of remixing, a lot of electro production and we did some touring.
I really enjoyed that sort of alter ego experience because it was just a different departure from the traditional role of 'band guy' and that instrumentation. I think we just needed some time to explore a few other ideas before we kind of came back to Moving Units. Ultimately, that's why I made Neurotic Exotic because I felt like that it was sort of a timing thing. When you're doing this for kind of a lifetime, which is what I've always been about, there's times where you're really inspired and excited to get back into the project you've invested a lot of time and history in.
After working for thirteen years under the banner of Moving Units, how has your outlook on writing songs changed? What have you learned in that time, if you can boil it down to a few key points?
That's a good question. I've certain learned the value of just getting down to business. When Moving Units began, I had been sort of floundering a little bit as an artist. I was doing a lot of gigging for records, kind of spending a lot of time absorbing influences, but I really didn't feel like I had a focus as an artist.
That was something that was really important to me, so I finally decided to go into the studio, lock myself away and just really focus on channeling something fresh, something that I hadn't really experimented with. At the time I came up with the first song, which was called "Between Us and Them," and those ideas came out so quickly that I basically put the whole song together and demoed it in one day, by myself. When I invited some friends of mine to jam, it was a kind of impulsive, immediate process.
We didn't spend a lot of time agonizing about what we wanted or could do. We were very focused about jamming and when the chemistry was right we just acted on it. That was kind of the fundamental that I learned: You can't just keep weighing your options and keep waiting for inspiration to strike. You kind of just have to step up and own it, actually execute something, or actually get serious about playing with a group of people and really enforce a bit of methodology and discipline. That's kind of driven me ever since then to be really focused. When I go into a project it's really all about getting results.
That being said, how else do you want to grow as you branch out and explore more aspects of your craft, whether that's through Moving Units or with other projects?
I feel that there's a lot of attitudes that have evolved over the last few years in terms of what live music fans are excited about, what they're willing to accept when it comes to presentation. A lot of the limitations that bands might have worked with in the past have softened, and I feel like right now live music fans are really open-minded -- they're really passionate about the music and just having an experience.
That lends itself to an atmosphere of really imaginative creation. We're exploring some ideas about how to present the show live and changing a few things, flip the script a bit. I feel like I want to be a part of this collective of artists who are constantly challenging people's expectation about what's going to happen in a live environment.
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Moving Units is scheduled to play Friday, March 7 at Barsmith. Tickets are $20.