Just how the Doctor ordered it
AT THE END of this month, a new Irish album will be released to an eagerly awaiting world, and the music industry will be counting on it to provide a much-needed first quarter sales boost. A couple of weeks before U2’s record comes out, however, Sean “Doctor” Millar releases his long overdue EP, entitled Of The People – Part One.
The world isn’t exactly holding its breath. Still, we should be glad to have the good Doctor back in our midst; who better to cast a wry eye at post-boom Ireland and extract some lyrical diamonds from the detritus? The author of such caustic, sharply observed tunes as Donna Quixote, Hard Years in the Big Cityand National Velvet Undergroundis making a “rare” return to the stage, performing two consecutive Wednesday nights at Bewley’s Café Theatre starting tomorrow.
He’ll be accompanied on stage by a troupe of musicians – including long-time vocal partner Miriam Ingram – and a DJ; the evening will be divided into two sections, the first consisting of mainly new material, and the second featuring old favourites from his three albums, The Deal, The Bitter Lieand Always Coming Home. Okay, it ain’t exactly the O2 arena, but Sean Millar has never been an O2 arena kinda guy.
In his 20 year career as a singer-songwriter, the ragged-voiced troubadour from Bray has assiduously avoided fame – and fame has reciprocated by giving him a wide berth. Millar doesn’t mind – his songwriting eye works best below the radar, and his relative anonymity gives him a safe vantage point from which to observe ordinary lives, ordinary people and extraordinary circumstances. Even during his first youthful rush of rock ’n’ roll, when he was the flailing frontman of Dr Millar & the Cute Hoors, and record companies were descending on Dublin in search of the next U2, Millar balked at joining the frantic race towards the dotted line.
“There was this well-known musician at the time, Tymon Dogg, and he worked with The Clash, and he was a friend and hero and teacher to me,” recalls Millar. “And one day we were in a limo on our way to a posh gig in Paris, and he was saying, ‘what do you see now? What would be the best thing that could happen, and what would be the worst thing?’ And I said the worst thing that could happen was that I’d become a star, and he was going, ‘yeah, really, why?’ And I was going, because I wouldn’t be able to do any of the things I like doing. I like really ordinary things, you know. I like hanging out, I like drifting around, watching people, and that’s where my work comes from. That’s where all the things that I write about come from, observing people. I don’t want to be the observed person in every situation.”
As it turned out, Sean Millar needn’t have worried. The searchlight of stardom passed over him and moved on, leaving him free to ply his trade without having to deal with annoying AR men trying to beat down his door. And that’s the way it’s been for Millar for the past 15 years; while the boom era thundered around him, and Dublin turned into a city of blinding lights, Millar worked away in the shadows, whittling down his tunes until there was little left besides the bare bones of truth.
Not that he was starved for attention, though; there were enough people around to appreciate the simple, singular craft that Millar brings to his music, and he’s built up quite a cult following over the years. He counts many of Ireland’s best-known musicians among his fans, and a few of them as his friends. He’s even got his fair share of obsessive fans, including two young film-makers who are planning to make a documentary about the good Doctor.
“They’re two young fanboys who saw me play a couple of times, bought my records years ago, and they’ve always wanted to do this. And in between their other projects they kind of went, ‘what about the Doc, Doc?’ We had a meeting. They’re gonna do some interviews with me and some people around me. I think some people thought if someone was to do a documentary about me they’d interview famous people who were fans of mine. But their thing is they want to interview my wife, my kids and my brother. Which I think is really very nice.”
Millar has also been approached by a young band called Readers’ Wives, who want to perform a concert devoted entirely to his songs. Millar has agreed – as long as he gets to join in on his own tribute gig. “The thing with me, is that everything I do, I’m not just gonna . . . I have to be involved, there has to be a collaboration. For me, it has to be creative. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that the commercial, promo approach doesn’t work for me. I’m just not that sort of a person – I don’t fit in the frame.”
THANKFULLY, THERE ARE plenty of nooks and crannies where Millar’s talents find a perfect fit, so even though he hasn’t had an album out since 2002’s Always Coming Home, and hasn’t performed live for three years, apart from a few guest appearances at friends’ gigs, he still manages to make a living out of playing music. Last year, he composed the music for a theatre production called Silver Stars, as part of the Bealtaine festival, and he has also found himself in demand to create music for numerous other artistic and cultural events.
“I more or less constantly have that work going on, and it’s good because, you know the Sufis, they have this thing that to get what you want you have to take the best you can get and gravitate more and more towards the thing you want. And that’s kind of what I did. When I started off doing this type of work, I was babysitting what you might call very rough kids. I was the entertainment for an hour doing guitar. Then I’d teach them to play. I started doing that about 10 years ago, and it started off as a sideline which I did occasionally, and then it just gradually turned into my full-time job.”
For Millar, the time feels right for a return to the stage, even if he’s not quite sure what the rest of the year holds in store. The past year has seen “a confluence of events” that have pushed him back onto the musical agenda, not least an appearance in the movie Oncealongside his Oscar-winning friend Glen Hansard. It will be a rare treat to hear Millar entertain and enlighten us with his cutting little slices of life.
Many would see Millar as a lyricist first and a musician second, his stripped-down tunes just a handy hook on which to hang those well-woven words. As an accomplished guitarist and flautist, however, and an experienced composer who can score instrumental music, Millar is somewhat miffed by this misapprehension, but he’s not about to protest too much.
“I can understand why people might think that. I notice that when I’m doing my own stuff I tend to keep it very minimal. I’m lo-fi to my core, I just can’t help doing that. As soon as I start sounding posh, I have to undermine it somehow. But I think one of the things that people who aren’t in the business of making music don’t realise that, everybody is more or less using the same equipment and tools, but going for different things.”
U2’s new album will be available in no less than five formats – CD, vinyl, digipack, box set and even a magazine. Millar’s new album, which he hopes to release off his own bat later this year, will be available in one format – good, old-fashioned cassette. And, in a novel move, the Doctor is also planning to release the new long player one side at a time. The EP, Of the People – Part Oneis actually the first half of the album; part two will follow in the autumn.
“You know, there’s all these rules, and I’m going, well, I didn’t actually make any of those rules up, so I don’t have to operate by them,” he explains. “I can do it this way, it’s fine. I’m going to release the album on cassette, but I’ll also make it available for download as an MP3 as well. I’ll get that going as well. But personally, I find the sound quality poor on a lot of stuff, but I love tapes, and one of the things I’ve noticed over the last while is that, for instance, my CD player is broken, the built-in obsolescence has kicked in, whereas the tape part of the machine is still working perfectly. And I just thought, I bet a lot of people have those on their stereos, cassette players, and loads of them still have them in their cars, and I’m thinking, I’m not exactly going for a mass market here, I can afford to be a bit experimental.
“I’m really looking forward to hearing it on tape and hearing that tape hiss. I love that. I miss stuff like that about music. I don’t actually have a big axe to grind about the corporate rock thing – it just has nothing to do with me. But what I find about it is there’s this abundance of people producing stuff with not that much to say, and I just feel that there’s millions and millions of CDs coming out, and they start to lose their value.”
To avoid drowning in an ocean of mediocre music, Millar shuts out the commercial cacophony and keeps faith with the artists he considers essential, like The Rolling Stones (before the mid-1980s, he stresses) and the tragically hip Johnny Thunders around the time of his Hurt Mealbum. “That album had a huge influence on me,” he says, enthusiastically. “And seeing him live changed my life.”
MILLAR LIVES IN the heart of Dublin city, close to his birthplace around Kevin Street, with his wife, the artist Pom Boyd, and their two children, Faith (11) and Carlo (6). His family roots in the area “go back hundreds of years. You can trace them all the way back. My father’s family were Protestant and they were bakers, some of them bakers of renown so it was easy to find them. I must say I’m very proud of all that tradition – they were interesting people. My grandfather was a very inspiring man, upstanding, good citizen, solid, hard working and a good craftsman. He was head baker in either DBC or Kennedy’s, which was the biggest bakery in Dublin.”
When Sean was seven, his father, a lorry driver, took early retirement and the family moved to Bray, which, through Millar Jr’s eyes, seemed like a seaside idyll. “There was also a lot of dark, freaky stuff in my childhood, but a lot of good stuff as well.” The dark matter of everyday life has provided Millar with plenty of storytelling meat to put on his bare-bones tunes. Saint Stephentells the tale of a doubting priest who finally finds salvation in sin, and You Just Can’t Let Things Gois a tender tribute to the dignity of the old. A new song, Blue Chip, is based on a story told to Millar about an ageing drag queen in fear for his life, while Raised Like Brothersis inspired by two of Millar’s uncles. Millar mines his raw material with the skill of a master storyteller, and delivers his denouements with dazzling flair.
His father died last year following a short illness, an event which has made Millar value the real things in life even more than before. “I feel very lucky, I make a living from composing music. And I’m very much a family- oriented person, from the family I grew up with to my own family. Once the kids were growing up, that’s what it all became for me. I remember reading about John Lennon, and the writer was going, ‘where did it all go wrong with John?’ But now I look at it and go, well, he was happy, he was in love, he had a kid and he wanted to do that, and he saw the whole thing for what it was. The music business is a business, and if you actually want to be in that business . . . I don’t particularly want to. I like art, and that’s where I want to be.”
Sean “Doctor” Millar plays live at Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin, tonight and next Wednesday Feb 18, at 8pm. Tickets from www.bewleyscafetheatre.com
The EP Of The People – Part OneEP will be available to buy as a download from www.doctormillar.com