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KNAC.COM Exclusive: Interview With Poison The Well Axeman Derek Miller

By Chris Hawkins, Contributor
Wednesday, January 8, 2003 @ 1:43 PM

Poison The Well Guitarist Mill

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Since their debut The Opposite of December in 1999, Poison the Well have been making serious waves in the underground, and now in more mainstream circles. Their sound can be classified as a mixture between the intensity of Hardcore and more mellow meanderings. Poison the Well, however, has risen to become something greater than the bastard child of Hatebreed and Radiohead. They have managed to solidly formulate their own distinctive sound, which has been receiving praise from not just the underground but also higher profile artists such as Kittie and Disturbed. Read on to find more about Poison the Well’s past, present, and future as I chat with the mastermind of riffs, guitarist Derek Miller.

KNAC.COM: So what has Poison the Well been up to lately?
Derek: Not doing much, man. We’ve just been practicing, writing songs, and hanging out.

KNAC.COM: You guys just came off tour, right?
Derek: Yeah, we got home the 29th of October. We’ve got another month and a half off. It’s been cool.

KNAC.COM: You’ve been on the road pretty non-stop?
Derek: Yeah, since last November. We had breaks so we had three weeks in the beginning of the year and then ten days off, six days off, and three days off. I think that was it.

KNAC.COM: What was the theme for the last tour you were on, the Plea for Peace tour?
Derek: The whole thing was to benefit the Kristin Brooks Hopeline Foundation. It’s for suicide prevention. They had petitions at every show that all the bands would urge the kids to sign, which were sent to local senators to help give federal funding for the prevention of suicide. Right now they don’t do anything. It was just to raise awareness, and 10% of all the money at the shows went to the Hopeline Foundation. Basically, they deal with crises and all sorts of stuff. Besides that, there were good bands and diverse bills. It was a lot of fun.

KNAC.COM: It’s definitely a great cause…
Derek: Yeah, I know. It definitely, definitely was. It was a really well organized tour, and all the people involved were just super-cool.

KNAC.COM: Who actually put the tour together?
Derek: It was a guy by the name of Mike Park, a really awesome guy who lives down in California. He runs Asian Man Records. I think this is his third year doing it. He puts the whole thing together. The whole thing is his brainchild.

KNAC.COM: Poison the Well has toured with some pretty diverse bands….
Derek: Yeah, punk rock bands, “emo” bands, metal bands, anything. It’s kind of weird. Since there isn’t really a specific audience for us…well, there’s a group of people, a majority of Hardcore kids who like our music. If these bands ask us to go out we can never really justify saying no because chances are there will be a few kids who will be like, “well, this is different.” It’s weird because we end up playing with these off the wall bands.

KNAC.COM: Isn’t that an advantage that you’re not so easily lumped into one category?
Derek: Yeah, I mean every band always bitches and moans about not wanting to be pigeonholed, and we’re the same way. It’s nice because a lot of people call us a Hardcore band and what not. Just going out and playing for a different audience proves them wrong so it’s cool.

KNAC.COM: How did things go with the Kittie tour?
Derek: It was pretty cool. I wasn’t really happy with the way things were run for a tour like that. All of the shows were at least 20 bucks to get in, and they make you sell your merchandise for more. It’s typical. It’s not just Kittie. A lot of bigger bands do that. I just hate that. You really have no say when you’re along for the ride. They were really nice girls, and it’s nice that they invited us. It was a fun time. There are certain things that we were in no position to change so you just deal with it.

KNAC.COM: Earlier you mentioned that you guys were writing some stuff. What’s going on with that?
Derek: We have about half of the record written. We go into the studio at the end of January. Up until then, we’re just going to be writing.

KNAC.COM: How are the creative juices flowing now?
Derek: Better than ever. We’re normally really slow writing a song. We might write a song a month generally, but since we’ve been home I think we’ve written four or so. That’s been two or three weeks. It’s really nice. I guess it’s because we’ve been on tour for so long. On tour I play, but I don’t play to write. I play to practice, and stay tight before shows. You build up all the creative stuff when don’t do anything. Now that we’re finally home and don’t have to worry about practicing or anything, everyone’s writing tons of stuff. You just worry about one thing.

KNAC.COM: The last album, Tear From the Red was great! Are my ears deceiving me or does the album begin and end on the same guitar chord?
Derek: Yeah, it does. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Was that on purpose?
Derek: It kind of was, and kind of wasn’t. The last chord is supposed to be G and that’s the very last thing we tracked on the record. I played that last chord, there was a pause, and I realized, it was the same as “Botchla,” the first track. It was right on the spot, and it was cool because it completed it and it was a nice full circle. Little things like that are fun for people that pay attention.

KNAC.COM: Did you change tunings for this album?
Derek: Yeah, there were three different tunings on this one: D standard, drop C tuning, and then this tuning that I don’t know what it’s called. From high to low, it’s D A F C F A#. It’s really low, but we don’t use it to sound heavy. We use it for huge chords. You can play these massive chords that just sound very unique because of this tuning. There’s actually a lot more stuff in D standard, which is cool. It kind of freshens things up.

KNAC.COM: So you guys actually formed in ’97?
Derek: Yes. Most of us graduated in 2000. Jeffrey, our singer, Chris, our drummer, and me all graduated in 2000. Actually Jeff didn’t graduate because he’s a bum. (laughs) He would have.

KNAC.COM: It sounds like you have done a lot early on.
Derek: Yeah, we started touring when I was a junior. So we had a really big jump on everybody because we were so young.

KNAC.COM: Did you ever run into any problems with clubs?
Derek: Definitely. I had to talk my way out of being arrested just for being young and having beer. The owners would freak out, and I’d be outside apologizing.

KNAC.COM: I noticed you had a few lineup changes as well.
Derek: Yeah, with bassists. In the beginning of the band, when we started, there were a lot in and out. We weren’t as serious, though. Since we’ve been a full-time band, it’s been myself, Ryan, Jeff and Chris for over four years now. We’ve just had a rotating bassist. The core of the band is us. Now we just got a permanent bassist, Jeff. He’s definitely permanent. He very much feels like a part of our band, which is cool. The same people are writing the music and lyrics as have been since The Opposite of December.

KNAC.COM: What fueled you to put this project together?
Derek: It was Ryan, Chris, and Ari all started the band just to start a band. I met the singer, Ari through going to shows and stuff. I didn’t get into the band until they had been together for maybe 8 or 9 months. We slowly just got more and more permanent members. Then Jeff became the singer. Now we have what we have today. This lineup is definitely the last Poison the Well lineup unless someone dies. In that case, we’d probably break up.

KNAC.COM: In those early years, what sparked your creativity to want to play?
Derek: Initially, just the Hardcore bands that were pretty popular 4 or 5 years ago. Cave In’s Beyond Hypothermia was a very big influence on me when I was younger in high school. Converge is worth mentioning. Now I have influences from all sorts of different stuff. Some of my favorite bands are definitely Refused, The Smiths, Deftones… a bunch of stuff. Ryan is very much into Rush. That’s his favorite band of all time. We’re all big Nirvana fans, and other early ‘90s Alternative Rock like Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins. We’re all big fans of that stuff.

KNAC.COM: In terms of the Hardcore meets Emo sound, there seems to be a lot of bands that are trying to avoid that tag.
Derek: Definitely. I think there definitely seems to be a lot of bands now, and we were one of them. Some people when I get interviewed ask how it feels to have influenced all these bands and to help start this whole deal. I don’t think we did. As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing to start this “Emo-Metal” was Cave-In with Beyond Hypothermia.I mean, of course you could go back and see where bands were mixing heavier stuff with softer stuff for a long time. As far as we were concerned, that’s who we were way into. When you’re 16 and 17, you’re not thinking about being original. You’re like, “that band’s awesome, dude. Let’s form a band and sound like that.” That’s The Opposite of December, naïve and nonchalant.

KNAC.COM: There are so many people, though, that adore that album.
Derek: Yeah. It definitely struck a chord in the Hardcore community. I’m very proud of it. It’s always hard if you’re in a band to like your own stuff. I have problems with the album, but I recognize the fact that a lot of people just felt strongly about it. I respect that and think it’s really awesome.

KNAC.COM: Tear From the Red is definitely more mature in terms of structure and just the overall sound.
Derek: I think we were just coming from a different angle with it. It was a completely different state of mind. We were completely different people, and it just shows. I never really say it’s better or worse. I don’t really compare the two. A lot of people do, but I just feel like they’re from two completely different places. Tear From the Red is a little more calculated and a little more thought out, which doesn’t necessarily make for a better record. It’s just the way the record was written. We put a lot more time into it, and we just care a lot about it and we’re very proud of it.

KNAC.COM: Personally, Tear From the Red has more peaks and valleys which allow the heavy parts to be much heavier.
Derek: I agree. Not sonically, but emotionally it’s definitely more dynamic. I feel like the melodies are a little richer and the melodic aspects of the music are not quite as clichéd as they are on the first one. I look back on Tear From the Red and there’s a lot that I want to change, but that’s how everyone is.

KNAC.COM: You have the next album…
Derek: Exactly, and that’s how I feel about these new songs now. I really, really love them, and I feel that it’s by far the best stuff that we’ve ever written. When it’s written and recorded and done, I hope that a year after that I’ll want to tear it apart. That will mean that we’re still moving forward musically, which is very important for us not to feel stagnant. If we didn’t feel like we were topping ourselves with each record, we would definitely break up. Definitely. Creatively, I feel like we’re moving forward and doing something different. The new stuff sounds different from Tear From the Red and The Opposite of December. It’s still very much Poison the Well, but I just know that it’s going to be the same thing as when Tear From the Red came out. It’s like, “Oh, it’s different!” Of course! It’s like looking at a car and someone saying, “Explain the car to me.” You say, “It’s blue.” Duh! What’s the make? What’s the interior? People are so obvious. Get picky. Have a reason to dislike it, not just because it’s different, or a reason to like it.

KNAC.COM: How would you describe the new sound?
Derek: Energetic. It goes farther in each direction. There are some songs that are the heaviest things we’ve ever written and a lot faster. Then there’s some really beautiful melodic stuff. It’s hard to say. It just feels a little bit different, but with the same fundamentals. There’s the heavy stuff with melodic stuff. We’re just trying to have it make sense and feel cohesive.

KNAC.COM: What’s the songwriting process like?
Derek: It really starts with Ryan and I sitting down with each other and playing a couple of riffs. I’ll have two riffs, and I put them together and show it to him. He’ll like some of all of it. Then we’ll get it down, take it to practice. We’ll sit down with Chris, and then Jeff comes in with the bass. Jeffrey does most of the lyric placement. Ryan and I help him out with melodies here and there. Everyone adds their two cents here and there until it’s finished. It’s a nice group effort. Ryan and I are becoming more of a solid writing team so it’s really cool.

KNAC.COM: When are you actually entering the studio?
Derek: January 3rd we start pre-production. We actually start recording on January 28th, and from the day we start tracking to the day mixing and mastering is finished is up until March 31st. We have maybe a month off, and then start touring for 13 or 14 months. Most of the recording is going to be done in Los Angeles at Sound City Studios. The other half is going to be done in Umea, Sweden at a place called Tonteknik Studios. We’re working with some guys, Pelle Henricsson and Eskil Lovstrom who recorded Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come. That’s what initially drew us to those guys because that record sounds good and full, but it’s good that live, natural energy. We definitely don’t want some slick, polished Nickleback sound. We want raw, heavy, pretty, and organic, warm. When you mess around with producers, it can be dangerous. We’re very picky about it. These guys came out on tour with us for a week. They get very involved. It’s not like a show-up, get paid, tell you how to write your record, record it, and that’s it. They’re very into getting to know the band as people. Communication is easier. We’re so excited to be working with them.

KNAC.COM: How is everything with Trustkill Records?
Derek: Well, we’re on Velvet Hammer now, a subsidiary of Atlantic. The people at Velvet Hammer are amazing people. It’s Atlantic because they get Atlantic’s money. Velvet Hammer is like its own little label. The people that run it are not like industry people. They’re dudes that listen to music. They’re fans. Sure, they’re a record label. They want to sell records, but that’s not why they sign bands. They only have three bands. We’re one of three bands. They only sign something if they’re way into it. If the record doesn’t blow up, they don’t drop you. The President of Velvet Hammer is very into our band, and is willing to let us do whatever we want. Our contract with Trustkill was up so we were like, “Hell yeah!” It worked out well.

KNAC.COM: When did the deal actually take place?
Derek: It was a couple months ago. We were on tour so it was definitely a blur. It’s cool because for them the dollar sign isn’t the bottom line. They can afford to take chances on stuff they like and care about. It’s really, really nice and refreshing. It’s a hard situation to be in with the state of the music industry right now because people are clawing for anything. A&R guys aren’t worried about being passionate about something. They’re worried about getting their contract renewed in two years, and to do that they need to sell records. We’re very lucky to be in this situation.

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