Allison Miller: Girl Gone Wild

By Andrew Lentz Originally Published In DRUM! Magazine's June 2010 Issue

Allison Miller, Drummer

At the Mystic Theater in Petaluma, California, the woop-woops and banshee cries from the mostly female audience reach a fever pitch as Brandi Carlisle’s band — including crackerjack drummer Allison Miller — enters from stage left. With flannel shirtsleeves rolled up past her biceps and short hair tousled, Miller looks like teenage tough from the ’50s.

Best known for supporting Ani DiFranco and Natalie Merchant, Miller has been touring with Carlisle for the past few months and doing some dates in between with the Indigo Girls. Although tonight’s performance would abruptly halt after two songs due to Carlile’s sudden illness, it was enough to see Miller expertly dispatch a few fills around a spacious pocket. Good stuff, but how meaningful can rent-paying gigs like this one be for a drummer as ambitious as Miller? During a stop in Mobile, Alabama, a few weeks earlier, I posed the same question. “It’s just as fun,” she says with unfailing politeness. “I love coming up with right drum part to complement the lyrics and the songs just as much as I like to improvise.”

Far from a self-indulgent solo album, Boom Tic Boom, her second as a bandleader, is an exhilarating journey that goes from hook-filled tunes to bizarre percussion experiments (check out the brush work on “FEAD”). There’s even a cover of “Rockin’ Chair,” a classic Hoagy Carmichael song. “The two main things I’m hearing are rhythm and melody, and I pretty much go with the melody. And usually they are, for me, pretty catchy melodies. They’ve been in my head for a while and I just kind of plunk ’em out on the piano.”

Written with bassist Todd Sickafoose and pianist Mary Melford — and on one track, hipster violinist Jenny Scheinman — Boom Tic Boom is indisputably a group effort. “All three of them have the ability to take a fairly simple melody and really run with it, so I really knew that they would you know they would take what I wrote and just even make it way better.”

Make no mistake: Miller’s parts are plain sick. But it’s the drummer’s intuitive grasp of Melford, and especially Sickafoose, that alchemizes this latest outing into sonic gold. “We can kind of walk on the tight rope at first and then we can jump off of it, fly around, and then get back on. “We know each other so well that we’re able to leave the harmonic space, and then time, and then somehow work our way back and be together again.”

The showboat-y stuff gets short shrift on Boom Tic Boom. Miller acknowledges that part of her playing but does not belabor it. “I kind of like starting the album with a little drum solo because it is a drum record. The rest of the record I feel isn’t totally about the drums. It’s more about each player.”

As its title suggests, Boom Tic Boom is full of chunky fusion-style beats. When the drumming is jazzy, it’s freeform and unexpected, not ride cymbal–driven. “Since I played so many different types of music I really wanted this record to portray all different sides of me. It’s kind of inevitable for me at this point. I feel like it all just kind of intersects and cross-fades over each other.”

Having grown up in a suburb of Washington DC, Miller first took piano lessons at age seven, a fact she attributes to her piano-based compositions. After switching to drums, she showed early promise under the tutelage of Walter Salb, a noted swing and big-band drummer who played a crucial role in developing her four-way independence. Instead of going to conservatory, her parents insisted that she get a liberal arts education. She got that and then some in the alternative music program at University Of West Virgina, where she learned everything from West African drumming, taiko, gamelan, and even took a course on how to build Jamaican steel drums.

As rewarding as the plunge into global percussion was, Miller’s love of jazz could not be suppressed. “I was still able to study jazz drumming and [the school] was only an hour from Pittsburgh, so I often would go there and do gigs.” She also checked out Roger Humphries, known primarily for his work with the Horace Silver Quintet in the ’60s but by this time was teaching at University Of Pittsburgh. “He’s like a lesson in jazz drumming just to watch him play. So I would go and hear him all the time.”

Boom Tic Boom was recorded at Systems II Studio, a few blocks from Miller’s apartment in Brooklyn. “They’re really known for their piano, and I wanted to put Myra in a really comfortable studio, and that was one of the studios she said she really liked the piano.”

Having as little technology as possible during recording was also one of the goals. “I love it when it’s just completely acoustic. But I also felt that that’s very difficult to do. Actually, with violins it pretty much has to be miked,” she says referring to Scheinman’s fiddle on the jaunty “Candy Flavored Sidewalks.” “She has to be amplified because it’s hard to find an acoustic instrument like that to be loud enough with drums.”

Selfless to a fault, Miller seems only to care about making life easy for her band. She recalls a recent gig where Melford was uncomfortable about “Intermission,” a track that requires her to solo over a measure of six and then five. “I said to her: ‘Look, just do your thing. Don’t even think about the time. That’s what me and Todd are here for.’”

There will be opportunities to go unplugged at the small settings the band will play over the spring and summer. If Miller ends up playing Boom Tic Boom as it was recorded note for note it would make fans happy, but don’t count on it. “I feel like sometimes I don’t even think about what I’m going to play until I’m actually on the bandstand.”