It's no great revelation -- music is indelibly stamped by the environment in which it was created. With most radio pop, the lack of environment creates a vacancy of soul at its core: The lights are on, but nobody's home.
Santa Cruz native Miguel Migs comes from the same state that turns out much of this empty drivel, yet his sultry house textures lack little for soul and lose nothing of the feel of California in the process. Quite the contrary -- his dub-dripping platters ooze warm rhythms, and the sun-kissed female nudes on his label's album covers seem to have washed up on shore with pleasure to burn. In the deep house universe of the Naked Music label, clothing is optional, brah.
It's fitting, then, that our phone interview should catch Migs on the beaches of Oahu. He's chilling out after a two-week run through Australia -- "a dope tour," he says, that included the likes of Blackalicious and Mad Professor. It's the fourth year in a row he's done the January Big Day Out festival in Sydney, which, he notes, takes advantage of the peak season down under.
Hey, it's always summertime somewhere, right?
Migs says he's in no hurry to get home. It's hard to blame him. San Francisco barely lifts the mercury above 60 degrees this time of year, and then there's the piercing wind that slices through the city from Ocean Beach. Still, while the weather might suck, Migs loves his city by the bay.
"San Francisco has always had a pretty soulful edge as far as a city goes," he says. "There's always been a lot of creativity involved with that city, and I'm sure it shines through in the music."
Born Miguel Steward, Migs grew up in the Bay Area, barraged by the classic rock that came billowing out of his parents' stereo speakers. While Migs dug Hendrix, Zeppelin and Steely Dan, it was a nonrocker -- namely Bob Marley -- who caught his ear the most tenaciously, and Migs's early musical formation had a distinctive Jamaican lilt. Before he got into house, he was gigging with a band called Zion Sounds, which he describes as "a kind of world beat/dub/reggae kind of band." In the early 1990s, around the same time San Francisco warehouse parties captured his attention, Migs began experimenting with electronic music. He toyed around on the turntables with dancehall and hip-hop before moving to the sexy, soulful house of today. But the Jamaican feel still lingers.
"There's certainly similarities between dub and house music," he says. "I'm definitely influenced by a lot of dub. I think you can hear it in some of my bass lines."
It takes a good 60 minutes to get to it, but his nite: life 03 eventually revels in that flavor. Most of the 2001 remix compilation has dub rippling at the edges, dreamy tangents draped over gentle up-tempo numbers. But by track 17, Grant Phabao's "Andub Head Yudu," Migs can no longer keep the groove at bay. He gives in, lovingly, to the kind of comatose down-tempo bliss Thievery Corp has patented. Like a slacker NoCal surf bum, "Andub" has no direction whatsoever. It's a Xanax odyssey and a nice breather following the occasionally monotonous disco beats occupying the rest of the CD. In it, Migs's versatility shows through.
"I've never been one to do just dance-floor stuff," he says. "I can't imagine making only one style of music or style of sound, because it would get so boring to me." Similarly, he likes to pack a diverse crate when he heads out on the road. It stands him in good stead -- he has a month-long trip through Europe coming up, and for that, he'll have to satisfy both the cavernous London club and the Spanish daytime beach festival.
"I think everyone's influenced by what's around them," he says. "Being in a more laid-back, less stressed-out environment just comes out in the music."
His 2002 mix, Nude Tempo One, approaches the jazzier electronic compositions of St. Germain. The lyrics to Onda's "Happiness Is Free" are puffball throwaway stuff (don't look to deep house for depth), but how about that howling Dave Gilmour guitar? And is that George Benson plucking away on Louis Benedetti's "Show You My Love"? Well, no on both counts, actually, but the two tracks carry it off well enough regardless.
Deep house is, ultimately, all about the vibe. It's make-out music and semi-psychedelic easy listening. Critics can dismiss it as shallow, but they lob the same labels at California, too, what with its tag-team bulimia and people who drive to the mailbox. Migs, though, has mostly avoided the label -- instead he's oft praised for his mellow sincerity. Rightly so, it seems.
"I was never really trying to be some kind of " He stops short of using a term like "superstar." "I just like doing my thing and being laid back about it, and if people are into it, that's awesome; that's great; that's what it's all about." He says if he had to choose between touring and doing studio work, he would pick the latter. He wants to get cooking on another live project featuring his own original tracks, but "there's not enough hours in the day." (Not exactly the mantra of the unhurried Californian, but whatever works.)
In the short term, he's focusing on starting up a new record label, Salted Music, which kicks off with its first release in April. It's a track called "Do It for You" featuring Lisa Shaw, a singer-songwriter whose sonorous vocals show up near the end of Nude Tempo One. Shaw has frequently collaborated with Migs -- he does the groundwork, builds the beat and hands it over to her to write the lyrics and melody.
With "Petalpushing," though, Migs opts instead for male vocals, namely the shamelessly sunny pop of Steve Winwood's "The Finer Things." Vacuous? Perhaps. Groovy? For real, brah. And Californian all the way.
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