Photography: courtesy Martin Häusler

Gritty country rocker Jason Charles Miller talks about his new album, In the Wasteland, out now.

Formally known as the front man and founder of acclaimed rock band Godhead, Jason Charles Miller is taking a new approach to music with his gritty country-metal album, In the Wasteland.

Five years in the making, the album proceeds from the dark and haunting opener, “Hundred Pound Hammer,” to the winding-down closing track, “Finding My Way in the Dark” on an enjoyable and engaging musical trek.

Album highlights include the heavy guitar title track, “In the Wasteland”; the country-rock “Old Scarecrow”; the anthemic “No More Reasons”; and his bluesy gospel closer, “Finding My Way in the Dark.”

Recently, C&I caught up with Miller to talk about the new record and what inspired him to walk the long dirt road into country music.

Cowboys & Indians: Congratulations on the release of In the Wasteland. What do you hope your fans will get out of the new record?
Jason Charles Miller: I hope that the album takes them on a journey they haven’t been on before. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible with the different musical styles and lyrical subjects on this album, and I hope that translates into a unique experience for longtime fans of my music as well as brand-new listeners.

C&I: What are some memorable stories along the way of getting this album from concept to actual release?
Miller: Well the concept for it changed many times! I think that’s kind of the thing. Since I worked on this album for almost five years — in between other projects that shot up along the way. My ideas for what I thought it should sound like morphed and evolved as time went on. Early on, I was working on it with my good friend and co-producer Stewart Cararas completely on our own with no label. Since I own my studio, I had the advantage of being flexible with time and was able to grab people to play on the album when they were in town. “Cowboy Eddie Long is in town with Jamey Johnson? Let’s grab him and put him on a track. Adam Shoenfeld is playing Staples Center tonight with Tim McGraw? Let’s grab him before sound check and throw him on a track. Dug Pinnick wants to sing on a song? Awesome — let’s get him in here.”

While this was unfolding, I was still touring regionally, looking for a label, and working on other projects at the studio. … Then I worked on a Southern rock trio project with Austin Hanks and Noah Engh, so the album went on hold. Then Stewart and I had the opportunity to produce a number of songs for Billy Ray Cyrus together, so we did that for a while and the album went on hold again.

Around the same time, I got asked to write all of the music for the web musical Muzzled, which ended up getting nominated for a Streamy Award, the Emmys of the web, so I did that. Then about a dozen theme songs for a dozen web TV shows. All the while I was trying to find a label for the album, but to no avail. It wasn’t until the folks at Red Music became involved in the album that producer Matt Hyde really solidified what the sound and feel would finally be like. Bringing in Kenny Aronoff on drums was really the lynchpin, and we built and rebuilt everything on top of that. Luckily, thanks to technology we were able to use a lot of those previous recordings and synch them up with Kenny’s playing. 

C&I: What was the writing and recording process like? Where did you draw inspiration from for the sound?
Miller: I wrote or co-wrote at least 45 songs for this album. Most of those songs were also made into complete demos as well. While that process was going on, I learned so much about what kind of sound was best for the album and how even though there might be songs that were real standouts, I needed to make sure they all fit together as a cohesive unit.

First with Stewart and then with Matt, we tried many different combinations of amps, guitars, pedals, and any stringed instrument we could get our hands on until we got it right. I love the classic guitar sound of those early Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, and ZZ Top records, and I’m obsessed with the sound of the Deep Purple Mark III lineup, which consisted of David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes trading off vocals on the albums Burn and Stormbringer. I think Ritchie Blackmore’s sound on those records is distinctly unique from any other time in his career. The guitar sounds we finally achieved I hope give a nod to those classic albums, but of course we’re still recording them in the modern era, so we didn’t go back and try to re-create those sounds, but we had them in mind when we were recording.

C&I: In The Wasteland was produced by Grammy Award-winner Matt Hyde and features drumming from John Fogerty and John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff. What was it like to work with them?
Miller: Really, really great, of course! They are both amazing. My great friend and guitarist of the stars Michael “Fish” Herring, who played on three of those 34 songs that didn’t make the album, introduced me to Kenny, and once we talked it was clear to Matt and I that he was the guy for this record.  He may have the distinction of playing on more No. 1 records than any other drummer, so I like those odds. [Laughs.] Seriously though, he knows just what to do for each song — what’s appropriate, when to push, when to pull. His instincts are just on point, and he’s of course a monster player and a consummate professional in the studio.

Matt has such a great breadth of experience, from working with Johnny Lang, No Doubt, Slayer, AFI, The Deftones, Seether. His credits go on and on. He knows how to make recordings sound gargantuan when you want them to be, and subtle and subdued when you need them to be. We get along great and he was open to listening to my ideas, which made the experience a breeze.

C&I: Did they give you any valuable advice?
Miller: Yes, but if I told you any of it, this message would self-destruct. I try to keep an open mind always when recording, and I always try to do my best to pick up new recording techniques or performance techniques from whomever I work with. I’m pretty dense, but I usually learn one or two things anytime I work with a new person. I don’t want to become one of those immovable objects.

C&I: Do you have a favorite song or track your most proud of?
Miller: It changes all the time. One of the things I love about this album is that it’s a cohesive journey from beginning to end, but if you take a stop along the way, you’ll find that any song accurately represents me. 

C&I: You were the lead vocalist and guitarist of the rock band Godhead. How has your music evolved since you’ve gone solo?
Miller: Well, with Godhead, we were reliant upon a lot of programming and manufactured sounds to make up the sound of the band. When things with Godhead started to slow down, the music I was inspired to write and perform became the antithesis of that. I broke everything down to an acoustic guitar and my voice. If a song doesn’t sound good like that, it’s probably not the best song. When adding instruments back on top of that process, I wanted them to be as organic as possible.

C&I: Who are some of the singers and songwriters that have inspired your creative development and made you want to become artist?
Miller: So many. I think that Paul Rogers has the best voice in rock and roll. I saw him a few weeks ago with Skynyrd and Blackberry Smoke and he’s still got it. Early on in high school, a girl I was in choir with — yeah, I was in choir — jammed some headphones on my head and made me listen to “Shooting Star” by Bad Company. My life was never the same after that.

A lot of my favorite singers are also my favorite songwriters. David Coverdale, David Bowie, Robert Smith of the Cure, Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, Nick Cave, Steve Perry, Prince, Ronnie Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, Ozzy Osbourne, Glenn Hughes, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham — both their early work as a duo and in Fleetwood Mac — Bob Seger, Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Cash, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, James Taylor … the list goes on and on, and it’s all over the map.

C&I: Are there any songs that didn’t make it on the album that we can expect later on down the road?
Miller: For sure! A lot of the songs I mentioned earlier may end up on future albums, TV shows, movies, or video games. You’ll just have to stay tuned to find out.

C&I: What can we expect in terms of touring?
Miller: You can expect it. I’m first and foremost a live performer. The unpredictability of a live show is always exciting, and I thrive in that environment. I love bringing up special guests to sing or jam depending on what city I’m in, so be sure to look for that, too. 

C&I: What’s something that fans might now know about you?
Miller: I’m a diehard J.R.R. Tolkien fanatic. I have tried to collect every book he’s ever written, and I have multiple copies of many of them. He actually sat down with a composer during his lifetime and put to music many of the songs from The Lord of the Rings, and I have one of the few copies of the book that were ever published. It also came with a vinyl LP. I love the score by Howard Shore from the movies, of course, but these were wildly different, and it’s fun to kind of compare the two. I grew up in the woods of Virginia, but when I was out back shooting targets with my bow, I wasn’t pretending to shoot deer — I was pretending to shoot orcs.

For more information on Jason Charles Miller, upcoming tour dates, and the new record, visit his website.

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