Keep on Truckin’

Dani Miller and Linda Perry in-conversation: how Surfbort’s new record was born from trust, love and punk spirit
By Alex James Taylor | Music | 21 October 2021
Above:

Dani Miller and Linda Perry selfies

Keep on Truckin’. The name of Surfbort’s latest record reads more than a title: it’s a statement of intent, an encouraging war cry for anyone struggling to do so. A year or so ago, that was the mindset of Surfbort frontwoman Dani Miller herself. After seven years in the band, the LA-based musician was lacking inspiration and impetus. Industry push-backs were getting tiresome and Miller’s default no-fucks-given artistic enthusiasm was being tested and trampled by The Man. Then she found Linda Perry: a kindred spirit, a fellow “freak from San Diego”, a creative powerhouse who’s seen it all before having made waves fronting 4 Non Blondes in the early 90s and since founded two labels alongside producing hits with the likes of Christina Aguilera, Courtney Love, Kelis and Gwen Stefani.

Together, they hit the studio, utilising each other as the soundest of soundboards, bouncing ideas off one another with vibrancy and optimism. Keep on Truckin’ is the resulting Surfbort record – produced and mixed by Linda – a work of renewed energy and punk spirit ideal for our global reawakening. We gathered the pair back in a room together for a candid chat and some selfies, just because.

GALLERY

Linda Perry: I’ve never really actually sat down with you and talked about the process… you came into my studio which is in The Valley in Los Angeles and we recorded this awesome record.
Dani Miller: It’s so good!

LP: I want to talk about the process leading up to this. So basically when we first started talking you were in a different mindset, can we talk a little bit about where Dani Miller was emotionally?
DM: It was the seventh year of Surfbort and I was frustrated. I ran into a lot of different obstacles with producers, finding a label in the apocalypse. I don’t come from money or having tonnes of access to good studios, so we were just making recordings in our living room and I was really wanting to make another record and work with an amazing producer, but I didn’t know where to find that so I was getting frustrated. But meeting you fully made me excited for life again. You made me really happy about music and not as bitter.

There’s a way stronger, underlying hunger for making music when you make it for people to scream.”

LP: Thank you for that. Let’s dive a teeny bit deeper because I think sometimes people forget – and you can pipe in on this – one of the things I feel about music right now is I don’t feel like there’s a purpose. You know, when I was younger and would grab my guitar and sit in my bedroom or find a good place in the house – I’d sit in the bathtub sometimes – and I would find that inspiration within my living area to figure out what was going to come out of my voice next. What song was going to show up, what I was going to sing about. I had this hunger, this edge, and I wanted to do something. I don’t think I’m old when I say this, yes I’m 56 I get it…
DM: Going on eighteen [both laugh].

LP: But the thing I’m missing, and this will wrap around to you after, you comment, I just don’t feel like musicians or artists have a purpose right now, they’re just kind of making content, music, to get out there. You know, me being 56 and you being much younger, can you kind of touch base on what you think?
DM: I think the main thing I realised is it’s not really about me, it’s about everyone coming together. It’s such a crazy, psycho world, it’s more about people coming together to release all their angst and supporting each other. There’s a way stronger, underlying hunger for making music when you make it for people to scream, kind of like therapy – dance it out. I don’t know, being stuck in a nine-to-five, it’s really hard to let loose, you feel trapped. That’s the main reason I like making music, performing, playing shows, because that’s just a huge purpose, and it helps with my mental health a lot. I think it’s important not to get caught up in your own ego. With music, you constantly have to try and have an ego-death, take your frustrations and hunger and just keep going because everyone else has that same frustration in their own form with whatever they’re doing in life. I feel like that’s why I make music.

It’s such a crazy, psycho world, it’s more about people coming together to release all their angst and supporting each other.”

LP: For me it’s not even a question. I wake up this way, I go to sleep this way. One time when I got ‘Want it All’ tattooed on my hands when I was 27, 4 Non Blondes were maybe about to break, no, 4 Non Blondes had broken, I was 27. I wrote that song when I was 24, but 25 sounded better.
DM: Yeah [laughs].

LP: 24 years didn’t sound good.
DM: 25 is a good number.

LP: But anyway, the guy was like, ‘Are you sure you want ‘Want It All’ tattooed on your hands? That’s a big thing.” And I was like, “Well, dude, I’m not gonna go be a fucking school teacher.” Like, “I don’t have another plan, this is it.”
DM: Totally. 

LP: So I noticed that artists now have other plans, they’re fashion designers, they’re making shoes, clothes, paintings, they’re entrepreneurs, they’ve got their digital worlds, and it’s almost like the music is the card. You know, remember when people used to hand out a card, it’s like the music is just the background music to most artists’ careers. Do you see that at all?
DM: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know what that stems from, maybe just because…

LP: Money! That’s where it stems from, they’re just greedy, and music right now is really hard you know, it’s hard to break a new artist [laughs].
DM: Totally, well I’m also a Gucci model and that’s what lets me get groceries and stuff. But yeah, every day I just wake up as a singer and music is all I think about.

LP: Yes, you were on buildings for Gucci, but you’re also making flyers, putting posters together – you’re constantly working. You’re one of the most motivated people I’ve seen, because you want it and can see it. You want it. You want the fame, you want the success, you want the stardom, the big records, you want the big house, I get it, I see that.
DM: Oh yeah!

Dani Miller and Linda Perry selfies

LP: But you know what you’re doing, you’re fucking working for it. You’re doing everything you’re supposed to do, times a hundred, that’s why me and my team love working with you, because if I’m driving your career, there’s a big problem. Most artists right now, the people driving their career are the labels, the management, and the artist is all, “Okay, just tell me when I’m supposed to fucking be there” – if even that. So where do you think that drive comes from?
DM: I think it started from survival, from me just being junkie styles on the street and being so frickin’… just hopeless, it was just a painful time. Also, my parents working thirteen-hour days every day, just coming from that, I was like, “I’m gonna turn my life around, I wanna survive and I wanna have a good life. I wanna have fun, I wanna make art.” It just went to the next stage, now I’m working like four jobs to pay my rent and I’m still so broke but I still really want to make art. So I was doing music every second I got off work and on the weekends. I think that’s where the drive comes from, just having a background of gnarly shit happening and different weird circumstances. I’m always grateful for what I have and it reminds me what I need to be doing, I’m never just doing nothing, I always want to be making stuff and doing it yourself feels more real.

LP: Before 4 Non Blondes broke up, I used to go into bars and steal all the white matchbooks, then I’d go to the copy place, copy our logo, hang about and then glue it onto the matchbooks.
DM: So cool, oh my god [laughs].

LP: I would go around and hand them out to people in the bar, and my girlfriend at the time was like, “Great use of your time,” I’m like, “I’m out there marketing!”
DM: Yeah, totally [both laugh].

I think it started from survival, from me just being junkie styles on the street and being so frickin’… just hopeless”

LP: It was cool, I would paint them. I was constantly out on the streets and I worked at this restaurant called Spaghetti Western on Lower Haight – I actually didn’t work there, but I would go and ask them for food, I had no money, I’d say I’ll come and play acoustic, so they would let me in there and I’d play during Sunday brunch and they’d give me food in exchange. Then one day they came and were like, “You want a job?” and they were like, “You’d be the hostess, greeting people,” and I go, “Oh! I’m totally that person, I can totally do that.” So I worked at this place and just promoted the band the whole time because it was so popular.
DM: You’re like, “Welcome, do you want spaghetti? Also, listen to 4 Non Blondes!” [both laugh]

LP: I had tapes for people. This woman showed up one day, a big manager, so I served the menu and put the tape inside. She was like, “Clever.”
DM: That’s so funny because one time Kathleen Hanna came to where I was serving and as they were paying I messaged my guitarist Matty like, “Matty, Kathleen Hanna is here! Go get our tapes and shirts.” So he ran to the restaurant and as she was leaving I was like, “Here’s my tape and shirt, have a good day hope you enjoyed your food, bye!” [both laugh]

LP: That’s networking. So [makes rewinding noise] let’s go back. You’re in this place and don’t know what to do, you’re not inspired about Surfbort?
DM: We were still making songs every day and going hard, but my heart was starting to… I just felt disenchanted. When I first started, I had no clue about labels or the industry, so I was way more just riffing on life, I was just so excited. I think over time I got worn out and disenchanted, I came up to all these barriers where I was just like, “I don’t have millions of dollars to jumpstart a career, I don’t have different connections,” so I got depressed about it.

LP: You were getting excited about Dani Miller and what you were doing there, so you kind of shifted the energy over.
DM: Yeah and also it really helped me get through hard drugs, to be screaming on stage and going full punk style. But yeah, I did that for like seven years and then I was like, “Wait, I wanna make dance music with my best friend-soulmate Ashley Smith,” so I also used the pandemic to start that project as well. 

Dani Miller and Linda Perry selfies

LP: So then I show up to the party and you guys were great, totally gun-ho. You had already written these really great demos. Have you ever had that experience of going into the rehearsal place and working out the songs the way we did?
DM: Oh yeah, it was so cool. I felt like it was old school. We did weeks of pre-rehearsal and writing and practising. Normally we practice for a couple weeks, or just a week and then we go into the studio and record like ten songs in two days, so I’ve never done such amazing pre-production. Working with you is insane, basically, before I was working with a bunch of people who… their hunger for creating was so slowed down, it was like they were thinking more of a five-year plan. Then I met you and all the things they were thinking were going to take years took us three months and it was just all magical the entire time. So yeah, the whole recording process of the album has been a dream.

LP: To you guys, to whoever is out there, you kiddy winkys! [Dani laughs] What we’re talking about is, normally, in today’s times, when a producer shows up or a band wants to record an album they just work everything out in the studio and that’s just cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching. In a recording studio, trying to figure out arrangements, writing songs, it doesn’t make any sense to me because also what happens is a lot of people aren’t just with one producer. A lot of the time, records are being made with several people, but then what we did was: band went into the studio worked out their songs; then I came in and we just rearranged certain things because I felt like there were quite a few songs that the hook would go right by just like… wait wait wait a minute! What was that! [both laugh]
DM: Yeah [laughs].

LP: It was extending a lot of your hooks that you were just rolling right by, and I think this is a really really important thing for a lot of listeners to understand: listening. So if you’re a producer you’ve got to listen to the singer and if you’re a musician with your singer you’ve got to listen to the singer because what I noticed, I can’t remember what song it was now, but the band were playing one song and you were singing something else. [Dani laughs] I was just like, “What is going on here?” You were just singing a completely different song. It’s like you had a different melody in your head. Then I stopped you, “Hey guys, wait a minute, Dani is singing something else here and it’s way cooler than what you guys are playing.” Because they were doing all the [guitar sounds] all those weird, you know dudes like to jack off on their instruments and they don’t pay attention.
DM: That is such a reminder because you came in and kind of re-gave me a voice. I think it was really no one’s fault, like it wasn’t the guys’ fault. I think just over time I got so worn out and beaten down by everything that I was just going through the motions. You definitely gave me a voice and now I feel with this new record there are so many moments where I can actually sing, like, ‘Laaaaa!’ Like Snow White.

“…we didn’t make each other doubt ourselves or feel less or feel like things were unattainable, we inspired each other and kept the energy up.”

LP: You have a great voice, and that’s why I wanted to flip it. I wanted your vocals at the very front. So here we are, we get out of the rehearsal, we figure out all the arrangements and this and that, and then we come into the studio and it’s just basically live time and you guys are just rolling through the songs. How was that? Was it in rehearsal that you started to go, “Wait a minute, there’s life here for me”?
DM: Yeah, I think even the first day, we’re normally practising in a small box where I can’t hear anything and everything is blasting and I’m like, “I wanna die.” I feel like the first day we met, you took like thirty-second hardcore punk songs and were like, “If you structure this, it’s still punk and sick and hard” – you were adding different melodies and romantic parts. I think that’s when I just took a deep breath. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I feel so at home, I feel so much better about music and I’m so excited,” because even the week before recording I was still kind of out of it, still confused like, “What are we gonna do? A Surfbort record? Should I do dance music?” And then as soon as I started making the Surfbort album it was like, “Yes, I’m back I’m doing my favourite thing in the world” – you made it so much better and kind of brought it back.

LP: I think the thing is partnerships. People don’t realise how important those connections are, the people you surround yourself with – when we’re here, we’re supposed to elevate each other.
DM: Yeah, yeah.

LP: We’re not supposed to just kick people to the curb and, you know, “I’m better than you.” Unfortunately, that’s kind of how the world operates, but we don’t look that way, we look this way and this way is about elevating each other. As much as you would get from me, I’m getting from you, which I think is a rare thing to probably hear from the producer, because a producer usually wants to head the show: “I know what I’m doing, I’ve been in this business for a long time, I know what I’m doing and you guys listen to me, I’m gonna intimidate you, blah blah.”
DM: Yeah, that’s always how it is [laughs].

LP: But with me, I’m like, “I don’t fucking know what I’m doing, let’s just figure it out together.” Working on that record made me feel like, I think I said this to you before, but my background and your background are very, very similar. Both from San Diego, I was a little punk in Balboa Park doing acid.
DM: Two freaks from San Diego [both laugh].

LP: I played hide and seek at the San Diego Zoo on acid [Dani laughs], getting chased out by security. You know in Presidio Park, you know that tower? I fell off that.
DM: Oh my god… damn.

LP: I broke my collar bone, cut my face all the way over here. I went hard because I had a very hard life, I’ve slept in cars,  in the park, I’ve slept in abandoned houses and to have gotten myself all the way over here and not killed myself, and I did try to kill myself at sixteen. So meeting you and working with the band, it just brought this feeling of like… it gave that purpose to me, it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is the hunger, this is what’s been driving me this whole time, the energy of this band and being good people,” you know what I mean? We were fucked, we got fucked over, you know?
DM: Totally, yeah.

LP: We’re good fucking people, we’re generous, we’re nice people, we wanna bring love and light and lift people up.
DM: Totally.

LP: And how awesome is that? To be coming from not a good place and be able to end up… anyway joining forces with you has made me just feel so like, coolAnd I feel like oh yeah, I still got some fucking tricks up my sleeve, this old dog!
DM: Hell yeah, totally! [both laugh]

LP: So here we are, we make the record and we’re like, “yay!” We do our thing, you guys come in for the mixes, the listen and then you made me mix the record, which I’d never done before.
DM: You were so good at it, it was amazing [both laugh].

LP: That was hard, I’m insecure about mixing because of what a wonderful next level it can take things. You record it, then it goes to another person with a different perspective.
DM: Well I think us working together, the energy was so good, we didn’t make each other doubt ourselves or feel less or feel like things were unattainable, we inspired each other and kept the energy up. You had us do daily check-ins, which was so cool, like normally I deal with people who create an environment that’s not good for making amazing art, but you just made it so cool. Even listening to the mixes, I was so excited to come in and hear what you had to say and all your takes. I learned so much from it, being a singer, I’m not super talented with instruments, even though I’ve tried to practice, but seeing it through your eyes, you being so open and not making it an elitist thing where I couldn’t understand, you explained the whole process which made me so excited.

LP: Then master all done and so the end result Keep on Truckin.
DM: Yeah and that’s just kinda the vibe, the world is kinda burning but we are all in this together so keep on trucking and supporting each other.

LP: You shot a video for FML with…
DM: Fred Armisen, oh my gosh, such a treat to basically make a little comedy sketch and music video, it was so much fun. That will come out with the record.

LP: You guys are going out on tour with The Garden?
DM: Yeah we’re gonna tour with The Garden in November, I’m so excited. They’re one of my favourite bands and we’ve been friends for a while – their energy is really awesome on stage.

LP: So what do you wanna leave everybody off with? I always feel like you’re always so filled with inspiration, do you have any expectations?
DM: Yeah I feel like I would want to leave people with the idea of not giving up and just even when things seem super dark or you’re at a wall, keep believing in yourself and just find the family and people to surround yourself with who lift you up. Like you were saying, you can just follow your dreams and do whatever you want to do in life. That’s a similar thing with Keep on Truckin, whatever you’re doing in the world, if you’re a plumber or a painter or a stay at home mom, I just want you to feel supported and even when the world feels like its ending you can keep on trucking and yeah, love you. 

LP: Alright signing off, thank you!
DM: Bye!

Surfbort’s Keep On Truckin’ is out now via Inner Freak Records.

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