The quiet revolution of cktrl
Even through the small and pixelated screen of our video call, the positive energy radiating from producer and multi-instrumentalist cktrl feels as if it could power a small jet plane. Calling from his home studio in Lewisham, southeast London, cktrl – real name Bradley Miller – is dressed casually wearing a loose black graphic top with his hair falling around his crown in short braided twists. He has a habit of starting and stopping sentences with little regard for where they’re going. Sometimes, to drive a point home, he acts out the end of a sentence, hitting an imaginary three-pointer when talking about the goals he wants to reach in his career, or miming a gun to his head to emphasise the soul crushing boredom he felt in his six-year stint as an office worker at City Hall.
It was the hours clocked in at the housing office that, perhaps unwittingly, helped shape the sound many have come to identify with Miller. “My music changed a lot just from working there, because it was just like, ‘We’re just gonna have some chill vibes,’” says Miller, slowing down his patter to reflect the mood. “It was just to unwind, like therapy.” This ability to translate his state of mind into his highly expressive and emotional music is, arguably, what makes him so special. Last November’s Touching Bass-released EP, Robyn, was a stunning exploration of heartbreak told through sparse-but-potent arrangements of piano, saxophone and clarinet. A work that, in its delicacy and keyed-down beauty, suggested shared affinities with artists like Duval Timothy, but nonetheless announced the arrival of an utterly singular artist.
Top: Denim Tears x Champion Knit wear
Trousers: Luke Derrick
Necklace and ring: Othongthai
For Miller, the last year – aside from releasing a career-defining EP – has been spent exercising and playing football with his friends, or working at home on new music. Lockdown, for him, had its benefits. “It’s been great, I’m not gonna lie to you,” he insists with a cheeky grin. “It’s actually been perfect for me.” He’s not long been back from a reinvigorating two-month stay in Jamaica at the tail-end of 2020, where he felt he could be “unapologetically Jamaican all the time” and get away from the pressures of London living. “[Jamaica] is my safe zone,” he says, “I’m just literally living my life, unaffected by anything.”
Born in the early 90s, Miller grew up in Lewisham where he was surrounded by music from an early age. He connected with the sounds of reggae and bass culture, along with the soca music he heard from his mum’s Monserrat heritage. Listen closely and you can hear how the percussive syncopation of those Caribbean beats have informed how he makes music today. It was when he was in the first year of secondary school, however, that Miller first picked up an instrument, learning the clarinet and later saxophone thanks to a local music service (now defunct, the victim of government funding cuts). Saturdays may have been for music school, but it was only when he discovered making beats, in his own time, that he felt a true connection with music. “It’s the first time you kind of own something,” he explains. “It was about making what you hear in your head – and that doesn’t happen straight away.”
“Do I have anything to say? Is there a purpose to this or am I just flexing?”
Top: Denim Tears x Champion Knit wear
Necklace and ring: Othongthai
As a teenager he spent his time in the local record shops, both working behind the till and just hanging out, where he fell in love with vinyl culture, especially grime. “Grime was this vast genre with loads of different things going on,” he recalls. “You could tell if someone was from south, west, east, north, just from how they did their drums.” After settling on the DJ name cktrl (short for ‘can’t keep to reality’) he landed a show on NTS Radio which led to him to his Boiler Room debut at 17. He laughs as he thinks back to this time. “Oh my days,” he pauses, shaking his head. “There were nerves, it was crazy.” The footage of a baby-faced Miller entering a room full of hard-to-impress east London types suggests a skill most DJs spend years trying to finesse. “I wasn’t confident. I got warmed up halfway through. But I was confident enough that I knew I was only going to play my own music though. I was like, nope, not playing no one else’s tune on this thing.”
Afterwards, Miller was officially a name to watch. In 2015, he self-released his debut EP, Forest – a grimey five tracker featuring rapid-fire beats, dizzying synth pads and dreamlike soundscapes – and earned support from Sampha and Jamie xx. Despite the attention, he felt uncomfortable with what he saw as a scene that was making money off the gentrification of Black art. He explains the pernicious way Black music, since time immemorial, has been whitewashed, even in so-called underground scenes. “This has always been an issue for me, because there are so many young Black producers that make incredible music but were never given the opportunities.”
Full look: Dior
Disillusioned with the inequalities within the scene but undeterred, Miller edged away from the world of Boiler Room and the white-centric vision of club culture. To make the break explicit, he released the 2016 mixtape INDi, a daisy-fresh bundle of experimental pop that the Guardian cited as one of the best albums of 2016. A year later he started his own label, Songs 4 Girls, in response to widespread appropriation in electronic music. During this period, Miller experimented with a range of styles, switching between explorative downtempo, trippy club tracks and experimental R&B. “I always knew I could make a range of music. I would always make a project like, let me try this, or people might like this, rather than thinking, ‘What do I want to say? Do I have anything to say?’ Is there a purpose to this or am I just flexing that, ‘Man can make this, this, and this?’”
It would take a difficult breakup, some four or so years later, that would see the pieces fall into place on last year’s breakthrough Robyn. Inspired in part by the work of poets Yrsa Daley-Ward and Nayyirah Waheed, the record came to life during a period of intense emotional fallout, where friends advised him to meditate and keep a journal. Miller recalls how one day he met his friend, the multi-disciplinary artist Duval Timothy, who helped him wordlessly translate Miller’s state of mind into music. “We sat and just played for hours. We didn’t talk about what we were going to do – it was improvised classical music.” Their initial session became the building blocks of the EP’s tracks Lighthouse and Will the Feelings Leave.
“The idea of classical music from a Black perspective doesn’t make any sense because all music is our music”
Full look: Dior
Miller also enlisted Coby Sey (best known for his production work with Mica Levi and Tirzah) to help build out a record that dances around the boundaries of classical music, jazz and neo soul. Far removed from the silky future R&B of 2017’s Fall and 2019’s Colour, not to mention the grime experimentalism of Misc/Azula, the shift to a more organic mode of expression was necessary, he says, because of the subject matter. “My creative process is more to do with what I’m thinking and feeling, so at the time I had to express that with my instruments.” Even on the final track As You Are (which introduces subtle beats, the guitar licks of Shirley Tettah and vocals from Purple Ferdinand) Miller still keeps the mood understated, unwilling to spoil the meditative vibe conjured on the previous tracks. The work has been described positively by some as ‘classical music from a Black perspective’ but that description is irritating to Miller. “The idea of classical music from a Black perspective doesn’t make any sense because all music is our music.”
Miller is also highly aware of how he himself is perceived. He sees his music and image as a way to dismantle the rigid boundaries surrounding Black masculinity. “The purpose is to break it all down, but it’s not going to take me telling people or going on [IG Live] saying, ‘You shouldn’t be…’ It’s just showing them how good life can be when you’re just not homophobic and open, because then you’re robbing yourself of so much.” This need to push the boundaries has aligned Miller with a generation of underground-adjacent Black artists and creatives who are making their way into the mainstream. Filmmaker and Miller’s long-time friend Jenn Nkiru (“from the ends, fam, literally”) brought him into Beyoncé’s Black is King video, though he had no idea until he got there. “We saw the NDA and said, ‘Oh…’” he exaggeratedly whispers, “say no more, I’m about to be in this Beyoncé thing.”
Trousers: Jawara Alleyne Denim
Rings: Dior, Othongthai
After having his name attached to thee Beyoncé and releasing a career-defining record, Miller is more confident than ever in his vision. So much so that he’s taken down much of his old material from streaming sites, hoping to rework them into later releases that show the artist he is now. “It’s all a bit of a mess,” he admits. “With Robyn, there’s an access point, so it’s just about building from that and making sure it gets to the stage where people are expecting me to put out anything – but they’ll like it.”
Revealingly, he hopes to get the sheet music for Robyn onto the grade syllabus for kids like him. “Growing up you was playing some dead white man’s rhythm rather than someone that looks like you,” he explains. “Although some of the pieces are obviously beautiful, I couldn’t relate.” The historical whiteness of classical music is an issue that is slowly coming to the fore. Europe’s first BME majority orchestra, Chineke!, was only founded as recently as 2015, and there are still pushes to get the repertoires of BME composers like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price more widely performed. The release of Robyn has made Miller aware of how he can alter the way young people think about classical music. “Through my music, I can change that for the next generation because they can see someone that comes from where they come from.” He acknowledges some jazz musicians that have come up in a similar timeframe, but points out a crucial difference between them and him. “The other guys from the area that do play instruments, they weren’t necessarily – it might sound terrible – cool, you know,” he laughs wickedly.
Coat and shirt: Lanvin
Vest: Tom Ford
Tie: Louis Vuitton
Bracelet and ring: Othongthai
Shoes: Luke Derrick
And with that Miller turns his attention to his upcoming project Zero, an EP he hopes to release in June packed with orchestral strings, laid-back, downtempo jazz and trunk-shaking bass lines. Miller mentions that Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy became his unintentional guide for the album, noting how he wanted to convey the same sense of cinematic wonder with his string section, without the Kanye price tag. “He can get the London Symphony Orchestra to just bang out the strings he did on the computer, and it sounds amazing, but you know, we can’t all do that,” he explains. “Even if you have the same musical ability, you don’t have the resources, so I’ve literally made something that I feel can stand up against all of that on a budget from my house.”
“Growing up you was playing some dead white man’s rhythm rather than someone who looks like you. I couldn’t relate”
It’s clear he’s excited for his future. “I want to be proud of what I’m putting out. I like the world you can create around your music. I love being able to make something and then be able to do the creative stuff for friends.” As the world slowly begins to open up again, Miller is impatiently braced, ready to unleash his new tracks to the masses. “Oh yeah, I’m about to go crazy. It’s about to be –” he points to the ceiling showing the heights he plans to scale. “You’ve got to get it done, there’s things to do.”
Zero EP is out via cktrl this summer