As Mike Miller drove to St. Paul, Minn. for a major anarchist protest of the Republican National Convention in September 2008, Saul of Tarsus was on his mind.
“I’ve always been interested in the Bible as literature,” says Miller. And like Saul on his way to Damascus — before his roadside encounter with Christ as a bright light, and his subsequent transformation into the apostle St. Paul — Miller felt like he was approaching a crossroads. As he contemplated the name of his destination, and purpose of his journey, he thought, “I want to come back from this different, one way or another.”
Since 2004, he’d been the leader of Johnstown-based Endless Mike and the Beagle Club, which began as a solo guitar project, but quickly morphed into a rambunctious, noisy folk-punk ensemble featuring all of Miller’s musician friends. “The idea was that there was going to be one thing in my life — and I was going to afford it to my friends as well — where there weren’t obligations. Where if you couldn’t make it, no big deal,” he explains. These days, the semi-rotating member count usually hits between six and eight, though they’ve toured with as many as 16.
- Photo courtesy of Mark Simpson
- Mike Miller: “If these things aren’t my focus, is there anything left of me?”
But on the heels of the band’s politically charged June 2008 record We Are Still at War, Miller was starting to question his own motives. “At that point in my life, being in this band, that kind of [punk] activism … I had completely defined myself by it,” he says. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Why is that? Is it just ego?’ Maybe [I’d] been doing those things for a little too long without examining myself or letting myself change. I thought, ‘If these things aren’t my focus, is there anything left of me?’”
Years later, the Beagle Club’s jubilant, hectic new record, Saint Paul (out this week on A-F Records), is the result of those questions. Each song deals with the story of Paul in some way: “St. Saul” gives a little history and evokes a wild call-and-response hymn; autobiographical tracks like “Winter in Westmont” are more esoteric.
In comparison to the themes and lyrics of We Are Still at War, which Miller describes as “more dogmatic,” Saint Paul — which Miller stresses is not a Christian record — looks inward, and blends the philosophical with the mundane in unexpected ways. Lines which begin existentially — “I don’t want to wait forever …” — land firmly on the ground: “… for the waiter to bring the check.”
But unlike Kanye West, who has lately taken to comparing himself St. Paul, Miller isn’t sure if he’s Paul or Saul. Looking back, he was probably on the right path the whole time: “It turns out those things [I questioned] are more important to me than they even used to be.”
And it turns out you don’t have to be a saint to do good work, which takes the pressure off. In the end, Miller says, the project of Saint Paul turned out to be, “To take this grandiose sort of mission I thought I was on and try to … be a person again instead of an ideal form.”