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On His Life as a Side Musician & The Importance of Dynamics
Blake Mills can currently be seen on tour with Fiona Apple. Well, to be fair, at any point Mills can most likely be seen on tour, period. The young gunslinger is incredibly in-demand these days as one of the top sidemen in the world of live music. What touring artists recognize in Mills, and what was apparent to this reporter within seconds of hearing him turn on an amp, is his innate ability to evoke humanity out of six strings, a plank of wood and some coiled wires. One of the biggest mistakes young guitarists make is focusing too much on playing the right notes and the right rhythms, with little thought to how those notes and rhythms should be played. The name of the game is dynamics – it’s what can set a good musician apart from an amazing musician, and what adds that human element to what could otherwise turn into a robotic series of meaningless sounds. In his twenty-odd years on the planet, Mills has more than earned his reputation as an amazing musician.▼ Article continues below ▼
What drew you to music, and in particular the guitar?
I was pretty enamored as a child with MTV. I watched a lot of it. And all the guys on that were playing the electric guitar, so I asked my dad for a couple years for an electric guitar. And once he eventually caved in, he took me to get a [Stratocaster], and we bought it at a shop in the valley that offered free lessons if you bought a guitar from them. I had just learned a few riffs like “Come As You Are” and a few things off [Metallica’s] Black Album. Everything that I wanted to play I picked up pretty quickly.
And then a friend of my father, who was a musician, was over the house one day. He was just curious as to what I was listening to, so I put on Pinkerton by Weezer, and played him a song off of that. He sort of nodded along, and said, ‘Okay, this is good – there are some actual chord progressions and actual music.’ He says these are the chords, and he explained it. He was able to pick those out just by listening – the fact that he was able to do it by ear seemed like such a cool magic trick. All of the sudden my goals got just a little bit higher, and I was like, ‘I want to be able to do that.’
So was that your first exposure to theory?
Yeah, it was. He was the catalyst. But, there’s a guy here that I’ve come in contact with, Bob Brozman. He’s an incredible guitar player, who makes records in different countries, with different people from those countries, in different styles of music. They’re all world music records. And he showed me a bunch of Middle Eastern stuff and African stuff that has sort of taken over for me.
When I saw you perform, the thing that struck me most was your sense of dynamics. They seemed to come exclusively from the touch in your right hand. How did that develop? You go from a feather-light touch to an intense, gnarly snarl with the stroke of a finger.
Well thanks. Part of the obsession for me with singers and horn players…they have this ability, with a wind instrument or voice, to hit a note and have the note get louder. As opposed to a guitar or drum, it’s sort of like the note is struck and then it begins to die out without the aid of effects or anything like that. So one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out is a way to get vocal or wind instrument sounds [on the guitar]. So there’s a bunch of squeaky volume knob stuff that comes into play for some of those things. But other than that, a lot of those horn players, and a lot of my favorite accompaniments that are on guitar, that’s how they interject a vocal quality; they will have this little melody come out.
It’s not like a synthesizer, where it’s on and it’s on full; it’s a little more delicate. A lot of the stuff [I play] comes from listening to a record and imagining somebody else on [it], and you’re just playing what that person would be doing. Like imagining a guy like Donny Hathaway sitting in with a microphone in front of him, how he would be singing along. That’s kind of the approach, I suppose.
One of the other cool things about seeing you live is getting to see some of your interesting guitars up close and personal. It looks like you have custom mods on just about all of them. Would you mind taking us through some of that?
Yeah, and it’s gotten even worse [laughs]. But one of my favorite guys, just all around dudes, in L.A. is Mike Cornwall. When I spent about a year with Lucinda Williams, he was out there with me as a guitar tech. We would come up with sort of hair-brained schemes, like put pickups in guitars that didn’t belong in them and fun stuff like that.
So he built me this guitar, which is like this sort of put-together [Stratocaster], with a pickup from an old steel guitar and another Japanese pickup. I had him build it because I borrowed a friend’s guitar that I completely fell in love with, but he wouldn’t sell it to me. I think he’d had it since he was 14 and there was no way he could ever part with it. So we set about trying to copy it. We did everything – there’s an extra neck plate, between the neck and the guitar where the joint is. And all kinds of weird things that I don’t even know what the explanation [could possibly be]. And the guitar that Mike built ended up coming out completely different. And I realized that there’s no way to just rebuild something that has that sort of magic in it.
For a little while I was sort of bummed and like, ‘I’m never going to have that fucking guitar.’ And then we started playing this thing, and I started to realize that it was its own guitar, and it became an invaluable instrument for me.
Like if I get called into a session, I have to bring it because I assume that’s what they’ve heard. You know, like that’s what they’ve called me in for. I play it on everything now. And so there are a few more of those – sort of that Frankenstein thing.
It was so fun that I started to get the hot-rod bug, maybe from my dad, of taking something and sort of souping it up and customizing it. And that can be kind of dangerous. A couple of them I’m not touching. A couple of the old ones I’m leaving as they are, but the new ones I’m having a little bit of fun with.
Gotcha. What kinds of amps are you using on the road?
I’m trying to keep them a secret.
Oh, okay. More Franken-amp creations?
Yeah, kind of! I will say that the guy that worked on them, the guy who basically built them, is this guy Austin Hooks. He’s just making this one particular kind of amp, and it’s incredible sounding. His company is called Red Rocket Amps, I believe. And anybody that’s interested, that will be a nice thing for them to go check out. It’s pretty unusual. I’ve got a couple of them out on the road with me now, and they’re not as loud as I’m used to. But as soon as I plugged them in, everyone was like, ‘Whoa!’ So they’re here to stay, for me at least.
Now speaking of the road, you’ve been on tour with Fiona for a while and I know that that tour is extending. You have not only been a member of her band, but you have also been the opening act. How has your music been received by her fans?
I think pretty well. Her shows are attended by generally one of two groups of fans. There are the diehards – they are pretty sophisticated music listeners so they’re there to hear what’s going on and they are respectful and patient. Then there is the sort of fan that comes and really just wants to see ‘Criminal’ and go home.
You always deal with a certain level of impatience as an opener. And some nights it’s hardly noticeable, and some nights it’s right there in your face as they’re ordering drinks at the bar. I mean its tricky for me, because my music is so poorly designed as an opening set since so much of it is mellow and most of it is just me [alone] up there. That is not always the ‘warm up’ dynamic that seems to go over really well at a rock show.
It’s good for me to get up there and get through some of those nights that maybe aren’t so great, because it just sort of hardens everything.
I’m certainly not trying to go up there and conquer any sort of musical world or carve a new fan base out; if people are entertained by that, great. If they just want to wait patiently for Fiona, that’s totally understandable.
As a side musician, what is your dynamic within a touring band for an established artist? Are you in control of your own arrangements? Or is it dictated to you what your parts will be?
It works different for every musician. For me, I’ve never been very good at being the guy who comes in to play parts that are already there, already written. So this particular gig [with Fiona] has been great because there’s not a whole lot of guitar on her records.
Yeah, in fact, the new record is pretty much guitar-free.
Yeah, there is no guitar on it! So when she called me, she was like, ‘I want to hear you, I want to hear your voice on this stuff, and I want you to do whatever you want to do.’ And I was like ‘Great!’ I’ve been in enough projects like that to know that they are really fun. Sometimes they say that, and what they really want is…they use it as bait. ‘Well, what I was thinking…’ but this isn’t like that. She gets the types of musicians that she doesn’t have to dictate to. She responds to the band every night, responding to her.
It’s really been one of the most beautiful bands that I have ever been a part of, because there are so many different musical personalities. I mean, the bass player Sebastian [Steinberg], has probably got the deepest musical knowledge of anybody I’ve played with. I’ve seen him do some really incredible things on the bass, playing along to a song he’s never heard before, improvising a complete part.
And then Amy [Wood], the drummer…it’s the first time she’s been on a tour bus and played at venues this size. And she’s just poignant, she’s just rocking everybody out. And she listens. It’s interesting to be in a band where the drummer isn’t really the foundation. The singer is the foundation and the drummer is more the rhythm instrument that’s listening to the singer. And it’s great. You know, with somebody like Fiona, all that stuff just works. It’s this perfect combination of personalities that makes it.
We will do the same set, or something really close to it, for about a month, and it never gets boring because it’s so different from night to night.
Her relationship with drummers is…I don’t know if ‘primal’ is the word, but I’ve seen her with Matt Chamberlain, and it’s just this intuition that they have to play off each other. I’ve seen it with you, too, playing guitar parts that, like you said, don’t exist on record. Her responding to that is an amazing sight to behold.
Yeah, she’s always in it. Like last night I was cracking up, I could not keep it together. We were in San Francisco, where she took total liberty with the melody of this one song and went somewhere with it, that thinking about it, was just so shocking. Her wit is pretty quick, and that comes across in her improvisational abilities. So if she goes for something, she will go all the way for it, and it will shock you. Whether it’s melodic or just increasing the intensity, she can take it anywhere she wants and the band is respectful enough to be like, ‘OK, that’s where we are going…’ and we just follow and try to keep up; that’s the game.
Getting back to your music – I know you’ve had a record sort of floating out there for some time without an ‘official’ release. What are your future recording plans for your own work?
Only just to make another record. I probably wouldn’t put it out in the same nature as I did with the first. The first record, I never really intended to keep it any sort of secret. But I didn’t really want to start a solo career or go out and tour [behind it]. So it’s sort of one of those things that’s available, but there was never any marketing push behind it, no PR, no tour. The only physical copies that were available were at shows I was playing in L.A., or if I was opening for someone, I was bringing them with me.
But the next one I make, I know what to put in and what to leave out in order to have a record that feels natural to perform and release. The intention is to make the next record special. I hope to go in and start working on it by the end of the year, or beginning of next year. Yet again, there are so many opportunities. Like this one to play with Fiona, and there’s one to go to Cuba to make a record with somebody. And if there is some stuff down the line that comes up that’s just too good to say no to, I might decide to do it.
Would you say that you see yourself, as far as your career goes, as more of the side person and less Blake Mills the solo artist?
I don’t know, I mean, it’s a weird climate in music where they’re becoming one in the same. I think the idea for me, career-wise, is just to keep them all going. Whether it’s producing or playing guitar, going on the road…that all helps and feeds my songwriting.
photos by Oresti Tsonopoulos