| June 22, 2012
Interview: Blake Mills

Blake Mills is a guitar virtuoso. Asked about Blake, Jackson Browne said “Who makes these people?” The Los Angeles native comes from the same school of thought as Browne, Dawes, Fiona Apple and many others. Blake’s approach is a chilled out vibe that hides a reckless abandon, a willingness to put everything about yourself on the line for a dream. His album Break Mirrors conveys this through expertly crafted riffs and modern lyrics that remind us a time forgotten.

Blake was generous enough to spare some time with ATG a week and half ago and I think you’ll get a better understanding of the man, his music and his motivation after a read. See Blake Mills with Fiona Apple on June 26 at the Warner Theater. And if you have twelve and half minutes to kill, I highly recommend his Red Bull Soundstage episode that both has some incredible home footage and b-roll.

MP3: Blake Mills – History of My Life
MP3: Blake Mills – Hey Lover

David:  I kind of noticed, and maybe you may get sick of questions like this, but I’ve noticed a Tom Waits feel on the record.  And I was just wondering —

Blake:  Oh, cool.

David:  I really — there’s like — one of my favorite Tom Waits song is probably “Big in Japan” and there’s just elements of that song and how it was recorded that I hear on your record.  And I was just wondering if you did anything special in the production process, the recording process, to create that effect.

Blake:  Well, I guess maybe the tie that binds the two together, if there is one, it may be a lack of preciousness in the recording process.  Like I know on Tom’s record he’s kind of — he’s always been kind of great at this sort of beautiful, controlled cacophony, like the junkyard sort of — the palette, the junkyard palette.

And because making my record was so experimental for me, I did kind of have a process where I just sort of threw a bunch of ideas together, just to see what would stick.  And maybe through the kitchen sink, the kitchen sink is how it came across because of that.  Maybe that’s why they might ring a similar note with somebody.

David:  Sweet.  And then for your songwriting process, how do you — how does that come about?  Do you go lyrics first, do you write the music first?

Blake:  Generally music/melody first.  It just depends.  It depends on whether the impetus for the song comes from something I was messing around with when I was playing guitar, or something I was messing around with when I was living or thinking about a certain — you know, a specific topic.

But predominately the music will come first.  It’s kind of been off either a guitar part or a cord-change or just a certain melody or a mood or something like that.

More after the jump…

David:  Do you have a particular spot you like to write in?  Is there a favorite place in LA that you think and write best, or is it just kind of all over the place?

Blake:  It’s totally all over the place.  I mean, I generally do my writing in these off hours when I’m not working on something else.  When we’re not working on a record or something like that.

David:  And your pretty prodigious tour with the amount of people in the bands you’ve played with and toured with.  Have any influenced you more than others?

Blake:  Yeah, well, I spent a lot of time with Band of Horses.  I was pretty moved by Ben and by Ryan, their keyboard player.  And with how they could simultaneous — and this was in, this was both in their music and just kind of the kind of guys that they were — they would simultaneously be serious and kidding.  Or laugh in the faces of even something kind of like deeply heavy.  So there’s definitely a — that was sort of eye-opening.  I mean, it’s kind of like the John Belushi-effect where it’s like somebody’s being — or Chris Farley — it’s like instead of being really, really, really funny, but there’s also kind of something sad about it as well.  And that was maybe overly explored by, to a fault, perhaps, on Break Mirrors.

David:  I don’t think it’s a fault.

Blake:  Humor on there and so — sadder shit.

David:  I wouldn’t say that’s a fault.  I think that I — I really love your record.

Blake:  Great.  Thank you.

I find “It Will All Work Out” one of the more — at least for me — and maybe this because I interpreted it in my own personal life — one of the more complex songs and yet the riff is this — when I listen to it, has a simplicity to it and I love the way that kind of plays off to each other.  I was wondering what the catalyst for writing that song was.

Blake:  The catalyst for writing that song came from a friend of mine who’s a skater, he’s big into writing physical letters and postcards, and sending them through the mail.  And he sent me a postcard — or a letter, rather, when two years back.  He had had a pretty devastating injury that had scared him off of the skateboard for a while.  And he had really badly broken arm — and this is the way he made a living, he skated professionally for years, since he was 15, 16 years old or something.

So he wasn’t sure what he was going to do.  He couldn’t really get himself to step back on board, and it’s — he was living in New York and his heating was out, and all this stuff.  And I was just thinking to myself, this guy’s whole world has collapsed.  I couldn’t imagine him not being able to figure out how to step back onboard.  It was one of those things where it was like — and even he thought it was a lot more — because he was devastated, he didn’t understand, he didn’t see how he was going to be able to get back into it, and step back on, and stuff like that.

But I just didn’t take him very seriously.  I just, you know, you don’t really have a choice.  You can’t — it’s like Kobe saying, I don’t want to pick the ball back up today.  But he’s that good.  So I don’t know if that was the first, the first riff I’d written about the — sorry, the first verse I’d written in the song was about that.  And then it kind of — that like refrain***, It will all work out, just sort of started to pertain, and make sense, and in relation to other things.  And then it also — a couple of those verses and saying “it will all work out” is kind of tongue-in-cheek.  Because it doesn’t always work out.  It was my own naïveté that I shut out the possibility that my friend would never get back onboard doing what he’s so passionate about doing.

But that happens to people.  It doesn’t always exactly work out.  But I guess that’s kind of the tune is about.

David:  Okay.  I definitely hear that.  I love the line, “He was the biggest, he was a closet straight” I think that was pretty — that was a beautiful line.

Blake:  Thank you.

David:  So the other thing — another thing, actually a first time, and Shira piqued my memory again about it — I really loved The Voice Project.  I think it’s an incredible, just an incredible site, and what they’re trying to do is amazing.  My friend and I just live for new videos from The Voice Project.

But your Lucinda Williams cover is just fantastic.  And I was wondering how you picked Lucinda Williams — was it while you were touring with her?

Blake:  I was not yet touring with her.  No, that actually came about before I got my chance to meet her.  I was just a big Lucinda fan.  I was touring with Cass McCombs a couple years earlier, and I had just been kind of fanatical, and then pretty shortly after they came by to do that, I couldn’t — I remember they came by and I was trying to do a song by a friend of mine named Farmer Dave, and I just could not get the hang of this song, and I was just like, man this is a lot harder than it usually is and should be.

And I had done that Lucinda one before and it was something I could kind of fall back on, so I was like, oh, well, let me try this song.  And I got it, and it worked out, and it ended up being that one.  And they put it in a couple of months or weeks later — I can’t remember — a friend of mine who had been playing with her gave me a call and said, hey, she’s going to be touring and wondered if you’d come out.

So it worked out great.  And I actually ended up playing that song in the opening set because we didn’t really play all that much in her set — for whatever reason, it’s not one that has necessarily grown as favorably with her – it was never in the Lucinda set.  But it was always in mine.  She didn’t watch too many of the opening sets so I don’t know if she found out.  But I’d die if Lucinda had seen me doing it.  The crowds were stoked.

David:  How did you get approached by The Voice Project?  How did you get involved with The Voice Project?

Blake:  Dawes were involved in it pretty early on, from an early age. And the design of the site is such that the songs that are covered, the artists that wrote the originals are then approached to sort of continue the chain.  And so Dawes covered, “Hey Lover”  on the site, and that’s how I was approached.

David:  Yes, their version — I like how they’re kind of figuring it out on the fly at the beginning of their video.

Blake:  I think most of that was from memory, because I don’t even think that — that my record was out.

David:  Right, yours hadn’t come out yet.

Blake:  That’s pretty astonishing.

David:  It was pretty cool to watch.  So I know — I’ve read, I guess, that you’re a big Jackson Browne fan.  I was wondering what you — as he recently played there — I guess he would have played 8 months prior to when you’re going to play there in DC, what is it like to play — I mean, have you, I think you’ve jammed with him before — am I correct?

Blake:  Yes, I haven’t known him for too long, maybe about a year.  And we’ve done some playing together, and it is.  It’s like it’s like you said, it’s like seeing  a master — a master craftsman.  And in most of the settings that I’ve played with him, they’ve just been — there have many occasion where he shows up and we’ve been playing songs all night, and people have just been kind of calling him out.  Some of them are originals, and some of them aren’t, some of them are covers, and we’ve been playing them and whatever.  And he’ll show up, and he’ll sit down, and we’ll just decide on one of his tunes or he’ll decide on one of this tunes, but once we start a Jackson song, it’s just amazing how epic and you really recognize that the level of quality and craftsmanship in it because he’s just so — you hear it, everything comes together like a performance instead of a jam on his songs.  You know, they call for — they’re disciplined, but they’re just classic-sounding.  That he’s got — he’s done it like a 100, 200 times.  Like his newer shit is strong.  He’s still writing pretty remarkably, which is — that’s rare.  And he’s enthused right now in a way that — from what I understand — is also something that it’s been a long time since he was this prolific.

David:  Do you think it’s partly because of the resurgence of this Americana sound that’s been —

Blake:  I think it’s — it has to do with it.  I think he’s inspired — as everybody is — I think he’s inspired by the sort of ways of young blood behind it.  I certainly don’t think it has to do with him saying, oh, the iron’s hot, I better strike, and if people are listening again.  I think it’s just that he’s surrounded by people, young people, that get it, that understand and appreciate the craft of which we speak.

But he’s on fire right now.  He played me a couple of new songs the other day and it was just like, you know, what year was that from?  And he goes, no, it’s new.

It’s really great.

David:  So this is more of one those cheeky interview questions, but what’s the first record you bought?

Blake:  I wish I could remember.  The first record I bought — you know, it’s probably something really —

David:  I know mine’s really lame.

Blake:  I guess when I was like 5 — I was probably in 5th grade so I was about ten years-old, maybe a little earlier than that, maybe I was 9.  Right around the time I started playing guitar.  And I was a big fan of — a really big fan of Nirvana and Metallica, and Sound Garden in particularly.  So it might have been the Black album, it might have been In Utero.  I remember having In Utero on cassette for some reason.  So those are my earliest memories of owning records — was a cracked jewel case for the Black album and an In Utero cassette, I’d have to say.

But it was — there was a long, long period of time after that — like sometime between the summer of 5th grade and 6th grade that I stopped listening to rock music altogether.  And I have to say like after a few of those Nirvana records and the Metallica records, those were like the only rock records I had for a while, and that’s kind of why I remember having them distinctly more than others.  I remember having Dookie.  My sister bought a copy of Greenday, the record called Dookie.  But those are my earliest memories of owned music.

David:  Those are good ones to have.  I have to ‘fess up to buying Jermaine Dupri’s 1492.  (Laughter.)  I don’t know quite what I was thinking.  It’s all right, I’ve grown since then.

Blake:  It’s a constant search.

David:  I guess the last question because we’re running out of time here:  Do you have any tour stops you’re particularly excited to play this summer — any festivals or anything like that?

Blake:  Well, the Governor’s Ball is going to be great.  All the guys in Beck’s band are good friends, and then we’ve been seeing each other around town on various projects, and we keep having this thing to look forward to.  Because generally it’s like everybody’s in town for a session or first* sessions and then they go out on their various tours and you don’t see anybody for a few months.  But most of these guys — Joey and Worker** and Smokey and stuff like that — are going to be playing with Beck, and so we’re going to run into each other pretty shortly after we leave town.  So that will be a nice little like re-sendoff, so to speak and a good show, to boot.  And then from then, I’m kind of like looking forward to all of that, but I’m a little overwhelmed by the undertaking of figuring out a solo set to open her shows with.  I’ve got a do — there’s probably more playing in this tour for me than as a soloist that I’ve done so far, so that’s — I’m trying not to think about it, but also giving it the appropriate amount of preparation, mental preparation, and just make sure that I can come up with something entertaining to do for 35, 45 minutes.

David:  Is it just going to be you and your guitar?  Are you going to have a full band behind you?

Blake:  I think mostly — no, I think they just mostly guitar and vocals.  And Sebastian, the bass player — Fiona’s bass player — is a pretty heavy musician.  He joined me for about half of my opening set when I was with her a couple months ago.  And so that will probably happen again.  I mean, I’m going to just try to get him to do as much as he will.

David:  Well, I’m looking forward to it.  I appreciate you taking the time.  I’m very excited about it.  And good luck with traveling and all that.

Blake:  Thank you, thank you, man.  Thank you, David.  Appreciate it.  Are you coming?

David:  Oh, I’m not going to miss that.  I’ll definitely be around.

Blake:  Great, great.

David:  Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me, and good luck.

Blake:  Right on, man.  I appreciate it.  Thank you.