Tell Me About It: An Interview with singer/songwriter Chris Mills
Our longtime friend, singer/songwriter Chris Mills, was gracious enough to give up some time on his Memorial Day weekend to answer a few questions from 3 Minute Record. Mills, who spent much of his formative years growing up in the St. Louis suburb of Collinsville, IL but now calls Brooklyn home, opened up about the songs on his new compilation and how it came to fruition. We further discussed his move from Chicago to New York, his songwriting inspirations, and his writing process. The new compilation, Heavy Years, 2000-2010, will be released by Ernest Jenning Record Co. on June 7, 2011. As we noted in late March (here), Mills will be touring this summer to support his new compilation making a stop in St. Louis at Off Broadway on June 23 with local opener Magnolia Summer. Look for a review of the new compilation on this site soon with a chance to win a copy of said album and tickets to the show at Off Broadway.
1. Whose idea was it to release a best-of compilation - you or Ernest Jenning Record Co.? If it was the record company was your initial reaction positive or negative? If it was you, why?
The compilation actually came out of a number of discussions between the label, myself and some of the music folks I deal with overseas. Originally it was meant as a way to introduce my stuff to some of the new markets I’ve been playing in Scandanavia and elsewhere, but as the idea started to evolve my label in the States asked if they could release it here as well. And I thought ‘why not?’
2. For your upcoming tour do you plan on bringing a full band along or are you playing these dates solo again? If band, who is joining you?
For the tour in June I’ll be bringing along a three-piece band. My long-time co-conspirator Ryan Hembrey (Sonoi, Pinetop 7, Edith Frost) will be on bass, and Dave Bryson (Son Volt, Canyon) will be playing drums.
3. You've recorded with a small band of musicians (i.e. guitar, bass, & drums) and a large collection of musicians to make your records, which dynamic suits your working style best? Does your prefered dynamic differ from how you feel your completed records should sound?
I like to switch things up, but I always try to get the most out of whatever combination of musicians I end up using. I think that great songs can be presented in any number of ways. On my record The Wall to Wall Sessions I specifically wanted to use a large ensemble with strings and horns and everything because that was the sound I was going for on that project - that old school wall of sound technique where everyone stand in the same room and you do everything live. But when we play those songs live I’ll sometimes do them solo, or with a stripped down rock band, because hopefully the songs are written well enough that they come across regardless of how many people are on stage.
4. Some years ago you moved from Chicago to Brookyn? What prompted the move? Which music scene do you like better and why?
Ever since I can remember I have wanted to live in New York City, so when someone asked me if I wanted to move out here I leapt at the opportunity. That said, I found it really difficult to get a foot hold here musically for the first few years.
Chicago is an incredible music town, because the clubs and the promoters and the fans are all incredibly supportive. People will go to a club in Chicago just to see what’s going on and really take time to listen to stuff and give it a chance. And clubs give bands time to develop a following and really try to put together bills that make sense, with bands that compliment each other audience-wise.
When I first arrived in New York, though, I felt a little bit lost. Because things are so much more expensive here in terms of space, and there is so much going on here musically, clubs don’t feel like they really have the time or the need to nurture artists and help them along. So artists here have to be much more self-reliant and really fight to be heard above the noise. I think that’s been changing a lot recently though, especially in Brooklyn. Some new clubs like The Rock Shop, and the Bell House have opened in the last few years and they’ve really been run counter to that ‘get in, get on stage, play, get out’ mentality that can be pervasive in Manhattan. I’ve also been lucky enough to run into some great songwriters and have started to become part of a little scene of my own here as well.
5. As someone who now teaches about songs do you find it's harder or easier to write your own material? How has teaching protest songs to Norwegian children colored your own songwriting?
I don’t thinking teaching in the states or abroad has affected the way I write. What it has done, though, is give me a real appreciation for what music can mean, and what it can do for people. The young people I work with are just at that age where a person starts to make real aesthetic decisions about what they like and who they are in relationship to art and the world. So, it’s fascinating to help that along and see what they respond to. Music meant the world to me when I was growing up, and watching these kids musically interact just reminds me how important music can be for anyone.
6. From your formative years, what songwriters do you credit with the most influence over your music? Are there contemporary songwriters that similarly inspire you?
Dylan was probably the biggest influence on me when I was growing up. I listened to and played all sorts of things: classic rock, metal, etc. But Dylan was the first one to really open up my eyes about what you could do with songs and what they could really be, from a writing standpoint.
These days I try to keep up with what’s going on in music, but it’s hard for me to find stuff I’m really interested in. I still look back at a lot of the songwriters from the 70’s like Harry Nilsson and especially Randy Newman and try to take a lot of cues from those guys. They were young enough to really be steeped in rock and roll’s through the 50s, 60s and 70s, but old enough to be influenced by the first wave of great American songwriter’s like Cole Porter and the Gershwin’s. And Randy Newman still makes a great record now and then so I guess you could call him contemporary.
7. Your song "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is obviously influenced to some degree by the classic short story written by Robert Matheson with the Twilight Zone TV episode starring William Shatner while "Atom Smashers" has a video at the San Diego Comic Con. How much does your love of science fiction and comic books play a part in your music?
I like to draw ideas from anywhere I can. So when I’m going through a big sci-fi phase that stuff will definitely come out in my writing. I also think that science fiction is just a great metaphorical playground. For a long time I wrote sort of straight love and heart-break songs, but that got pretty boring pretty fast, so I’m always looking for new stories or metaphors to build my songs around, and genres like sci-fi or magical realism provide great tools to play with.
8. Six months ago when I saw you live, you described "Atom Smashers" as your answer to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire." Part of me hear it as a post-9/11 response to U.S. politics. Can you describe a little meaning about the song?
I was mostly joking when I said that, but in a way it’s kind of true. Both of them are sort of ‘list songs’ rattling off images in order to create a cumulative picture. Billy was just trying to write a rap about American history or something. I think I was trying to say something about the way we’re inundated with pop culture, and politics, and human tragedy these days, until they all just become equivalent, and thus meaningless. And that the effect of all of that can be really dehumanizing in a way. That all sounds a little too pretentious though. It really is just a pop song.
9. Has anyone ever told you that your opening to "Such A Beautiful Thing" seems similar to the music played during the CBS coverage of The Masters golf tournament? What's the strangest inspiration you've ever had for a song?
Ha! I’ve never heard that before. I’ve never actually watched The Masters. But I’m surprised my dad never said anything, because he’s a real golf nut.
I don’t’ really know what my strangest inspiration has been, but I’ve been trying to write a song forever about the wreck of the U.S.S. Indianapolis but have never been able to pull it off. Some stuff is just too tragic. But I thought the irony behind the story of a secret naval mission to drop of the atomic bomb that ended up with most of the crew getting eaten by sharks would make for a really interesting song.
10. The song "All You Ever Do" contains a lyric directed toward Collinsville "I wanna walk Vandalia Avenue / Holding hands just like we used to do / Don't like the weak women or the ignorant men/ Baby, what's a little nigger joke between friends?" Is the song based more on your experience growing up there or a general take on most people's take on their own upbringing?
I think that song came out of a lot of frustration I had growing up in a small town. It was one of the first character based songs I wrote that wasn’t from my point of view. The protagonist is supposed to be a small-minded hick à la Randy Newman’s song ‘Rednecks’ who can’t understand why anyone would want to leave a small town, while he unknowingly points out everything that’s wrong with staying there. The weird thing is that I can see now how that song also reveals some of my own prejudices against where I grew up, and some of my own small-mindedness.
11. Ironically, my favorite song of yours is "You Are My Favorite Song" as I love the '60s pop feel, musical references in the lyrics and the bouncy nature of the rhythm section. I especially like the Beatles nod at the break. What's your favorite song of yours - or at least favorite to play live?
My favorite song is always whatever I’ve just written. By the time something makes it on to a record it’s usually lost it’s novelty for me and I’m ready to move onto the next thing. There are a lot of songs that I’m still really fond of though. I never get tired of Signal/Noise, or Farewell To Arms, or even something simple like Untitled No. 1, which are all songs where I fell like I did something new for myself or opened up something lyrically or musically that I hadn’t done before – though I’m probably the only one who knows what those things are in those songs.
12. I know you play piano as well yet most of your songs seem guitar-centric. Do you write most of your songs on guitar? Do you ever write on the piano?
I write mostly on guitar, but I love writing on piano and have been trying to do it a lot more recently.
13. Now that you're married (happily I assume) do you find that the songs that you write now are more optimistic regarding love since you've found it yourself?
I don’t know if the songs are more optimistic, but I definitely have to look elsewhere if I want to write something dark. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of damaged relationships in the past, but sabotaging your relationship so that you can play tortured artist isn’t really an option when you’re married. So I think being married has been great for me as a writer because I’ve had to get more creative and really draw on other aspects of my life and personality to create songs that will still connect with people on an emotional level.
14. At your show in St. Louis six months ago you played a few new songs ("When We Were Young", "Try Not To Die" and "Last Days") though none show up on the new compilation. How is the writing coming along for your new proposed record? Do you plan on recording soon? When could we expect a new album?
Well, there a few new things on the compilation, just not those songs. But I’m always writing and recording. Right now I’m working on a project with a few musicians in Oslo, but since I’m not over there on a permanent basis that one is really slow going. As far as when to expect a new record, I hope I can get back in the studio after I’m done touring this summer and maybe get something out next year.
15. Now that you've released a 'Best of' compilation, do you have enough songs in the "vaults" that you expect that one day you'll release a boxset or does that seem too self-serving (i.e. Barenaked Ladies' song "Boxset")?
I’m not sure anything could be more self-serving than a relatively unknown artist releasing a ‘greatest hits’ record, and I’ve already got that covered. For better or worse, I release pretty much anything of quality that I record, so if I haven’t let it out of the vaults yet, chances are I never will.