"I would way rather be on the side of something that is beautiful and never catches on than the alternative."
28 year-old California native Blake Mills has been playing guitar with a singular focus since the age of 10. While in high school, Mills co-founded the band Simon Dawes with Taylor Goldsmith, later departing in 2007, the band eventually reforming as Dawes.
He has firmly established a reputation as a top guitar talent, his playing described by Eric Clapton as "phenomenal" and Rick Rubin as "breathtaking." He's been brought in for touring and session work with Kid Rock, Fiona Apple, Julian Casablancas, Jenny Lewis, Jackson Browne, Neil Diamond, Conor Oberst, Ed Sheeran, and Norah Jones.
But Mills is reaching beyond the guitar towards musical experiences of beauty and mystery as a singer, songwriter and arranger/producer. He's demonstrated this on his two albums as a songwriter, 2010's Break Mirrors and last year's major label debut Heigh Ho, which featured contributions from contemporaries as well as legendary elder statesmen, including drummer Jim Keltner, bassists Don Was and Mike Elizondo, and pianist Benmont Tench. He's is also emerging as a talented producer, and recently worked with Alabama Shakes on their much awaited second album, Sound & Color.
I photographed and spoke with Mills in Los Angeles at the home of producer and frequent collaborator Tony Berg.
Jacob Blickenstaff: I saw your show in Brooklyn a few months ago and was amazed watching you play. You seemed so concerned with the subtlety of sound. I could tell that you and the entire band were incredibly tuned into what is happening moment to moment.
Blake Mills: That’s kind of all we’ve got. There isn’t a lot of trickery or anything. It's more of an obsession with the quality of the ingredients. I think that there are other things in record-making (or in music, or entertainment) that people can utilize to create some kind of shock. Like, this sound is interesting because it doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard before. There are other concepts and avenues: what if I give you a delicious piece of bread with a well-cooked piece of brisket on it and some olive oil and all the ingredients speak for themselves and you just try it like that? And fucking enjoy it! Or don’t.
JB: Many notable people regard you as a very, very good guitar player. You started young and it’s been in your life for a long time. For someone who's gone so deeply into your instrument and found different approaches to it, have you discovered certain ways of practicing that are particularly effective?
BM: I think I had a way of practicing when I wasn’t sitting with an instrument, thinking about things at such lengths that they ingrained themselves into my musical vocabulary. So then I could draw from that in an improvisatory situation.
Earlier on, when the things that began to really resonate with me and fascinate me started to surface, it was a kind of catharsis. It made everything go through the filter of musical thought. Anything we were studying in school, like math, or understanding somebody’s behavior outside of school, everything kind of worked its way into something I could understand by way of an experience that I’d either had or something I’d heard in music.
JB: So music became the lens for how you processed a lot of other things?
BM: It was the common denominator, like a first language, or the Rosetta Stone that I keep going back to. Maybe that helps more than anything just to keep the enthusiasm. You can get really burned out and apathetic if you listen to too much music. If you go out to shows and you hear some of the shit that comes out, it can be soul-crushing just to be exposed to it, let alone work on it or be around it for a living. But I think that it's good to have a healthy sense of what those things are, and how you can protect yourself from those things that feel like they’re draining you. It’s the most surprising thing that I’ve encountered since the experience of putting a record out with a major label and touring and everything: the need for protection from things that take away your energy.
JB: Seeing you live explained a lot of dimensions to your music that I think aren't front and center on the album. To me, the album is a very carefully considered and constructed work, but I experienced a more improvisatory approach to some of the songs live.
BM: What’s interesting is actually that the takes on the record came about in a very similar way to how the live show was executed. There wasn’t a lot of forethought and discussion, other than the arrangement and the sentiment and sometimes I think we would whittle things down a little bit. But I think the carefulness in the record came from how to create the "depth of field," how to enhance those performances and at the same time construct a recording that felt like it had enough power to bring you to the places that I wanted the song to take a listener. But the live performances, the rehearsals for the live show, were very similar to the tracking dates.
JB: I guess I’m thinking more about the evolution of how you play some of the songs from your first album. You opened with “Hey Lover,” and had a much different arrangement with the keyboard pounding through the whole thing…
BM: There are so many iterations of that song. It’s two chords; and it’s about somebody who I haven’t seen in years. There’s a bit of trickiness to figuring out how to make a song like that relevant and where you approach it from so that you’re not just phoning in some previous feeling. It comes from a place that you have to inhabit, without literally being there. And to me, now more so than a strummed acoustic guitar, it doesn’t feel as carefree as the “96 Tears” approach or something like that.
Also, you start to see what doesn’t work in a room full of strangers, and what does. “Havana” went in the opposite direction. On the album, the rhythm has a propulsion to it, a really light chug. With the live version that we have, it’s more like “China Doll” or a really slow “Stella Blue,” or some other Grateful Dead song that just has tons of space. And for whatever reason, that’s what carries that song over a crowd.
JB: With your music and albums, do you think of it more like slowly establishing a body of work?
BM: I don’t know if I think about it like that. Because all the music I listen to, most of the music I listen to, I came upon at a time when those artists had been making records already for 20 or 30 years. So my favorite experiences have all been finding myself at one point in a timeline and going in both directions, just discovering at my own pace. So I think there might be people who have informed opinions about what you’re talking about, about laying the groundwork or something, as opposed to another approach, but I don’t know. I can’t say. If I could admit to be playing some kind of long game, and strategizing this, I would. But I’m not. I think my role as a musician is much more reactionary than one of the creative personality types that incubates goes and locks himself in a tower and then comes out with Pet Sounds or something like that. I think I just respond to stimuli more than anything. That's another reason to be protective about what comes in on that level
JB: When did the element of songwriting come into your musical life?
BM: It started when Taylor and I started hanging out in high school and playing music, and a girl who was my first real infatuation - my wonderful despairing adolescent experience - was a big music fan and would listen to a lot of guys who tended to be writers. Ben Folds, Wilco, Radiohead… all the music seemed to be oriented around songs. I was thinking, I’m gonna write like that! I can do that and get noticed, and get the girl. Ultimately I found I wanted the music even more than the girl, and I just fell in love with that. Now that emotional response of what a song can do on the right day, under the right circumstances, is just such a drug. It’s so intoxicating. My respect and infatuation with that just makes me feel like I have to write.
JB: Was separating from Simon Dawes a decision about what you needed as an artist, to not be in a band?
BM: I think that, at that age, we had some notions of what the flow chart of a band was supposed to look like, and sort of a dogma that we started to struggle with as we grew into different listeners, and different writers and different people. I think that at that age, that had a lot to do with it. We were not getting along, Taylor and I, and at the same time, the band was this thing; all the eggs were in that basket. It felt like it was on the rise, we were putting our entire lives into it, but it started to feel like the relationships that drove the band in the first place were deteriorating from it.
So the decision to leave was not necessarily based on a desire or passion to do session work, or a desire to not be in a band, it was more than anything influenced by realizing that I was in a band with three people who loved being on the road, and I didn’t. It’s not what I wanted for myself, I didn’t have the appetite for it or the ability to do it that they do. And the hope was that terminating the business relationship would allow for the personal relationships to heal and have a future. And it did. We went our separate ways for about a year. And by the time Taylor was able to work on the new iteration of that group - it was really Dawes as it’s known now - he and Wylie and Griffin crafted this new entity, it really felt like I had also settled into something I was getting a lot out of. Not least of which was session stuff: playing for other people and learning how to focus on what would make somebody else in the room happy.
Being in a band, it’s democratic, and so your energy is spent on representing your artistic voice amongst the group. After leaving, all of a sudden it’s the opposite. And it just turned me into a much more agreeable person to work with. I could feel it. So I grew up a lot I think in those few years after leaving the band in a way I wasn’t expecting to. But I’m very glad that I started to do that. I still try to work on that.
JB: I know from interviewing Taylor that these guys are all-in when it comes to being a band, they tour a ton, and they work very hard that way. Does most of the energy in a band come from the inter-relationships of the people?
BM: And/or, a fantasy of how other bands did things. You listen to a record, and you hear everybody contributing musically, it’s hard to not let that influence your imagination of how everything in the band must have been done. How The Band must have been this kind of equal parts, everybody has a voice as an instrumentalist thing and so you would think, wow, what a fantasy to be in a group like that. Without fully realizing it, you can develop a feeling that you have a responsibility to have an opinion about everything. And you don’t. Like at all. You don’t have to have the radar up about the way the flyer looks for the show. It’s not going to reflect on you as a songwriter or as an artist. And for me it was really hard to understand all that. Because we were really young, and we were also constantly around people who were doing nothing but telling us how great our band is; "you guys have the potential, you have the ambition, you have the ability and the talent…" And you just start to feel like, well, shit, I better look over everything with a fine-tooth comb so this doesn’t turn into the horror story. You just buy into this legend. And it really has more to do with making your first record than anything. You get that first record out of the way and you realize what it actually entails and what it is. It demystifies all the shit. Then you go in and make your second record. And that’s when I think the beauty really starts to peek out from behind the myth of stardom.
JB: You could be out there doing this absolutely face-melting guitar stuff that’s front and center—but what’s remarkable about this album, and even the previous one, is you bring your abilities on guitar into service of the bigger picture. You’re not really concerned with the pyrotechnics.
BM: Yeah, I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt like there was an appropriate time to approach my own songs or records and add that thing to it. More so on this record. A lot of this album was sort of a celebration of the performances, everybody’s musical identity. I think the story of a guy who’s capable of doing some things that not everybody’s capable of doing, and chooses not to, is kind of a fun way for people to understand it.
I remember reading somewhere somebody saying how Erik Satie pieces will be in the canon of lesson books, just things that you learn for rudimentary piano. Over time, you get overexposed to that piece of music. But the difference between playing that song, and a real performance of that song, is not that the playing is more athletic, it’s that there’s more feeling in it. The mystery of that, to me, is so much more impressive than the thing that clearly drives some people wild about the guitar. I don’t get as much of a thrill out of it. I remember being 16 or 17 and going ape-shit for that kind of playing; Yngwie Malmsteen, or Steve Vai. I was just going, how do these guys do it? And then when you sit down with one of those passages, and you learn it, and you go, “Oh, I can do that.” But when you sit down with the chords to Gershwin's “Someone to Watch Over Me,” or Kurt Weill's “September Song” and the piece of music doesn’t give you any more insight into how a song like that is written or created. There’s something so much more fascinating and mysterious to me about where those things come from than the playing.
That said, there are guys who I go and see now, and I am astounded by what they’re able to do as instrumentalists and what they’re about to conjure. They’re like songwriters in that way, and that is nothing to be taken lightly. Guys like Chris Thile, Julian Lage, Jim Keltner, Jon Brion, there’s so many people who just have a musicality about them that is just really impressive and also has a really beautiful role in the music and the records that they make. It’s not chauvinistic, it’s not about the technicality of the playing, but it’s in there.
So I’m interested in how what I enjoy doing as a guitar player can continue to infiltrate my music in a helpful way. I think there are things on this record that people where people will go, “I’m not sure where the guitar playing is on it.” If you sit and try to play any of it, then it starts to confuse people, because it’s not necessarily the common approach.
JB: That’s something I was fascinated with. You play a good amount of the time in non-standard tunings and have just figured out your own way of doing things. Is there anything more to how you found those techniques, and built that language?
BM: Using slide was a big precursor for me into the open tunings. There were a lot of things about Derek Trucks, Ry Cooder, Elmore James and Kokomo Arnold and this huge era of guys who all played slide in certain dialects.
I had the benefit of the Internet when I was growing up, so I was listening to all the live tapes of Derek Truck’s band that I could get a hold of, and reading interviews, and seeing that the people he was listening to were the same people I was listening to.
I grew up playing with a guy named Bob Brozman, who was a world-music guitar player. He'd go around the globe and make these beautiful records with these different musicians, spoke something like 11 or 12 languages and was just a very forward-thinking guy in that respect. He turned me on to a lot of the Middle Eastern players and West African players that shaped a large part of the vocabulary for me, of what I do.
And then I heard Derek, a friend put a tape on, and I just said, wow, this guy’s doing an “wuh wuh wuh” on an electric guitar, the slide! How cool. At the same time my finger got fucked up, crushed in a door, so it was in a cast, one of those metal splints. So I started playing slide. And the open tuning thing just came with the package. Then I started thinking, I’ll be a better slide player if I really demystify this tuning. In the same way having a grasp on shapes of the neck, in standard tuning. I should try some of the things, just a verbatim sort of transfer over to the open tuning, and see what it does.
JB: I saw you were really able to get around and play diatonically, and chromatically…at the show, you were playing a lap steel, but at one point with out the slide!
BM: It has frets, but what’s funny about that guitar, is it’s entirely made out of Bakelight plastic. It’s a mold. So the frets are molded into the neck. And it just has a sound that doesn’t call to mind any other instrument I’ve ever heard. But the scale is shorter. But the neck is round, it’s a Spanish style neck. That was one of the first electric guitars in production. A mid-thirties Rickenbacker. Leo Fender was actually working on them in the factory, putting them together. A lot of the designs about that guitar were things that made it over to the telecaster. It’s a bit of an alien instrument, but there are a lot of things that are familiar about it. And it just doesn’t sound like anything else. It’s such a loud guitar. You can actually blow up an amp, if you’re not careful which input you plug into.
JB: As a person who is very proficient and very driven, and who has progressed to a high level musically, what's the difficult part, the thing you really have to slog through to make progress?
BM: Staying enthused about finding things; discovering new beauty in the world that can translate into music. That’s the most precious sort of resource, I think, for guys like me.
You have to pull stuff from outside of the musical realm. Whatever muscle it is that it takes to listen to music and stay focused, in me, is really strong. I don’t have a problem working for 14 hours a day and still have ears and have a brain to mix afterwards. But I don’t have the same strength in being able to actively pursue and stay enthused about things like literature and movies and a social life—other things that all enhance the music, and the person. I don’t want to become this lazy person, a guy who thinks in terms New Year’s resolutions. I really do want to see a change in myself in certain ways, but I really want to figure out exactly what they are and not have it be like a diet that I’m trying.
That’s the most alarming thing to me I think. I’m 28, and the world just starts to look like a different place as you start realizing ok…now you’re 35, now you’re 40, and it’s no longer the thing where it’s, “he’s really young, and he’s good." I want to be good at something else that feels a little more private, a little more personal. That I think that will ultimately be more valuable, when I’m looking at everything, if I make it to 50 or 60 or 70…
JB: I guess that’s what I’m sensing with the albums. These albums are attempts—and successful attempts—at a whole process. They’re not guitar records, they’re not even just songwriter records—because there’s a lot of depth to how they sound.
BM: The most attractive thing that I’ve seen in the creative realm is the enthusiasm in people that does not seem to burn out. That’s what I’m after. Fuck, I can’t tell you how amazing it would to be able to be to call from memory the Schubert Lieder or Bach Etudes and be able to play them at the level of Chris Thile or Edgar Myer or the Punch Brothers. I’m surrounded by guys who are some of the best musicians on their instruments that there ever were. It’s a heavy, heavy concept. And they all seem to enjoy something other than the celebration of that ability. We get together and play Dylan songs.
When you have the catalog of work, it doesn’t feel like you’ve got one shot to get it right, it’s just like, you’re making a new document of something at the present time, and it’s a living thing, and it changes. It’s been cool to help other people make their records, to produce. You get a crash course in things that you don’t get as the artist.
JB: How did it go producing the new Alabama Shakes album?
BM: It was an amazing experience. It was such a serendipitous combination, because there aren’t a lot of bands that I’ve ever heard of who have the kind of success on the first record that they did, and then chose to be as daring and challenging as they did on their second record. Instead of looking at it and trying to figure out how to capitalize on it, or keep the pace or whatever, they were energized and wanted to make a record that checked all the boxes of the honest things that worked for the forces of good. I’m worthless in a conversation of, “Well, what about the radio? Let’s listen to five records that sold really well last year.” I do nothing to add to that conversation.
I would way rather be on the side of something that is beautiful and never catches on than the alternative. Not that there’s one alternative, but there’s definitely some stuff you can end up in that I would be embarrassed with myself for doing.