You can take the kid of out Collinsville, Illinois, but you can't take Collinsville out of the kid. A certain sense of Midwestern, small-town alienation pervades the music of singer, songwriter and orchestral pop obsessive Chris Mills, even as his music has grown more cosmopolitan, less raw and country-influenced in scope and sound. His most recent release, Heavy Years: 2000-2010 is a greatest hits collection for a serious talent, a guy who has worked with Chicago luminaries like Jon Langford, Glenn Kotche and Kelly Hogan, but who has never had a hit to speak of. For over a decade, he's just continued to make expressive and open-ended music with a dense and difficult emotional core and an attention to the musical details necessary to convey those personal truths.
Mills has been living in New York since 2003, traveling back to Chicago semi-regularly to work with friends there. He makes his return to St. Louis for a show at Off Broadway tonight. I reached Mills by phone in Madison Square Park in midtown Manhattan for a conversation about where he's been and where he's going.
Roy Kasten: I've been following your career since your first record, Noboby's Favorite. It's one of those rare basement-sounding recordings that should be a demo but actually holds up because the songs hold up. Can you take us back to those days and that recording?
Chris Mills: I didn't know what I was going to do with that record. I'd been playing around Chicago for a couple of years. I put out a 7 inch the year before that. I didn't know anything about professional recording. I thought that a lot of great records had been made on two track or in guerrilla situations. Even though I wasn't playing punk rock, I thought, why not do a DIY record? And the players were really great. Glenn Kotche from Wilco is on it, a lot of the Chicago people I met when I first started playing. I just wanted to see if I could make a record. I figured if the songs were good and we played them well, and we got a nice recording, why not make it the first album? Then I met the guys with Sugar Free [Records], and gave it to them, and asked if I should change anything. They said, no, let's just put it out. And if you remember the packaging, it was also very DIY.I also like how you can hear a voice and an identity starting to take shape. You're young and figuring things out, the orchestral stuff isn't present, but the identity is there.
One of the things I've always tried to do as a writer is be honest. I just put myself into the songs and into the records in a way that's really true, if that makes any sense. I've said this before but a lot of the reason I started playing music in the first place is that I was a teenager in college going through all the things you go through at that age. That can feel isolating, you can feel alone, but I heard records that made me feel better about things. They weren't always upbeat records, but the person writing the songs was saying something that I understood in my life. I wanted to be that person for someone else. Even though you're going through this stuff, you can listen to a record and know that there is at least one person going through it too, and you're not alone.
If someone were to ask me what's Chris Mills all about, I'd probably say, "I'm glad he's a liberal, because if he had a gun collection we'd all be in trouble."
You don't have a gun collection, do you?
I don't have a gun collection! I'm not even sure I know what that means.
There's a real sense of desperation, even an undercurrent of violence in your songs.
I think that when you're trying to communicate, sometimes the darkest, most extreme stuff wakes people up. It gets their ears going. It makes the songs more immediate. You get in that way, and once someone listens a while, you get the rest of it. It gets in through the starker avenues, but that hopefully opens up a world that people can relate to inside the song.
So you're thinking about the audience as much as your own relationships.
That all goes hand in hand. I think that as a writer your job is to communicate. Anybody who says they do something for themselves in a vacuum, I don't think they are being totally honest. You obviously want people to hear it. You have a responsibility as a writer to try and communicate in a way that people can relate to, even if you're doing something extreme or outside the norm, you're still trying to talk to people. The things that you write about are going to be universal. Nobody is that unique. It would be presumptuous to say, I have this really unique take on being heartbroken and that is my gift to you. That's silly.
One of the things that stands out about your work is the interest in building arrangements. Sometimes it seems even that there are multiple arrangements, and it's not that you can't make up your mind, but I sense that you meld them in a song like "Signal/Noise." I wonder how you decide when to stop, how you know if you're going too far?
Do I go too far? As I got more experienced in the studio, I got really into that process. It was another facet of songwriting in a way. You get in there and you have all these tracks and musicians and you can do whatever you want. In a song like "Signal/Noise," I'm trying to communicate the world of the song, if that doesn't sound ridiculous. With that song, it was the first time I had this idea and wanted to know if I could pull it off. In the world of that song, you can hear the decay of a relationship. I took that '50s Phil Spector, doo-wop feel, which is the classic romantic thing, and then wanted to see what happened if we degraded that in the way a relationship falls apart, the way that feels, and get that across sonically. That's how I thought of that song. It starts outs small and personal, and then opens out into this world. The people in the song have this idea that this is what could be in the world, falling in love, but they're not, they're falling apart.
It's interesting that the new anthology just covers 2000-2010. That leaves out your first two records. Was that a licensing issue or an aesthetic choice?
I feel like the first two records, which I love, and I'm sure there are people who like them even more than the stuff I've done since then, but those were records where I was still learning how to write songs and make records. I felt like by 2000 and Kiss It Goodbye, I knew more about writing and working in the studio. That was the first record where I went to Europe and things started to pick up in different areas in my career. I felt like that was a good starting point. Taking it up to 2010 and the new tracks that are on the record, it's a good arc of time. If people like this, they can go back and find the older stuff and learn where I came from.