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Musician Blake Mills Talks About Opening For Fiona Apple, Getting Half A Manicure And His Favorite Local Guitar Spots
During a recent flight, we had the chance to sit next to a writer for a well-known music publication. When we asked him who he thinks will be the next big thing in the music industry, he said, "In the next couple years, it's going to be all about Blake Mills. No question."
It's not hard to see why. A musician from a young age, Mills has honed his skills to the point that he's become one of the go-to guys for both guitar and producing expertise. Producer Tony Berg said, "He's the first virtuoso I've ever met who doesn't let his virtuosity get in the way."
In recent years, Venice Beach-based Mills has performed with artists such as Lucinda Williams, Andrew Bird, Julian Casablancas, Cass McCombs, Kid Rock, Norah Jones, Band of Horses and Dawes. He also produced albums for Sara Watkins and Jesca Hoop, among others. Tonight he'll pull double duty at the Hollywood Palladium as Fiona Apple's opener, as well as a member of her backing band.
LAist caught up with Mills on Friday to learn more about his solo album Break Mirrors, his favorite guitar and his love for improvisation.
LAist: It sounds like you're mostly self-taught on the guitar. What's something you did to hone your guitar skills as a young boy?
Blake Mills: I played along with a lot of Middle Eastern records that I was being turned on to by a musician named Bob Brozman. He's got an unusual background of being both a blues musician and a world musician.
So I'd listen to records he'd recommended or that he'd played on, and try to figure out how to play what the other people on the record were playing—whether it was the kora, vocals, whatever. There were so many instruments that pricked my interest, and that was probably the behind the lack of sunlight I got in my younger years.
LAist: What was the Venice Beach music scene like in those early years?
Mills:It was interesting. Most of the music was being played by people 10-15 years older than I was, and it was a lot of guitar-oriented Southern rock with a California twist. A lot of guitar solos. Maybe that's why I tried to take it in a different direction and went the improvisational/communal route that could be shared with others.
LAist: Your debut album, Break Mirrors, was initially sold in a surf shop. Did you expect word to spread as fast as it did?
Mills: I didn't expect much out of it; it was just something I wanted to make at the time. But it's taken on an interesting little life of its own, and I'm trying not to control it too heavily.
LAist: Was "Under the Underground" [which mentions everything from rattlesnakes to Emmylou Harris] the most fun you had with lyrics on the album?
Mills: That was definitely a fun one. The whole record was like getting to write my own curriculum—making the rules and then breaking them. It was just another one of those songs where I thought, "I can't believe I can write about this, but I'm going to go ahead and do it."
LAist: You produced Sara Watkins' latest solo album, Sun Midnight Sun, and one of my favorite songs of the summer is "You and Me." What was the recording process for that track like?
Mills: I think that one started with the beat that's behind it. I'd heard Sara play it at Largo at the Coronet, where she usually doesn't play with drums, so in the studio we got to figure out what the heartbeat of the tune would be.
After that, it turned into something of a string theory approach—that beat gave her an idea, which gave somebody else an idea, and so on. There wasn't a whole lot of discussion or premeditation on that record because she's so quick. It made my job really easy.
LAist: Speaking of other musicians, I read a story about how you and Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith used to snub a cigar on your guitar prior to shows, which gave it a really interesting look. Are you customizing any other guitars in an unorthodox manner?
Mills: It's so interesting that you bring that up. After Sunday's show with Fiona, I'll go to Cuba for a recording session. During this tour, I bought a guitar specifically to take to Cuba—and hopefully leave down there with somebody I meet—because they don't have access to a whole lot of great instruments.
So I bought this guitar and took the pickguard off, and I'm having Fiona and her friend Patrick do some illustrations on it, then I'll put it back on and take it down there. This and the cigar-burned guitar are the only ones I've ever really customized.
LAist: Of all your guitars, which one has the most mileage?
Mills: Well, I've been borrowing a guitar from Jackson Browne, who's been very generous with his loaning of an old Telecaster that's been my dream guitar since I was a kid. It became financially unobtainable long before I started playing, and they generally belong to lawyers and doctors or people who have had them for 30-40 years.
It's a Telecaster that's been on a bunch of his records and has been played by some really amazing guitar players.
LAist: Would you mind sharing one of the stories behind it?
Mills: Sure. At one point, Hard Rock Cafe got ahold of it, and they apparently put it on display outdoors by a pool—in Hawaii or somewhere—in the sun. So Jackson found out about that and got it back, but it now has tan lines because of how they mounted it and because of the sun exposure, so it's pretty beat-up looking.
But I've played a lot of guitars, and you can't ask for a better example of a Telecaster. It's become my main instrument. I cherish it, and it rarely leaves my side.
LAist: Turning back to your album, it's easy to become a fan of Danielle Haim [who provides supporting vocals] by listening to your album. And the two of you did a great cover of "Come Together." How do you approach a massive cover song like that?
Mills: We did that for a Brazilian Nextel commercial, and they wanted that cover specifically. Generally, I try to stay away from those kinds of things for obvious reasons, but the way that that one came about had a lot to do with Danielle. She's an incredible drummer and has a strong foundation in rhythm, and we found a comfortable place from which to approach that song.
LAist: You've said that Break Mirrors is a coming-of-age album. What do you think the focus of your next album will be?
Mills: I don't know. I don't want to have the same approach to songwriting that a lot of people seem to have, which is the constant self-reflection. I do think that's an important part of it, but it's also been really explored.
There's something about the songs that people were writing in the '40s and '50s. There were straightforward love songs, but there were also songs that were more topical and social. What kind of a song is "Johnny B. Goode"? And who writes like that anymore?
There are all these nearly forgotten methods that would be so interesting to explore. People know those songs and they resonate with them in the same way they might connect with a miserable experience you write about. So that could be an interesting way to go, but then again, just because I want to do that doesn't mean I'll be any good at it.
LAist: If an out-of-town guitarist is visiting Los Angeles, what are some of the top guitar spots you think they should check out?
Mills: A lot of places have closed, but there's a shop in Santa Monica called Truetone that's great. Then there's another really beautiful shop in Santa Monica called McCabe's that's been around since '58. It has a great roster of performances, and it's a really unexpected, tasteful little venue. They're doing something right.
LAist: I enjoyed the Fretboard Journal podcast where you talked about the acrylic nail advice you got from Jackson Browne. What's your favorite Los Angeles nail salon for guitar-playing acrylics?
Mills: I looked around and ended up finding one off of Lincoln Blvd., but I can't remember what it's called. The trick is to be specific. Tell them in advance that it's going to be really weird: One hand. Don't file it down. That kind of stuff.
I used to go in and have no idea what I was doing because I was so new at it. It's a stupid thing to be a seasoned veteran in, but here I am walking around with one well-manicured hand. It's embarrassing. I'm that guy in the airport with the nail file.
LAist: In the past, you've talked about sage advice you've received from the many musicians you've toured with. What advice would you give to a young musician who'd like to emulate your career?
Mills: I got a lot out of soaking up music that didn't revolve around guitars. There's so much music that revolves around a guitar riff that when you start to step out of that genre, the ingredients change. The fundamentals shift. If you can make guitar into a sympathetic instrument—into something else—you're welcome to the party a lot more often.
That's where a lot of the guitar personalities have come from. These guys were after something else. They weren't trying to perfect the guitar, and they weren't trying to perfect someone else's voice. They were after something they couldn't really get. It's the inexact science of it that's so enjoyable and so rewarding.
LAist: You'll be opening for and playing with Fiona Apple at the Palladium on Sunday night. What's something you've really come to appreciate about her during this tour?
Mills: She does this thing that still blows me away every time it happens. She has an improvisatory sense of melody where she'll reinvent the melody of a song halfway through it.
It's not ad-libbing, and it's not showboating. It's just, all of a sudden, there'll be a whole new melody and it sounds like it's been there the entire time. It'll sound like a classic, 100-year-old song, and she'll often change it up from night to night.
LAist: As someone who loves to improvise, is it fun for you as she starts to make these changes on the spot?
Mills: Completely. There's not a lot of guitar in her records, and my role in the band is very reactionary based on what she's doing. So when she mixes things up, the ball starts rolling and we just see how far we can get before the end of the song. It's a blast!
Be sure to catch Blake Mills when he opens for Fiona Apple tonight at the Palladium. And if you can't make it to this show, he'll open for Apple yet again when she plays the Greek Theatre on Sept. 14.