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Chris MillsIt doesn't take much scratching at the surface to uncover the bitter details boiling away within the songs on Kiss It Goodbye, the second full-length album from 25 year-old Chicago-based songwriter Chris Mills. Whether it's the blistering powerchords of opener Brand New Day or the trailing bitter-sweet country blush of Watch Chain, through to the extended Phil Spector studio experiment of Signal/Noise that brings proceedings to a stylishly heartsick close, the dominant tone is of poetically articulated despair and dislocation.
by Martin Williams
"It's definitely a record about breaking down and departures, and things falling apart," Mills affirms when we meet at Brixton's Windmill. They're also songs about loss and regret, uttered in a voice so prematurely weatherworn that it prompted parental concern at an early age.
"It's always been very low and very gruff. When I was 7 or 8 my mother took me to the doctor because she thought I had, like, nodes on my vocal chords." It's a soggy legend that when Charlie Parker died from a lifetime of abuse, his body was identified as that of a man twice his age. Similarly, if Mills' voice were all there was to go on it would be a cinch to pin him as a craggy, nicotine-stained strummer who's been around the block a time or two.
"It also comes from what you listen to," he offers.
"I was listening to Dylan and Lou Reed and people when I was in high school, so it was all these nasally, rough-edged things or the monotone, growly sort of thing."
Fast becoming a regular visitor to British shores, the last time Mills played The Windmill, some four months previously, he declared from the stage that he hails "from a town where there are only two things to do: drink and fuck." While this may be a seamy Shangri-La for some, it does root the songs in a place where actions seem channeled as much by frustration and choices slipping away as they are by desire and possibility.
The town in question is Colinsville, Illinois, where Mills spent his teenage years, itself a stonesthrow from Belleville, home of the No Depression golden goose Uncle Tupelo.
"There's a lot of farming, but it's slowly becoming a more suburban kind of place, but then also starting to suffer from all the problems that come from that. It's a lot of hard working people, but also the education system, at least when I was there... The high school was pretty much one of the worst high schools in the state, Illinois having a sub-standard education system as it is."
Does he still go back?
"Oh yeah, my parents still live there. I like it more now, but that's because I got out. There are still a lot of things that bother me about the place, the ideas and things that a lot of people are raised with there are kind of backwards, things that I didn't really understand when I was growing up. There's a lot of prejudice, a lot of homophobia, a lot of things that I consider really backwards. But at the same time the people there are really hard working and they really try and do the best for their families."
It's a familiar breed of angst, a theme that was expended upon by Mills' producer Jon Langford on his Skull Orchard album of a few years ago. Prior to recording Kiss It Goodbye, Mills traveled with Langford to his South Wales birthplace.
"It's really interesting because [it's] kind of a dire place, once all the mines are closed and things like that, but it was great because it was Jon visiting his place with me and a bunch of others and showing us around. And having pride in the place. Which I do. I do have some pride in where I grew up but, at the same time, you know when he was there, just like when I was in Colinsville, the only thing you could think about was how the hell you were going to get out of there."
Which brings to mind the Lou Reed lyric from Songs for Drella: "There is only one good use for a small town / You hate it and you know you have to leave." And if all this educated disdain for hicksville rings a little trite then it's worthwhile harking back to the punch of Mills' All You Ever Do, with its heartfelt double-bluff testimony to a small town upbringing: "Do you hate their aching backs / Or the blisters on their hands? / Do you hate the way they beat you when you didn't fit in?"
After sessions for Kiss It Goodbye had been intermittently underway for something like six months, with Red Red Meat's Brian Deck in the producer's chair again, Mills was seized by eleventh hour doubts about some of the songs they had recorded.
"We'd slated a release date which got pushed back, so I had a little more time to listen to it. It was good, but it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. I sort of tired of torturing Brian, he's a brilliant, brilliant producer."
Was that a hard decision to make, on a personal level?
"It was and it wasn't, because of the nature of Chicago and the nature of my relationship with Brian. After the amount of free studio time he'd given me I didn't feel right going back to him and going, 'well, I know we've done remix upon remix of these four tracks that I'm trying to fix...' I just thought that I couldn't put him through it any more."
Mills subsequently showed up at Jon Langford's door, re-recording five songs, quickly nailing the sound he was chasing.
"Jon and I have always wanted to do something together anyway, so we just went in for 3 days and cut 5 more tracks, pretty much all live. It was songs like Lips Are Like Poison and Crooked Vein, which is a song that my friend Herman [Jolly, from Sunset Valley] had written that I had started doing live which I think is just a great song."
Coming from southern Illinois, with a hunger for music and a hankering for a wider scope than his native town could offer, perhaps it was inevitable that Mills eventually landed in Chicago.
"I wanted to go to New York, still do at times. I didn't really want to go to college when I got out of high school, I just wanted to go somewhere and work, but my parents sort of forced the issue, and I wanted to go to a big city and I didn't want to go to LA." He adds with a laugh
, "they wouldn't let me go to New York."
This didn't stop him from moving there, briefly, during summer break from college.
"I went and stayed on the couch of a friend and was just going to pound the pavement, find a job, find an apartment. And that lasted about a week and a half before I was on the bus back to Colinsville. Didn't quite make it that time."
It was during this period that Mills began to find his feet as a songwriter. A veteran of high school metal bands, when he returned to Chicago he set about sending out the demo he had made to the city's rock clubs.
"I was never a coffee house singer/songwriter. In the paper, The Reader in Chicago, all the clubs have big ads and I wasn't old enough to go to them but I would always see where my favourite bands were playing, and so I wanted to play there. I didn't want to play at Joe's Java Hut, I wanted to play at the Empty Bottle or the Lounge Ax. And surprisingly they let me do it, I'd just open up sort of acoustic, playing these folky, countryish, faux Uncle Tupelo type songs."
By the time this issue of Comes with a Smile is lining budgie cages, Mills will have toured the UK yet again, this time with back-up players, including Loose's Hawksley Workman thumping the tubs, and going under the charming bar band moniker Chris Mills & the Miserable Bastards. Never home long enough to completely unpack that suitcase, life these days seems to be one long tour for Chris Mills. Not that he's complaining.
"I'm just constantly thankful and amazed at the progression I've made from being just some stupid kid who thought he could play rock music acoustically in divey bars."
CWAS #7 - Spring 2001