Chris Mills – Welcome to the real world, kid
Chris Mills is emotionally precocious, but he’d deny it. He thinks everyone observes in fine detail the filaments spun, woven and frayed between two people, and he believes everyone’s rough edges are worn raw in getting by. So when he pushes his voice to its ragged limits and puts his passion on the line as if each were his first and last performance, it’s because he thinks of it “…like a public service. No matter how bad you feel,” he says, “when I perform you can look at me and say, ‘At least I’m not that guy.'”
Mills believes, for instance, “There’s no reason not to tell somebody you are in love with them,” and hopes he can help. “I’m just a kid; I can do it so anybody can do it. Everyone’s isolated inside their flesh; even if they’re touching or sleeping together, it’s the emotions that connect them. It’s the only way people can truly experience each other. The only way to know someone else is to realize they feel the same way.
“People are all made up of the same stuff,” he concludes, but “it just seems like the people I’ve run into, with very few exceptions…[are] guided by apprehension — fear of contact, fear of connecting, fear of taking chances. Someone can appear to be the most open person, but that’s only because you don’t know what they’re not telling you.”
At 23, Mills is still bumping into things — girls, mostly, but other hazards, too, especially on tour. “You start to see how much you don’t know,” he says. “It’s hard because you always want to know more, and then there are things you wish you could forget — mistakes you made, wrong turns.”
The title of his full-length debut for Sugar Free Records, due out Jan. 20, sums things up nicely: Every Night Fight For Your Life. If it seems to track mostly bad-ending episodes, it’s because Mills finds those the most inspiring. “When I’m really happy, I don’t think about the fact that I’m by myself,” he says. “But when I’m by myself and I’m unhappy, man, I’m totally alone. That’s when I write; that’s when I need to talk things out, need to get stuff off my chest.”
Mills’ turmoil arises in part from his experiences as an Army brat. At 13, he moved with his family across the river from St. Louis in Southern Illinois. The six or seven moves before that — including back and forth to Germany — “made it hard to feel grounded, and once we were settled, it made it uncomfortable to be there a while,” he recalls. “After two or three years I got very restless….I’ve been sorta trained that things weren’t going to last.”
The moves also may account for his apparent, if uneasy, accommodation of unfinished business, as in his signature song fragments, of which Every Night features three. Although their effect is like being deprived of a natural ending, Mills considers them finished. “A song starts when it starts and ends when it ends, and if you don’t have anything else to say you probably should stop playing,” he suggests.
This philosophy also reflects his high school experience singing and writing songs for a speed-metal band that strove to match any song length record. The lingering influence of Jane’s Addiction is evident in Mills’ palpable excitement over his electric guitar parts on the new record, and his almost screaming, anguished delivery on the benchmark pissed-off breakup song “Sawtooth” (“I’m gonna make it easy on you/I’m gonna be the first one to quit/This is the last decision I’m making for you”). Adolescent passion worthy of a Revolting Cocks fan wreaks almost painfully through “Fire For You” (“You’re as selfish as me/That’s how it ought to be”). But songs like “Funeral Date” (Mills tumbles for a goth-ette, to suitably funerary B3 fills) and “Delaware” show a flair for pure pop, while “1000 Blue Eyed Girls” awaits drum-loop-dance treatment on a forthcoming 7-inch project.
In sweet pursuit of a May-December romance, Mills pulls out heavy artillery with an honest-to-goodness Phil Spector feel, complete with girl-group drums and Ben E. King ice cream changes. “Take Me Down With You” is a Zippo-waving anthem in which Mills and producer Brian Deck of Red Red Meat evoke a Neil-Young-at-the-Hippodrome magnitude overdubbing keyboards, pedal and lap steel, guitars and more guitars.
Deck has given the electric guitars a distinctive smear throughout and conspired with Mills to ugly up some of the sound. “To overcome flaws and still be beautiful,” Mills says, “makes something more beautiful than if it was perfect to begin with.” For example, the haunting “Pontiac”, featuring only Mills’ voice and a piano, is recorded to sound as if played on a phonograph with a dirty needle.
Then there are the well-rooted “Stakes Is High” and the steel threaded “Chenoa”, in which fellow Chicago singer-songwriter Edith Frost sings an Emmylou-esque harmony. Mills figures there’s no point in denying Uncle Tupelo’s influence, given that he was a teenager on their home turf, but he says, “Everyone I’ve ever met is an influence — especially the girls. Every person you come into contact with, whether you know it or not, has some effect on you. Some’s good and some is bad….The influence you notice at the point of contact isn’t necessarily as valid as it is when you reflect on it.”
He says the influence of more seasoned musicians he’s performed with, Mekons/Waco Brothers ringleader Jon Langford chief among them, has taught him that how old you are, how much money you make or how well you’re known don’t matter very much. “You learn that even if nobody’s paying attention, that doesn’t mean you’re not good,” Mills concludes. “If you believe in what you’re doing, that’s the end of the story. You don’t need to learn anything else.”