Although he was initially drawn to the guitar by “Nirvana, Soundgarden, Metallica, and everything on MTV,” guitarist/songwriter/producer Blake Mills is currently miles away from those early influences. With a depth and vibe to his playing (not to mention unreal technique) that seems impossible given his 27 years on this planet, Mills has become the go-to guy for sessions as diverse as Lana Del Rey, Neil Diamond, Kid Rock, Jackson Browne, Sara Bareilles, and many others. He has also produced sessions for Alabama Shakes, Fiona Apple, and one Billy Gibbons. Despite all that great work, Mills’ primary focus right now is on his recent solo release, Heigh Ho [Verve]. It’s a compelling, dreamy album that not only showcases Mills’ profound songwriting chops and soulful vocals, but also his excellent 6-string skills that are present on every track, even if he keeps his astounding technical abilities in check and in service to the song. The playing is made all the more intriguing by the amazing tones that Mills gets so easily, and those sounds are as big a draw for guitarists as everything else. Hypnotic tremolo textures, echoey reverbs, and guitars that chime and grind at the same time. Between the sonics and his refreshing approach to chord voicings, Mills has created a recipe that can make new songs sound old and familiar, and make traditional progressions sound vibrant and new.
This record is full of great, raw guitar sounds. Start with “Seven” and talk about how those tracks came together.
The guitar on that is based on the modified Strat that Ry Cooder uses. It has the bridge pickup off of an old Valco lap-steel guitar and a Guyatone pickup in the neck. My friend who built the guitar and I were scratching our heads trying to figure out why, in the middle position, half of the strings were out of phase and the other half were not. We found out that the bridge pickup is actually two pickups, wired like a humbucker, and the phase is reversed with each other. Lollar makes a repro of this pickup and we called them to ask them how to fix it so it was all in phase with itself, and they said it couldn’t be done. We wouldn’t take no for an answer, so we took the pickup apart and my friend spent a long time with it and figured out a way to cross the wires to get the pickup to be all in phase. The funny thing is, now the bridge and neck pickups in the middle position are out of phase with each other, which is actually a sound I really like. It kind of reminds me of Elmore James’ electric guitar tone, really biting and harsh. So that’s the sound you’re hearing on “Seven.”
What amp did you use?
The guitars on this record are almost entirely played through these film projectors that Austen Hooks built. He modifies old Bell & Howell projectors and creates these incredibly transparent-sounding amps, sort of like a tweed Deluxe circuit, but with a clarity that doesn’t compress the same way the tweeds do. I had two projectors going on that track. One of them had the original Bell & Howell tube in it that gives you a sparkly top end and the other had a Mullard and it felt a little more saturated and gainy. There’s a big side room at Ocean Way studios and all of the Hanna-Barbera and Looney Tunes stuff was tracked in it. We had one of the amps in there, and that gave us this huge room sound. Then the other amp was in the room with the band and drums and everything. That was the setup for that song and most of the record.
Just to be clear, you’re plugging a guitar into the audio section of an old Bell & Howell movie projector? Through the original speaker?
Yeah. The amplifier powers this little 8" speaker inside the projector housing. The internal speaker has a cool sound. It’s really unique. But when you play it through a extension speaker setup, it’s pretty alarming what it can do. Austen even takes the old projector lens and makes it the jewel light. It looks amazing.
What’s going on in the various layers of “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me”?
That’s an interesting story. We originally tracked it with the band—Mike Elizondo on bass and Jim Keltner playing drums. It was really nice and I started working on it—overdubbing and trying to add to the layers—but it wasn’t feeling quite right. I was kind of at a standstill with it. Tony Berg, who has basically been a mentor as a producer for me, said, “Why don’t you record a new pass of acoustic guitar—just the way you play the song when you’re sitting by yourself—but play it while listening to their performance and see what happens?” That unlocked what I think is the first successful recording of that song. So the main acoustic guitar is an archtop Martin that Tony just kind of handed to me and threw an SM57 on. The rest of the track was pretty much rebuilt from scratch on top of that acoustic guitar. As for the other layers, I played drums on it at the very end. I wanted drums but I didn’t want them to feel like a drum “beat” or anything. The bass is actually guitarrón, which I play in different spots on the record. It sort of feels like an upright bass but I think it actually has a lot more depth than most uprights. I like to say that my performance was tracked to the most expensive click track anybody’s ever made—a full-band recording with Jim Keltner and Mike Elizondo that you never actually hear.
Some of your chord changes, like in “Cry to Laugh,” seem surprising to me, compared to a lot of music today that’s very predictable. What can you say about that?
What I was doing when I was working on that song was trying to ape some of the piano chord voicings that Randy Newman songs have. The economy in his voicings sounds so cool on the guitar, because you’re just left with maybe three notes and they’re like impressionistic voicings of chords. Instead of a big barre chord, you pick the right three notes in a certain order, and they tell you everything that you need to know and nothing that you don’t. So what comes out as unusual sounding changes might be because I’m playing piano voicings, rather than guitar voicings. What your hand naturally does when you pick up a guitar, playing the same old G or D chord, is like painting with the same primary colors. But if you take the palette or the vocabulary of another instrument and apply it to guitar, it’s easier to do things that would strike somebody as unpredictable or unfamiliar.
Do you have a favorite way of voicing a D major rather than the little triangle-shaped first-position chord that we all play?
Yes. Play the open A string on the bottom, then on the D string, play an F# at the 4th fret. Then skip the G string altogether, because you don’t need it, and play a D at the 3rd fret on the B string. Those three notes will give you the meatiest, almost regal-sounding D voicing, and it fits in with almost everything. It works with any kind of band, no matter how many people are playing. You’ll never be redundant if you use that voicing. You’ll never be just doubling what somebody else is doing because nobody will be playing that on guitar.
You’ve done some pretty high-profile sessions. Do artists like Beck, Jackson Browne, and Neil Diamond want different things out of you in the studio, or do you feel like they’re all hiring you for the same reason?
I think they’re hiring me for the same reason: because what I do is different. It’s been a long time since somebody hired me to do something stock. The artists you mentioned all love the same things about music that I do, and that is the uniqueness of the musician and the voice and personality of everybody involved. I’m lucky that I can be a little choosier about what sessions I do and keep it to just those instances where I feel like they’re hiring me to get me. I’m fortunate and happy to be able to say that that’s the kind of work that I do.