Q&A with Blake Mills

photo courtesy of Blake Mills
You may not have heard the name Blake Mills before, but there’s a good chance you’ve hear his playing. As one of the most in-demand session guitarists in Los Angeles he has recorded with Weezer, Jakob Dylan, Danger Mouse, Rick Rubin, Norah Jones, Andrew Bird, and many others. He has toured with Cass McCombs, Lucinda Williams, Jenny Lewis, Band of Horses and Julian Casablancas. He recently contributed a cover of the song “Heart of Mine” for the Amnesty International tribute to Bob Dylan. He recorded a solo album Break Mirrors in 2010, and though it was never formally released, it gained a cult following among friends and people in the know.
He is currently on tour opening for Fiona Apple, as well as playing guitar in her set. He’ll be at the Warner Theater tomorrow night, so if you’re going to see Fiona Apple, make sure you get there early to catch Blake’s set!
We Love DC got the chance to chat with Blake during a break in his busy schedule, and here’s what he had to say.
Alexia:So you’re living in LA right now?
Blake Mills:Yes.

Alexia: And how long have you been there?

Blake: I was actually born here, born and raised, was born in Santa Monica, and I’m living in Venice, so not far.

Alexia: So how did you get started playing music?

Blake: I think I was just looking for something to do. I remember sitting in front of the tv, watching Mtv pretty religiously as like a ten-year-old, and I think I just asked my dad for an electric guitar. I wanted to be like the dudes on the tv!

Alexia: And the rest is history?

Blake: I mean yeah, it went from being something that came kinda easily to me, and then after a certain point it just sorta becomes your identity, when you’re that young, its like it is or is not what you do. At a certain point I had to make a decision, and was like alright, I’ve got a pretty good head-start on this thing, and I’m just going to kinda keep at it, and every so often I’d look up, and it’s like- this is going great, so just keep at it.

Alexia: So how did you get into playing professionally?

Blake: Um, I think it just kinda snuck up on me. I mean when I was fourteen I was playing with a few guys from my hometown that were much older, and from then on I kept hanging out with people that were twenty years or so, you know, older than me, and by the time I was twenty-five that age group of like thirty and forty- most of those guys had figured it out by then, so it just rubbed off on me. Just tried to be around people that were inspiring and I still just try to be around people that are inspiring, and hope that what I’m doing is sort of like mutually inspirational. I just try to have quality in what I’m doing and let that speak for itself.

Alexia: So what’s it like being a musician in LA right now? Do you feel like there’s a community you’re a part of, or a scene or scenes?

Blake: Yeah, I mean I definitely think there’s a community. I think that ever since I’ve first been aware of it there’s been a lot of activity going on, you know, like a lot of people with irons on the fire. There’s tons of records being made, actually well recently it’s been crazily busy out here as far as record-making goes. But there’s definitely a support system, and there are scenes- I’ve never really alligned myself or felt like I’ve been able to keep up with what any of those are, but I’ve definitely noticed that it’s like a hub. There are certain events and things that I’ve been able to be a part of and even put on that if I didn’t live out here, if there wasn’t this swath of talent that there is out here we just couldn’t have done something like we did. You know we had these little jams at a surf-shop, and the people that show up are just mind-boggling, like it becomes like a social experiment- trying to get like Jackson Brown and Billy Gibbons and Cass McCombs in the same room together and see like what happens, you know? Maybe I take it for granted, but that is L.A. in a nutshell to me- you have all this stuff at your disposal- how can you use it.

Alexia: What would you say are some of your personal influences? I know you said you were watching Mtv at a young age- were there any artists or albums that like lit your fire initially?

Blake: Yeah, in the beginning it was all about Nirvana, Metallica and Soundgarden. That was like ten through twelve. And then for some reason it just dramatically shifted to Middle-Eastern classical music. I was pretty heavy into just guitars and instruments at that point, and looking probably for something new. I got to spend some time with Bob Brozman, you know, for a couple years sort of, he was like a mentor, and he turned me on to a lot of great music from other countries and stuff, he turned me on to a lot of West African stuff. For a few years it was like there was like no Rock & Roll in the house for me, and then I kinda came back around to it and sort of liking girls, and realizing that there was an appeal to that, and then The Stones kinda like just blew it up. It’s still this neverending thing…maybe one of my heaviest influences along the whole way was Nina Simone. She kind of like transversed through all of the different phases and stages, you know I could still go back to her records and have a pretty unhealthy relationship with them, like religious listening, and still do to this day. So there’s some stuff that’s carried along the way and it’s lasted with me, and some things that I’ll put down for years and then go back to and re-enjoy, relive, but I’ve tried to keep expanding it as best I can.

photo courtesy of Blake Mills

Alexia: So you’ve played with a bunch of big names in the music business, and now you’re supporting your own music- is it different playing your own music out?

Blake: It definitely is. I sort of began what you’d call the professional career at a pretty young age- maybe seventeen- in a band, and writing in that band, and performing in that band, and for a few years I was touring, and it was going really well, but the amount of touring and some of the pressures of having to make an artistic statement in every little thing you know that you do- that I didn’t feel like I was cut out for. So I just sorta retreated from that without a clear idea of what I was gonna do, and the session stuff and production stuff and all that just sorta came naturally from people saying “Hey we’re making a record- will you come down and play on it?” So it’s been a few years now, working on trying to decifer somebody else’s artistic statement, which has been maybe one of the best learning experiences for me, both musically and personally, because learning how to be a more agreeable person and musician has helped, to say the least.

So to answer your question- coming back to the position where I’m trying to emote and entertain, write and make records, perform and tour, I think I’m taking a lot of the things that I learned. It’s not like an evolution path, you know, what I’ve been doing for years, I still look forward to playing on people’s records, and co-writing and working with other artists, and producing, and composing for film- all that stuff. I’m still doing everything that I’ve been doing, and I made the solo record that I made just sort of in between all those other things, just cause I write, and I’ve never really stopped writing. So as long as I’m still writing I think I’ll make solo records and then do what has to be done with making solo records, which is like tour, and all the other four-letter-words. And just see what opportunities come up. Like this one to work with Fiona (Apple), and play with her, it’s like even if I was in the middle of, even if I had been making solo records ever since I was eighteen, I imagine if I’d gotten the opportunity to do this now with Fiona I would still do it.

Alexia: Have you had any favorite show experiences, or crazy moments on tour?

Blake: Yeah, everything is crazy, if I stop to think about it. There was a video that I came across the other day that somebody had taken of when I was fourteen- I was playing with a band that opened up for Lynyrd Skynyrd on New Year’s Eve in Anaheim, California. And I got to relive that night, and after the show we were all in this giant rented school bus, and there was so much pot-smoking on the school bus that I couldn’t handle it and I had to like shimmy open like those drop windows that are on those buses and just ride with my head out the window all the way back to Malibu. And I’d forgotten about it. Subconsciously it all came back to me. It was like a fascinating and brutal experience. So maybe something like that is coming up…I’ll see how much pot Fiona smokes.

Alexia: Oh my gosh! I’ll have to check back with you…

Blake: Yeah!

Alexia: So what’s on the horizon for you?

Blake: It’s been crazy, like the last couple months have been pretty extremely abnormally busy, but there’s a lot of records being made in LA, and I like being around for that in whatever capacity I’m needed, whether it’s guitar or co-writing or producing it, and so we’ll see what continues coming down the line with that. But I’d like to build a studio so that some of the stuff that gets thrown around- you know I’ve been buddies with Cass McCombs and Conner Oberst for a long time, and the Band of Horses guys, and there’s always, we’re always looking for opportunities to do something, so I feel like if I had a studio that we could do something in then I could take advantage of some of those guys coming to town, coming to L.A.

Check out what other artists have to say about Blake in this short video!

See Blake Mills open for and play guitar with Fiona Apple tomorrow night, June 26th, at the Warner Theater!

Alexia Kauffman

Alexia was born and raised in Arlington, VA. She has been a cellist since age four, and a lover of rock & roll soon after. The first tape she owned was “Make It Big” by Wham, and the first tape she bought was Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” and she still loves both. She was a member of local synth-rock outfit Soft Complex for several years, and has recorded with bands including Engine Down and Two if By Sea. By day she works for a non-profit distributing royalties to musicians and labels. She currently plays cello, lap-steel guitar and tambourine in the DC post-folk/Americana band The Torches.

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