Californian guitarist Blake Mills spent his early twenties as a go-to performer for artists such as Lucinda Williams and Julian Casablanca. His unique approach to the guitar won him considerable acclaim, with Eric Clapton praising Blake as ‘the last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal.’ Upon the release of his second solo album – ‘Heigh Ho’ – with Verve Records, we caught up with Blake as he ended the first leg of his tour.
Blake credits the caliber of jazz singers like Nina Simone with influencing his unorthodox approach to music. Speaking about Ms Simone, Blake explains that ‘her music takes you on an emotional journey, being exposed to that really opened up my ears. Despite having serious musical talent, Blake remains critical of the bandying about of the ‘best guitarist in the world’ epithet – ‘the instrument is approached so often like something academic and merit based’, he says, ‘people approach it like it’s something you can win as if it was a sport’.
Blake set his recording budget from Verve Records to good use, hiring world-class musicians (Don Was, Jim Keltner, Mike Elizondo, Fiona Apple) and engineers (Tony Berg) who could create a sonically unique record. Blake explains that ‘most people when they have a record budget put that into things that they will see back, like an investment. This wasn’t investing in any of those things, this was investing into something that felt honest and sounded beautiful to me.’
Blake harbors considerable fears over sound quality in the modern era. Speaking on the subject of iTunes and the poor quality of sound derived from streaming, Blake comments that ‘if you try and create dynamics or subtlety in a record, there are so many more instances where that will be lost and pushed out and not having those tools forces your hands as a record maker or songwriter to create music that is full of sugar and stimulants – like junk food – things that in moderation are exciting, but when you gorge on them it’s a frenzy. We have a lot of obese music listeners now suffering from what I think is kind of an epidemic.’ Aside from exemplary sound quality, Blake’s album bends genres, which arises from his refusal to settle for a singular style.
Blake comments that ‘there isn’t a song on this record that exemplifies what the other songs sound like.’ This stems from his session musician background: ‘I’ve been in situations too often when I’m working with a producer on a session and I play something I think is well suited and beautiful, and they go “that’s great but can we get it to be less Hawaiian?” You think “uh yeah sure, what other genres are off the table then?”’
Mills’ record title ‘Heigh Ho’ is a nod to the true definition of the term, which is often misunderstood due to its popularization via Disney’s ‘Snow White’. Blake explains that ‘it’s an exclamation or expression of weariness over something you can’t change.’ This rang true to how he feels about releasing music: ‘putting it out to the world comes with a lot of fear and anxiety, so there’s an attachment to the definition of that expression.’ In the next year you can expect to see a return to the road with a band that, for Blake, has made it ‘a magical tour.’
Dave Davies, guitarist of The Kinks, is often credited with inventing a new style of heavy rock music when he slashed his amplifier with a razor to record ‘You Really Got Me’. From that point on The Kinks continued to pioneer new styles from baroque pop to folk and country. Their genre bending has at times complicated the bands success Davies claims. ‘The Kinks have always been prolific. People never knew what to do for the Kinks. We’d make a record hard-hitting rock and the next record would be ballads and concerned with social situations.’ Davies thinks that music listeners today are more eclectic and receptive of The Kinks disography. Davies explains ‘The Kinks music is serious and humorous, exciting and depressing. It’s shades of all colours of emotions. I think in the early days people wanted music to sound a certain but as people become more eclectic it has suited the Kinks catalogue. These are good times for The Kinks.
They have cemented their status as a quintessential ‘British’ band with albums like Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) that explore themes of the working British middle class. Davies speaks of a post ‘Brexit’ United Kingdom in saying ‘obviously I’m very fond of my homeland. I was born in London to a working class environment. I believe the British culture is important…the way we think and the great innovators.’ While immensely proud of Britain, Davies remarks ‘we should be proud of our cultures and heritage…but also embrace other cultures and find out other things about our self.When you boil it down the main religions at the core have similar ideologies, maybe we’re not so different from each other as it seems.’
Davies fondly remembers the early days of the Kinks. ‘In 1963 it felt like something immense and life changing was going to happen. It happened right until the Vietnam War.’ Swinging London saw an immense talent spread throughout the city. ‘The Who were big fans of ours, the Hollies were good mates, Jeff Beck and I were really good pals drinking in nightclubs. There was a lot of camaraderie but everyone held their cards close to their chest and didn’t want to give too much away.’
Davies new album will feature his son Russ Davies, a songwriter himself. It will be released on Sony’s RED label in the fall. Davies describes it as a more rock-pop album as opposed to the ‘Space Drama’ him and Russ did a few years back. ‘I’m very excited about it. We recorded at Russel’s studio and a lot over the Internet because the technology these days is great.’ The Kinks, who last performed in 1996, have had growing speculation about a reformation in recent years. Dave remains hopeful that the band could reunite. ‘I’ve been spending some time with Ray, throwing some ideas together. There are many things yet to come, from both my music and even The Kinks. Who knows? Ray and I are throwing ideas around, he’s finishing a solo album and I’ve been working on my stuff. But its all good positive stuff.’
Julian Lage has been playing guitar from the tender age of 5. Recently, he has become one of the leading voices in modern jazz with eclectic collaborations with Nels Cline, Chris Eldrige, and now a new album with his trio with bassist Scott Colley, drummer Kenny Wellesen, and producer Jesse Harris.
Could you talk a bit about the type of practice you were doing as a young player?
I practiced anywhere from 8-11 hours during a certain period. I was doing an independent study through my middle school and high school. I was definitely obsessive about it. I thought ‘ you just have to do this’ if you want to mitigate the issues that could prevent you from connecting with someone musically to a full degree. The reality is I would play with someone much better and they called a song I didn’t know so I thought I better go learn it, or my solo was all diatonic and in one position and I couldn’t build a climax and I thought damn I gotta practice. I was catching up with myself. It stemmed from a lot of curiosity and wanting to be a contributor in a genuine way.
Do you sit down and have ‘composition time’ or do you write when the moment comes?
For the new album it tended to be more deliberate. By that I mean it would be three days here three days there. Go to a studio, find a hotel room, some quiet place that allows me to try out material and vet it. For Modern Lore there was so much that got thrown out in favor of what’s on the record. I pick a specific time; cast a really wide net; figure out what doesn’t resonate and hopefully come out with something that does. It’s pointed towards a project, a deadline, a crunch.
Was there a distinct musical theme throughout the album?
They had to be songs that would highlight a groove, less episodic . If the drummer or bassist was doing something cool I thought what would be a good melody or chord structure that would support that and then not changing it for three minutes…a jam aspect. The guitar centric thing is really cool and essential but at the same time it’s an ensemble record and you don’t want to feel that you’re being ‘backed up’. I wrote some 30 songs and widdled down to 11. I wrote on the airplane, hotel rooms, anywhere, just write write write.
Do you record full takes or comp?
We would record full band takes and then comp parts. That’s where Jesse comes in and says well that’s fixable so you should do it and that’s flexible but don’t fix it cuz what you loose in accuracy you gain in x,y,z etc…. It’s not about being in phase or in tune it’s about being appropriately in phase or in tune. But overall how it sounds on the record is how it felt in the room.
How do you enjoy music in the streaming age? Itunes, Records, CD’s? Do you feel overwhelmed?
Oy vay, I don’t have a routine per say. I have a record player but it’s not hooked up. I go through phases. I use streaming as needed, it’s a tool for researching stuff. I don’t feel that streaming is my ‘in’ for discovering music though. The thing that would be more likely to get me to check something out is if a friend said ‘hey I made a record with so and so and it was really fun’, then I’ll go and look it up. This community is more the impetus for me investigating than thinking what’s cool and popular now? It’s a little more contained in the community; we’re so blessed to have so many friends doing cool things. It’s personal for me.
Susan Rogers was Prince’s engineer from 1983-1987 recording classics such as ‘Purple Rain’ , ‘Sign O’ The Times’ , and ‘Around The World In A Day’. She has her PhD in music cognition and psychoacoustics and teaches at Berklee School of Music. I spoke with her about becoming an engineer, recording Prince and the idea of ‘musical genius’.
What were some of the records that got you into the idea of production?
Early on I realized I had an aptitude for music listening. I was willing to focus and concentrate on it and enjoyed it. I became an avid ‘student of the game’ buying singles and 45’s from babysitting money. I received a Sonny & Cher album that had a picture of the recording engineer on the back and I remember feeling a little tingle of precognition that made me think ‘I think this is me’.
Slowly it became possible as the fog of youth cleared and you realize a practical path to recognizing your dreams.
Do you think seeing the lack of women engineers makes it more difficult for young women to enter the audio world?
There are two distinctions. First is to ‘see’ something as a career option and the other is to ‘feel’ something is an option.
To see it as option means there must be examples out there in the world
When there are only one or two examples it proves the rule. If you see none you think I’ll be the first, but if you see just a few you think ‘hm…its possible but there’s something going on here and that can be intimidating and daunting.’
Once we have more female role models I think it will be like water falling off a cliff.
The other mechanism is to ‘feel’ that it is possible. Imagining oneself in a leadership role whether its CEO or Producer or Director. You are calling the shots for men and women. You need the authority that people will listen to you. Our society is rapidly giving female more examples of women in leadership roles and men who aren’t worried about taking orders from a women. It will become more popular.
There are quite a lot of Women DJ’s , music suprvisors, and A&R. Not as many behind the board and it’s a long time coming but I think there will be a flashpoint and paradigm shift.
Could you tell us about how you handle the emotional connection with the artists you record?
It is very necessary to be connected with your artist. Artists are so vulnerable, They’re exposing themselves emotionally. Every time they go in the vocal booth or record their instrument they are allowing themselves to be judged. There needs to be trust there between engineer and artist. There needs to be an understanding that I am being harsh on you for your own good…to sell records. An engineer might make hundreds of albums but an artist may only make one. It is an extraordinary privilege for you as engineer to be chosen to be the first recipient of their artistic output.
How do you feel about the term ‘genius’ and would you apply it to Prince?
Prince certainly was. He was extraordinary; he’s the kind of person the adjective extraordinary was invented to describe. He was EXTRA ordinary. He had an exceptionally high aptitude for performance, composition, and improvisation. Those things are a product of nature and nurture. You have to be born with a certain neural architecture and high capacity for auditory imagery. You need to have a lot of functional connectivity between the auditory processing regions and the frontal motor area and to get technical the mesostriatal area. He had a super high IQ, I’m sure of it on top of lots of self -motivation and discipline. He also had the right environment of a father who was a jazz musician and a piano in the house. Pressure and heat from his difficult childhood aided that cocktail of natural talent.
Prince was furious when you put some time into your personal life instead of recording and you soon parted ways. Was this an irrational reaction from Prince, did he understood human emotion in the way you and I would?
I think to a certain extent that is true. He understood emotional well enough but expected his staff and musicians to suppress personal needs just like he suppressed his own for the greater good of the work. I was a willing spirit for a time but it wasn’t sustainable indefinitely. Only Prince could be Prince. I had a good run, we completed four years but it had reached a natural transition period. Paisley Park had just opened so he could now have a core staff of engineers. I needed to be myself and express other aspects of life other than working for Prince.
What was the studio set up throughout the time you worked with Prince?
Prince had a split level suburban home with a strong home studio. He did many pieces of Purple Rain and 1999 in there. In addition to that he was always leasing a commercial warehouse for band rehearsals. At rehearsal in the warehouse we commonly took the mics on stage and fed them to a recording console and tape machine so we could record rehearsal. Endless recordings were done at recording from ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ & ‘Computer Blue’. Additionally Prince’s favorite commercial studio was Studio 3 in Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. On tour we would pop into whatever studio we could book.
What are some of you go to pieces of gear? What kind of stuff did Prince enjoy working with?
He liked what he liked and was very reluctant to try new things. His home studio had pieces that he liked from Sunset Sound. The LA-2A, LA-3A, the Lexicon 240L which became the 480L. He loved the Lexicon Prime-Time digital delay. The Eventide Harmonizer. He always needed those around. He loved API EQ, the Pultecs…never Neve because it wasn’t tight enough in the bass for dance music. I added a few pieces that I discovered like the Publison Infernal Machine and Quantec Room Simulator.
After Prince passed away in 2017 I went to Paisley Park and went into the control room and it was 95% unchanged from what I saw in 1992.
I’m not dependent on many pieces other than the API 560 graphic EQ. I need that to shape tones the way I imagine them. If I have an Eventide Harmonizer I feel like I can work. Without that I find it very hard to get the vocal sound I like. Other than that I’m flexible.
Could a global superstar like Prince happen in todays streaming landscape?
In the sciences we never say never. It may be possible. The funny thing about that era is that there were few established superstars. In the US it was Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen. Rock stars had so much money they could do just about anything they imagined. They could put on extraordinary shows. Today with the money stream being so constricted I don’t know if we’re going to get the same kind of spectacle. If the money stream changes perhaps that will change.
Human nature doesn’t change. There will always be young people wanting to dress like the cool artists and have their world-view shaped by those artists.
Did these massive budgets aid Prince’s creative process?
Absolutely. People ask what was the process for this or that album. In the 80’s albums were kind of a continuum. He recorded constantly. When he had a batch of songs that reflected what he wanted to say right now he would release those batch of songs. We’d sometimes even master songs and put them right back in a box to release some other time. He constantly worked.
Today it seems you need to get a lot of approval from labels. Whether it be accountants or decision makers determining release dates and recording time. It doesn’t seem as supportive to the process.
Is there a lot of unreleased Prince material waiting to be released?
There has been a lot of material leaked and stolen from people employed by Prince. The super collectors have heard just about everything from the vault in the 80’s but they’ve heard copies that are pretty bad audio quality. 90% of it has seen some light of day but the typical public has only seen a much smaller fraction of Prince’s recorded material. In the upcoming years there will be quite a lot of releases of things that are mixed and mastered that have been missing all these years.