Blake Mills isn’t a household name. Yet. But it’s likely this 25-year-old guitar player from Venice Beach will be very soon.
He’ll be in San Diego on Sunday, playing guitar in Fiona Apple’s band at FM 94/9’s Independence Jam in Oceanside. But if things continue to go the way they have, it won’t be long before Mills is headlining major venues across the country on his own.
After playing in Dawes with childhood friend Taylor Goldsmith, Mills released his solo debut, Break Mirrors, in 2010. He’s also amassed a more than impressive roster of collaborators along the way, including Cass McCombs, Lucinda Williams, Dangermouse, Rick Rubin, Fiona Apple, Conor Oberst, Julian Casablancas, Jackson Browne and Band of Horses. And if that wasn’t enough, Eric Clapton just personally invited him to play his Crossroads Benefit.
I recently spoke with the down-to-earth Mills, who was on a tour stop in the Bay Area.
Scott McDonald: How are you?
Blake Mills: I’m very good, man. How are you?
SM: Good. How are things going?
BM: Really good. We just got started back up with some new Fiona dates, so today we’re in San Francisco.
SM: The list of people you’ve either recorded or played with is unbelievable. Is it hard to also try to squeeze your own thing in?
BM: They kind of do come hand-in-hand. Being on the road with amazing people definitely is inspiring when you come back off the road, so it’s this natural sort of balancing act that figures itself out with not too much fuss.
SM: Really, it’s an embarrassment of riches. And time is on your side.
BM: Right. I just hope that when I’m 40, I still do have options.
SM: When you did Break Mirrors, were you already working with all of these other people, or was that album the catalyst for it all?
BM: Well, I had already been going out on tours doing some opening stuff, and I got a little stressed out with that. So I decided to spend a few years going out with other people instead. I continued to write the entire time, but never really had any plans for where the songs would go. And when a little window opened up between tours, I’d do some more writing and little by little I came up with enough material for an album.
SM: On the other hand, it has to be advantageous to just know your role, and be part of the background each night as well.
BM: Absolutely. I do enjoy being out of the spotlight with only needing to react to what someone else is doing. It feels like a natural place to be. But with the solo stuff, it really just seems more like leading a new conversation than striking out on my own. And it’s a lifesaver in that way. I’m not just out there alone.
SM: There are a lot of people out there saying really nice things about you -- namely that you’re slated to be “the next big thing.” Does that create any pressure for you?
BM: There’s only pressure if you buy into it. And it’s easy to fall into that. But my career path hasn’t really been designed, and because of that, it’s headed in all kinds of cool directions. I find myself getting so much out of these experiences that I didn’t plan. I like to keep my hands off of it. I love being proven wrong about what’s right for me or what’s best for me. All of my experiences thus far have been really great because I haven’t had to give anything up. I think if I had ambitions to become a household name, I would have to give a lot of things up that I get a lot out of.
SM: Did you start as a kid?
BM: I did. I asked my dad for what seemed like forever to get me a Strat. In ’94 we got Microsoft Encarta on the computer. And every time you opened the computer, it did a year in review. Kurt Cobain had committed suicide and they were highlighting clips of him. I was obsessed with Kurt and Nirvana for a few years, and I bugged and bugged and bugged my dad for a guitar. And when I was about 10, he got me one. I went straight into learning how to play Nirvana, Soundgarden and Metallica songs. That was the goal at first. A friend of my dad’s came over and asked me what I was listening to, so I put on [Weezer’s] Pinkerton. He was like, “Ok. Yeah. That chord progression: 1, 5, 6, 4.” He explained to me how the chords had numbers and you could pick them out without having an instrument around. And it was then that this magic art was illuminated for me. And I knew that I had to find out how to do that. I don’t know if I took it more seriously, or it was just fascinating to me, but it became my everything, all the time, and it still is.
SM: How was it having Eric Clapton call you to do the Crossroads gig?
BM: Oh, man. It was pretty heavy. I was about to go out on the first leg with Fiona, and my dad was having some health complications. I got this letter in the mail from Clapton, and it was the invitation. I went to see my dad in the hospital and I shared it with him. He was pretty moved by it, because Clapton was the very first concert he ever brought me to in Scottsdale, Ariz. The thing I remembered about it was his Stratocaster and the cool paint job it had on it. Anyway, so I wrote him back asking things like, “How did you find me?” and “Are you sure you have the right person?” [laughs] He said yes and that he’d heard me play some slide on a Dixie Chicks song that ended up on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy but that he thought it was Derek Trucks at first. And if there’s any guitar player out there, for me, it’s Derek. So he calls Derek to say how much he liked it, and Derek tells him that it’s not him, it was me. So it was one thing for Clapton to be aware, but then to know that Derek was aware -- that really messed me up a bit. That pressure you were talking about earlier is dwarfed by the pressure from knowing that now both of those guys are aware and watching what you’re doing. That’s a different arena.
SM: That’s crazy for any musician, but for a guitar player …
BM: I know. It’s mindblowing. And just to be a fly on the wall for some of these conversations that I’ve managed to finagle my way into …
SM: It seems like a lot.
BM: It’s a pinch-yourself kind of thing. I don’t want to take advantage of any situation in the proximity, but I also don’t want to take any of it for granted. I want to make sure that I glean all of the rock & roll wisdom I can. It’s so precious.
SM: What’s next?
BM: Well, I know that I’ll make another record. Not sure when, but it’s something I’m going to do. I also really want to do some more work with Cass McCombs. But mostly, I just want to keep with the momentum I already have going and see what happens.