It's hard to imagine that anyone under 30, who helmed a Grammy winning (four awards!) record, might not let it go to their head. But Blake Mills, who produced the Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color (engineered by Shawn Everett, also in this issue), does not fall into that stereotype in the least. In contrast, he's enthusiastic about making music, quick to praise the people he collaborates with, and frequently mentions how grateful he is to work with the people he has. After chatting with Blake during a short break from a session (where he and his cousin, Jon Peter Lewis, were covering Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet" at Tony Berg's studio), it's clear that the success that has come Blake's way is in direct proportion to his enthusiasm for music, that he's easy to get along with, and he can clearly communicate his ideas in a way that gets you excited about them. And that's what a good producer does, right?
I'd heard that your first solo LP, Break Mirrors, was intended as a calling card for session work. I guess that worked out?
Yeah, it was an experiment. I had left the band Simon Dawes, and I was continuing to write without a goal of what to do with those songs. The obvious conclusion was to make a record, but I had no intention of performing that material. Being in a band at such a young age, I was always struggling to represent my artistic ideas over those of my bandmates. I was in the studio constantly with the engineer, Shawn Everett, during the making of the Simon Dawes record, Carnivore, stressing over all these little parts that everyone played. I'm sure that I was such a pain in the ass for everybody. So when I made a solo record I had carte blanche to do all of those kinds of things, without the stress. I went into a friend's house in Malibu with an engineer named Andy Brohard. We did some live tracking and then brought the record back here, to Tony Berg's studio in Brentwood, California, to finish it with Shawn. My hope, at the time, was that people would hear it and go, "Oh wow, what an interesting sounding record. We should get these guys to work with us. We should make all our records with them!"
You're also well-known as a guitarist. Was this an attempt to get more session work as a player, or was the goal to get into production?
It was to get into production. It was me coming out of a period of time where everything I did was collaborative – being a guitarist in a band [Simon Dawes], and co-writing the songs with Taylor [Goldsmith] – so it was really a way to try to create some record that felt inherently like me and my sensibilities. It was a process for the songwriting, as well as the sonics in the engineering, to sound the way I had wanted my music to sound at that time. My hopes were that someone would hear it and be aware that this was a part of what I was interested in doing. There wasn't that much focus on the guitar playing on that record – it's serving the writing and production.
And you met Shawn around this time?
I met Shawn working on the Simon Dawes record, Carnivore. I think that was around 2007 to 2008. A couple of years after that we started working on Break Mirrors together.
We interviewed Shawn for this issue as well. How do you divvy up your workload and responsibilities when you're working on a record with him, and you're either producing or co- producing? Do you do some engineering yourself?
I care a lot about how every sound is created and captured. I'm definitely more hands-on in that way than many modern producers, but I'm certainly not as schooled in engineering techniques as most of the traditional record producers were. I'm catching up on the jargon, and trying to remember the model name of the microphone that I liked so much on the guitarrón. When I'm working with Shawn, he can largely inform the process for the artist or the band we're working with. He is an engineer who, in a very unique way, captures the essence and transforms it without pretension. Traditionally it seems that great- sounding records were tracked in such a way that the engineers were trying not to record anything improperly. Maybe they would get clear sounds and counteract some deficiencies in the equipment, but the major sonic shaping was done during the mix. But with Shawn, he alters some sounds in real time. He reshapes the character of the sound, and it informs the way someone will sing or play. It can inform me too; like I'll build a record around how great the snare drum or that guitar tone suddenly is. It's influential to work with Shawn; it's like he's a band member. He's certainly an artist in that way. I would say my approach isn't something that I've figured out, beyond reacting to what I want out of the music – [which is] for the intent of the song to be clear, and the performance to be inviting. It feels like that's the only thing I can rely on being a constant in record making, and to inspire that I'm forced to react spontaneously – like a musician.
So is your role a little more musical, and Shawn's more technical? Is that a fair statement?
Well, it really depends. Sometimes Shawn's role is more musical. Sometimes Shawn's role is that he creates something, or that he has an idea on how to record something, and it becomes a part of the music. Sometimes he goes for a unique sound on something basic; he makes it surreal and interesting on its own, but perhaps there's no longer any high-end on it and the track is just piano and vocal. I might need to get technical with him in that sort of situation, to make sure that our song doesn't sound like all of the air has been sucked out. So it becomes a balancing act – we're chasing our tails, in a fun way, and hopefully arriving at something that feels like an interesting and exciting new way to present a sound that we've heard before. I'm, perhaps, more critical that the spectrum of sound isn't overtly low-fi, small, or anything like that. He and I both like exciting-sounding records, but I'm never after zaniness. Making a record with Shawn is unlike making a record with anybody else. He's truly one of a kind.
You mentioned earlier that your method is to react to what is happening in the studio. Is it purely reactionary, or when you're driving to the studio are you plotting out the day in your head?
Yeah, I am. I can't help but plot it out. But it's like when I'minmybedroompracticingguitarandIstumbleupon something so beautiful and think to myself, "I've gotta remember this!" But I never do when I'm responding to other musicians onstage. I almost never remember to go back to what I was thinking I could rely on. If I show up and have this preconceived idea of what I'm gonna do that day in the studio, I'm afraid of putting too much faith in that idea and then having it disappear. I know that if everybody is responding in the moment, and everybody's listening with an open mind – especially myself – that we'll have found something really special and honest by the end of the day. I could be listening to a Slim Harpo record on the drive in that day and think, "Oh my god, this arrangement is so brave, and ballsy, and simple. That's what this song we're doing needs to feel like – that simplicity. I'm gonna try to apply that to this record." I have applied that approach to working with everyone, from an artist like John Legend to a band like Dawes, because it's about refinement. But trying to control too much before you get a sense of the big picture is dangerous.
So there's a little bit of a plan, and a bit of a framework, but then you improvise from there?
Yeah, it's a conversation – that's what I always say. It's like you have your vocabulary, and you have your point of view; but when you go in to have a conversation with somebody, it's really hard to plan it past the opening statement. You're at the whim of the flow.
How do you pick a studio to work in?
The tracking room is the main thing. If it feels like a record where there's going to be a lot of live tracking, the room has to be able to handle it. The control room is important as well, knowing that what we're hearing is accurate. In the case of the Alabama Shakes, I was looking for the closest major city to where everybody lived in Alabama – and Nashville, Tennessee, is about two hours away. I called a friend in Nashville and asked, "What are some rooms that we can go into, really get some work done, and that sound good?" Blackbird Studios obviously came up, but because the Shakes record was such an experimental process, and we didn't know if we'd be booking out a room for two months or two weeks, there was a little less risk at Sound Emporium. It also felt a little more like our home. Once we got in there [Studio A] and shut the door, it really felt like that was our territory. We kept coming back to that room for consistency, and then we mixed at Ocean Way [now known by the original United Recording name] because I had made my second solo record, Heigh Ho, there with Greg Koller. He suggested that room because of its appropriateness for the music and the players on it: Jim Keltner, Don Was [Tape Op # 113], and Mike Elizondo – guys who've all worked in that room for years. Jim Keltner really knows how to use the sound of that room as part of his playing – how to get the walls to speak. There are a few drummers who, if you can capture the size of the sound that they are actually making in there, it's like one of the biggest things you could ever hear on a record. Jim's one of those guys, Ocean Way Studio B is one those rooms, and Greg is one of those engineers. By the time we mixed the Shakes' record, I knew what I would be hearing in that control room. I've spent the last six or eight months, off and on, at EastWest Studio 2, and that's another drum room I really like. You hear those cliché stories about how people spent four days on a kick drum sound in the 1990s, when they had those kind of budgets. But it probably wasn't always arbitrary. If you tap into a drum tone that defines the size and clarity of the record, a lot of the other sounds fall into place. The guitars can sound small, big, a little mid-rangy, or a little dark, if you have a base of comparison of reality in the drums. Whatever you're going after, if you get it with the drums and the vocals, it defines the rest of the track. I think having a sense of what the drummer will sound like in a room will be the defining factor for where I choose to work for now.
You also work at Shawn's place too, right?
A little bit, yeah. He has this great building, but he's been so busy that I don't know if he's been working out of there much.
It's an unusual room.
Shawn's an unusual guy, so it makes sense for him, and that's all that matters. Sometimes I try to pull him out of that territory to get something specific. It was interesting to witness his eccentric personality in an environment like Nashville. It's more exciting to me than doing it all in a place where he feels comfortable, or I feel comfortable. If I were by myself in these rooms that we're talking about, I would not know how to get the results that I'm after. I really do rely on the engineers I work with. I like them to be on their toes as well, so I don't always feel like the dummy.
You mentioned that Sound & Color was going to be an experimental process. From the minute you hear the opening track with the vibraphone, you realize, "This is different."
The Shakes and I met when they were on the road and they were playing L.A. We got together and talked about their first record, and the differences between what the collective tastes were like in the band now versus when they made Boys & Girls. They were wanting this record to incorporate some of their more eclectic tastes in style, music, and composition. So we talked a lot about the records they love, like [The Beach Boys'] Pet Sounds, artists like David Axelrod and John Williams, and a lot of various influences. To be honest, it was really exciting, but also a little confusing because there wasn't any material written at the time that seemed appropriate or relevant to those influences. You can't just plop that kind of musicality over a song that it's not right for. They clearly understood that. A few months later, Brittany [Howard, vocals/guitar] sent me a bunch of ideas. A few were fully organized into song form; verse-chorus-second verse-chorus-etc. Others were a guitar riff, a keyboard riff, a string chart, and various odds and ends – like a scrapbook of ideas. We went in and blocked two weeks out at Sound Emporium with the intent of experimenting; basically to see if the collaborative process made sense and to see if we came out of there with anything. And it went really well. It was clear that we could make something beautiful together if we had enough time. Half of my time was spent in the live room working on arranging parts with the band, and the other half of the time was spent with Brittany, delving into lyrics or developing the guitar riff ideas a little further. That's what I mean by experimenting. It wasn't a record where we had the material, the timeframe, and how we were gonna track it all figured out. It was like a clubhouse, where everybody came in and we wouldn't leave ‘til we felt like we'd accomplished something exciting. One morning I came in and they had already been there for a few hours doing Santana covers with Zac [Cockrell], the bass player, singing. It really felt like the parents were away and we had free reign of the studio to make one of those records that doesn't feel professional, or uptight, but one that's beautifully loose.
So it was partially written as you all went along?
Yeah. A lot was written in the studio, and a lot was written when we would take breaks. We would record for two to four weeks and then we would take time off, when they had to be on the road or we had addressed everything that currently existed. But Brittany would come up with three or four new ideas during those breaks. Sometimes fresh starts, sometimes more material on the songs we were already working on. It was really productive, and being in the studio really inspired everybody – they got a new sense of what they were capable of sounding like. It motivated us to finish the record, to write boldly, and to make a record that's not just about trying to sound different from before, but to make a statement about who they are.
Do you remember how many sessions it was?
Maybe five or six sessions. I think the record was probably made over the course of four months total, including mixing. There was a song, "Over My Head," that Brittany had written just before the mixing had started. We ended up tacking on a few days at the beginning of the mixing session so that the band could come in, and we tracked the song at Ocean Way. It took much less time for us to get drum sounds at Ocean Way than at Sound Emporium. Although we were also learning how to mic Steve [Johnson]'s drums at Sound Emporium – learning what sounded good and what didn't. But by the time we were working at Ocean Way we threw some mics up fairly quickly and it sounded good. There is something about that room, and it has a good console. The song that we did at Ocean Way went by so quick, and it was very easy to mix. There's something to be said for the magic of those rooms, and how few of them there really are in the world. They do make life easier, and they can make records better.
Was there conscious intent and effort to not repeat the first record?
I think in the back of the band's minds they knew that they wanted this second effort to challenge the world, or at least challenge the definition that was so easily placed on them of this "throwback Southern soul band." But I don't think there was ever a time when we were all scratching our heads and necessarily thinking, "Now how are we gonna fuck every sound up beyond recognition?" I think that everybody's tastes were naturally geared towards the slightly unusual. The way it would usually work out was they would all set up in the live room, with all the amps in the room except the bass amp, and I would walk around and dial up a tone on each element. I loved working on parts with Steve, just him and me in the room. I put up this big 32-inch orchestral kick drum that I was borrowing from Flea, and we used that as a sympathetic kick. There are no samples on the record, and we're not chopping up his takes or looping one good bar; it's all Steve, top to bottom. All of the drum sounds are the result of the mics that were there, the drums that were there, how we tuned them, and how we treated them. I once got in trouble, actually. I got reprimanded by the studio manager because we took the lid off their Wurlitzer and put a piece of tape across the tines to try and get this unusual sound, and we left it like that overnight. Sure enough, somebody came in and thought the Wurlitzer was broken. We tried to cover our tracks if we got a little too far out for Nashville. If Brittany wanted to sing directly into the [echo] chambers, we did it carefully and after hours. Even though The Beach Boys were doing that kind of thing on Pet Sounds in the ‘60s, I guess it's not the norm around there. It doesn't feel contrived to me, but it may be a little unusual given how easy it is to make a record without all of that extra work or "thinking outside the box." These days I encounter a lot of assistant engineers who are totally psyched to see that I'm even using the tracking room, let alone asking to see the chambers. I guess they work so often with producers who make the whole record in the box with just a vocal mic. But that's not the way many of my favorite records sound, and it's not the studio environment I grew up in. I've learned to have a lot of respect for the way great, contemporary, modern records sound, and that's because there are very few that sound very good. I'm trying to make records with actual musicians sound as compelling as sample-based music.
I really like the placement and depth of instruments in the stereo field on records you've produced. You seem to place sounds in a really interesting way within the stereo field, in that they're very self-contained, but they have an ambience to them that is localized to that sound. Is that a conscious thing you're working towards?
I think it's from what I'm used to hearing when I play live with people. I've been lucky enough to have played with some of the greatest musicians alive. You fall in love with the feeling of being in a room with your dreams – it's an unforgettable experience being in those situations. Maybe what I'm trying to recreate in arranging records is the sense of being in that environment with the music. Creating the space that you want to transport the listener to – the dream, the stage, and the studio. That's the environment I'm trying to create. So the stereo spectrum thing is informed by my desire to make the listening experience feel immersive. It reminds me a lot of painting. It takes a lot of effort to try to recreate realism, like with depth perception, perspective, and all of that. I think panning, to me, is largely based around trying to create depth and perspective in the aural field in a similar way. But you can run into problems with that if you're making a dance record or a pop mix.
When you say you run into problems, do you mean you're having to bring tracks more to the center?
If it's supposed to be competitive with Rihanna, yeah. In that sense, the power of mono is real.
Have you ever mixed in mono?
I haven't had the opportunity to mix anything in mono, but I'd be into it. Maybe not for those reasons. We usually mono the bass, especially when mastering for vinyl. A lot of the records I do are all built around drum kits and two guitars in a band, so to give them separation is to give them a chance of being heard – there's only so much space available inside a speaker!
Are you using additional reverb, like plates or chambers, when you're mixing, or are you capturing the ambience of the room when you track?
We've definitely added plate or chamber reverbs in some instances, but more as a flavor or an effect. But to give an example of how I've used it for stereo spectrum purposes: when you put on an old record and mute one side, you hear the room bleed of an instrument that was hard panned to the side that's been muted, and you get a sense of how little separation there was in the room. So even though it is supposedly relegated to that side, there is a bit of it bleeding. Not the same as just panning 45 degrees, because the bleed is a diffuse sound and not close mic'd. So one thing I started doing with Shawn was hard panning the close mic on a guitar to one side, hard panning its room mic to the other side, and trying to drop the room mic to a level that felt more like a mic in omni on some [other instrument] that's over on that opposite side.
So when you're tracking a guitar amp, you're using more than one mic, as well as putting the room mic on a separate track and making decisions later about where those two mics get panned?
Yes, I'm always taking room mics.
And when you're live tracking, you've got multiple room mics and are using whatever mics are available to be panned left and right when you mix?
Yes. Perspective relies on first deciding what's going to be the focal point – the place where the viewer is supposed to be listening from. I'm trying to create some realism by using what's there, but not adding any unnecessary reverb. It's about using a combination that feels like everything plays together. Whether there are overdubs or not, they can't sound like overdubs. For me, that's what ruins the experience of being inside the dream of the song.