Plastic Makes It Real
Chris Mills has never been too comfortable spending other people's cash. "If someone is 'giving' you [money]," says the 28-year-old singer-songwriter, "you feel like you owe them something." And when that someone is a record label--even an independent like Sugar Free Records, which released Mills's first two full-lengths and an EP--that sense of indebtedness can interfere with the creative process. "It always made me a little nervous having to play things for people before they were done," says Mills. "[Sugar Free was] definitely more marketing minded as a label than I was as an artist." These different perspectives led to disagreements about, for instance, what songs to include on his records.
But once Mills fulfilled his contract with Sugar Free in 2000, he was faced with a more pressing problem--namely, how he would release any songs. His head was still full of tunes and lyrics, but with no one to write checks, he couldn't get them on tape. Discussions with other labels, including the local imprint Undertow, had reached dead ends. Like most indie rockers, Mills was hardly rolling in dough--he'd eked out a living for the latter part of the 90s by touring, temping, and occasionally performing with better-known musicians like Sally Timms and the Fruit Bats. So he did what any real American would do--he pulled out his credit card.
"I was willing to spend whatever it took to make the record I wanted to make," he says. "As long as the Citibank would hold out, I would add on another day in the studio and keep working, focusing in on what I wanted and not having to worry about pleasing anybody or worrying about anything other than making my minimum payment." In the end, recording his excellent new album, The Silver Line, ran him about $12,000--a few thousand more than its predecessors--but every penny was carefully accounted for. "Since I was spending my own money I made sure to have more of a plan going into it," he says. He nailed down the song selection and meticulously mapped out arrangements before he began recording with Brian Deck at Engine. Though he only spent about 14 full days tracking, the whole process took about four months.
By the time the album was finished in March, Mills had made a choice that would cost him even more money: he took out a $10,000 bank loan, started Powerless Pop Recorders, and released the record himself. "It didn't seem like anybody was going to be able to do that much more than I could do on my own," he says. His experience with Sugar Free and his conversations with owners of other local labels like Overcoat and Undertow had convinced Mills he could pull it off. He estimates that he needs to sell 3,000 copies of the new record to break even. Any money he rakes in after that is pure profit--and there's no label to split it with. Released in late October, the album has already shipped about 2,000 copies, which, according to Mills, is nearly the number each of his last two albums sold on Sugar Free.
And since Powerless Pop is his operation, Mills has full control over every facet of the business. "I know how much is being spent on press or sending stuff to radio or where the ads are going," he says. "When you're with a label it's always like, 'We'll handle it, don't worry about it,' and then when something fucks up you don't know who's responsible. Is the record not selling because it's no good or because it's marketed poorly or because they don't have a good relationship with their distributor?" Mills says he now has a greater understanding of Sugar Free's marketing concerns, but at the same time he's confident about his prospects--he even hopes to someday release records by other artists.
The gamble has paid off in one way: The Silver Line is Mills's best and most ambitious album to date. His earliest efforts could have been assembled according to "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Uncle Tupelo," but his songwriting has improved steadily over the years. The uncluttered brass and string arrangements that grace many of the album's ten tracks are the most obvious break from his twangy past, but the stylistically varied songs offer more subtle signs of progress. Mills sprinkles "Sleeptalking" with dB's-flavored pop hooks and takes a surprisingly effective soul turn on "Diamond." Overall he delivers the new stuff with an adventurous flair rather than the bland earnestness of heartland rock.
Such genre hopping marks a major musical change for Mills, who's been involved with the local alt-country scene since he moved here from downstate Collinsville in 1992 to attend Northwestern University. He was soon hosting a country show on Northwestern's radio station, WNUR, and hawking merch for Bloodshot Records so he could sneak into 21-and-over shows. In subsequent years the former army brat became something of a Chicago apartment nomad, shuttling from place to place in between tours and stretches of couch surfing.
But though his cell phone number was once the most fixed thing in his life, Mills has found some stability in Chicago of late. "I'm feeling more comfortable musically and artistically," he says. "I think a lot of that has to do with feeling more comfortable in my surroundings and feeling I have some idea of how things work. I'm not worried about whether I've made the right choices anymore, and I think that's enabled me to get my bearings."
Mills and his band, the City That Works--drummer Gerald Dowd, bassist Ryan Hembrey, and keyboardist Dave Max Crawford--will perform with a six-member brass and string section Saturday, December 7, at the Hideout.
Many jazz veterans take fewer musical risks as they ease into old age, but German bassist Peter Kowald--who suffered a fatal heart attack this September, at age 58, in New York--was always interested in finding new creative challenges. In 2000 he bought a 1968 Chevrolet Caprice to search them out. He spent several months driving around the U.S., improvising with a wide variety of players--both respected veterans like George Lewis and Fred Anderson and younger, largely unknown acolytes. His tour was documented by French filmmaker Laurence Petit-Jouvet, and the result, Off the Road: Peter Kowald, makes its Chicago debut at the Gene Siskel Film Center with screenings on Sunday, December 8, and Thursday, December 12. See Movies in Section Two for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.