While samplers and Pro
Tools now put 100 tracks of overdubs in reach of every basement recording
artist, some of the best orchestral pop records ever were recorded live to
two tracks, as with the fabled Wall of Sound productions crafted by Phil
Spector and the Wrecking Crew.
Chris Mills, recording the 17-piece indie-rock orchestra that powers his new
album "The Wall to Wall Sessions" wasn't so much an effort to return to
rock's roots as it was an issue of necessity.
Mills was trying to
figure follow his stellar third album, 2002's "The Silver Line," when he hit
on the idea of using an orchestra in place of guitar, bass and drums (though
eventually those made their way onto the new album as well). "I don't like
to make the same record over and over again, and I didn't have a lot of
options financially, because I don't sell a lot of records," he says.
"I was debating the
idea of making a home-recorded, bedroom, singer-songwriter record, but that
just seemed boring. So I thought, 'How can I do as big a record as possible
on the budget I have?' And the answer was, 'Do it live to two tracks in
CHRIS MILLS, LESSER BIRDS OF
Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
The artist laughs
when I ask if this is his "Summerteeth," but he swears that because he's so
often compared to Jeff Tweedy, he stopped listening to Wilco years ago, nor
is he familiar with other recent ork-pop discs by groups such as the Arcade
Fire and the Decemberists. "I'm trying to be more conscientious about my
songwriting, so mostly I just listen to a lot of older stuff: the American
song book and craftsmen like Cole Porter. The idea wasn't to tap into any
movement, but to make a totally old-school, Wrecking Crew kind of record
where people just came in and played the songs."
A fixture on the
Chicago music scenes for years -- in addition to his solo recordings, he
plays with Sally Timms and the Fruit Bats -- Mills moved to Brooklyn two
years ago, following his girlfriend. That relationship has since ended,
providing fodder for some of his new songs, though others such as "The World
Some Sad Hour," "You Are My Favorite Song" and "Constellations" introduce a
more whimsical style of lyric-writing. Since his heart and most of his
musical connections are still in Chicago, he returned in January to record
at Wall to Wall Studios in River North.
The plan was that
Mills would rehearse the ambitious arrangements that had been crafted by his
friend, composer David Nagler, with all of the players who'd appear on the
record, including a five-piece horn section, a four-piece string section,
and musicians on piano, drums, bass, banjo, pedal steel guitar, glockenspiel
and vibraphone. Then the worst blizzard of the last few years hit and shot
that idea to hell.
"There was a big
snowstorm, so we could only get like four or five people to the rehearsals.
It was shaping up to be a disaster, because nobody really knew the songs
when we arrived at the studio. I think Dan [Dietrich, Wall to Wall co-owner
and recording engineer] was intimidated by the prospect at first: He told me
on the second day that he had almost walked out before we all got there!"
musicians -- among them Dave Max Crawford (the Sea and Cake), Susan Voelz
(Giant Sand), cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, Patrick Newberry (Head of Femur)
and guest vocalists Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor -- rallied to the cause,
drawing inspiration from Mills' lyrics and infusing Nagler's arrangements
with the passion that is rare to songs captured on tape shortly after the
band has learned them.
"I've never had a
better time doing anything -- not just music, but anything," Mills says. "To
hear [drummer] Gerald [Dowd] count it off, and to hear the strings come up
as you are singing in a vocal booth with Kelly and Nora, two of the best and
most attractive singers in Chicago -- well, you can't really beat that. We'd
do a take, and then all 17 of us would file into the control room and listen
to the playback.
"The people on the
record were all into making a good project instead of flaunting their own
egos. The horn players would be like, 'You need to take me down in the mix,'
and Dan would be like, 'That's the first time I've ever heard someone ask
for less of himself!' Everyone there knew that this was a special thing,
none of us had done anything like it before, and we all wanted to put that
The result is the
strongest album of Mills' career, as well as a testament to the communal
spirit of Chicago's indie-rock underground. The artist will celebrate his
new release this weekend with a show at Schubas featuring nine of the
musicians who played on the disc. And at least this time he can be sure it
REASONS FOR LIVING
With the recent death of
Robert A. Moog, the rock world lost an instrument maker who did as much as
Leo Fender or Les Paul to power the sounds of the last 50 years. After
listening to some of the many albums using his synthesizers (from Kraftwerk
to Yes to just about every techno artist), the best way to remember this
giant is via Hans Fjellestad's riveting 2004 documentary "Moog," recently
issued on a DVD crammed with extras, including performances by Stereolab, DJ
Money Mark and the Album Leaf.
"Moog" traces the
life of this accomplished engineer who became fascinated with theremins as a
teenager, and from there went on to craft some of the first practical,
portable and musician-friendly synthesizers. Interviews with progressive
rock giants such as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, funk legend Bernie
Worrell and techno innovators DJ Logix and DJ Spooky illuminate Moog's
contributions, but the best part of the film is seeing and hearing his
amazing machines in action.
In addition to making
theremins, the recently revitalized Moog Music Company ( www.moogmusic.com)
is producing a new version of the classic Minimoog called the Voyager. If
you're thinking about the ideal Christmas gift for the beloved wannabe
musician on your list (Hey, honey: Hint, hint, hint!), it's a thing of sheer
beauty, and one of the finest electronic instruments ever made. But be
warned: The cost is more in line with what you'd expect to pay for a decent