"My songs all come from the same place," Mills says from a van speeding through California. He and drummer Gerald Dowd are late for a gig in San Francisco; he doesn't know who will share the bill tonight. "It's stuff I've gone through, or people I know have gone through. It all comes from real life." Asked whether, like fiction writers, he worries about former flames and friends spotting themselves in his songs, he laughs a little and says, "They know it's a risk."
Mills, as singer and writer, brings to mind the liquored deep-blue destitution of Mark Eitzel or Richard Buckner. His terse lyrics come in quotable, lethal bullets: I think I'd let my children play with guns, muses the woman of "Napkin in a Wine Glass" before Mills' narrator hits her. Mills' flexible voice most resembles Chicago group Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams; both nudge their desolate songs from too-earnest torpor by singing through a sardonic grin.
"I think the whole point (of writing songs) is to connect with people," he says. "You want people to identify with songs, so you have to make them both personal and universal." A 1996 graduate of Northwestern University with a film degree, Mills could be talking about movies too. His songs, though, aren't rooted in the fantastic like the movies he most admires are (Brazil and Delicatessen are mentioned); they're more like John Sayles character studies, unflinching and honest.
Like the Chicago scene-makers he hangs out with (the Mekons' Sally Timms and Jon Langford are mentors -- Langford produced half of Goodbye and Timms has hired Mills as a guitarist for her road band), Mills favors stripped-down, rustic arrangements. "The idea is to make a song that works," he says. "If it's a good song, it's a good song, no matter who's playing along." Dowd is along for the tour because Mills prefers a drummer (who can also play guitar) on the road with him. "There are more options in the studio, but I don't feel having just the two of us lacks anything," he says.
That's not rationalization on a low budget; Mills has strong points of view that suggest he's not an easy compromiser. "I'm pretty self-critical," he admits. "I've got to think (a song's) pretty good to keep it." For Goodbye, he recorded 15 tunes, then kept only 10.
"I don't believe in long albums anyway," he continues. "Forty minutes is about my limit. But that said, I only want to keep the best stuff. Over time, some things I wrote didn't sound as good, so I didn't keep them. I don't necessarily think they'll be released as B-sides, either. The simple explanation is that the 10 we kept were better than the five we left off, so why would I want to put those five out there?"
Mills has added a few songs to his set list that were written since he completed Goodbye. He and Dowd also have rehearsed a Flaming Lips song and material by the Mekons and another Chicago fixture, the Handsome Family. Asked whether he writes constantly, he answers with a shrug: "Sometimes I can write on the road. It's not really up to me, though. It comes through when it comes through."
Mills doesn't initially write down lyrics. Working them out as he composes the song's music, he works with a single idea for each song, drawing a thematic line through the set later. "I start with lyrics but tend to put them together with the music at the same time," he says. "Any thematic connection happens because in your life, there is a through line from which things are derived. This album is about breaking down and departures."
Mills and Dowd recently had trouble departing a gig after a breakdown. "I turned 26 on Sunday (August 6)," Mills explains. "I decided to get a tattoo from Pete Krebs, who used to be in the group Hazel but now is a tattoo artist in Portland." The bill for Mills' and Dowd's tattoos came to $60, the last of their cash. "So then we realized that we needed a new car battery. I told the story from the stage that night, and this guy after the show asked if we really were in trouble. He said he'd put in a new battery if I gave him my three CDs (Mills released an EP in 1996). The next morning, he made good."
Mills' tattoo is a simple cross. "I was going to get a band around the arm, but I was worried I'd have needed a couple of days to recover before playing the guitar again without pain." Mills' album may be a compelling little downer, his persona a beautiful loser unable to stop falling in love badly, but he doesn't suffer for his art.