Sennheiser’s Pro Talk Series on YouTube features interviews with the industry’s most respected audio professionals, including musician, producer and composer Blake Mills, whose discography spans from John Legend and Lana Del Ray to Alabama Shakes, Weezer and Kid Rock. Currently in residency at Sound City Studios, Mills has taken a more hands on approach to producing by helping to nurture an artist’s creativity and by factoring in their input, above all else.
Having grown up on the West Coast in the 1990s, Mills’ love for music was influenced most by the grunge scene. Among his favorites was Kurt Cobain, whose “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are” [Nirvana] were produced in the very studio that Mills calls home today. “When I was 10 years old, that image of somebody with long greasy hair playing a guitar strapped super low, was just really iconic and alluring for me,” he says.
Though his love for music has since grown to other genres, most of Mills’ professional life can be linked to one studio. “My history with Sound City goes back to doing a record with Tony [Berg] as my producer. I was in a band called Simon Dawes ... [and] we decided to make a record with him. I had never made a record before and everything was unknown and exciting. The spirit of experimentation is so wonderful.”
After leaving Simon Dawes, Mills began working for Berg and other producers, like Rick Rubin, which led to his involvement with some very famous artists. “We did a session here for a Kid Rock record, which was a huge surprise,” he adds. “Rick took a look at my [guitar] pedal board and said ‘so, you won't need that’ … it just wasn't what he was looking for, and that has stuck in my head. Before even a note was played, he just sort of was like ‘yeah, that's not the vibe.’ It was a gentle approach of guiding a musician towards a desired end result without telling them what to play.”
Luckily for Mills, these early musical experiences have shaped the type of producer he is today. “Every single recording that I've that I've worked on has continued to be an extension of the learning process, from the first one,” he explains. “A lot of the things that work for you on a record, [if] you try to re-create or implement on a future project, it doesn't [usually] happen in the same way. The circumstances change every time. So, the role of the producer in turn changes every time somebody makes a record.”
As a producer, Mills is perhaps best known for his work on the multi-award-winning Alabama Shakes “Sound & Color,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. “We talked about record making and where they were at and what they wanted to accomplish on this record,” he explains. “We started to work together on a couple songs … and we just kept going until it was it was done. And that was a really important experience for me on a number of different levels. Whenever an artist is making a record, they have to decide where on the spectrum between artistic creativity and commercial viability they want to land.”
And, Mills feels the Shakes album, walked that line perfectly. “It was just the best possible experience to have as far as the type of album to be working on, and with the type of band and personalities,” he adds. “To have that also cross over into the commercial success, it was just really lucky on a number of levels. And it’s something that I'm forever grateful for.”
Mills’ most recent album credit was for Perfume Genius’ “No Shape,” which won acclaim throughout the indie music scene. “We were really into the Neumann KU 100 head microphone for a lot of binaural recording,” he says. “We set up the mic at a stationary point and then had people go to different spots in the room, and we layered their background vocals. Then we had Mike [Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius] in one spot of the room, with a PA. So you have this sort of perspective that all comes from the head microphone. On other songs, we had Mike sing into the head so that the listener has this feeling that it's going in from one ear and then into another.”
Of the KU 100, Mills says “it's such an easy piece of equipment to use because you set it up and it really does do a great job of recreating the feeling of listening with your own ears. It does a good job of not getting in the way of capturing the physical sound of a room. So, if you have an environment that has a lot of reverb, like an echo chamber, using the KU 100 head in that space makes somebody feel like they're actually in there with you.”
The “No Shape” album is just one example of Mills’ unique production style. “One thing that I've noticed that we do in records is a blend between mixing and overdubbing,” he explains. “That was always a natural thing for me … and I didn't realize it was unique until people started saying so. I would imagine that the most unique things about [people] are probably the things that feel most deep rooted in their identity.”
Similarly, Mills says, “an artist shouldn't be made to feel like they have to define themselves or what their sound is” based on a producer’s opinions. “Artists have a strong opinion of what they want the record to sound like, who should play on it and where they want to record. There are a lot of decisions that an artist will have made before the record is even written that I think people commonly assume a producer does. I don't know that a producer has to fit a certain definition or description. I just try to identify the things that can be of service to the artist [that allow them to] just focus on being an artist. And that's maybe the best [job] description I can come up with for a producer.”