Orch Pop on the Cheap 

Chris Mills had big ambitions for his latest album but only three days to record it.

When Chris Mills entered downtown's Wall to Wall studio in January, he had a lot to do and not much time to do it. He'd hired 16 musicians to help make his fourth album, the orch-pop opus The Wall to Wall Sessions, and was planning to have it finished--entirely recorded and mixed--in just three days. Cost considerations were part of the reason, but he also wanted to thumb his nose at modern recording methods, which he says prize technical precision over the spirit of the performance. "If you listen to old Atlantic R & B from the 50s, even the early Elvis records, they just sound good," Mills says. "It's only a couple mikes and a couple guys in a room--a really rudimentary recording setup. The vocals distort and overdrive and everything--and that's the take they keep. Whereas today, somebody would go into Pro Tools and redraw the shape of a wave form to take the distortion out. I just wanted to go in the complete opposite direction from that."

Starting in the mid-90s Mills was a regular performer around town, both as a solo artist and in groups like the Fruit Bats and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. But in the summer of 2003, after finishing a tour behind his 2002 album, The Silver Line, he moved to New York City. ("For a girl," he says, "the same reason you do anything, really.") He spent the next year there writing songs, playing the occasional gig, and working at Music Together, a Brooklyn music school.

By the fall of 2004 Mills had a batch of new songs and was itching to record again. But he'd begun to move away from the charmingly melancholy--if occasionally mopey--alt-country of his previous records; he was studying songwriters like George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and thinking of ways to integrate their styles with the aesthetic of modern bands he enjoyed like Neutral Milk Hotel and the Flaming Lips. The new material seemed to demand a more orchestral sound, but because Mills was planning to finance the record himself he didn't have the money for hours of recording, multitracking, and mixing. He also didn't have the inclination, given his experience making The Silver Line.

"I found the whole process of mixing the record, poring over the tracks, and nudging this one dB this way and that way entirely tedious," he says. "You spend a lot of time doing things that really aren't gonna matter to anyone and don't have that much to do with the songs, or with what you're trying to get across. In fact it can stand between the listener and the music, as opposed to connecting them. Instead I wanted to get a big group of talented musicians that I loved, put 'em all in one room, and just lay it down. I wanted to release a record exactly as it was played and let the songs and the arrangements do the talking."

After seeing Wall to Wall's 850-square-foot main room during a visit last September, Mills was sold on recording the new album back in Chicago. He gathered up the core members of his old backing band, the City That Works--drummer Gerald Dowd, bassist Ryan Hembrey, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Max Crawford--and began soliciting local brass and string players, percussionists, and vocalists. In advance of the three-day session, Mills put together what he calls "a sort of fake version of the record with cheap MIDI samples" with New York-based arranger David Nagler and sent the demos to the players.

Mills scheduled two days of rehearsals at Wall to Wall with the full band, but he arrived in town in the midst of a snowstorm that kept many of the musicians homebound; no more than six players wound up making it to either of the practices. Mills was understandably nervous when the full band gathered a few days later for the first recording date, as was studio owner Dan Dietrich--he'd never engineered such a large live session before. "He was joking that he wasn't gonna show up," Mills says.

With Mills, Kelly Hogan, and Nora O'Connor holed up in the vocal booth and the rest of the band on the main floor, the group recorded live to two-track. They cut no more than five takes of each song, usually nailing it on the second or third pass. "It was entirely mixed on the fly," Mills says. "No overdubs--just two little edits on the entire disc. Essentially every second and every note that you hear was played and mixed simultaneously."

The Wall to Wall Sessions is Mills's finest album to date, and much of the credit does have to go to the recording method--there's a thrilling immediacy to the organic, live performances. But the ten songs on the album also show his growth as a songwriter. The mood constantly shifts--the stark opener, "Chris Mills Is Living the Dream," is an existential anthem that opens with the image of Richard Pryor running down the Sunset Strip in flames, "You Are My Favorite Song" is jaunty jazz pop--but there's a consistently epic sweep to the tracks.

Mills paid for the recording of The Silver Line himself and released it on his own label, Powerless Pop Recorders, at a cost of about $25,000; the album sold approximately 3,500 copies, which Mills says wasn't quite enough to cover recording, label, and publicity costs. So he began pursuing outside labels for The Wall to Wall Sessions, but he initially met with some resistance. "When you're pitching someone a live record by a 17-piece band, the first question that comes up is 'How are you gonna tour it and what kind of support are you looking for?'"

In the meantime he applied to perform at the CMJ Music Marathon, and the disc fell into the hands of Peter D'Angelo, a talent booker for the fest and co-owner of a Brooklyn label, Ernest Jenning Record Co. D'Angelo flipped over the record, and in May he and Mills struck a deal to put out the album in October as a joint release with Powerless Pop. "We were ready to take the plunge and try something bigger," D'Angelo says. "Chris seemed like the perfect artist to do that with."

Since then Mills has signed on with a new booking agent, and he's just returned from a five-city tour of England, where "Chris Mills Is Living the Dream" is enjoying some airplay on BBC2. (Circus65 Records, a label founded by Mills's UK booking agent, will release the album in Europe.) For Saturday's Schubas gig he'll be backed by a ten-piece band; he'll spend the rest of September opening for Lucero on their U.S. tour with a three-piece and expects to spend the next year on the road as well.

Shortly after returning from the UK, Mills moved out of his Brooklyn apartment and put his possessions into storage. He's not sure where he'll settle after he's done touring, but he wants his next album to be another live and loose affair. "I really like doing things that way," he says. "I just think you can feel the excitement of the players when everybody's in it together and the red light is on--you get a little more amped up and put a little extra into it."

Mills is as surprised as anyone that he was able to pull it off. "I was prepared to come away empty-handed," he says. "I never dreamed I would get a whole album out of the sessions, much less something I think is my best record."

Chris Mills & the City That Works Orchestra, Lesser Birds of Paradise

When: Sat 9/3, 10 PM

Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport

Price: $12

Info: 773-525-2508

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshleman.

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