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One of the Roamin’ Kind

Like many professional musicians, singer-songwriter Chris Mills inhabits the lower echelon of a class the Utne Reader recently christened the “modern nomads,” whose home is “everywhere–and nowhere at all.” He rents an apartment in Logan Square, but the night we talk, he’s in the middle of a short Canadian and northeastern tour to promote Kiss It Goodbye, his third and latest album for the local Sugar Free label. “I’ve got a cell phone,” he admits toward the end of our interview, the afternoon before a gig at the Mercury Lounge in New York. “I never thought I would . . . but just because I’m gonna be away so much. So you can reach me on that.”

Mills may be new to mobile communications, but he’s not new to the mobile life. An army brat, he lived in Maryland, West Germany, Virginia, and Colorado before he was ten. Rootlessness is a recurring theme on the new album: “All You Ever Do” is about a girl who bad-mouths her small hometown when she moves to the city, while in “Crooked Vein” (a tune by Herman Jolly, whose band Sunset Valley also records for Sugar Free) the narrator’s fiancee gives up on him and goes “back to Tennessee.”

“I think it informed who I am now,” Mills says, “the fact of not being centered anywhere, of getting places and having them be really strange, and then by the time they eventually became comfortable, immediately leaving.” When Mills was 12 his family settled in downstate Collinsville, a town of about 20,000 some ten miles east of Saint Louis, but he could never shake the feeling that he was a visitor. “Everyone had grown up there their whole lives, and I was coming in late in the game. It struck me as really bizarre, because you’d have kids talking about how they were gonna write papers on white power, and to call somebody a fag was like the worst insult in the world. Everybody worked hard to put food on the table and to have a nice home for their kids, but at the same time there were a lot of people being raised with ideas that I found really scary.”

By the time he graduated from high school, in 1992, he’d picked up the guitar and was writing songs. Down the road in Belleville, Uncle Tupelo had released a triad of albums that would eventually alter the pop landscape, but his big inspiration was New York, Lou Reed’s brutal valentine to his chosen city. After enrolling at Northwestern University, Mills began looking for solo gigs in Chicago, bypassing coffeehouses for the rock clubs where his favorite bands played. He and a friend launched a country music program on WNUR, and Mills fell in with the local alt-country crowd, selling CDs and T-shirts for Bloodshot Records so he could get into their 21-and-over shows. It was the perfect clique for him, a group of people who’d pulled up stakes and come to Chicago–perversely enough, to play roots music.

In 1995, Mills released two home recordings on a seven-inch single, which caught the ear of Thaddeus Rudd. When Rudd cofounded Sugar Free the following year, he asked Mills to provide the first release. Nobody’s Favorite, a collection of seven more four-track recordings, brought an invitation from Jon Langford to perform at the “Here Be Monsters” songwriter showcase at the Chopin Theatre, where he became something of a regular. In 1998 Sugar Free released Mills’s second album, Every Night Fight for Your Life, featuring guest performances by fellow “Monsters” participants like Edith Frost and Deanna Varagona, and the next year Sally Timms asked him to play guitar in her touring band, a gig he returned to earlier this year.

Despite the high-profile help, on those first two releases Mills seemed destined to remain a second-stringer, his melodies seldom living up to the dire poetry of his lyrics. But on Kiss It Goodbye he delivers his best songs yet, and working with a cast of about 20 players he conjures up a variety of moods to match his stark imagery. The corn-belt rock of “All You Ever Do” might actually get airplay in the corn belt if not for the double-edged verse in which the singer upbraids the city girl: “I want to walk down Vandalia Avenue / Holding hands just like we used to do / You say you hate the weak women and the ignorant men / But what’s a little nigger joke between friends.” A funereal bass drum and occasional strummed guitar punctuate the empty space of “Napkin in a Wine Glass,” a bleak sketch of a brutalized woman who declares “I think I’d let my kids play with guns / Don’t want to raise another one like me / One who would fold so easily / Like a napkin in a wine glass.”

Love stretched to its limits by geographical distance is the subject of “Signal/Noise,” the record’s seven-and-a-half-minute finale, in which an intimate relationship breaks up like a radio signal: “Your voice goes static in the haze / And I love you more the further I get away.” The track is a tour de force for producer Brian Deck, who creates the dust bowl equivalent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound using bells, organ, strings, a horn section, and a chorus of sha-la-la-ing women. Mills and Deck worked on the record throughout the first half of 1999, spending a total of three weeks in the studio to craft the more elaborate numbers. Mills had a release date from Sugar Free last year, but after listening to the record for a while he decided he wasn’t satisfied, saved up another two thousand bucks, enlisted Jon Langford to produce, and completed four more tracks in three days.

“Jon’s been like a mentor, really,” says Mills. “He’s helped me out in so many ways, in learning how to play music as a lifestyle as opposed to a hobby or something that’s gonna make you rich. More by example, showing me that it’s possible to continue to do it for a long time, ’cause you really love it, and still do your own thing regardless of the way the market goes or even if people show up….All the other things that go along with it need to be dealt with, yes, but aren’t nearly as important as doing it.”

Of course, the main thing that needs to be dealt with is paying one’s bills, and when he’s not on the road Mills does white-collar migrant labor for a temp agency. “It’s a drag,” he says, laughing. “It’s a soul killer. But it’s necessary.” In the last year, between backing Timms and doing his own shows, he was able to live off music for about six months. This summer he’s doing the Starbucks circuit around town with just his guitar, and on Saturday he’ll play a record-release show at Schubas with Varagona on backup vocals, Gerald Dowd on drums, David Nagler on bass, Steve Dorocke on pedal steel, Andrew Bird on violin, and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello. Saturday afternoon he’s doing an in-store at Laurie’s Planet of Sound, Sunday afternoon he’ll appear at the Taste of Lincoln Avenue street fair, and by Tuesday he’ll be in Minneapolis, on the road again. “I make more now than I used to,” he says. “I still don’t make a living wage by any stretch. But it gets better. It’s all about staying in the game and keeping it going.”

Peter Margasak is on vacation.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

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