Mike Mills had a life changing experience with music in his teenage years as a SoCal skate punk and went on to design album covers and direct music videos before his successful career directing features. He gravitates towards observational songs that report on the world around us and combine elements that don’t seem like they should work together, from the Beatles to the Beastie Boys. Mike is nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay at the upcoming Spirit Awards for his film Beginners.
For More: http://www.filminfocus.com/beginners
1 - New Rose - The Damned
2 - I'm Sticking With You - The Velvet Underground
3 - A Day In The Life - The Beatles
4 - B-Boy Bouillabaisse: Stop That Train - Beastie Boys
5 - Basin Street Blues - Louis Armstrong
Chris Douridas: Hi, I’m Chris Douridas and I’m here with Mike Mills whose autobiographical film, Beginners, has gotten a great amount of critical acclaim. Mike also has a history in music, making videos for artists like Moby and designing album covers for the Beastie Boys and more. What don’t you do? (Mike laughs).
We’re going to be playing some excerpts of songs you’ve picked out for us.
Mike Mills: Well, I was fairly serious skateboarder. I grew up in Santa Barbara, but I would come down for contests all the time at the skate parks. And all the skate parks had speakers in the actual bowls that you skated in, so I remember hearing like The Damned. The first time I heard it, it was like so caustic and impossible sounding. Like, ‘what is this noise?’, you know. But by the time I got home, I was like ‘this is the future’. Or this is so door opening. This is so wonderfully opposite of my nice little suburban Santa Barbara picture that I’ve been given.
Song: The Damned – New Rose
MM: I remember when I was in high school, I bought every single Damned album 7” I possibly could. And I remember sitting in a dark room with the lights out, in a chair that I got from a thrift store - you know being a good punk - and blasting The Damned as loud as I could. There was just such a theatricality to The Damned, but the music is just so pumping, like so ecstatic and so lunging, especially “New Rose”. It’s just like lunge! Lunge! Lunge! And even like Dave Vanian he yells out, yelps, because the song is out of his control and that’s what I wanted.
I wanted to get out of my little stuck, self-conscious, nervous, anxiety-ridden self and be a braver me. All that punk stuff really was the soundtrack that pushed me into that.
CD: The Damned. That is “New Rose”. 1977. From their first single, actually ended up on their first album “Damn Damn Damn.” What is next for us?
MM: “I’m Sticking With You” by The Velvet Underground.
I picked this one because it has some of their best tricks they had up their sleeves, that weird impossible combination of showmanship of this very catchy melodic, almost child-like tune with very psychologically subversive strange content.
And I think that’s what I love about Lou Reed and the Underground. He’s really like a vaudeville showman to me. He’s very aware of the audience. He’s very good at making catchy hooky things, but then the meat he puts into that package is so psychologically ahead of its time, and it’s really like this ode to co-dependency. (laughs)
Song: The Velvet Underground -- “I’m Sticking With You”
MM: But then there’s that wonderful refrain of like people floating through the stratosphere, soldiers fighting with the Cong, which to me is so Lou Reed -- his ability to report on everyday stuff. All his songs are in a really specific time, so in a way he’s like the most beautiful, lyrical documentarian. I love that.
So we have this impossibly sweet song sung by Moe Tucker right, in this very unprofessional way, with him almost clowningly accompanying her singing very dark thoughts and that ability to put all those impossible ingredients together is what got me.
CD: That’s “I’m Sticking With You”, the Velvet Underground classic piece. It’s part of the Guest DJ Project playlist put together by Mike Mills who is our guest here on KCRW. I’m Chris Douridas. So what’s the next one for us?
MM: The Beatles? Should we do that?
CD: Yeah sure, I love the Beatles.
MM: “Day in the Life” I picked because one it’s just so utterly beautiful, but it has all these things that actually a lot of these songs have. It has amazing reportage about everyday life that’s so well observed, so well written and it becomes quite lyrical and huge, you know? So I love that.
The other thing I love is that collage -- it’s two songs put into one. All of the sudden the Paul McCartney song comes along with this amazing symphonic transition that they shouldn’t be able to pull off and magically all of the sudden you’re in a different tempo and this utterly different energy…. heterogeneous things, things that are more than their parts and the parts that really shouldn’t be together. That’s what excites me.
Song: The Beatles – “Day in the Life”
CD: That's the Beatles. “Day in the Life” from Sgt Pepper here on KCRW, as part of director Mike Mills Guest DJ Project playlist. Next is a band you've worked with, The Beastie Boys, with one of the tracks off their classic album “Paul's Boutique”, produced by the Dust Brothers.
MM: We’re doing “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” next and that is really just a series of four or five songs with the most amazing transitions and to me. I think I really love it because it’s all these fragments. It feels very unfinished, and sparse, and kind of wobbly and wrong and unprofessional in the best sense of all those words, it really opens up a space for you to enter the songs, to me, especially “Stop That Train”. That again has that reportage thing where it’s like talking about everything that they do on the train and very well observed but humble, specific, small terms. But, again, if you pay enough attention to the concrete details it seems like they slip out from under you and become a much bigger view on life.
They are such good lyricists. To me, they are like up there with Bukowski level poetry -- their ability to turn nuts and bolts of everyday stuff into something really personal and wild.
Song: Beastie Boys -- “B-Boy Bouillabaisse.”
CD: That’s from Paul’s Boutique, 1989. Beastie Boys, “B-Boy Bouillabaisse.” Take me from the Beastie Boys… how do we get to Louis Armstrong?
MM: Well, the Beastie Boys would be the first person to give you a Louis Armstrong record. And even in their records, I feel like they sing about Dylan, they sing about so many eclectic things that they invite you to not just be a dumb hip hop person or a dumb punk person. There are smart versions of both those categories that is very eclectic and very curious, right?
So the thing that really sings to me is Louis Armstrong. And “Basin Street Blues” is such a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful melody and it feels so hand done. Like you can feel the room. It’s like a dry recording and you know they’re all playing together and just for sheer beauty it wins for me and speaks to me very much now. This is my new anti-depressant, my new Xanax. When the world gets a little Kkoyaanisqatsi, I go with Louis Armstrong now-a-days.
Song: Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five – “Basin Street Blues”
MM: And he’s doing his scatting thing then which, especially when it’s recorded - this is in the 20’s - again that’s really like as punk as the Beastie Boys, as punk as The Damned, as surreal and as really just rooted in energy. Who cares what the words are, and language, and what language means. What’s important is the energy.
CD: “Basin Street Blues”, Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five from the late 20’s. Thank you so much, Mike.
MM: Yeah, thank you guys.
CD: It’s such a pleasure having you here. Now for a complete track listing and to find these songs on line you can go to kcrw.com/guestdjproject and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes.