Blake Mills’ current touring rig, designed by Austen Hooks. Clockwise from upper left: (AMMO) Ammo Can spring reverb and brownface vibrato, custom built by Jo Anne at Victoria Amplifier; (TWEED SPR) ’54 Fender Tweed Super; (SPC HTR) “Space Heater” amp custom built from a military-issue film projector; (HOOKS VERB) custom-built spring reverb; (SPR REVERB) ’66 Super Reverb with ceramic Jensen speakers; pedalboard with a series of Radial ABY switchers and a Maxon AD-999 delay pedal.
You’ve worked with a lot of people in a pretty compressed period of time. Is there a secret to a successful collaboration?
It always seems to me like it bears a resemblance to having a conversation with somebody. And even if you don’t have something to contribute, there’s something to be said for how you listen, and how you participate. Even if I don’t have a musical opinion to give, at least there’s something I can do—a sort of musical nod, saying “Mm-hmm”—that can help keep the conversation going, you know?
That’s why touring with Lucinda was such a dream, because her music is so well written for a guitar player—these wide-open chord changes, where you can see the next verse coming. Then I went straight into playing with Fiona, and her music is sort of the opposite—like a stream of consciousness with a series of left turns—so you really have to commit. It took me a while to wrap my head around that because there’s hardly any guitar on her records. But it actually became the perfect gig for me, because I got to have all this fun making the guitar do things that were very un-guitar-like, which is a big favorite of mine.
There’s a massive scope to this album, starting with your choice of studio.
Well, I’ve done a few sessions at Ocean Way over the years, and always had a magical connection to the way Studio B sounds, especially drums. I wanted the flexibility—really just the sound of what goes on in that room, because I’m in love with the way Jim Keltner sounds in there. And I think the spirit of working with Jim is sympathetic to how the sessions went. As soon as you start directing him, you lose something about his spontaneity that nobody else has. Hearing how he gets out of a conundrum musically is one of my favorite moments. It’s like he’s an escape artist.
You’re getting a ton of different sounds here too. What were some of the guitars you used?
I’m a massive Telecaster fan because it’s the most straightforward and versatile guitar I’ve ever known. The ’52 blackguard Tele that I’ve been borrowing from Jackson Browne for a few years now has an interesting history. It was on a ton of his early records, and Waddy Wachtel and David Lindley and all these guys have played it.
I don’t play slide on the Tele very much—that’s almost always on my Coodercaster-inspired guitars. One of them I built with a guitar tech friend of mine named Mike Cornwall. The bridge pickup is similar to what’s in Ry’s guitars, but the neck pickup is from a Guyatone. I’m sure the secret’s out on those, but for a while I couldn’t find any information on them. They sound incredible, and they’re pretty different from the Teisco pickup that a lot of people put in that position when they’re making a Coodercaster. Bill Asher built my other one, and I use both of those for slide almost exclusively.
It’s a different technique for slide playing on a Fender-style fretboard, as opposed to a Gibson, which is relatively flat. The humbucker also makes a huge difference for sustaining the slide and shaping the notes, so any of the humbucker-style slide that you hear was done on a Les Paul that I’ve had since I was about 18. It was a gift from Dickey Betts, and it’s the best Les Paul I’ve ever heard. I even tried to find something to beat it, because I really didn’t want to tour with this thing because it’s so valuable. I took it to the vintage room at Guitar Center, and it just beat out everything. It may be a terrible idea to bring it on the road, but all these instruments don’t sleep in the trailer [laughs].
You get a huge Jimmy Page-style reverb on “Just Out of View.” [Engineer] Greg Koller says you had a 15" extension cabinet set up in the big side room with a pair of Neumann KM 53 room mics on it.
Right, and I played that on a Goya Rangemaster—an unusual-sounding guitar. The pickups are split in half, and you’ve got all these electro-mechanical switches for dialing in different combinations. But if you push the switches halfway down, you’re only monitoring three strings of the guitar. The other strings don’t have a pickup on, so if you play them, you’re just getting the sympathetic vibrations through the strings that do, so you get this really spooky reverb. It’s like tuned reverb—a really cool sound that I just happened to find accidentally. I think I used that for the fuzzed guitar—that Keith Richards-y lick—on “Gold Coast Sinking,” too.