Most music nerds don’t actually want to make music. They want to be engaged with it, informed from it, surrounded by it all the time. In that way, the writer and director Mike Mills — whose new movie 20th Century Women was just nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar — has lived an ideal music nerd life.
Growing up in Santa Barbara, a beautiful, sleepy town a couple hours up the coast from L.A., Mills fell in love with skating and punk rock. He went on to design gorgeous album covers and direct low-key-genius videos for bands like Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, and Air before segueing into a celebrated filmmaking career fully imbued with his gushing love of music. Inspired by Mills own relationship with his single mother, 20th Century Women is as much an ode to fraught but unbreakable familial ties as it is a celebration of The Raincoats and Suicide and all the other bands that blew young Mikey’s mind.
Do you remember you first show?
Yeah. I went straight into punk. Pretty much. My first was a bad version of Beatlemania. But that’s not really a show. The next one was the B-52s at UCSB. And that was pretty amazing. I had no classic rock moment in my life. I was like 12, 13 years old, and I was a skater kid, and the music they were playing at skate parks in L.A. was punk stuff.
There’d be kids bringing their stereos to the parks?
At some of the parks — like Marina del Rey, that was a really famous skate park — they had a speaker built into the keyhole. Like, built into the pool. And then there were these loudspeakers at the parks. So music was always a big part of skating. Those kids were into more hardcore stuff — Circle Jerks, Black Flag — and also British stuff, like Gang Of Four and Buzzcocks. The first time I heard it was I was like, "What is this noise? What is this destructive noise?!" But then of course I totally fell in love with it.
This was the vinyl days. So you had to drive for an hour to get the record store and then they didn’t have the Siouxsie record in stock because the guy that worked there was cool and knew about it and it got swiped early. And so you had to take three buses to get to the other record store out by UCSD and you’d get the record and you’d bring it home and listen to it in its entirety very loudly while sitting in front of the speakers. You had to work harder to get it. And each new record you got felt like a manifesto on living.
In 20th Century Women, there’s a scene where a characters gets beaten up, both for patronizingly explaining female sexuality and for liking the Talking Heads. Was that based on a real event?
I was in bands all through high school. I was in punks bands. But we also liked Joy Division and Talking Heads and to a true hardcore group of people that was kind of like selling out and too arty, right? So at one point, at this sort of punk house in Santa Barbara, someone spray painted something like “Mike Mills Is An Art Fag.” And it was probably for liking the Talking Heads. So all those real facts, that kind of got stirred into the movie.
In the movie, there’s also a divide between Black Flag and Talking Heads.
Back in the day I didn’t respond to Black Flag. They were maybe the most popular band in the hardcore scene, and I didn’t get it. I found it to be a little too macho. Now I listen to Henry Rollins on the radio. He’s the most sort of radically inclusive, awesome, inspiring, spiritual person. And he’s just fucking funny.
Was there a time when skateboarding was just skateboarding? Or was it always connected with punk music for you?
Oh, yeah. It was indivisible. What everyone’s wearing, the attitudes about the world, the anger toward the false normalcy of the world. That was all integrated. So this is like, ’79 , ’80, maybe even part of ’78. I live in Santa Barbara and you go down to L.A. and the skater kids there are so much more worldly. They know more stuff, they’re hipper. Going to skate parks was when I first heard punk, first saw punk kids, first saw people getting into that anti-authoritarian thing as a community, as a group.
What were your high school bands like?
It was basically one group of people. You would lose a person and get a new person. So it was kind of one band that had many different names. We did record and we got on a local radio station a little bit and we played a fair amount of shows. And we were horrible. At one point we were called RIP. And someone funnier than us renamed us Rock-Stars In Puberty. As an insult. And it was a very good one. A very good insult.
How’d you start designing covers and making music videos?
My first one, it wasn’t quite a video. It was, like, an EPK — an electronic press kit. And this is back in the ’90s. It was for Frank Black, right after he left the Pixies, when he first became Frank Black. We went out to Rockaway Beach and drove around in a Cadillac. That was the beginning.
You know the Alleged Gallery on Ludlow Street? One summer there I met and ended up working for Boss Hog, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Sonic Youth, and Beastie Boys. And it was largely because of hanging out at the gallery and Max Fish and all that. I would was the one person that would drink and party till 2 a.m. and hang out with everybody but then be at work at 9 a.m. I was one of the few people that could deliver on a deadline.
You were actually going to an office?
I had my own little office. It was on 636 Broadway, Broadway and Bleecker. Most of us back then were sort of more straight-up weirdo fuck-ups that would be partying all night. But I also had this tiny little office.
I’m really not that much of a hipster. I’m not that much of a connector person. I’m actually pretty shy and awkward, but I started working for Kim Gordon and Mike D, and I was kind of nerdy and nervous around all those people, and self-conscious. But I could deliver. And that was kind of how it all steamrolled.
What was the first thing you did for the Beastie Boys?
I did the cover of the Root Down EP, then I did all these tour posters and T-shirts. I met Mike D, he came over to the office. And that was fun. Paul’s Boutique, to me, is like, the Ulysses of music, you know? I was, like, completely star struck. But Mike is such a normal down to earth worker man. He’s in there getting shit done. Sometimes you meet rock stars or whatever you wanna call them, and they’re kind of different every time you meet them. Sometimes they remember you, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re nice, sometimes they’re not. Mike’s always the same. And I continue to get nervous around him to this day.
In the video for Air’s “All I Need,” you made basically a little documentary short about a young couple in love. How’d that happen?
Missy and Mark. They were a real couple from Ventura, the town over from Santa Barbara. It influences 20th Century Women in a way because it’s creating a story out of real life. Observing real people and interviewing them about their life and the basic simple small nuts and bolts of how they figure out their world. And turning that into a story. That was sort of a game changer for me. People had an emotional response to the video. They didn’t cry but they got a little teary-eyed. And I didn’t see that coming. I also didn’t see coming that I’d enjoy that. That I would find it powerful or interesting. That proved to be a very key moment for me.
[Air] said, “Mike, this song is too pretty. You have to fuck it up. You have to do something that really fucks it up.” And I said OK.
What was your process when generating ideas for videos?
When you’re doing videos, they’d ask five directors to come up with ideas, and your idea competes with the other people’s ideas. So you get a cassette tape of the song. And I’d put the cassette tape on repeat all day long. I would hypnotize myself with the song.
You put the song on repeat and at first your ideas would be normal or obvious. Like, an obvious relationship to the music. But if you listen to something all day long, literally all day long, you forget that youre listening to it and it starts to influence you in really weird ways. Not so obvious ways. The things I found most interesting were ones you get 15, 16 ideas in.
Were you ever consciously trying to come up with outlandish ideas? Like, as a way of beating out your competition for the assignment?
In the end, if you’re trying to get a job — you’re not gonna get the job. It’s sort of similar to making a movie. You can try to be commercial. But it doesn’t work out that easily. And sometimes if you do something that really interests you and excites you and, I dont know, makes you hungry, often that’s what connects to the audience.
Back to the Mike D, Beastie Boys thing — they are so good at that. They were so weird. What they were interested in and what they were rapping about was so specific to them. But because they were so fully authentically engaged in what they were talking about, it was contagious. I remember seeing them at Madison Square Garden. I was on the side of the stage and you could see this whole monstrous audience in front of them. It was like, so loud, and they’re just being so weirdly, fully all in themselves. And this huge audience is loving it. That was a huge lesson.
You still supplement your income with the occasional ad work. Is it only about the money?
After my dad died I did have this kind of feeling like, “Fuck it, I’m not gonna help capitalism any more.” So I left the production company. And then I came back like a year and a half later. Partially because I needed money, for sure. But also because I missed directing on a regular basis. If I just directed when I made my movies I would direct every five, six years. It’s complicated, doing ads. It’s politically, culturally, deeply problematic, for sure. But when you’re only doing one a year or two a year you can be kind of choosy. And I love directing and I like the idea of practicing. I love being on set.
Are you generally competitive with other artists? Do things like the Oscars kick you into a competitive mindset?
I am, for sure, not above feeling ... whatever you wanna call it ... ambitious, prideful, vain. But it’s not actually competing. It’s more like, this is fucking important, I’m gonna put everything I have into it. In relation to the Oscars and all that stuff, it totally stirs it up, comparing yourself to people. That just sort of drives you crazy and brings up the worst in you. Having us compete against each other, it’s like having the Olympics but having swimmers go up against ice skaters. It’s completely different entities, with different goals.
[Publicist: "Last question."]
Oh, OK. Let's go with a random one. I read in an old interview that you were getting into coyotes and mountain lions and stuff like that? Is that still true?
I did do a whole long project of taking photos of mountain lions in Los Angeles. I haven’t figured out how to turn that into a book, or if people want me to turn it into a book. But I think they’re really interesting, yeah. There’s a mountain lion living in Griffith Park in L.A., where the Hollywood sign is. He’s called P-22. They put GPS collars on them, they track them. And he came all the way from Malibu, which means he had to cross all of Los Angeles including the 405 freeway and the 101 freeway. And I find that just epic. In our increasingly consumerist, capitalist culture, it’s like a last hope for true wildness.