Listen to this track by L.A-based pop classicists Extra. It’s “Free In Time”, a crunchy feast of a pop tune taken from the band’s 2006 album FR Double E. The band is set to appear at the CD Release show of fellow L.A band Radar Brothers on March 26th, 2010. Find out more about that event on clubspaceland.com and catch them live.
FR Double E was recorded solo by singer and multi-instrumentalist Jim Mills, although a full band was assembled afterwards under the Extra banner. The players consist of Anita Morand is on bass and melodica, Aaron Criswell is on “galactic” guitar and treatments, and Jon Niemann is on guitar, keyboards and effects, with Mills on drums and vocals.
I talked to Jim about this song, about Extra, and about the writing of lists …
Jim Mills: Yeah, to me this is a great thing. I’m not on a label. You’re doing me the favor.
DB: First, where did the name Extra come from?
JM: It was just a good, simple name that had never been taken. It’s like Yes … or Traffic maybe. Just a solid, positive name. And I wanted to force myself into a situation where I always had to do more, give more. Like that poster that came with the album, to be a little ambitious. I think the name reminds me to do that.
DB: You recorded F R Double E on your own and you expanded the line-up afterward with permanent members. What initiated that decision?
JM: I’ve always had trouble finding people to play with. Even when I was young, in high school, we were always one or two people short of having a real band. This led to me, like, singing the bass line while I’m drumming, or trying to play a keyboard and bass at the same time, stuff like that. This was probably really good for my own skills. Also, I don’t like telling people I don’t like their ideas, you know? So when I got around to making this album, I just did it myself. But you know, once I did the album, I wanted to play the stuff live. When you’re sitting on something you think is really good, you want to bring it to other people. So I got friends of mine that I knew I could get along with, and did the band that way. For all my tendency to be alone, I’ve always liked bands, and once I got these people on board, I just feel like giving them equal billing.
DB: If you’d fallen in with a band earlier on as you were developing as a musician, how do you think that would have affected your trajectory as a songwriter?
JM: That is really hard. I think I’m just now coming to where I might be able to really work with people. I used to think I was going to get into a Lennon/McCartney-type thing, but that’s just the archetype. Everybody thinks they’re going to be The Beatles at some point. But either I never found the right person or I could never let go enough to really collaborate. I don’t think I had that much to offer because I was too self-conscious and not really confident enough. I was too impressionable. Now, I think I am more confident. Maybe now I could really collaborate with someone.
DB: Do you think it’s important for band members to present a unified creative ‘front’ in order for the music to come across?
JM: We were talking about bands the other day and it seems that bands are like a cult or “group think”, and sometimes a band will get going on a good thought process and be really good, like these awesome, real quartets like The Who, and The Beatles, early Pink Floyd , 10cc, where everybody is contributing and still is an individual. ABBA is another. And I just named all my favorite bands. It’s no wonder I wanted a group like that. But most “group think” ends up being fucked up. I don’t know, I was never comfortable in a group trying to collaborate, but I always had a fantasy about being in a band like Traffic, just at peace with one another and hanging around on the hillside as a group of equals. I actually met Jon at a Traffic tribute show. He was playing piano and I was doing percussion, like the Jim Capaldi part, and we got to know each other that way.
DB: What fed “Free In Time” lyrically and stylistically?
JM: Lyrically, there’s a whole story behind it which is kind of embarrassing I think but… Basically, a friend of mine and I both landed an audition for a famous rock musician. I think we both felt we didn’t do very well, and you know, we never heard from the guy so I guess we were right. But while I was sitting over at his house, I was thinking how much cooler I felt sitting with him and commiserating, and how much more rock and roll we were than the guy we were trying out for. It kind of made an impression on me. So when I got this nice power pop song going, I used that idea for it. It’s like an affirmation for us and everybody who’s listening, being happier and cooler and freer than all those people who get you down the rest of the time.
DB: Did you feel that “Free In Time” played a role in helping you to frame the rest of the album in some way?
JM: I realized that pretty much all the songs had to do with freedom or trying to feel free of the outside things that get to you. And “Free in Time” seemed like kind of the distillation of that, because it’s a pure rock song. That’s what rock is good for: just going, to hell with everything that isn’t this music right at this moment! Half of the song doesn’t even have any singing. It’s just us getting our feelings out on our instruments. It’s one of the best parts of our show for me, just being able to get my head down and play and not having to sing or try to be anything. Everything that needs to has already been said, it’s just time to fucking play, right! So it’s kind of like the title track. Maybe you picked up on that. “F R double E”, that line came from a Pretty Things song.
DB: You draw from a musical era that placed a lot of importance on the sanctity of the LP. In this age of song-by-song downloads, how does this affect the way you approach songwriting and production?
JM: I always write lists out of all the songs and try to come up with song orders, even before the songs are completed. I just like playing around with lists. I don’t think about downloads or worry about people turning off the CD before they get to the end. I just order the album the way I know it has to be for posterity. I still do “Side One” and “Side Two” — it’s just how I think of it. And if they never hear “Free in Time” ’cause I put it last on the album, well it makes sense ’cause it’s about them anyway! If I started thinking about downloads or how the songs all have to stand on their own, I mean, these are the thoughts that could ruin your music if you let it.
DB: Coming out of Los Angeles, a geographical region with so many established pop music traditions, how much pressure was on you to hold to or veer away from those traditions when establishing a sound of your own and making the record?
JM: I’ve never been afraid of copying a sound if I like it. I realized a long time ago that I could never quite get it right anyway. Sometimes I have to record a song as quickly as possible just to know if the song is working. So it always comes out like me anyway even when I’m strongly influenced by something or totally trying to copy something. I’m not worried about it not being“me” enough. So I wouldn’t hesitate to copy a sound if I wanted to. But that being said, I think most of my influences are British artists anyway.
DB: My ear agrees with that. But I also hear some Brian Wilson, and even some Todd Rundgren in your stuff.
JM: Well, I kind of think of those guys as honorary British people anyway. I know that doesn’t make sense.
When I think of British music, I guess I think of songs and songwriting and structure and ambition, and not really having any roots except maybe in classical music or theater, so the music is very conscious. This is how I’ve always been. I like American music and stuff with roots I guess, but I can’t really write that way. I think in terms of songs, melodies, and the lyrics being just right. A couple days ago, Anita and I were talking about the difference in meaning between … it was between “and” and “but” in a song I wrote, and “and” sounded better but “but” was absolutely the meaning I had in mind. I had to go with it on principle. I remember reading about Edgar Allan Poe and how he worked for ages getting the words just right, just coming up with the word “Nevermore”.
DB: How important is the awareness of where inspiration comes from to you? Is it important that the listener get a sense of it as well?
JM: I know where each little idea comes from, but no one else has the same reference points, so what I think is a direct steal from something, somebody else will see it a different way. That’s why it’s hard to describe your own music because my reference points are meaningless to someone else. Either they’re obscure or I pick up on something they don’t hear or whatever. I get inspired by fades sometimes, just the speed of a particular fade on a record. It totally puts the song into a particular perspective when it fades really fast. But that’s meaningless to someone else.
DB: It seems like so far, all the bands you’ve talked about have been old bands. What new bands do you like?
JM: I’m honestly always afraid people are going to ask me this. I like friends’ music more than the stuff that’s out there. I think Flaming Lips have it about right, the right level of fame and influences and everything. They can be weird and their fans really appreciate it. I respect them, I like how sincere they are, but I don’t really listen to it, you know! A lot of bands aren’t really into songwriting, I don’t think. I mean, they think they are, but they aren’t really. There’s something wrong. I don’t know. I shouldn’t say that. It’s easier for me to focus on my pantheon and try to write something maybe almost as good as that than to look at modern bands and go through feelings of superiority and jealousy and whatever.
DB: You were able to make the record however you wanted, without a label and the marketing engines that have traditionally gone along with it. In the light of this, do you feel you have more or less control in terms of getting your music out to new fans?
JM: I have more control, but don’t know what to do with it. It’s all on me now. “Do whatever you want!” But what am I supposed to do? It’s a mixed blessing because you are completely free, but it’s also now your own responsibility. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. It ends up that all I can do is just focus on doing more music — just do my own fantasies, ’cause that’s the only thing I know how to do — and just hope more and more people start to notice it.
DB: Is that what you mean in [opening track] “Forward to Mono” when you say “I am music and that’s all I know”?
JM: Basically, yes.
DB: Do you find that bands without labels such as yours are more likely or less likely to form a community or a scene with each other?
JM: Probably more. Here in L.A., there is always that sense that something could happen, that you might be discovered, so I think there is a tendency for people to stick to their own a bit more. I hear stories of friends in Chicago with much more of a fun scene with everybody interacting. I think the clubs are the most responsible for whether there’s a scene or not. When there are a lot of clubs and a lot of opportunities, there’s more likelihood of a scene. Right now in L.A., there only seems to be a few any more, and some of those aren’t even that easy to get shows at. A couple of bands I know and I have talked about starting a club ourselves and just playing there all the time like a residency.
DB: Since you’ve recorded an album on your own, and have since formed a permanent band, is there a process that you’ve got in mind for the next one to account for the shift in dynamics?
JM: One of the things about being my age is that I already have a big backlog of ideas and projects. I don’t write that prolifically, but I still have a few albums’ worth of stuff I want to do. My next project is trying to clear a lot of that stuff out. It should be two or three discs of stuff, just kind of a wholesale clearing out of ideas. I think it’s going to be really amazing, it could be the best thing I’ll ever do. It’s like my life’s work, you know. I’ve been collecting this amazing stuff for 10 years. The first album just scratched the surface really. So, I’m working on that, but Anita also has songs she wants to record, very different stuff, almost like mini-movies. And there is some new stuff that is starting come out. I think I will work every which way, sometimes by myself, sometimes with the band, and there’s plenty for everybody. I’ve just finished working on Aaron’s solo album [“Elaborate Noise” by Dream Apes], and Jon and I are working on his stuff too. The hardest part is just organizing your time and doing it all. I have tons of lists.
DB: What does each band member bring to the Extra table?
JM: Jon is like me, very into playing music but sort of impatient. We’ve had a few sessions where I just come over and he plays me something he’s working on — these intricate things with guitar and keyboard patterns — and I just play drums along to it. Neither of us wants to go for more takes. But it all sounds totally together. Sometimes we’ll just jam with electric piano and drums, and just follow each other and improvise these songs with bridges and everything. No words though, but like the songs are playing themselves. I think we’re just getting it out.
Aaron is different. He really is super-patient about music. When he was doing his album, after I did the drum parts, he worked on his stuff for months, with all these overdubbed guitars, then cutting things up, doing a bunch of different mixes. Then I started to get involved again and commenting on things and listening to mixes — and then he would do more mixes and more layers of guitar. And we finally got to a finished product we both liked, but he did a lot of work of mixing and tweaking.
DB: I gotta know. What is the ‘galactic’ guitar that you’ve described Aaron as playing?
JM: Well, in Extra, Aaron plays in my style, which is more like Paul McCartney-type lead playing, but he has a tendency to play kind of mind-melting psychedelic guitar, so when I was thinking of credits, that’s kind of how I think of him.
DB: And Anita?
JM: Anita is like a totally different kind of person. She’s totally ingenuous. When I met her, it took time to realize she isn’t cynical really at all. She’s almost like a dog. Like, loyal and nice! That’s part of her personality. And her take on music is from some other place. She doesn’t have normal influences like The Beatles and everything. She’s a bit younger so maybe that’s part of it. But she just has a different take on everything.
DB: How do Anita’s songs differ from yours?
JM: The way she approaches music, besides loving Black Sabbath, is writing songsthat are more like these little movies. We’re trying to get these songs down. They’re never about feelings or anything — like, my stuff is all my thoughts inside me — her stuff is all stories about washed-up old movie stars, or a guy down at the pub, or she has this one about about watching the Altamont footage. Things inspire her and become part of her inner movie or something. She doesn’t have to write about her feelings ’cause she’s not screwed up. She doesn’t like emotional women singers. Or power pop, to be honest. Same thing!