Name: Alan Mills
Occupation: Guitarist
Nationality: American
Current release: In 2009 Alan Mills, as part of the experimental rock formation Hey!Tonal, recorded a fascinating self-titled album of instrumentals filled with raw riffs, layered guitar textures, impetuous rock power and mindbogglingly complex studio wizardry. Written with the drums as a point of departure, the music is in constant motion, occasionally pulsating wildly, at other times peacefully oscillating. The entirely organic juxtaposition between post rock and dreamy electronica, between the violent thrust of hardcore and passages of almost ambient sensibilities (captured in the magnificently ambitious key piece “Kcraze”) make for a sweeping listen that sounds as stimulating today as it did the day it was released. Hey!Tonal sadly never recorded together again. Instead, the formation splintered into many different directions, bands and solo projects. The legacy of their one glorious collaboration, however, lives on.

Hey!Tonal is now re-released as a 2XLP via Computer Students. To mark the occasion, we conducted interviews with almost all musicians involved in the making of this album.

[Read our Dave Davison of Hey!Tonal interview]
[Read our Kevin Shea of Hey!Tonal interview]
[Read our Theo Katsaounis of Hey!Tonal interview]
[Read our Mitch Cheney of Hey!Tonal interview]

Recommendations: Farben – The Videoage (and the rest of Clicks & Cuts v. 2): This comp was one of the gateways that led me into the sound design / electronic world I admire.
Steve Reich – Music for 18 musicians : Very influential piece from an influential composer.

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

From what I can remember of my childhood, I valued the practice of getting lost in the way some songs were produced. I grew up in South Florida, where Aerosmith, Rush, and Led Zeppelin were on heavy rotation on one station while on another I’d frequent, it was 2Live Crew, Afrika Bambaataa, and so on.

I’d disconnect from reality – always had headphones on. And I’d wonder how these were created.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

My mother was a band director, so I recall being a spectator at a young age to many types of music.

I started picking up instruments when I was very young—a drum pad and sticks, a recorder, for example. In middle school, I started teaching myself guitar on my mom’s acoustic. Also, I started learning trombone. I took the trombone with me into high school and college. I played the horn in plenty of ska / punk bands.

I don’t think I really found my voice until college. There, I discovered plenty of sub-genres, artists, and concepts that I think make me the musician I am today.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

Having practically grown up in a band room, I feel like my influences come from many genres and cultures. Also, having been diagnosed with ADHD, I’ve had to battle with a tendency to overthink and over-engineer things.

So, when I’m working on music or photography (or anything, really) – I’ve learned to be less “in my head” & more instinctual.

What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

As I mentioned in the previous answer, in high school, I learned I function better if I didn’t overthink and just tried to go with what felt natural. And as I learned of more records, artists, etc … I think this helped enhance/expand the map that I feel my way around in. But if I overthink – I’m usually less proud of the output.

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?

As my first main instrument was commonly a supportive role in any kind of ensemble, I learned how to create as a supportive member. With this, I sought to enhance the narrative of a piece from the backline with elements like counterpoint, harmonic structure.

As I discovered new genres and concepts – I sought to explore them, myself.

Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?

In college, around the same time, I was invited to join the school’s radio station, which had a robust collection in obscure, avant garde, and underground stuff. In rotation, at the time, was a 3disc comp, “Clicks and Cuts v. 2,” a compilation of electronic music and sound design. I’ve never heard anything like it. At first, it was just noise to me. But then, when I heard the rhythm implied by the most transient sounds, “it” clicked. It was like a cinematic opening of doors – this ‘noise’ made sense to me.

I later found myself taking a class in sound design. It was focused on C-sound and supercollider … my world just opened up. I’d get so happily-lost in that stuff …

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

I guess because I started playing / writing music as a member of a group, creating with & off-of others just feels more natural to me. I am used to creating in a room with others. However, a lot of the Hey!Tonal release leveraged the magic of the interwebs & cross DAWs

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

Well - my life has changed a bit since the Hey!Tonal release. I’m the father of a wonderful 12-year-old, who is diagnosed with Autism. It has opened my eyes / world to many concepts and made me reprioritize things. And it drove me to pursue a career change to software development, where I’m now a UI/UX engineer for a firm in North Florida, a career has afforded me a means to embrace creativity – where I may hopefully explore more artistic endeavors in coding. Sound design will definitely have a role in this.

Another therapeutic outlet for me has been fronting a three-piece, Burl. It’s less sound design and cerebral and more on the cathartic side of releasing from anxiety, depression, and fear.  

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

I feel that playing in Burl has been a breakthrough for me. It’s the first group I’ve ever “fronted”. It required a bit of learning how overcome distractions. And also forces me to engage more – which hadn’t been one of my strengths in the past.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

For me, I’ve been practicing meditation to help me with that “loud mind”. It helps me listen more to what I’m working with. From it, I feel I have a balance of not overthinking – yet being cognizant of the environment I’m creating in.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

Sometimes, we can attach memories to songs. And I think those memories creep back on us when we happen to become reacquainted with these recordings. At least, this is true for me.

In regard to healing – I’m a believer in the power of music therapies as well as using music as a vessel for education and engagement for those with special needs. My son has participated in these programs and currently has weekly piano lessons, which have been great for his confidence, motor skills, and more.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

I was raised on the notion that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”. However, if you’re to consciously use another culture/ artist’s work – you should do something to support this – pay it forward.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses – and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?

(Going to do my best to put this into words) … In sound design / production – we tend to lay out our ‘arrangements’ across a particular spatial distribution. Some of us choose mono or super mono sound fields. Some of us prefer to create / enhance space between sounds / instruments / characters. I feel the latter has a slight affect in our vestibular sense. I used to enjoy playing around with this a bit with laptop music and mastering engineering.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I honestly just try to create what feels natural to me at the time.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Music can exemplify absolutely anything. Of course, to identify this, we need to turn off our “thinking minds”, listen, and just open up. But in this listening state (I feel) we connect more emotionally.

It’s in the dynamics. It’s in the tension/release of chord structures. We can also evoke emotion with atonal artifacts (ie. found sounds, ambience ) … it’s all there.