Conference Call: Mike Mills talks to 10cc!

ON THE receiving end of the PR’s pointy red fingernail: Sylvie Simmons…

MIKE MILLS: “1975, I was around 17, a pretty impressionable age, just trying to sort out sex and life and all that stuff, when ‘I’m Not In Love’ came out – and what the song told me was that no-one else had it sorted out either! That here were these people who are a bit older than I am and they’re having the same sort of struggles within themselves and their relationships, that love is always going to be mysterious and painful and confusing. It’s a sort of comforting song in a way.”

ERIC STEWART: “It was a silly phase I was going through with my wife, about not wanting to say ‘I love you’ every day because it lost its meaning. I mentioned this to Graham, because we were going to write a love song, and we came up with the idea of saying, I’m not in love – but here are all the reasons why I am. That’s basically the start of the song. We wrote it in about three hours.”

GRAHAM GOULDMAN: “It pretty much wrote itself. You’ve probably experienced that, Mike, when it’s like a song is already written, it’s just lying in your brain waiting for the right time to come out?”

M.M: “Yeah, when it takes as long to write as it does to play it. Those are always the best songs, the ones you don’t have to struggle over. ‘Star Me Kitten’ came out pretty easy. I was just messing around with the keyboards, and I had these really bizarre chords that didn’t really go together yet somehow they did, and I wasn’t expecting the band to like it or Michael (Stipe) to want to write lyrics to it. It’s a very sexual, sensual song, and I think that worked for him.

“When it came to recording it, I was talking to our producer Scott Litt about ‘I’m Not In Love’ – I’d always loved the song, and just the feeling of the background vocal sound, it’s something we’ve never tried. And Scott said, ‘I bet we can do something that has that sound’.

“So what we did was I sang about seven notes and we put it on his sampler and then we ran a bunch of those into a channel on the mixing board and I played the faders on the mixing board as though it were a keyboard. I just played my voice and brought in the notes that needed to be there, very haphazard and random. I could never play it the same way twice.”

E.S: “That’s deja vu! That is exactly the way 10CC did it! We actually recorded 13 notes of a chromatic scale onto a 16-track machine and fed them through the control desk with the four of us – myself, Graham, Kevin and Lol – all working the faders like a keyboard down onto a stereo pair.”

M.M: “When we do ‘Star Me Kitten’ onstage, I have a little 8-track cassette that we have my vocals down on, and I actually play it live just the same as we did in the studio.”

G.G: “Because it’s impractical to take 256 voices on tour, we used to do ‘I’m Not In Love’ live to a backing track. We’re just rehearsing to do a Japanese tour, and because of technology now, we’ve sampled the original voices and use them. It’s much nicer not to be confined to play to a click track.”

M.M: “Absolutely! So was the final total really 256 voices?”

E.S: “A 13-note chromatic scale, three voices recorded 16 times each for each note.”

M.M: “Wow, cool! It’s one of my favourite production sounds ever.”

GG: “The record that everybody knows is actually the second recording of that song. The first time it had almost a bossa nova feel. Unfortunately we never kept it. We always erase everything we don’t like in case people get hold of it. But in this case it would have been really interesting. Then Eric came up with a different kind of tempo that just turned the whole thing around.

“One of the things I personally loved about the early 10CC was we were basically two writing teams – myself and Eric, Kevin and Lol – and the other people, whether they liked the song or not, would adopt it as their own and make it as good as they thought it could be.”

M.M: “Exactly. Like us, you had four people in that band who are accomplished musicians and each had a valid opinion, and I know when you get all four opinions flying around the room at once, you have to decide on the ones to agree with. You’ve got to have enough respect for the other writers in the band that if they feel they’ve got something good, even if you don’t see it, you go with it.

“As for Michael’s lyrics, it’s a very rare occasion when any of us have to suggest, ‘Why don’t you sing something different here?’ It’s happened maybe six, seven times over the course of all the years we’ve been together. He’s one of the best in the business, so I tend to leave it up to him. ‘Star Me Kitten’ was more a lust than a love song, but what can you say about love that hasn’t been said already? I’d much rather hear about people’s sexual proclivities in a subtle way. I’ve got no problem with lust!”

G.G: “Can I ask you a question about someone I worked with originally in the Sixties? John Paul Jones.”

M.M: “He arranged the record. One of the high points of my life was when he was in and we were playing him ‘Everybody Hurts’, and there’s one point where I’m playing the organ and I give the Leslie a little kick and turn it off again really quickly. And he heard that and said, ‘Nice touch on the rotor.’ That’s one of the best compliments I ever got in my life. I see a lot of similarities with him and myself, if I may flatter myself by saying that, in that he was the bass player for that band (Led Zeppelin) and the keyboard player and string arranger – all this stuff that people don’t see and aren’t aware of and yet shapes so much of the sound on the record.”

G.G: “He’s one of those unsung heroes. What I like about him is he can be involved with classical or straight ahead pop or progressive music all at the same time. It doesn’t seem to matter to him.”

M.M: “When he left arranging the songs for us, he went off to produce the Butthole Surfers! Like you were saying, he can handle any kind of music if he can perceive there’s quality in it. I enjoyed working with him. Aside from the respect aspect, I liked him a lot as a person.”

G.G: “One of his qualities for me – just to finish with the John Paul Jones show – and I hear it on your record as well – is absolute simplicity that lets the song breathe through. He never gets in the way of anything. He enhances all the time.”

M.M: “One of the great things about this business is other people whom you admire from afar, all of a sudden you can work with them. I get such a big thrill out of that. Especially songwriters – because that’s the most impressive part of this craft for me. Anyone can learn to play a guitar, but to write a song you have to have something inside you. If a band doesn’t have songs, no matter how much talent you have, all you are is a covers band.”

E.S: “On our new album we’ve collaborated with other writers for the first time. Graham’s done a song with Andrew Gold and one one with Tim Rice. I did a couple of songs with Paul McCartney. We’re spreading our wings a little bit as well.”

M.M: “How did you redo ‘I’m Not In Love’?”

G.G: “It’s very different – just the fact that there’s two people, as opposed to 256! They were doing a TV programme on 10CC and they said,’We’d like to film you in a recording studio, and while you’re at it why not go in with a keyboard and an acoustic guitar and do one of your songs?’ Did you ever hear the Pretenders’ version?”

E.S: “For the Robert Redford film Indecent Proposal. Chrissie Hynde’s got such a tasty voice! It’s great.”

M.M: “A lot better than the movie, I expect! I didn’t see it so no, I haven’t heard it. But she’s wonderful – I could listen to her sing the phone book!”

G.G: “It doesn’t have the magic of ours though.”

M.M: “No, and it never will. That song, when you add the sentiments that are expressed in it and the way the background vocals go with it, it’s just perfect.”

The participants were last heard arranging to meet for a beer at REM’s Milton Keynes show. Eric and Graham are planning to send Mike some lyrics to write a tune to, so expect a 10CC/REM multi-acronymical collaboration before too long.

© Sylvie SimmonsMOJO, 1995

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