Tweets and Tats: One Day with Thoroughly Modern T. Mills



The music industry is ever-changing—especially when it comes to how an artist breaks. Artists like Drake and Wiz Khalifa have done it digitally, through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and mix tapes—building their fan bases virally and then touring before ever dropping a major-label release. The labels are starting to catch on, signing and supporting artists like 21-year-old T. Mills, who’s following this same blueprint.

Interview spent a day in Los Angeles with Travis Mills. We started at Family, a great photo and art book store on North Fairfax. Travis is about 6’5″, with both arms tattooed up all the way down to his fingertips—an imposing figure, until you spend five minutes with him. After the bookstore, Travis took us for Pinches burritos on Sunset and to the studio for a recording session.

AARON STERN: You’re from Riverside, CA. What was it like growing up there?

T. MILLS: Riverside is a lot of things to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love it; but when I was 18, I had to get away. I felt like every day was the same. As time went on, I began to notice how much it influenced me as a person. I think it makes LA much easier to handle. Growing up, my parents were always very supportive and gave me enough freedom.

If you’re hanging out with people who are getting locked up, you probably will be too. If you have your head on straight, there’s no problems. All of my friends growing up partied very hard and were a few years older—I graduated from high school at 16—and I fell into all that. I took it pretty far, looking back, but I’ve straightened out since then. Now I just love being out here any chance I get. It’s where I’m from. I have a ton of friends still here. And parking is free!

STERN: You’ve been spending about three hours a day in the car commuting back and forth between Riverside, Los Angeles and the studio. What are you doing with that time?
MILLS: Writing. A lot. I have so many notes in my iPhone it’s almost unmanageable [laughs]. Listen to new beats. Conference calls. Go on YouTube. I get to talk to my fans on Facebook and Twitter. Listen to my mixtape. Critique it. Make changes—I do a lot of that. I can’t help but always be on the phone when I’m driving.
STERN: Do you have a routine outside of the commute?

MILLS: [laughs] Well, the past four months have looked like this: wake up anywhere from 9 to 11 am, depending on when I have studio time and where I slept the night before. Wake up Pretty Tony [his assistant] or Panda [his hype man] and get a nice wake and bake going. Try to eat something healthy, get in the car, put on my mixtape, and hop on the 60 westbound. Tony goes everywhere with me, so we’ll pause the music and just talk about random shit that pops into my head: song ideas, current songs, this girl who just sent me a naked picture text from Facebook.

Listen to the arsenal of instrumentals on my iPhone. I talk to my manager, John, 100 times a day, minimum, on the phone. Call my mom and say hi. Check my Twitter and reply to some fans. Arrive at the studio and open my laptop, check emails, Tumblr, Worldstar, etc… If my session starts at 8 pm, I’ll be there till the lights shut off at 3am. I have a studio at home, and depending on the time, I’ll usually go in and work on ideas and demos. I’ve literally been living in the studio. But it beats waking up and going to “work.”

STERN: Does this routine play into the way you write your songs?
MILLS: Definitely, although I’m not usually one for routine. I’ve really stepped my game up as an artist. Investing everything I have in my craft. When I started, I was partying every night, therefore my songs were light and reflected my inexperience as an artist. When I started seeing things take shape, I felt different and at first neglected it. I felt like I was changing. In reality I was just growing, developing, and began to take it seriously. I had a newfound responsibility.

I’m really grinding now. I spend so much time driving, I get to reflect on everything that has happened in my life. I have a wider range of subjects to write about now. I’m finding myself and questioning why I think a certain way, react to situations a certain way, how other people see things. I can get inspired from a bus ad or a license plate frame or something on the radio, which I usually would not have listened to.
STERN: You mentioned you respond to fans on Twitter and Facebook. I think it’s great that people can talk directly to, or at least reach out to artists. But do you think it takes away from the mystique of an artist? Or possibly gives the average person too much access?
MILLS: For me, no. I don’t really have shit to hide and I have an audience that reacts to it. I think it’s cool if I post I’m at a mall and have 30 kids drive there and come say what’s up. As for access, you control what you tweet, so if I want a quiet afternoon I won’t be as specific or mention anything at all. But imagine if our parents could tweet the Beatles, or send them a Facebook message. It’s what gets people to see my vision and lifestyle, a window to my world.

STERN: I have to ask about the tattoos; you’re covered in them. Where was the first, and how did that all start?

MILLS: Shit, I don’t know. [laughs] My left arm. Hand. Knuckles. Bottom knuckles. Knuckle bones. The webbings of my fingers. Both my palms. My chest. Below my belly button. My right leg and foot. My forehead. Neck. Behind my left ear. Lip. Thumbs. Thighs. Probably more, but whatever… I got my first tattoo at 16 in my friend’s house. I gave him a Sidekick for it. [laughs] It says “Stay Young.”

STERN: Are you looking forward to being on the road?

MILLS: As for the tour, I’m looking forward to seeing all my faves! I haven’t been around the country since ’09, and I didn’t even have a real set. I’m excited to play all my new shit. See what they’re fucking with. I love to travel and live out of a suitcase, so touring and I are good together. I’m so upset I couldn’t make it to SXSW this year. I hate going on Twitter and seeing all my friends there having a great time without me. But it’s for the best. I had to cancel to get ready for my next show and tour. It’s better for the long run. I just hope these girls understand that—they can be ruthless sometimes! [laughs]