Pop music is filled with male vocalists, sincere dudes who favor attitude over ability and affect all kinds of little stylistic touches — weird mumbles, growls, and eccentric nasal tones — to distract the listener from the fact that they couldn’t carry a note in a pocket.
Male singers are a much rarer thing. Artists like Harry Nilsson, Freddie Mercury, even The Killers’ Brandon Flowers have expressive voices with a range that conveys unalloyed emotions, especially vulnerable ones. Singer-songwriter Taylor Craig Mills is a singer and a damn good one. His voice would stand out in any music scene, so it’s not surprising that he caught some flack for it in the Fort.
“At first it was kind of weird being the little brother who becomes the lead singer,” the 28-year-old Mills said, referring to graduating from bass player in big brother Burke’s band Voigt to lead vocalist for his own outfit The Iliads. “Some people said, ‘You don’t have the right voice. It’s too clean and ‘pretty’ ” with the word clearly not intended as a compliment. “But I’ve always thought [my voice] was something different I could bring to the music. Besides, I’m working on it with cigarettes and alcohol.”
The Mills family moved from Mesa, Ariz., to San Antonio in 1983 and ultimately settled in Fort Worth in 2000. Burke had enrolled at Texas Christian University in the mid-’90s, and Taylor was a denizen of the Cowtown music scene. Music was in the Mills’ DNA: Back in the day, their father had fronted his own band, The Iliads (the name Taylor would adopt for his first group), and their mother was a singer and piano player. Plenty of great pop and roots music (The Beatles, Willie Nelson) and great pop junk (Van Halen, Pat Benatar) backdropped Taylor’s childhood. Burke, five years older, nudged his little brother in the direction of XTC, Travis, Stone Roses, and Oasis, Brit-pop masters who “made you feel like you were 10 feet high and everybody was your friend when you listened to them. There was sadness in the songs, because a lot of them came from poor neighborhoods [like Manchester]. But it was always balanced with hope.”
Burke formed Voigt with some friends at TCU and in 1998 recruited Taylor to be bass player. Taylor liked to joke that they fancied themselves the Noel and Liam Gallagher of Cowtown. By 2000, Voigt had developed a sizable following, and Taylor had enrolled at TCU in the theater department, studying with the much-admired professor and current Trinity Shakespeare Festival artistic director T.J. Walsh. Taylor, as a bass player, had adopted big, warm, rolling lines in the style of U2’s Adam Clayton. But whether playing to packed clubs as a member of Voigt or to theater audiences as a TCU thespian, he could never completely conquer the stage fright that nags him to this day. “I had the word ‘breathe’ written on the underside of my left wrist as a reminder [to do that] while I was playing,” he said.
Then catastrophe struck: In 2003 Burke Mills was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic and painful inflammation of the intestines. For a while, Taylor carried on as Voigt’s frontman. He eventually dissolved the group, though, when it became clear that he wasn’t meeting everyone’s expectations, and, for that matter, everyone else wasn’t meshing with his unique musical sensibilities. By that time, he had fallen in love with being a lead singer. The rattled nerves he experienced before each show soon gave way to an addictive bliss that he wanted to pursue on his own terms. He dropped out of TCU, picked up the guitar, and invited bassist Ryan Skinner and guitarist-singer Ryan Higgins to form The Iliads in 2005. With their firewall of frayed guitars and Taylor’s earnest wailing of anthemic melodies, the group pointed more closely to the pounding-but-soothing British post-punk that Taylor favored. He sounds like he’s hiding his natural abilities on the group’s four-song EP, though — the alto who studied Handel, Bach, and Mozart in high school is occasionally a little uncomfortable here and derivative of his British idols. He’s at his wounded, introspective best on a couple of tunes, especially “No Emergencies” and “Please, Please Let Me Be,” among other stray tracks he’s self-recorded over the years.
The Iliads continued in fits and starts for about three years, finally ending last year because: “It’s hard to maintain a band when everyone plays in three or four different other bands. Finding good drummers and bassists [who’ll commit] is especially hard. Plus, musicians who consider the other band as their main project don’t want to put their best licks into the songs. I’ve been there myself, but it holds the music back.”
Currently Mills plays bass and sings backing vocals for Brandin Lea’s The February Chorus, an ethereal outfit in which his soaring voice fits quite nicely. Earlier this year, he met guitarist, songwriter, and harmonica player Jordan Oliver, a recent transplant from California to the Fort. They discovered a mutual obsession with psychedelic Manchester musos The Verve and a shared desire to find an acoustic equivalent to that kind of operatic cosmic rock. Mills and Oliver currently convene about once a week to improvise, write, and rehearse a batch of songs to be released as a series of guerilla recordings. Mills said a friend who’s heard them play described their sound as somewhere between West Coast indie pop and Irish folk. He’s not sure what that means, but he’ll take it as a compliment.
You can detect hints of both frustration and optimism from Mills that he’s spent so much time finding the best musical platform for his solo aspirations. He refuses to stop searching until that discovery is made.
“My biggest push now is that Mills and Oliver are a two-man music team,” he said. “I’m through trying to borrow people from other bands. He’s brought a sound to the table that’s new and fresh compared to my old Brit-pop style. He plays cool jumpy leads.”
Of his latest collaboration, Mills said: “This is the first time I had the courage to throw all my old song ideas out the window and say, ‘Let’s do this together.’ “