By Aaron Hillis
He’s designed scarves for Marc Jacobs and the iconic cover of Air’s “Moon Safari” album, directed music videos for Moby, Pulp and Blonde Redhead, helmed two features to date (the Sundance hit “Thumbsucker” and the SXSW doc “Does Your Soul Have a Cold?”), had graphic art exhibitions and commissioned ad campaigns all around the globe, and played with members of Cibo Matto and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the short-lived ’90s East Village supergroup Butter 08. If people still confuse prolific artist-filmmaker Mike Mills with the R.E.M. bassist of the same name, it’s because it’s easy to believe the same man could’ve done it all.
Mills features prominently in NYC gallery curator-turned-director Aaron Rose’s “Beautiful Losers,” an entertaining doc celebration of the D.I.Y. talent (Shepard Fairey, Harmony Korine, Ed Templeton, the late Margaret Kilgallen, et al.) who took part in Rose’s titular museum exhibition. Emerging from the fringe of subcultures like skateboarding, graffiti bombing, hip-hop and punk, these passionate outsiders became art stars entirely by accident, but who’s complaining? In support of the film, Mills spoke with me about art, L.A. wildlife, and pirate school. [UNEXPECTED WARNING: “The Dark Knight” spoiler ahead.]
How do you balance your throng of creative interests? What impulses drive you to work in one medium or another?
Actually, I don’t think of them as different things. They all happen at the same time, start from the same notebook, and influence each other. From my perspective, it’s certainly not different. It’s all my work, and it happens in different pieces. That’s just the way I’ve always lived, and it feels natural to me.
Let me turn that around. Do you ever begin a project in one medium and ultimately finish in another?
That happens all the time. That’s just part of the game. To me, like I said, it’s really not that important how it’s going to end up in the world. [A project] might be for this [exhibition in Milan] coming up, but then it ends up as “no, that’s the solution to the scene in my film that I’ve been working on that I didn’t have a solution to before.” I’m hoping for that surprise and flip all the time.
Do you feel the weight of the waning indie film economy, or have you witnessed anything in the art scene that mirrors that?
It’s absolutely having a collapse, I’m totally feeling it. I think it’s been coming for five years, at least. When I did “Thumbsucker” in 2005, it felt like it was collapsing then, and more so now. It feels like we’re living in the ’50s, like, the films that are huge, you know? I’m sorry, but I think [“The Dark Knight”] is one of the most regressive movies I’ve seen in a long time, and that it’s supposed to be “the smart man’s action movie” is an indicator of what a weird time we’re in. It’s all macho-man, very simple, very resolved, and the one girl who has any life in her has to be killed. It’s the oldest stuff in the book. But beyond that, it’s hard for me to get my next film going. And my involvement in the art world is more peripheral and specialized, so I’m not a good indicator of how the art world is, or what it is.
Then as a voice from the periphery, do you think enough of the talented D.I.Y. artists around you are getting noticed in this age of information overload?
I don’t know. It’s funny now how much we look at — whatever you want to call it: art, design, culture stuff, film — online, and how in the online world, you’re instantly global. It’s hard to differentiate what’s big and what’s not, which [deserves] credit and what doesn’t. So it does create this huge democratization of a platform. I have no idea about the bigger picture — is it easier or better for people to get exposed, or is it just flattening everything out? In a way, that’s something I try not to think about too much as a creative maker because it confuses and distracts.
What are your interests outside of your work, from the banal to the bizarre?
I live in Los Angeles and I’m very interested in wildlife. There are coyotes in my yard and mountain lions in the hills behind us. I’ve done a lot of research about the mountain lions who live in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains. I’ve talked with rangers to find out where they are. I’m doing a photo book documenting all the wildlife corridors. That’s something that started off as a hobby, but has turned into a project.
What scared you away from New York?
I lived there for 15 years, but I’m from California. I moved [to New York] to go to Cooper Union, and [stayed] there until my mid-30s — then it was time to go home. Ultimately, I guess I am that Californian. One good and bad thing about New York is there’s so much exciting stuff and so many people doing something interesting. I actually find in New York that you become more careerist and more focused on what’s the newest, hippest thing. L.A. is so isolated and unhip in a way; it gives you room to figure out who you are and explore more personal stuff. At least, that’s what happened to me.
How practical was your art education at Cooper Union? Did it prepare you for the post-grad reality?
Cooper at least when I went there was an unhelpful, unfriendly school. Just signing up for your classes was incredibly difficult. They didn’t have dorms. In 1984, I had to figure out where to live on the Lower East Side, which wasn’t easy. There was no counseling, nothing like that — so all the Cooper students I ever met were real scrappy. No one was very nice, everybody told you “no,” and everyone just got used to that. In that way, there was a lot of practical training.
My main influence was a conceptual artist named Hans Haacke, who taught there. In a way, that defines who I am, because his work isn’t medium-based. It’s not discipline-, career- or category-based. It’s all about coming up with an idea, finding a way to articulate it, create it and communicate with people. He actually taught me how to be a director because that’s how I see my role, how I’ve treated everything. I’m not a craftsman of graphics or art or film. I’m more of an idea generator and manufacturer.
Would you recommend art school to younger generations?
If you want to be a filmmaker or an artist or a designer, any of those things, that’s like saying “I want to be a pirate.” It doesn’t really matter if you went to the right pirate school or not. How good are you at stealing stuff from other ships? Art school’s good for some people, and totally horrible for other people. Everybody has their own story and needs to figure out their own way to do it, and absolutely shouldn’t make any career choices based on something they read by some 42-year-old guy who was interviewed. [laughs]
Are you close with any of the other artists in the film?
I’m really close with Aaron [Rose], who’s my neighbor and one of my best friends. I’m close with a fair amount of them, like Ed and Deanna [Templeton]; I made a film about Ed years ago [2000’s “Deformer”]. They’re the kind of people I don’t see all the time, but we’re good friends, you know? I’m sort of a loner, to be honest. I’m not good with keeping up with people. But pretty much all those people in the film, when I see them, it’s a good thing and I feel like we have a connection.
Is it advantageous to have this grouping, or does it pigeonhole your sensibilities?
It’s totally in danger of pigeonholing artists. We’re as much not a group as we are a group. I think Aaron tried to include that in the film. We all met and started making stuff for each other. We didn’t care about careers, had no idea that it would be a book and a film later on. We had no idea that people were watching, and that was the best part. It was a small community where people were doing stuff not to be important, famous or to achieve anything; we had to to stay happy. Hopefully, people can smell that in the film, then burn the film and stop thinking of everybody as a group.
Are you happy? Does that affect your output?
I make a lot of jokes, but I definitely struggle with being happy. It’s not a given for me. But I’m a pretty cheery dude, on the surface at least. A lot of my work was made to create a world that was more hospitable to my emotions and what I wanted in life. A world that mirrored me more, or that I felt was more humane, more loose, or admitting that things are fucked up. I think that’s the one thing that group of people share, that they had to get out of the fucked-up hole, and this is the best way they knew how to do it. That’s where the camaraderie and affinity came from. Everything beyond that is hype.
There’s talk in the film about artists who have to navigate commercial waters in order to live. For you, at what point are you unwilling to concede creatively?
The line of compromise comes in all contexts. It comes in doing ads, but also in having a show with an attitude of the people at the gallery, or the art world in general. It has its own economy and market, and things are for sale. There are places to be weary of, where you have to struggle with what you’re willing to do versus what our capitalistic, consumer-oriented society will allow you to do.
I will always try to avoid the elitism of the art world: talking to the converted, creating a castle on the hill for only those who are initiated and those who know. That tends to go along class, race and education lines. Similarly, in the more commercial context, I wouldn’t do anything that I didn’t feel like I was learning from, or get involved with people that I felt were really fucked.
When’s the Butter 08 reunion show?
[laughs] I don’t think so. I’m glad you liked Butter, though. It was really fun, but I think it needs to stay where it is. There are enough old bands coming back; it’s killing culture. I’d rather have too many new bands than too many Rolling Stones out there.
[Photos: Mike Mills; “Lets Be Human Beings,” from Mu Museum Exhibition, 2004; opening at Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery – “Beautiful Losers,” Sidetrack Films, 2008]
“Beautiful Losers” opens in New York on August 8th.