Travis Mills spent the past four years out of the spotlight, often burrowed in production studios helping other artists find their perfect sound. It’s a far cry from the center stage of festivals where Mills would whip crowds into frenzies with his endless energy.
You probably know him from his T. Mills days, with songs such as “She Got A…” and “Stupid Boy” soundtracking the early years of the 2010s. It sounded like hip-hop but was just a bit too complex to be pigeonholed into one genre.
It took a random social media encounter to finally draw him back in, a connection with friend and Goldfinger drummer Nick Gross. The two met up over the holidays, and whatever was in their eggnog seemed to spark creative magic. By March, Travis and Gross created girlfriends, paired with Goldfinger vocalist and legendary producer John Feldmann.
For this album to work, it couldn’t just be like everything Mills did when his first name was an initial. He had to be, in his own words, “something totally different.” With the help of the extremely versatile Gross, girlfriends sound like it’s exactly that. But you may be surprised what the two worked through to get there.
How did the formation of the band work? Was it as simple as Travis reaching out to Nick, and Nick being like, “Yeah, let’s do this,” or is there more to it than that?
TRAVIS MILLS: It was actually all thanks to Instagram. I’ve known Nick since, I want to say like 2014, 2015. He filled in on drums. This Christmas charity concert I was doing back with my solo project. We just hit it off. And we stayed in contact ever since. And [in] December, I was driving, scrolling Instagram. I saw Nick post a story with him playing drums with [John Feldmann] actually with Goldfinger, and he said, “I miss touring so much.” I felt the same way, so it was right before Christmas break. And I just called him immediately. And I was like, “Yo dude, I saw your post. We should do something together.” I wanted to make music again, but I wanted to do something totally different.
Johh, with Nick being the co-founder of Big Noise and drumming for Goldfinger, was it a no-brainer for you to be involved with the project?
JOHN FELDMANN: It was absolutely a no-brainer. We wrote “Farewell” and “California,” and I thought this was something so special. I thought this was such a perfect fit for what I do…And I thought, I’ve known Travis for what, five or six years now, and Nick and I have a label together, and he is the drummer in my band. So I was like, “This is such a perfect fit for what I do as far as production.”
MILLS: I think it’s crazy. Feldy and I worked together back on my solo shit in 2015, but nothing ever came out. And this dude produced all my favorite records growing up. So when Nick and I talked about who we go in with, Feldy was the only guy.
Travis and Nick, both of you have experience in a variety of genres. girlfriends’ first two singles were pretty pure pop punk. What made you want to explore that subgenre, and is this the direction we can expect upcoming releases to go?
MILLS: I’ll speak for myself: That’s the scene I grew up in. That was the genre and the whole thing why I started making music in the first place. blink-182, Green Day and Good Charlotte, those were the bands that made me pick up the guitar and start playing with my friends in the garage. My musical evolution took me to certain places. But I always embraced [it]. Even when I was doing my solo project that was hip-hop, there were nostalgic influences in there.
NICK GROSS: I’m the same. I grew up on blink and just idolizing Travis [Barker] and these guys that were just epic drummers in that space. And it was just great timing for us to get matched up with a guy like Feldy who is such a legend and is making incredible current records still today with those bands, just like he was doing in the ’90s. I had never had the opportunity to be in this style of music before…It all just clicked together.
Travis, did pop punk feel like a 180 considering you’ve done so much in hip-hop? This is your first new music in four years. Why was girlfriends the best way to return instead of a solo release?
MILLS: Dude, I hadn’t released music in four years. And I was on tour for nine months for seven or eight years of my life. And it got to the point where I was getting sick of playing those songs. I became uninspired. I knew if I came back to releasing music, I wanted it to be completely different. And I just wanted to write songs that I wanted to write. When Nick and I got together, it was super exciting. We were like little kids, and we can do this. And I have to say girlfriends is one of the top five band names of all time.
Did that name just pop into someone’s head?
MILLS: So I was driving to the studio to meet up with Nick, and this [was] when we had no songs yet…and I wrote down five names on my phone app…and the first one at the top was girlfriends, and Nick was like “That’s it. We don’t need to hear any other names.” So we had a name for the band before we had any music. Which I sometimes think is the most important part.
GROSS: It helped us figure out what lane I think we wanted to keep the music in. girlfriends helped us establish a name and a brand for what we wanted to do, which was also a thing in the beginning, at least for me. I think Travis had a whole idea for [how] he wanted this to sound. And when we were trying to figure out what direction we wanted to take this, for me, it wasn’t as clear. And I think Feldy helped us tie it in to this really awesome sound.
From what it seems, you started creating the album right when coronavirus broke out. So the process had to be very different from anything you’ve done in the past.
GROSS: Yes, but coronavirus wasn’t the reason we created the album. Travis and I had been talking about doing this for a long time. And it thankfully allowed us to open up some time and be more creative. It just allowed us to get focused and spend time on creating what we wanted it to be. We just looked at it as a positive opportunity to create an amazing album.
MILLS: We had sessions before everything obviously became super serious. We would do two days a week, and then we would have a week off. So when the whole lockdown thing happened, everyone had to stay home. Well, we said instead of staying home, let’s stay at Feldy’s house and live in the studio. We were very fortunate that we just locked down in one place and focused on the music.
Travis, you’ve said the songwriting process came very “organically” and is “genuine.” And that is super clear in both singles. What are some of the big themes you’re hitting on with girlfriends, and how cathartic was it to put pen to paper? As a group, what influences sonically and lyrically have you pulled from?
MILLS: Dude, the whole big recording process was like one therapy session. Like, I went through the most traumatic time of my life in January. It was the only place I wanted to be because when you sit down with John, he’ll start the session by asking how you are feeling today. And there were some days I walked in there [and] I’d be crying, and there would be some days I’d walk in there and I’d be OK. So it was taking advantage of everything I was feeling and everything I was processing and letting it come out in the songs. When you listen to the record, it’s the most vulnerable I’ve ever been, the most transparent I’ve ever been.
What do you hope fans take away from the upcoming album?
MILLS: I want them to know this isn’t a side project for me and Nick. And when you listen to the album, it is talking about my demons that I’ve had. Being in this industry for 10 years and experiencing the high highs and the low lows and how to make the best of it. I think a lot of people can get into the position where they get successful and lose who they are. And that definitely happened to me, and this record is all about finding it again.
Pull back the curtain and give us a sample of what the song creation process was like.
GROSS: We created the whole album. girlfriends don’t have a guitar player, a bass player and a key player. It was just me and Travis. Feldy was kind of the third member of the band. To get in there and play the guitar on parts, play the keys on parts….but to have Travis being so quick and efficient on the songwriting, it’s really cool. Just these three amigos creating a band.
MILLS: It’s cool to have this honesty and trust with people like Nick and John. There would be days that I’d write something, and Nick would be like, “That’s not good enough.” You know, you could beat it, or I show Feldy a lyric, and he’s like, “That’s it.” I’ll be like, “I don’t think that’s good enough,” and he’ll be like, “I think you are overthinking it.”
I remember when we started making the record. I was scared to write and sing in front of Feldmann just because of how much I love the songs he writes. So once you get over that and it’s just me and him on an acoustic guitar and we can get a song done in 30 minutes, it’s almost effortless.
Then Nick comes in, and he has such a vision for how he wants things to sound. It’s cool being in a room with those two because there are no bad ideas. And like John says, “The best thing for the song always wins.” It’s cool to bounce ideas off people you can trust, and they will give you honest feedback.
The first single is “California,” and the music video is super entertaining. Travis has an acting background, but I thought John and Nick both did a really good job. How much fun was that to shoot?
GROSS: It only took a thousand takes. On my one-thousandth take, we figured it out.
MILLS: John is a fucking natural, dude. I actually swapped places with the director for John. [The director] came up to me, and he said, “I think you should direct, John” ’cause he’s like a fan of Feldmann, and he was nervous around him…so I got up to [Feldmann] and was like, “Now you are excited! Now you are throwing the paper!” John was the best of the video.
GROSS: He is!
MILLS: My dad even called me, and my dad is like 73, and he doesn’t know punk rock, and he was like, “Oh, my God, Travis, the casting director when he throws the paper…I laughed so hard.”
FELDMANN: Yeah, I’ve had lots of experience smackin dudes’ butts. I always beat the shit out of bands I work with, so it was pretty easy to beat the shit out of these guys in the video. It was fun. It was really fun.
John, you’ve been such a backbone for this scene as a musician and just the ultimate pop-punk record producer. How do you feel when you see new bands continue to produce this kind of music and younger generations fall in love with a genre that you really helped build decades ago?
FELDMANN: I mean, look, let’s keep it coming! I’m not going to complain at all. You know, I was trying to throw a little ska into girlfriends in the first week, do a little “Let’s pick it up,” and they shut that down really quick.
MILLS: I threw the saxophone at him, and he just picked it up and chucked it.
FELDMANN: The jazz flute didn’t work out well…but in all seriousness, I think there is always going to be a place for great songs with simple chords. That’s what I’ve done since I was a kid. I was never really a musician in the dictionary sense of the word. I can sort of read music. But I’m not the greatest player. I’ve always tried to focus on songwriting. But this girlfriends record…we couldn’t keep it [at 28 minutes]. We have 14 songs now because we are so stoked on [them]. I think at the end of the day, I say, “Song is king.” I think we just have these amazing songs, and I wouldn’t even classify girlfriends as pop punk. I think it’s like pop-rock, and there is definitely like a wide spectrum…but these songs are timeless.
No one can really promote new music with big tours because of coronavirus. How are you adapting to the way the music industry has shifted?
MILLS: Since we have no way of knowing when this is going to end and [when] the world is going to open back up, might as well make as much music as we can. Maybe we will have two albums out by the time we can go back on the road again. That’s the goal, for sure.