Alibi V.25 No.1 • Jan 7-13, 2016 

Aural Fixation

More Than Reality Allows

A conversation with Jessica Mills

The horn section of Citizen Fish: Miguel Reyes, Jessica Mils and Matt Dowse
The horn section of Citizen Fish: Miguel Reyes, Jessica Mils and Matt Dowse
Courtesy of Jessica Mills
As we stood on the sidewalk off Central, well after I had stopped recording our interview, Jessica Mills turned to me and said, “You know, for a mediocre musician, I've had really good luck.” Whether you chock it up to luck or talent, Mills is an affable powerhouse, a Renaissance woman whose resume includes a book—My Mother Wears Combat Bootspublished by AK Press in 2007, over a decade of work with the ultimate punk fanzine, Maximum RocknRoll and her own long-running zine, Yard Wide Yarns.

And that's to say nothing of her credentials as a musician. She was the first horn player in the ska band Less Than Jake, a band that was eventually signed to Capitol Records. The label gave Mills an expensive brand-new saxophone, which she quickly traded in for a bass guitar so she could play in the sludgy all female Reina Aveja. She's played bass and horns in many other bands like Crustaceans and Molotonic, recorded with Against Me! and Latex Generation and toured with Citizen Fish and Forgetters; locally she guests on sax with Rudest Priest, plays in Nose Blonde and the newly-formed no wave band Sentence Fragments and occasionally makes some time to perform solo jazz at Outpost Performance Space. I'm exhausted just trying to chronicle her work, and I've surely left a lot out.

“I've never been bored in my life,” Mills confided as we looked out over the December foot traffic in Nob Hill. “If I didn't have some sort of creative outlet, I'd just lose my mind. I have to extend all of my minute free time into creative projects. I have to prioritize it.” That's something that is truly remarkable about Mills; she always seems to be striving to create something meaningful within the many mediums she works.

Her life as a musician started in eighth grade band class—it just so happened to be the only elective class left when Mills enrolled. She wanted to play the drums, but got stuck with the clarinet, quickly moving to first chair. “I was kind of the best of the worst … story of my life,” she said of that time before quickly adding, “but I couldn't stand the clarinet. The saxophone was just cooler. It fit the personality that I was honing at that time.”

During that same time Mills and her friend—self-described as “freaky, new wave pre-punk kids with funny haircuts”—founded The Nuclear Wave Dancers, a two piece that existed solely within the pages of spiral ring notebooks where the two scrawled lyrics. The Nuclear Wave Dancers never played a show, but, endearingly, Mills cites it as her first musical project. She still has the notebooks. Then, one summer her “bandmate” came back from a trip to England with a powerful discovery: punk rock.

In her hometown there wasn't much of a punk scene, but when she moved to Gainesville, Fla. for college she gained greater access to punk music, and not only that, but “there were women playing punk,” Mills said, “I never imagined I'd be able to do it before then. When I saw women playing punk music it changed my life.”

She was inspired by those women playing local venues and icons like Laurie Anderson, Poly Styrene and Wendy O. Williams. These days she's listening to G.L.O.S.S., Worriers, Screaming Females, Downtown Boys and Shellshag.

As she talks about her diverse musical and artistic endeavors Mills reflected, “I don't want to keep doing what I've done in the past, I want to do something new,” and she continues to do so despite full time work as an educator and a mother of two. She pauses and adds, “I'm gonna try to do it all. I want to do more than reality allows me to.”

To cull your own inspiration from this local female musician playing across genres, keep an eye out for upcoming Nose Blonde and Sentence Fragment shows, stay keyed in to the roster at Outpost and scan the shelves of your local bookstore.