As front man for his Chicago-based act Fort Frances, David McMillin takes on the duties of songwriting and lead vocals. But what his band-mates add is a musical dimension he cannot create on his own. As much as he enjoys his solo work, it’s that time with the band which makes him a fully-faceted musician.
by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Christopher Hiltz
Had it been any other mid-week, side gig, David McMillin might have canceled. Suffering from a raw throat, thanks to a nagging late winter cold, he would have been justified. But McMillin didn’t cancel. No way. Not this gig. On a seasonably warm Wednesday in mid-March, McMillin had returned to DePauw University, the alma-mater which certainly established his writing chops and arguably laid much of the groundwork for his music career. And when lead-off performers Angela Norris White and Isaac Loya finished their time on the stage, McMillin (the lithe, bearded front-man for the Chicago-based act Fort Frances) settled onto the stool before his microphone and gave back to his school and the town which hosts it.
Originally from Columbus, Indiana McMillin launched his career immediately following his 2006 DPU graduation, initially as a solo act producing a pair of recordings in his first two years on the road. As a solo entertainer, McMillin’s Americana style accentuates his raspy, vocal after tones (a rasp he can instantly shut off in lieu of ringing high notes). It’s a good sound, punctuated by his second record’s signature title track “Heartsteady” and anchored by the more up-tempo “Let The Night Move Slow.” Roughly five years after his solo debut, he teamed with Jeffery Piper and Aaron Kiser forming the band which now defines much of McMillin’s growing musical legacy.
And decades from now, when McMillin sits down to share that legacy with his grandchildren, he will no doubt throw a nod to his band’s third record, Alio as a defining turning-point. Borrowing its title from the Lithuanian world for “hello,” the album stands to mark the both McMillin and the band’s escalation from a talented Chicago standout to a Midwestern powerhouse and levels beyond.
Alio’s diverse arrangement doesn’t allow us to settle into passive listening. The record is founded on tracks featuring strong traditional guitar/bass/drum work such as “You’ve Got the Wrong Man”, “Sigh of Relief” and the album’s flagship single “Building a Wall.” But layering all of that rock-and-roll is a melodic pop style drawing heavily on the synthesizer, keys, and horns—some of it hearkening to a Modest Mouse sound while other songs resonate along the lines of more eclectic bands such as Canada’s The Zolas. The net effect is a record with eleven distinct tunes. Few bands, including many well-established ones, risk such versatility.
When I spoke to McMillin almost a week after his DePauw appearance, he had finally turned the medical corner allowing him to use his voice beyond the “singing only” limitations he had imposed upon himself.
Donovan Wheeler: So what has it been like keeping silent for days at a time?
David McMillin: “It’s pretty hilarious, really. The only person I talked to for three full days was the guy at Guitar Center for about twelve seconds, because I to go buy a cable. Otherwise I just sat in front of the TV and silently rooted for my favorite basketball teams in the NCAA tourney. So if you had put in me in front of a camera you would have spent days watching me eat pizza and silently pump my fists.”
DW: On your Facebook page, you speak about your experience in Lithuania as a defining point for you and the band as a whole. Tell me a little bit about what that was like.
DM: “It’s pretty amusing in several respects, but it’s also extremely gratifying as well. To put it in perspective, we’re an independent band here in the United States and we’ve been able to accomplish a great deal as a sort if do-it-yourself band, playing nights in front of 150 people. But in Lithuania, we’d play in front of 3,000 people in the capital’s biggest festival.”
DW: So it’s amusing because…?
DM: “What’s funny about it is that…well, it’s Lithuania. Outside of myself and the band I don’t know anybody who’s been there or who could even find it on a map. But once we were there it became something more substantial. Outside of the idea that we’ve become successful in this place where we never imagined becoming successful there was also the cultural experience, and the chance to meet all kinds of people. We were there for a week, and we’re hoping to go back.
It gives you a whole new appreciation for what music can do.”
DW: You produced a bit of a spoof video which ended up on Tosh.0, and that’s how you caught the attention of Lithuanian music fans?
DM: “Yes, that’s right. We got there on the coat tails of a cover of a Will Smith song (which is funny in itself), but once we arrived we were able to share our own songs. Once you’re in front of any receptive crowd—forget where you are in the world—you realize that this is the reason that people like me start playing music in the first place. In the ten years that I have been performing, this experience has been a very cool turning point for me, and I’m looking forward to going back as soon as we can.”
DW: When we spoke earlier, you shared that you were about to turn 30, and you mentioned that in context with your own development as a songwriter and lyricist. What does it mean to turn 30 and be playing in a regional band with some international success? Are you still a naively optimistic twenty-something, or have you traded that in for a dose of jaded realism?
DM: “I’d like to think that I still maintain that sense of optimism. Certainly you are hit with that wake-up call that says, ‘I’m not getting any younger.’ But it also motivates you in ways that life as a twenty-something doesn’t often do. So, knowing where I am chronologically, I decided that I had to put everything I had…all of it…into this record.”
DW: Meaning what?
DM: “Meaning that I’ve seen a lot of highs and lows doing this, including switching from those huge crowds in Europe to playing for three people in a bar in Milwaukee. We recently performed at a big festival, and all the bands around us were filled with people in their twenties carrying themselves with this, ‘We can still be stupid, make no money, and abuse our bodies’ sort of demeanor. I’m not saying I’m an ‘old man’ or anything, but 30 is a weird milestone. Now, when I look around at several of my friends who I went to school with at DePauw…they have kids…they work very regular jobs. I’m still very good friends with many of them, but we also live in entirely different worlds.”
“Something happens when I work in the context of the band. The band is a nice way for me to sort operate outside of myself. It’s not exactly the same as say wearing a mask, but I do get to channel a different energy in a rock band—something very different than an Americana acoustic set or the type of work I do when I’m a solo act.”
DW: And what thoughts do those sort of realizations trigger?
DM: “If I spend too much time thinking about that—where I am relative to where my college friends are, or where buddies in other bands are at this point—that’s where it becomes very easy to get lost. So I keep my focus on now. I’m married, and it’s super cool. My wife is very supportive, and we are not on any kind of ‘timeline.’ But eventually, I do want to have a family. Those are things that even as recently as five years ago, you wouldn’t have heard me say. But now I’ve woken up to the reality that I still want to make those things happen, and still want to be a musician.”
DW: And now you’re a musician in a time which some artists think is the worst possible time to be making music while others argue this is the best time for unknown bands to break out into the public eye. Where do you fall on this debate?
DM: “I enjoy Spotify. I’m a big Spotify guy, both as a listener and as a performer. I realize that the opinions among musicians on streaming services ranges all over the spectrum. But there’s much more room in today’s world for the ‘middle-class’ musician. Only 15 or so years ago, you either caught a break and made it big, or you didn’t really exist. But now there are so many bands…there are so many insanely talented bands. In Chicago I can think of two venues that put up great bands every single night: two bands per bill, seven nights a week…and that’s a regional market. This is happening in cities across the country.”
DW: That doesn’t sound easier. That sounds like a lot more competition.
DM: “Sure, but look at it this way: For one thing it’s so much easier to make records now…good, high-quality records. We went to a fantastic studio in Maine to make ours, but we could have worked on it in our living room with a couple of computers and about $500 of extra equipment. The challenge still remains in the listenership. How do you get people to hear that music?”
DW: Is that easier as well?
DM: “I don’t know. We work really hard at trying to break through all the online noise, and I think we’re making some good steps there. But again, there are so many great bands out there. To some degree all of this can be a bit overwhelming. Sometimes it sits in front of you like a massive mountain, and you think, ‘How do I get over this thing? Where do I get the equipment?’ But that said, I think we’re doing things that are at least making the business side manageable for us.”
DW: Like many musicians I speak to, you also do not have a “day job.” I guess my blunt question is why not?
DM: “If you want to make music your career, then you have to put in as much as possible. I sort think of it as if you’re playing the lottery. When you’re really playing it to win, then you have to buy as many tickets as possible. Translate that to the time needed to travel and play in as many shows as possible, and you get the analogy. You have to dedicate more time than holding a ‘full-time, day-job’ will allow.”
DW: Now that you’ve been doing this for a decade, I can hear a distinct difference between your solo voice, both stylistically and lyrically, and your voice among Fort Frances. This is actually a big deal to me because when I listen to other singer/songwriters who cross back and forth, I don’t always hear much difference.
DM: “The transition from the earlier work is evident on a couple of levels. Lyrically, if you look at some of that early solo material in particular, I’ve made a conscious effort to be more abstract. In the early years, I was comfortable writing ideas which translated directly. So you could listen to that and say, ‘Okay, David’s writing a song about being a traveler.’ Or, ‘here he’s writing a song about regret.’ It was certainly hard to assign more than one meaning to it. As a matter of fact, I’m writing material for another solo venture sometime down the road, and I can say that even now the material in those songs is a bit more direct. So something happens when I work in the context of the band. The band is a nice way for me to sort operate outside of myself. It’s not exactly the same as say wearing a mask, but I do get to channel a different energy in a rock band—something very different than an Americana acoustic set or the type of work I do when I’m a solo act.”
DW: Well, the new record is great.
DM: “I’m so proud of these new songs. I like the idea of people assigning their own meanings and finding their own value in what we’re putting out. This new record has songs where I know exactly what they mean to me, but I hope they mean something else to other people. I can’t wait for other people to hear the whole thing, and…I hope I don’t ever make anything like it again.”
DW: [Laughing]. So how does the music creation process happen with the band as opposed to the obvious solo approach you take for your own songs?
DM: “Being in a band is sort of this mixture of being married and hanging out with your best friends all at the same time. That can be taken negatively, of course, but as we have grown closer, I think for us it’s led to a more collaborative experience. I still write the core of most songs, but I take them to the band where everyone offers contributions and changes. If you were to listen to some of our earlier demos, compared to what you hear on the finished record, it amounts to a stark transformation.”
DW: Caused by what?
DM: “Much of what excites me about creating music is now is having a rhythm section. This is how a song finally gets its legs under it. I can play most things, but I cannot play drums at all to save my life, so I don’t think rhythmically, but Aaron and Jeff both do. They have these internal rhythm machines, so they think about songs from a totally different mindset. And when we blend these mentalities it makes for an amazing song creation experience.”
DW: I’m thinking about War Radio’s Joel Everson, a drummer by trade who has become the lead guitarist for his band. Listening to you makes me wonder how his time sitting in the back of the band has affected his writing now that he’s up front.
DM: “If you don’t play drums, you can’t appreciate how much they shape a song. So you fall into this acoustic guitar pattern. But when you compare the finished product to the original demo, you sort of find yourself in wonderment asking, ‘How did this come out of that?’ This is the element the other guys in the band bring to Fort Frances.”
DW: The title of your new album is a tribute to Lithuania. How did that trip affect the creation of the record?
DM: “Well, that’s kind of an interesting story. We started recording this in Chicago in early 2014 and then finished it later that year in Maine. And for me the part which takes the longest is the songwriting and then the mixing. The actual recording took no more than about three weeks. But the selection process, the song ordering, the editing…these are the elements which I totally overthink. As you get closer to that finish line, the act of actually ending the creation process becomes daunting. Because you know that once you finish with that then you have to go about the marketing and promoting: something which is just unhealthy for me to think about.”
DW: So I’m assuming something happens in Lithuania which changes this?
DM: “By the time we went to Lithuania, we had been mixing the record for about a year…because I wanted it to be perfect. That trip came at the perfect time for me because it reminded me why we were all doing this. That trip flipped the switch inside me, and I thought, ‘Yeah! Let’s finish this record.’ Within a month of our return home, the record was finished. That trip was a good reminder for me to let go the things I can’t control, to stop overthinking every detail, and to enjoy what it is about music that brought me to the stage in the first place, namely, my desire to have fun and avoid the regular office job that would have bummed me out.”
Most of us watching McMillin perform on that March afternoon in Greencastle, Indiana weren’t thinking about how easily the over-analysis of a mixing session can become something akin to cubicle work. But as his own words attest, the singer (or his bandmates for that matter) eventually remind him that he gets to walk up to his seat on the stage, share his thoughts in a four-count rhythm, and fill his listeners’ hearts with his emotion of choice: all of it resting on his fingertips. John Keats once wrote about the spirit ditties which never leave the mind of the artist—a form of metrical Shangri-La lost in the cerebral cortexes of those who never put them into tangible form. McMillin has made his choice. He’s sharing his genius, and we’re all better off because of it.