By Matt Bieker
When musician Nick Mills—better known by his stage name and legal middle name, “Redfield Clipper”—was around 5 years old, he had a thought: We’re all gonna die someday.
“I first realized that, you know, we all go sometime,” Mills said. “It really freaked me out when I was younger.”
In the years since, he’s picked up healthy habits and a social support system from his friends and family that help him cope. But in March of last year, as he faced pandemic lockdowns and isolation from his friends, bandmates and music students, and the prospect of a deadly new disease sweeping the globe, he got to work exploring his old fear and working on his new album. He named both Death Anxiety.
“I wake up, and I think about, you know, how I’m still here and what it’s going to be like when I’m not,” Mills said. “It’s what I think about right before I go to bed; I think about it when I’m in the car driving around. So, I thought I should do my kind of coping mechanism thing and say everything I have to say about it.”
Released Feb. 19, Death Anxiety is both a 17-track meditation on living and dying, and an exploration of Mills’ extensive sonic range. A near lifelong musician and graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno’s, jazz program, Mills has reinvented himself over the years from funky space rocker, to avante garde math rapper, to basically whatever else he wants.
“There’s so many little pockets of music and culture and just styles that pop out to me that I love,” Mills said. “And it’s vastly different than the last thing that I was really, really interested in. So, it’s difficult for me to maintain consistency in a musical identity, a public musical identity.”
The album begins with an ambient track called “Void.d,” a swirling miasma of dark tones and textures that walks the line between soothing and ominous. There are two similar pieces spaced evenly throughout the track list, making “the void” a kind of coda, and his brand of dark ambience saturates most of the other tracks like a looming specter.
“It’s meant to portray some of the mental spaces that I’ve gotten in around these issues,” Mills said. “A lot of people go to music like that for the comfort, but I think it’s cool to find the discomfort in those spaces.”
Accepting discomfort as part of life is an integral part of Mills’ yoga studies (another way to keep his death anxiety at bay), and it’s something his audience would do well to learn when listening to the album. A jazz guitarist at heart, Mills’ sojourning compositions make use of intentionally discordant melodies and stepped-on beats to challenge the easy-listener and reward the open-minded.
Prog rock, hip-hop, soul, jazz and electronic all leave their mark on the album, as do a veritable festival lineup of local musicians—friends of Mills—who recorded their parts either digitally or socially distanced in various home studios.
“I’d hear [drummer] Tyler Cravens playing, and it’s like ‘man, I know he could do this, I’m going to try to write to that or give him some kind of platform,’” Mills said. “A lot of the influences came from local players and artists.”
While the album is about death, Mills leaves us on a good note—literally. The penultimate track of the album, “Back Home,” is an upbeat, jazzy groove-fest featuring the soaring vocals of local singer Lily Baran, who appears almost triumphantly to let the audience know that, even after all the uncertainty, it’ll be OK in the end.
“I’ll take a look at who’s around me/feel the joy that’s found me/then I find my way back home.”
“I had some teachers and friends in the yoga and meditative community that had some little, I guess I call them thought experiments or mental practices that kind of keep you away from some of that pain, some of that unnecessary contemplation,” Mills said. “That’s kind of what that tune’s about in a way, is coming back to this spot that I’m still able to access to some degree, that makes me feel good about my position in life and relax about my aging and my mortality.”
After all, Mills has enough to be hopeful for. He was accepted to the California Institute of the Arts to begin his master’s degree last spring, and while the pandemic interrupted his plans to move to Los Angeles and moved his classes online, he hopes to make the move sometime this year as the lockdowns finally begin to lift.
“I’m hopeful for a broader collaboration, and I hope I can keep learning from my heroes,” Mills said.