Guitarist-Producer Blake Mills and Photographer-Director Sam Jones Collaborate on Vinyl LP to Accompany Art Book 'Some Where Else'

Sam Jones and Blake Mills 2015
Courtesy of Sam Jones

Sam Jones and Blake Mills

In 2010, Tom Petty commissioned photographer-director Sam Jones, 49, to shoot landscapes for the cover of his 15th studio album, Mojo. Seeking imagery that captured the record’s aura, Jones -- whose catalog of work spans the Foo Fighters' award-winning "Walk" music video and portraits of artists like Bob Dylan and John Mayer -- traveled through areas of the American South that have remained largely unaffected by corporate sprawl.

Though Petty ultimately chose a portrait of the band for his album, Jones’ leftover photos became the catalyst for five more road trips that would evolve into Some Where Else, a striking 152-page book (Beware Doll Press) that will arrive Sept. 29.

Part of what makes the project such a treasure, however, was Jones' decision to include a vinyl LP that was scored by musician-guitar virtuoso Blake Mills, 28, who most recently produced the Alabama ShakesSound & Color album. Mills' seven-track accompaniment, which includes instruments like the tiple, brings the imagery to life while also encouraging readers to absorb the book rather than flip quickly through it.

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While en route to an IHOP after having spent the day "geeking out" at the Telefunken microphone factory, Mills hopped on a call with Jones and Billboard to chat about the duo’s self-described passion project.

Sam, what sparked the idea to incorporate music?

Jones: I realized the pictures were missing a unifying element. I was on the floor of my daughters’ playroom doing a book and record of “It’s a Small World,” and it hit me that there should be a soundtrack.

Mills:  I never realized that that was a catalyst to the idea. That's pretty cool, Sam.

Jones: I’d like to say I came up with it on my own, but... (Laughs),

Why the decision to work with Blake?

Jones: I didn't even think of anybody else, to tell you the truth. If it was a different batch of pictures maybe I would've thought of somebody else, but I just thought that his sensibility would match the pictures. I love his music.

Blake, how was the music influenced by the photos? What was your process like?

Mills:  We set up a projector in the tracking room, and just started to have the images scroll by. As they would come up on the screen it would either direct the music into a different place, or they would coexist. I think there were certain photos that would come up and sort of act like a gust of wind, dictating an idea. 

The album starts with the track “Sunday 8am” and ends with “Sunday 8pm.”

Mills: I sort of borrowed the idea of a Middle Eastern raga: songs that are meant for the morning, and songs that are meant for the evening. There’s a melody that introduces you to the environment, and then it kind of returns and bookends the experience. Throughout the soundtrack there was a lot of acoustic guitar, steel string guitar--things that you associate the sound of America with. Some of the images had an aspect of feeling frozen in the '40s, '50s, '60s sort of eras, so a lot of the equipment that I used in an electric guitar context is from that time period.

What's been your favorite place to travel to in America thus far?

Mills: Home. If you travel for a living your favorite place to vacation is at home.

Jones: That's a good point. For me, I enjoy places like quarries. I went to a quarry once in Maine and the landscape was so changed by man, yet there was so much natural beauty. It was this ironic dichotomy. I grew up in southern California and I just love seeing things that are so different from my experiences -- it jolts me out of my familiarity.

The aspect of having a record accompaniment definitely forces the reader to slow down.

Jones: It’s something I really thought about. If we could’ve included a tumbler with scotch, I would have! (Laughs.) I remember a book called The Family of Man, which was 250 photographers that collectively tried to express the condition of humanity through photographs in the '60s and my parents had a copy. I would just lay on the floor looking at that book for hours. I hope that experience isn't lost. It's such a fun thing to at the end of the day to sit down, put on a record, pick up a book, sit on a couch. I think that shaped me a lot as someone who loves art and creating things.

Sam, would you do another volume of this based on travels to another place?

Jones:  Absolutely. This whole thing has been an experiment and I'm kind of excited to see how it's received. These kinds of things -- really odd things that don't necessarily make a lot of sense from a marketing or sales standpoint -- are really important. I only have good thoughts about this one. I hope people buy it and everything, but I couldn't really give a crap -- I'm just happy I got the chance to make it. 

Mills: Yeah, we already broke even, man! (Laughs.

Congratulations to you both on this project, it is truly a special one.

Mills: Thank you so much. I just have to thank Sam. This experience was a precursor to recording [my second album, Heigh Ho] in a lot of ways -- tonally and in wanting the music to transport you in the way that a piece of visual art can. I was having a conversation with Sam about a photographer named Robert Polidori who had published a book of photos of Cuba. It was a really rare book and at the conclusion of this project, Sam gifted it to me. The book came with me into the studio when I made Heigh Ho. There was a ripple effect and I have to thank Sam for inspiring me in that way.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at Some Where Else below.

Some Where Else is available for purchase ($79.99) at shop.samjonespictures.com.

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.

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