Sam Mills was born in London in 1963.
He started playing guitar with 23 Skidoo in 1979 and continued until 1982. At that time 23 Skidoo were top of the independent charts and were reputed for the intensity of their live performances. They fused avant garde experimentation and stylistic eclecticism with dance rhythms, and (borrowing from bands like Can, This Heat, Fela Kuti and whatever ethnic music they could lay their hands on) anticipated many musical trends of recent years. The Real Sugar disc involved ex 23 Skidoo-ers Fritz Catlin, who helped to programme and produce the record, and bassist Sketch (also formerly of Lynx).
"I remember hearing Baul music for the first time in Honky Tonk Records in Kentish Town, where we used to rehearse. There was this extraordinary sound, which I later learned was a komok, like a talking drum but far more extreme. It left an indelible impression on me." In the early eighties, a lot of records were becoming available which featured music from all over the world. One particular record was Le Chant Des Fous (The Songs of the Madmen) which was released by UNESCO in association with Musée De L'Homme, Paris. It remains a very compelling record, the keening intensity and teasing playfulness of the singing is redolent of gypsy music and the percussion is mesmeric. Sometimes the sound gets really minimal, just a sharp edge that is never florid and portentous.
The Bauls themselves seemed to have an inspired syncretism taking on board all the religious traditions of South Asia and focussing them on the divinity of the person and the body. Perhaps because Bauls rejected orthodoxy, high classicism and caste, their sound resonated with the post-punk experimentalism that Skidoo and a lot of other musicians were trying to explore, just as it fitted with the hippies who heard it in the sixties, when Purna Das Baul went to America.
After 23 Skidoo, inspired by the startling music from all over the world that was finding its way into North London record shops, Sam Mills went to study Anthropology at the London School of Economics, emerging with a Phd in 1992. During this time he also lived in Japan and Bangladesh and travelled around Asia.
In 1986 he visited Calcutta for the first time and, remembering that the Bauls were local cultural icons, went to find them in the Bengali countryside. This led to many encounters with wonderful musicians and evenings spent under the sky listening to the song battles of the Bauls. But meeting Paban in 1988 was different. Paban was obviously a world class performer and had been travelling Europe for many years. The musical collaboration started casually at first. "I would sit in the veranda of the house in Calcutta where Paban and Mimlu Sen stayed and play their piano. Paban would always be singing and playing so we started to jam together. He gave me a komok and a dotara which I also learned to play, although never as well as the Bauls do. All the time I was hearing a lot of the music, learning the language and getting a whole background to the kind of work Paban was doing, which made him seem more rather than less remarkable to me. I used to listen to a lot of Bengali songs, which are very rich and melodic, and think about how they could fit in with the kinds of chords we use in pop music here, as well as with the kind of beats and grooves that run through African music, or funk, or whatever.
We both returned to Europe in 1990 and I would visit Paban and Mimlu in Paris, when I took my guitar. In 1992, Paban came to London for a couple of days and we started fooling around with a Portastudio. In one evening we recorded three songs which seemed to have a promise about them. Later that year, I organised a couple of concerts in London and a great group of Bauls featuring Paban came and played. We were even invited to Mick Jagger's house to give a private performance, although none of them had ever heard of him before and the Bauls were adopting their usual superstar attitudes. It was a bizarre evening. We then took a holiday in the south of France and made some beautiful acappella recordings of Paban singing. Microsoft used some of this to represent the music of Bengal in their World CD-Rom Atlas.
Over the next year, Paban was in India a lot and I was researching in Bangladesh. We snatched two days in Paris to record some songs in an eight track studio. I had some rough ideas and had recorded a simple backing hoping to elicit performances. Out of this came Dil Ki Doya and Mon Moti, two of the best songs on the album. It was these tracks that made Real World take notice of what we were doing and give us the chance to make the album which became Real Sugar.
Real Sugar was a collaboration which involved Paban leaving a rhythmic snippet of a song and we would build the music up around it. He would then record the vocal and we would re-work the music around what he had sung. Some of the music was done to tracks which were already made, but by singing on it Paban would impose his character very strongly upon it. The intention in the record is to produce something which is musically interesting for a global audience, which does not compromise the integrity of the songs and uses whatever musical skills we have to offer. Perhaps because Paban and I have known each other for quite a few years, and got to know each other first rather than just meeting in the studio, there is something in the musical interaction which makes the record special."