‘That’s nice but now we can’t eat our deli tray’—Darby Mills on life with and after The Headpins

Darby Mills Project

Interview with Darby Mills

Former lead belter with the Headpins plays the Fairview Pub in Vancouver Saturday, April 7 with her new band The Darby Mills Project

– by Shawn Conner

If you remember ‘80s rock radio then you probably remember The Headpins. Formed in the late 1970s by then Chilliwack members Ab Bryant and Brian MacLeod, the band originally also included Denise McCann on vocals and future Loverboy member Matt Frenette on drums (soon replaced by Bernie Aubin). Around the end of their first year (1981) gigging around Vancouver, McCann left. MacLeod saw Darby Mills singing with another band and asked the former figure skater to join The Headpins as lead vocalist. The West Coast hard rock band went on to rack up a number of hits, including “Don’t It Make Ya Feel,” and released three albums, including its multi-platinum (in Canada) 1982 debut Turn It Loud.

Mills left the band in 1986, and was replaced by another singer (Chrissy Steele), only to come back a few years later. She continued to perform with The Headpins until 2016 (the band still tours with new singer Katrina Lawrence). But Mills isn’t done with the music biz; the singer, who lives in Vernon with her husband and two sons, recorded a new live album (recorded at the Russian Hall here in Vancouver) and formed a new band, the Darby Mills Project. (Members are Randy Gabel on guitar and vocals and Doug Rassmussen on keys and vocals, both formerly of Wildchild; and Ricky Renouf on bass and vocals and Ed Cliffe on drums and vocals, both from The Knobs).

MIlls plays an album release show at the Fairview Pub this Saturday (April 7) that will also feature the premiere of a doc about her life. (The album is available for download here.) We caught up with the powerhouse hard-rock vocalist to talk about figure skating, getting kicked off a ZZ Top tour, and tae kwon do.

The early years—figure skating

Shawn Conner: So you were a figure skater to begin with, is that right?

Darby Mills: From Grade 1 through to graduation I was a figure skater. Pretty much towards the end of Grade VIII, I had been qualified in the top 15 in B.C. and was accepted into a Karen Magnussen summer school camp for the elite, if you want to call it that. I skated in North Vancouver. I was living in Kamloops. There were eight levels, I had made it to the sixth. From the time I was 13, 14, 15 and 16, I tried to get my sixth. Like everything, it cost money to do the tests and I continued to not achieve the ranking. Eventually I Just gave up, I was asked if I would be a skating instructor up north, in Grade 10 or 11. I thought twice about it and decided I would graduate instead and decide what I would do from there with my life. It was around then that I stumbled on singing “Crazy on You” with my first band and my first gig. The writing was on the wall. This was what I wanted to do.

SC: Is that when you joined (Nanaimo/Vancouver band) Steelback?

DM: That was many bands later. This was a band made up of high school buddies.

SC: Where were you?

DM: I was in Kamloops by the time I joined the first band. As soon as I graduated from high school, I loaded up my Gremlin and off to Calgary I went. I auditioned and joined the better part of 10 acts. When I was in Calgary that’s where I met up with Business Before Pleasure, which was an all African-American band from Harlem. They had just moved to Edmonton. I auditioned with about 50 other singers. About a month, month-and-a-half later I met up with Steelback and that’s when gave them my notice and said “I really want to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer” and Steelback was a rock ‘n’ roll band. So off I went to Victoria. 

Business Before Pleasure. Image courtesy darbymills.com.

SC: So were you doing mostly funk and soul with Business Before Pleasure?

DM: Absolutely. They were a seven-piece disco band with steps that you had to learn. It was full-on.

The Headpins cometh

SC: How did you hook up with The Headpins?

DM: Better part of a year, a year-and-a-half, in the clubs, they showed up at the Zodiac one night to check out the band. A week later, Steelback was in Alberta. That’s when you worked six days a week, travelled on Sunday and continued to play play play. By the time I joined Headpins I’d already done a thousand shows. The acts of today, it takes 10 years before they’ve done a thousand shows. It’s a different business today. But I was back out in Alberta, in a hotel room in Calgary, when “Too Loud” McLeod called and said, “We’d like you to join the band. Take your time. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

SC: The Zodiac?

DM: It’s in New West. It was also where were shot the “Don’t It Make Ya Feel Like (Dancin’)” video. It’s still there, I think it might be vacant. But it was one of the A-market clubs of the day. 

SC: Did you learn tae kwon do because you were playing bars in Winnipeg in the eighties?

DM: (laughs) What, like the Zoo (an infamous bar in the Osborne Motor Hotel). No, as a matter of fact. I didn’t start training until I had moved back home to Vernon and I had a four-year-old son who was very tiny but had the gift of gab. I saw him getting into trouble so I went, “You are going to have some self-defense on your side.” So I enrolled him while carting my then-brand-new son, and we sat for the better of three or four years watching my oldest train and my youngest crawl. By the time he was two-and-a-half he was also training and by eight-year-old he was also a black belt.

SC: You have your own security force.

DM: Well it would have to be a really good day where they’d step up for me. They might just say, “Go for it mom.” I don’t know if they’d be on my side or not.  

ZZ Top and the Afterburner Tour

SC: According to the Wikipedia Headpins bio, the Headpins were kicked off of ZZ Top’s Afterburner Tour because “ZZ Top didn’t like the attention” that you were getting. Is that true?

DM: We were definitely getting a lot of attention. We were getting encores after our set. Literally, in a 10,000-seater, every arm had a lighter lit for us at the end of a show.

One particular night, I believe it was in Quebec City, we were underneath the arena seats in our dressing room, having left the stage, and people were pounding and jumping on the seats so hard that dust was falling from the ceiling onto our deli tray. We thought, “Well, that’s nice, but now we can’t eat our deli tray!”

They were so loud. When the houselights were turned on the boos were so gnarly we thought we were going to have to run out of the arena because we thought a riot was going to break out. That was one of the first times I felt scared in a big crowd. It’s a memory that will stick with me forever. It was better than getting an encore. People were getting vicious. Not that I recommend that to anyone!

We ended up putting the final nail in the coffin at the Calgary Saddledome. Calgary loved the Headpins. We finished our set and the crowd was going crazy-wild. Our road manager ran down to the dressing room and said, “They haven’t turned on the houselights. They’re giving us an encore.” The crowd was that crazy. Without thinking, out on the stage we went and we did this encore. We were like, “Yeah, we rock!” in the dressing room. Suddenly the door slams and it’s our road manager. “Oh shit.” “What do you mean, ‘Oh shit’?” “We screwed ourselves big time.” “How?” “The intercom set between the house guys and the lights and they didn’t get the signal to turn on the houselights. So we’ve now put the show over.” Of course, ZZ Top couldn’t drop a song, and by us doing a song encore we put the show over which means the union pay check gets multiplied by I don’t know how much. And ZZ Top kicked us off the American tour. We finished with two dates in Vancouver. The day after that I got handed my green card and my yellow card saying, “Fired!” So yeah, it was a fun tour.

The Darby Mills Project

SC: You recorded this new album live at the Russian Hall in Vancouver? 

DM: Yeah. We booked and paid for the Russian Hall ourselves with the Affordable Concert Series. We brought in Ron Obvious of Little Mountain and Warehouse fame. He brought in his gear and we recorded that night and had a great show. I’m really happy with what we’ve done. We did some post-production. But it’s pretty much a true-to-life live CD.

SC: What’s in the live set that you’ll be doing at the Fairview?

DM: The live album is the new show. This set is one-third Headpins, one-third my original material and the rest is what I call re-covers of classic, classic songs that were part of my journey of getting into this industry. They show a slightly different voice or bring my style of voice to those songs.

DM: I don’t do any Heart. Even though Ann Wilson’s voice on Dreamboat Annie, that was the album I sang day-in and day-out with my first band for warm-ups and preparation. She was a massively huge influence on me, as was Janis Joplin—though I didn’t know who she was in my first band, which rehearsed in my parents’ basement. Until someone handed me the Pearl album, and said, “You sound a lot like Janis Joplin!” I listened to it and went “Okay, If that’s who I sound like, cool.” I fell in love with her and cannot help but credit her for giving me the idea that being raspy was okay.

Darby Mills plays the Fairview Pub in Vancouver Saturday April 7. That evening, she will also premiere a Telus TV doc about her life.

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