The viral video for Sammy Adams’ major-label debut single “Blow Up” is a pretty accurate look at what life is like for this rising young artist. Adams reels off lyrics asking “What’s it gotta take for a young kid to blow up?” to a hypnotic head-nodding beat and a recreated sample of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” (a nice nod to Adams’ Boston roots). The clip captures the 24-year-old performing for ecstatic crowds everywhere from roof-raising club gigs, to jubilant college shows, to massive outdoor festivals, including Lollapalooza and Bamboozle, where ten thousand people turned up at the Jumbo Stage just to see him. A boyish-looking, sandy-haired charmer from Cambridge, MA, Adams fell in love with music as a kid. “My dad played drums in a rock band for 25 years and my mom sang back-up,” he says. “They loved music — everything from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Led Zeppelin and Canned Heat.” Adams began playing piano at age seven and learned to improvise at age 11. “Everything changed for me at that point because it was my type of thing,” he says. “I didn't have to read sheet music of someone else's song. I could come up with my own.” Already a fan of hip-hop and rock, Adams began to write rhymes and create beats while in high school, which is when he developed a taste for such progressive techno-trance artists as Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren, and Kaskade. A soccer player throughout his life, Adams would make warm-up mixes and play them in the locker room to pump himself and his teammates up before games. “That’s when I realized I could put together all different types of music — hip-hop, rock, techno, and electronic dance music — and people would get into it,” he says. “It inspired me to start experimenting more with vocals and making actual songs.” It was while sitting in class at Trinity College (where Adams was a political science major and captain of the soccer team) that he came up with the idea for his breakthrough single “I Hate College” — a cheeky remix of Asher’s Roth’s “I Love College,” which he recorded in his dorm room. After Adams’ friend posted it on his blog in August 2009, the track spread like wildfire among students across the Northeast. Encouraged by the response, Adams booked shows at colleges, impressing his peers with his freestyle ability, relatable lyrics, and unbridled energy. “We weren’t playing venues, we were doing frat-house basements where the electricity would short-circuit,” he recalls. Adams built such a sizable following through touring that his independently released album Boston’s Boy shot to the top of the iTunes Hip-Hop/Rap chart on its first day out in March 2010, selling nearly 8,000 digital copies that week and outpacing albums by Lil Wayne and DJ Khaled. “We basically marketed the record on Facebook,” Adams says. “The buzz from ‘I Hate College’ really helped. Nearly all of our Facebook fans bought the album on the first day.” With its pop-rap sound and lyrics about coming up as an artist in college, Boston’s Boy earned kudos from local critics, one of whom noted: “There’s no falsity in his songs. He captures campus life with unparalleled specificity.” With his Facebook fan page growing by the thousands, Adams was ready to take things to the next level, he just needed to figure out how. "I had been going to all these DJ shows, watching guys like Rusko and Skrillex, who were selling out huge 100,000-capacity festivals,” Adams says. “Kids would be going insane to these big drops and bass sounds. I really liked that style of music and wanted to incorporate it into my live show.” In September 2010, Adams released his first mixtape, Party Records, a seamless blend of dubstep, bass music, and electro-house with beats by Rusko, Deadmau5, Bassnectar, and other EMD giants. “It was a passion project that really elevated our live shows because kids loved dancing to these kinds of songs,” Adams says. “It made a huge difference. We toured with Boston’s Boy mostly in the Northeast. With Party Records we could go anywhere.” Indeed, in addition to opening for such artists as Kid Cudi, Drake, Nicki Minaj, LMFAO, Ludacris, and J. Cole, Adams performed 180 headlining shows in the U.S. and Canada over the past year and sold out 160 of them, including a high-profile gig at New York City’s Terminal 5. It’s with that striving spirit that Adams will take on his next challenge: forging a name for himself as a pop artist. “I want to make music that’s universal, that anyone can relate to,” he says. “I’ve had my biggest success so far with pop songs like ‘Driving Me Crazy’ [from Boston’s Boy] and ‘I Hate College’ and it has inspired me to write super-catchy hooks that people can jump up and down to. It feels authentic to where I am creatively at this point and I’m excited to continue to explore and play with this kind of music.” Adams has been in the studio with his songwriting and production collaborators J.O.B., Bei Maejor, Alex Da Kid, Supa Dups, and others, working on the songs that will be included on his debut album for RCA Records, which he plans to release in Spring 2012. In the meantime, expect to see him popping up onstage whenever he’s not in the studio. “I’m motivated by how much I love entertaining and the connection I have with my fans,” he says. “I want to make music that makes them proud.” Which is why he ends the viral video for “Blow Up” with the following message: “For my fans, Every moment, every day, this is all for you. Thank you for making me what I am. I am humbled, proud, and excited. Everything has just now begun.”
Born Travis Tatum Mills, the 23-year-old was able to turn laptop musical experimentation in his bedroom into national tours and a recording contract with Columbia Records, all in just over two years. But the rapid ascent didn't come without plenty of work.
From an early age, T. Mills was musically curious. As a kid growing up in California, he learned how to play guitar and drums, before soon getting into singing. He recalls being exposed to a shmorgas-board of musical flavors from an early age by his parents and relatives: "My dad is a huge Elvis fan. My mom was huge into Queen. My first CD that I can ever remember seeing was Nirvana Nevermind. I listened to The Eagles. My uncle was a huge Bone Thugs N Harmony fan, and he kind of got me into all of the hip-hop and R&B. He gave me an Usher tape when I was probably six years old. He gave me an R. Kelly tape. He got me into 2pac. I listened to a lot of Souls of Mischief. Pink Floyd was hella cool. Placebo. Once I got on the Internet, my tastes went all across the board. There was no genre I wasn't listening to. Sade. Eric Clapton. Bob Dylan."
It took some time to hone that sound, though. At 15, he started what he calls an "experimental pop punk" band with friends and was overcome with his connection to music. "When I turned 15, it was over," he says. "Music was my whole life. You couldn't stop me."
Things really began to take shape just over two years ago, though. "I took a T-Pain and Plies beat, and I made a song over it on Garage Band in my bedroom, and I made a MySpace page and I put some pictures up, and kids just started finding my page," he says. "I recorded like three more demos in my bedroom and I kept putting songs up." He would interact with his fans, promising them that when he hit new thresholds of friends - 1000, 5000, etc. - he would put up another song.
"That's key, because I would literally spend eight to nine hours a day on my computer, adding kids and talking to my fans," he says. "It was a cool way for me to connect and I could take their temperature on what was working for me and what wasn't working for me. I just kind of got to build my own virtual career. It got to the point where I had like 30,000 plays a day and I only had four or five songs up there."
Virtual soon became reality, when, through an acquaintance and good timing, Mills landed himself a coveted spot on the summer-long Warped Tour 2009. "I sold my own merch everyday. I set up my own equipment everyday. I just hustled. I played 60 shows by myself the whole summer. It was a grind but it was amazing."
Once he returned to the Pacific, Mills rode his early wave of success to book shows for himself at local venues. Then, one day, unexpectedly, the tattooed talent got a call from John D'Esposito, Live Nation's vice president of talent and the founder of Bamboozle. "I was trippin," Mills says. "I didn't know if that shit was real or fake, so I called, and it really was him."
D'Esposito asked the newbie to craft the theme song for the festival and, in return, gave him a spot on the B-Boy stage, which was also rocked by the likes of Mike Posner and Far East Movement. "That was cool for me cause I didn't have an album out, and it was my first time playing in the East Coast," Mills says. "I didn't know what to expect, and we had four or five thousand kids who knew every single word. That was an eye opener for me and definitely a turning point for my career."
Eventually, after months of negotiating, T. Mills inked with Columbia in early 2011. "It has always been important to me to communicate directly with my fans whether it is through facebook or twitter or by putting up my music for them to enjoy online" he says of his decision. "So we went to work. I spent six or seven months in the studio pretty much every day. I recorded 140 songs. We narrowed it down to 16, then 12. And we settled on ten tracks I'm giving away to my fans for being fans."
As the catchy, genre-bending songs continue to develop, you can try to classify T. Mills, but that doesn't matter. He's going to keep doing it his way, like he has all along.
"When I go in the studio I don't say, 'I want to write a rap song; I want to write a pop song.' I hear what's in front of me and I work with what I have and I create what I want to listen to. I don't care if people want to label me a pop artist. I'm not a rapper; I'm not a singer. I'm just an artist. I'm Travis."
Time to get acquainted.