When Nick Gross and Travis Mills first entered the music business, reality was an afterthought.
It was 2006, the height of Laguna Beach fascination, when a 17-year-old Gross signed his first major-label deal, due in large part to his bandmates’ newfound celebrity (See: pseudo-scripted romances) on the tastemaking MTV show. The group, an Incubus-adjacent outfit called Open Air Stereo, broke up two years later.
And it was 2011 when Mills, a 21-year-old bedroom rapper with emo flare, inked a contract with Columbia Records under the name T. Mills, at the expense of his authenticity.
“I wanted so badly to be successful when I was younger, that I would say things that weren’t necessarily true, or I would kind of embellish on things and create these fun, hype songs,” Mills tells SPIN.
Flash forward a decade — and several career pivots — and the veteran duo have teamed up for a new project that’s devoid of all that past bullshit.
It’s called Girlfriends, an exciting and highly addictive brand of pop-punk where the hooks are huge and emotions run raw.
“Everything has to be coming from a real place, a real perspective, something that we’ve been through,” Mills says, on Zoom from his Los Angeles home.
The pairing, which began in 2019 after the guys met through mutual friends, is largely a two-man operation — Mills delivers the clear, cutting vocals and multi-instrumentalist Gross plays just about everything else. And that’s how the guys like it.
“We don’t want a five or six-person band,” Mills says. “Nick and I know what we’re doing and we want it very concise.”
Though the guys have sought some guidance from John Feldmann, who co-owns Big Noise Music Group with Gross and has produced for a monster-list of pop-punk icons, including Blink-182 (2016’s California and 2019’s Nine).
Fittingly, Girlfriends’ self-titled debut LP, released in October (under the pandemic radar), is heavily influenced by Blink’s sound: polished, impassioned and commanding. The guys even tapped Travis Barker for a guest spot on the track “Where Were You.” The new group falls in line with pop-punk’s recent resurgence, with cross-genre artists like Machine Gun Kelly, Trippie Redd and Mod Sun — with whom Girlfriends will tour this fall — all adopting the retro style.
“I think it’s just culturally a time where people need it, and people want to emotionally attach to this type of music again and hear real instruments,” Gross says of the boom.
Mills, who in his past life played Vans Warped Tour in ‘09 and ‘12, says the community he once knew is reforming: “We are collectively building this scene again, to how it was in the heyday. Like, this band is headlining a tour, and they take out their friends. Then on the next tour, the opening band is headlining, and they take out their friends. It’s this feeling of camaraderie.”
Girlfriends is already working on their second LP, and plan to drop some new singles along the way, including Friday’s fresh-cut “Tattoo,” the band’s fastest — and most infectious — tune to date.
“I feel like this song takes me back to being a kid, but it’s also from a perspective of right now,” Mills says. “It’s as much about relationships that work, and sometimes don’t, as it is about ink inside of your skin.”
While Mills and Gross are plenty busy beyond the band — Mills hosts The Travis Mills Show on Apple Music 1 and Gross launched a studio called the Noise Nest in 2019 — both longtime players are thrilled to be making music that finally speaks to their truth.
“I don’t think the world was in a place to hear people talking about mental health when we first started making music,” Mills says. “You couldn’t talk about anxiety and depression. So it’s just nice to have a platform now where we can talk to kids about real shit.”