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Interview: Mike Mills (of R.E.M.)

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remthumb 260x260 Interview: Mike Mills (of R.E.M.)For over 30 years, Mike Mills was the bass player for one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Now, with R.E.M.‘s recent breakup, Mills finds himself temporarily unemployed, but not before a final greatest hits package is to be released. For the first time, songs from both R.E.M.’s IRS and Warner Brothers catalogs are together in one collection. Consequence of Sound‘s Research Editor and host of Audiography Len Comaratta recently had a conversation with Mills about the new best of, R.E.M.’s early career, and the possibility of a Mike Mills solo effort.

Let’s start with the new package… the new greatest hits album, Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage. The title tells it all, your summation of 30 years of rock and roll?

Well, it’s funny; that was a phrase Peter used to describe us back, I think, in the late 80s. I’m not sure of the exact date of origin, but you know, it is. The thing you take away from that is love rock and roll as we do, but don’t take it too seriously. It is the most important and least important thing in the world in many ways.

With the new song “We All Go Back to Where We Belong”, is there an intention behind the title? Was that song actually written with knowledge of the band’s demise or breakup?

Yeah, both that and “Hallelujah” lyrically were written knowing that; and actually, “We All Go Back to Where We Belong” was originally written on piano for Collapse Into Now, but we couldn’t figure out a way to make it work, but I really wanted Michael to finish it for this retrospective, so I went at it from guitar instead of piano. I kind of rewrote it on guitar and changed it around from the piano song it was, and it turned out to be much more accessible for Michael, so we’ve got this beautiful song now.

And the third track is “Month of Saturdays”…

Yeah, that was something I was messing around with back in the recording of Collapse Into Now. I was thinking of Pylon and my friend Randy Bewley, who was killed not long ago, and I was thinking, “Well, you know this is kind of a Pylon kind of guitar sound, guitar line here,” and I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but Michael liked it enough to put the lyrics on it. I like it because it reflects the goofy side of R.E.M., which was often overlooked by people in the years. We were always having fun, and a lot of that got overlooked because people thought we were this really serious band, but believe me, we were laughing as much as anybody else.

Any chance of “Hallelujah” and “A Month of Saturdays” being released?

As singles, I have no idea. That is entirely up to the record company. If they want to, it’ll be fine with me.

So, all three of these songs weren’t necessarily cutting room scraps from the last album sessions. They were things you couldn’t really complete but wanted to.

Oh, exactly. No, they were things we really liked. Some songs just tend to come out and take about as long to write as it does to play ‘em; others require a lot of wrangling. “We All Go Back to Where We Belong” took a lot of work, but because I believed in it and I knew there was a good song in there, I just kept wrestling with it until it got to a point where Michael could relate to it and be inspired by it.

You said that you were trying to get Michael to finish it. As long as I’ve been alive, it’s always been Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe, then obviously Buck/Mills/Stipe. How do you approach the songwriting as all four of you or all three of you to get the song to be a Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe or Buck/Mills/Stipe song rather than a Mills song or a Stipe song or a Buck song?

From the very beginning, Peter said, you know, when we first started having to have song credits, he said we were gonna split them equally. I said, “Why would we do that? I don’t care about the money, but I want the credit if I write the song.” And he said, “Yeah, I understand that.” But being the historian that he was already, he said nothing breaks a band up faster than the songwriters getting all the money. So, he said we’re gonna share. And then in fact it turned out to be a truth because we did all write the songs. Everybody contributed to every song, whether we actually physically wrote it or not. Everybody had enough of a hand in the sound of it to make the splitting of the credits make perfect sense. And it does keep a band together, because if one or two guys write all the songs and they make all the money, the other guys are gonna be resentful, and that is not healthy.

Like with The Beatles.

The Beatles are a prime example of that, certainly; but I love the fact that we made the decision with the idea of avoiding tension, and yet it turned out to be correct and accurate in fact as well as in thought.

Photo by Anton Corbijn.

remthumb21 260x260 Interview: Mike Mills (of R.E.M.)Over the course of three decades together, you’ve been a unit. It’s never seemed to be one personality, even though Michael Stipe’s personality certainly outshines the other three, R.E.M. itself always seemed to have its own unified front.

Oh, absolutely. When we got together the idea was that we were a band, you know. When you’re starting out, you’re taking your stuff out there on the road. And you’re playing it for people who don’t know you and may or may not even care that you’re there. You have to prove yourself night after night after night, and so you’re kind of a gang. A gang of four or five people who are out there, and the only people you have are each other. You’re the ones that believe in each other, and maybe no one else does at that point, so the only support you have is each other. And that tends to give you that unified front, and we’ve always felt it should be that way from the very beginning. Whatever disputes we may have, they stay in-house.

With that in mind, when Bill Berry decided to leave the band in ’97, did you as a band even contemplate possibly ending?

Yeah, of course, we did. We looked at it. What we found was that there was a dynamic that went on with Bill in the band that was completely shifted when he left, and we didn’t really expect that. Everybody has different ways of working, and Bill actually helped balance that out. As any relationship will over the years, you have to step back and talk about it and say, “Do we want to keep going? If we do, here’s what we have to do in order to do it correctly.” There were two or three of those, I’d say, major ones, over the course of our career, and that’s how you keep going. Whether it’s a marriage, a friendship, or a business relationship, those things are necessary every once in a while just to make sure you are all still pulling in the same direction.

Michael Stipe said, “A three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently.”

Exactly, well said. And a three-legged table can be a little wobbly unless you balance it out right.

So, how did you decide to go on as a three-piece as it were, rather than have a full-time replacement?

We never wanted to replace Bill; there’s no replacing Bill in the sense of “band member.”  We were lucky enough to find Joey Waronker and Bill Rieflin, who were not only great drummers, but they fit with R.E.M. And not every great drummer could do that. We didn’t want to replace Bill. It felt disrespectful, and that’s not who we were. So, in our minds, it was still R.E.M., but R.E.M. was a different band after Bill left, and we weren’t trying to pretend we were the same band because we weren’t.

What was the reason for two videos for the latest single? And why the Andy Warhol Screen Test approach?

Michael is the visual artist in the band. Peter and I don’t care about videos as long as we don’t have to be in them. We clearly get final approval, but we trust Michael’s vision, and we know how much he enjoys it. So, we let him go out and do whatever he wanted, and as long as we feel it represents the band in a way of class and integrity, we are certainly fine with that. You know, three and a half minutes of Kirsten Dunst is not a problem.

No. Or even John Giorno.

What is his last name again?

Giorno.

Giorno, yeah, that’s it, John Giorno. He’s the one; you know he was the guy in Sleep, Andy Warhol’s eight hours of a guy sleeping. That was him. So, that’s again a little bit of a full circle.

A return to form.

Yep.

So, I guess that explains why we hardly ever see band members in the videos. You guys consciously did not want to be in the videos.

Yeah. I mean, Peter and I never got into this business to be actors. It’s not what we wanted to do. I personally resent the fact that videos exist ever anyway. Music exists for you to create pictures in your head. When all of a sudden you got some video director showing you the pictures you have in your head, I found that offensive. To a great extent, I still do. Given that, I’m proud of all our videos; we did great videos. Michael has an incredible visual sense. The ones he did by himself are fantastic; the ones he had help with he picked really good people to work with. So, you can make them an art form, and I think we did. Nonetheless, just the fact that record companies needed them as a cheap promo item, or not even cheap; some of those videos cost millions of dollars. But the fact that they saw them as a promo, and for me they took away from the essence of what songs are and music is supposed to do.

Let’s go back, if you don’t mind, to 1983. Do you remember the first time you were on Letterman?

Yeah, sure.

Was that “So. Central Rain”? No, “Radio Free Europe”…

I think we did two. I think we did “Radio Free Europe” and “So. Central Rain”, except “So. Central Rain” didn’t even have a title at that point. If you watch the clip, you see Letterman coming out and talking to Peter and I, and he was like, “What was the name of that song?” You can’t hear what we say, but Letterman goes, “Doesn’t have a name? Too new to be named, okay.”

So, when you guys joined up with I.R.S., was there a reason that you decided to go with I.R.S. versus other independent labels?

We liked what I.R.S. was doing. We agreed with their work ethic. We didn’t want an advance; they didn’t want to give an advance. They agreed to let us do things our way with minimal interference. There was certainly a connection in that Ian Copeland was one of Bill Berry’s and my best friends. He ran our booking agency, and his brother ran I.R.S. So that was a nice familial connection, but really that had little to do with it. In the end, it was mostly because we appreciated their ethic and the fact that they would kind of leave us alone.

remirs Interview: Mike Mills (of R.E.M.)

Whose decision was it to work with Mitch Easter back in the beginning?

I believe he was suggested to us by Peter Holsapple, who we had become friends with. That was when we established our bona fides with I.R.S. Records. They wanted us to work with this name producer that we knew was not a good idea. So, we wanted Mitch, and so what we agreed to do, we did a demo song, one song with Mitch and one with the other producer. And the demo we did with Mitch is the version of “Pilgrimage” that is on the record, so it was pretty clear who was right about the producer.

So, there was obviously a conscious decision around the time of Fables… to change the direction of the band wasn’t there?

Not so much the direction. We had worked with Mitch and Don twice, and that was enough. They’re still good friends to this day, so it wasn’t anything weird. We wanted to try a different producer, a different sound. Peter liked Joe Boyd from all his work with Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention. We weren’t trying to change the sound, per say. We just wanted to work with a different producer.  As it turned out, the sound was a combination of factors: Joe Boyd’s production, the engineer’s type of engineering, the weird funky studio in London that we worked in, the headspace we were all in, which was pretty dismal at that time. You know, we made a record that was dark and murky and is a lot of people’s favorite.

I think it’s a great album. At the time of that album’s making and release was also around the time that all the R.E.M. clones started filtering their way through college radio, and I was always curious as if that was a reason why you shifted a little with Fables.

You know, it’s not. I was never really aware of any R.E.M. clones. I never really caught on to people trying to emulate our sound…

Really?

We were not trying to throw other bands off the scent. We were just recording the songs that we had in the best way we could, but due to the combination of studio and producer and headspace, we got this particularly dark record, which we all love. I think it’s great. The experience of making it was really tough. It wasn’t Joe Boyd’s fault. I consider him a friend to this day, but it was tough being in London and tough working in that studio.

remdocument 260x260 Interview: Mike Mills (of R.E.M.)How about with Document? Was it a little bit easier?

Document was great. Scott Litt was clearly a great fit for us, and we had a lot of fun making that record.

When you guys decided to go to Warner Brothers, was that more based on initially a distribution deal?  That they could get you international distribution?

That was a lot of it. I.R.S. had no presence in Europe. We really wanted to come to Europe and see if our music would translate, not in a literal sense of the term. We wanted to see if the Europeans could appreciate it, and I.R.S. had no presence at all, and we wanted to come to Europe, and while we enjoyed playing to American servicemen based in Mannheim, Germany, we wanted to see if we could get a bigger audience just to see how our music would go over. Warners not only had that European presence we were looking for, but they were clearly an artist-oriented label. They had Moe Austin and Lenny Wannaker in charge, clearly two guys who cared as much about the music as they did about the money. They had people like Neil Young and Van Dyke Parks on the label who were not making any money, but they were great artists. We said, “That’s the kind of label we want to associate with — something that’s not about the bottom line.” We could have gotten more money elsewhere, but that’s not what we were after.

Some people have considered your vocals and harmonies, especially with Michael Stipe on songs like “Superman”, to be the band’s secret weapon. J. Edward Keyes, who is a critic, and Stewart Mason, who is a reviewer as well, both have suggested solo albums by you. In fact, Stewart Mason suggested it in his review of “Near Wild Heaven”, which is almost 20 years old. Any thoughts to doing a solo album now that R.E.M. is done?

Right. Yeah, I’ll probably do one sooner or later. Right now what I’m looking forward to is writing some songs with some guys I know that I really like and respect and want to hang out with and work with. That’s probably next up, but I’d say some time fairly soon, I’ll start working on a solo record. If I think it measures up to standards, I’ll put it out.

Everywhere I look… I’ve been a fan since the early-mid 80s…

Cool.

I’m old.

You and me both…

But the name… I know what R.E.M. stands for biologically, scientifically. But I could have sworn in the documentary Inside Out, the old documentary on the Athens scene back in the day, that somebody said they just saw the letters written on a wall after a party.

No. I’ll give you the definitive story on that. What happened was we were looking for a name, so we had these plywood walls of this crappy place in this deconsecrated church where some of us were living, and we had pieces of chalk lying around. Whenever our friends came over, we had them write down suggestions for names on the walls. None of those turned out to be usable. So, we were sitting around one night before one of our first two or three shows, by this point we had to have a name of some sort, and Michael had a dictionary. He was literally opening it up and stabbing his finger down on words. Like the fourth or fifth one was R.E.M., and we said, “What does that mean?” And he said, “Well rapid eye movement is the dream stage of sleep,” and we said, “We’ll take it.”

Photo by Keith Carter.

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