I have collected here dozens of Mike Mills’s wits and quips, scattered all over the innumerable interviews that R.E.M. have given over the past thirty years. A comprehensive collection of Mike’s interviews can be found here, and the quotes below sort of supplement it. Also, read here what Mike’s bandmates have said about him.

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Mike’s Words Of Wisdom

On why he became a bassist:
“At a junior high school pep rally, the high school pep band played. The pep band included an electric bass player. The vibrations from the bass notes made the bleachers (and everyone sitting on them, including me) vibrate wildly, causing both smiles and consternation among those seated. I decided then that I wanted people to vibrate when I played.”

“I don’t make music to sell. I make music to scratch an itch. If the records sell, great. If they don’t, forget ‘em.”

“R.E.M.’s greatest achievement is not how much money we’ve made – it’s that we’re here. We’re family, we’re making music. We’re making people happy. There have been times along the way when the easiest thing for each of us at some particular stage would have been to bow out. But none of us ever did. We all saw the bigger picture, which is here, now.”

“Not many bands get to their third decade. We never expected this. There was no plan, except we all knew we would absolutely refuse to do anything we didn’t want to do. Sometimes the good guys win out.”

“We wanted to be successful, but for me, we were successful the day in 1981 that I didn’t have to have a day job.”

“Peter has rock’n'roll in his soul. He adds fire and enthusiasm.”

“We have three good singers in the band. So we take advantage of that.”

On rehearsing in the church:
“We played on the altar, since it made a kind of natural stage.”

On R.E.M.’s first gig:
“I really don’t remember any interesting specificities, just a great, crazy time with lots of drunk people I didn’t really know yet (and that was just the band)!”

“People came because it was a happening, because it was a party. Who was playing didn’t matter.”

“In the old days, we were a two-sets-a-night band. And if we had to play three sets, then we could. I don’t think any of us really thought it was going to go anywhere, though. We’d practise every day. I’d get off work at six and we’d practise for three hours before going off to whatever party was on that night. The best thing you could say about us back then was that we were energetic.”

On the origins of the Athens scene:
“It was artists who were not musicians who decided to make their art through music. And their feeling was—as with the punk ethos of the time—you didn’t really have to know how to be good, you just had to do what was in your head and in your heart. So that’s what a lot of these bands were doing back then. They were just creating art, but instead of a paintbrush or a chisel, they had a guitar or a piano. You got a lot of interesting and unique music out of that.”

“I just don’t know why Athens had a higher percentage of really good bands than most other college towns. Maybe it was the quality of the art school. You could blame Jim Herbert. I don’t know.”

On maintaining the band’s headquarters in Athens and supporting the community:
“The four of us all had a gut feeling that we didn’t want to leave. We wanted to stay here where our friends were, and where our families were, and make the music that we loved.”

“This is a fantastic community—always has been, and it’s always been good to us. It’s been our joy and pleasure to be able to give something back.”

“The machinery of big music is a very lethal thing. You have to deal with all the bullshit you get from record companies, from promoters, from writers. None of it is predicated on music. It’s all predicated on money. And to maintain musical integrity while dealing with people who only care about money is very tough. The Replacements couldn’t do it. They didn’t want to put up with the bullshit — they wanted to live the rock & roll life and not have to deal with all the crap. We wanted to be a success doing what we wanted to do.”

“There are guys that have had Top Ten hits that are fry cooks right now. They’re in prison, or they’re digging ditches, or they’re living with their mom somewhere. It happens. You don’t ever want to get overly confident in this business. The guys in Canned Heat — they had several Top Ten hits.”

“We always wanted our music to sound timeless. When you listen, you can’t say, ‘Oh, that was made in 1987 or 1999′.”

“The fact is that you never know what your best songs are. ‘Losing my Religion’ is a five-minute song without a chorus where the main instrument is a mandolin — and it’s our biggest hit.”

“I love touring… I really enjoy playing, the magic and response of the crowd to the four of us together. There’s nothing in the world like it when, on certain nights, you can do no wrong.”

“R.E.M. is a democracy, in that each band member has one equal vote. If one of us feels extremely strongly that something does not belong, the he has veto power.”

“I’m glad we made the decision never to include lyric sheet with the albums. That would be like going to the movies and getting the script with your ticket.”

”Growing up in the South, one tends to have a very strong connection to what we call the woods or the forests. And the potential loss of that makes me very nervous.”

“For me, the financial stability R.E.M. has given me has taken me away from rock’n'roll’s tunnel vision. It has freed my mind to think about local politics and issues. The thing is, it isn’t necessary to have money to get involved with your local community though. We work as R.E.M. in Athens with anybody else who wants to preserve their neighbourhoods. We have our own favourite political candidate though just like everybody else. Whoever is running with that sort of environmental idea in mind, we’ll support them. We’ll put their signs in our yards and give them campaign contributions. Just because of the excesses of the past years of rock’n'roll I don’t think that blanket of excess covers the whole bed. And as with music, in environmental politics you start in your own home and work your way upwards.”

“I think maybe what we did was give people a touchstone. As an alternative to the synthesizer-dominated electronic music that was being made, we were the most visible sign that something else was going on. It doesn’t mean that we were the best, and we certainly weren’t the first. But perhaps we were the most accessible and the most visible.”

On wearing his (in)famous sparkly suits:
“I got to the point in my life when I was ready for a lot of changes. I was breaking up with my girlfriend and I used the emotional struggle of that as a chance to make some changes in the way I look on stage. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always loved colourful suits. I would watch Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton on TV and just be so impressed. Gram Parsons had them, Hank Williams, George Jones… I thought: ‘What the hell – I bet it’d be fun if I did that.’ And I also didn’t want anyone to be disappointed because they got stuck on the bass player’s side of the stage. Part of it is giving people on that side some entertainment.”

“There’s only so much you can take credit for. For some reason, I’m really good at hearing things in other bands – except for us. I can hear another band and say they sound like Joy Division or The Byrds. But I have trouble listening to a band and saying: ‘They’re obviously copying our licks.’ It’s an anti-snob defense, I guess.”

“Playing live is as good as it gets. It’s why I’m in a band.”

“You can’t pick and choose what radio stations play your songs. We spent eight years trying to get one of them to play them. We haven’t changed our music to suit them. Obviously, they’ve come around to playing music which isn’t narrow-minded to one particular genre, which is great.”

“Peter does do a lot of low, open chord strumming. The range of our instruments all overlap. Bill’s got a low voice and Michael has a baritone that can go up real high. Peter uses real heavy strings and the low end of his range just about coincides with the high end of mine. So you do get alot of overlapping and flowing together. I would be bored to tears playing a regular flat bass, like basses were until recently. I almost never play with the kick drum. We tried it once or twice and it sounded terrible: a lot of the rhythm went away.”

“I always like to think that there’s something new in the future. To stop the process now would be to shut off a chance to experience. I don’t think there’s a part of me that wants to stop. There’s a part of me that’s nervous, that’s anxious about what the next year might bring. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“We’re really interested in finding the beauty of music these days.”

On the concept behind the promo videos:
“The concept of the video is to sell more records.”

On employing beautiful young women at their Athens office:
“We’re into minority hiring.” (chuckles)

On playing at a place called The Drumstick in Lincoln, Nebraska:
“We thought it would be a rock’n'roll club. It was a chicken restaurant! We were trying to do a soundcheck and there were grandmothers eating fried chicken in the same room…”

On his least favourite R.E.M. songs (he said this in 1987):
“ ‘Hyena’ is one I absolutely refuse to play. I really don’t like to play ‘Time After Time.’ ‘Harborcoat’ – I just got sick to death of it. I probably wouldn’t want to play ‘Second Guessing.’ I never liked to do ‘Letter Never Sent’.”

On the aftermath of their Document tour:
“One thing that was affecting us was this blind acceptance and enthusiasm for anything that was said or done onstage. People are so frantic by the time you get into these larger halls that it’s just a party no matter what you do. It makes you feel kind of weird about meaning what you do. You may put your heart and soul into something, but it doesn’t matter because those people can’t hear it anyway. Since it’s something that we did love to do so much we wanted to step back before we got burned out on it.”

On the state of American radio in late 1980s:
“Radio is really sad, and it’s all the consultants’ fault. Ninety-nine-point-five percent of it is due to Lee Abrams [a cofounder of Burkhart/Abrams who was one of the first and most influential consultants], and it just annoys the living hell out of me. It’s the classic case of money – and the bottom line – getting in the way of the creative process. And it’s almost single-handedly ruined radio for rock’n'roll, as far as I’m concerned.”

On working with John Paul Jones in 1992:
“I completely flatter myself that my role is similar to his in Led Zeppelin – bass, keyboards, some string arrangements. I never had a problem with Led Zeppelin. It’s not their fault that people play Stairway to Heaven to death. I’m sure there are people who regard us as dinosaurs, hopelessly out of touch and over 30.”

On his most memorable festival:
“It was at Milton Keynes. People were filling up two-litre bottles with urine and throwing them at the stage.”

On the band’s ill-fated Monster tour
“The law of averages caught up with us. I don’t read anything into it other than that life will throw you some curveballs sometimes.”

“Scott Litt is the arbiter of disagreements. We turn to hi when the four of us are so bound up in what we’re doing that we can’t see clearly.”

On getting older (said in 1995, when he was 36):
“We’re all older people. That calms things down a little bit. You’re thrown together in the studio, but it’s certainly a different feeling than when you’re on the road — so who knows how that’s going to be. But everybody’s still fairly respectful of everybody’s space and needs. It hasn’t changed that much. Some. [Laughs.] Make no mistake, there is definitely some change. But it’s not real radical. Everybody’s become more like whatever they were. That may sound like a cop-out to say, but that’s basically what it is. Everyone’s personality has sort of solidified.”

“Ah, the power of the press. Bill said once, in one interview, that he and Peter thought it would be funny if New Year’s Eve 1999 were to be our last show. We haven’t stopped hearing about it since. It wasn’t, and it isn’t, a promise, but it would be a hell of a way to start the new millennium. Right now there are no plans for any ending at all, though all things must, eventually.”

On Bill Berry’s decision to retire from music:
“As sad as this is, the fact that Bill is still around to be my friend puts everything in perspective. I look forward to playing golf with Bill, and music with Michael and Peter.”

“When Bill was there, there was a natural balance. Without Bill, everything started tilting different ways. We lost the equilibrium.”

On writing music for Man On The Moon:
“It was interesting to work on a project where music was not the final result we were after. The goal was not to please ourselves or make beautiful songs. It was to create an element that would fit into the whole. We used guys from our touring band, and, of course, having the chance to work with a full orchestra was a great experience all by itself.
One of the most interesting aspects of this kind of work is in handing it over to someone else. We’d finish a piece that was intended for one sequence and Milos [Forman] would take it and move it somewhere else. And it worked.”

On playing the South Africa Freedom Day Concert in Trafalgar Square:
“What better place to play? There are few better causes in the world than the cause of freedom.”

On headlining the Isle of Wight festival in 2005:
”The festival has got so much history, with Hendrix and The Who and everything that happened back then. We’ve decided to do a little of both old and new stuff – at a festival you really have to hit them with everything you’ve got.”

“We’ve been the biggest band in the world, and it was great, but it’s not a career goal for us. U2 are more able to handle that sort of thing. They are made up to do that, and we’re not, and thank goodness.”

“I think a lot of people get presumptions, think they’re soul mates, think Michael is speaking directly to them. I mean, that’s the point of some of his lyrics: to get to someone’s insides. But that doesn’t mean he wants them to come over to his house, you know?”

Mike’s advice to journalists who want to interview Michael Stipe:
“With Michael, it depends on the day. But the one thing I would say is that if he stops talking the chances are that he hasn’t finished. Give him space and he’ll have more to say.”

On illegal music downloads:
“When it first started happening, people were so proud of being able to get something for free. And they’d come and tell me, ‘I just downloaded.’ I’d say, ‘Well, give me your shoes’.”

“I think people are happy to pay for it as a rule, as long as it’s easy and convenient and not overly expensive. And again, there are always going to be some people who want something for nothing.”

“My feeling is that if you’re going after some rare track that you can’t find, or some rare version of a song that you’d like to hear, that’s fine. If you’re stealing a brand new CD because you’re too cheap to go out and pay for it, then I think that’s wrong. It’s not going to hurt me, but bands that are starting out, if you’re ripping off their CDs, how are they going to make any money and get better as a band?”

On R.E.M.’s status in the new millenium:
“In a way it’s like we’ve come full circle. Back in the early 1980s we were making music that was out of step with what was going on, and now we’re doing that again.”

“The thrill of being in a band is writing a new song, rehearsing it with the guys and having it become something new and exciting. At the point you’re not doing that anymore, you can either quit or become a jukebox band, a greatest hits band. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just never a direction in which we’ve wanted to go.”

On playing vintage songs from the band’s vast back catalogue:
“It’s like trying on a shirt that you haven’t worn in 20 years. If it still fits, then it feels pretty good.”

On R’n'B acts like Beyonce:
“Their songs, they’re all oversung. The concept of melody doesn’t really matter because it’s all vocal pyrotechnics.”

Mike on R.E.M.’s famous songs:

‘Can’t Get There From Here’ from Fables of the Reconstruction (1985):
“It’s about where to go to unwind.”

‘Losing My Religion’ from Out of Time (1991):
“I think the first thing that comes mind when people think of R.E.M. is ‘Losing My Religion’. That was our first big hit single. It’s a song that means a lot to me and it’s the quintessential R.E.M. song that had to be on the ‘best of’.”

‘Everybody Hurts’ from Automatic for the People (1992):
“‘Everybody Hurts’ is a song that doesn’t belong to us anymore. Every time there’s a disaster of some kind and they have a commercial for charity, they’ll always use that song. And it’s the only time we allow our songs on commercial for charity so we don’t get paid or anything.”

“It has a theme which carries on through the record: whatever is wrong in your life, you are not alone. It’s very uplifting.”

“Michael came up with the lyrics in the time it took us to go through the song three or four times. None of us really thought it would see the light of day. It was kind of a joke song at first. But Michael, in my opinion, is the best lyricist alive, and that song’s a great example of how he polished a turd.”

‘Monty Got A Raw Deal’ from Automatic for the People (1992):
“Everyone assumes that the songs have at least some grain of Michael in them, and that’s not always true. I mean, you can write about things that you basically know nothing about. Michael doesn’t know all that much about Montgomery Clift, but he wrote a song about him. There’s very little of Michael in that song, if any at all.”

‘Star Me Kitten’ from Automatic for the People (1992):
“We played the notes of my sampled voice on faders, as though they were an instrument. The vocals are very similar to the 10CC song ‘I’m Not In Love’, a brilliant piece of work. There’s nothing wrong with a nod here and there to people who’ve done it before. You can’t help with what you’ve heard in the past. It does find its way to the front sometimes.”

‘Man on the Moon’ from Automatic for the People (1992):
“That song is our little ode to Andy Kaufmann. It also questions fame and immortality and how long your memory might linger in other people’s minds. One of our best works I think.”

“Michael’s just got this funny take on faith and beliefs, trying to understand if what you’re seeing is the real thing. It’s a nice relief on the record, because the rest is pretty dark, or at least darker than we’ve been before.”

‘Nightswimming’ from Automatic for the People (1992):
“It’s something we used to do back in Athens. Twenty or thirty of us would go skinny-dipping at two in the morning – you know, build a fire and get naked. There was a very real possibility of the sheriff coming up. We were drinking and doing who knows what, and we could have gone to jail. Whereas now, no one does it anymore, except once in a while we take a friend up there to show them. And even if you do go to swim, it’s still not like it used to be, because no one knows about it, and there’s really no chance of anyone coming down and bothering you.”

‘Find The River’ from Automatic for the People (1992):
“I asked everybody to sing a background part for the chorus without hearing any of the other guys. Mine was really emotional, and Bill’s was totally the opposite, cool and low-key. They really worked together. That’s the kind of thing that keeps it from being too processed; that lets you know that it’s not being machined to death, that there are human beings doing it.”

‘E-Bow the Letter’ from New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996):
“Patti Smith came to see us when we were touring and we’re all big fans of hers. She came up and did one of her songs – ‘Dancing Barefoot’ – with us a few times. And so when we made the new record we asked if she’d like to sing on this song and she said ‘yes’. We’re very glad she did. We actually wanted her to sing on ‘Everybody Hurts’ from the Automatic for the People album, but she was busy with her family, and she was working, and being a mother and a wife.”

‘Bad Day’ from In Time (Best of compilation, 2002):
“The song was written in 1986. Michael wrote the lyrics this year. It was one of the songs that fell between the cracks and we thought, we should leave it at that. It seems like theoretically correct that maybe we’d have an older song on the [Best Of] record.”

‘Imitation Of Life’ taken from Reveal (2001):
“We recognised that it was a classic pop song. Those are fun: there’s plenty of room for that in this world.”

Mike on the band’s albums:

Murmur (1983):
“I still don’t know all the words. But with a voice as emotive as Michael’s, it didn’t matter.”

Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985):
“A lot of things were catching up to us. We didn’t realize we were going to be asked to do certain commercial kinds of things, and we thought, ‘Is this what we really want to do?’ It was, maybe, a crisis period, just an overall feeling of unease.”

“That was a pretty miserable time. But it was an interesting period all the same, and although it’s quite a dour record, I still kinda like it.”

“It’s a very nostalgic, wistful thing. Like trains – when you think of trains in the night, that tugs at your heart a bit… The songs remind me of sitting in your room, fixing to go to bed, and hearing a train a few miles off.”

Document (1987):
“We thought of it as Peter’s record. It’s very guitar-driven.”

“We were bound and determined that if this album was going to be successful it would be because it was a good record. We knew that it would be at least as successful as Pageant, so we wanted to use some weird material. It gave us a great opportunity to experiment. If you’re gonna buy the record anyway ’cause you bought the last one, well, here ya go. Broaden your mind a little bit.”

Green (1988)
“The real presure came from ourselves, to make the best record we could. Warner president Lenny Waronker never came to the studio, thought we would send him a tape every once in a while. He wasn’t going to push us, he knows we’re going to make a good record with or without his help, but he throws out suggestions. ‘If you want them, fine. If you don’t want, fine.’ And since he knows what he’s talking about, and since he wasn’t pushy, it made it easier to take some of those suggestions.”

Out Of Time (1991):
“The people who listen to Top Forty are generally not R.E.M. record buyers — or they weren’t until the last year or two. It’s kind of surprising to listen to the fourteen-year-old girls call up and go, ‘How long have you been together? I like your first record.’ And it’s like ‘No, no. See, the first record came out when you were about one year old.’ “

Automatic For The People (1992):
“The thing that separates this record from Out Of Time is that we have some of the weirdest songs in the world on there. We knew they were weird from the beginning. It wasn’t hard to tell.”

“It’s a slow, dark record, but it’s not depressing dark.”

“One more record this slow would probably kill us. I think we’re all ready to work on faster, more driving songs.”

Monster (1994)
“When you’re in a band long enough, you want to try different things. On past albums we had been exploring acoustic instruments, trying to use the piano and mandolin, and we did it about all we wanted to do it. And you come back to the fact that playing loud electric-guitar music is about as fun as music can be.”

“It was time to turn the vocals back down. We’ve done the crystal and clear thing. It was time to muddy it back up.”

On struggling to finish Monster:
“In terms of the subdued urgency around here, it’s always like this toward the end of the process. You always want to make sure that you have time to fine-tune everything as best you can, though we’re not going to do as much of that with this record as we have with some. But it’s definitely getting toward crunch time.”

“Is it our best record? No, I don’t think so, but there’s nothing on there that I’m ashamed of.”

New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996):
“With this one, everybody basically said: ‘Look, we almost broke up the band on the last record. Let’s not get so caught up in what we’re doing that we lose sight of the big picture.”

“The title is whimsical and light-hearted, which is sort of the mood we’re all in.”

“The only consistent theme on this record is alien abduction. It’s in several songs. You just have to look for it. That’s our mystery theme for this record.”

Up (1998):
“All our previous road maps were destroyed. We were given this opportunity to totally do anything we wanted to.”

“I think we were about half way into making the record before we realised that this was a totally different game that we were playing. We were not R.E.M. We were a different band called R.E.M. with different people and different ways of working.”

“We had some serious problems making the record. We were still in our period of doubt and questioning how to do things. We had to discover and redefine R.E.M. But I think we found it.”

Reveal (2001):
“It is more focused than the last album [Up] because we didn’t have an ongoing crisis to contend with as we made it. We were free to concentrate on having fun.”

Accelerate (2008):
“We needed faster, shorter guitar-oriented songs. I feel that the people are ready to like R.E.M. again. Part of me feels like it’s 1985 and we’re a brand-new band again.”

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