Interviews: Accelerate From The Past

By Neil Davenport

R.E.M.’s Mike Mills talks to Neil Davenport about where it all went right

Veteran bands often have their history devised and distorted by those a million miles away from the creative hub itself. Ask R.E.M. For years now, the U.S. alt-rock giants have been hostages of a frequently unflattering portrait. It goes something like this: when drummer and leading band songwriter, Bill Berry, left the band in 1996, R.E.M. have never been the same since. In fact, they’ve become crushingly complacent and dull – two words you’d rarely associate with a band once as creatively vital and mysterious as this. Apparently, R.E.M. have found some reprieve.

The band’s new album, Accelerate, is considered a complete and startling return to form, a jolting reminder of Lifes Rich Pageant/Document era and those galloping, riff-strapped anthems. The ten year creative drought is over and R.E.M. can reclaim their alt-rock crown once more, right?

Mike Mills, R.E.M.’s shaggy-haired, bespectacled bassist and backing singer, is nodding carefully to “the Accepted Fable of R.E.M.’s Decline”. He’s bemused at the increasingly bold yet simplistic narrative of R.E.M.’s career path and mildly irritated that the rather more illuminating, zigzagging detail has been lost in the process.

“I remember that Out of Time received lukewarm reviews on its release and was seen as a set-back after Green,” says Mills in an imperious hotel in Piccadilly Circus, central London. “Also, does anyone remember that Fables of the Reconstruction (R.E.M.’s third album from 1985) was also panned on its release as well? The idea that everything was golden up until Bill left the band isn’t true – like any band we’ve had our creative ups and downs.”

It seems the real point of notable departure for R.E.M. was attempting to sustain the level of ubiquity after their mammoth selling albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, back in the early 1990s. The distortion-heavy and rather prosaic follow-up, 1994’s Monster, sashayed around the world’s stadiums just when everyone became bored of hard-driving, American rock. By the time of R.E.M.’s brave, experimental and quietly absorbing New Adventures In Hi-Fi two years later, the band were even lower on the zeitgeist radar.

“Well the pendulum swings both ways,” says Mills, “you can’t be the biggest band in the world all the time. We never expected to reach the heights we did reach. And, of course, no band can sustain that”.

And yet, R.E.M. did have a creative and commercial re-birth rather more recently than current wisdom admits. In 2001, the warm and luxurious melodies of Reveal was their best effort since Automatic for the People and, fact fans, it outsold the Berry-era albums, Document and Green, too.

Nevertheless R.E.M.’s fourteenth album, Accelerate, is indeed something quite special and capable of inducing cartwheels in the R.E.M. faithful. Armed with cocky, strident and blissfully tuneful songs, it often recalls that hiccupping velocity found in the best of their late-eighties albums. Even better, though, is that the album avoids that era’s stadium blowouts which now sound painfully dated. Instead, Accelerate’s pile-up of stripped down jangle-rockers and brittle folk ballads untaps R.E.M.’s mercurial magic almost without blinking. How did they do it?

“During out last tour in 2005 we felt more like a fully functioning band,” says Mills cheerfully. “Some of the songs emerged during soundchecks and they immediately sounded exciting. It also sounded as if we were onto something fresh and vital. From then on it just got better and better.”

There was a conscious effort with Accelerate to avoid the pitfalls of 2004’s flat and directionless album, Around the Sun. “With Accelerate we limited the amount of time in the studio or the amount of songs we bought in,” says Mills. “All that worked to our advantage. I can understand why there are comparisons with Lifes Rich Pageant, but for us we don’t look back as we don’t know how to – that’s for other people. Accelerate is R.E.M. in 2008, not R.E.M. in 1987.”

Accelerate also features plenty of singer Michael Stipe’s barbed attacks on George Bush and the calamitous Iraq war. There is no doubt that R.E.M. are Good Athens Gents, but it’s a little wearying to hear, yet again, the soft-option protest against the Republicans and being all for “the environment”. It’s also galling to be told, by multi-millionaires, that everyone else needs to consume less. Cheers. Rather than this making R.E.M. appear angry, engaged and righteous, it all feels like being trapped in a broadsheet colour supplement forever. What’s sexy or mysterious about that? To be fair, though, the band were trailblazers for eco-doom politics that’s become all too pervasive now.

“Do we feel vindicated? Er, no,” says Mills. “We’re more relieved that more people are aware of its importance as an issue. People talk about saving the planet, we say the planet will be fine – it’s the people you need to be worried about.”

By contrast to the apparent on-coming apocalypse, Mike Mills appears a relaxed and calm man. He won’t admit it, but he exudes the quiet satisfaction of someone who has proved R.E.M.’s bring-back-Bill-Berry doubters wrong. But when were they completely right anyway?

“R.E.M. is our lifework and I have no regrets with how things have gone,” says Mill earnestly. “But it does feel great to be loved again.”

Originally published on 24 April 2008 by The Midnight Bell

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