Interviews: Interview with Downs, Mills of R.E.M.

By Julie Philips

On Friday, a few days before the release of R.E.M.’s 15th [NOTE: actually, 14th] studio album of all-new material, Athens Banner-Herald Arts and Entertainment editor Julie Phillips talked with R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs as R.E.M.’s Mike Mills rehearsed a few songs with Bruce Springsteen before the evening’s kickoff Vote for Change show in Philadelphia. Mills spoke after he’d finished rehearsing.

Bertis Downs: (Mills) just got pulled on stage to do some work – they’re actually rehearsing with Bruce right now, this happened yesterday, too, and it ended up lasting two hours.

Philips: Did you all watch the debate together last night?
Downs: Yeah, well Bruce was late rehearsing and ended up watching it at the venue and I watched it at the hotel with Mills and Michael watched it back in New York, because he stayed in New York last night. So we were all scattered, we didn’t all watch it together, but we did all watch it. And I have to say, it was a good night for Kerry.

Philips: What was the talk amongst you about it afterward?
Downs: Personally, I feel like it’s the turning point of the election. … I had always hoped it would be – I know Kerry has a great reputation as a closer… He always does well when the chips are down and he was at his best and I thought it was a good 90 minutes for him.

Philips: R.E.M. contributed one song to Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (a newly released documentary film from filmmaker George Butler) – I assume you’ve all seen that movie?
Downs: Yeah, we have… It was kind of unusual how it happened (that R.E.M. contributed the title track to Around the Sun to the film). That song was sent by their music supervisor who’s a friend of ours and loved the song, to the director (Butler). … and he heard it and he decided to put it at the end titles. And it fits like it was written for it. It was written a few years ago in Vancouver, and it had nothing to do with John Kerry. But when you see the movie, it’s uncanny how the song, the words, the tone and the way he uses it in the end titles – it’s pretty remarkable. All the other music in the movie is period music, the whole movie takes place during the Vietnam era. But (the movie) ends, and they use this song, and it’s the only contemporary thing used. And we were thrilled to have let them have it. And it’s the week our record comes out, and (the movie) actually opens tonight. So it’s a lot of nice little coincidences.

Philips: What were your thoughts on the film?
Downs: What I thought was – for me, (I was) in high school during Vietnam – it cleared up a whole lot of history for me. It taught me a lot. I’ve always known about Vietnam, studied it to a certain extent in college and been pretty aware about it. But this had a whole lot of footage from the era; it showed Kerry as a very young guy, 24-25 years old. And there’s a lot of stuff that never has been used anywhere before, that’s been in the vaults for years. And it’s just a really interesting, informative film. And it reinforced my impression of the candidate.

Philips: Do you think it’ll have dissenters?
Downs: Oh, I’m sure it will. In America, there’s always that. (But) it’s a very classy movie… It’s not a Michael Moore piece. This movie is as different from Fahrenheit 9/11 as George Butler is different from Michael Moore. They just don’t have the same style. George Butler is more like Kerry. He’s a somewhat patrician guy from the Northeast. So he’s got a different style than Michael Moore. So it’s not a grenade-throwing movie at all – it’s just informative. It’s kind of dry – kind of like history. So I don’t think it’s going to make the kind of impact and splash that Fahrenheit 9/11 did. And I don’t think it intends to. I think it’s supposed to be more of a thoughtful reflection on the time and on Kerry.

Philips: The band has been on the roster with other musicians for a number of benefit shows before – is there a different vibe from the audience and does the band enjoy doing benefits?
Downs: I would say they always have kind of a feeling of special-ness about them. Because they are not rare, but still, once-in-awhile shows. Especially the combinations of artists.That’s what always seems to be what makes them work…
It’s kind of a thing bands, when they can do their own thing and do some collaborations with other bands, which feel a little more special and it’s for a higher reason – you’re not just there to make money. … The fans usually appreciate that. And you usually have kind of a cross section of fans. That last night in D.C. there’ll be a ton of Dave Matthews fans, Pearl Jam fans, Dixie Chicks fans and obviously Springsteen fans everywhere… it’s always fun to kind of combine things.

Philips: What do you expect the outcome of Vote for Change to be?
Downs: Well, we all feel very strongly about the election and this is our contribution. We said earlier in the year we wanted to do something. And then this group of people came together in New York and we started having conference calls about it – and the ideas coalesced to do it this way. And then we got asked if we wanted to be a part of the Springsteen shows, which was obviously a huge honor and something that we jumped at immediately, of course. It feels great. It feels like the right thing to be doing – and you know it was not without costs. We had to basically scuttle the tour and start over booking the tour two weeks later; we missed going to South America. And we’re doing it because we really wanted to do it, but we had to weigh it against plans we already had made. But it was a pretty easy choice.

Philips: Do you feel participating in such a high-profile event will in any way overshadow the release of Around the Sun?
Downs: Nah, it is what it is. The record’s been scheduled since January, and our tour was scheduled not long after that. But this came along and it was worth shuffling things around. The record’s coming out, the song’s out, the video’s out. And to us, it’s good timing.
We’ll be doing a show in Minneapolis the night of the record coming out and the vice-presidential debate. And we’ll be Tivo-ing the debate I guess, so we can watch Bruce Springsteen play his show.

Philips: There was kind of a lot of hoopla around (posting) “Final Straw” to the R.E.M. Web site last March – do you sense political undertones in other songs on the album?
Downs: I think there’s plenty of songs on the record that have political strains to them. “The Outsiders” evidently does, “I Wanted to be Wrong” … I mean – I wouldn’t have known that listening to them, it’s not overt. It’s not like “four dead in Ohio”, it’s not up front like that. But depending on how you listen to it, and once you hear Michael talk about it, there’s some fairly political stuff on it. It’s just kind of in their bones right now. They couldn’t avoid it.

Philips: What was the dialogue between the band members and you when you decided to do Vote for Change.
Downs: There are a lot of hard decisions the band has to make and struggles with, but this was not one of them. We kind of had to change plans… it was just like “let’s do it.”

Philips: Is there a sense that the reason to do it is in part because there’s ambivalence among young people today?
Downs: They just feel like they know the stakes, they know what’s important… and they want to do their part. It wasn’t as direct as “let’s go influence young people.” First of all, we’re not that young. But it was more like everybody does their part.

Philips: So the ultimate hope is to elect Kerry?
Downs: And every little bit helps. And who knows what helps. The fact that there are six shows tonight all over the state (of Pennsylvania), all genres, sizes, different artists, artists that are all very respected. That’s not gonna hurt. Maybe it’s going to make a difference around the margins. This is an election that could be literally as close as the last one, where a few votes can decide who wins a state. So if this helps, than that’s great.

Philips: What do you say to people who support Bush?
Downs: I think it’s great we live in a country where we can disagree. But I watched that debate last night and it’s hard for me to imagine anyone being undecided, someone supporting Bush. But you know what? They have a hard time understanding me. So that’s OK, it’s a free country and we can disagree. Bottom line, it’s never going to be a situation where you win 100 to 0. People are going to disagree and that’s fine.

Interview with Mike Mills

Philips: You’ve done benefit shows plenty of times before, do you love the vibe that you get from these? And what are your expectatations for Vote for Change?
Mike Mills: Well, if it’s a cause you believe in, then it feels good to do something concrete about it. So in that sense it’s very rewarding. Whether it turns out to be ultimately successful or not, at least we’re doing what we can.

Philips: What were your thoughts on the debate and what do you say to somebody who’s a Bush supporter?
Mills: My first thought was that John Kerry came off incredibly intelligent and presidential. And… when I looked at George Bush, I said “I can’t believe this man’s our president.” That was pretty much the summation of it.

Philips: What was your main problem with Bush in the debate?
Mills: He’s very narrow minded, he gets rattled very easily, angry very easily. Not really the qualities you want in a president.

Philips: Are you playing any songs with Bruce Springsteen?
Mills: Yeah, we just came off stage from working on “People have the Power,” the Patti Smith song, and “Peace Love and Understanding.”

Philips: How does it feel playing with him?
Mills: He doesn’t do this kind of thing very often in terms of having people on stage with him, so it’s a huge thrill.

Philips: Is there a good rapport between all the musicians (in Vote for Change)?
Mills: Oh yeah, everybody’s getting along, I mean, everybody’s on the same page here.

Philips: So do you feel a sense of camaraderie in doing this?
Mills: Oh absolutely. That was evident from the first day back a couple months ago when we did all the press to announce this tour. Boyd, Dave Matthews Band, Dixie Chicks – it was just amazing. Everyone was really committed to this cause and willing to do whatever it took to make it count.

Philips: Do you feel it has to get to the point that things are really bad in order for people to come together in this way?
Mills: I think that there are a lot of musicians that wouldn’t involve themselves this deeply in politics if we weren’t so afraid of the direction (the country is taking), and actually want to stop it before it gets worse.

Philips: One reviewer cited “Final Straw” as the first political song to come along in a long time, but said it’s maybe the first song ever about the pain of ambivalence. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment of that song?
Mills: I suppose that’s an aspect of it I hadn’t considered. But to my way of thinking, there’s no time for ambivalence. We do not have the luxury of apathy right now. And “Final Straw” is just our getting fed up and saying the invasion of Iraq is just too much. We have to say something now.

Philips: Political undertones seem to be present in several of the songs – was that the intent?
Mills: Yeah, I mean, normally we try not to write overtly political songs, but when the politics are in the air as much as they are right now, and when the consequences are so heavy, it’s impossible for that not to come out in the music. “The Outsiders” and “I Wanted to be Wrong” and “Final Straw” are really the only overtly political songs on the record.

Philips: I know you have to go, so here’s the last question: What’s the most memorable thing you took away from recording Around the Sun?
Mills: Wow (pauses)… How happy I am to be playing with Peter and Michael.

Philips: That warms my heart to hear you say that.
Mills: Mine, too.

Originally published on 5 October 2004 by Athens Banners-Herald

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