Interviews: Mike Mills Interview – Budapest, August 1999

By RiCo

RiCo: Looking for information about the band, I found very little on you. Why is that?
Mills: Well, we’ve never made a point of telling people about us because to us it’s not about me, Michael or Peter, it’s about the music. To me that’s all that’s really important. What happens in my private life is either boring or nobody’s business. Generally, magazines tend to focus on guitar players and lead singers – and things like that, and it’s fine with me, you know, I don’t need that kind of attention.

RiCo: When did you start playing the bass guitar?
Mills: I started playing the bass when I was 15. I took piano lessons and then I taught myself how to play bass guitar.

RiCo: You all originally met in Athens. You were all going to college.
Mills: The ex-drummer and I (Bill) met in Macon, Georgia in High School and we were looking for a band in Athens, and Peter and Michael had met. They were looking for a band and we had a mutual girlfriend introduce us back in 1979-80.

RiCo: How did you adjust from being a college radio band to a band of massive expectations?
Mills: Well, I don’t know. It’s not really an adjustment to us. We’ve just always done what we wanted to do. It’s just that now more people are listening. I think it’s mostly just about you trying to adjust as a person; you have to deal with a lot more attention, little more demands on your time. It’s not really all that difficult. We were lucky enough that all of our success was gradual – it didn’t happen all at one time – it’s very difficult if your first record sells 3 or 4 million copies. That’s the hard thing to adjust to – but for us, we went from – you know, our first record sold 125,000 copies in America. Next one sold 300,000, next one sold 500,000 – so it’s very gradual, and I think we were very fortunate with that.

RiCo: On the last tour you wore five different colored suits. Is there any special garments this time around?
Mills: Yes. I went to see my friend Manuel the tailor in Nashville, Tennessee, a few months ago and said: I need some new suits… and had another five made.

RiCo: What colors are they?
Mills: One of them is blue, one red, green, black, with some other colors on it – and I can’t remember exactly what the other one is… [It's purple].

RiCo: What do colors mean to you?
Mills: I just like colors. I grew up watching a lot of country music stars that used to wear the shiny suits, and Gram Parsons of course. He was a huge influence upon my music – and it’s just fun for me, I mean where else could you get away with wearing this stuff except on stage.

RiCo: Psychology?
Mills: No, it’s just fun. I think it’s more fun for me, it’s more fun for the people watching – it gives them something else for them to look at. I hope it makes them enjoy the show a little more.

RiCo: Bill left the group because he was fed up with the stress. Don’t you feel the same sometimes?
Mills: No, I feel I have the best job in the world. Bill’s problem was more that he didn’t like to travel, he didn’t like to eat strange food. Bill’s very particular about the things that he wants and he wanted to stay at home – and that’s fine. He just wasn’t cut out to be a traveling man, but I love it – I mean this is what I was born to do and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

RiCo: This is the first time you’re coming to Budapest – and to Eastern Europe for that matter…
Mills: When we decided to tour, we told our booking agent for Europe that we know we have to go to the big cities but that we wanted to go to places that we haven’t been before – we always try to go to at least one or two new cities when we come to Europe. Last time we were here, we played in Prague, now it’s Budapest. Maybe next time, we’ll play in Athens, Greece and maybe even Slovenia – just to play to people who have never heard our music before or who have never seen us before – it’s just having as much experience as you can in life, which I feel is very important.
Touring for me – the reason I joined the band, was so that I could play music – and when I say play music, I mean playing to people. Making records is fun and we make regular records, but there is nothing like playing live music. I think it’s important for a band to do that – or else you’re just staying in the studio – and it changes the sort of way that you are. I’m happy that we’re out here.

RiCo: Up. I think it takes a lot of personal integrity for the band to continue without compromising.
Mills: Before Bill quit the band, we were already moving towards less drums, we wanted to use drum loops, Peter has a lot of really old drum machines that we’d like to use. We just wanted to take the music somewhere else – and then when Bill quit, we had no choice but to use even less drums than we were going to use, so we’re just trying to find different ways to make the rhythm – that’s a lot of beats and patterns on Up that is not necessarily made by a human – and there are a couple of songs – there’s a very famous drummer named Hal Bley and what he really does is – instead of just one person playing drums all the way through the song, the drums may only be in for just a few seconds or you may only just play the air drum instead of the whole kit – so that’s the approach we’ve tried to take. This record is really more orchestrated, it’s more built up in the sense of you only use what you need rather than just turn it on and have everybody play all the way through the song. We just say – OK, we need the snare drum here, we’ll just put it there. That’s the approach we took.

RiCo: Tell me about your political stands. You’ve never been afraid to support what you believe to be right. How do you choose what to support and is this a collective decision making manner or is there just a person which is more politically aware?
Mills: If you have influence or money or whatever, to try to influence things for the better, I think it’s important that you do that. For R.E.M. right now, we support things as individuals, except for an occasional thing, like the annual Free Tibet Festival – a lot of our work is done individually and on a local plan. We believe that it’s most important what is happening in your town and what/that affects you the most. There are things we do together and there are things we don’t. In the late 80’s, Michael was writing very political songs ’cause there were a lot of things we were upset about. We didn’t like Ronald Reagan; we didn’t like George Bush – but we’ve tried to steer away from this and not become a politically motivated band. That’s not our message and it’s not the reason we’re singing.

RiCo: Is R.E.M.’s music more European?
Mills: “I guess there’s a European sensibility about the music. English journalists are very poetic. They love making poetry.”

RiCo: Up!
Mills: It’s a very different record, we lost our drummer and we became a different band. It’s a challenge working without Bill. He’s the only drummer we’ve ever worked with and his absence has refreshed the music on Up.

RiCo: The current tour?
Mills: We did some shows late last year, our first ones – for our fan club members and for reporters.

RiCo: The songs are more personal.
Mills: Michael was writing more direct material. Losing a member stripped our music down to its essentials.

Originally published in August 1999 by ClickZoomBytes

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