Interviews: Mike Mills Trims The Fat

By Karl Coryat

Over R.E.M’s 18-year career Mike Mills has quietly developed a near-cult following with his sublime, ultra melodic bass lines. A master of rock & roll scalar motion, Mike can string together guitar chords – and imply new ones – with a catchy subtlety absent in most “alternative” rock, a term R.E.M. all but coined. But Mike’s non-bass efforts are nearly as important: since the beginning the bend has swapped instruments both onstage and on record, with Mills often manning Hammond organ or piano while guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry held down the bottom.

Up, released late in 1998, is a sharp left turn for the superstar everyman from Athens, Georgia. In the early weeks of preproduction Berry – Mills’ musical partner since long before the band’s early-80s inception – up and walked out without a warning. That left Mills, Buck, and singer Michael Stipe to see what they could do. “We were given the opportunity to do anything we wanted”, Mills says – and with a couple of ancient drum machines, Buck’s collection of cheesy vintage keys, and a ton of rejuvenated creativity, a still-shellshocked R.E.M. buried their last remnants of jangle-rock and got to work. The result is a moody, dark, exquisitely crafted departure that’s garnered both great praise and great flak, without much in between. The ensuing “world tour’ involved hundreds of hours of press interviews but only a handful of carefully selected club dates, where the trio was joined onstage by guest drummer Joey Waronker.

These days Mike, 40, is trimming the fat from his bass lines like never before. His mission is not only to find the perfect bass part, but to know when four or eight bars of rest is best—or when the best bass part is none at all.

Karl Coryat: You once mentioned you try to think of John McVie, Paul McCartney, or James Jamerson when you are coming up with a line.
Mike Mills: That’s still my sensibility—but I play a little less than I used to. A lot of making Up was about finding which things were necessary and excising all the things that weren’t, and that includes the bass. There are very few songs where an instrument starts at the beginning and plays all the way through.

Coryat: Did you make those decisions as you were recording, or were things dropped out at mixdown?
Mills: Both. We’d listen to what we had, and we were free to run out and play down any ideas we’d get. If it sucked we’d take it off. Sometimes we knew right away it was inappropriate, but a lot of parts were taken out during mixing, too.

Coryat: Can a player learn what works and what doesn’t without the decades of experience you’ve had?
Mills: I am tempted to say yes – but in reality it’s hard to be self-editing when you’re younger. I enjoyed those times rocking hard through the whole song; it’s necessary to get to the place we’re at, and I wouldn’t want to rush through it. When you’re starting out it’s fun to play a lot, and part of the fun is coming up with things that are good from the beginning to the end of a song. As you get older and more experienced you realize it’s better to pick your spots. I’m not saying one is better than the other – but after you’ve been doing it for a while, the challenge and excitement often come from getting the killer part that’s perfect for one spot and nowhere else, even if that means playing only in the bridge of a song, like on “Hope”.

Coryat: When you found yourself in the studio without a drummer, did you have to make more adjustments than the other band members?
Mills: It was pretty much equal for all of us; it was much more about not having Bill – there was this hole in our organization – than about not having a drummer. But we were prepared to do a record that didn’t have that many drums on it anyway, and when he quit it just accelerated the process.

Coryat: How much experience did you have playing with drummers other than Bill?
Mills: Not much; he and I had been playing together since 1975. I worked with [Foo Fighters frontman/Nirvana drummer] Dave Grohl on the sessions for the Backbeat soundtrack, and I’ve sat in with countless bands – but I’ve never done a serious, long-term project with anyone else.

Coryat: Were there rocky moments when you started playing with Joey Waronker?
Mills: I had a lot of trepidation since the bass player has to be more comfortable with the drummer than anyone else in the band. But once I felt I could trust Joey, it moved into the realm of the subconscious—I could feel his playing more than actually listen to it.

Coryat: Are you planning to play any shows without drums?
Mills: I don’t think so. As a fan I prefer a drummer in a live show, certainly over tapes or a machine. As a player, too—in a live set we just need a drummer. But some of the things Joey does live are not traditional kick/snare/hi-hat beats; he might be playing the kick with his foot and a shaker with his left hand. So even though the lineup is traditional the approach is a little different.

Coryat: Does that affect your playing?
Mills: Not really. Bill and I were always locked in with each other in the mental sense, but not in the physical sense of playing the exact same thing. Once you are comfortable with a drummer you don’t have to listen; you can concentrate on other things. We knew right away Joey was good, and once I had faith in his being able to keep the beat and play appropriate stuff, I could concentrate on what I do.

Coryat: Do you still strum the strings and mute the ones you don’t want with your left hand?
Mills: Some. We don’t write as many full-out rock numbers as we used to do, but I do that live on “Walk Unafraid”. It’s much more of a rock number live than on the record, and I tend to strum pretty hard.

Coryat: When you are working up a new song, do you sit down and compose the bass line?
Mills: I generally just start making noise. A lot of time I won’t ask Peter what key he’s playing in. Sometimes training can be an albatross; if I know what key guitar part is in I’ll go to certain places I know work. If you don’t know the key you won’t have any idea what you’re doing, and sometimes you come up with a really good part that’s a little out of the norm. I also look for little two- or three-note melodic figures I like, and once something strikes me I flesh it out.

Coryat: Peter’s abstract style seems conductive to that approach.
Mills: He’s always left a lot of room for me. Even when he was doing more arpeggiated stuff he still freed up plenty of space.

Coryat: How often do you go back and listen to your old material?
Mills: I don’t that often, but when I do I think, Man – those were some pretty good bass lines! I usually remember how excited I was when I came up with the line, and I recall the excitement of discovering the thing I felt made the song. I like my lines to go pretty much unnoticed – except for that one really good lick that makes the song. But more and more I’ve tried to take tunes to another place, rather than just laying down a bass-part because the song needs one.

Coryat: Your lines often settle on non-root tones – usually the 5th – that create strange suspensions.
Mills: I suppose everyone has two or three little tricks like that. Early on I discovered that the bass player decides the chord—not the guitar player. Even all the way back to “Sitting Still” [Murmur], Peter plays only two chords per line of the verse, but because I change the bass note it sounds like there are three guitar chords. Or “Orange Crush” [Green]: the guitar is so non-specific that if you removed the bass line, you could probably take the tune in six different directions on bass depending on what chords you heard in your head. I’ve always enjoyed doing that.

Coryat: R.E.M. has always been fluid with musical roles, but that’s even more the case now.
Mills: When you’ve been doing it as long as we have, it’s fun to step outside traditional boundaries. But we’ve been doing that since the beginning; Peter played bass on a song on Murmur, and I was playing a lot of piano even then.

Coryat: What do you think of Peter’s bass playing?
Mills: He’s a great bass player. His standard line is that all guitarists want to be bass players and all bassists want to play guitar; it’s the secret of music. I love the fact that two people can play the same thing and sound different. Having someone else play the bass creates subtle texturings and colorings that change the song in a very small way while contributing to the overall sound.

Coryat: When you play guitar do you think of Peter’s style?
Mills: I try not to, because that would defeat the purpose. For one thing he uses very heavy guitar strings, which I can’t really handle. And I could never even begin to play like Peter, so there’s no point in trying – although his guitar playing has influenced mine to an extent. It’s more subconscious than conscious.

Coryat: Does your bass playing influence the way you approach other instruments?
Mills: It’s kind of the other way around. I started playing the piano a year or two before I started on bass, and since I never wanted to be a boring, root-note-locked-with-the-kick guy I tended to play bass more like a piano player’s left hand. Once you grab the keyboard, your bass playing kind of goes to a different realm.
I took two years of piano lessons, which isn’t much—but then again I wasn’t trying to be a virtuoso. I just wanted to be able to sit down and pick things out. From there I taught myself bass and guitar, and I’m working on the saxophone right now.

Coryat: Do you have any advice for other multiinstrumentalists?
Mills: All I can say is congratulations! [Laughs.] That’s one of my favourite things about R.E.M. I’m fortunate to be able to play bass, guitar, piano, trash-can lid, whatever. If you’re already a multiinstrumentalist you probably don’t need a lot of advice. Just enjoy yourself – but as long as you have that ability, keep learning. I don’t know if my sax-playing will ever come to anything, but I’m having a hell of a good time trying to learn.

Coryat: How much songwriting do you do?
Mills: We all share that task. I never like to walk by a piano or a guitar without playing it – and when you do that, at least some percentage of the time a song comes out. If I’ve got something good I’ll work at it until I finish it.

Coryat: Do you record demos at home?
Mills: I don’t – but I’m going to start, because over the years I’ve probably forgotten ten or 12 great songs. I may have written one on a piano but I wasn’t near piano again for a week, and by that time I’d forgotten the song. That’s just one of the occupational hazards. But I’ve always felt that if a tune wasn’t good enough to stick in my head, maybe it’s best forgotten.

Coryat: Do you own a recording setup?
Mills: I do, and I used it a lot last year when I scored a movie that ended up not getting released. But I was very pleased with what I did. And seven or eight years ago I scored a half-hour film called Men Will Be Boys, which was fun. But it was also frightening and challenging: you’ve got to please people other than yourself and your bandmates. It’s also not about just your vision anymore. You need to augment and enhance the vision of the director – someone from a totally different medium – and blend the visual and sonic media together hoping to create something better than the sum of parts. But it’s great fun to try things that might not be appropriate for R.E.M.

Coryat: The band seems to have evolved more over the last three records than during any other period.
Mills: We’ve learned a lot, and we’re more comfortable doing different things. Also, it’s a challenge to not repeat ourselves. We keep raising the bar for ourselves, and we want to surprise not only the audience but ourselves as well.

Coryat: Is there a downside to not resting on your laurels?
Mills: Well, you might try something you’re not very good at [laughs]. A lot of people don’t like Up because it isn’t Automatic for the People or Green or whatever else they want it to be. I’m sorry for that, but there isn’t much we can do. We have to stay fresh.
Even if a band risks overstepping its boundaries, it’s much more interesting to see them do that and fall short than make the same record six times in a row. Except for The Ramones – if they keep making the same record forever that’s fine with me!

Coryat: If R.E.M. suddenly became unknown, could you create a successful record from scratch knowing what you now know about music business?
Mills: If Up had just been released as our first record, I believe it would be flying out of stores, just because it’s so different. But because people have expectations of us, the fact that it’s different might actually hurt us. People seem to either love this record or hate it—but I’d rather people hate it than be apathetic.

Coryat: Is it realistic for musicians to make only music they believe in?
Mills: Yes, it is. It may cost you financially, but if you don’t do what you believe in, the ultimate cost is much greater.

Coryat: Art above commerce.
Mills: I prefer to say integrity above commerce. I consider rock music more a craft than an art; the word “art” scares me a little, because it implies pretension. When rock musicians start thinking of themselves as artists it creates a gap between the player and the listener. We’ve spent many years trying to eliminate the gap; in the old days we’d often end up on the floor and the audience would be onstage. When you get to a certain level that obviously becomes impossible, but we never think we’re better than other people. Just because you’re a successful musician doesn’t make you a better person.

Coryat: Do you feel pressure to remain commercially successful, or are you free to move on?
Mills: We feel pretty free. New Adventures in Hi-Fi didn’t sell that well, even though I thought it was great. That was liberating, because it proved no matter how hard we work on a record, we can’t make people buy it. If we walk out of the studio happy, that’s about all we can do.

* * * * * * * * * *

Who’s The Low Frequency, Mike?

“Up was recorded piecemeal”, notes Mike Mills. “We never really sat down and recorded a song through. If Peter had laid down the bass part on a demo, and we liked it, there was no reason for me to rerecord it.” As a result, on any given song the bass could have been played by Mike, Peter Buck, both—or neither.

“Airportman”: the only bass is the low, distorted keyboard. It’s an old instrument called the Kitten—a cheap, one oscillator version of the Cat, which was a synth made by Octave Electronics.

“Lotus”: both Mike and Peter, playing on different parts of the song.

“Suspicion”: “That’s Peter”, says Mike. “He has a certain muffling technique [palmmuting] I haven’t quite mastered. He recorded the bass line on his demo, so we kept it.”

“Hope”: Mills, on his ’69 Precision. The bass is in the song’s bridge only.

“At my most beautiful”: “I had just bought this really cool bass in San Francisco. We don’t know what it is; it’s just this huge wooden thing with no name on it—one of the biggest solidbody basses I’ve ever seen. But it has a really warm, round tone, and it was perfect for that Beach Boys sound. It seemed like something Brian Wilson might have played.” Mike’s tech, Microwave, has a slightly different take on the no-name axe: “Frankly it was a piece of crap. We couldn’t get it in tune beyond about the 5th fret.”

“The Apologist”: Mills.

“Sad Professor”: “I used these old Moog Taurus bass pedals”, Mills details, referring to the foot-operated synth also played live by Geddy Lee. “I love those—they sound fabulous, and they allow you to change all the variables and get the exact sound you want.”

“You’re in the Air”: Mills in the choruses and Buck in the verses. “Peter used a Fender ’62 Precision reissue; I just ordered one for myself.”

“Walk Unafraid”: Mills.

“Why Not Smile”: no bass.

“Daysleeper”: “There’s no bass on that one—but we used an old ARP synthesizer to get some low end.”

“Parakeet”: Buck.

“Falls to Climb”: Hammond organ bass pedals, played by Mills.

* * * * * * * * * *

The one I love

“Mike’s pretty much a one-bass guy”, says R.E.M. tech Mark “Microwave” Mytrowitz. Although Mike Mills has gathered about a dozen basses over the years, he always favors just one. For the last few years it’s been his ’69 Fender Precision, which he bought during the recording of 1992’s Automatic for the People. Mike recently ordered an American-made Fender ’62 Precision reissue. “We got to compare it with an actual ’62 P-Bass”, says Microwave, “and the reissue was better. When the stuff gets old it gets old—I mean, I don’t feel as good as I did 30 years ago!” For the Up sessions Mike plugged into a tube DI, blending in a miked Ampeg B-15R Portaflex. He’s also used the Portaflex onstage for the few club dates R.E.M. has been doing. Mike used a MESA/Boogie Bass 400+ and 2×15 cabinet he brought on the band’s last major tour in -95, when he also stomped on Big Muff distortion and tremolo pedals. Mike’s strings are Dean Markley medium round-wounds, and his picks are large, triangular Dean Markley extra-heavies. “They are the heavies picks made—you could crack ice with those things,” Microwave laughs.

Originally published in the March 1999 issue of Bass Player

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