Interviews: Mike Mills

By Mike Gee

It isn’t the end of the world as we know it when it comes to the great American story that is R.E.M. Despite what the gossip columns might have you believe, the Athens, Georgia, outfit isn’t about to quit after its current world tour and has at least another album or two in it.

At least that’s what original member and bassist Mike Mills has to say as the band creeps up on its 25th year. Mills has just been handed a mobile by tour manager, Bob Whittaker, after finishing soundcheck. It’s only 5.40pm in Austria but 3.40am in Sydney the next day. Mills chuckles, ‘you drew the short straw’.

So let’s get those pesky rumours out of the way.

“We are already writing songs for the next record,” he says. “Writing is something, Peter [Buck, guitar] and I do all the time. Even on tour. We go through periods of inspiration and non-inspiration, like anybody else but when we are sitting around we are most often writing. It’s what we do.

“So, no, I don’t imagine this will be either the last tour or the last record.”

Interestingly, Mills doesn’t have the kind of satisfied ego you would expect for a man who is a key figure in a band that has recorded 15 studio albums, a couple of ‘best ofs’, a b-sides and rarities set, and its five-song debut, Chronic Town. It is a discography littered with greatness. It is full of songs other songwriters agree they would love to write. Amid those 15 albums sit at least five or six bonafide classics ranging from the jangle and sharp edges of the opening Murmur to the splendid classic pop rock of the mid-period Fables Of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant and Document and later gems such as Automatic For The People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. R.E.M. fans will argue long hard and hard about what are its best albums and embrace it egalitarian and humanist political stance, while the band’s detractors have always accused it of a wispy bohemianism and soft-radical politicism. Either way, the band underscored its political stance with its more recent attempts to help rid America of George Bush.

Frankly, Mills doesn’t care what people think about the band’s work. Its latest album, the mellow and thoughtful, even pensive, Around The Sun, wasn’t well-received by some critics who complained about its lack of obvious signature tunes and a certain self-indulgence. Others saw the beauty and thought in the body of both the album and the songs.

“I’m not so satisfied with what we’ve achieved that I would want to rest on my laurels now,” Mills says. “There is still a lot of work to be done. I look back at the body of work and I can pick out things that were important then and are still important now. There are also things that will be important in the future. There are some things that were of their time, as well.

“But not a lot changes for me. My ambition has been the same for a good number of years now – to ensure that each record is the best record we can make.

“I was very happy with Around The Sun, and we don’t worry too much about what people say. We make the records for ourselves. That said, we have been lucky with critical reaction to our work over the years and with public acceptance, but in the end you can’t worry about either of those things.

“You never know when you are going to write the best batch of songs you’ve ever written. Sometimes a song’s quality is determined by its relevance to the time and place of when it comes out. People who are of that time and place will recognise and remember that, others who hear the song later might not.

“In fact, it’s ludicrous to think that there is a list of the ‘best songs ever written’ despite what Rolling Stone publishes every so often.”

That is, indeed, an interesting argument. And one music scholars and intellectuals may well argue over for years on end.

Mills says that is a perspective that is patently obvious to anybody that writes songs, is a musician, or has a keen ear for music.

You fancy that the banter on the R.E.M. tour bus might be quite interesting on a good day. That is, when they aren’t looking out the window taking in the passing passion play.

The current world tour has taken band into new territories, much to its obvious excitement. Mills talks about the challenge of playing Eastern Europe, former Iron Curtain countries and states such as Estonia and Latvia; towns and cities such as Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Riga, Tallinn, and St Petersburg’s Ice Arena.

“It is particularly nice to be able to go somewhere and find people who are newcomers to the band,” Mills reflects. “The crowds were familiar with a surprising number of our songs which was surprising given that many of these places have only just emerged from communism.

“That kind of thing inspires you and also reminds you of what got you going in the first place, when nobody knew who we were.”

Jay Boburg, the record executive who signed a very young R.E.M. to IRS Records, told a lovely story many years ago about the first time he went to see the band. He walked into a small club, expecting a small audience, found that he was one of only six or seven people in the room – including a drunk, the cleaner, the band’s manager and himself – and was so blown away he knew he had to get them on IRS immediately.

Now R.E.M. has toured the world countless times and is one of the most celebrated and respected bands of all-time.

But it isn’t the same world now as it was in the beginning.

“Things have changed,” Mills says. “Some places are certainly losing their cultural identity. The world is more homogenised and Western-influenced, especially in places where you wouldn’t expect it to be. Cities such as Belgrade and Budapest now have McDonalds. They weren’t there 15 years ago but are now. There has been an amelioration of local culture over the years.

“The opening of the borders of the old Eastern block countries has made it easier to travel but it has allowed Western influences to take get in and take root in those countries. That said seeing those places for the first time, even seeing Paris for the first time, remains a huge cultural shock.

“You know, one place that has changed substantially in the last 20 years is Dublin. It is more modern, less provincial, less Irish and one of the fastest growing cities in Europe.

“And, of course, the world has become a smaller place.”

Talk about the passion.

Originally published on 31 March 2005 in the Rip It Up Magazine (Adelaide, Australia)
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