Interviews: Q&A – R.E.M.’s Mike Mills on Michael Stipe’s Lyrics

By Ben Westhoff

R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills gave his honest assessment on Michael Stipe’s lyrics, and also talked about the band’s well-reviewed recent tour during a conversation with CL contributor, Ben Westhoff.

Westhoff: You’ve said before that you generally don’t ask Stipe about his lyrics. Do you sometimes feel like you don’t know exactly what he’s talking about?
Mills: There are occasions what I’m not exactly sure what he was thinking when he wrote the lyrics, but that doesn’t matter. The only important thing is that the songs give you a sense of passion, or some sort of image within your own mind. What Michael’s thinking is not always that important. And that’s not to diminish what his intent is with the lyrics in any way, I’m just saying that it’s the listener’s perception that’s most important.

Westhoff: Many songs on Accelerate seem fairly political. Does that make them easier to understand?
Mills: You know, I generally know what he’s talking about on almost every song. There may be one song per record where I don’t know where he’s coming from. But again it doesn’t matter, because as long as I get some sort of mental picture, it doesn’t have to be the same one he has. And, really, there’s only been one or two songs in the history of R.E.M. where I’ve ever actually felt like I needed to ask him what he was thinking. Usually I just take my own interpretation of it and I’m happy with that.

Westhoff: You seem to be getting great reviews for Accelerate, but people seemed not to speak so highly of your last three albums.
Mills: Yeah, exactly. No, Up was not Lifes Rich Pageant, but it wasn’t supposed to be. You can’t make the same records over and over again. That’s pointless.

Westhoff: Reviews from this tour say you guys are playing with a real sense of urgency and passion. Do you agree with that assessment?
Mills: You know, passion’s always been an important part of R.E.M. We’re all really focused and enjoying what we’re doing, and that allows the passion to come through. I think we all really want to play well, and we’re all very focused, but there’s no sense of urgency, in the sense of, “Oh God, we can’t suck or we’re in trouble.”

Westhoff: You specifically are getting rave reviews for your bass playing on this tour. Are you surprised? Are you doing anything differently?
Mills: No, I just think we’re all playing really well. We’re all having a really good time. For some reason I’m singing really well. I’m not sure why.

Westhoff: No new mouthwash or anything?
Mills: [Laughs.] No, just trying to take care of myself, you know, to be fit and be well.

Originally published on 18 June 2008 by Creative Loafing

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