Interviews: R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills – Still crazy after all these years

By David Brusie

The legendary band’s co-songwriter chats about their upcoming show

The songs on R.E.M.’s new album, Accelerate, are the loudest and fastest the band has recorded since the mid-1980s, when their unique sound was ruling college campuses. The intervening years, of course, were full of chart-toppers and canonic music videos, but the band’s reputation was somewhat sullied with 2004′s dull and lifeless Around the Sun. The prospect of a lively rock record had fans excited, and Accelerate, clocking in at under 35 minutes, just about fulfils that promise.

R.E.M. recently took these songs on the road, bringing along buzz band the National and indie mainstays Modest Mouse. In anticipation of their show tomorrow night at the Xcel Energy Center, R.E.M. bassist, piano player, and co-songwriter Mike Mills agreed to answer a few questions about the new record and tour.

Brusie: How did the Twin Cities scene in the ’80s affect what R.E.M. was doing at the time?
Mills: It was just good to see kindred spirits. We really enjoyed playing with the Replacements, and became friends with those guys. Later on, [R.E.M. guitarist] Peter [Buck] ended up working with the [Twin Cities] band Run Westy Run.

Brusie: And Peter also played on Let It Be.
Mills: Yeah, he played on “I Will Dare,” which was pretty cool.

Brusie: Did you approach writing the songs on Accelerate in a different way than usual?
Mills: A little bit. Peter and I both agreed we were going to write pretty much exclusively on electric guitar. We were going to try to make everything fast, try to keep everything fairly short. I think that was just a good direction to take.

Brusie: So the shortness was also the plan from the beginning.
Mills: Yeah, we kept taking parts out, and taking songs out, and generally just shrinking the thing. Certainly for the last few records, we weren’t concerned about brevity. At this point, it seemed like a good idea.

Brusie: Your background vocals on Accelerate are prominent, unlike on the last couple of records. Why did that change?
Mills: I’ve always loved to sing. I guess I haven’t seen as many opportunities on the last couple. If I hear a place in the song that I think my voice should be, then I’ll put it there.

Brusie: And you haven’t sung lead for a while—is that for the same reason?
Mills: Yeah, there’s really no need. The occasions where I have sung lead are either songs that [lead singer] Michael [Stipe] was uninspired [by] or got stuck on. We’ve got one of the best singers in the entire rock universe; I don’t see much reason to stick mine out there in front.

Brusie: Have you ever thought about doing a solo album?
Mills: I’ve thought about it. It may happen someday, but I’m in no real big hurry. I’ve got other outlets for music, and really, I enjoy R.E.M. so much that I’m in no big hurry to put my own record out. But it’ll happen.

Brusie: How did touring with the National and Modest Mouse come about?
Mills: Michael and I saw the National, I’m not sure where Peter saw them. We thought they were great, and we also thought they’d be a great opening band. When we started looking in America, we realized we needed one more band on the show, and someone suggested Modest Mouse, so we said, “great.” [The Smiths'] Johnny Marr’s in the band, that’s a good thing, and it just seemed like a really nice bill.

Brusie: These songs have a live feel to them, so was it easier than usual to arrange the songs for the tour?
Mills: Yeah. Those arrangements are pretty much done. They were recorded pretty much live as well, so there’s not a whole lot of tinkering to be done with the stuff from Accelerate.

Brusie: Was having some quieter moments as well as loud ones part of the idea from the beginning?
Mills: Albums aren’t just a collection of songs, they’re sort of a world to inhabit for the 30 to 40 to 50 minutes that you’re in this world. Things need to have their own place, whether they’re fast, slow, or otherwise. You need to strike a balance, and you need to have some compatibility. Even the things that strike a jarring note, it needs to be the correct jarring note.

Brusie: You guys use the internet a lot. You released a series of short films online before Accelerate came out, and you streamed Around the Sun on MySpace before its release—which at the time was pretty unique.
Mills: Everybody loves new ways to approach the audience. We have the website, where people can make their own video, using footage that we provided. Or streaming the record on the week before it comes out, so people can legally get a chance to listen to it. Technology can be a wonderful thing to break down barriers, and that’s what we try to use it for.

Originally published on 2 June 2008 by City Pages

Leave a Reply