Interviews: Rapid Reaction To Live Gigs Has Put Trio Back On Fast Forward

By Gavin Allen

After a long absence from the number one spot, R.E.M.’s latest album has put the confidence back in their stride. Bassist Mike Mills talks to Gavin Allen ahead of their Welsh gig.

“IT’S not in our nature to look back,” says R.E.M.’s Mike Mills when asked if the band considered splitting up.

“Instead we looked forward and the future didn’t look very promising without the band in it.”

That admission tells you the American rockers probably did think about splitting up but reacted violently against it.

Perhaps R.E.M. got to the point where they didn’t render their songs as perfectly as before but they never lost the knack of writing great tracks.

The problem was the trio – vocalist Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and Mills – had stopped communicating to the degree the band, formed in 1980, was at risk of disintegrating.

“I believed so much in R.E.M. and what we are capable of that I really didn’t want to walk away,” says Mills.

“All it really took was the reestablishment of communication because, as with relationships of any sort, communication is paramount.

“As friends we were taking each other for granted and in R.E.M. taking your friends for granted and taking the band for granted is the same thing.”

With that as its background it’s no surprise that Accelerate – this year’s UK chart-topping album – is so good; it’s the sound of a great band challenging themselves.

After three poorly received albums – Up (1998), Reveal (2001) and Around the Sun (2004) – the band’s popularity had waned to the point where even R.E.M. fans weren’t excited by their new album – and I speak from personal experience on that.

The band knew they were under pressure to deliver the goods and face the fact Accelerate might be their last hurrah.

“I think Accelerate stands alongside anything we have ever done,” says the bassist boldly, pushing his spectacles back onto his nose as if to affirm the statement.

“I do think we should always make great records because we are capable of it, and if you are capable of greatness then that’s what you should always aspire to.”

R.E.M. have made a stream of great albums in their time – the six-album run from Document (1987) to New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996) takes some beating – and Mills agrees that their recent output previous to Accelerate has not been up to standard, although not for the obvious reasons.

“I think recently we made records that took a bit of time to sink in and in this day and age people don’t want to invest that time,” says Mills.

“I’m very proud of the work we have done and I think Reveal is one of our most underrated records, although I will say Around The Sun was an unfocussed record.

“We broke off in the middle of recording it to do a greatest hits record and then we went on tour and then trying to come back and finish it … it was just too scattered.

“I know those songs are better than they were recorded – we just weren’t sure how to reconfigure them.”

However, the tour that accompanied their “greatest hits” album proved their salvation.

Playing gigs hard and fast, just as they did in the old days, helped them rediscover their missing mojo, which is why Accelerate is a rapid jangle of songs as opposed to the more ponderous departures of their previous three efforts.

“Onstage, if you lose focus you are aware of it immediately because you have that instant reaction,” he explains.

“But in the studio if you lose focus it’s sometimes hard to tell immediately and self-doubt can be a very dangerous thing in the studio because you will sit there and work on something for way too long.

“When it comes to making a record you just have to do what feels right and on the ’05 tour it felt like we were really coming back together as a band.

“We felt we should make Accelerate as a band, everyone in the room at the same time, play the songs live and make it all short and fast.”

On Monday, the band will be performing to a crowd of around 7,500 at Cardiff International Arena. The gig was originally pencilled in for the much larger Millennium Stadium. No official comment has been issued about the move.

But, whatever the reason, the band are at a higher vantage point than two or three years ago.

“Men can go mad trying to predict the future but I feel great about it at the moment and I think we have a great year ahead of us,” says Mills. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t have more great years in front of us.”

R.E.M. play Cardiff International Arena on Monday.

Originally published on 23 August 2008 by Western Mail
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