Interviews: Six Questions (And Then Some) For … R.E.M.

By J. Freedom du Lac

Mike Mills, straight shooter.
No real introduction needed here, right?
New album, Accelerate, released in March.
Currently on tour, with a show scheduled for Wednesday at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Mills – R.E.M.’s bassist-keyboardist-background singer-”secret weapon” (per Eddie Vedder’s speech inducting the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year) – calling from California to discuss music, relevancy, Chipper Jones and whatever else can be crammed into an 11-minute, 49-second conversation.


Du Lac: Do you feel obligated to play “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” any time you’re performing in or near the state of Maryland?
Mills: (Laughs.) I wouldn’t say obligated, but I would say it’s fun do to that. Any song that has a connection to the area generally elevates the feeling for everyone.

Du Lac: Keith Richards told me recently that the Stones always let Mick Jagger put together their set lists because Mick’s the one who has to sing the songs. How do you guys work up your set lists?
Mills: Generally Peter does it, and then Michael and I look it over and decide if there’s something we dislike about it.

Du Lac: What sort of thing might get you to object?
Mills: We might disagree about the structure of the songs, in terms of which ones follow the others – the running order basically. Or if there’s one maybe you can’t sing that night. Or you have a feeling you just don’t want to play that song that night. If it’s a song you don’t really want to play, you won’t put the proper energy into it that night. We like to be happy and confident with the set list. So whatever feels good to do is what we do.

Du Lac: One great thing about a tour to support Accelerate: It’s such a short album – barely 35 minutes – that you can work a lot of older material into the set list.
Mills: Very true. I thought about that: It’s like, even if we played the whole record, we’ll still have an hour and 15 minutes of everything else.

Du Lac: Nothing against Accelerate, though. It’s a very good R.E.M. album, with an angry, assertive edge to it.
Mills: We feel really confident as a complete band again, and we decided it was time to rock. Plus, there’s enough anger still at the Bush administration to give it that extra edge.

Du Lac: Is it a sign of the times that, in 15 years, you’ve gone from “Everybody Hurts” to everybody being more or less pissed at the world?
Mills: (Laughs) I guess Michael as a lyricist, you know – you find your inspiration where you can. And there’s been no shortage of it from the guys in office.

Du Lac: The album was warmly received by fans, and it was also a critical success, whatever that’s worth. Did you find yourself breathing any easier after the returns started coming in? Do you pay much mind to the reaction?
Mills: Well, we felt really good about this record. And when you do that, you want people to hear it, and you prefer that they agree with you. The only problem with critics not liking it is it potentially turns people away from listening to it themselves and making up their own minds. So you want the critical goodwill just to make sure the record gets heard and people can judge for themselves.

Du Lac: But do you buy into this idea that Accelerate marks a return to form, as many of your fans – and many of my critical colleagues – have been suggesting? The underlying premise there would be that you’d gone off the tracks.
Mills: I hate the phrase “return to form.” If I never heard it again, I’d be very happy. It’s not a return to anything. This is what R.E.M. is in 2008. We couldn’t be R.E.M. in 1987 even if we tried. For us, this is simply who and what we are today. The fact that people use this as an excuse to bash the last three records, I think they’re just missing the point – which is that those records are just a different direction. Maybe they’re not to everyone’s tastes, but that doesn’t mean they suck. (Laughs.)

Du Lac: But it’s no secret that you guys were unhappy with the way Around the Sun turned out.
Mills: We felt that we had really good songs that didn’t get fully realized because of two reasons. Number one, we tried to do too much. You can’t make a greatest hits record and try to do a tour for it in the middle of making another record. That was just crazy. The other thing was that we weren’t really communicating in the necessary fashion, and therefore we weren’t all pulling in the same direction. The record lost a bit of clarity because of that. But I think it’s lazy journalism that everyone has adopted this theme: “Boy, they sucked for the last 10 years; but they’re back.” It’s not thinking very deeply about it.

Du Lac: How important is relevancy to R.E.M.? And what exactly does that mean?
Mills: It does mean something. I think relevancy is a byproduct of still having a commitment and desire to do great work. You know, in a way, we are still hungry. And I think when you are still focused on creating good stuff, rather than just being along for the ride, then you will achieve relevancy. Plus, we are concerned with the world around us, and we can address that in a way that doesn’t sound dated.

Du Lac: Is relevancy tangible? Can you tell if you’re relevant or not?
Mills: Gosh, you know, relevancy might be one of those things that’s best left to others to decide. I certainly feel relevant. I think we’re making great work that people of any age can appreciate. I think we’re literate and creative and good songwriters, and I see no reason we shouldn’t be relevant. But sometimes, there’s just a gestalt. You know, there’s just something in the air that either means you’re acceptable or you’re not, and it’s hard to pin that down.

Du Lac: One of your former opening acts, Radiohead, seems to have the status right now as the biggest act in alternative rock or indie rock or whatever you want to call it. That’s a title you guys used to have, along with being known as one of the world’s biggest rock bands, period. Do you feel bereft without that sort of status and standing?
Mills: I couldn’t be happier for Radiohead. They’re great guys and a great band and they deserve everything they get. To me, it’s a big world out there with lot of room for lots of bands. I don’t put too much stock into what descriptions are applied to us simply because they’re a) just somebody’s opinions and b) there’s nothing I can do about them anyway. And then you get into the question of labels. What is alternative? If you sell three million records, I don’t see how you can exactly call that alternative.

Du Lac: I guess it all depends on how many albums you’re selling relative to Chris Daughtry.
Mills: (Laughs.) Yeah, I guess there’s a measuring stick in there somewhere.

Du Lac: The National and Modest Mouse are joining you on this tour. You’ve had some pretty significant opening acts over the years. Any particular favorites?
Mills: Getting to watch Radiohead every night was obviously a big thrill. Having NRBQ out was a lot of fun for us. We played several shows with a band from Ireland, the Thrills, that I really loved. We had Pylon, our buddies from Athens, out with us once, and that was a lot of fun. We just try to pick bands that we might enjoy watching and also based on what impact they might have on the show. I sometimes sneak out into the crowd to watch the opening bands.

Du Lac: Wearing a wig?
Mills: No, a hat usually does it.

Du Lac: Do you think the band has lost some fans over the years based on politics? And do you you care?
Mills: I think it’s possible that we’ve turned a few people away because of our overt political stances. I’m a little sad for that, but at the end of the day, no, I don’t care. Because I think as human beings and citizens of a democracy, it is, if not your duty, certainly your right to speak up and be heard. I think everyone should do it: truck drivers, dentists, what have you.

Du Lac: Would you want people whose world views don’t align with yours and Michael’s and Peter’s calling themselves R.E.M. fans?
Mills: Of course. I think music should transcend, though to be perfectly honest, I would have a little bit of trouble being a Toby Keith fan. But certainly, I think one should try to rise above politics if you like the music.

Du Lac: It’s like that old Michael Jordan line: Republicans buy shoes, too.
Mills: Sure. But I don’t want it in such commercial terms. I believe music should bring joy to people, regardless of what the composer’s political stance is.

Du Lac: Very important final question: As big, big fan of the Atlanta Braves – and as a Hall of Famer yourself – do you think Chipper Jones should be a first-ballot inductee into Cooperstown?
Mills: I don’t see how you could not. He won’t be unanimous, but I think he should be first-ballot – especially with the year he’s having now. Certainly.

Originally published on 9 June 2008 by Washington Post

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