Interviews: The R.E.M. Creative Process Revealed (Somewhat)
By Mark Caro
R.E.M. always has been one of rock’s more mysterious groups – for the surprising ways its haunting melodies and textures would insinuate themselves with listeners, as well as for the unknown alchemy involved in creating these songs.
The songwriting credits gave no clue: They read “Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe” for years, and what was understood was this: Guitarist Peter Buck, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry would come up with the music, and then singer Michael Stipe would add the melody and those strangely evocative lyrics.
After Berry left in 1997, an uneven, experimental trio of albums followed: Up (1998), Reveal (2001) and Around the Sun (2004). Those discs, which meandered more than they rocked, got a collective bad rap, leading some to wonder whether the drummer’s songwriting contribution had been more vital than previously realized.
Then came the concise, punchy Accelerate in April. It was hailed as a return to form (usually in those exact words) and spurred some to wonder whether all the band really had needed to recapture the so-called magic was to plug in electric guitars and to write short songs again. Even in the positive reviews, there were assumptions: that Accelerate was essentially backward-looking, that the band’s power center had shifted toward Buck (thanks to the guitar-heavy sound) from Mills (who played most of the keyboards on the previous three albums).
As a longtime fan, I got Mills on the phone to have him to shed some—but not too much—light on the creative process that is R.E.M. (The band plays next Friday at the United Center.) Here is the transcript:
Caro: How has the band’s songwriting and creative process changed over the years?
Mills: Certainly in the beginning we were together pretty much all of the time, so we were writing songs together. Now, yes, it’s definitely changed. Peter writes his stuff musically. I write my stuff musically. Then we give it to Michael. But then of course when we get together to learn each other’s songs, you know, I bring my thoughts and ideas into it, and Peter brings his thoughts and ideas into it, and we gradually shape each other’s songs into R.E.M. songs.
Caro: So can you listen to Accelerate and say, “These songs are mine and those songs are Peter’s?”
Mills: I know the genesis of all of them, but the thing that makes R.E.M. work is what each of us brings to it. If I’d recorded my songs by myself, they wouldn’t sound anywhere near as good as they do with the band, and I think the same thing probably goes true for Peter.
Caro: Is there a difference you can characterize between the songs you bring in and the songs Peter brings in?
Mills: The main thing I would say is that I can’t play as well as he can. I don’t have that arpeggiated picking style that he has, so certain of his songs have a complexity, in terms of playing, that mine don’t. For example, I could never write “Living Well Is The Best Revenge.” I can’t play like that. Certainly the things he’s capable of that I am not add a depth to his stuff in certain cases that I don’t have.
Caro: But I’m sure there are other ones where you’ve come in, and he’s put this riff on it that you couldn’t have played.
Mills: Yeah, it’s so much fun. I actually really look forward to seeing what Peter’s going to do with the songs that I bring him because I know that he’ll do things that I a) wouldn’t have thought of, and b) couldn’t have played if I did think of them.
Caro: Like you wrote “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” and I have an early live recording where you guys are playing it at lightning speed. Then on Reckoning it became something much different.
Mills: We were kind of kidding around on Reckoning. We were actually cutting it because Bertis [Downs, the band’s advisor] loved it so much, and we decided to do a semi-country version of it, and that became more or less the way we play it now.
Caro: Certainly on the earlier version, Peter had the fast picking going on.
Mills: Yeah. I just read a quote from Peter about why he did that. He used to listen to all these people who were finger-picking, and he didn’t realize they were using four or five fingers, and he ended up learning how to do it with just the pick, and that’s why he has this amazing ability.
Caro: When you read reviews, there’s this perception that if the song is more of a guitar song, it’s a Peter song, and if it’s more of a piano song, it’s more of a you song, so this album is more of a Peter album but the last album [Around the Sun] was more of a you album. Is that accurate?
Mills: No, that’s not accurate. If you go back to it, Peter wrote the piano parts for “Lotus.” I wrote “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” There’s no real way to identify the songwriter simply by what you hear. Obviously for the bulk of the time, if it’s on a piano, it’s probably me, but not always.
Caro: Like “Electrolite.”
Mills: “Electrolite,” yeah, that’s obviously me. But what else did Peter write on piano? There’s another piano song of Peter’s, and it’s not the “Chorus and the Ring2; it might be “Saturn Return,” which I think Peter did on keyboard. So you can’t be entirely sure just from the main instrument.
Caro: Because then you would basically say this whole album is a Peter album, and his songwriting is more prominent than on the previous three records.
Mills: That would just be not true. People make assumptions and they think they hear guitar, and it’s always Peter, but that’s just not true.
Caro: With this album was it a unified decision with the two of you where you said we’re going to do these shorter, faster songs?
Mills: Yeah, we said we’re going to write strictly on electric guitar, no acoustics, no piano. We’re going to make them short, and we’re going to make them fast for the most part.
Caro: Some have said Accelerate harks back to Monster, but Monster isn’t a fast record. It’s loud and tremolo-y. This is more garage, and that’s more sort of glam.
Mills: That’s very well said. The thing is journalists need an angle. They need a reference. I understand that. I’ve written things before, and I know that you have to have something to compare things to, but I think it’s pretty much lazy just to say, “Oh, return to form.” “Oh, they’ve gone back to the ‘80s.” “Oh, this that and the other.” I think that’s lazy journalism. This is R.E.M. in 2008. This is not R.E.M. in 1987. I wouldn’t know how to do that even if we tried. This is just who and what we are at this particular moment, as is any album. Any recording of a band is simply what they are at that moment.
Caro: I think it has a pretty distinct niche compared to Document or Lifes Rich Pageant as well. They’re actually quite different records.
Mills: Yeah, see, I don’t get that. I don’t think it sounds anything like our other records. It’s just people need something to compare it to, and that’s where they go.
Caro: People tend to use previous albums as a template. Down the line they’ll say another album is kind of like Accelerate.
Mills: [laughs] That’s very true, and I don’t really have a problem with that except in that it affects the perceptions of people who read the reviews. It colors their perception of whether they should a) go buy the record, or b) what they think of it when they hear it. But that’s the nature of the business.
Caro: When you come in with a song, does it have just the musical basis and then Michael puts the melody on top, or sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t and sometimes it’s just the lyrics?
Mills: Once in a while we’ll give Michael a melody, but generally he comes up with that himself.
Caro: Give me an example of a time you came in with something, and he completely surprised you with what he did with it?
Mills: [Laughing] Like every song. I mean, we really honestly have no idea what he’s going to do with it, and it evolves for him. He works really hard on both melodies and lyrics. Some of it just spews forth for him, but a lot of times it takes a lot of craft to get it right.
Caro: Can you think of times in particular where you were really happy, like, Wow, I thought this was kind of a nothing song and it became a major song?
Mills: I think “Everybody Hurts” is a good example of that. Musically there’s not that much outrageously new to that song, but lyrically and melodically it’s beautiful.
Caro: I’ve read that’s one that Bill Berry came in with.
Mills: Yeah, the basic beginnings and all that were Bill’s for sure.
Caro: Did the songwriting dynamic change a lot when he left the band?
Mills: He would generally come up with several ideas for each record, and he would also be a really good editor for us. He was always very much about keeping them short, getting to the hook. He didn’t want to waste a lot of time and people’s attention noodling around.
Caro: Although I read somewhere that he wrote “Leave,” which is your longest song.
Mills: [Laughs] Yes, he did write “Leave,” and it is a long song, but not because—I don’t know why it turned out that long.
Caro: He was like “Stop! Stop playing! It’s too long!”
Mills: It’s weird. The intro’s really long. Yeah, that is weird. That’s an anomaly, I’d say, because Bill generally preferred songs to get to the good part and then get over with.
Caro: So you kind of had your inner Bill working on this album to some extent.
Mills: Yeah, pretty much. Here’s the thing: We did what we wanted to do on those last three records in terms of there were no rules. That was the decision we made. When Bill left the band, and we went into making Up, we said, “OK, there are no rules. Anything we want to do, we can, or we can at least try.” That’s sort of the template that we took into Up, Reveal and Around the Sun. That was great for that time, but there’s always time for a change. It’s like how did Automatic for the People come about? Well, we decided to drop the electric guitars for a while and work on more acoustic-based things. How did Monster come about? Well, we decided to drop the acoustic guitars and use the electric guitars. It’s just wherever you find yourself at that moment is how you approach the record, and at this moment we found ourselves feeling really good about being a band. We felt very complete with [drummer] Bill Rieflin and [second guitarist] Scott McCaughey, and we decided to approach the record from the point of view of a complete band.
Caro: This is also the first album since Monster where you could look at it as an LP, where it’s 35 minutes long, and if you wanted to, you could say this is side one and side two. Basically the last four records, they were more like CDs than albums. Up till then I still think of “This is the first song on side two….”
Mills: Well, you’re old school. Nobody under the age of 25 even knows what a side A and side B is.
[The point I was trying to get at, which I never did, was that Accelerate is like an LP also because it's short. From New Adventures in Hi-Fi through Around the Sun, the albums had grown so long that they were tough to get through in one sitting, especially given the preponderance of mid-tempo material on the later ones.]
Caro: Did Bill’s departure affect you the most because you’re the other half of the rhythm section?
Mills: Um, not really because I was able to play with Joey [Waronker, the first fill-in drummer] with no problem, and I’m having a great time playing with Bill Rieflin. No, it didn’t really alter what I do on the bass.
Caro: Your approach is the same no matter who’s drumming?
Mills: It is only because I make sure we have a drummer that I can play with. It wouldn’t work with every drummer. There are only certain drummers that I’m going to be comfortable with.
Caro: Any of your albums that you think are particularly underappreciated?
Mills: I think Reveal is underrated. I think Reveal is a beautiful record. Is it a rock record? No, but it wasn’t supposed to be. I think it’s a beautiful, pastoral happy sunny summer record, and I’m really happy with it.
Caro: Another one that I’ve always had a soft spot for is Fables of the Reconstruction. [When I played back the recording of this interview, I thought I could hear Mills gasp at this suggestion.] It sounds like you had a miserable time recording it, but that album has such a distinct feel about it.
Mills: Yeah, I’m happy with Fables. It’s a little murky, but it has a quality. It has its own thing, and if an album has its own thing, whatever that is, then you’ve done something good. If the record has a thing, whether it’s a sound or just a feel, then that’s good, because a record should be a cohesive piece of music if possible.
Caro: Finally, what would you say is the breakdown of what you and Peter wrote on the album?
Mills: I don’t usually do that because I don’t want people hearing the songs like that. The idea is that by the end of the day, they’re R.E.M. songs. Whatever they started out as, by the time they get finished, they’re R.E.M. songs. I will say that Peter writes more songs than I do; therefore the percentage of songs on the record that started with Peter is probably higher. But really at the end of the day, they’re just R.E.M. songs.
Caro: There’s a reason I saved that question for last.
Mills: You know, they got John Lennon to do it  years after the Beatles broke-up.…There may come a day maybe when it’s a better idea than it is now.
Originally published on 30 May 2008 by Chicago Tribune