Mike Mills is contemplating life without R.E.M. for the first time since January 1980.
Given that for more than 30 years his bandmates Michael Stipe and Peter Buck – drummer Bill Berry left in 1997 – were as close to him as members of his family, did it feel like a bereavement? Or did calling time on the biggest alternative rock band on the planet come as a relief?
“It’s neither of those things,” says Mills in a central London hotel, five weeks after the band announced on their website that they would be splitting up after three decades and 15 albums. “It’s mostly joy. Contentment. And a sense of liberation. But it’s not relief – there’s a difference. It’s not that I was confined but certainly now any opportunities that I wish to pursue, I can.”
Mills – R.E.M.’s bassist/multi-instrumentalist, backing vocalist and co-songwriter – declines to reveal what his future ventures may involve lest he “jinx them”, though a hip hop musical seems unlikely. “No, I’ll just write some rock songs with other guys,” he says.
Casting back to the early days of R.E.M. when Stipe, Buck, Berry and Mills swapped their studies at the University of Georgia for a life on the road and in the recording studio, did they know they were destined to grow from cult hopefuls to stadium attraction?
“I don’t think anyone’s destined to become that popular,” Mills says. “It takes a combination of talent, hard work and luck to become big.”
How does he imagine R.E.M. will be remembered? Or to put it another way, given that they peaked commercially in the early-90s with Out Of Time (1991) and Automatic For The People (1992), and that critical reactions to their albums since have tended to force the idea of a return to form, almost as though the rock press was willing them to be the totemic figures of their heyday, does he agree that they would have been more fondly remembered had they split in 1999, as the band once mooted?
“Probably,” he says. “But the essential thing is that we disbanded on our own terms. There were no external or internal forces, there was no negativity, no anger, and there were no attorneys. It was a mutually agreed upon decision to walk away basically at the top of our game. We just made two records [2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse Into Now] that I’m extremely happy with, and we accomplished pretty much everything we ever set out to.”
Back at the start, the band’s aims, says Mills, were simple. “There was no grand plan to be rich or famous, or to dominate,” he says. “Mine was to make my rent, get free beer, and play music with people I liked. I had those things fairly quickly.”
How calculated were their musical intentions? Did they set out to become the post-punk Byrds? “No,” he says. “We didn’t think, ‘Oh, we’re going to sound like this.’ That to me is a bad idea, because you’re already limited. I know sometimes bands advertise saying things like, ‘Must like Bauhaus’ or whatever, but that was not our thing. The whole point of R.E.M. was that we came from different directions. In January 1980, I would have been listening to the Police and Blondie, Michael was listening to Patti Smith, and it was Peter who got me into the Velvet Underground and Wire. Before college, I had grown up in Georgia with country music, blues and gospel and my dad’s classical and jazz records. And listening to the top 40 on my radio was my main love. There was a lot of cross-pollination.”
Tomorrow, R.E.M. release a compilation album titled Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage 1982-2011. That “garbage” part intrigues: is there anything from their catalogue Mills would remove?
“No,” he says. “Because it’s like that building toy Jenga – remove one piece and the whole thing would fall apart.”
What was it like at the height of R.E.M.-mania?
“Well,” Mills says, “we weren’t pop stars. We never put our picture on our records till the very last one, and we tried not to be in our videos if at all possible. We wanted people to know our music and come to our shows. I never thought of myself as a pop star but as a musician who happened to be in a fabulously successful and creative band.”
That said, didn’t hit records and popular – if not pop – acclaim provide opportunities for subversion, such as releasing a song like Everybody Hurts at the height of your success?
“Well, we always liked confusing people,” he says. “An air of mystery is a beautiful thing. Like putting the kudzu on the cover of [debut album] Murmur, a beautiful image that also looked frightening and post-apocalyptic. We never liked the obvious and if ever there was a choice between the obvious and the subtle, we’d take the subtle.
Mills baulks at suggestions that R.E.M.’s impact has been anywhere near as pervasive as the Beatles.
“They were a worldwide phenomenon who literally changed the world,” he says. “We did not. We maybe changed US rock, over time – we forced mainstream radio stations to open their playlists to music they might otherwise not have been interested in playing. Would Nirvana and the Strokes have happened without us? You can never know.”
Given the state of the industry, does he believe U2 and R.E.M. are the last of the globe-dominating, long-career behemoths? “It’s going to be very difficult for a band to have a 30-year career. We were lucky lucky lucky, and we all believed in the band over our egos. None of us had drug problems, and none of us died from other causes. We avoided all of that.
“I guess you can thank our parents for that. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence. You have to be a grounded person to survive this long.” v
The compilation album, Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage 1982-2011, is released tomorrow