"There was no moment of clarity," R.E.M.'s Mike Mills tells SPIN on his second-to-last day as a Warner Brothers employee, feet up on the furniture, chatting about the band's two-disc retrospective Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage (due November 15). "We were discussing it on tour in 2008 and gradually the three of us came separately to the decision that breaking up might be the right thing to do at the time. We had an opportunity to do something that nobody else has really done — a band that has been together for a long time without any sort of bad things prompting the breakup. We started discussing it and came to realize that we all agreed."
In fact, they even recorded their final studio album, last year's Collapse Into Now fully aware that it would be their last."When we were working on the last album in Berlin, they had a room called the Meister Hall — meisterhalle — and it's this beautiful ballroom with a little stage," Mills says. "We set up on the floor of that. The only people there were the people working with us, significant others, and maybe a few friends from Germany. We put down seven or eight songs just to have some live takes of these new songs, and we all knew — nobody else knew, but we did — that this was going to be the last time we played together. It was a powerful moment. I'm sure it'll hit me hard at some point. I'm at peace with it, and I think I always will be, but I'm sure I'll have one day of, 'Wow, what have we done?' But I know what we've done, and we've done the right thing at the time."
It has been a hard few months for alternative rock fans. R.E.M. announced their split in September, the end of a 30-year road for a band who at first proclaimed they were simply content to be only a live act. And this week in South America, Sonic Youth — their own future uncertain in the wake of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's separation — play what will likely be their final shows. "It'd be hard to persevere under those conditions," Mills says about his college rock contemporaries, "but, hey, Fleetwood Mac did it."
"I've started to realize that everybody's got an opinion about when a band should have broken up, or should break up," he says. "It's like, fuck you, because this is what we do. Are you going to say, 'Ford made a crappy car, they should break up as a car company and stop making cars?' Just because it's artistic instead of concrete things like widgets, you can't tell somebody to stop doing what they do just because you don't like the last product. But that's what people do with bands... There are no reasons for us to break up right now other than our own, and they're all positive reasons."
In fact, Mills himself has never been particularly devastated over a band calling it quits. "I wouldn't have minded if the Sex Pistols made another record," he says. "I guess I was sad when the Beatles broke up."