R.E.M.’s Mike Mills on the Band’s Most Underrated Record
Mills spills about life on on a major label and how Bill Berry's taking the breakup
Alternative godfathers and four-time SPIN cover stars R.E.M. ended a 30-year career of defining generations and defying MTV with no fanfare beyond an website announcement. The band’s Mike Mills told SPIN last week, “There was no moment of clarity,” as he kicked his feet up on the Warner Brothers furniture, explaining that the split was a slow-burner that had been in the works since 2008.
Thankfully, Warner Bros. is issuing a proper eulogy in the form of a career-spanning greatest hits set. The two-disc retrospective Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage is their first to include tracks from both their pioneering I.R.S. days and their 10 records for Warner Bros. — not to mention three new tracks. In honor of this deluxe career-capper, SPIN hooked up with Mills for a chat that also spans three decades.
Was there a moment when you were aware there was a group of bands that were doing something similar?
I was sitting with Peter Holsapple [of the dB’s] one night in like 1980 or 1981 and I was showing him “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still,” both of which have those open ringing chords, and he was showing me “Black and White” and a couple other dB’s songs. I was like, “I thought we made those chords up!” and he was like, “I thought we made them up!” No, nobody made them up, but we were just discovering them at the same time. That was a fun moment. I’ve never forgotten that. And then to go create this live circuit that didn’t exist and be running into the other bands that were also doing this: Hüsker Dü and the Replacement and the dB’s and the Embarrassment and the Long Ryders and Black Flag. All this great music coming out of these weird little towns in America, and everybody having to scramble to find a place to play, because there weren’t a lot of clubs like there are now. Those were heady times.
Looking at the 40 songs on Part Lies like a time lapse photo of your career, what changes do you notice about the band’s music over that period?
Probably the biggest one with the songwriting came when Peter moved out of town.
People sometimes say you should have stopped after Bill Berry left.
It would have been terrible to stop then! First of all, we’re far too stubborn to let something like that stop us. We’re the kind of band that would rather go out on top rather than down on the bottom. I’ve enjoyed all our records since then to one degree or another. I think Up was a lot of fun for us to experiment. We figured we don’t have a drummer, so we won’t use a drummer much. I think Reveal is our most underrated record. I think it’s an absolutely gorgeous slice of summer candy. I think it’s just gorgeous and shimmery. I would’ve hated not to have made that.
Did you talk to Bill at all when you announced that you were breaking up?
I called him before we made the announcement, but we didn’t discuss it with him. He retired in ’97 and removed himself from all things R.E.M. There was no discussion to be had, but I certainly gave him a courtesy call before we announced it. I think he was sad. He can be very stoic, but he can also be very emotional. I think he was sad as a fan. And as a friend he knew it was a traumatic decision. But we supported him in his decision and he supported us in ours.
You’ve mentioned wanting to do better as a band after 2004’s Around the Sun, which got some not-very-positive reviews.
And rightly so. When we were making that record, we were thrilled. We had great songs. But it was one time we let outside forces turn us towards doing something we shouldn’t have done — which is to do two songs for a greatest hits [In Time: The Best of R.E.M., 1988-2003], put out a greatest hits, tour on a greatest hits, and then go back and then try to finish the record. That was totally unfair to Around the Sun. Had we not done that, had we stuck with it, finished it as we should have, it would have been a really great record. Trouble was, by the time we got back to it, we weren’t really sure what it was, we didn’t know which way to go with it. We ended up pulling in different directions, there was no focus, there was no cohesion, and the record reflects it. If you listen to the live record from Dublin [2007’s R.E.M. Live], that has a lot of those songs, I think they sound great.
Before you recorded your first single, there were quotes attributed to the band about possibly not even pursuing a recording career and just concentrating on being a live act.
That’s the reason we formed the band, to play live music. We didn’t get together to make records. We made a record only to send it to promoters to club dates. That’s the only reason the single was out there. Plus, we loved singles. That existed just to get us shows. As you grow as a band and start writing good songs, you turn to the other phase of being a musician and make a record.
The second time you signed with Warner Bros. [for a reported $80 million in 1996] it received a lot of attention, not all good. Are you still happy with that choice?
Warner Bros. has been a great label for us. They were a label as much as any capitalist corporation could be. They were about artists, especially when Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker were running the label. They had Neil Young and Van Dyke Parks on there, not because they were going to sell records, but because they were great artists to have on your label. It wasn’t just about fucking shifting units. It was about art and music and creativity and you can have both. The industry gradually changed and the creativity went by the wayside. If you didn’t sell units, you didn’t have a job. That’s sad. But selling was never a purpose of ours anyway. For the last four records, I don’t think I’ve asked, ’cause I just don’t care. It used to reflect the popularity of your record. If people were buying it, it meant they liked it. Now, they may like it, but they might not buy it. They may obtain it by other methods, but odds are they didn’t buy it. Sales are clearly no reflection of popularity for bands. Maybe for Rihanna, it is.
There are certainly plenty more ways for bands to get music out there effectively than there were in 1980.
There are a lot more ways for — let’s call it “indie music” for the sake of argument — for those bands to be found and heard and seen. It’s the long tail. It’s a lot easier for bands to have careers, but maybe not mega-careers. The record companies, for better or worse, were sort of star makers. The days of U2 and R.E.M., I don’t know if you’re going to have a lot of that.