My first ever band, in highschool, could play literally every single R.E.M. song up to and including those on Out of Time. I don’t have much nostalgia for R.E.M. now — I finally saw them on a greatest hits reunion tour in 2003, where they ripped through their most popular songs like Let’s get this over with, and I realized I shared the band’s disinterest— but R.E.M. did, to some extent, teach me to play guitar, and definitely taught me how to play as part of a band. So it was an honor to speak with R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, when the band came to New Orleans for VooDoo Fest.
I noticed, even back in high school, how much Mills’s sly bass gave R.E.M.’s songs melodic movement, and how his high and clear vocal harmonies bolstered Michael Stipe’s whine on most of the band’s best tracks (i.e. “And I feel fiiiiiiiine” from “It’s the End of the World”). “I also play most of the keyboards,” Mills told me from a stop on the first leg of R.E.M.’s Accelerate arena tour. “I composed most of the string parts over the years, and I wrote the string parts that (Piety Street Recording Studio owner and Louisiana record producer) Mark Bingham arranged for Out of Time. I tend to handle the colorings of the songs, filling in gaps and finishing up things.”
I didn’t have many questions for Mills, except about the nature of making albums people love, and then making albums people don’t love. “There were certain things certain people liked about R.E.M. that they wanted to hear more of,” Mills admitted, “but we never made records to sell millions of them anyway, so we’re gonna make records that sound different. We just try to make records we’re proud of. And 90 percent of the time we’ve done that. Around the Sun is the only one we’re not really happy with,” Mills conceded. “And that’s just because we made it under extremely difficult circumstances… Plus we just didn’t really know where we wanted to go with that record. We played the songs live beforehand and they sounded great, and they are great, but that record is not what we wanted it to be because we didn’t know what we wanted it to be.”
R.E.M.’s VooDoo Fest set seemed to interest the band more. They spread out and enjoyed themselves. Despite my once-deep love though, I somehow remained disinterested. Three years later in 2011, R.E.M. disbanded for good.
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