The Most Heartfelt and Goofy of R.E.M., According to Mike Mills

“I think people didn’t know how much fun we were truly having. And it was a lot of fun.” Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

R.E.M. has the uncanny ability to exist in and out of time. It’s probably because Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry never treated their listeners like a bunch of dummies, even when the group managed to conquer the mainstream with their potent and beautiful songs. “We never thought of anyone as the leader,” says Mills, the band’s bassist. “Everybody had their strengths and it allowed us each to utilize those areas of authority. Peter was the one who had most of the vision about direction. Michael was the one who had vision about image and perception. Mine was the strength of translating abstract ideas into musical reality. Bill’s was the strength of economy, or knowing when we’d gone too far and when to reduce.”

R.E.M. broke up under exceptionally cordial circumstances in 2011, and Mills, a keen sports enthusiast who’s earned the nickname Sweet Daddy Cool, now plays with his supergroup the Baseball Project. Even if you consider yourself to be averse to the dugout, the band — which also consists of guitarist Buck — is a hell of a fun listen; they released their fourth album Grand Salami Time! back in June and are currently on the road for a nationwide tour. Still, Mills was happy to go to bat for his R.E.M. years in a recent conversation. “They say luck is the residue of design,” he says, “and we did make most of the decisions the correct ones.”

Song with the most heart in it

The simple answer that’s hard to argue with would be “Everybody Hurts” because of its universality. It can touch so many people so deeply. When we write songs, generally speaking, we don’t know what Michael’s going to do with them. We write songs that we, as musicians, enjoy and then give them to Michael. So we had no idea what “Everybody Hurts” would become. We actually laughed a little bit while recording it because it has that silly little drum-machine sound. We thought that was funny. I remember putting the electric piano on there and thinking it was a really cool sound. It’s nice when you can work an electric piano into a song.

Goofiest song

We never smiled in our promo photos, and because of Michael’s occasionally impenetrable demeanor in interviews, people thought we were these morose navel-gazers. But we were laughing our asses off at just about everything in the world. About half of Dead Letter Office is completely goofy because we goofed around a lot. We were very serious about making records and writing good songs, but we tried not to take ourselves seriously. Good Lord, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” is pretty goofy. It makes about as little linear sense as anything Michael ever did. It riffs on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Michael actually laughs in it. I’d say that adds up to about as goofy as we got on primary release songs.

Other than people missing our sense of humor, there’ve always been some sort of misconceptions about us because when you talk about things in interviews, you tend to talk about the music and the records. We’re not talking about our personal selves and our private lives. There was always speculation about this and that, most of which was untrue. Most of it was directed at Michael because he’s the “inscrutable lead singer.” I think people didn’t know how much fun we were truly having. And it was a lot of fun. I think we gave out pretty much the proper amount of information. We’re all incredibly funny. We crack each other up all the time on the road. We’re intelligent people with some wry outlooks on life.

There was a lot of dry humor in the back of the R.E.M. van. When you’re touring on any level, it’s incredibly demanding. You have to find the humor in it in order to have fun during the day when you’re not playing music. You have to make the rest of those 22 hours palatable. So laughing and finding humor and band jokes was important. I mean, all bands have their inside jokes. When we toured with 10,000 Maniacs, they had so many inside jokes that they just gave them numbers. Somebody would say, “Oh, number six.” And they’d all start cracking up. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you spend too much time together.

Most overworked song

Let me think this through. Murmur went really fast. So did Reckoning. Fables of the Reconstruction was, as has been well reported, a difficult time for a lot of reasons. “Life and How to Live It” was a little tricky. Not so much writing it, but recording it. The band was in such a weird place. I don’t know why, because it’s not that difficult of a song, but it was hard to get it down on tape. For Document, we didn’t have that much difficulty pounding out songs. Peter and Bill and I all wrote well together, and we had some pretty fertile years. “Man on the Moon” wasn’t difficult for the band, but it was tricky for Michael. We knew that it was a great song, musically, and we wanted it on the record. We were coming down to crunch time. We were in the very last day of the studio and Michael finally finished it — he sang it, we put the background vocals on it, and finished the mix. That was more difficult for Michael than it was for us. Thank goodness it came together literally at the very last minute.

Best song after Bill left the band

“Living Well Is the Best Revenge” is one of my favorites. I think our hidden gem is Reveal. There’s some true beauty on that record. “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)” might be our best hidden gem of a song — it was a single, but at that point, nobody really gave a damn about R.E.M. singles. And that’s fine, that’s just the way it works. But I think “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)” is as good as anything we did after Bill left the band. All the parts work. Peter’s composition is fantastic. The bass line is cool. The production is really, really good. It’s encapsulated in that song and “Beach Ball,” which is another favorite of mine from Reveal. There’s this shimmery summer feeling that I get from these songs. “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)” is a little sad but it’s also a little optimistic, like the best of Michael’s writing. It encompasses joy and tragedy. That song grabbed everything we were looking for.

Song you were surprised the radio embraced

Any of them. When we started out, radio was still the dominion of what people disparagingly referred to as “corporate rock.” It was safe and there was nobody taking many chances on it. So the fact that we were able to break some of those doors down was very gratifying. The big one was “Losing My Religion.” That was supposed to be a warm-up track for the radio to get to “Shiny Happy People” or whatever the next single was. Nobody would expect a five-minute song with no chorus and a mandolin being the lead instrument to be played on the radio at all — much less become a worldwide number-one hit. It was just crazy. Anybody that says they saw that coming is lying to you.

I remember the strangest time. We were once in Paraguay well into the jungle. We were going to help sign over 500,000 acres to the Indigenous Ashe people of northern Paraguay. We were still getting reception from the local radio station and “Losing My Religion” came on. That was pretty surprising. That’s when we knew we had a worldwide hit.

Cleverest song for bassists

Clever is a tricky word. Most of the time, I’d say being clever isn’t a good thing. It often means that it sounds like the composer is having a bit of a laugh at the audience’s expense. Rather than clever, I would think more about bass lines that are satisfying to me because they fulfilled the job I had in mind for them. “Orange Crush” is one of my favorites. It’s simple, but it was really fun to play and suits the song. It fills in the bottom in a melodic way without being too melodic. “Life and How to Live It” is probably the most sheer fun bass line I ever wrote.

But I’ll give you one that was maybe a little too clever. “New Test Leper.” Now, normally I try to keep my bass lines a certain way. There’s a place for bass — its job is to support the song, and yet it has to be interesting to me in order to enjoy playing it. But for some reason with “New Test Leper” I decided to basically play a bass solo all the way through the verses. You don’t want the bass by itself, but in terms of free-forming and playing a lot of notes and having a lot of fun with it, I think “New Test Leper” is the one where I took the guardrails off of it and had a good time.

Biggest quantum leap of an album

There were a lot of turns we made, but the biggest turn would have to be from Automatic for the People to Monster. Automatic sold 10 million copies or whatever. Everybody heard it. That’s when you get to a level of sales where you start bringing in the casual music fans and the grandmothers who are buying it for their grandkids, or even non-music fans buying your record as gifts. When you hear a song on the radio it’s not for the hard-core music fans anymore. So, of course, everyone was expecting Automatic part two, and we gave them something 180 degrees different in Monster. A lot of people didn’t like that, but all of our longtime fans knew that’s exactly the sort of thing we would do. That abrupt switch still left a lot of people puzzled. The biggest jump in the crowd came with Green because we were touring and did a lot of arenas at that point. That was when you’d start seeing people other than hard-core indie rockers — you’d see people bring their kids or people who didn’t look like they were necessarily music fans, which is great. Thank goodness. It’s really fun to break through to that different audience.

I do have a great story. I met Justice William Brennan once. I was on the board for the Brennan Center for the section of the First Amendment. We were in a receiving line and the guy who introduced me to him said, “This is Mike Mills of R.E.M.” And Justice Brennan goes, “Oh, I’ve heard of you.” And I said, “Justice Brennan, that’s nice of you, but you don’t have to say that.” And he responded, “Oh, I’ve heard of you just now.” That’s why you’re on the Supreme Court and I’m not. I thought that was just a really, really brilliant moment. Wouldn’t it be great if he knew me though? But I appreciated it nonetheless.

Album that rewards a reappraisal

Reveal. It might not be aggressive enough for a lot of people and I understand that. It’s not a rock record per se, but it’s a beautiful-music record. It’s the one that might best reward a further look. It’s supposed to feel like summer. Obviously we’re not looking for the Beach Boys here, but it is a summer record that’s supposed to catch the feeling of no school. You’ve got endless possibilities because it’s summertime and you can go anywhere and do anything, and you’re not bound up by the rest of the year’s restrictions. I think it’s just joyful and captures that in a nice way.

Favorite harmonies to sing

I really loved singing on “Orange Crush.” That was so much fun with the live show. You can’t really call my harmonies “backgrounds” because sometimes they’re co-leads with Michael, or sometimes they’re just another part. They’re not in the background. They’re more like countermelodies. So the countermelody I sing on “Try Not to Breathe” is one of my favorites because everybody else left. I’m in the studio and looking in the control room — I know there’s something that’s going to be good in this spot of the song. I try all these different things and I’m not finding it. And then I hit the right thing and I locked eyes with Scott McCaughey from 40 feet away. We just both knew that was the direction. It was very thrilling to have that moment.

My voice is the culmination of a lifetime of enjoying harmony. When I was a kid singing in the church choir, I was always finding harmony. I usually got the tenor part. I grew up around music. There was always music in the house. So when R.E.M. started playing, I sang. Our approach was that my voice and Michael’s voice were extra instruments. It wasn’t about a lead vocal and a backing vocal and a harmony vocal. It was just more melody and more instrumentation to add to the mix. That wasn’t our conscious thought, but really when you look at it, that’s how we approached it. Not in the confines of a lead singer and a backing vocalist, but people who sing and people who bring a certain amount of emotion due to the quality of their voices. Somebody once described my voice as a sunny yelp, which is fine with me, but it was often a nice balance to Michael’s — a little more gravelly, a more weightier voice that he had. Sometimes my voice just annoys the hell out of me, to be honest with you. Nobody likes hearing their own voice. Very few people do. But I like it when it works. I sing well with others, let’s put it that way. So we were just lucky that those things worked out together.

Enduring memories of your television debut on Late Night

I remember Peter and I were in the dressing room before the show drinking a Heineken and Dave stuck his head in. He said, “Oh, a little beer, huh?” And we responded, “Yeah.” He said, “Are you nervous?” We said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Don’t worry. It’s not like it’s a real show or anything.” It was nice of Dave to put it that way. So that’s my main memory. The rest of it I only remember from watching the video and going, Wow, those are young kids.

And then, all those years later, I broke the news he was retiring. I was unsure whether to do that or not, but my feeling was somebody in the audience would’ve done it as soon as they got to their car. So why not let it be somebody who actually has a history with Dave? I did it and they were cool. Nobody was upset. I spoke to Dave about it later and he said, “No, it was fine. If somebody was going to do it, I’d rather it be you.” And I said, “Well, thank you.” It was quite a moment to hear him say that sitting there in the dressing room. Did he just announce his retirement? That’s crazy.

Why more bands should follow R.E.M.’s lead and retire with integrity

That’s not for anyone to say except the guys or girls in the band. There’s nothing wrong at all with continuing to do what you do. You’re a musician, you keep making music. You’re in a band, you keep the band together. A lot of people opine about us, “Oh, they should have left here. Oh, they should have left when Bill quit. Oh, they should have done this, that, and the other.” Well, nobody has a clue what they’re talking about. It’s entirely up to the musicians whether they want to keep playing in that same form or not. I’d say if you don’t want to quit playing, don’t quit playing.

The main thing I took away was gratitude. You look back on how fortunate we were — from the get-go all the way to the end, we made really good decisions but we were also really lucky. And that includes the time to break up. The fact that we were able to break up with everyone still healthy and still friends, and nobody’s suing anybody, that’s a gift. I think it’s a celebration of our good fortune to be able to shake hands and wave and go out and have dinner next week. We do it quite often. Not all four of us at once, but we do hook up all the time.

Your Nudie suit masterpiece

Mills, our fashion maven. From left: Photo: Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty ImagesPhoto: Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
Mills, our fashion maven. From left: Photo: Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty ImagesPhoto: Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mir... Mills, our fashion maven. From left: Photo: Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty ImagesPhoto: Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

The first is often the one you remember most. I bought the green one with orange yellow flames at Nudie’s original location in Los Angeles. He already died at that point, but when I went by his wife and his son were there. That suit was one of the few that were still in the store. I tried it on and it was a hair too big, but I didn’t care. So I bought it and then it was in the “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” music video. I don’t like the word iconic, but it’s a memorable use of the suit. That’s the one that means the most to me.

R.E.M. has a climate-controlled storage space, but not just for my suits. It’s for tapes and gear and all sorts of other things. I would never build something just for suits. That’s where they stay because they’re all one-of-a-kind and unique. They can all be damaged and they’re pretty much irreplaceable. I try to take care of them. Not that I’ll ever wear most of them again, but they’re still worth preserving.

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For one, the band absconded to London to record the transitional third album, which was heavy on Southern Gothic themes. Mills said that he considers the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” to be the definitive college-radio song: “The entirety of what college radio became in the early ’80s was astonishing and powerful. We were thrilled to be a part of that.” McCaughey served as an auxiliary member of R.E.M. starting with 1992’s Automatic for the People. He’s also a member of the Baseball Project. I joked that in the one in a million chance R.E.M. reunites, Letterman should have the honor of breaking the news. Mills responded: “That would only be fair, wouldn’t it?”
The Best and Goofiest of R.E.M., According to Mike Mills