Progress Report: Mike Mills talks greatest hits, covering Big Star, and life after R.E.M.
It’s kind of hard to comment on the progress of a band that just released a career-capping retrospective and officially broke up. Still, it’s hard to turn down the opportunity to speak with any of the members of R.E.M., one of the most profoundly influential American rock bands of our generation. Where do you even begin? Hot on the heels of announcing their retirement a few weeks ago, this week the band released Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, 1982-2011 — a 40-song summation of a career that spans over 30 years. The occasion of R.E.M.’s retirement has generated a veritable tsunami of nostalgia for those of us who grew up with the band, but the band members themselves don’t seem all that sentimental about it. I guess when you’ve sold tons of records, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and basically soundtracked an entire generation’s coming of age, calling it a day isn’t necessarily such a sad thing, it’s more of a deserved victory lap. I had the pleasure of calling up up (former) R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills to discuss.
STEREOGUM: Hey Mike! Have you been doing a million sad “goodbye” interviews today?
MIKE: Only a couple thousand so far, it’s not so bad.
STEREOGUM: Well, you may never have to do this again … at least not for R.E.M.
MIKE: That’s a fact.
STEREOGUM: I’ve been listening to Part Lies and reading everyone’s liner notes which, as a longtime fan, is really fun and very nostalgic. I’m curious, are there songs that are sentimental favorites that you wished had been included in the compilation?
MIKE: No, I’m actually really happy with it. After it was done I realized that it might have been nice to have “Find The River” on there, but we already had four songs from Automatic For The People and we didn’t want to have to take any of the three new songs off that we had recorded, so it had to be that way. There are always going to be some omissions that you hate, but really it’s a pretty comprehensive look at the last 31 years.
STEREOGUM: Trying to encapsulate the past 31 years of your creative output into one succinct package must be a really bizarre — and I’m assuming, somewhat bittersweet — endeavor. How has this experience been for you personally?
MIKE: You know, it’s really not that surreal. We’ve dealt with these sorts of things before. We’ve done compilations and greatest hits things before. When putting together the tracklisting for this package, it didn’t feel all that strange. In fact, it felt very present tense. It wasn’t like we were going excavating back into the past, it was more like we were just grabbing songs that are currently existing and putting them together. You know, they still exist — they sound the same way now as they did then — and it doesn’t feel like we’re reaching back to 1982 to grab something. It’s just more of a “Here is a list of our songs as they currently exist and you may take them down off the shelf and listen to them” kind of thing. We’ve never really been a band who looks backwards too much, so even though this is technically a retrospective, it doesn’t really feel like it’s backwards-looking, it’s just adding it all up right now here in 2011.
STEREOGUM: That’s a cool way to think about it. We tend to view things so much of the time through a veil of nostalgia, but I like the idea of thinking of your body of work always in the present tense.
MIKE: Yeah, you know I don’t think I’d ever really articulated it in that way before because I’d never really been asked, but the more that I think about it … you know, I’m a person who has always lived very much in the moment anyway. It’s not about reaching back into the past, they exist now as they did then.
STEREOGUM: The announcement that R.E.M. was breaking up really triggered a lot of really emotional — and also very sweet and sentimental — responses from fans and music journalists. It really caused people to pause and take stock of what your music has meant to them over the years.
MIKE: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I think where that comes from has to do with the fact that the music that will ultimately always mean the most to you is the music you were listening to in high school and in college. That’s when you are really becoming the person you are going to become. The music you are listening to at the time really informs that process so much. R.E.M. happened to be coming of age along with college radio, so we were a huge part of the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids who were in college from, say, 1980 to 2000 or whatever. We were the soundtrack for a lot of people while they were sort of forming their adult lives. It’s a great honor, and very humbling, as well.
STEREOGUM: The three new songs on the compilation are quite beautiful. You must have known as you were making them that these would be the last three songs you would ever record together. That’s pretty heavy.
MIKE: Oh yeah, we were aware of that. I think Michael really addressed that in some of the lyrics. I feel really good about those songs and I like them a lot. I think they represent three of the many facets of R.E.M., musically-speaking. I think they provide a nice capstone to our career and show that we are still highly creative folks who can still make really great songs, even though we are disbanding.
STEREOGUM: That must be a lot of pressure. If this is the last time you are gonna make music together, it better be good.
MIKE: Yes. And obviously it was very emotional. We don’t wallow in it though. We are all really excited about the future. We are excited and happy that we were able to end this thing on our own terms. Had we been forced into this by some external circumstance or some internal trouble, it would have been much more difficult. The fact is we’re doing this because we want to and because we are controlling it. Not many bands or artists get that opportunity.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of the future, what do you plan on doing next?
MIKE: I want to write songs with people. I’ve made a lot of friends over the years—people that I really respect both as people and as artists — and I’m excited about collaborating with them. The only firm thing I’ve got going right now is with my friend Chris Stamey from the dB’s. He’s put together a band that includes me and him, along with Mitch Easter and Jodie Foster — I mean, Jody Stephens! I mean, I would love if we could also get Jodie Foster in the band. Anyway, Jody Stephens from Big Star on drums and then we recruit different people from whatever city we happen to be playing in to come up and join us. We play Big Star’s third record all the way through. It’s very powerful and very emotional and really really fun. We have a couple of those scheduled for Europe in the coming year. I think Ken Stringfellow and Robyn Hitchcock are going to be involved.
STEREOGUM: I would assume that you must get hit up a lot by people who want to collaborate with you.
MIKE: You know, not so much!
STEREOGUM: They are scared, Mike.
MIKE: I don’t know, maybe R.E.M. scares them off? Maybe I’m just not in demand. I don’t know, but since R.E.M. broke up I’ve actually spoken to several people who have brought up the idea of collaborating and writing with me. So, maybe there was something that was preventing people from asking me before, I don’t know. It didn’t ever seem to slow Peter down much, but who knows. I am excited about working with new people now and seeing what happens.
STEREOGUM: You just gotta get your name out there. Let everyone know you are available.
MIKE: It’s true.
STEREOGUM: R.E.M. certainly toured a lot over the course of it’s career, but less so in the past few years. I know more than a few people who are kicking themselves now for not seeing you on your last tours. Are you going to miss playing R.E.M. songs in front of an audience?
MIKE: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the reason we formed R.E.M. was to play. We didn’t form R.E.M. to make records. In the beginning we just made records so we could get more gigs to play. There is no experience in the world like playing music in front of an audience that loves it. Or playing in front of an audience that you are trying to convince to love it. I will definitely miss playing with Peter and Michael. That’s actually the thing I’ll miss the most. What makes a band is the chemistry that exists between certain people on stage together and that is something that you can feel. I’ll miss that.
Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, 1982-2011 is out now on Warner Brothers.