Interview

R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People Is 25 Today: Read Mike Mills’ Notes On Each Track

Ten years ago, when R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People turned 15, Stereogum released a compilation of artists covering each song from the album (Drive XV is still available here) and, at the time, we got Mike Mills to talk a little bit about every track. Today, Automatic For The People turns 25 — an extensive reissue will be released next month — and we figured that, in honor of the occasion, it would be worthwhile to revisit what Mills said to us all those years ago. Read his thoughts on Automatic For The People below.

1. “Drive”

“I remember the video was pretty interesting. Peter and I aren’t big video fans or participants, but it was pretty interesting to get beat up by a fire hose, which is pretty much what we did. We’ve played it a lot, it’s been in virtually every show that we’ve done since we’ve put it out, and after a while, you know, you want to give things a little bit of a different treatment. The MTV Awards we did, it was fun to do, that was a chance to surprise a whole lot of people at one time. Music is not immutable, it’s organic, and while there are some songs we never change live, that was one that could do with a little moving around.”

2. “Try Not To Breathe”

“A beautiful song, personally one of my favorite backing vocals that I ever did. I felt like John Lennon when I came up with it. It’s very nice to feel like John Lennon even if it’s just for five seconds.”

3. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”

“That’s a song that to this day I’m not really sure what it’s about, but it’s a lot of fun. We never do it live, but it’s a good record. It’s just one of those songs that never seemed like it need to be done live. We might’ve messed around with it at sound check a couple of times, but it never felt like something we should really try.”

4. “Everybody Hurts”

“A fairly simple song musically, with a nice electric piano signature on it that’s really good, and of course Jonesy did fantastic strings. If anyone is kinda ‘uhhh’ about it, they’ve probably heard it too much, that’s what happens when you have songs that become big hits. When you have a song like that or ‘Losing My Religion’ they tend to pass on from belonging to us to belonging to the world at large.”

5. “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1″

“That’s a groovy little thing. Peter had a volume pedal or some sort of weird guitar that made those noises. We were just messing around making sounds, and decided to throw that song together. That came out of the sound of that guitar, that’s what got that song going.”

6. “Sweetness Follows”

“That’s a beautiful song with a lovely cello on it, I think Knox Chandler played that part. We play it occasionally. There are a lot of songs that we really enjoy, but you don’t want to play them every night. That’s the advantage of having a big back catalog, because we like to change the setlist every night and it’s good to have a lot of songs that you can put into rotation.”

7. “Monty Got A Raw Deal”

“That’s obviously about Montgomery Clift. The bass is actually an old Guild electric bass that’s only about two feet long, the strings are rubber surgical tubing, when you play it, you get sort of a sound like an upright bass. For me, that’s what I think of when I think of that song. It looks like a lap steel with surgical tubing on it, it’s very strange.”

8. “Ignoreland”

“The political song on there. In a way, it kinda stands out from the rest sonically and lyrically, but it’s good to vent about the people we were angry with at the time. I don’t recall playing it live.”

9. “Star Me Kitten”

“AKA ‘Fuck Me Kitten.’ That’s a wacky little song. The thing that stands out for me is how we did the voices on it, which is for me to load my voice into an AKAI and have about eight notes and play it back on an 8-track mini soundboard with eight faders on it so I could bring up my eight notes as needed. We actually did that one live a few times, too.”

10. “Man On The Moon”

“What can you say, you know? One of our finer, finer efforts. That came together literally on the last day of recording. We had the music all finished and we were all pushing Michael to get it done and he came in with all those great words and melodies on that last day of recording.”

11. “Nightswimming”

“Great song. Michael had some ideas floating around. Normally his ideas come after the music, and in this case he had some ideas he wanted to put down. He’d been looking for the right musical situation, and I came in with that music one day and he loved it and we worked it out in, I think, one day.”

12. “Find The River”

“‘Find The River’ is a beautiful thing. That was actually done at John Keane’s studio in Athens. It was pretty much a demo, but the demo was so well done that we ended up using it for the record.”

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The Automatic For The People 25th anniversary reissue is out 11/10 via Craft Recordings.