A Conversation with R.E.M.'s Mike Mills
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Mike.
Mike Mills: How are you?
MR: I'm pretty good. How are you doing?
MM: Good, thanks.
MR: What went into the production of R.E.M.'s new album, Collapse Into Now?
MM: Well, it's sort of a long process, as many of them are. The main overall thing after having made Accelerate was to make a statement, which was to make everything really short, really fast and really loud. We wanted to be able to be as diverse as we wanted to be on this record. We just wanted to take our eleven best songs, whether they were fast, slow, or mid-tempo, and put them all together. As it turned out, we had a really nice blend of speeds and tempo on all the songs.
MR: To me, all R.E.M. albums feel like concept albums because they are so rich and well thought out. When you guys get together creatively, what is the process like?
MM: Well, Peter and I write the music mostly separately since we live pretty far apart, and then we'll get together, as we did in Portland in March of '09, and work with Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin to make demos of the songs. That's when everything begins to come together, then we give those to Michael and let him work on the lyrics. So, there's no concept per se, but what you find by the end of the record is that it has become a certain thing. It's almost better not to plan that at the beginning because you find yourself forcing things to be a certain way. We just let this record become what it wanted to become, and as the end result, there is a certain cohesion about it that I really like.
MR: Mike, HuffPost was given the premiere of "Überlin," and I have my own theory about it, but what is going on lyrically? It might be hard to talk for Michael, but what was the concept of that song?
MM: Well, the thing about R.E.M. songs, and Michael's writing because of its general non-linearity, you pick the parts that mean something to you, and that's what the song means to you. I don't usually ask Michael what the songs are about because I always find something to take away from it to make my own, and that's really what the songs are for. What Michael meant may not be as important or as interesting as what you, the listener, think of the song. It seems to me that the song is about a guy who has lost his way, but is going to muddle through somehow and he'll be okay in the end--that's what I take away from it.
MR: You guys have been together for so long, and it always seems to have been this kind of intuitive writing approach, even on the older records. Was Michael maybe describing to the band what he was doing in the songs in the old days?
MM: Well, the lyrics were never that important to us in the beginning. The idea was that Michael's voice was a fourth instrument, and we treated it as such. He was very new to the lyric writing business, so he wasn't as concerned with the words themselves as he was about the way they sounded when they were sung. Of course, as you go on, you hopefully get better, and he got a lot better. So, the words themselves became more important, but it's still more about the quality of his voice than the lyrics.
MR: The emphasis being on the phonics of it all.
MM: Yeah, the sound of a word--the way it's sung--is as much of the emotion as the meaning of the word itself.
MR: And with a song like "It Happened Today," because of the setup, you want to ask what exactly happened. But then, it's an R.E.M. song, and you just don't ask.
MM: Yeah, I'm sure that's about a specific incident, but the thing I take away from that song is that, in the midst of whatever happened, which could have been good or bad, the last minute-plus of the song is a celebration. It's the joy of singing, and just the joy of being able to open your mouth and have those sounds come out--that's what it sounds like to me. Whatever has happened in the beginning of the song, you're able to deal with it and celebrate life by singing along with the rest of it.
MR: Beautiful. When did you start recording Collapse Into Now?
MM: Well, the demos were started in March of '09, and then the actual recording was begun in November of '09 in New Orleans.
MR: Was there anything unique about the recording process of this record as compared to your others?
MM: Not particularly. We had worked in New Orleans before, although not for some time, and we were very happy to go down there and acknowledge that city as the great place that it is, and give it some attention and support, which it richly deserves. We had never worked in Berlin before, which is one of the reasons we wanted to go there and spend some time getting to know that city a little bit. Other than that, the recording process was not that different from what we've done (for) the past two or three records.
MR: You guys also record side projects. I was a big fan of Warren Zevon, and I remember the Hindu Love Gods. I guess this is getting off the subject a little bit, but you guys were pretty tight with Warren during that time, right?
MM: Yeah, I think so, we hung out a lot. He was a pretty amazing individual, and I liked him a lot.
MR: When he passed away, did you guys look back at that project as being all that more special?
MM: Well, I think it was mostly special to me simply because I was able to get to know him. Not only was he a tremendously gifted singer, songwriter, guitarist and pianist, but he was just a fun guy. He was really smart, and he really knew how to look at life with kind of a crooked view. I consider us very lucky for being able to have worked with him, but even luckier that we got to know him.
MR: Every once in a while, I'll hear a song that other people have written with that sort of sarcasm and bite, and I'll think, "Oh, wow. That could have been a wise-ass Warren song," you know?
MM: You need somebody to say things in the way that Warren said them. There are enough sweet love songs, so it's good to have a little cynicism too.
MR: Getting back to the record--when you're looking at creating an R.E.M. album, are you aware of things like balance on an album? How concerned are you about the mix of songs on an album as you put it together, aside from just putting your favorites on there?
MM: When you finish recording, you try to take the best songs, and you begin the sequencing process, which can be very difficult, or it can go relatively quickly. You pick the songs you think will go together. We spend less time thinking thematically as we do sonically. You want the songs to sound good one to the next--they have to flow. It's not so much what the lyrics are about, but what the sound of the music is from one song to the next. With every record, there are at least one or two that are really good songs, but just don't seem to fit as well as something else does, so they get left behind.
MR: Were there any songs that got left off this album?
MM: Oh yeah, there are several that are floating around.
MR: Are they going to be your b-sides?
MM: We're not sure yet. We have a couple that are finished lyrically, and then we have a whole bunch that are just finished musically and not lyrically. You never know with those things--sometimes, they are just never seen or heard from again, and sometimes, they just pop up on b-sides or movies or something like that.
MR: Do they ever end up on future albums?
MM: It's possible--it doesn't happen very often. It's probably happened three or four times in our career. Normally, we're more excited about the songs we've written for the next record, so those are the things we concentrate on.
MR: Is R.E.M. the kind of band that is in a constant creative mode so that you're already started looking at the next album, even though you've just finished this one?
MM: Well, we're not looking at it yet. This was the last record for our contract with Warner Brothers, and we're not sure where we're going to take things from here. So, we're just enjoying this record, enjoying having it done and being out there in the world. We'll figure what we're doing next a little bit later.
MR: Are there any Mike Mills projects in the future?
MM: Oh, I'm sure there are. Again, we're not planning much of anything. We're just really relaxing and enjoying what we've done. But yes, I'm sure the Mike Mills solo project will see the light of day at some point.
MR: Nice. I know it's not a fair question, but are there any songs on this album which maybe touch you a little more than others?
MM: Well, that could change from day to day or hour to hour. The trouble for me with this band is that I very seldom listen to it for pleasure because I'm too close to it, it's too much like work. Having said that, I really do enjoy "It Happened Today," which I think is fantastic, "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I" is a very moving song to me, and I really enjoy "Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter" with Peaches singing on it.
MR: Yeah, it's addicting, very cool. "Oh My Heart" is another one of my personal favorites. I love where he's coming from lyrically too, though for me, it seems pretty straight ahead.
MM: Yeah, it's another one of our tributes to a very beautiful city that had a very rough time.
MR: Well, you've been around for a while in terms of studio albums and the amount of music you've contributed to the culture, so do you have any advice for new artists?
MM: (laughs) Not that might really be of any use. The most important thing, to me, in terms of being in a band or being an artist that has any kind of longevity is to play. The business side of the music world has been turned completely upside down and nothing is as it was even five years ago. But one thing that will never change is that playing live makes you a better musician, builds a fan base, gets people to know who you are, and nothing will really ever substitute for that.
MR: What is in the immediate future for R.E.M.?
MM: Well, we're just relaxing--at least in the sense of being R.E.M., Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey have The Baseball Project, which is a great band with all songs about baseball. They're playing in Georgia in a week or two, and that's very exciting. I'm doing something with Chris Stamey--it's a Big Star Third record tribute that we've done already a couple of times, and we're going to reprise those shows in New York City. So, there are all kinds of things going on, even while R.E.M. lays low.
MR: Very cool. Are there any traditional baseball songs in addition to new material?
MM: No, they are all songs written by Steve Wynn, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. Also, Steve's wife Linda is in the band. The songs are all about baseball. Some songs are about baseball tradition and history, but they're all new songs. The great thing is that they stand on their own, you don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy them.
MR: Good timing. I keep forgetting that we're not that far away from baseball season.
MM: I know, it's very exciting.
MR: Thank you very much, Mike, for all of your time today.
MM: Well, you're very welcome Mike. Thank you.
2. All The Best
4. Oh My Heart
5. It Happened Today
6. Every Day Is Yours To Win
7. Mine Smell Like Honey
8. Walk It Back
9. Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter
10. That Someone Is You
11. Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)