N O T E S F R O M T H E S O U T H
Meeting Mike Mills
Mike Mills is one third of REM, along with Pete Buck and Michael Stipe. Peter Machen spoke to him about George Bush, Hunter S Thompson and being in one of the world’s favourite rock bands.
Peter Machen: When you started REM all those years ago, did you ever think that you would still be going 25 years later?
Mike Mills: No. You know, when you’re 20 years old, you’re barely thinking beyond next week, so certainly we had no idea. Or expectations.
PM: And now, to find yourself here still, after all these years, how does it feel?
MM: well, I just feel lucky, and grateful that I get to do what I love and get paid for it. A lot of people don’t like their jobs. I love mine.
PM: I quite like mine too.
MM: (laughs) Good.
PM: You’re one of the world’s largest bands but you’ve managed to avoid the negative celebrity thing. How do you think you’ve managed to do that?
MM: Well, we don’t seek publicity. We never have. We’ve never sought to make ourselves famous like a lot of people do. And we’re generally well-behaved, civil people so there’s not a lot of negative publicity to have about us. We just try to not create negativity under any circumstances.
PM: Even Michael, with his kind of wry, sexual ambivalence is a potentially quite explosive personality in media terms, but he has almost complete managed to avoid it.
MM: Well, I wouldn’t call him explosive. Like I said, we’re all just pretty well-behaved and nice people, you know.
PM: Clearly. Where, do you live now.
MM: I live in Athens, Georgia.
PM: Do you just stay there, tour, and go back home?
MM: Well, I travel a lot. Even when I’m not on the road, I tend to travel a lot. So Athens is a nice place to go home and relax. That’s a vacation for me, spending two weeks at home. Because it’s rare.
PM: And you still enjoy touring?
MM: I love touring. Yeah. I mean, it’s difficult, but playing live is why you’re in a band. If I couldn’t play any live shows, what would be the point of being in a band? Sitting around making records is great, but it’s not nearly as exciting as doing this.
PM: When you start a new album, do you ever just feel that the weight of all the previous albums and the weight of expectations is too heavy?
MM: No, I don’t feel that. I’m usually so excited by our new songs that once an album is done I tend to forget about it, pretty quickly. We’re playing a lot of the songs from the latest album in the live show. But I just think of them in terms of songs. I don’t really think of Around the Sun as an album much. Once you’ve finished them, you turn them loose, and your job with them is done.
PM: Do you listen to your old albums much?
MM: Not unless I need to relearn a song. Very seldom will I ever put one on just to listen to it.
PM: Do you forget your songs?
MM: If it’s one that we haven’t listened to or played in 15 or 20 years, yeah, that can happen. If we want to do some of the older stuff, yeah sure, you forget it. Some of them you never do, but some of them of you do.
PM: On your last tour, I remember you went to the internet to get lyrics. It was a bit of a joke.
MM: I don’t know, maybe for something as old as…I don’t know. I honestly can’t speak about what Michael may have done. Because a lot of the early stuff, it didn’t really have lyrics per se. A lot of it was just sounds and words that Michael was stringing together. It was quite emotive and quite beautiful but it wasn’t necessarily linear lyrics. So, who knows where he went to get inspiration if we wanted to do something as old as Sitting Still, or something like that?
PM: I’ve got a few live bootlegs of the older songs and the lyrics are often different to the recorded versions.
MM: That’s entirely possible. Sometimes songs grow and mutate as they grow over time.
PM: What made you decide to start publishing the lyrics to the songs, starting with Up.
MM: Well my feeling was that we were a different band [after drummer Billy Berry left the band due to ill-health]. We had had to rethink all of our rules at that point in terms of how to make a record as a three-piece, how to think about touring as a three-piece. Basically we were just a different band. And so all the other rules that we’d set for ourselves, a lot of them just didn’t apply anymore. And I thought Michael’s lyrics for Up were so good, I said “let’s publish them, what the hell. All the old rules are gone now. Let’s just do something different”.
PM: Do you see a whole lot of Bill now? Are you in contact with him?
MM: Oh yeah. We speak fairly often. I’ll see him in May when we get back, if not before.
PM: Where’s he living?
MM: He’s got a place out in the woods, sort of out in the country. He’s very happy out there.
PM: Are you and Peter Buck happy for Michael to take the limelight as a frontman?
MM: Oh, of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
PM: So it’s a relief.
MM: I don’t know if it’s a relief. You know, I never wanted to be famous. I don’t mind that my band is famous. It enables me to do a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise get to do. But I personally have never had a huge desire for fame, so I’m very happy to be where I am.
PM: And is Michael happy with the fame that he has, inasmuch as you can speak for him?
MM: I suppose so. I mean I think we all have pretty good lives. Everybody’s life has some positive and some negative.
PM: Around the Sun, like most of your albums, has got quite a strong political component, and I felt that this time it got quite specific. I just want to know how you personally feel about the Bush election.
MM: Well, we’re all of one mind about that. We worked very hard to stop it from happening. And a lot of the things we attempted to do on that Vote for Change tour were successful. We got a lot of young people to register to vote. We got a lot of them to vote. We got a lot of them to volunteer for grass-roots organisations. And that good work, I think, will carry on in the future. And the only thing we were unsuccessful at was the big prize, which was the presidency. So, you know, we’re not happy with anything the Bush administration has done basically, but… that’s how it goes.
PM: Is America really as divided as that election suggested?
MM: It’s very divided, yeah. There are plenty of people who just utterly reject everything the Bush administration stands for. But a great many people who might otherwise disagree with the Bush administration are very scared of terrorism. That’s the wedge that he used to get people.
PM: Terror and queers and drugs and…
MM: Well, terror and queers mainly, that was his big thing.
PM: A friend of mine is convinced that Hunter S Thompson killed himself because Bush won.
MM: I doubt it. I think Hunter likes being in opposition too much. I’m sure there were plenty of other reasons.
PM: Did you see much of Cape Town?
MM: Not as much as I would have liked. But I got out -– various dinners – and I hiked up the mountain a little bit, not too far, went up Signal Hill. It’s a beautiful place.
PM: Its very beautiful. Do you ever get frustrated that you don’t see enough of a country when you move though it?
MM: I suppose I could if I allowed myself. But you know, its just the nature of it. Sometimes you blow into a town and you blow out that night and you just don’t get to see anything. You could have regrets but I just consider myself lucky to have been there at all.
PM: I wish you were spending a day here, it's such an interesting place.
MM: Yeah, I wish I was too.