Sandra-Lee Phipps, REM HQ It was this week some 30 years ago that Athens, GA…
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills on the Band's First Rehearsal, What He'll Miss Most After the Split and Michael Stipe's Penis Picture
- Posted on Nov 16th 2011 2:00PM by Cameron Matthews
What have you been up to since the breakup?
Talking. [Laughs] I've done a couple of charity golf music events. I enjoy doing things that raise money for charity so I can have a good time while doing well.
What's your handicap?
Horrible, 18. It's not an easy game.
'Hallelujah', 'A Month of Saturdays,' and 'We All Go Back to Where We Belong' are R.E.M.'s final singles, your last babies as a band. What do they mean to you?
Well actually, we didn't intend it this way but as it turns out they all are three of the facets of R.E.M., musically speaking. They all address, in one way or another, the disbanding of R.E.M. but from three different points of view. 'A Month of Saturdays' is kind of a silly, goofy fun song. 'We all Go Back to Where We Belong' is a beautiful wistful mid-tempo ballad that we all like to write. And then 'Hallelujah' is a heavier, more poignant song.
'Collapse Into Now' really was 30 years in the making. Once the songs were mastered and the final track was laid to tape did you know it was over?
Yeah, we were pretty sure even going into it that that was going to be the last record. We were talking about it on the tour in 2008 like "What are we going to do? We've got some big decisions to make in the next couple of years, how do we wish to proceed? Or do we wish to proceed?" I think independently we all came to the realization that what better time than now, to take matters into our own hands and call it a day? Who gets to do that, you know? We walked away on our own terms with no internal pressure, no external pressure, no negative happenings, no animosity, no rancor, no lawyers. Just three guys deciding that we've done what we wanted to do and it's time to shake hands and walk away.
Let's go back to the beginning of R.E.M. in Athens, Ga. What is in the water there that makes such great bands? What aspects of Athens do you bring with you while on tour?
I've often wondered. There's a scene in almost every town, similar to Athens. Why Athens produced such a number of high quality bands, I don't know. I think it was probably due to the fact that the community of people that made and listened to this music were very united. Georgia being what it is, Athens was an oasis of progressive thought even back then. And even within Athens, our community was a very tight, insular community, surrounded by people who were not into that sort of thing. They weren't into that kind of music, they weren't into that kind of lifestyle -- they were into football on Saturday and beer the rest of the time. And believe me, I've got no problem with that -- I'm a big Bulldogs fan -- but I think what happened in Athens is that you had such intense support from the people that you knew. You could play a show and you could have a couple hundred people there at least, because A) there was nothing else to do and B) they were there to support you and dance and have a good time. So I think that might have had something to do with the success of Athens bands, I don't know.
As far as what I take with me, it's not so much what I take with me, it's what I go back to. The fact that Athens was always there as a retreat from the craziness of being on tour. We didn't have to go back to being somewhere crazy like New York or Los Angeles, or even Atlanta. We could go back to this bucolic little college town where all our friends were and where life was much slower paced and easy and low pressure. It was always a place you could count on being home. I love it there. That's my home.
You recently told XFM London that you were working with some "tall and handsome" people on a new project. Can you tell us about anything coming up?
[Laughs] Well the only thing that's for sure is my friend Chris Stamey has a labor of love in which he and a core band consisting of Mitch Easter, myself on bass and Jody Stephens from Big Star on drums, are playing Big Star's 'Third' album. We've had a couple of shows in Carolina and one in New York in the past year and we've got a couple more in Europe in 2012, maybe more, but we have two for sure that are booked. So that's one thing that I'll be doing. Hopefully we'll be involving fun people like Ken Stringfellow and Robyn Hitchcock but that's not confirmed.
But as far as those tall handsome men that I'm looking forward to writing with, yes there are several of those out there but I don't wanna say names because I don't wanna jinx it.
Michael Stipe put out a very revealing photo of himself around the same time as your breakup announcement. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I think that's actually an older photo. I don't think it came out then -- I think it got noticed then. I mean, I don't care. His boyfriend took a photograph of me full-frontal for a photo exhibit he was doing on people in their bathrooms, [laughs] so there's a naked picture of me out there that's a lot more revealing than the one Michael put out there.
So who cares? If you're a politician, it's a really stupid idea. If you're a musician or a private citizen, well that's up to you and you can live with the consequences. But for politicians I think it's pretty f---in' stupid. What Anthony Wiener was thinking I will never know. And it's a shame because he was a great congressman. I miss him; I really wish he were still around. People's egos get the best of em' and everybody's got sex on the brain whether they admit it or not and that's just what happens.
What will you miss about R.E.M.?
Well the fact is, I'll probably see Peter and Michael as much going forward as I have in the past, with the exception of the whole touring and recording thing. Socially, I'll see them just as much, if not more so, and I'm looking forward to that. What I will miss is being on stage with them. There is a chemistry that makes a band so much greater than three or four musicians. You could get four of the greatest players in the world and put them on stage and nothing would happen, maybe because there's no chemistry. But there was a chemistry with Peter and Michael and I and there was a chemistry with Peter and Bill, Michael and I. It only exists in certain rare occasions. And that's what I'll miss. We created something that can't be duplicated and I will miss that.
Tell us about your very first rehearsal.
The first thing I remember, I don't know if it was our actual first rehearsal, but it was probably the first or second one. It was freezing and it was February, it was in the church in Athens. There was very little heat. Bill Barry and I showed Peter some songs we had from when we were in a band in Macon. I don't know if Peter and Michael had any songs written. I think Peter showed us a couple of covers that he liked. I remember thinking when I showed them those songs "Wow, I really like what they're doing with this stuff!" I loved Peter's arpeggiated guitar style that he had, even then. Michael did some funny things with the melody and I could tell he had a great voice even then and I thought it was really exciting. But mostly it was cold. [Laughs]
Do you ever miss being with the guys in a basement just jamming?
No, because I live in the moment. When I think about those times I feel fortunate and grateful and glad that I was the guy in the basement. There's no point in living your life, wishing you were doing something you were doing 30 years ago.
You guys are indie-rock generation 1.0. As a musician, do you fight getting older, or is the process of aging alright?
You don't have much choice, do you? Of course it's all right, it has to be all right. Because what are you going to do, kill yourself? The trick is to grow older gracefully and accept what you've got and incorporate it into your art. It's the only choice you have, otherwise you might as well just jump off a building.