‘We were pretty damn good songwriters’ says Mike Mills of R.E.M. in advance of Record Store Day visit to Scarborough

Mike Mills of R.E.M.
Mike Mills of R.E.M.
Posted April 15, 2014, at 3:14 p.m.
Last modified April 15, 2014, at 3:42 p.m.

Mike Mills, bass player, songwriter and key vocal harmonizer for R.E.M. will visit Maine this weekend for Record Store Day. Mills will come to the Scarborough Bull Moose to sign limited editions of the band’s new release, “Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions,” on April 19. The four-LP box set captures their MTV live performances, including 11 unaired songs. Mills, a founding member of the alt-rock band that broke up in 2011, spoke with the Bangor Daily News on the phone recently.

BDN: Record Day is coming up. You could go anywhere in the country to celebrate. Why Maine?

Mills: It’s a beautiful place to be. I’ve visited a couple times. Been to Northeast Harbor Golf Club, seems like a great place. I remember when we played there it was a good time and Bull Moose is a great independent record shop, so why not?

In your musical career, the media of music have changed. When R.E.M. started recording you cut tapes, then CDs, then digital downloads, and now records are popular. During that time recording technology has changed. How has your response changed to the music you make?

I enjoy all of those things. I enjoy watching technology change. I love that vinyl is back stronger than ever. With technology anyone can record in their own living room or basement.

And speaking of recording, R.E.M. was the only band to be asked to play “MTV Unplugged” twice. Why was that?

We always had a good relationship with MTV and we were one of the few bands that had enough songs. We only repeated one song, “Losing my Religion” during those two concerts.

These live performances were recorded 10 years apart. The musical style of the band changed from the early ’90s to the turn of the century. What might listeners expect to hear?

The primary difference was that Bill (Berry) left the band. That changed the sound of the band, how we approached writing and approached music was radically different.

Since R.E.M is not making any new music this is the point in your career when you see what can be done and see the light of day. … We were holding on to it for the right time.

What were those performances like on MTV?

Terrifying. You are out there without the benefit of volume and stage lighting with an audience that is right there and kind of quiet. You have to be very much on your game to do those.

And you clearly were. What does this musical collection say about R.E.M.? Does it track your growth and development?

I suppose you could make some career arc analysis. But I think it shows that we were good songwriters, we are musicians who can write great songs as often as possible. To me a great song is one that you can do in a stripped-down acoustic version and it’s still a great song. We were pretty damn good songwriters.

Do you have a favorite R.E.M. song?

No. It’s like your children, it’s hard to single out one.

Why are records so hot? You grew up with the medium and now it’s back. Do records change how people perceive or listen to music?

Certainly back before digital music it was a very different experience. Records had great artwork and information on them. They were all tied in with your relationship with the music and how you listen to it. People don’t have the intimate connection with digital … I think vinyl sounds better, just in general the range of sound is limited with digital. The quality is better on LPs, you layer it.

What was the first record you purchased?

“Summer Breeze”by Seals and Cross, “Seven Separate Fools” by Three Dog Night, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” by Jim Croce.

Good choices. Is Record Day like Christmas for you, or more like a family reunion where you have to appear?

It is like a holiday, not a hard holiday. I’m happy to be doing this. It’s nice that people still care about the band. It’s a special association. This is a trip that I want to do, not a trip that I have to do.

Mike Mills appears at Bull Moose, Scarborough, 456 Payne Road at 2 p.m. April 16, to sign the new album. Other Bull Moose Record Store Day appearances in Maine include Rotating Taps, 683 Hogan Road, Bangor, 3 p.m.; Ghost of Paul Revere, 151 Main St., Brunswick, 3 p.m.; LeppardMania, 20 East Ave., Lewiston, 5 p.m.; North of Nashville, 219 Waterman Drive, South Portland, 4 p.m.; Fifth Freedom, 80 Elm Plaza, Waterville. 4 p.m.

 

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