R.E.M. Keep the Car Running

It might have seemed as though they were Out of Time for a minute there, but Mike Mills conveys to Paul Mitchell that the legendary Atlanta group are instead accelerating towards a new dawn

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 24 Jun 2008

Through a veneer of well-practised diplomacy, bassist Mike Mills obliquely concedes that R.E.M.’s last studio album, 2004’s Around The Sun, might just have deserved the critical apathy and unremarkable sales figures it received. “We tried to do too much as we were making it: we released a greatest hits record, then went on tour, and after that came back to try and finish the record. We didn’t realise how difficult that would be. Maybe we weren’t focussed on it, in fact I’d say we were very distracted by all that was going on. I think as a result it could have been a better record.” Stopping short of calling it a turkey, he ventures defensively: “But I think the songs on it are very good.”

Mills gives the impression that all hands are on deck to get the R.E.M. bandwagon rolling again. He begins with a stoic defence of their output from the past few years, a time which has coincided with a changing perception of R.E.M. -- from being one of the biggest and most important bands in history, to (in the opinion of some) less than relevant dinosaurs. “I think Reveal is a very underrated record. I think that a lot of people who didn’t like it just didn’t listen to it very much, but I think it does definitely reward some extra effort.” As with Reveal, new album Accelerate was recorded in Canada and Dublin (“We’ve always loved Ireland, it’s such a creative place. It seems like you can go there and let your imagination go. The Guinness doesn’t hurt, I’ll tell you that”). Mills feels that the album lives up to the high expectations of both fans and themselves alike: “We’re really happy with the response to this record. We felt good about it when we finished it, and we feel good about it now.”

R.E.M. - Supernatural Superserious

Yet Mills, along with cohorts Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, doesn’t appear keen to take too many chances with this latest release. Having pioneered the college radio system of promotion from their formation in 1980 they have embraced the full range of opportunities offered by the internet. The album was streamed digitally in advance of the physical release, and no fewer than three separate websites have been set up in a bid to push the album, including one at www.supernaturalsuperserious.com which includes videos for all 11 tracks on the album. Mills is candid about why this is deemed necessary. “Here’s the thing: you have to remember there’s so much competition for people’s attention these days. We were very proud of this record and we wanted everyone to know that it’s out there so they can listen to it and decide for themselves. So, you basically have to get people’s attention because there’s so much out there to catch their eye, and their ear!”

There is recognition, however, that the very same technology used to promote the album could be used against the band in terms of the potential for filesharing. “I think technology is neither good nor bad, it’s what you do with it that determines its effect on the world. I’d say it’s all for the good, for the most part. I don’t want to sound like a crank, but at the same time I don’t believe in taking things for free that don’t belong to you. I was raised believing that stealing was wrong, that’s how I see it and I don’t do it. You can’t blame people for wanting something for nothing though, that’s just human nature!”

Noted for their highlighting of social and political issues, will R.E.M. be taking time out of their current North American and European tour schedule to participate in the U.S. general election, as they did so famously to actively campaign for John Kerry in 2004? “We’re going to try and approach this more as private citizens than as a band, but certainly all three of us would love to see Barack Obama win the presidency.” Mills even goes so far as to suggest that celebrity endorsement might not have the intended effect. “I think that in a democracy, whether you’re an actor, a truck driver, a dentist, a journalist or whoever you are it’s perfectly your right if not your civic duty to speak up whenever you see things you don’t like. We live in a democracy so we can do that. Has celebrity endorsement lost effectiveness? Perhaps! That’s why we’re very careful about what we do. We did that Vote For Change tour back in 2004, but we won’t do anything like that right now because people will stop listening if you overdo it.”

In a career spanning the best part of three decades, R.E.M’s various trials and tribulations have been well documented. Whilst acknowledging all the pressures of fame and commercial success, Mills is keen to emphasise that the act of making music is R.E.M.’s fundamental motivation. “Put simply, music is what we do. We could retire but that’s no fun. Coming up with a new song you know is good remains one of the most exciting things in my life. We’ve been very fortunate to have this life and career, just to walk away because it gets a little difficult on occasion is pretty lazy. Doing something like playing T in the Park, or any festival where you can get thousands of people to have a good time is an amazing thing. And it’s still just as thrilling to go out there and play to a bunch of people and make them happy, as it ever was. It’s just the best time in the world to be honest with you.”

R.E.M. - Hollow Man

R.E.M. play the Main Stage at T in the Park on Sun, 13 Jul