R.E.M.’s Mike Mills on Saying Goodbye After Three Decades

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Frank Franklin II / AP
Frank Franklin II / AP

This week, almost two months after their amicable break-up, R.E.M. will release a 40-song retrospective titled R.E.M., Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, 1982-2011. Bassist Mike Mills spoke to TIME about why he never wanted to sing lead and what he thinks is the band’s best song.

Should I say congratulations? Is that what one says after a band breaks up?

Oh, absolutely. It’s not so much congratulations on the end of the band, but congratulations on 31 wonderful years and the opportunity to end it on our own terms.

So why now?

I think we’re at a creative high point in our career. We’ve accomplished most everything we wanted to accomplish. So why not take the opportunity to walk away as friends with no negative motivation, no external pressure, no internal pressure. Just the chance to shake hands and say ‘Job well done’ and move on to other pursuits.

How does a band last for three decades, through all the stress that any relationship undergoes?

There are times when each of us has felt aggrieved and said ‘Screw it, I’m done with this.’ And then either our own internal voice or a friend or a fellow musician will point out that not only are these the guys you’re going to do your best work with, but these are your friends. And you need to get over whatever is bothering you.

(MORE: The All-TIME 100 Songs)

Logistically, how does a band break up? How did you arrive at that decision? Is it a group meeting? Does someone send out an email?

We started talking on the 2008 tour. We realized that in a couple of years we would have some decisions to make. Oddly enough, we all came independently to the conclusion that maybe this is a time to do something that really hasn’t been done before and walk away from it with a smile and a handshake.

You have all these other employees that are not members of the band. How do you go about disseminating the fact that you’re breaking up to those people—to your staff, to your crew, to all the people who are as wrapped up in the R.E.M. enterprise as you are?

Once we made the decision, we kept it very tightly between the four of us — ourselves and our manager. The office staff were the first to be told publicly and then I think we all got on the phone and told the record company, family, close friends and then the public at large.

What periods in R.E.M.’s career did you think were the most artistically fruitful? I never know if musicians see bands going through all these different phases the way outsiders or music critics do.

I suppose in certain ways you’re aware of that. For example, when Bill left the band, we chose to take that as an opportunity to throw all the rules out the window. We didn’t have a drummer, so we made a fairly electronic record with lots of drum machines. Why not? Let’s see what R.E.M. sounds like when we approach music from this direction. There was a time when Peter got sick of playing electric guitar, so we tended to approach things with a more acoustically driven instrumental lineup, and it led to parts of Green and Out of Time and Automatic For the People. It’s a continuum for the band, because you’re in it as it’s happening. At the same time, there are forces that cause change and you roll with those forces and you use them to whatever advantage you can. You don’t wanna make the same music over and over again, so in a way you welcome these things that push you in a different direction.

(MORE: A Look Back on R.E.M.’s Career)

When Berry left the band, did you say, ‘Well this is not R.E.M. anymore, so this is going to be weird.’

When Bill left the band, that was our friend and colleague and he didn’t want to do it anymore. It was entirely up to him, so we fully supported his decision to carry on with his life. And he fully supported our decision to carry on making music. Bill insisted that we keep on. He said, ‘I’m not going to quit if you guys are going to break up. I’m not going to be the guy that breaks up R.E.M.’ So we really had no choice but to keep going, which was fine with us because we wanted to do that anyway.

I was listening to “Near Wild Heaven,” which is a wonderful and sweet song. Do you wish you had sung lead more?

It was not my job. We had, if not the best, one of the best lead singers in a rock band of the last 30 years. Why would I need to stick my ass out there and go, ‘Hey, let’s get this genius out of the way so I can start singing some more.’ No, my job was one in which I was very happy, which was to play bass, write songs and sing background harmonies.

It’s been said that one reason the band stayed together for so long was because there was this sense of partnership and democracy that other bands didn’t necessarily have.

There were two decisions we made early on. One of them was — and this was Peter’s call — to split songwriting equally four ways. And I said, ‘ But if I write a song I want the credit for it. I don’t care about the money, I just want the credit.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I understand, but songwriters get the majority of the money. And nothing will break a band up faster than 2-3 guys getting the money and the other one or two guys not getting any.’

The other thing was that we had what we called veto power. If there was something that one band member really really didn’t want to do, whether it’s play a certain show or put a song on the set list or anything in between, we had veto power. And the other guys had to accept it. If Michael had a lyric that one of us really hated, we’d say, ‘Look, that’s gotta go.’ He wouldn’t want to get rid of it, but that’s how we functioned. And that’s how you last for 31 years.

Do you care about the way that the band will be perceived? Some people care about legacy and some people don’t. And some people say they don’t when they actually do.

How R.E.M. will be perceived going forward is out of my hands, other than the things I say in these interviews. I am answering questions as honestly as possible, but also knowing that these answers are going to define perception to some degree. The fact is that we did things to the best of our ability, and we did them with as much integrity as possible. I think that other bands have seen that you don’t have to take these tried and true routes to success. Look at what Radiohead has done. Look at what Wilco has done. Bands have seen that you don’t have to do what ‘The Man’ tells you to do if you feel it’s not right for you. I think in that sense, our legacy is going to be just fine.

I love the song ‘Shiny Happy People.’ Should I be embarrassed by that?

No, no, no. We love that song, that’s a great song. I am not the least ashamed of that song. How many bands can do just a purely happy song? It’s not very often done in rock and roll that you shed any pretense of coolness or hipness and just make a song about being happy. My issue was that I just didn’t want that song to be the representative song of R.E.M. I don’t want that to be the first thing people think of when they think of R.E.M. because we did much better work than that.

Is there a song then that should be the representative one?

I’ve gotten that question a few times now. And a week ago, I would have said no, I don’t think it’s fair to the rest of the songs. But I’ll tell you what, if you were to pick one song the represents the best of R.E.M. in terms of all the things we do really well, I would say ‘Man on the Moon.’ It’s haunting, it’s evocative, it has a sense of humor, it has great backing vocals from myself and Bill. It’s about as complete as you can get in one song.

(MORE: See the All-TIME 100 Albums)

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