“Beethoven and I share a birthday,” Mike Mills says with a laugh. “I have a big bust of Ludwig on my piano glaring at me to practice more.”
The former R.E.M. bassist, who tells Rolling Stone he’s “damn good” today, has felt compelled to play more lately anyway, since he recently followed in the steps of Deep Purple, Billy Joel, Frank Zappa and even guitar shredder Yngwie Malmsteen in composing classical music. His Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra – a lively collaboration with violinist and Mills’ childhood friend Robert McDuffie – recently came out, and this week he’s embarking on a tour with McDuffie and the chamber orchestra Fifth House Ensemble to perform the six-movement work in opera houses and concert halls around the U.S.
The music transitions from the Eastern European–style melody and rock backbeat of the first movement, “Pour It Like You Mean It,” to swelling, ornamented impressionism (“On the Okeefenokee”), weeping rock (“Sonny Side Up”), folksong (“Stardancers Waltz”) and rock balladeering (R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming”) before closing with the skippingly joyful “You Can Go Home Again.” As a whole, the work is cinematic but never schmaltzy, rock-inflected but never corny, classical but never stuffy. “We’re trying to blend these two things, classical and rock, and show that the Venn diagram actually intersects more than people think,” Mills says.
The way he tells it, it’s a piece a lifetime in the making. Classical music was an ever-present force in his life growing up. His father was a dramatic tenor, who took his family to the symphony and played classical music around the house. “I went to bed at night listening to famous tenors hit the high C,” Mills says with a laugh. “I was actually in an Atlanta Theatre Under the Stars production of [Giuseppe Verdi’s opera] Aida as a street urchin, a non-singing role.” When his family moved from Atlanta to Macon, Georgia, his folks picked their church based on the quality of its music program.
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“They quickly saw that First Presbyterian Church was the best in town, so that’s where we went,” Mills says. “Bobby’s mother was choir director there and, as a result, he and I spent most every Sunday together doing youth choir and hand-bell choir and whatnot in the church. Every Sunday night, our family would go over to his family’s house, and the kids would play while the adults drank wine.”
McDuffie was playing violin at the time they met – “He was quite the young prodigy,” Mills says – but the two never played together. Mills was more interested in his band at the time, which played Top 40 and blues, “which is what you could get away with in Macon, Georgia, unlike most cities,” he says.
But despite his interest in rock, Mills pursued a classical education in school, too. “In order to play electric bass in the jazz orchestra, I had to play in all the orchestras,” he says, “which included playing the sousaphone in the marching band and the tuba in the concert band.” He also took piano lessons, and his teacher’s husband – a music teacher at Wesleyan College in Macon – would teach him basic music theory.
Ultimately, Mills hooked up with another Macon musician – drummer Bill Berry – with whom he would eventually form R.E.M. upon relocating to Athens, Georgia. McDuffie, meanwhile, went on to study violin at Julliard and establish himself as a soloist. Composer Philip Glass, whose Orange Mountain label is putting out the Concerto, dedicated his violin concerto The American Four Seasons to him, and the violinist would found both the Rome Chamber Music Festival in Italy and the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in Macon. In 1990, he was nominated for a Grammy for his performance of a William Schuman concerto.
“Our mothers kept in touch,” Mills says. “We got updates about each other from them and about 15 to 20 years ago, we reconnected and started going to see each other play whenever we could. It was just really fun to see two guys from Macon hit some heights in their chosen professions.”
After 31 years together, R.E.M. called it quits in 2011. “We knew [quitting] was the right idea at the time, and we still feel the same way about it,” he says of the breakup. “The great thing is we’re still friends and that’s the way we wanted it to be. We wanted to be one of the bands to break up for no reason other than it was time: no acrimony, no legal issues, no abuse of any sort. We accomplished everything we thought we wanted to accomplish, so let’s move on to other things.”
After the breakup, Mills spent the next year of his life taking care of his mother, who was ill, and performing in occasional one-off projects. In 2014, McDuffie approached him with an idea. “He said, ‘I can play Beethoven or Tchaikovsky until my hair falls out; I’d like to have something different to do,'” Mills recalls. “‘If you’re up for it, I’d like you to write a half-hour concerto for a rock band, violin and string orchestra.’ I was at a point in my life and career where that was something I could seriously consider, and it was certainly a challenge but it was something I felt could be interesting.
“One of the main things I like about [the concerto] is that we are trying to break down the walls between classical and rock & roll, to show that there are elements within each that translate into the other,” he continues. “Some of the piano parts I wrote for R.E.M. have really small, tiny, little classical elements in them that sort of seep in from all my listening to it as a kid. They’re not necessarily recognizable by anyone other than me, but they’re there.”
“Some of the piano parts I wrote for R.E.M. have really small, tiny, little classical elements.”
When he began composing, Mills approached each movement as though it were a song. Writing for violin was easy for him because it’s an instrument that “emulates the human voice,” to use his words. Arranger David Mallamud helped him translate the music he wrote into the classical realm.
As for himself, he let the movement dictate what instrument he played: electric bass, keyboard or guitar – it was all part of the greater work. “Melody and harmony were my favorite parts of being in R.E.M.,” he says, “and when you’re doing this and have no words you’re speaking through the violin. So the melodies have to convey what you want them to. That was the biggest challenge: making sure the melodies were strong enough to unite the song.”
The one thing he didn’t concern himself with is what past rockers have done with classical music. “I was not aware of the Deep Purple effort,” he says. “And Yngwie Malmsteen, he’s a virtuoso. He’s almost too good. It’s one of those things where technique can take over melody, whereas for me, it’s all about the melody and the simplicity of it, and then you can expand on that to take advantage of Bobby’s virtuosity on the violin. … This [concerto] is one of the rare things that has been done from the ground up, intending to combine the two genres.”
McDuffie’s one rock request with the work was that it would include the pensive Automatic for the People single “Nightswimming,” which appears as the concerto’s fifth movement. “Bobby and I have played that a few times before this with a string quartet, so I knew it would work,” Mills says. “I was happy to keep it in.”
Mills and McDuffie have performed the piece with a few different ensembles in Toronto, Rome and Aspen, Colorado, and beginning this month they’re taking it on the road.
It’s on the stage, the bassist says, where the piece is most effective. It’s just a matter of gaining people’s attention. “I think a lot of people are a little skeptical, but once they see it and hear it, I think they’ll understand that it’s just music,” he says. “It’s just more fun than I think people are aware of at this point.”