In the three years since R.E.M.’s amicable split, the band has allowed itself an occasional moment of nostalgia, but this year has brought the most activity from the group yet: the Record Store Day set Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions followed by a documentary comprised of footage MTV shot of the band during its run from 1980 to 2011. This week, the band is unleashing 7IN — 83-88, a collection of 11 vinyl seven-inch singles that includes “Radio Free Europe” backed with their cover of the Velvet Undergrounds “There She Goes Again” and “Fall on Me” backed with Dead Letter Office‘s “Rotary Ten.” We rang up bassist/backing-vocalist-extraordinaire Mike Mills to talk about his most Fleetwood Mac bass line and the rarest singles in his own collection.
Between this singles set and the R.E.M. by MTV documentary, you’ve done a lot of backward-gazing recently. Have you had any epiphanies about the band?
Oh, I can’t say that I’ve been awakened to anything I missed, but it is rewarding to see that people still care, and in ways to find out how much they cared at the time. It is one of our rare opportunities to look back, because we were always a band that looked forward. As a band, it is time to look back a little bit.
What had originally drawn you to the covers you recorded for the B-sides to so many of these singles?
Well, those were songs that at least one of us loved very much, if not all four of us. “Superman” was something Peter and I loved. All four of us loved the Velvet Underground. Rather than put another version of our song on there, it’s much more fun to show the listeners what we like and what goes on in our heads when we’re not doing R.E.M.
What made you love singles so much?
Singles for us were just great things in and of themselves, with or without being hits. Singles are what we grew up on, singles are what made us love music in the beginning, so being able to make singles felt like we had achieved a connection with the thing that made us love music in the first place.
In 1997, R.E.M. appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone as “America’s best rock band.” Who did you think was America’s best rock band at the time?
Well, you know, best all depends on your criteria, but I felt like we were as good as anyone. Better than worst.
Watching the doc, you took some ribbing for your increasingly flamboyant style. But the band had a pretty epic fashion arc in general.
I would assume that in most anyone’s life there’s a fashion arc, whether you’re living in public or in private. Mine was two-fold: I’d grown up as a kid loving those suits, watched a lot of The Porter Wagoner Show as a kid. And also it was a chance to have some fun, to step into another set of clothes for a while and give the people on my side of the stage something to look at.
Michael’s hair was more elaborate than I recalled.
And there was a lot more of it.