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.
Do you have particular nostalgia for the years this box covers, ’83-’88?
If you want to just grab those five years, it was fantastic. It was a very heady time, every album sold more than the one before. We weren’t curious about singles selling, we just liked to put them out. Peter and I were big fans of singles and 45s growing up. We both have hundreds, I’m sure he has thousands of them. For us, that was a dream realized, to be able to put out singles as much as records.
You paid a lot of attention to details fans would notice, like intricate artwork.
We were lucky we had a visual artist in the band [Stipe] who we knew could represent us. Peter and Bill and I were always very lucky we didn’t have to defer to the record company graphics department. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but they would have represented the band with their vision rather than the band’s vision.
Were there any songs you were convinced would be hits that didn’t connect with fans?
We never really planned on hits. The singles were picked out in cooperation with the record company. One of the reasons we formed the way we did was because commercial radio was unreceptive to anything that wasn’t promoted by a big record company in the big record company way. We put out singles because we like singles and they’re cool little pieces of music and art. If the big radio stations ever played them, that was great, but certainly early on it was as much for college radio as anyone else. They were merely calling cards for the albums we were putting out.
Your backing vocals are pretty legendary. Did you have a sense of how fans were digging them?
I didn’t really think about how important they were to the band, I just thought about how much fun they were for me to sing. To me it was as important as the bass line, as important as Bill’s drum patterns. I grew up loving bands that had multiple singers and harmonies, and we were one of those bands. We were very lucky that we had three people who could sing and had good senses of melody. Bill in the background is one of my favorite things. He’s underrated, too. Bill did a lot of great stuff that people aren’t sure are him, but he did some amazing work on “Fall on Me,” “Wolves, Lower” and “Find the River.”
Do you have a favorite R.E.M. bass line?
“Orange Crush” is great, “Life and How to Live It” is pretty great even though it may be hard to hear. “Harborcoat” is really cool. “Losing My Religion” is pretty surprisingly good. I couldn’t think of what to do on that song, so I thought, “What would John McVie do?” I definitely owe John for that one.
Would you have preferred the band ended with a bigger bang?
No. We deliberately didn’t do that. That would have been getting attention for attention’s sake or making money for money’s sake. The ending of the band was very important to us and we didn’t want it to be a monetary venture. It was a tough decision and we wanted to give it the respect it deserved and keep it in house.
Do you have any opinions on bands that continue to tour without putting out new music?
If you want to play your own music, then by goodness you should play your own music. If you keep telling people it’s your final tour ever and you do five of those, it just makes me think you’re confused or you’re getting a lot of money out of people. But why should any band ever quit? A lot of fans go, oh, they should have broken up then. And that’s a fans’ prerogative. But from the inside, you’re a musician — you play music and it’s no one’s job to tell you when you should quit except yours.
Does it still tickle you that people miss the actual meaning of “The One I Love”?
Not really, it’s interesting and kind of funny to see that people get it wrong, but you know, I certainly don’t think it’s anyone’s job to listen that closely to the words. There are 10 or 12 of my favorite songs, I have no idea what they’re about or what the words even are. If you think that song’s a love song, go hug your boyfriend or girlfriend. If you care to listen close enough, you see it isn’t. But there are plenty of R.E.M. songs where I don’t know what they’re about.
What are the coolest singles in your own collection?
Oh man, I’ve got Elvis’ “All Shook Up” backed with “Don’t Be Cruel” that I got really cheap because the woman who ran the store wasn’t there and I think her son undervalued it for me. “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” by the Mojo Men. I’ve got a single from Laurie records called “Oh Me” that I cannot find anywhere, not even on the Internet. If anyone out there knows this song, let me know. I also have a single of Bill Haley doing “Yodel Your Blues Away” that no one’s ever heard of. He was actually a yodeler in addition to a proto-rocker. All my single racks are full. I don’t look that hard for them anymore. If I find myself at a garage sale, I’ll look, but I don’t pursue it as avidly as I did before simply because there’s nowhere to put them.