REM are officially out of time
After 31 years, REM have called it a day without tears or acrimony. Bass player Mike Mills tells Andy Welch how they managed a drama-free finale
MOST bands split up. The reasons may vary from death or drug-fuelled ridiculousness to arguments over money or creative bankruptcy, but the end result is generally the same.
What's unusual is a group going their separate ways and claiming everything's just fine. The Beautiful South cited "musical similarities" when they called it quits (mocking the oft-delivered line about "musical differences"), but REM must be the first band to break up for no good reason.
But then again the trio from Athens, Georgia (a quartet until Bill Berry left in 1997) have never really been ones to follow anyone else's lead.
Two months ago they issued a typically vague statement saying they were splitting up after 31 years together, without any real explanation.
Today, the band's bass player Mike Mills is a hard nut to crack about why he, singer Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck are going their separate ways.
"We are far too stubborn to do anything we're told to," he says, insisting it was their decision, and their decision alone.
"If it ever looked like we ought to break up because of internal problems, or external, that was always an incentive to carry on and work it out," he adds.
Ask many music fans and they'll say REM have not really been at their best since the mid-Nineties. It's still debated which album was the turning point, although music magazines continued to hail a 'return to form' with each new record.
Mills, however doesn't hold with public perception. "I think [2011's] Collapse Into Now is as good as almost anything we've done, and [2008's] Accelerate was a great record we were really happy with," he says.
"But we really started looking at ourselves during the 2008 tour and thought we had some decisions to make.
"Hats off to The Rolling Stones. It would be great playing rock 'n' roll into your 70s and I applaud what they've done. But there are also downsides to that."
Although Mills is clearly proud of their recent work, he's also alluding to the fact their 2008 show at Twickenham Stadium was poorly attended, while tickets for a planned concert at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium (capacity 80,000-plus) sold so badly that the event was downsized to the city's nearby arena, a space fit for a mere 7,500 people.
While Mills rebuts the allegation that bruised egos led to the band's break-up, he wasn't unaffected by the events.
"As a human being, you feel those things," he says, before quickly coming up with reasons for what happened. "The economy was bad, we weren't having hit singles on the radio, and the promoter might have had misguided ideas of how big we were at the time. There are a lot of factors that go into that.
"Obviously you would rather the promoter get the size right the first time around, but at the same time, it would be better to sell out a smaller place than half-fill a bigger place."
He adds matter-of-factly: "You have to stop sometime. We're as on top as we could be after 31 years, we're all happy and content in our personal lives and with each other, so why not underline the career right now and say, 'This is it'?"
There's bound to be some scepticism, and Mills won't really be drawn on the subject of Michael Stipe's involvement in the New York art scene, something the singer has long appeared more passionate about than making music.
"Michael has always been a visually oriented person as well as musically, and I'm really happy that he can now have the time to pursue photography and sculpture and the things that he loves," explains Mills.
New retrospective Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011 is an epic two-CD collection of the band's best work, or at least the best work in their eyes.
For the first time, REM's work from their IRS Records era sits alongside the music recorded for Warner Brothers, while Shiny Happy People - a song hated by the band - and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite appear on a compilation for the first time.
"We wanted to think of someone who had never heard REM before, aged 14 or something," says Mills. "What would we want to show them as a body of work? This is that record.
"There isn't one record that encapsulates everything about REM. Green doesn't sound like Reveal, which is nothing like Reckoning, which is nothing like Collapse Into Now.
"It's not an obvious track listing on this new album, but it's one that shows off every facet of REM's music."
When it comes to the subject of a favourite song, Mills says he never listens to his own band's music. On the rare occasion he has put on debut Murmur - often cited as the band's very best work - he's quickly turned it off, he says.
He'll miss Stipe and Buck, particularly their chemistry on stage. "Right now the main emotion is gratitude," he says. "Gratitude that we've had such a long, varied and successful career.
"I wouldn't dream of sitting here and saying, 'Thank God I don't have to do THAT any more,' although I will say I never really liked making videos. But then I haven't been in a video for over 10 years, so it's not like that's something I've been worried about lately anyway."
In the coming weeks, Mills is hoping to spend time relaxing with family, before getting to work on new music next year.
"I've been talking to different people about collaborations, so something could happen there," he says.
"The main thing is I can look back on our time together and think, 'Man, we were a great band,' and move on.
"We were a band that did our best at every stage, and that's really how I see it."
Extra time - REM
- REM formed in Athens, Georgia in 1980, when friends Michael Stipe and Peter Buck met University Of Georgia students and high school friends Bill Berry and Mike Mills.
- The name REM was selected at random from a dictionary and is short for rapid eye movement, a natural stage of sleep.
- They recorded their first single, Radio Free Europe, in 1981, and it had a very limited, independent release although the New York Times called it one of the singles of the year.
- Breakthrough album Out Of Time was released in 1991 and has since sold more than 17 million copies.
- The string arrangements on Everybody Hurts, perhaps REM's most famous song, were written by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. The song was a message to teenagers affected by the death of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.
- REM's career retrospective Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011 is out now