“Let’s give it one more try!”

 

 

Sometime during the late 70s, two teenagers and friends, Mike Mills and Bill Berry, had had enough of making music with their school buddies in Macon, Georgia. “We’d just about gleaned all we could from my music collection of blues and southern rock records. Bill and I decided to sell our instruments,” Mike recollects on this cold winter’s day in Grammercy Park Hotel, New York.

Here on the 21st Street, not far from the Union Square junction in Manhattan, is where celebrities go who do not want to be chauffeured around New York, who enjoy losing themselves in the alternative nightlife of the city. The shabby chic interior is dimly lit, no glaring spotlights here to disturb the stars who are exposed to flashbulb frenzy often enough as it is.

The suite of R.E.M.’s bassist, the group that conquered the mainstream in the mid-nineties and today is one of the few remaining established brand names in the rock business, is also quite dim. The warm light of the old-fashioned lamps lends the room the air of a magician’s chamber. Mike Mills’ long, blond-white hair and Harry Potter-like spectacles add to the impression while he carefully pours himself a cup of tea.

Inspired by Punk

“And then Ian Copeland played us this new music from the UK,” continues Mills, now age 52. Ian, the third of the Copeland brothers along with Stewart (drummer with The Police) and Miles (founder of record company IRS) had just returned from the UK in 1977 and brought new, fresh music with him: the furious hymn “New Rose” by The Damned, that kicked off the Punk rock era, and “Right to Work” by the band Chelsea from London. “Punk reignited my love for music, and this energy flowed into R.E.M.,” says Mills. “We lived Punk ethics, even if we didn’t necessarily play Punk rock.”

We lived Punk ethics, even if we didn’t necessarily play Punk rock.

That was over 30 years ago. Mills’ mentor, Copeland, died five years ago, always remaining a loyal friend to the band that today is considered one of the greatest rock groups in the world since the Beatles. With “Collapse Into Now” they have just released their 15th studio album. The record sounds fantastic and gives a nod to the various milestones in their career. “Überlin” reminds us of the epic hit “Losing My Religion,” but next to tracks like “It Happened Today” or the heartbreaking melancholy of “Oh My Heart,” it is only one of the gems that the band has lifted from the album.

Time to go?

Maybe “Collapse Into Now” will be R.E.M.’s last album. The band, consisting of Mills, vocalist Michael Stipe, and guitarist Peter Buck, has fulfilled its contracts to the full. But Mills, with a mischievous grin, is not laying his cards on the table. “We’ve been travelling for a long time, have seen just about everything, and have arrived at a great point. We’re feeling good about ourselves and believe in what we do. But that doesn’t mean we know what the future holds.” The new album is the last of the largest record contract ever signed by a rock band. In 1996, R.E.M. signed a deal for five records with entertainment giant Warner Brothers to the tune of 80 million dollars. An arrangement that proved to be successful for both sides, but that will hardly be repeated in the contemporary, Internet-ruled music business.

Mike stirs his tea and looks out of the window over the snowbound city through which vocalist Stipe, at this very moment, is striding toward Chelsea, the artist’s district of the city. “It would be typical of me to stay longer than I’m wanted,” he sings on their new disc in “All the Best,” a sort of farewell song, yet a song in which Stipe also calls on the others: “Let’s give it one more time, let’s show the kids how to do it fine.” Whether they will be signing another contract is subject to discussion, says Mills, who writes most of the music for the band.

There through life’s highs and lows

R.E.M. do not have to prove anything to anyone anymore, as the affable quintagenarian in the Grammercy Park Hotel well knows. Though the years, R.E.M. has developed into a brand that people take along with them as they go through life, he says. “We’ve accompanied lots of people through college, love affairs, marriage, divorce, the loss of friends. We were there during the highs and the lows for many years.” Nowadays, fans come to the concerts with their small kids. “They usually sleep through the whole set,” the bass player chuckles, “but R.E.M. is so important to the parents that they want to give the music along to their offspring.”

And the multi-intrumentalist does not plan on disappointing them. “Peter Buck and I may live on opposite sides of the U.S., but to meet up with him and make music is still very stimulating.” The songsmiths send their demos to Stipe and then wait eagerly to see what he does with them. “Often, his stuff is really great,” says Mills, “but you never know what’s going to be successful.”

In the music business, people spend their lives trying to predict the next hit – some do, some don’t.

And, should the band members of 30 years decide to go separate ways at some point in time, Mills, who besides playing bass and keyboards is also responsible for a lot of the background vocals in R.E.M., promises: “A solo album is on my to-do list for one of these days.” And, at the very least, Stipe and Buck will feature as guests on it. They both have a lot of appreciation for their dependable bass player. Stipe, who The Brander met briefly in the Grammercy lobby just before the interview, congratulated us on getting him as an interview partner. “Mike’s much better with words than me,” said the singer and text writer of the band.

The pictures depicting R.E.M are by way of exception not exclusive images of The Brander. The copyright belongs to Warner Music, who kindly gave us permission to use them.

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