Music Features

Mike Mills on R.E.M.’s Best Songs and Induction Into Songwriters Hall of Fame

Mike Mills

It’s every Georgia music fan’s dream to see Athens rock icons R.E.M. on stage again performing their incredible songs.

The band broke up in 2011, and all four original members haven’t played together publicly since 2007. The guys have been spotted while hanging out over the past year at 40th anniversary tribute events for their 1982 EP Chronic Town and debut album, Murmur.

But June 13, drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and singer Michael Stipe finally did it: Inside New York City’s Marriott Marquis during their induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, R.E.M. delivered a stirring acoustic version of its Grammy Award-winning 1991 song “Losing My Religion,” leaving fans around the world breathless with anticipation for more of its yearning melodies and guitar power chords tied together by Stipe’s poetic lyrics about the human condition and political and social ideals.

Speaking together on “CBS Mornings,” R.E.M. made it clear that the group has no plans to reform permanently, and each member is busy with his own path, including a new photo book and solo album on the horizon from Stipe and a July tour featuring Mills and Buck in their side supergroup, the Baseball Project.

On stage after receiving the award at the songwriters ceremony from an elated Jason Isbell, who had just performed R.E.M.’s prophetic 1987 tongue-twister, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” Stipe said, “Writing songs and having a catalog of work that we’re all proud of, that is out there for the whole world for the rest of time, is hands down the most important aspect of what we did as a band. Second to that is that we managed to do so for all these decades and remain friends. And not just friends, but dear friends. Friends for life.”

GPB’s Kristi York Wooten spoke with R.E.M. bassist and cofounder Mike Mills ahead of the Songwriters Hall of Fame event to talk about what the band’s songs mean to its musical legacy.

Kristi York Wooten: It’s great to speak with you. First off, congratulations on the honor. R.E.M. is being recognized, along with several other really cool artists, in the class of 2024 for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Kudos.

Mike Mills: Thank you. It’s pretty special.

KYW: So, along with R.E.M., we’ve got Hilary Lindsay, Timbaland, Dean Pitchford and Steely Dan [in the class]. Can you tell me a little bit about why this recognition is important to R.E.M.?

MM: Well, from the very beginning, Peter and I both agreed—and Bill and Michael were, of course, on board with this—that one of the things that really separates a great band from a good band is songwriting. It’s also one of the most difficult things to do. You know, a lot of people have talent to sing and play. A lot of people are born with it. A lot of people can develop that. Songwriting is something that really takes a lot of work. Some people are born with a gift at it, but it also takes a lot of honing of the craft. So, for us to be recognized for something that we always considered very important to what we do is a nice vindication and a nice recognition.  

KYW: So, R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, but the Songwriters Hall of Fame is a bit different. Like you said, it’s kind of being recognized by your peers and it’s about honing your craft. But R.E.M. is one of the only, you know, “world’s greatest rock bands;” or of bands in that category, you’re one of the few where all the members shared publishing and songwriting credits. Can you tell us a little bit about how that shaped some solidity within the band, or how you share that songwriting?

MM: Oh, absolutely. It’s essential, at least in our case. Peter, you know, even from the very beginning, was a bit of a rock and roll historian. He’s a voracious reader and consumer of music. And he knew, even then, that one of the things that breaks up a band quickest is unequal distribution of money. And since a great deal of a band’s money comes from their publishing, at the very beginning he said, ‘I think we need to all split the songwriting equally as well.’ I said, ‘Why? It’s not that I want more money. I just want people to know if I wrote the song.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I get that.’ But if we want this band to actually be successful and last, we have to share in the songwriting.

And as it turned out, it was the right thing to do for any number of reasons, but not least because we all did contribute to the songwriting. Everybody wrote songs, wrote their parts, helped other people with their parts. It was a truly legitimate decision to make and one that, I think, contributed a great deal to our longevity.

KYW: So the Songwriters Hall of Fame, they tend to list key songs that they find are important to a band or artist’s catalog that help them make their decision about whom to induct into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. So for R.E.M., the songs they list are “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “Radio Free Europe” and “The One I Love.” Is that the list of five songs you would have chosen if it were up to you, or maybe it was up to you?

MM: [Laughs] No, I was not consulted on that. You know, it’s—certainly, when you have a song that that connects with as many people as “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts” and “End of the World,” I mean, that is the mark, very often, not always, but very often, of a great song. “Everybody Hurts” has a sort of universality, that is really—you can’t—you can strive for it, but it’s really just like hitting oil. You have to be lucky to get it. On “Losing My Religion,” you know, it was one of those things that, “Who knew?” It’s a five-minute song with no chorus. And the lead instrument is a mandolin.

Why was that a hit? Nobody really knows. Except it just worked as a song and as a recording. Give [producer] Scott Litt a lot of credit for that, too. So, would I pick those five songs? I’m fine with those five songs. There are a few others that, you know, I might have chosen, but if you can only pick five, I’d be happy with those.

KYW: Of those that were listed, can you tell us a little bit more about the songwriting process? You mentioned “Losing My Religion,” but, you know, on the scale of R.E.M. songwriting difficulty, which of those was maybe the easiest or most difficult to write?

MM: Well, Bill wrote the bulk of “Everybody Hurts,” and we just filled in the rest of it. I wrote most of “Radio Free Europe,” and Peter wrote the chorus and the bridge. And the other three were stuff that Peter, songs that Peter brought in, mostly formed. There wasn’t quite as much collaboration as there was on some other songs. Each of us had to just come up with our own part. But that’s, you know, essential as well. You can’t, you know, we didn’t want to have any songs with no drums or no bass. And so, you know, you’ve got to come up with good parts for that. Which is also why the songwriting is so collaborative, even if we’re not writing the actual chords of the song.

So they were all relatively easy, in the sense that we put in the amount of work that you would think it would take to make them. Some songs got really hard. Some songs took a long time. Sometimes it takes as long to write as it does to play them. If you go all the way back to “Little America” from the second record, it literally took us five minutes to write that. So, you know, you just never know. And the amount of work you put into it doesn’t always make it one of the better songs, but, sometimes it does.

KYW: That is true. So, you’re a multi-instrumentalist. You play a lot of things. You’re the bass player for R.E.M., you sing a lot of great harmonies and backup and also some lead vocals. But what is your favorite R.E.M. melody, if you have one of those? Or one that you’re proud of?

MM: Well, as far as my contribution, one of my favorite parts—it was one of my favorite moments in all of our recording career—we were recording in Miami, doing “Try Not to Breathe.” And I knew that the chorus needed some really cool background vocal. And I was trying to channel John Lennon, and I sent everybody else away, and it was just me out in the studio and Scott Litt in the control room, and I was trying all these different parts, and when I hit the one that that worked, we both made eye contact and looked at each other with really wide eyes going, “That’s it. That’s the one!” So, sometimes you just know, and when you hit the exact right thing for the exact right moment, it’s one of those epiphanies that you live for.  
This story comes to Flagpole through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.