Mike Mills on R.E.M's "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" at 25: A record "infused by being on the road"

The bassist breaks down the album, that "wacky & bizarre" piano solo & deconstructing old songs for R.E.M. Explored

Published November 20, 2021 3:30PM (EST)

R.E.M. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Chris Bilheimer)
R.E.M. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Chris Bilheimer)

Although R.E.M. broke up a decade ago, the Athens, Georgia, band's music endures thanks in no small part to the deluxe 25th anniversary reissues that arrive with each passing year. In late October, that meant the emergence of 1996's "New Adventures in Hi-Fi," an album conceived and written while R.E.M. was on 1995's "Monster" tour. "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" is eclectic and sonically diverse — in fact, perhaps the band's most diverse album — and reflected the ways movement and travel impact our perception of the world around us.

Post-breakup, the members of R.E.M. are busier than ever. For example, bassist Mike Mills is gearing up to make a new record with the Baseball Project in January and is playing Big Star Third concerts. Next year, he's also relaunching A Night of Georgia Music, a concert that features him, Chuck Leavell and composer Robert McDuffie playing songs either about Georgia or by Georgia musicians. And, in addition to that, he's creating a show featuring his rock concerto paired with a set of songs he's calling R.E.M. Explored. 

"I've found two arrangers, Carl Marsh and David Mallamud, and given them five or six R.E.M. songs and said, 'Okay, here, arrange these and have fun with them. Leave enough in the melody where the audience will know what songs you're deconstructing, and then destroy them. Then take them places and make them as crazy as you want.' I haven't heard what they're going to do with it yet, but I'm hoping it'll be really strange and unusual."

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Mills stresses that these reimagined songs won't be existing songs paired with orchestral arrangements. "We're trying to create something different so that you're not simply hearing the song repeated by a symphony arrangement. You're hearing something completely different. I like to think of it as, how would Coltrane deconstruct this melody? And that's what I told the arrangers. I said, 'Look, just break it down. Just pretend you're a jazzbo and you're turning it into something completely other.'" 

He laughs. "Who knows what that's going to come out as, with those guys? But that's where I'm going with it. I don't want it to just be a symphonic rendition of a song you already know. It's supposed to be something completely different."

For Mills, that kind of deconstruction (and reconstruction) is creatively fulfilling. "It is always exciting to take songs that you had for many, many years and do something completely different," he says. "And of course the other aspect of what Bobby and I are trying to do with the concerto and the R.E.M. Explored is to try to bridge the gap between classical and rock and roll. And to show that you can enjoy one and enjoy the other. There doesn't have to be this wall between them."

Mills checked in with Salon about not just these future works, but also the "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" reissue.

R.E.M. always previewed new songs on tours. Why did it finally take until the "Monster" era for the live recording bug to hit?

We always honestly felt that live records were kind of cheating in a way. I mean, bootlegs are one thing, but when you're writing new songs, you want to put them out as a new record and making a live record was often just a rehash of older songs. So for us to try to do this was a totally different project. It wasn't simply a live record. It was making a new record while on the road. So it's not your traditional live record in any sense.

As I understand it, that recording approach was guitarist Peter Buck's idea. Where did he get the idea from?

I think his main feeling was since we were out on the road for a year, and we were going to be writing songs anyway, and we had to do sound checks, instead of making them a perfunctory 15-minute thing we did every day, why don't we use it this time to be creative and actually create a whole new project?

That makes a lot of sense. And that breaks up the monotony a little bit too, then it's not sound checking the same three songs over 50 cities. How did all the traveling and different geography start to affect how you were approaching writing music, coming up with new ideas and how the music was coming out?

You know, it's hard to say. We wanted to write a record on the road without writing about being on the road. I mean, "Running on Empty" is a cool song, but we didn't really want to write songs about, "Here's the road and how hard it is and how lonely it is." You know, whatever the normal subject matter is about being on the road.

We wanted to make a record that was infused by being on the road, that was influenced and informed by being on the road, but [was] not necessarily about being on the road. With the exception of "Departure"—[and] even that song isn't about being on the road, but it does directly reference some of the things that happen while you're touring — it's not a record about being on the road. It's just a record that was made on the road and therefore, hopefully it picks up a sense of travel, a sense of the urgency, a sense of the displacement that's involved.

Being away from home, you're out of your element. And so it can be a very creative time. I've always found that if you're somewhere different, it sparks different ideas or makes you think about and approach something in a different way.

That's quite true. That's why we always like to go places to make records. You know, we could have made more records in Athens. But there's a different sort of focus when you can leave the studio and go home. When you leave the studio and go to a restaurant in a strange town and then go to a hotel room, whatever house you're renting, it sharpens your focus, I think. When you work in a studio and then you just go home and see the same furniture and the same people, it tends to diffuse your focus a little bit. 

As the songs were coming together, what was your favorite kind of detour that you ended up coming up with? I think of a song like "Leave," which is such an interesting kind of corner of the R.E.M. catalog and sounds like nothing else.

That's true. Possibly the act of creating these songs on stage, whatever bits you bring onto the stage already, you're still creating and finishing them on the stage or somewhere near there. You know, it just adds a new element to it. The fact that "Zither" was at least recorded, if not written, in a giant locker room's bathroom, in an anonymous arena somewhere, it's just something different. 

That's why "New Adventures" is kind of a standalone record in the R.E.M. catalog. You know, some of them could be lumped in with two or three or even four or five others, as being of a piece, in the sense that the first five are the I.R.S. records, or however you wish to do that. This one doesn't really relate directly to any other record. It is its own thing, because of the unique situation in which it was recorded and written.

In the reading the liner notes, there's a lot of talk about the album being a snapshot of a time and place. I like that description, because I think that totally makes a lot of sense.

I agree. I mean, every record is really a snapshot of a time and place. But this one, because of the unique situation, is more of a snapshot than any other record we made.

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Your piano solo on "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" was singled out as well. What do you remember most about recording that element of the song? 

That song was one that was written in the amount of time that it takes to play it. Bill was playing that drum beat, and I heard that beat and started playing exactly the piano part that became the verse and the chorus. It just sort of came out of me. 

When it came time to throw a solo on it, I said, "Okay, I'm not going to work up a solo here. I'm just going to play the first thing that comes to mind." Since I'm not really an improvisational piano player, I knew it was going to be wacky and bizarre. Whether you would consider it good or not is entirely up to you, yourself, as a listener. For me, it was simply the immediacy and chaos of doing it without thinking about it.

I relied on the theory that there are no wrong notes as a backstop doing that. But basically, I pretended I was a guy who had been drafted off the street to come in and throw this solo on there who really didn't necessarily know what he was doing. For the first few notes, it almost sounded like he had a plan and then the whole thing just descends into utter chaos, which I thought somehow suited the immediate nature of that song since it was written so quickly.

Because it's the first song on the record, it really sets the tone too, for the rest of the album. It draws you in like that.

I think so. I mean, it's to let you know that this record is perhaps less thought out than others. Certainly written with less of a safety net than some of our other records.

What I've always really liked about the record is that even though it is so eclectic and diverse, there's a real internal logic to the sequencing. You can tell there's a lot of thought put into it.

Sequencing is always one of the hardest things about doing a record. This one especially, because the songs are so all over the place, to try to figure out how to put this together to make it somehow cohesive was not easy. Since it was never going to be a bookend-y type of record, linearly flowing from one song to the next, we just said, "Well, okay, let's just try to do this to make it sound good and not worry about the overall concept."

As the "Monster" tour went on, it became obviously notoriously fraught and stressful for health reasons. [Editor's note: Among other things, drummer Bill Berry had a brain aneurysm onstage.] Having this project going on, did recording bring solace? Did it end up functioning as a grounding element at all?

That's a really good question. I can't say that it did. Touring is [tiring] — I mean, it just is. There were some days when the idea of working twice in one day, i.e. making a record at soundcheck and then doing a show that night, it got to be a little much. There were some days when we were less enthused about getting on stage and writing songs than we were on others. 

On the other hand, it does give you a sense of commitment and a reason to get up there and begin to sharpen your focus and your mind earlier in the day than you might otherwise. You know, on the whole, it was definitely very good for us. You couldn't laze your way through the day as one often does on tour. 

When you ended up going kind of into a real studio to finish off everything, was there any difficulty capturing the same vibe? Or did you even want to? How did merging those two recording processes and approaches work?

Another good question. As I recall, going into the studio, we weren't really trying to maintain the vibe, because you can't. You're not on tour anymore. You're not at home. You're actually in a studio, the same room for days on end, which you know, compared to the rest of the record, was simply not the case. So you wouldn't want to try to...

And since there was really no overall concept to this record other than making it on tour and having whatever aspects of being on tour infused into that record, they weren't conscious aspects, they just sort of seeped in. 

So you weren't going to try to capture that in the studio. You were just going to try to see what elements the studio itself could lend to the record. You know, something like "How The West is Won," the immediacy of sitting there and creating that song, Bill and I creating it together, just sitting there, was pretty special. It was something that might not have happened in any other setting. 

With the gift of kind of retirement and then hindsight, do you feel like this was a turning point for the band or a bookend of sorts on a chapter?

I guess I would see it more as kind of a liaison, as it turns out. . . . I mean, you could call it a bookend in the sense that it's Bill's last record. But we didn't know that at the time. So we certainly weren't thinking of it in those terms. 

At the time, it felt more like a bridge. Here we were and we had entered the '95 tour as one of the biggest bands in the world, playing a really long huge tour to really large crowds. That was sort of a new thing. 1989 had not been quite the same kind of tour. This was very much its own thing. 

So to try to capture that was also important. To try to capture some of the feeling of going out as a band that big and that popular, and trying to just grab a hold of some of that feeling and putting it on a record was important for us to do. 

What it meant in the long-term scheme of things, we don't really think about that. We were just making the record we tried to make. When you look back at it, I guess obviously, it's the bridge, it's the last R.EM. record with Bill. It's certainly a bridge into the new R.E.M. without Bill, but that's all.

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By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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