Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Extra! Extra!

The July issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online. This month's issue offers a preview to the upcoming Pitchfork Music Festival. I contributed write-ups on Mission of Burma, Jarvis Cocker, and Elf Power.

Please click on the links below to be directed to the pages for:

Mission of Burma

Jarvis Cocker

Elf Power


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Conversation With...Mike Mills of R.E.M.

In the June 2008 issue of Chicago Innerview, I had the opportunity to speak with bassist Mike Mills of R.E.M. for the cover story ("House In Order"). The phone interview took place on May 12, 2008, two weeks before R.E.M. would launch its world tour in support of its latest album Accelerate. Here is the complete 20 minute conversation I had with Mills that afternoon. Check back soon for a complete review (and photos) of R.E.M.'s recent performance at the United Center on June 6, 2008. Until then, enjoy a conversation with Mike Mills.

Chris Castaneda: Is it scary to say that the tour begins next week Friday?

Mike Mills: The tour begins, I guess, next Friday or Saturday.

CC: Yeah, Friday, the 23rd.

MM: Sounds right.

CC: Has it caught up on you really fast?

MM: No, I’ve had a little time to get ready for it.

CC: Is the band still doing rehearsals or are you pretty much done by now?

MM: No, we’ll start rehearsals next week.

CC: How many songs are you practicing for the rotation?

MM: We don’t know yet. I’m putting together a list of some old ones we might play, and I’m sure others are doing the same. We’ll just get together and see what everybody feels like doing. A lot of times you find that there are just some songs that somebody really doesn’t want to do. So, you’ve got to cross that out.

CC: Hence the veto process.

MM: Exactly.

CC: Well, congratulations on the album.

MM: Thank you.

CC: I’ve been enjoying it a lot. Personally, I was a little miffed that it was beat out by George Strait on the charts by a couple thousand.

MM: Well, he’s got that deal with Wal-Mart. That’s pretty tough to top him.

CC: You’ve had some time since it was released. How does Accelerate make a statement about R.E.M. in 2008?

MM: Well, I think you just said it. Accelerate is R.E.M. in 2008. Really, I couldn’t put it any better than that. People have been trying to say, “Is it a return?” or “Are you looking backwards?” I say, “No.” We don’t look backwards and wouldn’t know how to if we wanted to. So, this is strictly us in this year, in this moment.

CC: I’ve sort of disagreed with a lot of the press and their angle on the album. They’ve been treating it like the band has been on life support the last 5 years, and then suddenly the band came out of its coma. To me, it’s kind of unfair and missing the point of the album itself.

MM: Well, it’s really lazy journalism, to me, because this theme has sort of been broached and everybody’s been really quick to jump on it because it’s an easy angle. Those records were not universally despised when they came out, and I’m very proud of those records. I just think people have seized that as their theme for their reviews and that has just been self-perpetuating. But I’m very pleased with our career, in general, and with this record in particular.

CC: So, this time around, the band became a 5 piece without Ken Stringfellow. What is the dynamic of the band like now with just Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin?

MM: The dynamic is great. I love Ken, I love his music, but the fact was we were going with less keyboards this time. Ken’s job was to either to play the keyboards or to play something else so I could play keyboards. We just didn’t need the extra person around. The dynamic feels good. He’s got his own new band called The Disciplines that he’s playing with. We did a few promo shows on our promo tour that we did, and they all felt great.

CC: There’s one thing I wanted to get your perspective on as the representative of the rhythm section. You did some work with Barrett Martin and Joey Waronker around the time R.E.M. was making Up (1998). How has Bill Rieflin been with the band the past couple of years? What is it about his style, his approach, which has made him the proper fit for R.E.M.?

MM: Well said. He has such a mastery over the drums. In other words, he can play just like Bill Berry on the songs where he needs to, but we can also give him his head and say, “Play what you hear,” and it’s invariably fantastic. He’s just so accomplished as a musician.

I think Barrett Martin is a fantastic musician, and I love him as a person. But we didn’t really gel as a rhythm section. Joey Waronker, we gelled just fine, but he had other things he wanted to do. With Bill Rieflin…we were doing our first record with him, which I guess was Reveal, and we were wondering whether we were going to use him on the tour. And I said, “We have to play live to find out.” So, we opened for a local band in Vancouver called The Dirtmitts*. About half way through the first song I said, “You know, I think I can play with this guy.” So, it was pretty clear at that point that I thought it was going to work out just fine and it has.

CC: Definitely. I guess the '03 was his coming out party with the band. I could hear a comfort that was there with all the musicians…not that it wasn’t there with Joey, but there was something a little more extra that resonated.

MM: He’s a powerful drummer. He hits it harder than you would think from looking at him, and that helps a lot. And the other helpful thing was…with every tour we started to feel better about being a three piece. That transition has been very difficult, but that’s one reason this album sounds like it does because we’ve felt so comfortable as a band again that we wanted to make a rock record.

(*The show that Mike Mills is referring to took place on December 15, 2002 at a venue called Richard’s On Richards. As background information to clarify Mills’ recollection, I asked Scott McCaughey via email to help out. This was McCaughey’s response sent on May 15, 2008. According to McCaughey, “It was a Minus 5 gig in Vancouver, and the Dirtmitts were the local opening band. However, I did the Minus 5 gig because Bill (Rieflin) and Peter (Buck) and I were up there (Vancouver) recording with R.E.M. It was Bill’s first session with R.E.M., sort of trying out as a studio drummer. Joey wasn’t there then; I think his term had basically ended at that point. Then at the end of the Minus 5 set, R.E.M. came up and we played 3 songs in the encore as R.E.M. So, that was Bill’s first time doing a live thing with R.E.M.”)

CC: What was the initial idea behind the “Working Rehearsal” shows in Dublin last summer? Was it going to be specifically 5 shows? What was being mulled around at the time?

MM: What I realized that back in the day when we were touring constantly we would write songs and work them out on the road. So, when we went to the studio they were fully formed. On the last few records, I’d realize when we’d play something off of Reveal or Up or even Around The Sun, I would play a bass line or sing a background vocal and go, “Man, I wish I’d done that on the record.”

There’s something about the live show that really focusing you on your parts. So, I said, look, let’s do a residency somewhere, just a little brief residency, where we could play these songs and just get that feeling that you get from a live audience, and it will help us tighten everything up…or, it will help me (Laughs). I don’t know if it would help the rest of the band, but I knew it would help me (Laughs). It turned out to be not only very helpful but a lot of fun as well.

CC: What do you remember about how you felt going into the first night?

MM: I felt great. We were in Ireland, where we’ve always done well. I was loving the new songs, even in their unfinished form. It was kind of thrilling to—pardon the phrase—expose ourselves to the fans like that. Normally as an artist—I don’t like the term artist, but, for lack of a better word—you don’t want to show people unfinished things. The two things you don’t want to watch being made are laws and sausages. Well, sometimes, I would add records to that. It was exciting to go out there and know that you were going to show people things that weren’t finished. We really enjoyed it. I think it’s very brave, not to toot our own horn, but I think it’s quite brave to go out there and show your warts and what not to people. That doesn’t happen very often.

CC: Would R.E.M. consider trying that process again or would it just be repeating a process that had already been done?

MM: Who knows. We are a band of being in the moment as much as possible. We’re just really focused on getting the tour done. For our next record, if we feel that’s something that might be useful, then we might do something like that, again. But you have to be careful because sometimes repeating things takes the newness away, and it might not be as effective a tool.

CC: What I thought was really interesting were the “olive branches” that the band extended to the audience. The band went pretty far back in the catalog. What pointed everyone in the direction of picking songs from Chronic Town (1982) and Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985) as albums you wanted to revisit?

MM: Well, the idea was that they were not shows. So, we didn’t want to trout out the same things that we play in shows. I think it was all a part of establishing the informality of the occurrence. Plus, it was fun for us.

CC: Especially with Scott and Bill who had never really touched a majority of the songs that were played…

MM: I can’t speak for Bill or Scott, but they’re fans. I’m sure they enjoyed it. For us, it’s exciting just to look back and know that you have that much good stuff that that’s old. It’s weird when you play them because you say, “Man, those were different people playing those songs back then. Those kids were playing really fast” (Laughs).

CC: What’s all that distortion on the E minor? What’s up with that?

MM: Yeah (Laughs).

CC: Those shows were all over YouTube. Fans were trading the shows among themselves as sort of getting the word out on what the band was up to…creating a word-of-mouth buzz; to use your phrase, an “old school” sort of way. Michael (Stipe) kept joking that “Man-Sized Wreath” was a song that probably wasn’t going to make the album. But a song that didn’t make the album was “Staring Down The Barrel of The Middle Distance.” Were there a lot of songs that didn’t make the final cut?

MM: We tried not to have too many extras this time. “Staring Down The Barrel of The Middle Distance”…that could have easily been on the record, but our whole point of this record was concise, short. We were taking out verses and choruses right up to the very end of the mixing process. We were just shortening everything. It’s really fun to let things go like that. It’s something that I’m sure any psychologist would tell you that letting go is a useful tool. There were only, really, three…maybe four others that got close to being finished that we left off. So, if you count “Staring Down The Barrel,” there were probably four songs that could have made the record but for some reason did not.

CC: Will those songs possibly turn up as B-sides?

MM: You never know. They could end up on movies, TV shows, b-sides, they could be on the next record. They’re just there for whatever purpose they may serve.

CC: Speaking of songs that didn’t make the initial album but were used later down the line: “I’m Gonna DJ” was the talked about song on the '04 tour that I remember hearing a lot about before seeing R.E.M. at the Auditorium Theatre. After hearing it live, I understood why it didn’t make it onto Around The Sun, but it found a home on Accelerate. Was that maybe the earliest seed of what Accelerate grew into?

MM: I think more than that. When we started doing the earliest versions of other songs, such as “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” and “Horse To Water,” that’s when we realized, “I think ‘DJ’ will fit on this record.” Rather than using “DJ” as a starting point and going from there, I think it was, sort of, we started with “Living Well” and “Horse To Water” and then realized “DJ” would fit on this record; whereas it would not have fit on Around The Sun.

CC: Yeah, that would have been quite the sore thumb.

MM: I would have stuck right out. Yes.

CC: I really liked the version of “I’m Gonna DJ” from the 6 Days documentary about the making of Accelerate where Michael’s vocals are left off and just the backing vocals are playing along to the music. I thought, “Well, if there’s not a dance club that wouldn’t be all over that…” (Laughs).

MM: (Laughs) That’s a good thought. When Peter and I write songs, we try to make them interesting before we ever hear any vocals on them. I think that’s one of the strengths of R.E.M. Peter and I have to be satisfied with our songs, instrumentally, before we even show them to Michael, and I think that really gives us a head start. Rather than just having some generic piece of music that Michael can write lyrics and melody to, we try to have a worthwhile piece of music before the singer ever gets a hold of it.

CC: I had the chance to interview Joe Shanahan, owner of Metro, for the January ’08 issue of Chicago Innerview as a feature on the club’s 25th anniversary. I wanted to get your quick thoughts on what he had to say about booking R.E.M. as the first band to play at the Cabaret Metro (July 22, 1982). According to Joe, “They had lost a club show; a promoter had pulled out on them. I had met them at the Danceteria in New York. I went backstage and introduced myself to Mike (Mills), Michael (Stipe), Peter (Buck), Bill (Berry), and Jefferson (Holt). I said, ‘If you ever come through Chicago, I’m going to be opening a club someday and you’re the kind of band I’d love to have play for me.’ And they were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’”

MM: (Laughs)

CC: Do you have any memories of that show?

MM: The Metro? Absolutely, I loved the Cabaret Metro. Did we play the Cabaret upstairs or the Metro itself? It kept moving. There was the Metro, itself, which was the big room. And then there was the Cabaret which used to be upstairs and then they moved it downstairs. They kept changing the other parts of that venue. I think our first shows there were in the smaller room, which was the Cabaret. I remember they were great. We love Chicago. It’s always been one of our best towns. The crowd was great, even then. We were relatively, or, completely unknown. Yet, we felt very, very loved when we were there. And Joe was always great to us.

CC: He told me that he played you the soundboard recording of your first show, and you were embarrassed by how the band sounded. He tried reassuring you that you guys sounded great and loose.

MM: We might have been embarrassed, but I think it was more Bill (Berry) more than anybody. Bill always hates listening back to the shows. I don’t know why, but he never felt comfortable about our shows.

Photo Courtesy Of

Friday, May 30, 2008

Extra! Extra!

The June issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online and around town. In this month's issue, I spoke with Mike Mills of R.E.M. for the cover story and contributed a Q&A piece with guitarist Hugh Harris of The Kooks. If you're unable to grab a physical copy of the magazine, please check out the site.

Please click on the link below to be directed to the page for:


The Kooks

*Special Note* Check back soon to read my complete interview with Mike Mills.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Extra! Extra!

The May issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online and around town. Check out the site if you can't grab a physical copy.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Extra! Extra!

The April issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online and around town. In this month's issue, I contributed a feature piece on Nada Surf and concert write-up on Kathleen Edwards. Check out the site if you can't grab a physical copy.

Please click on the link below to be directed to the page for:

Nada Surf

Kathleen Edwards


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Extra! Extra!

The March issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online and around town. Check out the site if you can't grab a physical copy.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Extra! Extra!

The February issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online and on the news stands around Chicago.

Check out the site if you can't grab a copy of the magazine.