And the band plays on

It's one of pop's unwritten rules that great bands tear themselves apart. Yet REM are still here after 16 years. Nicholas Barber asked bassist Mike Mills how they do it

This week, in the Sunday Review, an REM exclusive, from the mouth of bassist Mike Mills: "I've had sex, and lots of it, and enjoyed every minute of it, too. But drugs are stoopid. Why would we want to get involved in that? We're normal human beings. We're also private people and what we do outside the band is really nobody's business."

This revelation came after I had quoted from an article in last month's Mojo magazine, in which an unnamed source hinted darkly at the "drugs and sex" in the REM camp, about which the world never hears. The thrust of this "incredibly silly piece", in Mills's words, was that REM were on the verge of splitting up. In fact, the closest they got to that verge was last year, when their drummer, Bill Berry, was struck by a near-fatal double aneurysm, in the middle of the band's world tour. "At that point it was pretty much up to Bill, and whether he felt he could continue," says Mills. "If one of us were to leave the band, we'd either break up or at the very least change the name, because that would in fact be the end of REM."

Don't hold your breath. The speed of Berry's recovery was matched only by the speed at which REM came back with a new album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. What's more, they're so happy with it that they have signed a deal with Warner Records for a further five albums. When the king's ransom of royalties rolls in, this contract could net Mike Mills, as one quarter of REM, $20m. Does he think that entertainment stars get paid stupid amounts of money? "Sure. But nobody's gonna send the cheque back. It's about security, it's about being able to take care of your family, it's about being able to do the job you do as long as you want to do it, and if money provides that then I'll take it."

Like most multi-millionaires, he doesn't look like one. He sits beside a bedroom table in Dublin's Clarence Hotel - an establishment owned by U2. He wears a pale yellow jogging shirt, he has round glasses and a round face, sunburnt from too much golfing. He speaks quickly and fluently, in a Southern accent, fitting so many words into one breath that it's no wonder he has the job of holding the long notes in REM. His favourite words are "cool" and "rock'n'roll", but he can casually reel off a sentence that most people in his business couldn't spell. Would he start his own record label? "The thing about me, as a musician, is that once you introduce the concept of the bottom line, it is by nature incompatible with the artistic impulse, and the reconciliation of those two things is the dynamic that fuels the music business." And he's just the bass player, mind.

REM are a phenomenon. It's been 16 years since Mills, Berry, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck got drunk in a deconsecrated church in Athens, Georgia, and chalked possible names on the concrete wall, rejecting Cans of Piss and Negro Eyes in favour of REM. Since then, they have travelled into uncharted rock territory. With the possible exception of U2, it's hard to think of another band that have lasted as long while keeping their original line-up, releasing records regularly - to at least as much critical acclaim and commercial reward as ever - and doing it all on their own terms. As the TV programme says, how do they do that?

Maybe REM should write a book for rock bands on How to Keep Your Marriage Alive. Chapter One would be "Know the Pitfalls". "By the time we started the band we already knew a lot about rock'n'roll. Peter read every magazine that had been written, and Bill worked for a booking agency, so we had a pretty good idea of what not to do. Like, Peter's idea to split the songwriting credit four ways, I was against that. I said, if I write the song, I want the credit. He said, yeah, but countless bands have broken up because the songwriters get more money than anybody else, so it's better for the band if we do it this way. And he's been proven right over and over again."

Secondly, know your limits: no skidding off the rock'n'roll path and down the slippery slope into oratorios and rock operas. "I don't have any illusions about being to write any sort of opera. I know enough about classical music to know how difficult it is. You have to have a huge understanding of the nature of music which is in a way almost antithetical to the nature of rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll comes a little more from the heart, and in classical music you have to use your head a lot - and I don't wanna work that hard!"

What about dance music, which is, in Britain at least, perceived as the cutting edge, while rock music is seen as retrogressive? "Well, I don't dance, so it has absolutely no interest to me whatsoever. I think that by and large it's pretty boring, it's so beat-driven. I'm a melody guy. If there's no melody, I don't have much interest in it. And what's cutting- edge today could easily be tomorrow's crap. Will dance music matter next year? I doubt it. I really doubt it."

Thirdly, don't get too famous too soon. REM had been going for more than eight years before they hit mainstream stardom. "Whatever pressures there are to fame and success came upon us gradually. I would not have wanted to go through what even the Go-Gos had to go through, much less Pearl Jam or Nirvana. It's a lot to ask of a person with no practice or training."

Speaking of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain opined that REM had dealt with their success like saints. Surprisingly, Mills chuckles at this. "I think saints is a bit of an inaccurate word, but he was just being emotive. I think we've dealt with our success like intelligent people. I'd probably leave it at that."

'New Adventures in Hi-Fi' is out now. A video, 'Roadmovie', recorded live in Atlanta in November 1995, is released tomorrow. REM's next single, 'Bittersweet Me', is out on 21 October.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there