Interview: Mike Mills of R.E.M. (2016)

After R.E.M. amicably disbanded in 2011, bassist, composer and all-around utility man Mike Mills started looking for new projects to tackle. He considered doing nothing – “I can goof off with the best of ‘em” – but ultimately opted to pick up a gauntlet laid down by his friend from childhood, acclaimed classical violinist Robert McDuffie.

McDuffie challenged his old pal – a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – to compose a classical concerto for him to play, using rock as its foundation. “I can play Tchaikovsky and Beethoven until my hair falls out,” the violinist told Mills. “I want to do something different.”

Five years later, McDuffie and Mills are touring the country, performing Mills’ “Concerto For Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra.” The piece, which had its world premiere in Toronto in June, also features the 11-member chamber group Fifth House Ensemble.

Mills, who wrote the music for many of R.E.M.’s most popular songs, will play bass, piano and guitar during the performance. He’ll also conduct the onstage rock band, which includes two additional guitarists and a drummer.

Although he reads music at a rudimentary level – thanks to his Macon, Georgia high school marching band and jazz combo training – Mills isn’t a composer in the classical sense. He came up with the melodies for all six of the movements in his concerto, and devised every nuance of McDuffie’s solos, then collaborated with arranger David Malamud on the actual scoring.

“It was incredibly daunting, and many times I cursed myself for having said yes in the first place,” Mills laughs. “But once it came together, and we started playing it as an ensemble, I realized that it was some pretty good music. And that with the right players, it was going to be great.”

Indeed, the music is deeply dramatic, with numerous lighter, poetic flourishes highlighting, say, a simple string quartet or McDuffie’s soaring solo violin. And many of the melodic motifs are haunting and darkly melancholy, like a fistful of great R.E.M. songs (indeed, the fifth movement uses “Nightswimming,” an R.E.M. hit for which Mills wrote the music, as its central theme).

“I tried to write a good song, period, and then I had to come up with a great melody on top of that,” Mills explains. “Because a concerto is all about melody.  It is and it isn’t like writing for R.E.M. Because you’ve got to think – instead of a singer, you’ve got a violin making these melodies happen.”

Although each of the six movements has a name, the 45-minute whole is just “Concerto For Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra.” Mills acknowledges that it’s “a very bland descriptor,” but insists that’s simply how it’s done in Classical World.

“With a concerto,” he says, “the focus is on the virtuosity of the soloists. So whether it’s written for a singer, a pianist or a violinist, that’s what makes it a concerto. When people name pieces of music in classical, it comes after the fact. Beethoven didn’t call the Moonlight Sonata the Moonlight Sonata. It became that later. At some point it will have a shorthand title, but at this point it does not.”

If all that sounds just a trifle pretentious, or far too clever for rock ‘n’ roll, Mills wants you to know he and McDuffie have taken on this project  for a very, very specific reason.

“One thing we’re trying to do is show people that the walls between these genres of music are not quite as high as they think they are,” he explains. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll music, but it’s played by a classical violin and a string section.

“And we’re trying to break down other aspects of classical music, such as: Everyone has to maintain complete silence between movements – there’s no applauding or yelling or anything like that. We’re throwing all that out the window. When Bobby rips off a particularly tasty passage in this thing, people can applaud, go ‘woo-woo’ or whatever they want to do.”