Willy Walker: Thank you, Susan, and welcome everybody. This webcast is a real pleasure to have my oldest and closest friends joining me today to talk about their incredible careers. I'll do a quick intro and then we will get to our discussion. R.E.M. was an American rock band from Athens, Georgia formed in 1980 by drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and lead vocalist Michael Stipe, who were students at the University of Georgia. Liner notes from some of the band's albums list attorney Bertis Downs and manager Jefferson Holt as non-musical members.
One of the first alternative rock bands, R.E.M. was noted for Buck’s ringing guitar style, Stipes distinctive vocal quality, unique stage presence, and obscure lyrics, Mill's melodic bass lines and backing vocals and Barry's tight, economical drumming style. In the early 1990s other alternative rock acts such as Nirvana viewed R.E.M. as a pioneer of the genre. After Barry left the band in 1997 the band continued its career into the 2000s and broke up amicably in 2011, with members devoting time to solo projects, after having sold more than 90 million albums worldwide, and becoming the one of the world's best-selling musical acts.
So Mike, let me start with this. There's so much in that description to dive into when you hear R.E.M. was an American rock band, do you wish you guys were still together?
Mike Mills: No, I don't wish we were still together; it is jarring to hear the word was applied. I don't know I still think of it as ongoing even though we're not actually making any new music. Because it feels like it never really goes away. We exist still in vinyl, and on the radio and in all these ephemeral places. But no, I don't wish we were still doing it. I went to a YouTube concert a few years ago and for the first two or three songs, I was sitting there thinking, Man, they have so much fun. It's so great. I could be doing this. And then I said, then there'll be doing it tomorrow night and the night after that and for the next six months. I said that's okay. I'm good.
Willy Walker: So, take us back to the early 1980s when the band was first starting up. In Athens, Georgia, you all were at the University of Georgia. Were you all the quintessential struggling rock band of sort of playing acts and kind of stringing things together or was it more you were at school, and playing as a band and just making some money on the side playing, and in nightclubs and things like that?
Mike Mills: Well, we were all still in school. We were doing weekend trips. Well, you know, we played around Athens and Atlanta a few times, then realized we could go to maybe North Carolina, and play you know, Chapel Hill and Raleigh in a weekend and make enough money to pay rent, and beer and pizza food money for the rest of the month in one weekend. So, it became a weekend thing for us mostly, as long as we were still in school, then gradually, one by one, we stopped going to school, and were able to make it more of a full-time thing. We never knew what was going to happen. We just wanted to make music and have fun and be a band and the fact that it became successful was as big a shock to us as anyone else.
Willy Walker: One of the songs that was written back in 1980 right at the beginning was don't go back to Rockville. And because Walker & Dunlop is based in Bethesda, Maryland I got a lot of questions as it relates to is that Rockville, Maryland? You want to tell the story about Ingrid Schorr.
Mike Mills: Sure. Ingrid was a good friend of mine. We dated in college and we're still great friends. She was heading back for the summer to a town called Rockville, Maryland and I said going back to Rockville well that sounds like a song if I've ever heard one. And as I wrote it, it sort of morphed into this thing of what if we were in love and she was leaving me and going back to this town I've never heard of and how would that be and that's what the song turned into. She's written a great piece and I can't think of, there's a literary magazine where she wrote a piece about being that girl and it's really incredibly well done. But you know that song had legs as they say. It's still very popular probably because I keep playing it all the charity events, I do but yeah, it's lasted very well.
Willy Walker: So when I was asking you about sort of the startup of the band and sort of playing bars and what have you, in researching for this, I realized that in your first year, you all open for the Police at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. I mean, first of all, in your first year as a band, you opened for the Police at the Fox Theater. How did that come about? And what was that like?
Mike Mills: Well, when Bill Berry and I lived, we lived together in Macon. He worked for the Paragon booking agency. And one of the agents was our good friend Buck Williams who was our R.E.M.’s agent for many many years. They brought in an agent from Europe because Alex Hodges the owner of Paragon started seeing this new music catching on and become popular. He said, I need somebody who understands this stuff because no one in Macon did. And somebody I can't remember who said well, you got to get this guy Ian Copeland from Europe. So Ian came in to Macon, Georgia, probably the biggest culture shock of his life and started trying to gather you know, new music bands for Paragon. And he became like Bill and I’s big brother, basically, the big brother I never had and like a brother to us. So when he and Buck left to form, FBI/Frontier Booking International, Ian says, he signed us he said, I don't sign unsigned bands, we didn't have a record deal. He said, I don't sign unsigned bands but you're my friends. I'm going to sign you even if you make farting noises is exactly how he described it. And, and so we were fairly popular in Atlanta at that point, it wasn't like we were unknown at the Fox Theater. Of course we could never have sold that out ourselves. But so he put us on in front of The Police. And we had a good-sized crowd that knew who we were, and it turned out to be a really great show. I remember seeing watching from the side of the stage, which was pretty cool.
Willy Walker: So Bert, I mentioned the top that you're listed on number of albums is a non-musical member. How did you become a non-musical member rather than becoming a law professor at the University of Georgia?
Bertis Downs: Well, I did teach at the law school for a good long while I taught at law school really for 30 years. I started teaching writing, which after a while, gets pretty old. But I ended up teaching entertainment law once I've done a bunch of R.E.M. things and was qualified to teach entertainment law. I did that for 20-25 years. But I don't know the band was just always incredibly generous. I mean, it's kind of hard to say, I don't know, I don't know how I became a non-musical, but I was never a member of the band, the band is the band. I was always the person who helped them be a band out in the world and do what they did artistically. And you know, somebody had to take phone calls and go to meetings and do some of the things that bands you know, if they did all those kinds of things, they wouldn't be as good at being a band, so they trusted myself and others, there were certainly other people involved and still are. But yeah, it was very much of an honorary designation and one that I've taken seriously and been very blessed by.
Willy Walker: When did it turn from being you just kind of showing up where they were playing and being friends with them to actually something that you took on a role working with them?
Bertis Downs: Around the time I got out of law school, and they needed some help with some early contracts. And you know, that led to other things and business organizational stuff and thinking about things like insurance and accounting and expenses and the kind of business habits that you got to develop at some point might as well do them early. It's a lot easier than later. If all the sudden that's a jolty to you, like oh, it's a real thing now but we've got all these years we didn't really do any of that stuff. So I think they always - they're smart guys, and they took that kind of advice.
Willy Walker: Yeah. So Millzie in the 80s you guys released Reckoning and Fables of the Reconstruction and Life's Rich Pageant, Document in Green. First of all, when I go back over those albums, it's just for me and every one of that era what an incredible, what an incredible run of albums there. Was there during that period of time either a record, or a concert, or some general time where all of a sudden you felt that what you were doing went to a whole different level. I mean, during that period of time you've gone from just being an emerging band to all of a sudden starting to gain traction. Was there a moment where you all looked at each other and said, Man, we're going to the next level here.
Mike Mills: We were very fortunate in that our rise was very gradual in a way that probably could never happen now. Because it was pre internet and pre-YouTube and pre The Voice and all that stuff. So we were able to, to build our momentum by working our asses off and playing anywhere that we could. Every record sold a little more than the one before it. So there was no there was no real leap until Losing My Religion came out. So for that first decade it was just very gradual, you know, we played anywhere in everywhere that we could, you know, pizza parlors, biker joints, gay discos, it didn't matter, as long as we could play and get five people, the next time we play, we get 50 people and next time we'd get 300 people and then we were making a living at it. So that was the cool thing about it was that we were able to absorb everything that was happening in a gradual way. I think it's a very sad case that when bands get too big too fast, you don't have the emotional ability to cope with it. You don't know how to handle all of this success and money and adoration and people telling you things that may or may not be true. It was just really fortunate for us that we had that gradual rise and that we had someone like Bertis to help us negotiate the more legal aspects of it, the parts that we were not really familiar with, but we could make the right decisions with the help of Bertis’ advice.
Willy Walker: On that, you know, most people who sit around to start a business, they draw up a business plan, they talk about kind of who owns what they have a partnership agreement, etc., etc. I'm assuming, as all this started to gain momentum, you didn't sort of all of a sudden stop and say, Okay, now we've really got something, let's figure it out. How did you guys work as a group and obviously Bertis was an important factor there. But I mean, with so much coming at you, did you all, either really focus on that or just kind of push it to Bertis to focus on it for you? How did you guys work as a band as you emerged?
Mike Mills: Well, there are some essential elements to it. Peter’s a bit of, he's a rock'n'roll historian, you know, and that's his passion and he had read about it his whole life, so he knew where the pitfalls were. And very early on he said, we're going to split the songwriting four ways. And I said well, I said why is that? He said, well because the songwriters make the bulk of the money and that's the one of the first things that breaks up a band is when one or two guys make all the money, and the other two guys don't make any. I said well, I don't know if I want that. I said I don't really care about the money. I just want the credit if I write the song and he says, well, he's Yeah, I get that but, but really, he said, the only way this is gonna work for any length of time, if we get lucky enough to have a length of time, is that we all split the songwriting equally, and it was far and away the best decision we ever made. It kept everyone involved. And as it turned out, we did all write the songs. I mean, everyone contributed musically to every song. So it was very prescient on his part. And so those are the sorts of decisions that -- we also decided early on that we had something called veto power. If there was something like a song or a show or something that a decision had to be made and one band member absolutely did not want to do it and thought, it was a really terrible idea we were allowed to exercise that veto power. You couldn't be outvoted if you really felt that strongly about it, which implies a very strong level of trust between the four of us that you know, nobody is going to wantonly exercise that power. If you threw out the veto card, it was something that we had to trust that you really really felt strongly about and understood the ramifications of that decision and we're willing to live with.
Bertis Downs: I will offer a friendly amendment of that. I think the theater having also done another thing in terms of like, early days of what should and shouldn't do in terms how you ran your business which is y'all never really invested in things outside your core business which was the band together. You all did different things with the money once it started coming in. But Peter also I remember saying one of the things that breaks up bands is getting involved in other businesses where there are different tastes and different styles and different priorities and values. So y'all didn't buy property together you didn't you know, other than the stuff that related to you be in a band that was plenty of business to be in together as partners. And then the other thing is I don't remember anybody ever exercising the veto. I knew you had it. I knew you worked by consensus. I knew that it was a beautiful thing that y'all would just keep talking about something and that you know, sometimes bad meetings lasted a while, or we had them like over a period of time and you came to a decision, but I don't remember anybody ever actually using their veto power even though I know everybody had it. Do you and did I just miss that? Y'all did it with me not the rooms which is fine.
Mike Mills: Actually that is a good point because we never really had to use it on any major decisions. It was more of the smaller stuff. You know, mixes of a song or what to put in the setlist or just more day to day stuff is where it really got used. Fortunately, I mean it might have had greater consequences had we used it on any real major decision. But the way we used to, there was never really any financial ramifications of it.
Bertis Downs: I also learned from Peter never to have never to call a band meeting right before a show. I remember doing that one time in Chicago. It was an important thing. I wouldn't have called a band meeting. You know, I hated doing that. But he let me know don't ever do that.
Mike Mills: No, it doesn't work. You get very much inside your own head before a show and there's no way to make a really responsible decision in that situation.
Bertis Downs: Yeah, it was a rookie mistake way too late in my career.
Willy Walker: Millzie, you are saying right before a show makes me think back to when we were at Rock in Rio, and you were playing in front of 125,000 fans and you peeled back the curtain and looked out and said this is the largest audience I've ever played in front of. And you said that to my wife, Sheila. Curious, did you get nervous before concerts? Did you ever get to a point where that nervousness kind of went away and you're just like, okay, it's just another show? Or did you always get nervous before you went out on stage?
Mike Mills: Wow, there are a few things about that. Number one, it was it was at least twice that many people it was at least 250,000 at Rock and Rio, you couldn't even see them all from the stage. They went off to the sides, and of into the distance. It was Yeah, it was 250 to 300,000, I think was the last estimate I heard. But at some point, it doesn't matter. You know, once you get over 80,000 people just to throw a number out there, it doesn't really matter how many there are, you can't really see them all and they're so far away. It just doesn't really have an impact on you. It's cool, and it's great. But you don't really, you're not aware of it necessarily. Yeah, I still got nervous before shows, I want to. You want to get nervous before a show. If you walk out there and you just don't care. You know, it's just another day, then why are you even doing this? The funny thing is even no matter how tired you might get late in a tour, or how, oh god we're in, you know, I'm gonna throw out Poughkeepsie just for the hell of it. Nothing against Poughkeepsie. But if you're in a, let's say, you're in a city, and you're barely aware of where you are, and you're just exhausted, and you really don't care. As soon as you walk onto that stage, you care. As soon as you walk out there, and you see those people and you hear the people and you remember that this is their one night, this may be your 300th night, but it's their one night and they are pumped to be there, and you need to be there for them. So it was never hard to be up for a show, even if it took walking on stage to make it happen.
Willy Walker: Bertis you were looking at things from a from a business perspective. You knew everything that was going on to both get the band on that stage and then whether there was an MTV recording going on, a record deal that you were thinking about what have you. As you think about it, was there ever a time where you had nervousness about something going on that the band was sort of oblivious to?
Bertis Downs: That's a hard one Willy. Man, you ask good questions. That's a really good question. Um, I don't know you're right. I mean, in some ways, we thought about things on different levels. They were always I mean, I thought of my role with them as being more like a, we were never organized this way. but I was, you know, of General Counsel, but I was really operating more like a CEO, like help them run their business. They were the board of directors, so they made the decisions. But they didn't think about them day to day the way I did, I don't think and sometimes, you know, I would have had a phone conversation or, you know, been mulling over a fork in the road or something we were considering. And they're on stage playing a show. So I hope they're in a different headspace than I'm in. But I certainly enjoyed certainly, I never looked at setlist their whole career. I always enjoyed being surprised. I didn't want to know they were getting ready to play Sitting Still one of my favorite songs, if they started playing Sitting Still, I was just as happy as the other people getting to hear the song. But um, I love being transported, you know, out of what you're talking about, like the dilemmas or the conundrums or the things like that. But yeah, I think that that's a fair observation of like, like Bill in Cologne. I can't remember if you were at Cologne or not, but that was the free show. And I was in Cologne. I thought so. I mean, you always turned up at the best places. I mean, you really did. You chose really well. But Cologne, my God, there was a lot going on that night. It was a free show. It was a few months before what became 9/11. It was May 2001. And you know, in retrospect now what were we thinking, you know, to put on a free show, even with really good promotion and production. And, you know, it was documented people all over Europe, were there. So there were just a host of factors. My guess is the band was on stage thinking. This is great. Let's play a fabulous show for MTV’s cameras, which they did, which has been memorialized. And you know, so yeah, thanks for asking.
Willy Walker: Yeah. As you sit there and talk about the business behind it, it makes me think about the fact that the band spent a tremendous amount of time together touring. But did you all ever have like an annual meeting to sit down and sort of say, okay, we've just finished 1991 this is what it looked like, this is what came in on ticket sales. This is album sales, this is this and that, and this is what we're going to do in 1992? Or was it more kind of just organic?
Bertis Downs: We had occasional annual meetings. Isn’t that right Mike? Like, I mean, we did have serious conversations.
Mike Mills: Yea, that sounds right. I mean, they became a little more regular as time went on, and there were more, the decisions were more impactful that we had to make. I think we were a little more attentive to having these annual meetings because there was more money involved and it needed to be addressed. But yeah, y’all were really good about only having things like that when we absolutely needed them, they just became a little more needed as time went on.
Bertis Downs: I remember we had like a four-day annual meeting to plan the ‘95 tour, and we did it ’93. Y’all hadn't toured in four years, we knew you were gonna tour after whatever the next record was, after Automatic. Monster hadn’t even been made yet. And that was like an extent, I mean, it wasn’t going to be a one-hour meeting. It wasn’t going to be a one-day meeting. So ended up being a really good meeting. We came out of that set of meetings and kind of knowing what the next couple of years were gonna look like.
Mike Mills: But it was also I think, really useful for us to be together in a non, it was a work situation, but it wasn't a live show situation where we could all just reconnect as friends and not have the stress of getting out on stage and all this stuff that went along with that. We were able to just relax in a really cool place and address the business issues that we had, but also just hanging out his friends. I think that was really useful for us.
Willy Walker: Millzie, when you mentioned previously, the writing of the songs and then you know, the division of money, if you will, and it being split a fourth, one of the listeners, a guy named Joel Breitkopf of Alchemy Properties asked what comes first, the music or the lyrics?
Mike Mills: In our case, it was almost always the music, which is I think, the opposite of how most songwriters operate. Peter, Bill, and I would bring in an idea, something just a tiny germ of an idea or maybe a fully written song. And we would rehearse that and make cassettes and give them to Michael and he would write the lyrics and melodies from that. Occasionally Michael would join us in rehearsal sometimes from the beginning usually he'd come in a little bit later and he would listen. So you know, songs got written in a lot of different ways. Me In Honey, for example, Michael was actually at the rehearsal and just sitting around and I started playing that riff on the bass just for the heck of it. And he said keep going, I said, it really hurts, it was really hard to play. So he said keep playing, keep playing, and so I just kept playing it and within about, you know, three minutes he'd written the song. I said, okay, it needs one more chord. So I went down to the five and played that and then went back to the one, musical terms there, and bang, the song was done. So sometimes that happens. Sometimes it was really nice to have him in the room for moments like that, but most of the time it was best that the three musicians just worked on our stuff and whipped it into some kind of shape and then gave him the cassette to listen to.
Willy Walker: I said at the top that Michael was known for his obscure lyrics, and I was just curious as it relates to how often would you or Michael forget the lyrics as you were performing live. Was that a pretty normal occurrence or was that infrequent?
Mike Mills: I don't know that it really happened much if at all. Michael had a music stand very famously, for many many many years, he carried this music stand around. This was a little bit later when we had a crew and everything, they would have the all the lyrics printed out and you would have them there in case you needed them. Which, which of course makes it easier if you know you have them, you're less likely to need them, like so many things in life. And then one of his signature moves was at the end of every song, he would ball up those lyrics and throw them out in the crowd and those were big souvenirs for people to be able to catch. But no, the lyrics even as many as he had, as far as I know, he was pretty good at remembering them. And I didn't have that many, so it wasn't hard for me.
Willy Walker: Bertis, you talked about the veto right that the band members had and Millzie talked about it as it relates to, you know, playlists. Talk about how, I remember going to concerts and playlists were very sort of, of all the things that we would either see or not see, hanging around backstage, the playlist is one of those things you wouldn't see until they walked out on stage. In one of the live albums recorded in Dublin, Michael says okay Bertis here's your request Gardening at Night. How often did you get your request?
Bertis Downs: What was funny about that is, first of all, I didn't request things after about 1982 when I was crazy about Carnival of sorts and Rockville and would yell those out, often towards the end of the, of the show when I'd been served, and I think the band let me know early that wasn't really my role to be making requests from the audience you know, so I didn't do it after I kind of grew up out of that stage. But I think he just always knew that that was a favorite song of mine. I mean, Michael must have known in 2007 that Gardening at Night was definitely a fun song for Bertis, and they'd already played three of the five songs on Chronictown during those five nights and so in the last night toward the end of the show, I was up in the balcony and Michael, so it was not like that night I said hey, like play Gardening at Night, I wouldn't have done that, it would have been dumb. But he I guess just had it back in his head that this is one Bertis likes so he would just mention that. Just very sweet. And you know, they played it great. I mean, I love those songs even all those years later. Hey Willy, tell the audience how we know you, other than you showing up in all our shows at least the really good ones. Tell people the backstory on how the R.E.M. guys got to know Willy Walker, it was kind of random in a way.
Willy Walker: I was just a big groupie. That was it. I knocked on the door and finally got let in. So I was actually going to go to that, but I was gonna go to it this way. So Millzie 1991, June of 91, Rolling Stone magazine puts you guys on the cover. And the title of the cover was R.E.M. #1 With an Attitude. What did it feel like to be the number one rock band in the world? I mean, you've been emerging in the 80s and now all of a sudden, 1991 there you are on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with we are number one?
Mike Mills: Well, I guess it all ties into the gradual build the way it happened for us. You know, we were also savvy enough to know that you can't take seriously what you read on the cover of virtually any magazine. I mean, we were number one by certain quantifiable numbers. Yes. But music is not a hard and fast concrete thing. It's abstract. It's what people like and what people don't like. Yes, we were one of, if not the most popular band in the world for a few years. So that was nice, it felt great. And to be honest, you know, if you're gonna get on stage in front of people, even if you're the nicest most self-effacing person in the world, you still have to have some ego to feel like there's any real validity in you being in front of these people and them paying money to see you do what it is you're doing. There has to be some ego involved. So you know, when the when Rolling Stone is saying we're the number one band in the world? Well, yeah, okay, sure, I'll take that. We worked really, really hard to get here. I know we're good. I know we've written great songs and made great records and we do a great live show. So you know, why not call us the number one band in the world. And on the other hand, it is also something you can enjoy because you know, if you're any sort of rock historian at all, or you pay any attention, you know, that stuff doesn't last, there's a career arc to this. And if we've made it you know, if our apex is at the top of the heap, then great, let's just accept it and enjoy it and cruise with it for as long as we can.
Willy Walker: So, to answer Bertis’s question, just for those listening to understand this, the band came down to Paraguay in 1992 to tour a Nature Conservancy project that was on the Paraguayan Brazilian border, called Mbaracayú, which was preserving a huge forest as well as allowing for the indigenous population to live in that forest. And I happen to be living in Paraguay and was very good friends with the president of that foundation and he asked me if I knew R.E.M. to which I'd said they're only my favorite rock band in the world. And he said well, they're coming to Paraguay, and I'd like you to join me in taking them out to Mbaracayú. So as there were there were eight of us who headed out to the park, and I had three in my car with me. Millzie was sitting right next to me, and we've left Asunción and we're driving out to the truly the middle of nowhere. And I think we had a Stevie Ray Vaughan cassette in the four-runner playing and as we pull into this gas station in a town called San Lorenzo which is truly in the middle of nowhere in Paraguay headed towards Brazil. As we go to get gas, I turn off the four runner and the cassette tape ejects automatically, and the radio comes on. And on the radio, they are playing Losing my Religion. And I turn to Millzie who is getting out of the front seat of the four runner and I stopped you and I said to you, do you realize where we are and the fact that your song is playing on the radio and I did see a little bit of recognition at that point about how far and wide you guys had gone to be in San Lorenzo, Paraguay and listening to your song on the radio, even though you'd obviously heard it all over the world. It was really quite something. And I just think back to that, and obviously we've all known each other now for 30 years, and I've been able to watch you all and interact with you all. But I have to say that one of the one of the most amazing things for me at that time was that you guys were at the top of your game, you would very rarely interact with people sort of on a more consistent basis than meeting people as you ran around the world. And here I was with the opportunity to spend some real time with you guys in the woods of Paraguay. And it's what ended up creating the relationship that we've all had ever since.
Mike Mills: And it was it was unforgettable. I remember meeting you. I remember riding in the van with you. Just amazing things that happened in that jungle. It was one of the most special trips of our lives. Nobody gets to do that. I mean, very few people get to do that. And, you know you made it comfortable and special and that was much appreciated. And we were really glad we got to meet you.
Bertis Downs: Yeah, my memory from that trip, piggybacking on what Mike said, ties in with what you were saying about Losing my Religion. Y'all kept it very hush hush that the band was gonna be in town. I don't know what the concerns were other than he wanted to respect their privacy. And it was a low-key trip. It wasn't anything anybody was doing any press about. And so at the hotel, all of a sudden, there's all this hubbub. And there are two different TV announcers with cameras, with lights. When I look back on it, it was pretty primitive in terms of what we would expect now. And it was the two major networks, whatever they were called, one and the other, A and B. And they were competitors. And they did a joint press conference with the band impromptu because they said something about Losing my Religion R.E.M. we're happy to just work together to get a few minutes of their time. Do you remember that Willy? I mean, it went out live as far as I know. And we've never been able to track down a tape of it. I don't know that anybody kept a tape of it. But it was just kind of cool that, you know, the guys were there. Nobody expected to see him and all of a sudden, they're doing an interview with both major networks in the country. I think that was our first day there.
Willy Walker: So one other quick one from that was when we showed up in the Aché Village and they're all sitting around this cauldron on a fire. And both of you walk over and look in the cauldron and there is a monkey head and their monkey brain.
Mike Mills: It was a face.
Willy Walker: It was a face looking right up at us. And then Millzie grabs a guitar and starts playing and Millzie and Mike start playing Losing my Religion in front of these people who obviously had no idea what was going on. But for me to be sitting there saying you're listening to the number one song in the world right now being played by a band to people who have no context for what that is, was a really incredible scene of the cauldron with the monkey brains and the Ashay indigenous peoples there and you guys playing for them this amazing song that had taken the world by fire. Really something else.
Mike Mills: It was pretty special. The guitar had I think five strings and was vaguely in tune and it was it was, yeah, it was a lot of fun because they didn't know but they seem to enjoy it. The cool thing about the monkey though I walked up to the cauldron, and it was boiling and bubbling, and you couldn't see anything I said what's in there and they're, oh dinner, and about that time just like the magic eight ball you know how the thing floats up to the top. I was like oh, that's what dinner is okay, well let’s move on. Do you want some I said no, I don't think so?
Willy Walker: So Mike talk about that period though. So Losing my Religion, you use that as sort of the seminal moment as it relates to you go from being popular and successful to being superstars. Just you know, as you think back on 91 to 95 that period of time where the pace of things just accelerated dramatically and Out of Time and Automatic for the People and Monster, those three albums come out and you're doing MTV consistently and you U2 are the number one and number two bands in the world. Well, how did the world change during that period of time from the 1980s.
Mike Mills: Well, the world changed in that it got a lot bigger. The reason, one of the main reasons we left IRS to sign with Warner Brothers was their global outreach, you know, we got tired of going to Europe and playing for 20 people because they couldn't get our record and they didn't hear it on the radio, and IRS just had no presence in Europe. And it was frustrating for us. It wasn't like we were trying to conquer the world. But on the other hand, we were going over there and playing, and it was a slog to get over there, so we wanted to have it make an impact. So Warner Brothers was very good for that. And then, we had no idea that that Losing my Religion, which wasn't even supposed to be the big single off the record, it was the lead in single, it's a five-minute song with no chorus and the mandolin is the lead instrument. That is not a recipe for global domination. But it had a universal chord and it worked with people. One of my favorite moments was, Peter and I were doing a press tour in Israel and as a reward for doing it, we got to go spend a couple of days on the Dead Sea in Getty, and we went down to the disco in the hotel. And they put on Losing my Religion and all the kids rushed the dance floor started dancing and Peter and I said that's crazy. So we talked to the DJ a little bit later he said, Yeah, he said, all the kids they asked for “Oh life” because that's all that's the only words they understood were the first two “oh life” and so they would all yell at it play oh life, play oh life. So, you know, that was another hint that that it had really penetrated to corners of the world.
Will Walker: Bert, during this period of time a lot of other things had to come into play. You've gone from, relatively speaking, a local band being the United States to being global brand. You've got concerts that are going on around the globe, you've got security considerations, you've got record deals, and I want to talk about the record deal in a second. But how did your life of managing everything change dramatically during that period of time?
Bertis Downs: Well, it was also before computers, before email, before the World Wide Web, before JPEGs. Before all the things we now take for granted to make things more efficient, and faster. And I mean, we were literally around when FedEx was new. And when the idea of being able to get a document overnight somewhere was just like revolutionary, oh my god, really, I mean, not having to wait on the mail. I'll give you a good example of that, first of all, it got more busy. We started, you know, there were just more people involved. There were more trusted advisors and law firms and business organization, all kinds of issues. But I'll tell you, when you were talking about Losing my Religion, and Mike was talking about oh life and being in Israel, I tell you, I had I had a couple of tough meetings because when the band decided after the ‘89 tour and the year of making Out of Time, and the release of Out of Time, and then the surprise hit that Losing my Religion became and then lasted for a long time. By the time ‘92 rolls around, they decided, well before they made Out of Time, they weren't going to tour. So, I got to go tell the record company that had just given them this big record deal that they were done touring, that they're not touring their second record. But they would do a lot of promotional stuff. We would do Mountain Stage, we would do BBC, we would do tons of radio stuff and MTV stuff. And so we did enough to let people know the record was out, but the band just did not want to do another, the band just didn't really think they could survive another full year on the road. And then they decided they weren't going to tour again after Automatic either. And that in particular, it was a dinner in London, with the record company brass, by then we were a bigger band in Europe than we were in America, it started Losing my Religion. We never sold more records in America than Europe, after ‘91. It was always a bigger market for us, which makes sense. It's a lot of countries over there, they add up. But I’m at this dinner with a bunch of the Warner's brass. It's a great dinner, you know, Mike was at some of those dinners depending on what we were there doing. And I remember in particular, letting them know the band wasn't gonna tour again, it seemed to have worked pretty well out of time. And Jeremy Marsh was the guy who ran Warner’s at the time a young guy, barely older than me. He says, well, if they're not going to tour, I guess they better make another really good record. So they made Automatic for the People. I think he should take some credit, like he inspired them to make a really good record, because they weren’t going to tour, but then by the time they got ready to tour it, you know, it's been a nice long time off. And they now had three really good records to tour behind in ‘95.
Willy Walker: And then in ‘96, you negotiated what is considered to be at least the contract of the decade, potentially the contract of all times. Talk about the Warner Brothers contract that you put together in 96.
Bertis Downs: Well, I'm not gonna talk much about it. For obvious reasons. I'm not going to get into details. I mean, Mike's welcome to but I don't think he wants too either. There's just no, I mean, basically, the band was like a free agent pitcher that everybody in the league wanted. You're a really good pitcher. You're at the height of your prime of your career. You've won some awards. And you can go anywhere at this point, unrestricted free agent, and that's what the band essentially was. And there were a lot of reasons to stay at Warner's. There were also a lot of reasons to move. But the gravity of staying at Warner's, we already had the four records done, one that we were going to be bringing them that year, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. 25th anniversary edition coming out next month. And so we really liked Warner’s. We liked working with Warner’s. There had been some major serious personnel changes, which certainly put it into question. But it was a good relationship. And it lasted for a good bit longer than that. There were a lot of good people there, whatever was going on at the top, which was, you know, a little bit hard to figure out all the time. It was a complicated time. So we renegotiated and a friend of mine told me that the reason we had so much leverage in that deal, and I think I recognized it, and I think we all recognized, and we didn't want to abuse it. But you know, when you're trying to get something done like that everybody in town as in LA thought that the band was gonna re-sign with Warner's because that's where their catalog was, that's where their hits were, and Warner’s could certainly, it made a lot of sense to do things in the deal that related back to that original deal with them. But the Warner’s didn't necessarily think that they were, you know, they were definitely wanting to keep the band, they certainly didn't want to lose them. So it was a productive negotiation, the band got a great deal. It was also about two years before this thing called Napster and MP3.com. And this internet thing wasn't just a fad, it actually mattered and stuck, and completely changed the music business into what it is now, which is a, you know, we lived in both worlds, we had the first two decades of the band's career in the old world, and what's going on right now, including all the legacy stuff, and all the catalog stuff, and all the use of music and licensing, completely different world, different economics, different kinds of record deals, which is why the idea that it's the record deal of all time, that's not the case, just because things change so much the technology, the economics, enough.
Willy Walker: Millzie, anything from that time that you remember, as it relates to that contract and having signed such a great contract, change the way that you or the band approach what you were doing?
Mike Mills: It didn't change anything. From the first Warner, the first IRS contract to both Warner contracts, we made it clear that that we had full creative control over everything, we were willing to suffer the consequences of whatever happened or didn't happen, because of the decisions we made. But they were going to be our decisions. And that included everything from which songs are on the record, which producer we were using, the artwork, whether or not to tour. All of these things were up to us. And so every contract gave us that freedom, or we wouldn't have signed it. So that's the sort of thing that, you know, it sounds great to have that kind of freedom, but you have to be willing to live with the possibility that that might cost economically or, or, you know, in terms of your career arc, these decisions you make, they may not be the most economically advancing decisions you could make. But that was not the point for us. So, all these contracts just really kept us in the place we wanted to be, which was making the music we wanted to make in the fashion and time in which we wanted to make it.
Willy Walker: And as you think back, Mercer wrote a question, which I love, because Mercer could have has asked it himself. But as you think back, Mike, about sort of the 80s, the 90s in the 2000s, as I sort of think about it, it's the emerging band, the break through time when you're, you know, top top top, and then you've got success, you've got the brand, and you've got the money in the 2000s. Which period was the most fun? Was it trying to build to it? Was it being on the top? Or was it having the flexibility to basically do what you wanted when you wanted how you wanted it?
Mike Mills: Well, it would be hard, it would be probably not true to say it wasn't the 80s because it was all fresh and new. And it was all about discovery. And for me discovery is the most exciting thing about life, not knowing what's coming next, not knowing what tomorrow or the next week, or the next hour will bring. So for us to be able to go to new cities and meet all these new people and play these new places and see how our new songs are being received. And also the fact that that there was no guarantee of success. By the 90s we were good, and we knew it, and everyone knew it, and there was some unhappiness with Monster because it was such a departure from Automatic for the People. But on the on the whole, we knew we were good, and we knew what we were doing. In the 80s we had no idea of whether this would be a good thing or a bad thing. You'd go to a town, and you didn't know if anybody would show up and if they did, would they throw things you don't know. And so that sort of period of freshness and discovery and uncertainty was more exciting. Then later then again on the other hand playing festivals of 100,000 people is extremely exciting to walk out on stage and have people farther than you can see is, you know, obviously there's nothing like that. And I'm really, you know, grateful and thrilled that we got to do that. But if you had to pick a decade that I enjoyed the most, it was probably the 80s because we were working really, really hard. And it wasn't any thought of anything except write the songs, get in the van, go play the shows, and have fun. That was all there was to it.
Willy Walker: Is there a venue that you enjoyed? I'm going to come to you in a second Bert. But is there a venue Millzie that you enjoyed playing more than any other? I will just say seeing you at Red Rocks here in Denver and having the after party at my loft in LoDo was one of the greater nights in my entire life. But I don't know that Red Rocks is up there as far as venues that you liked playing.
Mike Mills: There are certain things about some outdoor shows that it's all about how happy the crowd is really a lot of it. Red Rocks is a magical place. Everybody goes there and everybody's up and ready to have a good time. The Greek Theatre in LA and the one in Berkeley is another one. The Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Those are all extremely special places. And you have special shows and usually the crowd is 100% behind you. Some people would say Madison Square Garden, and that's true, but a New York crowd can be a little bit of a little tougher nut to crack. They're jaded, and they're cynical, and they're not quite as ready to be over the top enthusiastic as they are, say Red Rocks or the Fox Theater.
Bertis Downs: We were always there after the circus to or during the circus. I remember that.
Mike Mills: Yeah, that was not going to feed an elephant. They actually suspended the circus for a couple of days so we could do the shows at Madison Square Garden. The animals were all downstairs in the basement so we got to go take a tour of all the all the circus animals. It was neat.
Bertis Downs: I don’t know the funnest from stage but the funnest for me in terms of putting the tours together and especially overseas was the 2000s because even though Bill wasn’t in the band anymore. It wasn't very big, it was with either Joey Waronker or Bill Rieflin playing drums and of course Scott McCoy always our side. But those shows I mean getting to play may you know beautiful town squares in Germany. Getting to play the Verona Amphitheater, which is 2000 years old, which I think Tosca was the opera that they moved out so that y'all can play on a Monday night which is the only night rock bands can play there because they do opera six nights a week to get into Place Lane Castle, Trafalgar Square. I mean those were just Naples all over Europe playing outdoor shows especially in public places. Those to me were just the most breathtaking, fun memories, and you're right Willy the way you described it. The band was at that point riding high but there wasn't the pressure of like the biggest band in the world. They weren't you know, it wasn't play for the month anymore. Radio stations still respected them, fans still turned up, they headlined festivals, that to me was a really fun decade from both a fan and friend but management perspective too.
Willy Walker: Yeah. And during the 90s and the 2000s Millzie, you all did lots of festivals where there were other acts performing at the same time and you all did a lot of benefit concerts where a bunch of bands would come together to raise money for various things, and you played with bands like U2 and Springsteen and Dylan and what have you. Any time during all that that you sort of stopped and said Holy shit, I'm jamming with Eddie Vedder or I'm doing a duet with Natalie Merchant or something there were you sort of were just like this is super fun?
Mike Mills: Well sure, they're the standout moment for that sort of thing. We were doing the Vote for Change tour I guess with Springsteen and Bruce is just the greatest guy I mean, so he asked Peter to come up and play Born to Run with him and they're sitting there about to do it, its soundcheck, and I'm watching soundcheck, I'm sitting out there, I said, you know, damn guitar players, get to have all the fun. Nobody needs bass players. So here I am sitting out in an empty seat, and I think Peter, bless his heart, said something to Bruce. And Bruce comes over to me, points and goes, hey, and I literally turned around and looked behind me to see who he was pointing at. He says, “no, you come up here.” So I said alright. So he said, “you want to play bass?” I said, “well, you already have a bass player.” He said, “Yeah, you all work something out.” So I went back and talked to Gary Talon, who was great, and we were like, what should we do? You know, were two bassists. He says, “well, why don't you play fuzz base?” I said, “that's a great idea.” So we set it up for fuzz base and Bruce came over and he said, “so what are you going to do with two bassists? What are you going to do?” I said, “well, Bruce, I'm going to play fuzz base. Gary's gonna play regular base.” Bruce goes, “fuzz base, whoa”. And to this day, that is like whenever I'm overawed by something, I just kind of think to myself “fuzz base, whoa”. And so we got to do the show and I'm playing fuzz base and in the middle of Born to Run, Bruce nods me up to the microphone, and I get to do the Oh, Oh, Oh stuff with Bruce. There are pictures of me, there are photographs of me, Danny Clinch has some and I look pretty damn happy. That may be the career highlight. It's certainly one of them.
Bertis Downs: It was.
Willy Walker: Given that U2 and R.E.M. sort of emerged, if you will, at the same time and went to the top, you all have had a lot of both been at concerts with them, you all have collaborated with them. If you think about it, Mike, what are the similarities or the differences between the way that R.E.M. and U2 have operated as bands? Obviously, they're still together and still performing. Not on that, but like, when in the 1990s, when U2 and R.E.M. were both the two most famous rock bands on the face of the planet, what was similar, what was different between the way you all lead your business?
Mike Mills: Well, one of the things is we were both very fortunate in that, you know, a lot of bands when they get started, you have to find management. What they do is go to these management firms and find, the smaller the band and more junior the manager they're assigned. And this is a manager who has other bands and other priorities and other things to do. Both us and U2 were extremely fortunate that we found someone like Bertis or Paul McGuinness, who didn't have a stable of bands. They didn't do other things. They were focused on one thing and one thing only. And therefore there was a level of trust that wouldn't have existed had this been some assembly line manager that we were given. That is one of the greatest blessings that us and U2 had, I know that to be the case. One of our major tenants as we went along, was to be honest, in a business full of lying sharks, we insisted on being forthright and honest, and as Bertis would say, we were integritas. Because Bertis and I both agree that there should be an adjective for integrity.
Bertis Downs: I think we made up that word.
Mike Mills: So, things like treating your opening band with respect. Having your road crew, treat their crew with respect. These are things that were very important to us. And I think important to U2 as well. They played Atlanta sometime back in the 2000s. And we had them come to Athens for a party at my house. And I remember sitting in my dining room, and I made a toast to them. I said, you know, here, it's such a pleasure and an honor to have had friends walking alongside us on the same path for 30 years that we can both respect and admire, how we've gone about our business. And so the similarities in that are what are the things that have bonded us because they care They care about how people are treated. They care about how things are done. They care about their reputation within the business. You have to work to establish that, and you have to work to keep that. And that's something I think we both shared.
Willy Walker: Yeah.
Bertis Downs: Yeah, I'll jump in on that really quickly, because I just remember it really clearly, I got to see U2 on a Bastille Day night with my wife, Catherine, in Marseille. So we're in France, we get a hotel room and Aix-en-Provence, we get out and see the YouTube show. Because I'm friends with Paul. Paul is kind of like a big brother to me, mentor over the years. And they put us on the guest list. They bring us in. The way they do hospitality, the way they do security, the way they do backstage stuff, the way they do pretty much everything about the operation from a management standpoint, I literally went back to the room, this was pre-computers, pre-cellphones, pre all digital stuff. And I took out a legal pad and made a list of all that stuff. And it was during, it was in ‘93, it was Europa. So we were getting ready to do our big’ 95 tour and I literally copied. I was like we're gonna do the front of the stage area or the front of the soundboard area for our guests to be because it's the best place to hear the music and they're not on the front row pissing the band off that you put all your guests down on the front row. We copied a lot from them because they did it so well. They did it at such a high level. And I don't think they minded. I've told them, by the way, we borrowed a bunch of your really good ideas on the way you keep this stuff going in a in a certain classy way. So yeah, they’re good guys and always held themselves to that kind of standard.
Willy Walker: And Bert you mentioned previously, in the late 90s streaming hadn't come out. In the 2000s you spent a lot of time on industry trade groups and meetings in Washington, D.C. talking about intellectual property rights. Here we are now, two decades later, do you think we've gotten to the right place as it relates to intellectual property rights and streaming? And how artists are being rewarded for what they are creating?
Bertis Downs: Well, I think kind of like our Republic is working toward a more perfect union. No, I would not say we're at the right place. But I think we're working toward it. I think that certainly the overall goal, and I read this probably 20 years ago, I think it was one of the Indigo Girls probably Amy, although it might have been Emily got quoted as saying, I guess, eventually what we're going to have to get around to is that everybody has all the music they want all the time. But artists still somehow get paid. And that was a very, I don't know, in a way that was kind of an early, early days aspirational thing. Because the reality is, everybody has free music all the time, as much as they want. There are more and more deals being done now. So that some of the revenue generated from the ad-based models, from subscription models do get back to the artists, it's not the same math. And it never will be the same math as when people gave money for pieces of plastic and there was a very limited supply of that. This is now ubiquitous, and therefore you're having to divide the pie, so many more parts. But and clearly there are lots of negotiations and tribunals around the world Performing Rights societies, publishers fighting over those scraps of pennies, and it's moving in the direction of artists getting paid equitably. I don't believe we're there yet. But there's a model set up now. Finally, twitch I think has now made a deal with Warner Brothers. Twitter still doesn't have a deal with the major labels. Tick Tock has made a deal with most of the major labels. Facebook came to the part. YouTube obviously came to the party. So gradually, I think it's getting better, but it's not there yet.
Willy Walker: And Mike, we had a question from a gentleman named Kennon Hines where he said, “Could R.E.M.’s experience ever be recreated today in the world of social media and streaming?” So, as you think back on how R.E.M. was created, could it have been done today?
Mike Mills: I don't believe it couldn't be redone today because we were able, you know, part of our luck was that we were from Georgia and nobody was really paying attention to bands from Athens, Georgia. We were able to make the mistakes we made in a relatively small area. Nobody really saw us fumbling our way through the early years. We were able to grow and get better and write better songs before we emerged on to a national stage. That can't really happen now. Now you write one song you put it on YouTube. It could be a hit, or it could condemn you to nowhere for the rest of your life. But it would be really hard for a band to grow gradually. That curve that we had I don't think it exists anymore. It's harder. In a way it's easier for a band to get their music out but it's harder for a band to grow into whatever it is they're going to become without all that spotlight and pressure on him.
Willy Walker: Yeah, I've been at shows with you Millzie where you've said, “I love playing that song and I don't really like playing that song”. You want to give our listeners your two favorites and your two least favorite songs to play.
Mike Mills: I do like probably my favorite song to play in concert was Orange Crush. I really enjoyed playing Living Wills the Best Revenge. Really enjoyed, I just love my baseline on Life and How to Live It so that was always fun for me. I could tell you songs I don't like to play but I don't want to poison them for people who liked it. You know there are maybe two R.E.M. songs that I've just really don't like. And believe me when I made the setlist they weren't in there. When Peter made a setlist they were in there, when I made them, they were not. But I don't want anybody who really loves the song to have some sort of negative feeling about, it so I can't say.
Willy Walker: So Bert, let me ask you on the positive side on that one? When you talked about what were your two favorites that you would get really excited about? You mentioned a couple way way back but as time went on, I'm assuming that that sort of playlist changed in your mind.
Bertis Downs: Well first of all, they rarely played Sitting Still or Gardening at Night, so you didn't really get that excited about it because you didn't hear them that often. But I always loved, like Mike, Life and How to Live it and then it's kind of in the same vein as so many other kind of rockin fast songs Life and How to Live it and These Days always we're kind of in a certain batch and I always loved it when those were early in a set or whenever they were but then later years obviously they didn't play it all that often, because it was on their next to last record, but I really loved the song Horse to Water. In fact they played it at soundcheck in Dublin before the first of the Dublin shows when we did the five nights at the Olympia Theater, over Fourth of July holiday, you know Seven, and Paul, the manager of U2 had come to the soundcheck. He had an engagement as Paul would often do at night, so he wasn't gonna come to the show and he heard Horse to Water, and the floor was shaking and in empty building. They're getting ready to play this theater, and they're playing Horse to Water, and Paul looks at me and he goes, wow, I heard it was rockin, but it's really rockin. I mean, it was as energetic as something they'd written in their 20s. And I still think that song holds up, whether it's live or on record as that vein of songs in their whole career.
Willy Walker: So, we are out of time. I'm incredibly thankful for both of you for your friendship over the last 30 years. For our “dudes chat room” that we have a lot of fun playing around with and all the dudes who are listening in here, we are definitely doing a trip.
Mike Mills: Hello Dudes.
Willy Walker: I love to do that sometime this coming year. And to both of you for taking an hour and spending some time talking about your incredible, incredible history, and all that the two of you have done in your professional careers.
Thank you both. It's been a great pleasure and everybody who listened in today. Thank you. We'll be back next week with Peter Linneman to talk about the quarterly numbers that The Linneman Report talks about, and we get great participation for that. So I'm looking forward to seeing everyone next week. But Bert and Millzie thanks so much. Have a fantastic day.
Mike Mills: Thanks Willy.
Willy Walker: Thanks, guys. Bye.