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R.E.M.’s Mike Mills teams with St. Louis Symphony in a fusion of classical music and rock

Mike Mills, longtime bassist and songwriter with R.E.M. and violinist Robert McDuffie perform Mills' "Concerto for Rock Band, Violin and String Orchestra." They'll play the piece Friday with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, in a program that also included orchestral interpretations of R.E.M. favorites.
Alex Irvin
Mike Mills, longtime bassist and songwriter with R.E.M., and violinist Robert McDuffie perform Mills' "Concerto for Rock Band, Violin and String Orchestra." They'll play the piece Friday with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, in a program that also included orchestral interpretations of R.E.M. favorites.

R.E.M. emerged from the fertile college-rock scene of the 1980s to become one of the biggest bands in the world, eventually selling over 60 million albums on the strength of “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” “The One I Love” and other hits. The band earned three Grammy Awards and won induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

Mike Mills was the group’s bassist, also contributing vocals and occasional keyboard parts. He also wrote several of the band’s classic songs.

After the band broke up in 2011, Mills took on a new project when childhood friend Robert McDuffie, a Grammy-nominated violinist, suggested they collaborate on a rock/classical hybrid piece.

The result is Mills’ “Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra,” which he and McDuffie premiered in 2016 before expanding the orchestrations to encompass a full symphony orchestra. On Friday, they will play the piece at the Stifel Theatre with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Mills will perform his concerto as part of a five-piece band, playing guitar and keyboards.

The program also includes “R.E.M. Explored,” a set of orchestral interpretations of R.E.M. songs arranged by Carl Marsh and David Mallamud. Ward Stare will conduct.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin asked Mills about his transition from rock to European classical music, and the legacy of R.E.M.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: As a composer, what sorts of opportunities open up for you when you work with the palette of a string section or a full symphony orchestra?

Mike Mills: Well, I love melody. And so now I can not only write melody for my bass lines and for Bobby's violin, but I can write melody for tens of other instruments and parts. It's just so satisfying to be able to have these melodies play off each other and all these beautiful things you can do with it that I've never really been able to work with before.

Goodwin: Were there particular skills as a songwriter or rock musician or rock star that you found translated and really helped you out in this world?

Mills: Having the nerve to do this in the first place was something. I had to draw on whatever self-confidence I have, because it's a daunting thing if you've never written for classical audiences. I grew up around the symphony, so I know how discerning they can be. So there was a lot of pressure to do that. So I just had to rely on the fact that I've been successful as a songwriter, and as a melodist. And I just tried to apply those skills to what I'm doing here.

Goodwin: You spent decades in a beloved band that was successful internationally. And now you’re wading into something where you’re kind of a newbie. What was that like for you?

Mills: It was terrifying, to be honest with you. When Bobby first asked me, I said: “You're crazy. Why are you talking to me about this?” But like you said, the band had broken up. And I was sort of at loose ends, trying to figure out how I was going to proceed with music or life in general. And this gave me something to focus on.

I know I can write a melody. If there's anything I can do, it's to come up with some melodies. The challenge was to come up with enough structure and enough melody to last for a half-hour piece. And I think I did OK. It's pretty enjoyable.

Goodwin: Classical musicians often have very rigorous practice sessions every day to keep their skills sharp. Did you have to go do some woodshedding before you started playing this piece?

Mills: Not as much as I should, probably, but yeah.

Goodwin: Oh, I’m not trying to rehearsal-shame you.

Mills: It’s been done before, and correctly. Sometimes in the rock ‘n' roll world you can over-hearse. I don’t think that’s true in the classical world. On my side of it, a little bit of dear is a good thing.

Goodwin: Did R.E.M. over-rehearse?

Mills: We were always very careful not to over-rehearse. It's something we were aware of. We had different levels of tolerance for rehearsal in the band. So basically we got to the point where we felt comfortable playing the song and then we stopped, because that's really as far as you need to go.

Goodwin: One of the movements in the concerto is based on the gorgeous song “Nightswimming” from “Automatic for the People.” Are there other musical references to R.E.M.?

Mills: No, that’s the only R.E.M. reference. Bobby actually insisted that “Nightswimming” be part of this. He thinks it's a beautiful song, and I think he really wanted to play that song. So I said: “It is something I wrote and something I'm proud of. So let's put that in.” It’s one less thing I had to write.

Goodwin: You want this to stand on its own, but it doesn't hurt to make some references to other work you've done.

Mills: That’s true. That's why the entire evening is called “R.E.M. Explored,” because the whole first half of the program is Carl Marsh and David Mallamud’s exploration, if you will, of R.E.M. songs, applying their own creativity and imagination to it and yet retaining the base of an R.E.M. song.

One thing that we always were concerned about in R.E.M. was the quality of the songs. The songwriting is the hardest part of all of this. So we were always very proud of the fact that we wrote really good songs. And it feels good to see that they can translate into the symphonic world.

I'm proud of our career and what we did and the other guys were fine with that association. I had to make sure that they were cool with referencing R.E.M. so much for something that was not involving the band, and they were very supportive and fine with it.

Goodwin: You are one of the few groups of your stature who said goodbye and then didn't come back.

Mills: It's kind of satisfying to be the band that actually meant it when we broke up. It's always a little sad to think that we won't play together again as a foursome. But we meant it when we said we're done. We actually meant it. We don't want to do a cash grab just to get back together again. So we're fine with where we are.

Goodwin: Are you all in touch much?

Mills: Oh yeah, we see each other a lot. We were actually all in the same room the other night, when my friend Michael Shannon and Jason Narducy played [R.E.M. debut album] “Murmur” in its entirety, for the 40th anniversary of “Murmur.” And so we all went to see them at the 40 Watt club in Athens. Peter [Buck] played and Bill [Berry] played and I played, but we didn't play together.

Goodwin: So it’s been like “This Is Your Life” lately for you, with your catalog.

Mills: Yeah! You know, R.E.M. has gone away long enough to be cool again. So you're 6-seeing us pop up on “The Voice” or some of those weird talent shows. And we've kind of reentered the zeitgeist, if you will. It's a good feeling.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.