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Interview:
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills steps out on new project
 

By GARY GRAFF
Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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Up until five years ago, Mike Mills was the bassist and keyboardist for R.E.M.

More recently he's been part of a Boys of Summer-themed band called the Baseball Project.

And now he's an orchestral composer.

Mills' latest work is the ambitious "Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra," a collaboration with violinist and childhood friend Robert McDuffie and recorded with the McDuffie Center for Strings Ensemble. It blends rock and classical conventions, including an interpretation of R.E.M.'s "Nightswimming," and is structured to be performed with full orchestras or with smaller ensembles.

Mills and McDuffie are taking the "Concerto" around the country for a limited run of performances, and Mills is pleased to report that "they're going extremely well. I think most people really don't know what to expect, and I don't think a single person's left disappointed."

Mills says he does "enjoy the surprise aspect" of the "Concerto," which he's confident most R.E.M. fans did not see coming from him. "The one thing is it's been labeled as a classical piece, and it isn't," Mills, 57, says by phone from his home in Athens, Ga. "I wasn't trying to write classical music. I was trying to write some interesting pieces of music that could blend rock 'n' roll with a classical violin and string section. It's a hybrid, and it's just supposed to be a half-hour of fun, really. I'm trying to break down a wall between classical and rock 'n' roll that may exist only in people's minds."

Mills says the "Concerto" idea was generated by McDuffie, who he grew up with in Macon, Ga. "We lived in Macon together for maybe five years, between he went off to Julliard," says Mills, whose father was a classical tenor singer. "We were in church youth choir and his mother was the choir director at the church my parents went to. His parents and my parents became friends, so every Sunday night after a long day of churching we would go over Bobby's house and the kids would play and the adults would drink wine. About 10 or 15 years ago we reconnected and started catching each other's shows and basically reconnected the friendship. And when Bobby came to me with the idea I thought this was certainly going to be a challenge, but one that I thought could be fun, so I said yes."

It's a bit too soon for Mills to decide if he wants to do more in the orchestral realm. "I have no idea, and I'm not thinking that far ahead," he says. "I want this tour to be as well-played as possible, and that's really all I'm thinking about at this pint. I think we'll play this piece next year in some places. I think there are some symphonies around the world that want us to bring this piece to them, so it has a lot of legs, I think."

Concurrently, R.E.M., which stopped working in 2011, is planning a Nov. 18 release for an expanded 25th anniversary reissue of its chart-topping album "Out of Time," which won three Grammy Awards and included the hits "Losing My Religion" and "Shiny Happy People." "It actually holds up better than I thought it would," Mills says of the album, which surprised fans with some of its more acoustic and rootsy arrangements. "We weren't necessarily trying to radically shift gears other than I think we were all looking forward to playing something other than our traditional instruments. I think we were just trying to be R.E.M. but not be the same R.E.M.

And for the...well, he's lost track of how many times he's been asked...Mills says anyone holding their breath for an R.E.M. reunion had best exhale. "No, no, we're all very happy where we are," he says. "We're all friends -- that's one reason we broke up when we did, so we can remain friends."

"Concerto For Violin, Rock Band And String Orchestra" by Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie

7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6.

Music Hall Center, 350 Madison St. Detroit.

Tickets are $30-$50.

Call 313-887-8500 or visit musichall.org.

Web Site: www.musichall.org

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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