Publicity photo: Alex Irvin (courtesy of Orange Mountain)

You Can Go Home Again: An Interview with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills

Mike Mills of R.E.M. tells PopMatters about his new "Concerto for Violin, Rock Band, and Orchestra" project.
Mike Mills
Concerto for Violin, Rock Band, & Orchestra
Orange Mountain

Mike Mills of R.E.M. is no slouch.

He recently composed a concerto with his childhood bud, Robert McDuffie (whom Mills calls Bobby), a world-renowned violinist. He calls it a concerto for violin, rock band, and string ensemble.

The rock band includes John Neff (formerly Drive By Truckers, Japancakes), William Tonks (Barbara Cue, WERI, Six String Drag), and Patrick Ferguson (Five Eight, Psychedelic Furs). Mills’ concerto is five new pieces and a new arrangement of “Nightswimming”, with Mills on grand piano and McDuffie on violin.

PopMatters saw the show at the historic Newberry Opera House from side-stage left, and even the venue crew were having fun enjoying the music. The opening John Adams piano and violin piece is the heaviest of the classical music, then Fifth House Ensemble plays a few movements from an upbeat, enjoyable Philip Glass piece, then the rock band joins the crew for the final movements. The audience was dancing, with their sippy cup lids on their beers.

Just because the rock band grew up, doesn’t mean we can’t all have fun. Mills sat down with PopMatters talk about fun. Real fun.

* * *

How is composing different with your new concerto for violin, rock band, and string orchestra with Robert McDuffie?

Well, the primary difference is I got to work a lot with our arranger, David Mallamud. He really helped me understand the songwriting for a string orchestra and for the violin itself. It was specifically for solo violin, that I had a lot to learn. And my background comes from, you know, adding 18 string arrangements to rock music or for a film.

I’m curious about how those things intersect for you. What makes it different in developing the song?

Well, I try to approach it as though it were really different. What we’re trying to do here is break down the walls between classical and rock, and play with it. In writing this piece, I tried to approach it as simply five really good songs, with even better melodies. I approach them more as rock songs, and then adapt that into Bobby’s virtuosity — and the capabilities of the string orchestra, too — to add to the songs themselves.

I had some experience working with several chamber music ensembles this past summer, and I noticed that the way they communicate is, in some ways, like one giant instrument within a rock band.

Because that’s not inaccurate.

The way they communicate … is kind of a democratic approach.

Throughout a piece, sometimes they play in unison and sometimes they’re completely different parts, for the different groupings. Yeah, it’s insane, just because there’s so much more complexity to play within the composition and the arrangement of the songs. And it’s faster.

In the six movements, anyway, were you composing them for an overall experience together? When I listen to them, it’s almost a visual experience.

That’s nice; thank you. As I’d begin building the concerto, I could see that there were certain … there were a couple of themes. They were intentional from the beginning.

Tell me more about that.

Well, there was a certain commonality of melodic approach. At first, I thought it might be distracting, but it is an overall connectivity between the pieces. It’s very subtle. Most people probably wouldn’t notice it.