R.E.M. broke up nearly four years ago, but the seminal alt-rock band continues to influence music—and release vintage material from its vault. Late in 2014, the group put out REMTV, a six-disc box set compiling their numerous television appearances, which included two MTV Unplugged sets, a VH1 Storytellers special, their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and even a guest spot on The Colbert Report.
R.E.M. will release the sixth disc of the series, the documentary R.E.M. by MTV, a la carte on Blu-ray and DVD June 2. To celebrate, the band provided EW with some exclusive live footage from the ’80s—which you can watch below—and longtime bassist Mike Mills spoke with us about why R.E.M. never worried about being on Unplugged, how they’d survive in the YouTube age, and why “no one can predict the future” when it comes to a possible reunion.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: R.E.M.’s prime fell right in MTV’s sweet spot. Do you remember the first time that you saw yourself on MTV?
MIKE MILLS: I can’t say that I do. To be honest, I was always ambivalent at best about video. I always felt that music should be perceived aurally as opposed to visually, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do good work within the format. But no, I don’t remember the first time.
What was it like when your music began to get featured on MTV? R.E.M. came up through the tight-knit scene Athens, Ga. scene, so was it weird to suddenly have a much broader base of fans?
We were pretty happy about it because our primary motivation was getting people to the shows, which were the reason we formed and the reason we existed. So, as a marketing device, in terms of getting people out to see us, we thought it was fantastic.
We figured there were multiple reasons for more people coming to our shows. I’m sure videos helped. College radio helped a lot. I think primarily our reputation as a really good live band got people out there. We would play in a town and get 10 or 15 people, and the next time we’d play there we’d get a hundred, and the next time we’d play there we’d get 300. So whatever the forces at play were, we were getting what we wanted, which was more people to the shows.
The recent box set contain’s R.E.M.’s two unplugged performances, from 1991 and 2001. Tell me about the experience of stripping down your music for those concerts.
It’s pretty daunting to go out there with no volume, no electronics behind you. It definitely was a tougher thing than playing your ordinary live show. Most of our songs were written on solo guitar or piano. Because we knew the basic songs were sound, we were pretty confident that they’d be good when we stripped them down to the essential elements.
MTV Unplugged wasn’t for everyone. It’s definitely more of a challenge for some people to strip it down to the song itself, because it might be exposed as being more of a record than a song. My hat’s off to anyone who took that challenge.
MTV is less critical for emerging bands than it was a couple decades ago. But music videos are still important, because now young bands use services like Vevo and YouTube. If R.E.M. was coming up in 2015, how do you think you guys would’ve navigated the Internet, as opposed to being an MTV band?
We were very fortunate that we had a very visually-oriented member who enjoyed working in that medium. Michael Stipe either directed or co-directed virtually all of our videos. As a result we only did things that we were comfortable with or that we thought would be quality work. I believe that would extend to the present. If we were doing it now, Michael would still be a visually oriented person and the rest of us would know that we could trust him with whatever sort of visual representation of the band that he came up with.
R.E.M. broke up in 2011. Do you guys keep in touch?
Of course. We are all very dear friends, and that’s one of the reasons we were able to A) stay together as long as we did and B) break up in the manner we did. We’re all like family and we wanted to keep it that way. That enabled us to get through 30-plus years, but it also enabled us to walk away in a healthy fashion.
Is there a shot you’d ever get back together?
It is off the table, but no one can predict the future. There could be a meteor with your name on it right now. But I would say no. We like the fact that we are so far the one band that doesn’t get back together—but you never know.