We talk to the band about celebrating their seminal record, and dropping the unreleased song 'Fascinating'
As well as sharing previously unreleased song ‘Fascinating’ to help raise money for the Mercy Corps’ Hurricane Dorian relief effort in the Bahamas, R.E.M. have unveiled a magnificent live version of ‘Losing My Religion’ to celebrate their upcoming re-release of 1994 album ‘Monster‘. Hear it first on NME, below, and read our exclusive interview with bassist Mike Mills.
The band recorded ‘Fascinating’ at Nassau’s Compass Point Studios during the sessions for their 2001 album ‘Reveal’. It is now available to download on Bandcamp, with all proceeds going directly to the relief effort.
The glorious rendition of ‘Losing My Religion’, meanwhile, was recorded at a 1995 Chicago gig and will be on the ‘Monster Live EP’ that will feature on the 25th anniversary reissue of ‘Monster’, which is being released on November 1.
The now legendary ‘Monster’ tour was the first time fans had the chance to hear songs from their huge breakthrough albums, 1991’s ‘Out Of Time’ and 1992’s ‘Automatic For The People’, as R.E.M. hadn’t played live for six years.
What do you remember about the ‘Monster’ tour? How did it feel to be back on the road?
“The ‘Monster’ tour was fantastic. Every bit of it was really fun. Other than the few parts that weren’t. Everybody talks about people getting sick and all that. But the fact is, other than those incidents, it was a very thrilling tour. We were all over the world, we had huge screaming audiences, and we were playing really well. I really enjoyed most of it.”
What was it like to bring a new energy to the two classic records – ‘Out Of Time’ and ‘Automatic For The People’ – that had never been played live before?
“It wasn’t really bringing a new energy to the songs, it was more just about showing the world how much we love them, because we hadn’t played them for people. It was our chance just to show that that we’d been kind of saving it up for them.”
How did it feel seeing arenas and stadiums full of R.E.M. fans for the first time?
“Well, that was interesting. You know, ‘89 was a very successful tour too. We played a fair amount of arenas on that tour as well. But to see that our popularity had grown, even though we hadn’t been playing live, that was gratifying. A lot of record companies would have told you that you can’t put out the record if you don’t promote it by playing live. While I certainly enjoyed doing that, I always felt that a good record will promote itself. The record company can promote it, and the record will promote itself and people will hear it, and they will love it. We toured because we like to tour. The fact that the records did well without us touring, just sort of indicated what we were saying.”
“We wanted to write a record that would be fun to play live. We wanted to write something that we would get a charge out of.”
And of course, ‘Monster’ was a record that demanded to be played live.
“Well, that was the idea. We wanted to write a record that would be fun to play live. We wanted to write something that we would get a charge out of.”
Had the on-stage chemistry of the band changed in those six years off the road?
“We’d gotten a little more assured in our individuality, which actually helped us to play as a band. You know, we’d augmented the line-up and there was a lot of confidence going on to the stage. We really found a way to fill up the space.”
“In 1994, there was just a lot of forward progress going on, not just with us, but but all over the world, musically speaking.”
And 1994 was an historic year for music too. Did you sense that something momentous was going on while you were living with ‘Monster’?
“I wasn’t paying that much attention to a whole lot outside the tour. That’s when Oasis were breaking, right? Yeah, there were a lot of fun things happening. It felt like there was a lot of momentum. The tour was kind of a juggernaut, we were selling a lot of records. There was just a lot of forward progress going on, not just with us, but but all over the world, musically speaking.”
You had Radiohead on tour with you. How would you describe your relationship with them?
“We saw some of ourselves in Radiohead. You know, guys who could write great songs, and were great players and wanted to chart their own course. We definitely felt some spiritual associations going on. I was just thrilled for them. I thought they were a wonderful band and deserved everything they got.”
“We saw some of ourselves in Radiohead. You know, guys who could write great songs, and were great players and wanted to chart their own course.”
You’ve got this huge ‘Monster’ reissue coming out. What is it about the spirit and energy of the album that sets it apart from your other work?
“I don’t know if ‘Monster’ really had a message. ‘Monster’ was just about having fun. Whatever sort of lyrical themes there may have been within Michael’s words, for us it was just about playing loud, guitar oriented rock n’ roll – which is, in itself, a great message. Just get out there and turn your guitar up, wear sparkly suits and have a great time.”
A lot has been said over the years about how Michael was assuming different characters in his lyrics to reflect on fame. How did you relate to that?
“Our relationship with fame was always fairly calm. It was certainly worse for Michael than for any of us because as the lyricist and the frontman you get all the weirdos. But our growth was so gradual throughout all the years. Even though ‘Losing My Religion’ took us to another level, we had all become able to deal with it – or at least a lot better than someone who had it thrust upon them in the space of one or two records. We were very fortunate that way. We were bemused by the incredible success of the last two records before ‘Monster’, but I don’t think anyone was overwhelmed by it.”
‘Monster’ was just about playing loud, guitar oriented rock n’ roll – which is, in itself, a great message. Just get out there and turn your guitar up, wear sparkly suits and have a great time.”
Have you learned anything recently from revisiting ‘Monster’ in such depth?
“It’s better than it got credit for. I know that. When you play songs over and over again, you stop looking at them objectively. Going back and reassessing it, you see how the songs stood on their own and and most of them had their own identity. ‘You’ was a very unusual song that I ended up liking more than I thought I would.”
Having unexpectedly achieved so much mainstream success in the years before, were you guys making a concerted effort to seem more alien on ‘Monster’?
“We just wanted to write a record that didn’t sound like the last two. With every record, Michael had to find some sort of voice to help him unify his thoughts. His voice on this album tended to take on a bit of glam and a bit of character assumption. It was a larger than life record. We knew this tour would be big, so we had big sounds and big guitars and a big visible stage. I wore very visible suits. We were just accepting the fact that it was going to be huge and playing on that fact.”
“Michael had to find some sort of voice to help him unify his thoughts. His voice on this album tended to take on a bit of glam and a bit of character assumption.”
You mentioned ‘Monster’ being underrated at the time. Are there any more of your records that you feel deserve more love?
“I always felt ‘Reveal’ was underrated. ‘Reveal’ did a very good job of what it was supposed to be, which was a summer record. It probably didn’t get the credit it deserved. ‘Monster’ was the same. When you go from selling a million or two million, or whatever ‘Green’ sold, and then you go to selling nine and 10million like ‘Out Of Time’ and ‘Automatic For The People’, you bring on a whole lot of fans who don’t know the band. They don’t know who we are and what we’re about, but they know they like the hits on those last few records. When you give them another curveball like ‘Monster’, you can shed a lot of those fans because they’re not so much REM fans as they are ‘Losing My Religion’ or ‘Drive’ fans. Years later when you look at it in context, it makes a lot more sense.”
In the years since R.E.M. split, have you craved being able to play these songs live again?
“I don’t like to have a lot of regrets. We toured ‘Monster’ for a year, we did it very, very well. We gave those songs the hearing they deserved. So I don’t really miss playing them. If you’re going to sit there and wish you could be doing something you’ve done 25-30 years ago, you’re not going to be happy doing what you’re doing now. I really intend to be very happy doing what I’m doing now. I get to play a lot of music and have a really good time.”
And you’ve just dropped the unreleased track ‘Fascinating’ to aid the Hurricane Dorian relief efforts. What can you tell us about this song?
“We made it around the sessions for ‘Reveal’. It was a really cool track and we liked it a lot, but that was one that just didn’t make the cut. We knew we loved it and it would end up somewhere someday. It’s an odd song, kind of about alienation. Musically, there’s an oboe and a flute in there. We wanted to try a weird combination that doesn’t normally go together. I’m glad that we have that put out for such a good cause after such a horrible event. We did some work in the Bahamas. I’ve spent a lot of time down there and made a lot of good friends. It really breaks my heart to see to see what’s happened to that beautiful place and these beautiful people. So anything we can do to help we’re going to try and do.”
So it’s a cause very close to your heart?
“I personally know a lot of people that have lost everything; their homes are gone, their places of work are just gone. The amount of recovery, if it’s even possible, is going to be staggering. They just have to start over from scratch. It’s kind of terrifying. These tragedies happen and they’re all horrible, but when they happen to the places and people you know, it sits closer to your heart and makes it more important that we do something to help those people.”
Pre-order ‘Monster25’ as a deluxe box set, a CD or an LP, here.