SXSW 2017: An interview with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills about Big Star’s Third and more

Mike Mills, left, has been part of the Big Star’s Third tribute collective since its inception just after SXSW 2010. Contributed/Still photo from “Thank You Friends: Big Star’s Third Live … and More”

A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band R.E.M. from the very start in 1980 to the very end in 2012, bassist Mike Mills has come to South by Southwest on many occasions dating back to the early-mid ’90s, often just for fun. This year, he’s here as part of Big Star’s Third, the tribute band to the legendary Memphis rock band Big Star.

A concert film featuring the band premiered last night at the Alamo Ritz. The band, led by Chris Stamey and featuring a core backing band from North Carolina plus guests — this time including Robyn Hitchcock and Austin’s own Tosca Strings — performs Friday at 10:30 p.m. at Central Presbyterian Church.

Mills arrived in town Wednesday night and headed to his favorite Club in Austin. “I was there last night to see the Waco Brothers,” he said. “Josh Kantor played accordion with them, and it was a great show.”

We spent a few minutes talking with him on Thursday about Big Star’s Third, the recent “Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra” he released last year with his Georgia childhood friend Robert McDuffie, and other activities such as the Baseball Project band he plays in with former R.E.M. sideman Scott McCaughey and the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon.

Austin360: How early on did you start playing these Big Star’s Third shows?

Mike Mills: “Well I was going down to see Big Star here the week Alex died. [Big Star leader Alex Chilton died in March 2010, on the eve of a SXSW show.] I was just going to come and watch. Jody [Stephens, Big Star drummer] asked me if I’d play, since it had turned into a memorial concert. And I said sure. And of course Chris [Stamey] already had it in the works to do this [Big Star’s Third band]. And he got me up to Chapel Hill/Carrboro to do the first show. So I’ve been there since the beginning.”

Did the collective-with-guest-artists model grow from that spontaneous SXSW tribute show in 2010?

“That’s the way it worked for sure then, and it often works that way now. There’s the core band, but there are sometimes different groups of guest artists who will sing. [Initially] we didn’t know there would be sort of a core band. At that point, I didn’t even know it would be a thing. I got the call from Chris later on about that. But yeah, that certainly turned out to be the working template.”

The core band features some talented younger-generation artists from North Carolina. What has it been like getting to know and work with them?

“That’s my favorite thing about it, really. Skylar Gudasz, Brett Harris, Charles Cleaver, Jeff Crawford, Django Haskins when he can be there, Dale Baker on drums — they all bring such a great energy and talent to it. It’s the most fun part of it to me.”

With the SXSW in a church and featuring the Tosca Strings, I understand it may lean toward some of Big Star’s quieter material:

“I would guess that’s the case, which is fine because with ‘Third’ itself [Big Star’s “Third” album], there are some rockers on it, but generally the highlights of that one are the quieter parts. I think there will still be some rock energy, just not as much. But I’ve seen the church rock before.”

I understand you’ve known Robert McDuffie, the violinist on you Concerto piece, for a long time?

“Yeah. Bobby and I go way back to high school and maybe even a little before. But his mother was choir director of the church when my parents were in the choir, so we spent every Sunday night together for about three years. After a long day of church musical activities, we’d go over to their house and just hang out all night. So Bobby and I have been friends for a good while. And he went off to Juilliard to continue his prodigy work.”

Did you keep in touch all these years?

“We drifted apart for awhile because we were both so busy. But our mothers kept in touch. So we always knew what the other was doing through our mothers. And then about 15 years ago or so, maybe even more, we reconnected, started going to each others’ shows, and reconnected our friendship as well as our musical appreciation. So then, about four or five years ago he came to me asked if I would do something different. And I said yeah.”

Did you have much of a background in classical music yourself?

“I wasn’t trained in it, but I was around it a lot. My father was a dramatic tenor; he sang a lot of opera. So certainly I listened to a lot of classical music growing up. Certain aspects of church music are not that far from classical. So yeah, within REM you would hear, there would be little things. I mean, most people would never notice it. But there are little things like in some of the piano things I do, or occasional string figures that I get from deep in the classical hive mind. It’s subtle, but it’s there.”

Was it a stretch for you to do this?

“Well it was a big stretch, because I’d never written for violin. And then to try to arrange for all the strings, I had a lot of help from David Malamute, the arranger, who really helped me flesh out the melodies for the violin, to show me what a violin was capable of, or what Bobby was capable of, or what Bobby was capable of. And then to really help me apply melodies to the string section, to the string orchestra. He was invaluable.”

You’ve been to SXSW a lot since the 1990s, right?

“Oh yeah. I would come even if I didn’t have a show, because I just enjoy the randomness of it. You wander into a bar and see a band that later blows up, or that you just really like. Maybe they don’t blow up, but you really like them and you had no idea. Just running into people from all over the country that I might not have gotten to see otherwise. A couple years ago I just wandered into this place and I saw Charlie XCX. And they were great. It was this all-girl band and they were just tremendous. And I was like, wow, they could have a future.” (Laughs)

You’ve seen the changes and growth, then. Has it gotten better or worse for you? Is your experience comparable?

“It gets harder and harder to get around. You just really have to pick and choose what you’re going to try to see. If you try to see too much, you won’t see any of it. You get there 30 minutes late and catch 10 minutes of a show, and it’s just not worth the hassle. So in that sense, it’s — you now, if you want to go see something that’s not downtown, that can be a real issue. But you develop shortcuts, you find ways to make it work. But no, in the sense of discovery or the sense of community, I still feel a lot of that here.”

The Baseball Project, started with your R.E.M. bandmate Peter Buck in the lineup, but lately you’ve kind of taken his place. How did that develop?

“They had one or two shows in Europe, and I guess I was over there. And Peter didn’t want to make the trip, so I got drafted in to play this tiny little medieval village in Spain. We had such a good time, and at that point, Peter was starting to disengage from touring a little bit. They asked me if I’d jump in, so I said sure. So now we both play on the records, but I do all the touring. And if Peter’s in town or if we’re near him, he’ll come and play with us.”

You seem a better fit for a baseball-themed band, as I’ve never known Peter to be much of a sports fan:

“He does like baseball though. He doesn’t love it, but I think I’ve rubbed off on him a little bit over the years. And he’s gotten to where he kind of [likes it] — in a bit of a sarcastic way, but I think he enjoys it.”

One of the first times you came to SXSW in the 1990s, you played in the SXSW golf tournament that was run by the late Louis Meyers. Do you still play golf a lot?

“As often as I can. I just came from, I do an event every year. Patrick Warburton has a foundation, and we do a charity music and golf tournament in Palm Desert every year to raise money for St. Jude. And we have become the single biggest solo fundraiser event for St. Jude. We raised about $2.2 million this year. It’s got a huge musical component and a golf component and a BMW road race component. It’s become a really big week out in the desert, and all raises money for St. Jude and it’s fantastic. It’s early March every year, right before [SXSW].”

Any other things you’re pursuing right now?

“No, not really. You have to be careful how many things you say yes to, because there just aren’t that many weeks in the year. But I’m hoping the Baseball Project can do a record this year, although that’s not looking great. We’ve got a Concerto date lined up next year, we might do some more Concerto stuff this year. But other than that, I’m going to try to take it easy for a little while.”

Was that the idea when R.E.M. stopped, to not have commitments all the time?

“Well, it didn’t work out that way. I do a lot of things that are fun for me but that also have a charitable component. For example, I go to the [Kentucky] Derby almost every year, but I’m also involved in the Unbridled charity. So I try to do some work with them while I’m there, even if it’s just showing up and lending my name. There is a charitable component to it, which makes it more worthwhile for me.”

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