Looking back on a phenomenally successful mystery...

‘Automatic For The People’ is perhaps R.E.M.’s best known album – indeed, in terms of sales alone, it could well define them. More than 18 million copies have been shifted to date, a totemic release that yielded six hit singles and pushed the band to the upper plateaus of international fame.

Yet it remains a strange, unknowable object. Musically, it nods towards the band’s Southern roots yet treats them in a new, wistful, and outright melancholic manner, while lyrically ‘Automatic For The People’ is dominated by allusions to ageing, decay, and death.

It is, to put it lightly, a strange beast. Speaking to bass player Mike Mills, though, more than 25 years after the fact, it seems to once more come into sharp focus, his genial outlook – happy to answer any question sent his way – adding fresh light to a record dominated by darkened hues.

“Sometimes you don’t want to over-examine things,” he warns Clash, “because the whole point of making a record is the fact that it’s an encapsulation of who you were and what the band was doing at the time. You make that and you let it go.”

“Having said that, looking back it’s beautiful,” Mike insists. “It’s one of those times when we didn’t really make a lot of miss-steps. Our instinct was running full steam and what we did with that record was exactly what needed to be done, which was not always the case.”

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It’s an album made under remarkable circumstances. R.E.M. signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1988, and – unusually – managed to gain complete creative control from the leviathan major label. “We didn’t want a huge advance, we didn’t want tour support,” he explains, “we wanted to be able to do what we wanted, when we wanted. Those were the labels that would give it to us so we went with them, and that was always how we went around our work.”

“That was the crux of the deal,” he continues. “That we weren’t going to sign with anyone that wouldn’t give us control. A lot of people will tell you that and not mean it. But we signed with people we believed when they said “yes, you can have this” and they did!”

It bore almost immediate dividends. ‘Green’ shot R.E.M. higher and higher, before ‘Out Of Time’ became a phenomenal international success. Ironically, the band decided not to tour during this period – meaning that each new move emerged entirely from the instincts of the four musicians who constituted R.E.M.

“We didn’t care!” Mike laughs, looking back on that period. “We did what we wanted. Always. Whatever was happening in the outside world – in terms of popularity or expectation – it never occurred to us, we were just guys with instruments. We played what we wanted to play.”

Eager to continually challenge themselves, R.E.M.’s head-strong approach saw them almost immediately veering away from the sounds that pushed ‘Out Of Time’ to such enormous commercial heights.

Mike explains: “Anything we wrote that sounded like a traditional R.E.M. song we put that aside, and said “let’s see if we can do something different”. So we write with different instruments, try to shake things up in the writing process. To keep ourselves interested as much as anything else. It wasn’t to please anyone outside of our little group. We just wanted to push ourselves, and create something new rather than rehash something old.”

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It’s an approach that is remarkably similar to the deconstructions employed by so many post-punk groups – indeed, R.E.M.’s swapping of instruments neatly parallels bands such as Gang Of Four or PiL, except with rather more mandolins involved.

“It gives you more opportunity to do different things,” he states simply. “When you write on an instrument you find less familiar you’re more likely to come up with something that goes in a completely different direction – not just because of the sound of the instrument, but because of the different nature of fingering, and literally how you play it. It was exciting, because you’d discover things you wouldn’t have found otherwise, had you not picked up this unfamiliar instrument.”

In the earliest sessions for what would become ‘Automatic For The People’ R.E.M. would gather without Michael Stipe, with Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills pouring forth idea after idea in an instrumental fashion.

“It was a weird combination because around us were a lot of terrible things,” he recalls. “The Reagan/Bush years were miserable, the political situation was terrible, the AIDs epidemic was always on your mind. And yet when the three of us gathered together that stuff never came in with us. It was just us doing our thing, being friends, and having fun creating stuff. It was a good escape.”

Gathering around 30 ideas they deemed strong enough to focus on, R.E.M. met – Michael Stipe included- in New Orleans, with producer Scott Litt coming along for the ride. It’s a city that has inspired so many creative people, and it would leave a deep and lasting resonance among the members of the group.

“If you believe in ghosts then they were there,” he says with a wry grin. “If there’s such a thing as a haunted city then it’s New Orleans. Whether there are ghosts present or not, New Orleans is a city that is very comfortable with death. It’s always sad, but when someone dies they have a parade with the second line, they celebrate it. And you march them off to the next level. It’s a very civilised way to deal with something that’s inevitable.”

“I think that was a very comfortable, though mystical and spiritual place, to record. It helps you deal with something that’s very frightening. And when you get into your 30s and you’re losing friends to AIDs, you need a coping mechanism. And sometimes New Orleans can provide that. It’s also a very fun, spooky city that’s very in touch with sensuality and physicality. It’s a very tactile city. And that adds a certain physical and sexual quality to the music that is good for musicians.”

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The songs fell into place with remarkable ease. For such a prominent album it seems that ‘Automatic For The People’ was an incredibly logical thing to piece together, an overwhelmingly creative experience.

“I don’t think it felt quick as it just felt natural,” Mike says. “We were very confident in what we were doing. Our last record – surprise surprise! - sold over nine million copies, I mean nobody expected that. We knew we didn’t have to tour, so we were all pretty relaxed, confident in what we were doing, we were all being very creative. So there wasn’t a lot of stress going on at that point – not about the music any way.”

The music itself is inquisitive, plaintive, wistful, and beautifully melancholic, in an enriching fashion that never indulges in navel gazing. It’s an outward experience, one that feels brave and rich in character. ‘Sweetness Follows’ for example, is a sumptuously melodic experience, while dealing explicitly with death, binding beautifully airy music with a vocal from Michael Stipe that is both immediate and utterly devastating.

“It’s the genius of what Michael does, is that he’s able to present something potentially sad, and dark, and troubling, and inject a note of optimism in there somewhere. Whether it’s one word, or one line, or even a feeling of what comes through, it’s a tricky thing to write about passing without depressing everyone and yourself. I think we managed to avoid that, and – again – it goes back to New Orleans. Death is inevitable, it’s going to happen to you and everyone you know, and yet why let that be heavy and oppressive? Why not find a way to accept it and celebrate it, even?”

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The spectre of New Orleans lingers throughout our conversation, and it’s even given a tribute on the record – the self-explanatory ‘New Orleans Instrumental No. 1’, seemingly constructed after a night of excess in the Crescent City.

“It was something we did after a long night of dinner and drinking, and more wine back at the studio,” he recalls. “We did several things that night, and that one has that weird, haunted New Orleans quality to it, and it seems to be a nice musical break for the record. It kept the mood going but gave the listener something to listen to besides voices.”

Those breaks are extremely important - ‘Automatic For The People’ is exquisitely paced, with the many moods and textures intermingling to create something powerful but never over-powering.

“You couldn’t make the whole record about loss and transition, you had to have a break,” he explains. “So the instrumental gives you a break, ‘Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ gives you a break. You don’t want people walking away being real bummed out by the record!”

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‘Man On The Moon’ is one of these breaks, and it has become one of the band’s most enduring songs. The recurring character of comedian Andy Kaufmann is rendered in metaphysical glory, and it’s message of disinformation and hoax is one that carries dark resonance in the Trump era of fake news.

“I actually voted him off Saturday Night Live!” laughs Mike. “I loved Andy Kaufman but I actually thought the wrestling bit got way, way out of control. And they had a big thing on Saturday Night Live where you could vote him on or off, and if he got voted off he could never come back. And I was pissed at him for the wrestling stuff so I voted him off!”

“But no, it’s not really about Andy Kaufman, it’s about belief and it’s about trusting. Are you willing to believe what people tell you, are you a conspiracy theorist? Andy Kaufman is just sort of the everyman who runs through it all. It’s this whole thing of, is he really dead? Is Elvis really did? Did we really land on the moon? Andy’s just sort of your guide through all of this. It’s not about Andy Kaufman, he’s just the guide in the museum who tells you what’s going on.”

An album rich with the ghosts of the past, ‘Automatic For The People’ has often been labelled Southern gothic, in part due to the band’s own Georgia origins and it’s construction in New Orleans. For Mike Mills, the reason is rather more prosaic – it’s instrumentation, the choice of strings, mandolin, accordion used to augment their own sound.

“There is a nature of Southern and Appalachian music of instruments that are acoustic but are not just a guitar, “ he says. “Like the banjo, the accordion, the fiddle, these sort of things. Not that any of us grew up playing those instruments, but we have used them to pretty good effect on the record.”

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It’s a technique that still surprises – at one point we venture a question about the harmonica line on ‘Find The River’, only to find that it’s actually something else entirely.

“It’s an accordion!” he exclaims. “Which is great because that’s what I’m saying – it doesn’t have to be a polka, you can make it a very plaintive, wistful instrument. That’s part of the genius of Scott Litt as producer, you don’t think ‘oh there’s a cheesy accordion!’ you think ‘oh there’s a beautiful, sad instrument’.”

An album dominated by beautiful sadness, ‘Automatic For The People’ would become R.E.M.’s commercial high-point, a plateau of creative visibility that belies the wealth of mystery, suggestion, and allusion that ripples through it. Still relentlessly easy on the ear, it’s one of the most straight-forwardly beautiful releases of that or any other era.

“There is a lot of simplicity in this record,” he muses. “When you’re doing it right you don’t have to gild the lily. The essence is good, so it doesn’t need a whole lot of dressing up.”

An unadorned masterpiece, ‘Automatic For The People’ is testament to the quicksilver creativity that took R.E.M. from the underground to the pinnacle of the charts, an era-defining and completely timeless aesthetic achievement.

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'Automatic For The People: 25th Anniversary Edition' is out now.

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