Home Atlanta News R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie talk ASO concerto, “R.E.M. Explored”

R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Robert McDuffie talk ASO concerto, “R.E.M. Explored”

by Atlanta Business Journal

R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills and acclaimed classical violinist Robert McDuffie were childhood friends in Macon. They were in the youth choir and hand-bell choir at the First Presbyterian Church, and the Mills and McDuffie families would gather every Sunday evening after church to socialize; McDuffie and Mills would steal away to play “Battleship” and listen to music.

Mills went on to the University of Georgia in Athens and helped form R.E.M., which became one of the great American rock bands in history before disbanding in 2011. McDuffie studied at Juilliard and became an in-demand soloist who has performed with major symphonies across the world; the esteemed Philip Glass wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2 specifically for McDuffie.

In addition to his performance career, McDuffie also leads the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in Macon.

After the break up of R.E.M., McDuffie commissioned Mills to write a concerto that debuted in 2016: Concerto for Violin, Rock Band and String Orchestra. A newly-crafted symphonic version of that piece — featuring Mills on bass and McDuffie on violin — makes its debut Friday and Saturday in performances at Symphony Hall with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sarah Hicks. They will be aided by Athens guitarists John Neff and William Tonks, and Atlanta drummer Gerry Hansen. Those concerts will also include the world premiere of R.E.M. Explored, the band’s music arranged for full orchestra by Carl Marsh and David Mallamud.

Mills and McDuffie spoke with ArtsATL via Zoom last week in a wide-ranging interview that touched on growing up together in Macon during the Capricorn Records/Southern rock heyday, Mills’ songwriting philosophy with R.E.M. and how McDuffie coaxed Mills into leaving his comfort zone to write a concerto.

ArtsATL: How did you meet and how did your friendship develop?

Mike Mills: When my family moved to Macon in 1971, my folks were looking for a church music program. My dad was Presbyterian and found out that Bobby’s mom ran the best church music program at First Presbyterian, so we went there. That’s where Bobby and I started hanging out, in the youth choir and the hand-bell choir. Our parents would hang out every Sunday night after a long day of music related activities. 

Robert McDuffie: After Sunday night services, the Mills and the McDuffies would gather. Mike and I listened to records and played “Battleship.” That went on for a couple of years. We were also in the music club together that always met on a Sunday afternoon. So we couldn’t watch the Falcons play, which was upsetting.

Mills: It was probably better for our mental health.

ArtsATL: You both grew up in Macon during the middle of the Capricorn Records and Southern rock era, when Macon was one of the key music scenes in the country. What was that like? Were you even aware of Macon’s prominence in the world of rock ’n’ roll?

Mills: When you’re in the middle of something, you’re not necessarily aware of the nationwide cultural impact of it. I remember going to one of the early Capricorn picnics. President Carter was there and it was a big deal. The Capricorn picnic was the number one invitation in rock ’n’ roll for several years. You got an idea at that point of how important Capricorn was, and the kind of influence they had. But when you’re in the middle of something, it’s hard to see outside of it.

McDuffie: I had a copy of The Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach that I wore out. And I didn’t know it then, but it was the first time I’d been exposed to real chamber music. The way that Dickey Betts and Duane Allman collaborated together. They were conversational and deferential. They knew when to back away and when to step forward. It was respectful music-making. I was addicted to Eat A Peach and also to the Fillmore East album. 

I didn’t know the extent that the rock ’n’ roll world was focused on Macon at that time, I just knew the Allman Brothers were here and I was proud they were in Macon. 

ArtsATL: Mike, did that prepare you for what happened after you moved to Athens? It was a similar situation where a small Georgia city was made a huge impact.

R.E.M.
R.E.M. in 1984: (left to right) Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck

Mills: As I said, when you’re in the middle of a scene, you don’t know it’s a scene. That’s what makes it a scene. Once people started realizing there was a “Athens scene,” that’s when it began to change and be less than what it was. We were all just a bunch of kids who liked the same kind of music that a whole lot of other people didn’t like. And we’d all just gather in Athens.

So it was very different than what was happening in Macon. Obviously, people who liked music attracted each other. I was very lucky to spend so many years in hotbeds of music. Macon was about the Allman Brothers and Southern rock, and country was huge at that time, so there were a lot of great influences. And classical music from my parents. 

That was really useful. Then I went to Athens, where there were more contemporary pop references and rock ’n’ roll and more cutting-edge stuff. I was really fortunate to be shaped by those two cities.

ArtsATL: Bobby, you left Macon and studied at Juilliard. As you watched R.E.M. grow into a really big deal, what was your perspective on that?

McDuffie: I was a little late to the R.E.M. party. I was pretty ambitious at Juilliard. But I was kept up on R.E.M.’s success by my brother, who was a UGA student. He kept reminding me how great Mike’s band was and I was so happy for him.

But it didn’t really hit me artistically until I heard them live in Kansas City. I was playing the same night they were. I was the soloist with their symphony, and R.E.M was playing at the Kemper Arena. I’d never played Mendelssohn’s concerto so fast (laughs). I was like, I need to get through this. My wife had flown out and I just played as fast I could, bowed as fast as I could and we got a ride to the arena. And that’s when it really hit. I was blown away. Classical music is a much more intimate art form. It was a watershed moment for me, seeing what my friend had accomplished. There were 20,000 people singing every word to every song.

Robert McDuffie performing in 2018 with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

A couple of years before that, in ’88 or ’89, Mike happened to be in Georgia and came to a performance of mine at the Atlanta Symphony. And it just meant the world to me to see him with his mom and dad. He even put on a coat and tie for it. It was incredibly sweet. It meant the world to me, and just reinforced my love for him.

ArtsATL: What nugget of inspiration led you to say, “Hey, Mike, why don’t you write a concerto?”

McDuffie: It was pretty selfish on my part because I wanted to take a risk and go to a great living American composer, and that was Mike Mills. I’d just done a lot of work with Philip Glass on a concerto he’d written for me. I was still loving playing what I call the “dead White European male composers.” But I also wanted a challenge and I was in love with Mike’s music.

I was a little nervous. I went to his manager first for permission to even approach Mike with the idea. I knew how beautiful his music was, “Nightswimming” and other pieces he had such a major part in. All you have to do is look at the fourth movement of his concerto, called “Stardancer’s Waltz,” to realize he is one of America’s greatest composers. It was a risk-reward and it’s still paying off.

ArtsATL: What was your reaction, Mike? Were you like “What? Are you kidding?”

Mills: I was definitely not expecting that. I didn’t see that one coming. But I was at loose ends. I didn’t have a band anymore. I was wondering where I was going to go with things. I was not unfamiliar with classical music because of my dad, who was a dramatic tenor, so I said, “What the hell?” I just basically approached it. … it’s all about melody with me. So I said, “I’m going to write some melodies.” They just happened to be for the violin rather than the vocals or guitar or piano. That’s really all I did.

Mike Mills Robert McDuffie
Mills says it was terrifying to compose a concerto. He said he ultimately approached it as he would a R.E.M. song, with a focus on melody.

It’s technically more of a song suite, but it does fit the definitions of a concerto. With the help of David Mallamud, our arranger, it turned into something we’re all pretty proud of and it seems to have a bit of life, which is really nice.

ArtsATL: How intimidating was it to write violin parts for Robert McDuffie?

Mills: The entire thing was terrifying. It was a world I’d never stepped into and tried to work within it. So the idea that I could actually succeed in that realm, it had never existed in my brain. I tried to approach it as “go with what you know” and do what I’m good at, which is writing melodies and then hope that the rest falls into place. It was stepping off a cliff, for sure. It was a plunge into the unknown. 

I approached it basically the same as I approached R.E.M. songs. I realized there’s no vocals, so the melody has to carry the song. And the melody exists in a lot of different places. Obviously, there’s the primary melody and the themes of the pieces are with the violin. But there will be melody everywhere else. The bass will have melody. All the other string instruments, and in this case symphonic instruments, will have their own melody. In my opinion, you can’t have too much melody. The more you have going on, the more exciting it is for me. 

I just approached it as a similar thing to rock ’n’ roll. In fact, it is rock ’n’ roll. That’s the fun thing about what we’re doing here. We’re combining the two genres we love the most — the classical world and the rock ’n’ roll world. Part of our mission here is to show people that [these two kinds of music have] a lot more in common than you might think. These are classical pieces, but they are also rock ’n’ roll pieces, and they function on both levels. 

ArtsATL: Bobby, what was your reaction when you heard it?

McDuffie: It was amazing. It starts out rocking, and his Southern roots come to the surface. The fifth movement is “Nightswimming” and I’m glad Mike agreed to include that. I think it’s “Stardancer’s Waltz” that helped propel this piece into an unforgettable work of music. From a classical musician’s perspective, I think Mike Mills is the Dvořák of rock ’n’ roll. Dvořák wrote these unbelievable melodies that were joyful and reflective. I approached “Stardancer’s Waltz” the way I approach this beautiful piece by Dvořák called “The Romance.” The same texture. I want to make sure the phrases are tapered and they soar when they need to soar and reflect when they need to reflect.

Mike Mills Robert McDuffie
Mills and McDuffie will perform the concerto with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

ArtsATL: Mike, this is the world premiere of “R.E.M. Explored.” How did this come into existence?

Mills: We wanted a companion piece to go with the new symphonic version of the concerto. So I commissioned two guys I respect very much, one of whom is David Mallamud, and my friend Carl Marsh, who is a well-respected arranger and composer. I know Carl mostly from his work on Big Star’s Third record, which is not super well known but is an iconic record for musicians. 

I gave them five songs each and I said, “I don’t want symphonic reproductions of an R.E.M. song. I want you to take this to other places. I want you to use your imagination and interpret this as you will. Leave enough in there so the audience knows which R.E.M. song they’re hearing, but don’t simply re-chart the existing song.” So that’s what they’ve done.

Their approaches are quite interesting. Carl left each song as a discreet movement. Some of them are a little more minor key, a little spookier. David’s is one long piece with some interesting music that is a little more bouncy and energetic in his inimitable way. So I think it’s going to be quite the journey for the audience. It’s exciting. I don’t know how it’s going to go or what it’s going to sound like because I’ve only heard the (computerized) MIDI version. So I won’t hear the actual symphonic version until we get there for rehearsal next week.

I’m excited for this. First of all, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be great. But it is a little bit of the unknown. It’s the first symphonic version of this stuff, so it’s going to be a new journey and I’m real excited for the audience to come take it with us.

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Scott Freeman is executive editor of ArtsATL. He is the author of four books, including the best-selling Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band (which is in development for a feature film) and Otis! The Otis Redding Story. He has worked as an editor at Atlanta magazine and Creative Loafing. He was a reporter for the Macon Telegraph and News, as well as The Providence Journal.

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