I interviewed Mike Mills a couple of times in recent years — once to talk about a new album (and going back to Rockville), and once for an oral history I did on the 9:30 Club, which was a regular stop on R.E.M.'s tours in the early '80s.
Only a tiny bit of the latter interview made it into the 9:30 piece, so here's the best of the rest, on the occasion of the band's retirement. Another extra: Some detail from Bertis Downs, R.E.M.'s longtime attorney and manager, on the night the band nearly froze on its way to a 9:30 show.
Mike Mills: “I can picture myself seeing the old 9:30 Club on the itinerary and being very happy. It was always a good crowd, we always had fun. I do remember there were a lot of weird hotel stories that came out of those days, at the old Harrington Hotel. I can't really go into it. Let's just say there were some interesting dealings with hotel staff. I think details are best left to the imagination.
“I liked that the club was dark and wasn't a big open space. It was actually pretty highend, compared to some of the places we were playing at the time. But I don't remember the first show there. My chronology of memory is not good. My feeling was that D.C. was not really known as a rock-and-roll town, and yet we always had a good time there. The crowds were very into and it very supportive. One of the things that sticks out for me is, there was another band from D.C. called Rapid Eye Movement, and there was some disputation as to who was going to be able to keep the name. We had a little playoff one night where we both played the same stage, and — well, we have the name now. [Laughs.]
“It was all pretty good-natured. We had a fair amount of momentum coming into that. I think they were annoyed that someone else had come up with the same name and that they had to go through that. But I think they kind of understood that the sheer momentum of what we were doing made it advisable. They were good. They were deserving of the name; I just think we had more momentum.
“We had one other really weird show where we were coming from New Jersey and our van broke down, and at the last minute we scrounged a car to take us to the train station, which took us to Union Station. We got in a cab from there, but the way I recall it, we had to walk a lot of the way to the gig. The opening band had been kind enough not only to let us use their equipment, but had played an extra set. We literally walked in off the street, with ice in our hair, and just started playing. We would do anything to avoid cancelling the show. It was planes, trains and automobiles to get there, but we got there."
Bertis Downs: “R.E.M. played [at the 9:30 Club] countless times in that 81-82-83 period. The most memorable was the time we were on our way down on Thanksgiving weekend, I want to say of 1982. I was a law clerk in D.C. at the U.S. Court of Federal Appeals, but I kept up with what was going on back home in Athens. I'd gone up to see them play a club in New York called the Peppermint Lounge, and there was a date in Washington. We ended up on the Turnpike, in unbelievably bad traffic. It was dark, bleak, raining. Then the van breaks down. We had another person traveling with us with a car. I got in the car with the four band members, the windshield steamed up, and got them to the Trenton train station with their guitars.
“This was pre-cellphones, pre-smart phones, pre-Google Maps. We had to use payphones to call [9:30 Club owner] Seth [Hurwitz]. I said: “They're on the way! They should be there at10,” or whatever it was. They got to D.C. and had to walk part of the way to the club, then got so cold they jumped in a cab. They evidently walked straight through the front door, straight to the stage and, on borrowed equipment, played two sets. I missed it; I was still stuck in New Jersey. But that was still a point where we'd never, ever cancelled a show. We kept the streak unbroken."