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R.E.M.’s Mike Mills debuts rock concerto at Emory

Violinist Robert McDuffie has played the music of many illustrious composers, but it’s fair to say that only one of them is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“At the end of the day, we’re both just musicians doing our thing,” says McDuffie of his latest collaboration with former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills. McDuffie and Mills, who were childhood friends in Macon before going on to worldwide success in their separate musical realms, will come together on stage to perform Mills’ “Concerto for Rock Band, Violin and Strings” at Emory’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 28 as part of an international tour.

The collaboration came about a few years ago when McDuffie was visiting Mills at his Athens home.

“We were having dinner, and Bobby mentioned that he could play Beethoven and Tchaikovsky ‘til his hair fell out, but he wanted to try something different,” says Mills. “I was just at a time when I was trying to figure out what direction to go next. It sounded extremely challenging, so I said yes.”

Audiences may see sharp contrasts between the classical and rock worlds, but it’s not necessarily a division the two musicians care to maintain.

“I just approached it as writing a group of songs,” says Mills. “I tried to have some interesting guitar progressions and then tried to put the best melodies I could over them. That’s really what it came down to. Whatever your lead instrument is, whether it’s a voice, a guitar or a violin, the melodies have to be strong. In a case where you have no lyrics, the melodies have to do all the work.”

Mills composed the music on piano, synthesizer and guitar, which he says wasn’t difficult to transpose to violin. The concerto has six movements, including a new arrangement of the 1993 R.E.M. hit “Nightswimming,” for which Mills wrote the music.

“I wrote all of it in Athens except ‘Nightswimming.’” says Mills. “And actually, I probably wrote that in Athens, too, now that I think about it. It’s good to have a place where you feel secure and at home and at peace because there was a lot of pressure writing this.”

Though Mills is resolutely Athens-based and McDuffie has called New York home for almost 40 years, the two share a history. The pair first became friends when they were in middle school in Macon, where Mills’ parents were in the choir of the First Presbyterian Church and McDuffie’s mother was the music director.

“There was a period of about four years that our families spent every Sunday evening together after church,” recalls McDuffie. “The parents would imbibe, and the kids would do kid stuff, everything from exchanging Hardy Boys books to making fun of each others’ record collections and watching Sunday night TV together. Mike was nerdy — I think he’d be the first to admit it — but endearing. Really curious, just asking questions all the time, enthusiastic about life, enthusiastic about new things … He was a Hardy Boys book fanatic. He borrowed several of mine and still hasn’t returned them.”

“I probably still have about 20 of them actually,” says Mills. “We just gravitated toward each other. Everyone was very musical. Bobby and I were in handbell choir and church choir together. We just became good friends. I thought he was smart, funny and creative. Those are the things I like in people anyway.”

When he was 16, however, the musically precocious McDuffie left high school in Macon to continue his violin studies at Juilliard.

“I figured it was inevitable,” says Mills. “I knew that he had to get out of Macon to pursue his dream and to realize his true talent. I was very proud of him. I thought it was wonderful. At the time it was just the right thing for Bobby.”

Mills eventually headed to college at the University of Georgia, and they each began to pursue their separate musical interests.

“I was a senior, and I got a call from Mike saying he was in a band and that they were playing at a club in New York,” says McDuffie. “He had that same old Mike enthusiasm, but I think the show started well after midnight, and I had class the next day at eight. I think I said, ‘Good luck’ in a courteous, supportive way, like, ‘I hope your little band does great.’”

Mills’ ‘little band’ did very well indeed; McDuffie’s brother, who was attending UGA at the time, kept McDuffie abreast of R.E.M.’s early success, and it wasn’t long before McDuffie’s own career as one of the world’s most sought-after soloists began to take off, as well.

“I was walking through LaGuardia, and I saw Rolling Stone (magazine) and there they are on the cover as America’s Greatest Rock Band,” says McDuffie. “I just felt a real strong sense of pride for him.”

In the late 1990s, McDuffie, seeking to acquire a coveted $3.5 million 1735 Guarneri del Gesù violin once played by 19th-century virtuoso Nicolò Paganini, put together a consortium of investors that included Mills, who is now technically part owner of the instrument leased to McDuffie.

“It’s just something I did to be part of Bobby’s career and to help him be everything he wanted to become as a violinist,” says Mills. “When I hear him play it, there’s just the joy of the sound, and I know how much he enjoys it.”

McDuffie will perform on the violin, now estimated to be worth about $10 million, for the Emory concert.

“I’ll have a pick-up mic, so it’s going to be a Guarneri on steroids,” he says.

Not to be outdone, Mills will also perform on an instrument with a long and venerable history.

“It’s the old 1970s Rickenbacker I used to play in the old R.E.M. days,” he says. “The pick-ups went bad, and I didn’t like the replacements so I quit playing it for many, many years. When we were able to replace the pick-ups with some good new ones, I started playing it, and I decided this was the perfect instrument for this project.

“I’m just thrilled to be able to do this,” Mills said, “especially with my old friend Bobby.”

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