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Michael Edward Mills was born to Frank and Adora Mills in Orange County, California, where his father was stationed in the Marines. The family moved to Macon, Georgia, when Mills was around six months old. Mills met future R.E.M. bandmate Bill Berry while they attended high school in Macon. The duo started out in bands together. Early projects included the band Shadowfax, later called The Back Door Band.
Mills attended the University of Georgia in Athens, which is where R.E.M. formed.
Mills is an avid fantasy sports player, with interest in NFL, NBA, and PGA teams, among others. He is also a fan of his alma mater's football team, the Georgia Bulldogs.
He is married to Jasmine Pahl. He is an atheist.
Mills has one sibling, younger brother Mitch, who is also a musician.
Mills is credited with being the chief composer behind many of R.E.M.'s songs, including "Nightswimming", "Find the River", "At My Most Beautiful", "Why Not Smile", "Let Me In", "Wendell Gee", "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville", "Beat a Drum", "Be Mine", "Electrolite", and "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" In particular, R.E.M.'s 2004 album Around the Sun was heavily shaped by Mills' piano and keyboard contributions.
Mills is responsible for the prominent backing vocal and harmony parts found in the band's back catalog, with his vocal contributions being most noticeable on 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant and 2008's Accelerate. He sang lead vocals on the songs "Texarkana", "Near Wild Heaven", The Clique cover "Superman" and The Troggs cover "Love Is All Around".
R.E.M. had been talking about disbanding since 2008, and eventually did so in 2011. In a 2013 interview, Mills said there is no possibility of an R.E.M. reunion. Mills described it as "31 wonderful years and the opportunity to end it on our own terms".
Mills has written and performed with friends on various projects during his time with the band and since. In 1990 he wrote music for Howard Libov's short film Men Will Be Boys. That same year, he recorded with Warren Zevon together with Buck and Berry as the Hindu Love Gods.
In 2012, Mills contributed piano to a Record Store Day single released by Drive-By Truckers member Patterson Hood, in protest of a Walmart development being built in Athens, Georgia.
Mills is a member, along with Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck, and Linda Pitmon, of The Baseball Project.
Mills performs as part of singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur's band. On April 3, 2014, while performing with Arthur, Mills broke the news that David Letterman would be retiring in 2015. Mills took a band self-portrait that he posted to Instagram and did a short interview about "breaking" the story.
Since 2010, Mills has played with a rotating group of musicians for a series of concerts built around Big Star's album Third/Sister Lovers. Known as Big Star's Third, the concerts have taken place in London, Sydney, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York. A longtime Big Star fan, Mills wrote the liner notes for the 2014 reissue of the band's first two releases, 1972's #1 Record and 1974's Radio City.
In 2016, he toured to support a Concerto for Violin, Rock Band, and String Orchestra with childhood friend Robert McDuffie, along with guitar players William Tonks and John Neff. The tour resumed in 2022.