Interviews: 33 Things You Should Know About R.E.M.

By David Keeps

1) THEY WEREN’T ALWAYS CALLED R.E.M.
At their first gig ever, in Athens, Georgia, on April 5, 1980, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry appeared as Twisted Kites. Afterward, realizing they didn’t want to be Kites anymore, they got twisted drunk and wrote a bunch of names on the wall in chalk. The next morning they erased all but two. Fortunately, they did not call themselves Negro Wives.

2) THEY ALL HAD TERRIBLE JOBS.
Stipe was a cook at a place called Sambo’s. Berry was a gofer for a booking agency. Mills worked in the parts-and-service department at Sears. Buck “was more of a behind-the-scenes guy with a mop. I’m still a hell of an industrial dishwasher,” he says. “If it comes right down to it, I can clean a table as fast as anyone.”

3) MICHAEL STIPE HAD A LOT TO LEARN ABOUT BEING IN A BAND.
It took the lead singer many years of playing live and recording before he discovered the difference between guitar and bass. “I knew there was a difference. I knew we had to have a guitar and a bass to have a band. And I knew that the bass was the one with four strings. But I didn’t know that it was the one that made the low notes.”

4) THERE AREN’T A LOT OF NICKNAMES IN THE BAND.
The others know Stipe as “Face”: “Because I’m the one people recognize and always want to take pictures of and talk to,” he explains. “Mike is known as ‘The Mills,’ and the only nickname associated with Peter would be ‘Buckland.’ You know when you’ve entered Buckland, because hyperbole is one of the grounding forces.”

5) PETER BUCK FOUND CHRIST AT AN EARLY AGE.
Jesus Christ Superstar, that is. The concert version of the show was the first gig he went to, in 1970 at the Hollywood Bowl. “Everyone looked like they were in Deep Purple — center-parted hair, little-girl’s blouse, bell bottoms. So stoned you can barely move. Not me, but them. And my mom.”

6) MIKE MILLS WAS A TRIPLE BAND GEEK.
He played electric bass in the high-school jazz band, tuba in the concert band and sousaphone in the marching band. “I was never beaten up,” he says. “But I probably should have been.”

7) BILL BERRY HATED MIKE MILLS.
They were both raised in Macon, Georgia. “He was more of a juvenile delinquent, and I was a really straight kid,” Mills says. One day, a mutual friend of the enemies invited both — unbeknownst to them — to a basement jam. By the time Berry got his drums down the basement steps and saw Mills there, he was too tired to storm off. “We gave it a shot,” Mills recalls. “And ended up best friends.”

8) BERRY NOW OWES MILLS A LOT OF MONEY.
“Bill and I were sitting around back in 1977 and I said, ‘All right, Bill, if I toss this piece of paper into the trash can across the room, and if we ever get rich, you owe me $475,000.’ And we’re laughing, like, ‘Who’s ever going to get rich enough to have that kind of money?’ He still hasn’t paid me.”

9) R.E.M. ARE LO-FI GUYS.
“I think modern recording is crap,” Stipe says. “The first recording we ever did, we used pencils to hold a piece of tape so we could do a tape loop. The tape was 20 feet long, so we had to stand at separate corners of the room, holding a pencil with the tape going around it and through the reel-to-reel tape recorder.”

10) EARLY R.E.M. TOURS WERE NOT LUXURY AFFAIRS.
The first time the group played in New York, Buck says, they drove up from Athens in a green Dodge van Berry had bought cheap. “It had shag carpeting on the ceiling. Somebody had to sleep in it with a big knife every night so the equipment wouldn’t get stolen.”

11) AND THEY HAD A SPINAL TAP MOMENT.
“We played an Air Force gig in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1982,” Mills says. “We had a captain in uniform who took us for steaks in the officers’ mess. Then we played the show, and they hated us. They wanted Joan Jett or someone with more balls than we had.”

12) R.E.M.’S WORST GIG EVER?
“Detroit, 1982,” Buck says without hesitation. “We played for four people, and they were all tripping. Then we took them out to dinner at a Greek restaurant. Every time we go to Detroit, we meet a hundred people who were those four.”

13) R.E.M. WERE BIGGER THAN MICHAEL JACKSON.
Their first LP, 1983’s Murmur, was voted the number 1 record of the year in the Village Voice’s prestigious critics’ poll. “Number 2 was Thriller,” Stipe says, “which has sold 45 million copies. Meanwhile, we were still traveling around in our van, living off $5 a day and eating potato knishes.”

14) THEY MADE THE FIRST ANTI-VIDEO VIDEO.
The song was “Fall on Me,” and Stipe shot it himself at an Indiana quarry in 1986. “It didn’t have any band members in it, it was shot in one take, it ran backward and upside down and it had the words to the song running through the middle of it. And MTV played the living shit out of it,” Stipe says, laughing.

15) SINÉAD O’CONNOR TAUGHT STIPE HOW TO LIP-SYNC.
Until “Losing My Religion,” the lead singer thought that lip-syncing was insulting to the original song: “I discovered the power of it watching ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ by Sinéad O’Connor,” he says. It’s the one where she cries, and I was incredibly moved by her performance. I said, ‘If she can do that, I can too.’ ”

16) NINETEEN NINETY-FIVE WAS A BAD YEAR FOR R.E.M.
First, Berry suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm while performing on the band’s Monster tour. Then Mills had an abdominal tumor removed, and Stipe had to go under the knife for a hernia. Berry retired from the band to his Georgia farm in October 1997. “He’s less likely to have an aneurysm than anyone else in the band,” Mills says of Berry’s current health.

17) BERRY WON’T BE REJOINING THE BAND, THOUGH.
“The trauma we went through when he quit was such that none of us wants to go through that again,” Mills says. “Including him.”

18) BUCK IS NOT A PERFECTIONIST.
He and Berry were the guys who always showed up at the recording studio early and were happiest with the first take of a song. “It’s kind of a joke, but it’s true,” Buck says. “If it was up to me, every one of our records would be a demo, and if it was up to Mike and Michael, they’d still be mixing Murmur.”

19) THEY STILL HAVE A DRUMMER NAMED BILL.
Bill Rieflin toured with Ministry and Nine Inch Nails before joining R.E.M. in the studio and on the road. “To paraphrase Courtney Love,” Stipe says, “he knows my every butt twitch. So he’s good to have behind me.”

20) R.E.M. ALL SLEEP ON THE BOTTOM BUNK.
On the tour bus, Stipe gets the one on the right-hand side. “In an accident, the bus would probably fall to the right, so it makes sense to me to be closer to that side,” he explains, “but that’s really macabre.” Buck can’t sleep at all on the bus: “I wake up every five minutes. It’s like a coffin.”

21) YOU WOULDN’T WANT PETER BUCK AS YOUR DAD.
“I don’t let my kids choose what’s on the car radio,” says the father of two daughters, Zoë and Zelda. “They listen to what I like to listen to. I am cognizant of the fact that they’re probably not really going to enjoy John Coltrane’s 25-minute skronk version of ‘My Funny Valentine.’ ”

22) STIPE AND BUCK DON’T HANG OUT IN THE DRESSING ROOM.
Buck watches the opening band, “then I lock myself in a room with my guitar.” Before they play, Stipe says, “I stay as far away from Peter as I can. He gets really hyped-up and anxious. All I do is slap on some makeup, have a cigarette and not think about what I’m about to do.”

23) STIPE HAS NEVER HAD STAGE FRIGHT, BUT…
“I’m terrified when there are cameras and it’s going out live on television. I can’t stand up at a wedding reception; I can’t give a speech to, like, 10 of my best friends — I’ll sweat through my clothes. Public speaking absolutely petrifies me.”

24) STIPE KNOWS THAT A MAN IN A DRESS MAKES AN IMPRESSION.
“It’s pretty simple, but it really fucks with people’s heads,” he says. Normally, he rocks a frock over jeans. “I’ve done bare-legged, too. And yeah, I’ve gone commando.”

25) AS DOES A MAN IN MAKEUP.
On R.E.M.’s most recent tour, Stipe wore a colored stripe across his eyebrows from temple to temple — in Europe it was orange; in the U.S. it was blue. Nonetheless, he says, “Light pink is really the color of the season.”

26) STIPE HAS HAD HIS SHARE OF BAD-HAIR DAYS.
Long, short, asymmetrical, brown, yellow and now…gone. But the strangest of all was when he shaved a ring around his head like Friar Tuck. “That was a monk’s tonsure,” he says. “Someone had to tell me what it was called. I was just trying to create a hairstyle for the 1980s.”

27) R.E.M. HAVE HAD SOME “SPECIAL” FANS.
“I had one girl show up on my front porch,” Mills recalls. “My girlfriend answered the door, and she came back and said, ‘There’s this really pretty girl on the porch that I don’t know.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, jeez, who could that be?’ I go out there, and this girl says, ‘I understand it all now. The music and the numbers on the records: I understand it now.’ And I said, ‘You want the singer’s house. He’s around the corner.’ ”

28) R.E.M. STILL DON’T KNOW WHO THEY ARE.
“We’ve never found a category we fit into,” Stipe says. “We are completely out of step with whatever is popular, whatever is happening, trendy, fashionable and faddy. We’ve just stubbornly gone our own route for 23 years. We’re still here — and we don’t suck yet.”

29) MICHAEL STIPE, THESPIAN.
In 1988, Stipe made his first film appearance in Arena Brains, a short movie by the artist Robert Longo. “It had all these actors who went on to become huge: Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta. And then there’s me.”

30) R.E.M. HAVE A BEEF WITH GWB AND CNN.
“Bad Day,” their new single and video, in which they play newscasters with bad comb-overs, is “a bit of an indictment of the president,” Stipe says, “but it’s more an indictment of 24-hour news media.”

31) THE ANSWER, SAYS R.E.M., IS NOT BLOWING IN THE WIND.
“It’s blowing in one ear and out the other of vacuous pop stars,” Mills declares. “The social conscience is really scattered right now. People aren’t demanding anything of pop music. They want escapism.”

32) IT’S TOUGH BEING A SOUTHERN BAND.
Recently, a fan at a show yelled for R.E.M. to play Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.” “I just felt sad for the poor guy,” Stipe says. “I think the people around him pummeled him into submission, and I didn’t have to lift a finger. It was brilliant.”

33) NO “SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE,” THEN…
R.E.M.’s newly released In Time: 1988–2003 The Best of R.E.M., their second greatest-hits collection, features the band’s favorite songs from the Warner Bros. era, plus two new tracks. Along with obvious picks like “Losing My Religion” and “Man on the Moon,” the band used a scientific method for choosing the rest. “We had a list of all our songs, and we picked the ones we didn’t hate,” Mills says.

Originally published on 15 October 2003 by Blender


One Response to “Interviews: 33 Things You Should Know About R.E.M.”

  1. Claudette Pinchback Says:

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