Interviews: Breaking New Ground, But The Roots Hold Fast

By Bobbie Ann Mason

Time to drop pop music. Leave the Butthole Surfers and Pearl Jam to the kids.

But not R.E.M. Through 11 albums, it has built a reputation for innovation and artistic integrity. And yet, with its new Warner Brothers deal, it has become one of the world’s highest-paid bands. This ’80s alternative-rock band from athens, GA., turned ’90s superstars-now in their thirties, keeps breakingh rich new ground. Or new-ground, as we say in the South.

R.E.M.’s wellspring is the South. the hippie revolution came so late to the South that it was still being absorbed when punk arrived to debunk it. I imagine these overlapping forces energized R.E.M.’s music with both a sense of tradition and an urge towards edge.

As a Southerner, I’m partial. R.E.M.’s fabled murmuring and mumbling isn’t so strange. Ambiguity is our middle name. Southern indirection baffles people who prize assertiveness over modesty. We don’t always say what we mean. The lines blur. In the south, things aren’t clear-cut.

R.E.M. is as mule-headed as any of us. It’s characteristic of REM to release a CD – New Adventures In Hi-Fi comes out on Tuesday – and then take a vacation instead of touring. And the band won’t release the obvious hit from the disk as the first single. Instead, it chose “E-Bow The Letter,” which it calls a folk dirge. A background vocal by Patti Smith hauntingly takes over. In Southern storytelling, the sound of the voice weighs more than the tale itself. In the impressionistic early R.E.M. lyrics, sound superseded meaning; but the enigmatic lyrics are growing clearer, like images emerging on photographic paper.

We are in LA. Loud rock and roll shakes a sound stage in the building where Charlie Chaplin made his silent movies. R.E.M. is shooting a video. The band performs before an imagined backdrop, a trailer for a bad european movie, like Goddard’s “Weekend” if it were made for TV. They’re wearing pseudo-Italian garb. Bill Berry, the drummer, wears a fish-net-covered black jacket. Peter Buck, the guitarist, has on a black suit with a loud yellow shirt, and Mike Mills, the bassist, is in a purple velvet suit. The lead singer Michael Stipe is in stripes. His head is shaven. He moves in little electric-shock jerks. It’s an angry ecstasy.

Video shoots are notoriously dull, but since R.E.M. doesn’t lip-sync but plays atop the tape, we have an illusion of authenticity. The music surges through me. The song itself, “Bittersweet Me”, is just that, like dark chocolate. All afternoon the chilling line “I’d sooner chew off my leg than be trapped in this” surfaces in bold clarity.

On breaks the guys shed their miracle-fabric jackets and head for the snacks. Michael Stipe brushes his teeth, swishing his mouth with spring water and spitting into the trash can by the buffet table.

Peter Buck and Mike Mills talk the most. Bill Berry politely retreats, saying, “I just don’t like to talk about myself.” He hangs out with some street kids, shooting a basketball into a shopping cart.

Mike Mills, who wears Dolce & Gabbana duds confidently, is proud of the new album, which was recorded during the band’s 1995 Monster tour. “It’s a travelogue,” he says. “It was recorded all over the world, with a variety of techniques, some more hi-fi than others. My favorite song on the record, ‘How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us’ we recorded the third time we played it through.” His discordant splashes of piano highlight this eerie lament. “I had absolutely no idea where it was going or what was going to happen,” he says. “I was just trying to think Thelonious Monk – not that I have any idea how to play like Thelonious Monk.”

In the South you’ve got to offer those qualifiers. It’s a sin to get stuck up.

“At the end of the day, we’re just a rock-and-roll band,” Mike adds. “The world of rock stardomness is not reality. I like to use the word ‘stardomness’ because it tells you it’s not real. It’s totally silly and absurd.”

Peter Buck, who could talk your ear off, is comfortable to be around. He reads voraciously. “I wouldn’t want to live very far out in the country,” he says. “I have to be near a bookstore.” He disavows the importance of rock and roll music. “Reading is more important, but people don’t read. They listen to pop songs.”

I’m impressed, but I know. Southerners aim to be polite. So when a Southerner meets a writer…

“We can’t keep up with all the bands anymore,” Peter says. “There are too many. We used to kow all the bands, every band in every city. And I’ve slept on their floors! Adult rock is usually a pejorative term, but our audience is older now. There’s a way to do it when you’re an adult without it being mellow and old. People think of rock and roll as rebellion, being cool. We were never that kind of band – rebel for rebellion’s sake. If you really wanted to rebel, you’d take all your money and give it away. That is rebellion. But all these rock stars have nice houses and nice cars.”

He can imagine touring again, perhaps in a couple of years, but he says when he’s 50 he can imagine being a lounge guitarist.

Originally published on 8 September 1996 by New York Times
Source: R.E.M. Collectors Guide


One Response to “Interviews: Breaking New Ground, But The Roots Hold Fast”

  1. Lorna Says:

    There are some attention-grabbing time limits on this article however I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There may be some validity however I’ll take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we would like extra! Added to FeedBurner as nicely

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