Interviews: Come On, He Was Only The Drummer

By David Cavanagh

Bill Berry has left and R.E.M. are different, yet somehow the same. Welcome, then, Stipe, Buck, Mills, a drum machine, a new album and an invisible fourth member, Mr. Eerie Ambience. “It’ll be really druggy, really great,” they promise David Cavanagh.

Messrs J. Michael Stipe, Mike E. Mills and William T. Berry (three Georgian gentlemen of some renown) made a rendezvous in Hawaii in the spring of last year, at one of several properties owned by Mr. Peter L. Buck. Away from prying eyes the four campaigners held preparatory discussions regarding a fresh project for the partnership; and it was agreed after some debate that this project should differ considerably from the partnership’s previous endeavours, and thereby might “sound kind of weird and glacial,” as Mr. Buck (a fan of M. Brian Eno) put it.

“I have a feeling the next record will be a new direction,” Buck had told Music Week the summer before. One decision made in Hawaii was certainly novel: to use drum machines, percussion loops, sequencers and synthesizers. Another decision was perhaps more fateful: the record would be followed by a 10-month tour of the world. A motion was passed to reconvene in Georgia in October, giving Mr. Stipe adequate time to consider any remarks he might wish to add to the minutes. (Meeting adjourned.)

“I was literally having dreams about the songs in the weeks before flying to Georgia,” Peter Buck recalls almost a year later. “I was so excited about the direction we were taking. Then on the first day of rehearsals, Bill comes in and says, Guys, I’m sorry, but I don’t want to do this anymore.”

In October 1997, after 17 years as drummer, harmony vocalist, songwriter and occasional bass player in R.E.M., Bill Berry reluctantly disembarked from the ride. He had survived a life-threatening fever in Germany in 1989, and a brain haemorrhage in Switzerland in 1995; apparently the thought of another 10 months away from home was just too much of a burden.

“There are things that Michael, Mike and I feel are perks of this lifestyle,” explains Buck. “You get to travel around the world, eat strange food, visit cultures where they don’t speak your language – like New York – and you can’t make yourself understood. Bill’s not that type of guy. He wants a steak like he has it in Georgia. He wants to sleep in his own bed. If you want to see Bill, you have to drive to his house and hang out until he gets tired of you. Our phone conversations last less than a minute: How are you doing Bill? Oh, good… We-ell, I got to go chop some wood. He’s always been like that. His nickname in the band was I Go Now Berry.”

Had Berry quit at the end of an album, it is possible – Buck concedes – that R.E.M. would have broken up. But October 1997 was a time of optimism, and an emotional commitment had already been made by Buck, Stipe and Mills to this potentially intriguing, partially mechanised R.E.M. Following the initial disruption to rehearsals, orthodoxy was quick to follow Berry out of the building. As Mills puts it, “Once Bill had left, we just said, Well, there are no more rules anymore. We can do whatever we want to.”

R.E.M. doing whatever they want to is not an unfamiliar concept. The amount of creative control that they wield has been the subject of envious, often exaggerated conjecture among the rock groups for well over a decade. But what Mills is talking about was something rather different: a full-scale overhaul of what R.E.M.’s music sounds like. And of course, they would be implementing these changes just after negotiating a recording contract with Warner Bros. that is worth $80 million.

So why have R.E.M. – let’s be facetious – “gone techno”? The roots lie in New Adventures in Hi-Fi, an album that sprang from an ingenious idea of Buck’s: to record one album while promoting another. On the Monster tour in 1995, the band committed the bulk of a new record to tape (at soundchecks, in live performance and, in the case of one song, in a backstage bathroom). Its 65 minutes completed by four excellent songs from a subsequent session in a Seattle studio, New Adventures in Hi-Fi was in the shops by September 1996, taking many people unawares. So it would seem, anyway, because the album has, to date, sold five million copies, approximately five million fewer than the two R.E.M. albums that preceded it. Despite lavish praise in the media, the album lost the group 50 per cent of its audience.

There are several good reasons for this. The decision to release a funeral five-minute song with no chorus (“E-Bow The Letter”winking as an introductory single was pretty wacky but did the album no favours. Many passed on New Adventures in Hi-Fi because they were disappointed by the clumsy, below-par Monster. Mike Mills’s personal theory is plausible: hearing on the grapevine that most of the album was recorded at soundchecks, people assumed it comprised “a bunch of knock-offs.”

R.E.M.’s own feelings about New Adventures in Hi-Fi couldn’t be clearer: it was the best record they had ever made, end of story. As they saw it, they had even topped Automatic For the People, the early-’90s masterpiece that had almost became an albatross. (When you’re looking towards 1997, you don’t want the world thinking you did your best work back in 1992.)

Whatever the explanation, the band’s creative and commercial curves diverged in 1996. Trusting their instincts, the band risked further divergence on this new album, determining to prioritise their creative growth. Nobody was sure what they were meant to be doing, but they had to do it. Somewhere in a Warner Bros. building, a man may have been slowly beating his head with his fists.

R.E.M.’s new direction was to be unveiled to the public at RFK Stadium, Washington D.C. on Saturday, June 13, 1998, six months into the recording of the album. Appearing at the annual Free Tibet two-day fundraiser, the band felt confident enough to insert five new songs into an intended nine-song set. The completion of the album was not yet in sight – and nor were R.E.M., unless you were backstage watching them shelter from the massive thunderstorm. The show was washed out.

Back they all went the following day – R.E.M.’s set now reduced to seven songs so that they could be squeezed on to Sunday’s bill – and even in the brilliant sunshine, this peek at an album-in-progress was a damp squib. An under-rehearsed six-piece line-up (including Joey Waronker from Beck’s band on drums; guitarist/keyboard player Scott McCaughey; and bassist/vibraphonist Barrett Martin) debuted not only the four slowest songs on the album, but seemingly the four slowest songs in the world.

“What a beautiful day,” said Stipe at one point sounding like Ken Dodd, but looking – in a saffron, ankle-length sarong – like a cross between a giant baby and the King of Siam. The crowd grew quiet and quizzical as each sticky, decelerated tune inched by. Perhaps it was disappointment.

“I looked out during the first song ['Airportman'],” a cheerful Buck told Q moments after coming offstage, “and all I could see was incomprehension.”

The Plaza Athenee Hotel in New York is to be found in one of the affluent Upper East Side boulevards that would be sedate, were it not for the constant barrage of demolition, drilling and heavy traffic outside. The street is entirely double-parked with long, sleek, black limousines waiting to ferry the hotel’s guests to their various locations for luncheon.

It is August 31: a year ago today, She Died. On the ninth floor, the lift opens to reveal the R.E.M. line-up of 1998 – Stipe in a black shirt, Buck wearing dark glasses, the greying-grinning Mills looking simultaneously 26 and 40 (he’s 39) – standing in the corridor outside suite 914 with their manager, Bertis Downs. The Plaza Athenee will be R.E.M.’s base for the next few days while they shoot a video for “Daysleeper”, the album’s first single.

Bertis Downs, a twinkle-eyed, garrulous man in a white cap, whose voice is damnably reminiscent of someone you know but can’t quite place (hours later it comes to you: Alan Alda), had entered suite 914 at around six o’clock the previous evening, shortly after the last notes of the new R.E.M. album, Up, tailed off. “It’s not a first-listen record,” he said quickly, yet mistakenly. Up is a fantastic first listen. It’s what we would have wanted. Just not what anyone would have expected.

Buck and Mills are doing their interview as a pair, Stipe is receiving Q alone. There are really only two questions to be asked: how did they do it, and what have they done?

When Berry left the band in October 1997, the rehearsals immediately became pointless: rehearse what? “Instead, Mike and I just wrote another fifteen or twenty songs,” Buck explains. Now everything was new. The recording sessions began on January 31, 1998 in a new studio in San Francisco, with a new co-producer, Pat McCarthy, a 30-year-old Irishman who’d engineered on Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Scott McCaughey (veteran of the Monster tour) and Barrett Martin (of the Screaming Trees and Tuatara) were invited to put their input and expertise. Both are multi-instrumentalists.

“So now we had forty-five songs, including thirty from the Hawaii sessions, that nobody knew how to play,” continues Buck. “It was good – whenever we’d set up, we consciously went away from the rock band arrangement. We’d build a percussion loop, or I’d put up one of my drum machines sounds. The track might be two synthesizers, stand-up bass, and a bouzouki or something.”

Mills decided that he did not want to play bass; he mostly concentrated on keyboards. Buck, who played most of the bass, farmed out much of the guitar playing. To illustrate how experimental the band were prepared to get, two songs feature Stipe on guitar. On one of them, “I’m Not Over You”, he sounds like Billy Bragg strumming an autoharp. On the other, “Why Not Smile”, he even plays a solo. (“Charming once,” Buck notes. “We wouldn’t want it to happen more often.”)

The music on the album acknowledges upheaval in the sense that almost every song sounds as if something drastic has occurred to R.E.M.’s personnel. Since none of them are playing the instrument he’s famous for, it’s as though, Buck, Mills and Berry all left in ‘97, leaving Stipe to assemble a totally new line-up.

“We were amazed at how much the dynamic of everything changed when Bill left,” relates Mills. “Even though he wasn’t a studio vulture who sat at the board all day, when he was gone we kept finding ourselves looking for him to say, Is this good? But he wasn’t there and we didn’t have to.”

The startling “Airportman” opens the album on a hugely audacious note – somewhere between the Chicago “post-rock” avant-garde and “Introducing the Band” by Suede. Like many of the 14 songs that follow, it bears no relation to any R.E.M. music we’ve heard before. There are so many eccentric touches that fleeting moments of faux-recognition can appear laughable: “Follow You Follow Me” by Genesis? World Party? Hot Chocolate? Every 1’s A Winner? On what must surely rank as R.E.M.’s most outrageously fluked great album so far, you may also think of John Cale. The Beatles around the second half of 1967 and (on the gorgeous “Suspicion”winking a swishy, international mood music that Henry Mancini might have composed for an Audrey Hepburn romantic thriller set on the ski slopes of Austria circa 1966.

“I was playing tracks to friends before Michael put the vocals on, and they were like, What is this?” reports an amused Buck. “We had Sean O’Hagan from the High Llamas come over to the studio one day, and we played him three songs and after each one he said, This is amazingly Krautrock!”

And it’s not so ridiculous. And a song called “Hope” begins like “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk, ends like something by Neu! and appears to belong whole-heartedly to mid-’70s Dusseldorf.

“I hadn’t made a Krautrock connection,” Buck hastens to add. “But I was tending to think of some of those Eno records, like Before And After Science and Another Green World, where he would have these real human vocals with robotic, cheap drum machines and real drifty keyboards. It would sound like these kind of lullabys, but if you actually analyse what’s going on, it’s all electronic. When I started doing demos for this record, I went into those instruments more in-depth than I ever had – knowing that Michael’s voice was so warm it would ameliorate them.”

Humorously, they are now uncertain what instruments they have and haven’t used. Trying to remember whether or not a song called “Walk Unafraid” features a bassoon, Buck and Mills start to think back.

Buck: “that’s got so much weird synth stuff on it. It could be an E-Bow guitar. . .”

Mills: (Remembering) “Oh… !” (Forgetting). . . “no.”

Buck: “.. and there’s three or four different synth things going on. I don’t even know what ended up on it. We had like thirty keyboards or something. Definitely a Meat Loaf-type number.”

Mills: “No, there’s no bassoon. I mean, there is a tuba setting on a synth that we used…”

Buck: “Through a fuzzbox, of course. The thing is, all the synthesizer settings, if you use them, you sound like a Mariah Carey record, so you have to put them through delays or phase shifters or something – using technology in a way that you’re not supposed to.”

Which is presumably one of the reasons why Up sounds, well, like it’s not supposed to. In the suite next door, where he is sitting smoking a roll-up and waiting for his water to arrive, Michael Stipe comes up with a visionary analysis. “I think Bill’s departure catapulted us through the next two records that would have come out had he stayed in the band, on to the third,” he suggests. “We leapfrogged the next two R.E.M. records.”

The Eno/Krautrock angle doesn’t wash with Stipe. He’s not a fan; to him, “Hope” shows a Suicide influence. Asked if he thinks the album sounds European, he gazes coolly at you and replies, “I have no idea what that means.” But he will allow that a great deal of change has taken place. “We had to re-invent the wheel,” he points out. “It has to be different – there were only three of us. It’s been really challenging.” It sounds like it all came out of thin air. “You’re telling me, buddy! Some of the material was pretty wild.”

Up was a tough project for Stipe. Unlike Buck and Mills, he was “blocked” by Berry’s announcement, unable to write lyrics or think about anything else for some time afterwards. Having come out of New Adventures In Hi-Fi with his confidence high, he had begun work on Up in the summer of ‘97 with a few specific intentions in mind.

“There are certain things I set out to do,” he explains. “Rough ideas that I wanted to play around with. One of them was the religious versus science-technology-modern-age. There are several songs on the record that, to me, address that. I don’t know how other people are going to take them. It’s taking a little bit from ‘Undertow’ and ‘New Test Leper’, with the freedom of ‘E-Bow The Letter’ and ‘Country Feedback’ – songs that just come out. What I really wanted was a more of that automatic, unconscious stuff. . . greatly inspired by Patti Smith and various others.”

Would Stipe always take “spiritual” over “science-technology”?

“No, I don’t take a side,” he replies, a little affronted. “I don’t think I do anyway. I’ll leave that up to the listeners. Both have pitfalls. It’s where the two meet that they get really interesting, and I was trying to make that converge in something that isn’t a polar opposite. It’s that nature-nurture, that same old two-party system.”

The word one keeps hearing about Up (whoever one speaks to) is “dark.” Since Automatic For The People and New Adventures In Hi-Fi were also “dark,” it’s meant as a recommendation. “Dark” is good; we like “dark.” But Up is not heavy-going. The songs are moving and involving, and much of that is down to Stipe’s singing and writing. “Bert Downs said the record’s about people falling down and getting back up again,” Stipe considers. “He said there’s a lot of that imagery. I’m like, Really?”

A look at the lyric sheet shows Downs to be spot-on: the characters trip, fall, get up, and carry on; it happens song after song; and Stipe hadn’t even noticed.

If the album has an odd-song-out, it is “At My Most Beautiful”, a tribute to Pet Sounds and, as such, Up’s only real moment of musical Americana. Mills and Buck are big fans of The Beach Boys; Stipe had never seen their appeal. But it’s his sweetest lyric of the lot: “I count your eyelashes secretly,” “You always say your name [on the answering machine]/Like I wouldn’t know it’s you… ” The words took him almost a year to complete.

“The idea for it happened driving up and down Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles when I was putting together the Patti Smith book last year,” he recalls. “I had CDs and tapes of new songs in the car. I came up with this one line: ‘I found a way to make you smile’. All I knew was The Beach Boys had a record or song called Smile – is that right? – so I was like, well, this will be my gift to Peter and Mike, and Bill at the time. It was hard to write. It was a high order to say, I found a way to make you smile – I had to come up with, OK, what are those ways? That was tough.”

He mentions Thom Yorke and Patti Smith as two friends who telephoned to offer their support at key stages in the songwriting process. Smith told him to be “unafraid” – the word became a kind of affirmation for the album in general, and Stipe even wrote it underneath a poster of Lenny Bruce that Buck had hung in the studio. Stipe also posted up each lyric as it was completed – partly so that he might feel “accomplished,” partly in order to show co-producer McCarthy, and anyone else who strolled by, that the lyricist’s procedure of re-writing and editing, while slow and mysterious, had something tangible at the end of it. Then Mike Mills made a timely suggestion.

“He was reading the lyrics and he said, These are really great, we should print them on the record sleeve,” Stipe recall, his mood lightening. “It was a really good night and there were eight or nine songs on the wall. I said, Yeah, we will. So we are.”

The lyric sheet (R.E.M.’s first ever) is another sideways acknowledgment of Berry’s departure.

“I thought is was a nice way of saying that we are a different band now,” Stipe nods. “We’ve become a band that prints lyrics on the record sleeve. At least for this one.”

Hidden behind a shop door in a plain row of laundrettes and liquor stores in New York’s Astoria district, Broadway Studios is a glamorous name for a cavernous, cold building. This is where the video for “Daysleeper” is being made. It is possibly the most important R.E.M. single since “Losing My Religion”, and for an entirely different reason. If they are to claw back the five million listeners they lost on New Adventures In Hi-Fi, or simply nip further absenteeism in the bud, the campaign must start with this single. If the people no like, they no buy.

In the past, R.E.M. have chosen an album’s first single themselves, notably the unhelpful “E-Bow The Letter”. “Daysleeper”, however, is a Warner Bros. request. If the company’s choice appears to baffle R.E.M., it’s more explicable when you consider that “Daysleeper” sounds a bit like “Try Not To Breathe”, one of the best loved tracks on Automatic For The People. It is Warners’ way of reassuring the public that this an R.E.M. they will feel comfortable with. Because after “Daysleeper”, choosing singles off Up will be a lottery.

In the middle of the studio floor, an office has been constructed out of desks, computers, a fax, a printer, and a coffee machine. Stipe emerges from make-up wearing a grey suit, a tie, and spectacles. “Daysleeper” is about a sector that is rarely discussed in pop music except in satirical terms: people who work in the City. Stipe’s lyrical touch is serious and personal. The song’s narrator lives his life upside down, arriving at work by night just as businessmen on the other side of the world are waking up. By day, he tries to sleep, but he has difficulty – solitude and depersonalisation have got the better of him. He cries without knowing why.

Because R.E.M. do a lot of press at video shoots, and because Stipe is always worth watching, camera crews from South Africa, Europe and Australia have been flown in to cover the video as a story. It’s explained to them that there’s a problem: “Daysleeper” will be shot in stop-motion animation (ie still photography), so there will therefore be no action for anyone to film. Furthermore Stipe, in his makeshift office, enclosed on all four sides, will be out of vision for the whole day. The French, who have turned up without flash, can’t even take photographs.

The other setback is that R.E.M. will not, after all, be touring this album. It’s an ironic turnaround, given that one of Bill Berry’s reasons for quitting the band was his loathness to leave his Georgia farm. The show had been slated to end in Ireland in late summer 1999. “None of us really wanted to tie up the next year,” Stipe explains. “It felt like we’d put enough into doing the record.”

Rather than tour, they intend to step up their promotional activities, particularly in Britain where Top Of The Pops and T.F.I. Friday are being arranged. In America, they will appear on a number of programmes including – would you believe – Sesame Street, in an attempt to give Up a marketing tweak that previous albums have not had.

The video shoot proceeds with agonising delays. Directed by two Icelandic brothers under Stipe’s executive supervision, it will have a “really druggy, really great” look when it’s all put together, Stipe promises Buck, who rolls up with Mills the following day to perform scenes of pretend tossing-and-turning on a double bed. Buck looks stoical. He is wearing sky-blue polyester pyjamas, bed-socks and tiny slippers. Mills is dressed likewise. It is beyond embarrassment. Only the presence of Eeyore and Tigger could add to their misery. Mills smiles stiffly as he pads around the studio. Buck cannot even relax with a beer – alcohol makes him nervous and puffy-faced.

MTV have just crept in; all they want is two minutes with Mike and Peter. They get them. An Australian television crew interviews Stipe for 40 minutes, only to find there is an audio problem and the entire interview is unbroadcastable. Stipe agrees to do it all over again. Approaching 8.30 in the evening, the video is over-running by several hours. “To hell with it,” says Buck, kicking away his appalling slippers.

Buck, who has already demoed songs for the next album, thinks it is becoming more and more urgent for R.E.M. to head for what Neil Young famously called “the ditch” – that volatile terrain either side of the main road. “At this point, there’s little thrill in giving people what they want,” the 41-year-old confesses. “I’m at the age where I feel I have to keep reinventing what I’m doing, or there isn’t a huge amount of interest for me. I’ve always said that I would rather sell less records and play smaller places, as long as I feel we’re moving forward and doing something interesting.”

Mike Mills would seem to be in agreement: “We’ve proven over the years that, whether we know what we’re doing or not, we do the right thing. The things that we have to do creatively for the band may not be the most commercial things. That isn’t the point. The point is to keep it fresh and interesting and alive.”

When a man dressed as Christopher Robin is looking you in the eye, you can be assured his agenda contains at least two points. The one about whispering who dares. The one about saying prayers. And others yet to be formalized.

Originally published on 27 November 1998 by Q Magazine
R.E.M. Central

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