Interviews: Diminished But Unafraid, R.E.M. Talk About The Passion

By Bill Forman

“It’s ‘Heaven’,” says Michael Stipe with a wry grin as he contemplates the label on a designer scented candle. Returning the sacred object to the hotel coffee table, the R.E.M. frontman lights his cigarette, then sets “Heaven” ablaze.

“The record was – as records are – difficult to make,” says Stipe, his voice floating above the murmur of New York traffic eight stories below. “This one was even more so because of Bill’s departure. There was a feeling among all of us, almost a feeling of liberation–not so much from Bill and his input into the band and recording–but it really kind of blew the doors wide open. Whatever foundation we had to fall back on was gone, and so we were truly floating in space, bumping into each other over and over again, and creating some sparks.”

R.E.M. does all that and more on Up, an inspired left turn from a band that, by all rights, shouldn’t have any left turns left. The group reaffirms its knack for reconciling apparent contradictions: Low rock meets high art. Cult band as pop phenomenon. Radical shifts that feel reassuringly familiar. The new album is a lush affair, the guitar-rock sound supplanted by arcane keyboard and rhythm machine atmospherics that yield one of the most melodic yet challenging R.E.M. albums to date (see sidebar, next page).

“It’s not that, by having a drummer, we felt boundaries, certainly not with Bill, who’s a fantastic drummer,” clarifies Stipe. “We simply couldn’t find a fake Bill to come in and be him. And that wasn’t the direction the record was headed in anyway. So it was truly an experiment on all levels, and I think we came out of it with something pretty spectacular.”

Asked if there was ever a point where he felt the experiment would fall apart, Stipe flashes a weary smile: “Six or seven times a day for six months.”

Peter Buck’s Jet-lagged eyes hide behind dark sunglasses. Back in Seattle, where Buck relocated four years ago and now lives with his wife and two daughters, it’s still obscenely early, particularly by rock star standards. “I just flew in [to New York] last night and I had to wake up at 6 a.m. for me,” he explains. “But I believe that the day will come when we put out a record and no one’s going to be interested, so you might as well do all this and make the most of it.”

On the status of everyone’s favorite three-legged dog, Buck echoes Stipe’s excitement while amplifying the uncertainty. “I’m really happy with the record, but I’m not sure that we figured out how to be a band without Bill,” says Buck. “That’s one of the reasons we’re not going to do a full-scale tour this year. We switched instruments a lot. I’m not sure how we’d play this stuff live. I mean, I played all the bass on the record, so am I now the bass player? Does that mean Mike’s the keyboard player and we’ll have to hire a guitar player too?

“Laugh if you want, but it’s kind of serious. I mean, Mike doesn’t know the bass parts on these songs. We’re in the process of figuring out what kind of band we are, and what kind of band we’re going to be.” “The whole problem with touring is that, OK, we just finished this record. It took longer than we thought because basically every rule or every idea that we ever had in the past was kind of out the window. We can’t even really rehearse. You know, it’s just me and Mike, unless we hire someone else. And then just the thought of sitting in a rehearsal studio somewhere with three guys learning all the old R.E.M. songs or learning the new record, it just felt like, gosh, we’re just doing it because we think we should. Maybe the tour would have been cool, but I have the feeling we would have gone out there, and it would almost be like being a cover band.”

Buck likens Up to an earlier transitional album in which he set aside his Rickenbacker and, in that case, picked up a mandolin for a collection of songs that included the breakthrough “Losing My Religion.” “When we recorded Out of Time, it was a matter of having been on the road for 10 years pretty much solid, probably at least a thousand dates in that time period, and just going, ‘Gosh, you know, I don’t want to sit down with an electric guitar and a drummer going boom-chicka-boom-chicka-boom.’ I wanted to approach songwriting and performing differently.

“This record was really similar. Bill was gone. We didn’t have a drummer. A lot of what we did was build percussion loops or use my old drum machines. And I remember at one point on the third or fourth day, Mike was saying, ‘Gosh, I just really don’t wanna play bass.’ And I love playing bass. One of the dirty secrets of the rock’n’roll business is that every guitar player wants to play bass and every bass player wants to play guitar.”

“I’m the bass player, I’m still the bass player, I’m always gonna be the bass player,” says Mike Mills with the resigned grin of someone who, after all, has been the bass player since R.E.M. began rehearsing in a converted Athens church 18 years ago. “But I’m not just the bass player.”

Mills’ multi-instrumental and composing talents are more in the foreground than ever with Berry gone. “We figured on the last record, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, we had done the drums, bass and guitar thing about as well as we could do it,” says Mills. “I’m not saying it’s the best record we’ll ever make. But in terms of approaching this record, we really didn’t wanna sit there and play that traditional lineup. So going into this record, we were getting Bill to experiment with rhythm sounds and drum machines and loops anyway. So when he left, it just amplified the process.”

Mills’ remarks are punctuated by periodic interruptions from hotel staff anxious to vacuum and restock the mini-bar. “They’re very efficient here,” he says with an exasperated smile. Of the three remaining R.E.M.s, Mills has worked longest with Berry. Back in Macon, they played together in everything from high-school marching bands to wedding combos. But, he says, they rarely followed standard operating procedure as a rhythm section. “I wasn’t locked into the drummer in the traditional sense where the bass player plays the root note of the chord on the same beat as the kick drum plays. I never did that. I didn’t know I was supposed to do that, for one thing. But I also just never wanted to. I always played more of a melodic bass, more like a piano bass. So in that sense, we weren’t so completely locked together that I’m unable to play with anybody else. As far as the future, I don’t know. As much as I hate auditions, we had to do a few of them, and [Beck sideman] Joey Waronker is a great drummer. If we end up playing with him, that will be fine.”

Temporarily liberated from his four-string companion, Mills indulged in an array of decades-old machines chosen for their pre-digital warmth and unpredictability. “We had 14 different keyboards in the studio, everything from a Hammond organ to an old ARP synthesizer that didn’t really work very well and a Moog and a piano and a thing called the Kitten and a Baldwin Discoverer… ”

The Kitten? “I don’t know,” shrugs Mills. “Peter collects old keyboards and it’s this funky little weird thing. Peter says it’s completely freaked out now and makes noises by itself even when you don’t touch it. I don’t even know the name of most of them. I just push the button and see if they go. We wanted this record to have a lot of weird sounds on it that you hadn’t heard before, sounds that might just come in for a minute on the song and go away.” As for drum machines, Mills says, “there’s one built into the Discoverer that we used, and there was an old Univox that doesn’t really keep straight time. Just whatever Peter had.”

The band’s determination to experiment has apparently been undiminished by the reported $80 million contract Warner Bros. drafted to keep them on board. On the whole, Up is less aggressive sounding than its predecessors, a change that’s in large part due to the revamped instrumentation.

“I guess as a rule keyboards aren’t as aggressive an instrument as electric guitar, although there’s some pretty angry distorted keyboard sounds on this,” Mills says with a laugh. “For the most part, it’s kind of a subtle record in many ways. It’s one that’s gonna take several listens, like I think most of ours do, but I think this one is really going to reward patience.”

Is the band’s label happy with the idea of a record that rewards patience? “What do you think, that they want one that you get the first time you hear it? Because if you get a record the first time you hear it, that usually means that you wanna hear it about four times and then you put it away and never listen to it again.”

True enough, though it could be argued that most record companies today would be fine with that. “Well, I think everybody kind of knows what we are at this point. I mean, they’re not looking for the hit of the month out of us. They’ll certainly take a hit, but they know who we are.” While R.E.M. continues to work with guest musicians (Waronker lends a hand on Up, as do percussionist Barrett Martin and multi-instrumentalist Scott McCaughey of Buck’s side projects Tuatara and Minus 5), the method of recording has significantly changed. “Normally you go in the studio, you get your drum sound, get your guitar sound, and then you record the basic tracks with guitar, bass and drums,” says Mills. “But since we didn’t have Bill, we didn’t want to record that way. So basically we would start with a drum machine or a guitar and just build those songs up like that. So there are very few songs where we’re actually all playing together at the same time. If you had an idea, you could run in there and put it down.”

The composing process, on the other hand, remains much the same. “Since Peter and I live so far apart, we tend to write individually and then when we get together and rehearse, we show each other the songs and then we do whatever it is we do to them at that point. We don’t write lyrics, so whether Michael’s lyrics are things that he has in his notebook or whether they are things that he comes up with after he hears the music, which is usually what happens, either way the lyrics come after the music. So that hasn’t really changed much.”

Mills cautions that his interpretations of Stipe’s lyrics may be no more valid than anyone else’s. “I think it is very much an introspective, reflective record, especially in the sense of the characters. What I see is a bunch of characters in the songs who are taking stock of where they are. They’ve found themselves in these weird situations and they’re thinking: How did I get here? And what am I gonna do now that I’m here? “It’s not like Michael’s having a big midlife crisis, because so much of what he does is writing from characters’ points of view. When Michael sings ‘I,’ a lot of people think it means ‘I, Michael Stipe.’ And it doesn’t. It means ‘I, the character in the song’.”

“This is really embarrassing,” says Michael Stipe, walking to the desk to retrieve a color proof of the new album’s packaging. He points to the song we’ve been discussing, called “Walk Unafraid.” “You can read it,” he offers. “The lyrics are all going to be included.”

For Stipe, the word unafraid has special significance. “It played a big part in my being able to make it through this record,” he says, recalling a conversation during the down part of Up with his idol-turned-friend Patti Smith. “She was just saying: ‘Be who you are, do what you do, it’s wonderful and it’s unique to you, and you need to advance into it knowing that it’s going to be a particularly difficult project. You need to advance into this unafraid.’ “I loved the word so much, and it seemed so significant to me, that I wanted to expound upon it and share it with everyone else,” says Stipe, laughing at his own enthusiasm. “And to write a song that hopefully in some universal way, in the way that ‘Losing My Religion’ – even though there’s confusion about that song – and certainly how ‘Everybody Hurts’ works. I wanted to write something that was truly universal, that anybody could listen to and find solace in it. I think I achieved that with this. It’s difficult because you have to be specific but not so specific that you lay things out there too much.”

A major influence on R.E.M., Patti Smith guested on their last album and Stipe published a book of photographs taken while accompanying her on tour. Did the two get a chance to discuss their roles as artists? “I’ve always had trouble with that word artist,” says Stipe of the A-word. “I tend to like to think that I’m just a guy in a rock band, just like anyone else, but I’ve had all this incredible luck. Well, that’s all true. And, you know, cut away all the stuff and I’m just like everyone else. But then on some level I’m not. I do this stuff that goes out to the world and people respond to it … It’s a significant role to play in any society, and my appreciation for that has had a great deal to do with my friendship with Patti. She’s accepted it wholeheartedly and embraces it. There’s an honesty there that I really admire. She does so as a person. It doesn’t make her higher or mightier or more holy than the next mother of two down the block or the next person in line at the grocery store or what have you. But it is a pretty unique role.”

Stipe sees his growing comfort in the spotlight as a kind of three-step process: “The point where as a singer and a lyricist I became more clear, where I became more outspoken about social and political issues, and where I accepted celebrity–I see those as three distinct and different times,” he says. “I think around the time of Lifes Rich Pageant, I was having to shed one skin, which was the Murmur/Reckoning kind of thing, and step more into–OK, we’ve done the songs that don’t really have words, that are all feeling and whatever words are there don’t necessarily make sense or follow a common narrative and literal thread. I’ve done that and it’s been good, and now, let me move on. Trying to–mature is the wrong word–but just learning how to do it a little bit better, and being forced by producers and such to try to make it a little more clear what the songs were about.”

Stipe’s public politicization followed shortly thereafter. “In the late ’80s, I was influenced and politicized to the point that I felt like I wanted to try to make some of these things topical,” recalls Stipe. “I always said–and I don’t think I’m being revisionary here–even during that time period, I always said I don’t think music and politics mix. However, I feel very strongly about this stuff, I mean, after seven or eight years of the dark ages of our country, with Reagan and Bush. So there was that attempt.”

And finally, the encounter with full-fledged celebrity. “Then much later, I really had to face what it is to be a media figure and be recognizable when you walk down the street. With ‘Losing My Religion,’ people who were receiving Social Security checks–lawfully–began recognizing me on the street. It was an international hit single, it was played in discotheques in Bombay. I came to New York at one point right after that video, and like three old men in a row yelled my name from across the street and waved, and I was like, What is this? Who are these people? I think it’s easy to feel trapped by that kind of thing every time you step out the door. I think a lot of people probably feel victimized by that. I didn’t particularly. But it certainly cleared away the cobwebs. It was like, this can be really awful or it can be really fun, and just go with it.”

“ ‘Losing My Religion’ was ahuge single which nobody wanted out except the band,” insists Buck. “Yeah, they were just going, ‘You’ll kill the record,’ but we all insisted. That was probably the last time on the pop charts there’s been a lead mandolin unless Mariah Carey snuck one in there somewhere that I haven’t heard. It ended up selling five times as much as any single we’ve ever had, but they all couldn’t wait to get ‘Shiny Happy People’ out there.”

That said, Buck is the first to dismiss his own commercial instincts. “I think it would be really dangerous for us to try to do something commercial,” he says. “I just don’t really comprehend what makes things popular. Like on the first record [Murmur], I thought ‘Perfect Circle’ was the most realized song. I really love it and I was saying that should be the single. Everyone at [R.E.M.'s first label IRS] just thought I was crazy because we were new wave and that was a slow piano ballad with feedback and a reverb snare drum. Then on the last record, we thought ‘E-Bow [the Letter],’ the one with Patti Smith, I just thought, you know, people will hear that on the radio and it won’t sound like anything else they’ve ever heard. And I was right, and they [the public] didn’t like it! I think it helped to kill the record, but it was our own choice.

“When you think back to the heyday, like when I was a real little kid and I was 6 or 7, they were putting out ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and nothing ever really sounded like that before. People do tend to want hummable midtempo stuff, but I think that people need to make a strong statement as opposed to appealing to people who want to listen to your song while they’re washing dishes.

“One of the things we’ve got to come to terms with is that there isn’t a real place for us in the big commercial-single world, especially the way the world is now. All we can do is make really strong records, and ideally people will appreciate the fact that we’re not hustling for the buck. I certainly don’t mind having a hit record, but if it happens it’s always a fluke.”

Did R.E.M. ever imagine they would get here from there? Not really, says Buck. “I have lots of friends who can’t get a record deal, even at the smallest level. You know, my assumption was that it would probably happen to us eventually. Then one day we sort of realized that, gosh, we sold a lot of records. I doubt that we’ll ever fall down far enough not to be able to do this on some level. You know, we have four more records on Warner Bros. And if things don’t go real well after that, we could probably get on Sub Pop.”

While Buck spends his time away from R.E.M. on his Seattle side projects Tuatara and the Minus 5, Stipe continues to involve himself in film. He’s executive producer and helped supervise the music for Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ new film (see feature, page 103) set in the heyday of the glam-rock era. “I had an older sister who didn’t listen to music, so I came to glam through punk rock, in ‘75, ‘76, when I was discovering Patti Smith, Television, Roxy Music and Magazine,” recalls Stipe. “A lot of those people were talking about the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges, and you know, glam and alternative lifestyles. So I went back and kind of found all that stuff. “As a teenager at 15 or 16 years old–and particularly a teenager who was questioning my own sexuality and just trying to figure out what the fuck … you know, what am I, how do I fit in here–it was great to discover this movement of music, however distant or however many years had passed since it had been vital, where there was a more fluid sexuality in a very heterocentric society. Even in the 1970s in the U.S., as open and free and sexually liberated as everyone was, it was still hard if you were a fag or if you were queer to figure out exactly where you fit in.”

Does Stipe feel those labels have become more rigid again? After all, the term “bisexual” isn’t heard a lot these days. “Yeah, and it was heard a lot then and it was good, you know? I’m personally against labeling, particularly something as fluid as desire. To me it doesn’t really necessitate labeling, and bisexual just adds another category. And you know, it’s good to have little offshoot everythings, but no one person is–I’m not going to make that statement–most people do not fit neatly into the categories that we’ve laid out culturally. There’s a lot of overlap. And that’s where things, for me, get really interesting.”

Stipe was not alone in his enthusiasm for glam. On early tapes of R.E.M. live shows in Athens, you can hear them covering a variety of glitter-laden classics, including T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” (a version by Placebo leads off the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack).

“We always did maybe 10 percent covers because we enjoyed it,” says Buck, recalling how covers were frowned upon in local music circles. “People were acting like we’re up there playing ‘Smoke on the Water,’ when instead we were doing obscure Troggs and Velvet Underground songs. With everything ever recorded available on CD now, you forget that we were playing Velvet Underground songs when those records were out of print. I remember somebody came up to me when we did ‘There She Goes,’ and said, ‘Wow, that’s such a great song you guys just wrote.’

“It was unhip, but on the other hand, a lot of our peer group didn’t want to ever play anyone else’s songs and they ran out of ideas. I mean, I’ve played a lot of different stuff and I have a wellspring of understanding about what a song is that I can fall back on. But you know, the folks in Pylon, who were one of my favorite bands of all time, they really just ran out of songs to write. And Randy [Bewley] used really weird guitar tunings, and they really weren’t familiar with other kinds of music, and they got to where they just were not able to create.

“I always felt that the more you know, the better off you are,” says Buck, “even if no one can tell that you know. Most of my peer group, I think, let themselves get discouraged. You know, it’s like their band would break up and then maybe they wouldn’t tour for a couple of years, and then it starts being a hobby instead of your life.”

To what does Buck attribute R.E.M.’s longevity? “You know, stubbornness. Personally I always felt that we were doing worthwhile work, and the whole goal was trying to get the world to notice it. Especially in the early ’80s when, if you were from England and you had one halfway decent song, you’d immediately play the 1,200 seat club because you’re on MTV. And we had two really good records out and had been to that town four times, but then we played the same club as those guys, it would be like, ‘Oh, Flock of Seagulls got 800 people last night and you only got 400.’ And it was kind of depressing. I know we all felt, we’re going to keep going until we get those 800 people, the same ones that see Big Country and Flock of Seagulls. And then it kind of gained its own momentum.” Although the group initially signed with boutique label IRS in order to maintain control and avoid being remade into new wave poster children, Buck says even IRS called for compromises. “They were also saying, you know, you guys need to get your hair cut and lip synch in your videos and get a disco drum machine. All the record company people gave us a formula and it was like, ‘You guys will be as big as the Police.’ And we rejected that for years. MTV people would come to us and say if you get us a video that you guys are even in, we’ll play it 100 times a week. And we’re just, you know, whatever, we really don’t care. And so all the videos for all the songs right up until ‘Losing My Religion,’ they were just kind of weird art films that they’d play once at 2 in the morning. And the first time that Michael lip-synched, it was like, ‘OK, let’s see if we can have a hit with ‘Losing My Religion.’ Our first lip-synched video, the biggest video of the year for MTV. We sold 11 million records.”

So all along, all the band had to do was lip-synch. “Well, it doesn’t seem to work for us anymore,” says Buck with a laugh.

R.E.M. fans can now stop holding their breath: The band insists there are no plans to disband in the coming year. “There aren’t that many bands that get to span to the millennium, at least not ones with 20 years on either side,” says Buck. “I’m not sure we’ll get 20 years on the other side. Basically, I think they cut you a little slack to about 50, and after that you better have your greatest hits package.” “That was a joke,” says Mills of the millennial dissolution. “That was never ever a serious idea. Although there is some kind of interesting synchronicity in thinking of shutting it down at the end of 1999.” And then there’s the canceled tour. “Yeah, but we have not toured many times before, it’s not like this is some weird earth-shattering moment when were not going on the road. And I don’t wanna quit. I think this is certainly one of our best records. And I certainly feel that we’ve got several more good records in us and probably a few more tours. So I see no reason to quit.”

Stipe also says the breakup story was a joke, even if it did sound like an interesting thing to do from a theatrical, performance art perspective. “Are we that theatrical?” asks Stipe. “I don’t think so. Does this record reflect a band that’s kidding about what they do? I don’t think so.” Stipe takes a last draw on his cigarette. “I mean, I’d love to continue on into the next century with Mike and Peter as my cohorts.”

“As a music fan, I don’t want to read a synopsis about every song I’m excited about buying and exploring for myself,” says Michael Stipe. “So I tend not to ‘TV Guide’ the songs before they come out.”

So readers beware: The following material may prejudice your enjoyment of the new R.E.M. album, Up. Crucial plot information may be revealed. It is not too late to stop now.

Still reading? OK then, here’s a rundown of new R.E.M. tracks with commentary by band members.

Airportman: “That song was born and put to bed in one day,” says Stipe of the atmospheric album opener. “I like it that ‘Airport Man’ is not a fake door to what you’re about to hear. As a listener, it prepares you for the rest of the album. It kind of says: All right, this is a completely new universe, be prepared for anything.” Unaware that he was being recorded by producer Pat McCarthy (who engineered the band’s last two albums and became producer after Scott Litt left to start his own label), Mike Mills was playing around with the repeating keyboard melody that became the song’s foundation. “It may be our first one-chord song,” says Mills, noting that Stipe’s murky, low-register vocal fits a song about “a creepy kind of guy who’s moving half unseen through the back corridors of the airport.”

Lotus: “That’s the rock song on the record,” says Mills of this return, however briefly, to hooky, guitar-driven rock. Surprisingly, it isn’t the first single. “It will be the second one,” says Mills.

Suspicion: “I see ‘Suspicion’ as kind of a quintessential R.E.M. ballad,” says Peter Buck. “It’s almost a love song, it’s got strings, a guitar solo, a really nice bridge. It seemed to have everything.” Stipe’s tremulous vocal “reminded me of Roy Orbison.”

Hope: “We’re all big fans of Leonard Cohen, so this is definitely an homage,” says Mills of the track’s melodic and lyrical references to Cohen’s “Suzanne.” Cohen gets a co-writing credit, though lines like “And you want to cross your DNA with something reptile” are pure Stipe.

At My Most Beautiful: Another homage, this time to Brian Wilson. “After I’d written the piano bit, I realized this sounds like something Brian might have done 20 years ago,” says Mills. “So instead of running away from that, we ran toward it.”

The Apologist: Hooky chorus of “I’m sorry, so sorry, so sorry … ” hopefully won’t find its way into any political ads.

Sad Professor: About a character who experiences, says Stipe, “a moment of clarity in his life that comes at a very unexpected time. He’s able to figuratively look down upon himself and see who he is and what he is. And I think upon seeing it he’s really crumbling. From there, it’s up to the listener to decide whether he does anything about it or not.”

You’re in the Air: “That was one I recorded in my attic on the most basic eight-track you could possibly imagine,” says Buck. “Then me, Mike and Scott McCaughey [Minus 5 member and touring R.E.M. keyboardist] took turns just throwing stuff down. I wrote it on guitar and then kind of pulled the guitar out, so it’s not defined by guitar lines so much as atmospherics.” Stipe: “There was often little or nothing to hang a melody on, little or nothing to rhythmically work against or with.” Of the track’s distinctively beautiful, ascending vocal line, he remarks: “I didn’t really know where to go with it. That was something inspired by the way [former Hugo Largo vocalist] Mimi Goese sings.”

Walk Unafraid: See accompanying feature.

Why Not Smile: “That’s one of Mike’s songs,” says Buck. “It’s almost like a John Denver-y folk song, except it’s all bells and whistles and drum machines. He was finger-picking it and, when we recorded, I said, ‘Why don’t you put the harpsichord on it instead, it will make it sound more stately.’ And then we put on all the weird echo drum loop stuff and feedback and noise. It’s a real simple song, but having all that stuff on there kind of makes it fit the record.”

Daysleeper: “We picked it as the first single, but it would have been about 13 or 14th on my list,” says Buck, who favors “Suspicion.” Radio-friendly R.E.M., even if Stipe is at one point singing over a field recording of Spaniards promenading oceanside in San Sebastian. The video is by Iceland’s Snorri brothers who, says Mills, “take thousands of still photographs and animate them, which is kind of the essence of film and yet it isn’t film. So it’s got this odd, jerky, alienated feel to it.” Perfect for a song about a graveyard-shift worker whose “nights are colored headache gray.”

Diminished: Another song that began in Buck’s attic. “My daughters were hanging out in the studio – they were 4 at the time – and I asked them what they thought,” recalls Buck. “And Zoe said, ‘Oh, it’s good,’ but Zelda said, ‘I don’t like it.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ and she said, ‘Well, not enough horns.’ I play a lot of jazz around her and she likes [Buck's side project] Tuatara, and Scott had just bought a cornet that day, so we made him overdub horns on ‘Diminished.’ So that’s me taking career advice from a 4-year-old.”

I’m Not Over You (unlisted track): Minute-long interlude performed by Stipe alone on guitar. “I wrote that as kind of a samba,” says Buck. “We actually recorded it and then Michael hated all the lyrics he wrote except for one verse. So I said, ‘Why don’t you just play it on guitar and sing your chorus?’ So Michael’s just strumming, and it’s actually not the right chords [laughs]. It doesn’t even sound like I miked the guitar.” “I pick up a guitar and make noise with it,” says Stipe. “To say I play it is a little too generous.”

Parakeet: Stipe sings about mean cats who eat parakeets and chew on licorice. “Kind of a piano ballad,” says Buck “I played bass and drums on that.”

Falls to Climb: Moody album closer with excellent Stipe lyric (“Who cast the final stone?/ Who threw the crushing blow?/ Someone has to take the fall/ Why not me?”) wins the award for most improved track. “Of all the 40 songs we wrote for this album, that was originally my least favorite musically,” says Buck. “It sounded like an outtake from Out of Time, just kind of strummy mandolin. I wrote it, so I get to say that. But Michael really loved it and he and Mike worked on it a lot and it actually turned into something really nice, all weird distorted keyboards and very stately.”

Originally published on 27 November 1998 by Pulse Magazine
Source: R.E.M. Central

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