Interviews: Evergreen

By George Kay

R.E.M. Stand In The Place Where They Live

Last April R.E.M. signed to Warner Brothers; six months later a video preview of Green was televised via satellite with Warner Brothers president, Lenny Waronker, prefacing the whole thing with a spiel extolling the virtues of a “Warner’s record” and welcoming the band to the label that creates that mythical product.

Behind him Buck, Mills, Berry and Stipe sat on the stairway in the shell of a deserted southern mansion. Stipe, leaning against the wall, seemed to turn his head in embarrassment leaving the other three to look slightly less than skeptical.

After Lenny, bassist Mike Mills introduced the band:

“To tell you the truth I wasn’t a big fan of the whole big deal but it was a way of introducing us to the Warner Brothers personnel around the world. Lenny wasn’t too hyperbolic about it. I didn’t have any problem with what he said but sometimes being on TV is embarrassing.”

A Warner’s Video

Mike Mills and Bill Berry are holding the fort in Athens, Georgia, while Buck and Stipe spread the gospel on Green in Britain and Europe. Such is life when your sixth album is on a major label.

“We had taken it as far as it could go with IRS”, continues Mills from somewhere in Athens, “and it was time for a change. We want to play places like Australia and New Zealand and Japan but we couldn’t do that with IRS because we didn’t have that many fans as the records weren’t distributed that well overseas.”

A lot of recording companies must have been sniffing around to sign the band?

“Every single one of them but we narrowed it down to four plus IRS and we selected Warner and we are happy with the choice. Lenny and Mo Austin run the label but Lenny’s a great guy, he’s been a record producer and player for years. He’s worked with Randy Newman and Brian Wilson so he’s good to talk to and his suggestions are really good.”

On the promotional video he bestowed on Green the description of being a true “Warner’s record”.

“He was being abstract then, it was his first time on global TV. What he was shooting at was that it was good for him to have a nice relationship with clients like us. He felt good that he could let us make this record without worrying whether it was good or not.”

The video itself is hardly a lavish affair but it’s allright. A shot of goldfish swimming serves for “Pop Song,” if you like grazing cows then “Get Up” will give you the hots and “You Are The Everything” gets wild with a still of the night sky. Professionalism arrives most noticeably on sight for “Orange Crush” with its stark black and white military imagery.

“It’s a little bit grim isn’t it? The song itself is anti-war and anti-Agent Orange in particular, it is not a happy song. The guy who did it also did ‘Fast Car’ for Tracy Champan and it was his idea to make it as stark as it was.”

The clips for “Orange Crush,” “Turn You Inside Out” and the very cute “Stand” are the most adventurous – meaning the camera takes more than one shot. Is this a sign that these songs are ear-marked for future singles?

“No, we hadn’t separated them like that because we never know what songs are gonna be singles. We spent more on the video for ‘The One I Love’ than we usually do but this year we are doing three or four that could be singles but we didn’t pick one over the other to be more expensive.”

At the end of the video we meet a businessman and the band’s manager and his secretary and the lady who is in charge of the fan club. Then the whole family assembles outside the white mansion for the general bonhommie leaving Stipe to thrust a pertinent palm at the camera with “Dukakis” inked on it. Green was released November 8, the same day as the presidential elections.

Another Green World

A surprising thing is that some people still don’t like R.E.M. Like the Beatles they’ve covered so much ground that surely everybody must appreciate a little piece of their turf, at least. Green doesn’t attempt to catch new devotees; it may be more approachable than Document but just because it’s on a major label don’t expect Def Leppard homilies. But on the subject of big cigars, did the band make an extra effort since it was their first Warner’s record?

“Yeah, we did put a bit of pressure on ourselves this time. We wanted to show that we weren’t selling out and that we were gonna make the kind of record that we wanted to make, and we did.”

And the title? What cryptic intellectual illusions has Stipe dreamt up this time?

“We just picked the word and put it there but since then we’ve heard about all this symbolism involved that we didn’t intend. I liked what Lenny said about it being a new beginning, a new springtime kind of thing.”

Word has it that it took three months to make?

“Yeah, since our first one took ten days each album has taken a little longer. We wanted to take time to explore all the possibilities. We tried some of the songs various ways plus we took three weeks off in the middle between recording and mixing as that helps to get away from it so when you come back you’re fresh and you have new ideas.”

The grapevine also mentioned that new approaches were taken on Green; elucidate?

“We wrote songs on different instruments. All three mandolin songs were written on the mandolin and Bill plays that instrument on two of the three songs. We used a mellotron on a couple of songs, Peter plays drums on the untitled track and Bill wrote the bass line for ‘You Are The Everything’. Songs like ‘Orange Crush’ and ‘Get Up’ were written when we got into a room and made noise and we’re moving towards that approach. Up until recently our songs were written when one or two guys would be sitting around with guitars and we’d come up with maybe half a song and the band would finish it. We still do that but now we‘re trying this other way because if you write the same way for years your songs tend to sound the same.”

This new approach to songwriting is only one reason why both Document and Green depart from the earlier R.E.M. phase. The other reason lies in producer Scott Litt:

“We really liked the sound he got on Document plus there’s a definite compatibility between us and him, we work well together and he’s willing to try the most bizarre things to get a sound – like going outside to tape the crickets which we used for ‘You Are The Everything’. And we tried standing on a piano and banging it but that didn’t work.”

One thing that’s remained constant throughout R.E.M.’s rise to magnificence has been Stipe’s lyrics. He writes in shorthand images, summarised concentrated impressions that leave interpretation to the listener. Which is the way it should be but just out of interest Mike, old chap, the splendid ‘World Leader Pretend’ seems to be making a personal point in a political role play?

“Yeah, Michael’s expressing a personal struggle in a political metaphor. That’s his most personal song on the album and it’s pretty close to him so he put the lyrics to that one on the inner sleeve and we’ve never done that before.”

The words on Green are more confessional. Take for instance the self-doubt on ‘You Are The Everything’: Sometimes I feel that I can’t even sing / I’m very scared for this world / I’m very scared for me.

“Yeah, Michael’s being very open on this record. He was trying to be more uplifting and most of the songs are more hopeful. When he gets to the end of the ‘World Leader Pretend’ he’s talking about breaking down the walls. ‘You Are The Everything’ is just a tribute to some beautiful person, he’s trying to be positive although he does open it with doubts as the world’s in a frightening situation.”

Just after the release of Lifes Rich Pageant I remember Sneaky Feeling’s Dave Pine comparing Stipe’s lyrics to the “Emperor’s New Clothes”, meaning that they lacked depth, substance and development. I couldn’t agree but I knew what he was getting at, maybe Stipe is being credited with profundity that he doesn’t possess. Does the band put a check on his words?

“Oh yeah, we listen to what he does and sometimes we have melodies and a few lyrical phrases that we’ll throw at him. By and large we let him run with it unless it’s really terrible or there’s something about it that we don’t like. We check it all out before it goes out because like it or not he’s speaking for all of us.”

What happened to the title for ‘Untitled’?

“We couldn’t really find one we liked and you know us, we’re liable to throw a monkey wrench into the works at any stage.”

Very enigmatic. On the reverse sleeve the eleventh track title is left blank but on the inner label there’s a series of numbers.

“I think they’re part of a shipping code. We didn’t put them on there.”

People will suspect a deeper meaning, maybe a Swiss bank account number or an equation that Stipe has died a McCartney death.

“Yeah, they’ll probably think it’s some kind of code.”

Document and Eye-Witness

Looking back it’s obvious that Lifes Rich Pageant was a watershed album. It was their best since Murmur and it seemed to distill and capture the band’s essence in what appeared to be their search for reconciliation between a disappearing American heritage and being the hottest song and guitar band on Earth.

“That’s very interesting, I can see your point. We weren’t trying at the time to wrap it up but as it turns out it looks like that.”

To what extent do your album sleeves and their little clues tie in with the songs?

“Not so much with the songs. We like albums for their own sake and we enjoy the fun of looking through them and picking out little inside jokes which don’t tie in with the songs much at all.”

As far as sonic’s concerned, Document broke the R.E.M. mould. It was their biggest seller and ironically their bleakest with a second side that sounded like a post-civilisation blues:

“Michael was trying to make a point on that record, it was very intense which is why Green is a reaction to that. Document was much more direct, sort of a wake-up-everyone – that kind of thing.”

And Wire’s “Strange” fitted in with the mood of disquiet?

“Yeah, it fitted in well with the general theme of alienation, of disorientation with the world so it went along with the rest of the record in songs like ‘Occupation’ and ‘End of the World’. It’s a song we’ve been playing live for a while and we cut it in the studio and we felt it was a neat version and so different from Wire’s.”

The Page side of album ended up being much bleaker, very political:

“Yes it does, but that was not intentionally done that way. We try to have good song sequencing but not to make one side different from the other.“

Document contained the band’s first Top 10 single in “The One I Love” and should’ve had a mega-buster with “End of the World” – adrenalin plus rap on speed.

“It might’ve made Top 40. We’re not the kind of band that’s regularly gonna make Top 10 singles as most of our songs are not normal enough. We’ll just have to see what Warners can do with them.”

On the inner sleeve to Dead Letter Office Peter Buck has stated that “a 45 is still essentially a piece of crap usually purchased by teenagers.” Reaction?

“Peter was being hyperbolic about people who worry too much about how important hits are. He was trying to shoot holes in that theory and he was also saying that some of our favourite singles are junk 45s maybe done in a day by people who come into the city for a day from the middle of the woods to make a record.”

Take a raincheck of the ’80s and you’ll be hard pushed to find a band as influential or as downright consistently vital as R.E.M. I wouldn’t grovel at the altar for all their albums but at the time when music charts were looking decidedly foppish in the Eastend (England to you), they strapped on their Fenders and resurrected songs and guitars.

“That’s a lot for someone to say and I would never take the credit for that. We came along at a good time and we had an incredible amount of luck. There were guitar bands around similar to us who never got the breaks. We got semi-popular when people were getting tired of listening to the Flock of Seagulls, Depeche Mode and Thompson Twins synth pop. Critics especially grabbed onto us as a lifesaver in a sea of synth pop. We were trumpeted as a lot of things we may or may not have been.”

Modest men, the real supermen, strong enough to lead unaffected lives in their hometown, Athens, Georgia:

“We’ve seen a lot or people get turned into major league assholes by fame and fortune and we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve grown into the situation. Who’s to say how we’d be if our first album had been as big as Document, there’s no telling what that would do to your psyche and I’m glad that didn’t happen to us.

“As far as attitude goes we’re all around 30 and so we’ve got a good sense as to who we are and so any change that comes in our music will be within us – natural changes.”

Originally published in the January 1989 issue of Rip it Up

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