Interviews: From Hockey Arenas To Publicity Bashes

By Chris Dafeoe

Cruising the high seas aboard the good ship R.E.M., bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck are busy pressing flesh. In an attempt to gibe the band’s fifth album, Document, a splashy launch, their record company has piped a ragged load of music industry types from the media, radio stations and record stores aboard a cruise boat around Toronto harbor and plied them with beer and snacks.

Mills and Buck are the celebrity fodder. And while the duo schmooze and cruise graciously, they seem less than fully sold on the idea of being sold.

Not so their record company. The local label representative gleefully announces that the first single from the album was the second most-added song on radio station play-lists last week. Then he presents them with a quickly prepared gold record for their last record, Fables of the Reconstruction.

“Thanks very much,” says Mills, sounding as if someone had just offered him a soggy bologna sandwich. This is a band with a well-developed ambivalence about making it.

One one hand, Buck and Mills are aware of the pitfalls of commercial success with enjoing guaranteed no credit check It’s not the calls of sell-out that inevitably follow a break-through that bother the band (“The people who yell sell-out end up going out and finding another new unknown band they can support, so it’s a positive process,” reasons Mills.) It’s the accommodations that success requires that cause concern. Like playing hockey arenas instead of large clubs.

“God, I hate playing those places,” says the lanky Buck, making no attempt to hide his disgust. Mills, who looks like a grown up Opie from the Andy Griffith Show, is more diplomatic. “We’re trying not to play those places, but sometimes you can’t get around it. We can project well; so we can deal with it, but we’d rather not.”

On the other hand, a commercial breakthrough would help the group shed its image as a cult act. The reputation clearly rankles. “I don’t know any cult bands that sell four or five hundred thousand copies of a record.” says Mills. “It’s just a case of a tag sticking, which I don’t mind, except that’s the excuse radio programmers use not to play our records. They say ‘they’re a cult band and you can’t understand any of the words.’ Well, that’s a bunch of crap.”

Mills has a point. On Document, the band’s sound is crisp and alluring and almost every word singer Michael Stipe utters is intelligible. While Stipe’s lyrics remain tantalizingly oblique, the old jokes about the band forcing Stipe to wear a muzzle in the studio will probably have to be to consigned to the dustbin.

“I could understand most of the words in the last record,” says Mills, who denies Stipe’s discovery of enunciation is a commercial ploy.

“And on this one it just seemed natural. We didn’t notice until half way through mixing the record that the vocals were way up front.”

The vocals also show a change in tack for the band. With songs like “Exhuming McCarthy” and “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” the new album displays a topicality not apparent (or perhaps only muffled) on earlier work.

“Michael is really concerned – we all are – about this neo-conservative wave in America,” says Mills. “With all the repression of personal freedoms, the knee-jerk reactionism, it’s the sort of atmosphere old Joe would fit well into, hence the song. But we try not to be dire about it. There’s a lot of whimsical humor and irony in Michael’s writing that we don’t really get credit for. I think people miss that a lot of the stuff we do is partly tongue-in-cheek.”

And if their record company’s predictions come true a lot more people will miss R.E.M.’s sense of humor. But while the label is treating the record as a breakthrough, Mills remains unconcerned: “That’s what they said about the last one. We don’t really worry about that. We just do the records and give ‘em to the record company and say ‘do what you can,’ sell this. Being the number two most-added single is kind of nice. I mean, we’re not a band that writes hit singles, but I suppose if we’re going to do this we might as well we have one.”

Originally published in August 1987 by The Globe and Mail

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