Interviews: Going for Baroque

By Mark Blackwell and Jim Greer

The oracles of Athens, Georgia, return with Out Of Time, their first album in nearly two and a half years.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and we’re drunk.

4:50 AM, Wednesday morning

“Nah, you guys shouldn’t leave yet! Let’s jam!” A party-worn Bill Berry ushers the two burned-out but happy SPIN writers into a side room of his house, away from the few straggling survivors of his Christmas party. The room contains a couch, a television, and a lone electric guitar. In a tiny bathroom off to one side, gold records are crammed on the walls from the floor to the ceiling. The R.E.M. drummer picks up the unplugged guitar and begins to stumble around the room strumming furiously.

“What are we supposed to do?” Mark asks. Jim spots a keyboard in a nearby closet. “I could play this,” he offers. “Hey man, don’t you touch that!” Bill warns. Jam session’s over.

Over two years ago, in November 1988, on the same day that George Bush was elected President, R.E.M. released its last and most successful album, Green. After a lengthy world tour, numerous side projects, and time off in Athens, Georgia, the band is now set to release its long awaited follow-up, Out of Time. The new record is the band’s most personal album to date, sidestepping politics in favour of what singer Michael Stipe describes as “memory and time and love.” Out of Time explores new instrumentations (strings, horns, harpsichords…) and for the first time brings in guest vocalists (B-52’s Kate Pierson, KRS-One) to flesh out the sound. The band also breaks from its traditional lineup by trading instruments on many cuts.

R.E.M.’s graduation from the college-rock ghetto in which they’d toiled for years to near-arena rock status should have been cause for celebration. The only comparable graduate of this period was possibly U2, but anyone who has seen the masturbatory Rattle and Hum or heard the band’s butchered version of Cole Porter’s classic “Night and day” will realize that R.E.M. survived the eighties with, if not more success, at least more credibility. At the very least, R.E.M.’s achievements meant that college radio would no longer be plagued with legions of R.E.M. wannabes, now that the band was no longer a hip influence. Instead, longtime fans cried sellout and critics yawned, having long ago written off the band as having betrayed its early promise.

Which is stupid. Out of Time serves as a reminder that R.E.M. has never played by the established rules, that they’re as far from a mainstream band now as they were from a “college radio” band (whatever that’s supposed to be) then. The new record will undoubtedly be played to death on college radio anyway, despite doubts voiced by Michael Stipe, and it’ll probably sell millions. This unusual combination makes R.E.M. either an anomaly or an ideal, depending on your perspective.

Exclusive guide to rock stars’ homes in Athens, Georgia
3:20 PM, Monday afternoon

Brooke Johnson, R.E.M.’s lovely, talented, and ruthlessly organised assistant, returns from lunch to find Mark and Jim busy at work in her office. Jim is beginning this story on the official R.E.M. typewriter, while Mark thumbs through a Rolodex, copying down the addresses of as many famous rock stars as he can. “You guys rock,” Brooke says by way of greeting. “What have you been doing?”

The two SPIN writers had arrived promptly at 11:00 that morning, and had met Brooke along with band manager Jefferson Holt (immortalized by the line in Reckoning’s “Little America,” “Jefferson, I think we’re lost”) and Bert Downs, R.E.M.’s lawyer. Nice people. Upon discovering that the band was tied up in a photo shoot, Mark and Jim set about interviewing several local bartenders. But finally things seemed to be getting underway.

Soon Michael Stipe arrives. He needs to run some errands, so Mark and Jim offer to drive him around.

Michael: We need to go by my house for a second, but you have to swear to God never to tell anybody where it is.
Mark: Don’t worry. You can trust us.
Michael: No I can’t. I’ve been burned by journalists too many times.
Jim: Don’t worry.
Michael: You guys want a raw carrot?
Mark and Jim: Sure.

(Michael pulls a bunch of carrots out of his leather bag. Lager, as Mark slams on brakes to avoid killing a cat, the singer’s bag falls to the floorboard and spills out a pile of little brown cubes.)

Mark: Sorry about that.
Michael: It’s okay. You guys want some of this baked tofu?
Mark and Jim: Sure.

(Michael gives directions to a friend’s place, where in the backyard, in the midst of a jungle of tangled vines, a huge oak tree covered in strings of lights harbors an elaborate house high in its branches. The three climb up the tree and get down to business.)

SPIN: Why did you call the new album Out of Time?
Michael: Out of sheer desperation. We had some great names for it, but none of them were applicable to the entire record. When we were fishing around for names, we talked to people that worked at Paisley Park [Prince’s Minneapolis studios, where the new album was mixed], and there was one secretary that everybody was endeared to because she dressed really well. We said, “The record is about memory and time and love,” and she said, “In time,” and Mike said, “Out of time,” and that was it.

SPIN: Like the Rolling Stones’ song?
Michael: What? Do they have a song called that? Well, fuck ‘em [laughs]. But, I think there are a lot of meanings to it. Now that we’re aging dinosaurs.

SPIN: You could get Husker Du back together and do a Dinosaurs of College Rock tour.
Michael: Yeah, there you go. We decided today to do our next photo session sitting in a public park around a chess board. We can wear those little hats and funny shoes. But, I really don’t feel old as a performer. I never felt “in,” so it would be hard to feel “out.” I don’t have a good understanding of my celebrity. I don’t walk around thinking I’m famous. Spending a month at Prince’s studio and seeing him around, I realized what that must be like. But I have my own definition of myself which far exceeds the definitions that are made into the public image.

SPIN: What are people’s misconceptions?
Michael: There’s only a certain degree to which someone who doesn’t actually know you can understand you. The information you get about any kind of artist’s personality from his or her work may be conflicting within itself, but it does tend to point toward what this person is about. This is their aesthetic. This is what they appreciate. Looking at someone through their creative output is a blurred vision, but it really can be a very beautiful one. I just don’t think that it gets you closer to what that person is truly about.

SPIN: What about the Michael Stipe mystique?
Michael: Yeah, there’s all this stuff that goes around and most of it’s not true. Or blown out of proportion. That just comes with the celebrity thing. I think Faulkner got it. People in his town called him Count No Count because he walked around with a high collar. Simply because he enjoyed it. What a wack. Eccentricity is an easy face to put on, because you can get away with anything. There’s a history of people who spend the last half of their lives trying to debunk their celebrated eccentric tag and convince people how normal they are. I certainly don’t want to fall into that. Ultimately, I don’t give a shit what people think about me. It’s probably a modern phenomenon that one has to know so much about the creator of something. It’s all pretty one-dimensional and single-faceted, and I think that maybe really smart people like Madonna who really want to climb the ladder can latch on to one thing, change it a lot, but basically remain the same. Her thing, of course, is sex and power, and it obviously works.

SPIN: Why are there no politics on the new record?
Michael: It’s kind of like… how can I say without sounding like I think I’m the leader of a movement? Everybody does it now. And as a lyricist I shouldn’t be shackled to this image that every song I write has to be about the plight of the homeless or the environment. You can only go so far writing songs like that and get away with it. I can’t do it all the time, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into being a political folk singer in a rock band. Every song on this record is a love song. Anything political is just an undercurrent. That’s something we’ve just never done before. I’ve written love songs, but they were pretty obscure and oblique. These songs deal with every kind of love – except maybe love of country.

SPIN: What about accusations that you guys are “sellouts”?
Michael: I understand that. I remember when Blondie did “Heart of Glass” I said, “Sold out, see ya. I’m moving back to the Slits,” or whatever, and Gang of Four put out Hard, I was like, “Oh fuck, here we go!” I listen to that record now and it’s amazing. When something that’s considered secret and wonderful is revealed to the world, it becomes a little less wonderful. It’s time to find something new. That’s a legitimate and healthy cycle. But I think we’re still great, and I don’t think I have blinders on. I had no desires or goals at the beginning. We never had any idea of what was possible. We’ve done pretty incredible things in ten years and I’m proud of it. I spent a great deal of time doing it.

SPIN: If you could go back would you do it all over again?
Michael: I’m an unbelievably happy person now, so I’d say, “Fuck yeah, I’d do it again.”

Ten things learned by crack SPIN journalists while having dinner with Michael Stipe later at The Grit, a very good vegetarian restaurant:

1. He has a thing about small spoons, and will only use large ones.
2. He owns the building in which the restaurant is located, but still has to pay for his food.
3. He can crack his chest, a trait he shares with Jim.
4. He once spent the Swedish equivalent of the Fourth of July on a ship in a harbour in Stockholm with several people, none of whom he knew.
5. The worst year of his life was when he was 25, but he won’t say why.
6. When strangers approach him he sometimes denies he’s Michael Stipe even though “it’s a hard thing to deny sometimes.”
7. The future home of C-00, the film company he founded with Jim McKay, is above the restaurant.
8. He bought the building partly because he used to squat there.
9. When he finishes his soup he picks up the bowl and slurps from it, which Jim things is disgusting, but Mark defends by saying that the Japanese do that, too.
10. He keeps his hat on when he eats.

Athens Drinking Inside and Out
10:30 PM, Monday night

Ten more things learned by slightly inebriated but no less crack SPIN journalists about Michael Stipe while in The Globe bar:

1. He won’t let Mark wear his hat.
2. He does much of his Christmas shopping from catalogues. Late.
3. He thinks Jim has beautiful teeth.
4. His favourite shape is the elongated diamond.
5. He usually gets up early, except today when he slept until 12:30 PM, which was the first time he’d done that since the sixth grade.
6. He thinks Jim and Mark’s band, which they tricked him into listening to earlier in the car, should be named Pieface.
7. His much rumoured solo album is indeed a “horrible rumour.”
8. If he were to do a solo project, it might be a disco record.
9. He thinks Jim is an “old fart,” because he’s only 30 and already cynical about college radio.
10. After reading what Jim has hazily written at the office earlier (which began, “R.E.M. Story: We flew to Mark’s house in Greenville. This girl was mean to us. We borrowed Mark’s mom’s car. We drove to Athens. We can’t find anyone who is in the band. Now we’re drunk…”), he said, “I trust you guys now. You’re going to write a good story.”

3:00 AM, Tuesday morning in front of the Globe bar

SPIN: What do you think of R.E.M.? We’re down here doing a story on them for SPIN magazine.
Girl: Yeah, right.

SPIN: No, really.
Girl: It’s just not a cool think to like R.E.M. around here.
Guy: She’s speaking from like three years ago. Don’t listen to her.
Guy 2: We’ve always liked R.E.M.
Girl 2: These guys are in a band, too.

SPIN: Ever played with R.E.M.?
Guy 3: Michael Stipe gave us a ride home the other night. We highly recommend him as our cabbie.
Guy 4: He’s a musical whore.

SPIN: What?
Guy 4: He’ll hop on stage with just anybody, anywhere.
Girl: To get back to it, everybody hates R.E.M. around here. They’re so big.
Guy 2: Man! There’s the dichotomy right there. If R.E.M. played here tonight, everyone would go wild. They’re superstars.
Girl 3: People are just jealous. There are ten thousand and one bands here who want to be R.E.M.
Guy: They don’t belong to Athens anymore. They belong to the world.

Get Up

Sleep engenders sleep. It feeds on itself, reproduces, revolves in an endlessly soporific cycle. The more you sleep, the more you… sleep.

Guitarist Peter buck rarely gets up before noon.

“Daylight’s nice, but I can get plenty of it after one in the afternoon,” he explains.

It’s important to know the sleeping habits of the people you interview. Then you can separate the normal people, like Peter, from the weirdos – like Bill.

“Bill wants to see you at nine tomorrow,” says Brooke, late Monday night at the Globe.

“Um, nine in the evening, right?” asks Jim.

“No, tomorrow night’s his party. He means nine in the morning. After his eye appointment.”

“Mark, you can handle this one alone, can’t you?” asks Jim. “After all, he’s only the drummer.”

11:30 AM, Tuesday morning

Jim and Mark make it to lunch with Bill, who luckily is delayed by his earlier appointment, but unfortunately is hurried by an impending photo shoot at noon.

SPIN: What about the new Hindu Love Gods’ record?
Bill: That was recorded one night over three years ago while we were working on Warren Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene record. We did it literally in about the time it takes to listen to it. We all went to dinner, and I guess some of us got more plowed than we should have, and we came back and just had fun in the studio. I think it’s really great, but unfortunately there’s a whole side t6o it that’s very black and ugly.

SPIN: What does that mean?
Bill: Basically we were exploited. We love Warren and don’t regret doing it at all, but his management and record company kept begging us to support it with publicity and a tour or something. But we can’t just drop what we’re doing. It was just one fun drunken night long ago. We refused to appear in the video, and now they have a version with our heads cut off. I mean, we hardly even appear in our own videos.

SPIN: Any other side projects?
Bill: When R.E.M.’s over I’ll do more. I’m probably lazier in that way than the other guys. Life’s too short. When I’m off, I’m off. I play golf, ski, go to my lake house. When I’m 40, bald, and getting a little rounder, I’ll think about those things.

Ten things learned quickly about drummer Bill Berry:

1. He’d hate to be in Tesla.
2. Freddy from Cinderella, who recorded at Bearsville Studio in Woodstock, New York, the same time as R.E.M., sent him a Christmas card.
3. He doesn’t like flying.
4. He can see much better after his eye appointment.
5. He thinks that “jazz theory” is a contradiction in terms.
6. He feels sorry for hungover Jim this morning because “Nobody needs to be that miserable.”
7. His favourite song on the new album is “Country Feedback.”
8. On the last album it was “Turn You Inside Out.”
9. His tape of the new album has an extra song on it.
10. He’s afraid people will show up at his party too early.

Let’s get Mikey, he’ll eat anything
3:10 PM, Tuesday afternoon

R.E.M. is wrapping up its photo shoot in the abandoned furniture store that Peter owns, soon to be converted into the new home of Athens’ famous 40 Watt Club. Mark accompanies bassist Mike Mills to a nearby haberdashery to find the bassist a proper bow tie for Bill’s party.

Mark: I have to go see if I can wake Jim up.
Mike: I’ll meet you at the restaurant. What do you guys like on your pizza?
Mark: Pepperoni’s cool.
Mike: Okay, great.

(By the time Mark and Jim arrive at the restaurant, the bassist is reading the newspaper in a rage.)

SPIN: What’s wrong?
Mike: This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen! The name of this new Barbara Mandrell record is No Nonsense. They’re gonna have coupons for panty hose in the record. It’s sick!

SPIN: You should give out coupons for Out of Time watches.
Mike: Yeah. We turn down most of the commercial stuff. It’s horrid. You can tell Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Steve Winwood, and Pete Townshend they can shove it. Corporate sponsorship is the way of the world, and it’s futile to fight it, but I don’t have to like it. All the old science-fiction novels used to say corporations would take over everything in the future. Now it’s true. I don’t care what bands say. “Oh, we can’t tour without corporate sponsorship.” I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit.

SPIN: How did “Stand” end up as the theme song for that show, Get a Life?
Mike: Everybody asks me about that. That’s not really sponsorship. It’s fun to have songs in TV and movies. More people hear it there than would ever hear the record. And then when someone watches it 20 years from now, there’s your song. Like if you watch Diary of a Mad Housewife, Alice Cooper’s in it. That’s great. Too bad Get a Life’s kind of lame. Chris Elliot is a funny guy.

(The pizza arrives covered in jalapeno peppers, to Jim and Mark’s utter dismay. The conversation shifts to that night’s party.)

Mike: The women, that’s the thing. It’s a good excuse to get the girls in these great dresses.

SPIN: Who’s the biggest womanizer in the band?
Mike: What?! On tape?! Bill and Peter are married, so let’s rule them out. And I’m not gonna say beyond that.

(Jim and Mark spend the rest of the conversation picking jalapenos off their pizza. Mike doesn’t seem to notice.)

Mark: Who’s gonna transcribe this? The interns are on holiday.
Jim: What do you mean transcribe? We can just make it up later.
Mike: Put me down word for word, man.
Mark: Yeah, what was that part about you being a womanizer?

Ten crucial things to know about bassist Mike Mills:

1. He once fell asleep with his feet higher than his head and had dreams that someone was holding his hands and spinning them around.
2. Sometimes he wants to punch everybody in the band in the face, and he’s sure they sometimes feel the same way about him.
3. He sang on Robbie Robertson’s new record.
4. Neil Young once recognised him in a restaurant as being “one of those rem boys.”
5. He doesn’t like rap.
6. He likes the Roky Erikson compilation.
7. His stereo won’t work.
8. He was almost mentioned in a recent edition of Sports Illustrated.
9. He likes jalapenos.
10. He’s a womanizer. (Just kidding.)

The God-like genius
6:30 PM, Tuesday afternoon

Jefferson: Peter’s not picking up his phone again.
Brooke: Tell me something new.
Jefferson: You guys just go on over to his house in a little while. Peter doesn’t like telephones.

(A short drive later Mark and Jim are relaxing on the beautiful Buck porch.)

SPIN: There are a lot of guest musicians on this record.
Peter: I like the idea that we can bring other people in. I was really surprised when Michael brought in other singers. Kate Pierson’s got a great voice. And I think the KRS-One rap thing turned out great, too.

SPIN: Do you like rap?
Peter: Yeah, but it’s like everything else. Ninety-five percent of it’s shit and the other five percent of it’s great. Rap is funny because you hear all of these musicians saying, “Man, that’s not playin’, that’s just rappin’.” That’s what they used to say about me. “He can’t really play!” you know? But it’s not scales that make a good record. It’s your ability to utilize your instrument, whether it’s a guitar or a sampler.

SPIN: Peter Holsapple [formerly of the dBs] plays guitar on most of the new songs. Are you comfortable recording with other guitarists?
Peter: It helps me a lot knowing that there’s someone who’ll play the riffs along with me so I can play something else. My goal is to record my parts strictly live and never do any overdubs. We apportioned the parts out so that on like six or seven songs Peter Holsapple’s on, I play the live instrument, the mandolin for example, right into a microphone. I’d like to do the next record totally live with side musicians. I like the idea of a performance.

SPIN: Why aren’t you touring this time around?
Peter: I hate to sound like the Band with The Last Waltz, but we basically spent the last ten years on the road. It’s time to get away from it. As much as I love touring, it’s a big deal. We start planning six months ahead of time, hiring people, and spending a quarter of a million building a stage. It’s kind of like being in the army.

SPIN: Do you feel it’s gotten out of proportion?
Peter: Sometimes. But you can’t just show up at the Omin [an Atlanta arena] and decide to play there. One of the good things is that you get a lot of energy out of it, it’s exciting to be caught up in it, going around the world with your friends.

SPIN: There are endless rumours about you not getting along with Michael and travelling separately from him.
Peter: Yeah, that’s funny. We have two busses. Usually me and Bill and Mike ride on the noisy bus, and Jefferson, Bert, and Michael ride on the quiet bus. We just divide up those of us who stay up all night on one bus, and those of us who go to sleep at one in the morning. Michael has the milk and cookies bus. There are actually milk and cookies in his fridge. And on ours you know, beer and liquor. We’d sit up all night and drink and play records.

SPIN: What’s the worst part of your job?
Peter: Having my picture taken. The world is waiting for more pictures of me, I can tell. And meeting people who think you’re wonderful is embarrassing. Anyone who raves is full of shit anyway. I hate the “God-like genius of Peter Buck in his room” thing.

Ten things learned on the front porch of guitarist Peter Buck’s house:

1. He always wanted to be in a band that wore turbans onstage.
2. His wife is nice.
3. He’d like to work on a rap record with KRS-One, but with no samples. KRS-One is welcome to stay at his house.
4. He’s working on Robyn Hitchcock’s new record. Robyn is staying at his house.
5. He bumped into writer Anne Rice but didn’t say hello. Only waved a little.
6. He met Bob Dylan once. Dylan said, “Hey, man.”
7. His Christmas present to bill was a cassette of “Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, which he found for $3,77.
8. He smashed up a hotel room once because he says they stole five hundred dollars from him, but he’s legally enjoined from discussing it. He says he should have burned the whole place down, but he’s a sensible person.
9. He drove by Hank Williams’s grave and had a picnic in a swamp.
10. He describes the new record as “a little bit baroque,” sort of justifying Jim’s title for this article which Mark thinks is stupid.

Talk about the party
10:00 PM, Tuesday to 5:10 AM Wednesday, back at Bill’s Christmas celebration

“Rock died in 1958, rap in 1983 jazz in…” Peter Buck pauses for a drunken moment.
“1939?” offers Jim.
“Whatever. The point is, the next thing is going to be beyond music. Something where electrical impulses are transmitted directly from the performer to the audience – physically. It’ll be like drugs, only better. Like mainlining.”

Mark: Jefferson, I think we’re lost.
Jefferson: What?

Girl: I like guys who play bass.
Jim: I play bass.
Girl: I like botanists.
Mark: I’m a botanist.
Jim: Can you give us some dirt on R.E.M.?
Girl: I could tell you some stories, but I’d be exiled from Stipedom.

“The secret of R.E.M.,” says Michael Stipe, holding a half-empty glass of vodka, “is that Mike doesn’t play bass like a bass player, Peter doesn’t play guitar like a guitar player, and I don’t sing like a singer. And Bill just sort of holds it all together.”
“After all,” says Jim, “he’s only the drummer.”

Bill: I heard that “only the drummer” thing.
Mark: Just kidding. Seriously though, if things don’t pick up around here we’re gonna have to break a few windows to get a good ending for the story.
Bill: And then they’ll have to send some real journalists down to cover me killing these two guys from SPIN.

Originally published in the March 1991 issue of SPIN


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