Interviews: Interview With R.E.M.
By Anthony DeCurtis
R.E.M.’s latest album, Up, marks a dramatic shift in the seminal band’s sound. The group rose to prominence as a definitive rock quartet, but when drummer Bill Berry abruptly quit in September of 1997, singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills had no choice but to venture in new directions.
Enter Buck’s collection of ’70s drum machines and synthesizers, which create gorgeous, layered backdrops to Stipe’s reflections on our sensual and spiritual condition as the century turns. “Psychedelic” and “mind candy” are two of the terms the band uses to describe Up — but the title also captures the trio’s emotional state after surviving the most serious crisis of its history.
How did Bill’s absence affect the making of Up?
Buck: When Bill left, we immediately got behind on the record. Michael wasn’t really prepared because he was too stressed out to work — we had a huge amount of songs he hadn’t even heard. So we got thrown off from the very beginning.
Mills: In a way that was all part of the expansion of possibilities. It was like, well, whatever you want to do. You want to go in there and play a guitar solo, Michael? Fine. All the rules were out the window. It took a lot of getting used to. I’m not sure we’re used to it yet.
Stipe: Everything was thrown up in the air. It was a lot harder record to make. In terms of what we were going for sonically and, for myself, lyrically and thematically, I had a pretty good idea of where it was going. But it was still difficult.
What did you specifically want to accomplish?
Stipe: Up to this record, New Adventures in Hi-Fi is my favorite record in our catalogue. Lyrically, musically, thematically — it’s really complete. Each song stands on its own as really strong. I wanted to at least match that.
Was this an easy album for you to write?
Stipe: No. I had a real hard time. It was very challenging. But I like the challenge of writing music compared, say, to taking photographs, which, to me, is second nature. It’s not a problem to take 10 great photographs in a week. To write 10 great songs in a year is really challenging.
Stipe: It’s pulling something out of yourself — pounds of flesh for each song. I’m not the most articulate person in the world. I have a cool way of thinking, but how that translates into a pop lyric, that’s not easy. People have said, “Why don’t you just go off and do films or become a photographer. R.E.M. doesn’t mean anything to you anymore.” And I’m like, “Well, no. You’re wrong.” As much as I love all that, it’s easy for me to take pictures and it’s nothing for me to do films — just a lot of phone calls. To write and deliver well-recorded, well-performed songs and a record that I’m proud of, that’s difficult. That’s hard. That’s challenging.
Did you seriously consider breaking up when Bill left?
Stipe: Yeah, for like three minutes, it was, “Oh, well, that’s the end of the band.” Bill simply didn’t want to tour anymore. He was sick of spending months in a recording studio. It just lost – he had done what he wanted to do with R.E.M. We didn’t want him to be miserable, obviously, but we didn’t want to break up. As frustrating and as difficult as things are for us, it’s worth it because it’s what we still really want to do.
Buck: If at the end of the Monster tour Bill had said, “I just can’t do this anymore,” we would have probably broken up. But, (A) Bill didn’t want us to break up; and, (B) he left on the first day of rehearsal when, between Mike and me, we had like 40 songs.
It was a troubling time. The way I pictured the band ending, or at least one of us leaving, was that we’d make a really bad record and then start making another bad one. So we’d go to a Chinese restaurant, get a drink with an umbrella in it and go, “You know, guys, we’re past it.” Then we’d hail ourselves with a toast and go home. I didn’t ever in my wildest dreams predict that anyone in the band would want to be done before I did.
I don’t have any hope that Bill’s going to come back. But I would hope that if we get around to touring that he’d come hang out and maybe play a song. No one’s mad at him. I respect that he didn’t want to do it any more. It just seems awful young to retire — he was like 38 or something. But all the things that I think of as perks of the band — you know, like travel — Bill hates. And really, if you’re in a band, and you don’t like having your picture taken, hate doing videos and don’t want to travel, you’re pretty much shit out of luck.
How do you see the future of R.E.M.?
Stipe: We’re already exchanging tapes and talking about ideas for new songs.
Buck: We may do some stuff with a soundtrack in the coming year. I would like to do another record sooner rather than later. And I know we’ll tour sometime.
It’s been a tough year for rock & roll. What’s the relationship of this album to what’s out there now?
Mills: None — for better or worse. It’s hard to be hopeful when you look at the charts, and all you have are soundtracks, Celine Dion, R&B, Garth Brooks, the occasional Matchbox 20…..
Buck: And six Master P albums.
Mills: Rock & roll is dead. If it isn’t dead, it’s very ill.
But isn’t that cyclical? The last time people were saying that, Nirvana was just around the corner.
Mills: Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine another band having the impact Nirvana did.
Buck: You’ve got to remember that a lot of music that’s great — jazz, for instance — nobody in jazz ever sold a million records. Maybe that’s what rock & roll will become. The same year that like Patti Page had the number one record, Charlie Parker was inventing a whole form of music that maybe 20,000 people in America listened to. Not to compare ourselves with Charlie Parker, but there’s the honorable opposition — and it will be people like us and Radiohead. We’ll sell records, but we’ll never sell as many as Celine Dion.
Mills: And if that’s what it takes, then I’m glad.
Buck: Of course, if this record tanks, we’re going to ask her to sing on our next one.
Originally published on 31 December 1998 by CD Now
Source: R.E.M. Central