Interviews: Living Up To Out Of Time

By David Fricke

“It’s just not as sweet as you would ever think it is.”

On an unusually balmy afternoon last January, in Athens, Georgia, while the town bars and sidewalk cafes absolbed the seasonal crush of University of Georgia students returning from Christmas vacation, Michael Stipe sat behind a desk in the R.E.M. office and talked about one of his least favourite topics: being famous. He fidgeted in his chair, looked wistfully out the window every now and then as if he were silently lamenting the loss of another sun-blessed Georgia day to the business of being in R.E.M., and lugged absent-mindedly at the brim of his baseball cap, a custom job emblazoned with the name of a new film he was working on. The title: Desperation Angels. Perfect.

“The very weird religion of celebrity in the United States really scares me,” Stipe said with a nervous shudder. “It’s like we’re creating gods, fake heroes, because we don’t have any real ones. We’re having to create our own litttle versions of Zeus because we feel we don’t have any. The government has failed us, religion has failed us, what do we turn to? Celebrities.

“That’s probably a commonly held pop viewpoint. But it’s weird being a media figure. I used to be able to walk through black neighbourhoods and not get recognised. Now I do. That’s actually a real compliment, because our audience is primarily white and I like that crossover. But it’s wild to be recognised everywhere by somebody.”

He took a sip of tea. “But the record, the voice, all that stuff – to me, once it’s pressed and it’s out there, it’s not me anymore. I’m proud of it and it’s an extension in a way. But I kind of feel that once it’s out there, it belongs to everybody. That’s when the separation has to occur. I can’t think about why it does what it does.”

Or, he might have added, to whom. At the time of that conversation, R.E.M.’s latest album, Out Of Time, had sold 10 million copies worldwide.

The Pyjama Game

Nine months later, almost to the day, it’s Peter Buck’s turn to wonder about the numbers and consider the burdens. The guitarist is in Los Angeles juggling phone calls, band business and an interview while awaiting his curtain call on the set where R.E.M. is shooting a video for “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight,” the prospective second single from the band’s new album, Automatic For The People. He is bored, impatient and doesn’t really care who knows it.

“It’s video hell,” he says with the weary resignation of the eternally damned. “I’m doing interviews. I’ve gotta talk to some guy in an office in New York And that’s just today. I’m not complaining at all.”

Not much anyway.

“It beats a day job. But things like this…” His voice trails off. “Mike [Mills] and I were talking about it today. We never wanted to be actors, in the last two years, I’ve never looked at any of the videos. I think I saw maybe half of one of them. And I don’t read any of the interviews or reviews. I really don’t care. I try to do what I want to do, which is write songs and play them.”

Which is what he did just the other day. While Stipe was busy with preparations for the “Sidewinder” shoot and the business of R.E.M. continuted to roll in its gently inexorable way, Buck went into a studio with T-Bone Burnett to record material for the next album by Burnett’s wife, art folk diva Sam Phillips. When R.E.M. arrive in London in October to ride the obligatory press merry-go-round, Buck is determined to do a day in front of a tape recorded with long-time friend and collaborator Robyn Hitchcock.

This is also a man whose attitude toward perfunctory industry slapping is best illustrated by his appearance at the Grammy ceremonies in New York last February; when he walked on stage to accept R.E.M.’s three gold statuettes dressed in pyjamas. Not only faux-formal jobs custom made for glamorous pop star occasions. This was a pair of everyday Irish-green beauties – decorated in a gambler’s motif with darts, dice and playing cards – that he wears around the house all the time.

“Actually, I sleep naked. But when it gets cold, I build a big fire in the fireplace, get my guitar, maybe a bottle of wine, put my pyjamas on and play. That’s a great day for me.

“I went to the Grammys under protest. My mom and wife really wanted to go. I went, but I did it for them. And I said, ‘Okay, if I’m going to the Grammys, I’m going to wear my pyjamas.’ Everybody just started laughing and I said, ‘I’m f***ing serious!’

“Then, the day before, we were in the limo and everyone was going, ‘Now, Peter, I know you promised to wear your pyjamas, and we really hope you do, but if you don’t we’re not going to think you chickened out.’ Those were fighting words. I was bound and determined to wear my pyjamas.”

The jammies, it turned out, were a big hit. After R.E.M. received their awards and the TV network cut to a commercial, the Mistress of Ceremonies, actress Whoopi Goldberg, yelled over to Buck, “You in the pyjamas! They look great!”

“It depends on how seriously you take yourself,” he insists a little impatiently, as if it pains him to elaborate the obvious. “We don’t have bodyguards. We never have, I never will. I drove here today in my rent-a-car jeep. I just take control of my life and don’t worry about it.

“I’ve got a varied life outside of the business, and certainly outside of promotion. That’s the thing. If you want to keep doing it, when you get to my age – not that I’m ancient or anything – but so many people go, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do all this.’ So don’t f***ing do it. For us, there is no reason in the world why we should have to do anything other than the creative aspect of being in R.E.M. Michael is interested in the videos and he’d probably do something like this anyway, even if he wasn’t in the band. I’m not, and I’m not in them very much.

“I’m not trying to sound selfish or spoiled. But to keep doing it at the level we’re doing it, we have to concentrate on writing songs, where we want to go with the band. I think this is our best record. And the reason it’s that way is because we don’t give a f*** about anything else.”

The Big Hurt

Peter Buck has a very hard time trying to comprehend what 10 million records sold really means, what it looks like. Even when his brother went to the trouble of figuring out the exact amount of physical space that 10 million albums would take up, he couldn’t believe the results.

“My brother worked out that if you took your record collection and lined all the albums up, if you were driving 60 miles an hour, it would take you an hour to drive past 10 milllion of them. Think about it – that many records would stretch from Athens to Atlanta.

“I used to think 200,000 was mind-boggling. I’ve never seen 200,000 of anything. Maybe the people on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. But those people are all on a little television screen.
He pauses, still a little rocked by disbelief.

“The way to deal with it,” Buck says with as much finality as he can muster, “is not to worry about it.”

Co-produced by R.E.M. with long-time studio collaborator Scott Litt, Automatic For The People is the kind of album that no slave to the numbers would ever dare make. It is a careful attention and a willingness to surrender yourself to the anguish that always precedes hard fought, lasting joy. It is certainly not the album of fast Document-brand, guitar-driven rockers that R.E.M. promised after they’d gotten Out of Time out of their system. Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Bill Berry have, if anything, strayed even further from expectation.

Where Out of Time was a startling drop in volumeand mood from the arena-friendlyangst and politicized clamour of Green, Automatic for the People seems to move at an even more agonized crawl. The album opens with two startingly sombre ballads – “Drive,” a dark, ironic examination of disconnection and self-determination scored with acoustic guitar, acoustic fuzz guitar and bittersweet strings (one of four orchestrations done for the record by ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones); and “Try Not To Breathe,” a death-bed elegy in waltztime, sung in the voice of an old man looking back at his life and heightened by a soul-wringing, happy-sad blend of back-porch picking and insistent guitar distortion.

The ballads, in fact, define the record. “Everybody Hurts” is an achingly eautiful stab at chamber sould – a Memphis torch song dressed up as a pop-art hymn, with kitchen-sink orchestration and a stunning Stipe vocal. “Nightswimming” is Southern Gothic romance incarnate, simple reverie and innocent days so deftly arranged that even with its full complement of plantation strings, it sounds like just Stipe alone with his thoughts under the stars.

There are rockers, but only three. One is an out-of-character but on-the-money election year diatribe, “Ignoreland,” aimed directly at the space where George Bush might have once had a heart. The other two – “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and “Man on the Moon” – are smart pop pay-offs with broad hints of “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People” in the sing-along cliches. Yet amid such stark, determined introspection, they seem pleasantly alien, strategic lifts of tone and spirit to prepare you for the next plunge.

Automatic for the People is a somber but purgative experience, an album about hurt insecurity and desperation – and how there’s no tunnel so long that there isn’t a light on at the other end. As Stipe sings in “Find The River,” the album’s elegiac finale, “Pick up here and chase a ride / The river enters to the tide / All of this is coming your way.” Even the album’s blackest song, a grey droning ballad spiked with extra amplified crackle on the cello has a title that best captures the album’s real intent: “Sweetness Follows.”

It might just be overcompensation, but Mike Mills is convinced that, for R.E.M., the bucks – the big ones, anyway – stop here. “This is not the same record that Out of Time was,” he says matter-of-factly during a conversation a couple of days before the “Sidewinder” video shoot. “I think it may be a better record, but I don’t think it’s going to sell like Out of Time.”

“When we made Out of Time, we knew it was time to make a bigger record. Not as in a ‘big’ hit record, not in the sense of selling a lotof copies. I just mean in the sense of encompassing a lot of things, of having new things jump out at you. It was the first time we felt comfortable with something like a full string section.

“This is not a big record in that way,” he insists. “It’s smaller, personal, more intimate. It’s not gonna havve the splash that the last one did. Everybody I’ve talked to likes it a lot. But they’re not sure how much.”

Buck has no such doubts. “This album is not the record you would be making if you were planning the Big Follow-up. But it’s a strong record. Ten years down the line, everyone’s perceptions of this band are either going to be different or gone. And the only thing that’s going to be left is a pile of records. And I think this one is going to look real strong in comparison to the others.

“We wanted to be different. We felt we’d followed the trajectory to Green as far as it would go. Green was a logical outcome in terms of the Document-style sound. From Lifes Rich Pageant on, those records were more guitar-driven; the sound was getting bigger. It was more rock’n'rollish.

“But when we starte out, we didn’t even want to say we were a rock’n'roll band. I always had trouble with that, What the hell are we? We aren’t rock. We aren’t pop. So we said we were folk-rock, which is probably why we got saddled with that Byrds business.”

“What do we do? We write songs. And I can do that on any instrument. Now we’re just songwriters who make records.”

Naming the album was never a problem. There were only a couple of extra, briefly considered candidates like Think Tank Decoy, a leftover from the silly list or Out of Time, and Star, after the lush, twisted love song “Star Me Kitten” – itself a drolly-coded reference to Stipe’s otherwise unembarrassed and easily decipherable chorus “F*** me kitten.” According to Mills, Automatic for the People, despite its implied dig of R.E.M.’s own reduced commercial expectations for the record, is of quite humble origin.

“It’s the slogan from a soul food restaurant in Athens,” he explains. “I wasn’t there when it was suggested, but it’s great. When they’re dishing up the food, you say, ‘I want some pork chops.’ And they go, ‘Automatic!’”

Stipe’s Rich Pageant

Last January, Michael Stipe stood in the Globe, a popular Athens hangout for students and a favoured R.E.M. watering hole, raving about some new R.E.M. music he’d heard earlier in the evening. “We had our first practice of the New Year tonight,” he exclaimed, ‘and it was like, ‘Wow!’ We had great new songs, the music sounded real good. It felt great to know that we still had it in us.”

When pressed to describe what the music sounded like, the best he could do at the time was, “pretty f***ing weird. More acoustic, more organ-based, less drums.” He was pretty wired about one particular work-in-process, though. “The other guys gave me this new song that is so beyond ‘Stand,’” he said, grinning, “that it makes ‘Stand’ sound like a dirge. I mentioned it and they all started laughing. But it sounds like that song ‘The Sound of Philadelphia’ by MFSB. It’s really out there.”

There is no official record of whether that song survived that weeding process or, if it did, in what form. But Peter Buck remembers some of those early practice and writing sessions quite vividly. There was one evening, two weeks into rehearsal, when Buck, Mills and Bill Berry wrote the music for both “Sidewinder” and “Man on the Moon;” “Try Not to Breathe” which was a wistful Appalachian mountain ballad before the band spiked it with electronically doctored background vocals and short, sharp shocks of bayonet feedback, was another early birth. And “Star Me Kitten” – a glacial beauty draped with liquid background “aaaahs” coped in no small part, Mills admits, from 10cc’s ‘I’m Not in Love” – popped out of the R.E.M. song oven in nothing flat.

Some songs took longer to ripen. “Nightswimming” was put down as a demo with just piano during the final stages of recording Out of Time; the version on Automatic for the People is that very same demo with additional strings arranged by John Paul Jones. “Drive” dates back to the very last day of mixing for Out of Time. “It wasn’t actually in the running for that album,” Buck says. “When we’re mixing or doing overdubs, we all sit around with guitars and just play. I put this thing down on tape and then Mike added some stuff. We thought it might be a good B-side for that album. But Michael didn’t even hear it until eight months later.

“I had it on a cassette of demos and I always fast-forwarded through it I thought it was the most boring thing I’d ever heard. Then, all of a sudden, Michael had these lyrics, which defined the song for me.”

Buck admits that R.E.M. had little or no chance of delivering that promised album of Document-style piledrivers. They made a yeoman effort to write some fast songs in initial rehearsals but came up with less than half a dozen possibilities. Only one made the final cut, “Ignoreland.” And of the estimated 30 songs that Buck, Mills and Berry did put together for Stipe’s lyrical consideration, only 14 were actually recorded.

“I can never tell what’s going to inspiire Michael,” says Buck. “Like ‘Me In Honey’ on the last record. That was literally a riff Mike played once. I put this guitar line over it and Bill added a drum beat. It was maybe 30 seconds long and it was on the end of a cassette tape of five real songs.

“And Michael fixated on that. Just 30 seconds, one chord. He went, ‘That beat, that key, D flat, I’ve got a song for it.’ So I said, ‘What about another chord for the chorus?’ He said perfect. We broke up the riff in sections so that each verse was a different length. Then he worked it out on paper, scribbling out lines. And I thought, ‘Weird, how did he get all of this out of one chord?’”

R.E.M. have always operated, as in everything else, under the proposition of one-man vote. ‘We’re a democracy,’ claims Buck. ‘Or we’re Communists. I can never decide.’ But he concedes that, as a lyricist, Stipe can rarely be persuaded to follow where he does not want to go. That was unfortunate for three songs in particular, ‘mid-tempo folky-rock things that could have fit really well on Lifes Rich Pageant,’ according to Buck. ‘But he didn’t finish them.’ (One of them was ultimately completed with Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs on vocals and donated to a forthcoming charity record benefiting the National Abortion Rights Action League.)

‘To a certain degree, what we give him defines what he does,’ says Buck. ‘And if we ever got to a point where he was tired of what we were giving him, we’d have a problem. But we still get excited about surprising each other. ‘Oh, I can’t wait until they hear this!’”

Even with a record as emotionally fertile and sonicaly eletant as Automatic for the People, Buck still can’t help lamenting the ones that got away. “There were a couple of this that I loved so bad, I wish he had finished them. He had one called ‘The Devil Rides Backwards on a Horse Called Maybe.’ It was a great title and it fit the chorus too. But he couldn’t come up with a second and third verse.”

Buck still can’t figure out why Stipe never completed the job. “Sometimes, he’ll come up with something so good, you just go, ‘God, Michael, I wish you’d finish that.’ That ‘Devil Rides Backwards’ song was one of those.

“I still hope in the back of my mind that he’ll go back to it someday. Two more verses,” Buck sighs, “and it’ll be perfect.”

Remote Control

“It doesn’t look like we’re gonna do it this time.” Mike Mills is talking about a tour – and how – there isn’t going to be one to go with the band’s new album, Automatic for the People. Eighteen months ago, when Out of Time was released, R.E.M. had promised to step off the album/tour treadmill for just one record, to gather their wits and ideas before taking it back to the stage. You can now file that promise under “good intentions.”

“We’re just gonna wait a little longer,” Mills says, a little sheepishly. “”One more record. Still, it’s funny. I feel like I’ve been on the road enough to have toured. We recorded this record in the four corners in the four corners of the U.S.”

Just about. Written and rehearsed in R.E.M.’s basement sanctuary in Athens, Georgia, then recorded in demo form at the band’s favourite local facility – John Keane’s cozy studio on a leafy street just a brief stroll from Chez Buck – Automatic for the People was cut in Woodstock, New York; Daniel Lanois’ studio in New Orleans’ French Quarter; Miami and Seattle, where they were quite unperturbed by the Sub Pop – Nirvana – Pearl Jam uproar. There is some guitar fuzz to be heard on Automatic, but largely as a dramatic foil to the elegant whisper-ballad symmetry of the arrangements and the compelling tension of Stipe’s lyrical fears and prayers.

“The thing that separates this record from Out of Time,” says Mills, quite proudly, “is that we just have some of the weirdest songs in the world out there. It has some real screwball writing on it.”

Automatic Transmissions

“Drive”: A dark, fragile beauty, with shy, simple strings and the delicate plucking on the acoustic guitar spiked with Buck’s abrasive fuzz punctuation. A song about bending under a heavy load, but never breaking. Also, the first song Michael Stipe has ever written that actually has the words “rock’n'roll” in it.

Buck: “Pylon wrote this song, ‘Hey, kids, don’t rock’n'roll,’ which I always loved. I don’t know, it just came out of Michael. It’s probably the least wave-your-fist-in-the-air type song that we could write. So it’s kind of appropriate that it has that line.”
Mills: “This isn’t a ‘down’ record. Every song on it, even though some of them are about death and life as you’ve lived it, has a hopeful ending. Or a hopeful message. ‘Drive’ is just telling kids to take charge of their own lives. [Pause] Among other things.”
Buck: “It’s a subtle, political thing. Michael specifically mentions the term ‘bush-whacked.’ But if you want to take it like ‘Stand,’ that’s cool too. You like to think that you can appreciate these songs on any level you want to. I have a lot of records I listen to when I’m just doing the dishes.
‘Like the Ride records, I really like Ride a lot. And I have no idea what the songs are about. And I really don’t care. I don’t even worry about it. Lyrics are the last thing I listen to, unless someone is hitting me over the head with it.”

“Try Not to Breathe’: A waltz for the aged, a look back at a hard, but hard-fought life, the calm acceptance in the death-rattle shake of the tambourine and the angelic answer-chorus by Mike Mills underscored by the grim finality crackling in Buck’s distorted interruptions.

Buck: “An old man, imagining death. Chord structure-wise, it could be some kind of a mountain ballad. But then it has electronically altered background vocals and feedback in the bridge, to give it an unsettling feel.
“Just for those people interested in the minutiae, we were doing the demo, and I had the mic for my guitar right up against my mouth. I was kind of huffing. So John [Keane], the engineer, said, ‘You’re making too much noise.’ So I said, ‘Okay, take two. I’ll try not to breathe.’ I just meant that I wouldn’t breathe during the take. But Michael heard it and said, ‘Oh, that’s a nice title.’”

“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”: Sounds like “Stand” going way off the deep end. Stipe negotiates through the word-busy chorus (“Call me when you try to wake her up”winking with relaxed aplobm and even permits himself a giggle in one pass. He even has a bit of fun at the expense o the Sixties hit, the Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

Buck: “We actually paid them for that. We didn’t want some guy, down the road, going, ‘You owe me two million dollars.’ So we called the up and said, ‘We’re calling it “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and the singer kind of paraphrases the line.’ In any court of law, we couldn’t have been nailed. Because the song doesn’t have anything to do with it. But you don’t want someone to feel that you’re stealing from them.”
Millls: “It’s about somebody who doesn’t have a place to stay. Part of it is also about what man can do that machines can’t. The rest of it – I don’t have any idea what it’s about.”
Buck: “I don’t know what that snake imagery is all about. I don’t even need to know. I’m just like a fan. ‘Okay, whatever the snake is to you…”

“Everybody Hurts”: Athens soul-time, a Sixties-style Memphis hymn transformed into a tenderly sculpted, universal wail, blushing with strings and one of Michael Stipe’s most powerful, unaffected and crystal-clear vocals ever. Al Green could take this one to church.
Mills: “Bill [Berry] wrote most of it. He came in with the chords on guitar. We were actually playing with Bill on guitar, Peter on bass and me on drums. It sounded terrible. We thought, ‘This sucks. Let’s demo it, playing our own instruments, play it right.’
“We never thought Michael would do anything with it. But it turned out that he really liked it. That was one we never thought would make it on to the record.”
Buck: “It has a little bit of that mid-Sixties Stax feel. But then it’s shuffled through us. Like the bridge is in a way-weird different key. We’re not Otis Redding. But given that, we took some of the influence, that music we loved for years.”

“New Orleans Instrumental No. 1″: Successor to “Endgame.” Resonant acoustic stand up bass toothpaste fuzz guitar and stairstep electric piano. Written at Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio and a short but vivid musical soundtrack for lonely boozehounds walking through the French Quarter after the tourists and sailors have finally retired for the night.

Buck: “It was two in the morning. There were a couple of bottles of wine around. We did the track of ‘Drive’ there and it turned out so well we kept it. We’d done some overdubs and played with things. Then Daniel said, ‘Why don’t you jut write some songs here? I sat down with a bottle of wine and wrote three things. This is one of them. Another one is going to be a B-side, New Orleans Instrumental No. 2, for completeness sake.
“I would never claim to say that we captured any of New Orleans. But I really wanted to conspicuously try and get a late night horn feel, that muted trumpet thing. Whereas the other instrumental sounds like a deranged pina colada commercial.”

“Sweetness Follows”: In its way, the album’s theme song, a bleak droning ballad that promises redemption in the end. The distorted cello, played by Knox Chandler of the Psychedelic Furs, careers through the song in a defiantly anarchic way, like a gentler cousin of Bob Mould’s modal guitar shriek in Husker Du.

Mills: “Peter wrote the bulk of it. Actually, it’s mostly a demo. There’s no bass on it at all. It’s all cello, played through an amp.”
Buck: “I did that a lot on the record, putting weird, harsh things underneath which undercut the song. ‘Sweetness Follows’ would be too saccharine if it didn’t have that discordant cello back there.”

“Monty Got a Raw Deal”: A real sleeper, sneaking up on you like “Losing My Religion” in jester’s clothing. The “Monty” is the late, star-crossed actor Montgomery Clift, who was contemned to glitter only on the screen. According to Mike Mills, the life’s wordplay on American game show legend Monty Hall [Let's Make a Deal] may have been just a coincidence on Stipe’s part. Or maybe not. Inspirational verse: “Movies have that movie thing / And nonsense has a certain ring.”

Buck: I wrote it on bouzouki in New Orleans. Someone was having a party next door. I was up late, couldn’t sleep. We put it down in one take and Michael said, ‘Oh, that’s my favourite song.’
“The Montgomery Clift thing came because there was someone who was a photographer on the set of The Misfits who came by the studio. He had photos from it and he was talking about it. How much of the song is real, how much of it is about Montgomery Clift and how much is about home, I couldn’t tell you. But we saw those pictures and, while we were recording it, Michael was talking about it.”

“Star Me Kitten”: Liquid love, a troubled relationship poured over a light coating of molte Hammond organ with 10cc background harmonics. The real choice is, as you probably know by now, “F*** Me Kitten.”

Mills: “It’s a very twisted love song. Those are the hardest words to catch on the whole record. And Michael’s just saying, ‘Yeah, relationships are tough and ours may not be the best, but go ahead. What are you waiting for? F*** me!”
Buck: “I don’t care about the word ‘F***.’ I use the word in converssation. But if it means that some kid in Idaho can’t hear it, can’t buy it at the K-Mart,…
“Actually, this really sounds like name-dropping, but they were shooting this movie in Seattle and Meg Ryan came by and she just loved the song. But she said, ‘You know, when I grew up if the word “F***” was in the title and it was on the cover, I couldn’t buy it in my town.’ And we thought, ‘That makes sense.’ You want to reach people. You don’t want someone to arbitrarily say, ‘You can’t hear this.’”

“Man on the Moon”: Very infectuous, and deeply strange. An irresistible, upbeat pop song populated by, among others, Charles Darwin, Moses, Elvis Presley, wrestling manager Fred Blaissie and the late gonzo comedian Andy Kaufmann. Nice touch: Michael Stipe’s comic Elvis-style gurgle in the vocals.

Buck: “Lyrically, I don’t know where this is coming from. I just think it’s a surrealist version of heaven. Michael came in with it, asked what we thought and we said, ‘Don’t change a word. It’s perfect.”

“Nightswimming”: Sweet Southern Gothic, with lush – but not overwrought – strings. Originally recorded during the Out of Time sessions.

Buck: “We used to go swimming at night after rock’n'roll shows in Athens. We’d all go see Pylon or the Method Actors, then pile into a bunch of cars and go swimming in this pond. I think it was on private property, but we never really got into any trouble. It was all very innocent; we were only 19 or 20 years old.”

“Find the River”: The closing prayer.

Buck: “It’s a great way to end the record.”

Home, for Now

R.E.M. played only one live show this year, a benefit concert in Athens for a local mental health charity. They started out with acoustic guitars for “Fall on Me” and the Robyn Hitchcock song, “Arms of Love.” Then they plugged in for a stirring reprise of “Finest Worksong” from Document and old 40 Watt Club-style covers of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything” and the Stooges’ “Funtime.”

“It was fun,” raves Peter Buck. “We taped it on cassette and it sounds wonderful. So maybe we can use something from it on a fan-club B-side.”

But the show wasn’t so much fun that it changed the band’s mind about touring.

“Right now, we’re making these records,” says Buck, firmly, “and I want to make another one.”

He laughs, a little embarrassed, when reminded of the band’s promise to resume live work after sitting it out for Out of Time. “You just can’t tell,” he says. “You have to play it intuitively, and for us, that just seems the right thing to do.”

R.E.M.’s conspicuous absence from the road has given rise to grim rumours about Michael Stipe’s health, The combination of his taste for the ascetic look – short hair, week-old stubble, slightly sunken cheeks – and the AIDS-in-rock phoia sparked by Freddie Mercury’s death, has caused scuttlebutt merchants to write Stipe’s obit, just because he can’t be botherred to haul ass all over the globe and relive the exhausting Green arena experience.

Mike Mills’ response to the rumours is a short simple, “Bullshit.” Buck, no less annoyed, goes into a little more detail.

“What can you say about it? We’ve all been tested. We have tons of insurance, millions of dollars worth. Not that it’s somebody’s business, or that I care one way or the other what people think. But I know Michael passed the test just two months ago. And one of the reasons we know this is we have this God-like insurance.”

He laughs. “I could probably get a gun and kill a hundred people and I’d be covered. We’re at this level, we’re a corporation. But you know, as bad as it is to have all these rumours, if it makes kids think a little bit more about their actions, that’s fine with me.”

What will it take to get R.E.M. on the road again? And when? Mike Mills isn’t sure. “We did everything we could do in arenas on the Green tour. We have a great time doing it. But we don’t just want to go out and duplicate that. And we’re not going to play stadiums. I don’t see that happening, even if we could.

“it may just be that these songs weren’t the ones that kicked us in the butt enough to get us on the road,” he says. “We just want to disappear from the business for a while anyway. Take a few good months off. By not touring on the last record, we were supposed to have some time off – completely off.

“But we had none. Zero. We went straight from making the record to doing the press, doing videos, then right into writing songs for the next one. Even when our days were free, we were still going in nights to write and rehearse This time, we’re going to say, ‘No band business for the next five or six months.’

“Which doesn’t mean that we won’t get together to write songs,” Mills adds reassuringly. “That’s something that never stops.”

Originally published on 26 September 1992 by Melody Maker

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