Interviews: My days with the shiny happy people of R.E.M.

By Keith Cameron

With a new album to promote, R.E.M. gave The Times exclusive access to accompany them on the publicity treadmill

There was a time, a little more than ten years ago, when R.E.M.’s position as arguably the most successful band in the world exempted them from some of the grubbier realities of the music industry. Interviews were a rarity. Even touring was dispensed with for the ten million-selling albums Out of Time and Automatic for the People. Not any more.

Last week the members of R.E.M. – Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe – were in London, where they lashed themselves on to a three-day treadmill of press, radio and television interviews, live sessions, a concert at the Royal Albert Hall – somewhat inevitably broadcast live on BBC Radio 2 – and indiscriminate flesh-pressing.

So complete is their prostration before the beast of publicity that they allow me intimate access to their world, to the extent that I now know the name of Stipe’s favourite new restaurant (the Providores & Tapa Room, on Marylebone High Street) and can reveal that the outwardly bluff and garrulous Buck has to gear himself up before entering an aftershow party.

By our third day together, I have been invited into a cramped BBC studio, somewhat embarrassingly, in precedence over the band’s official photographer. Mills has taken to inquiring after the health of “my little fly-on-the-wall”. Given the head-spinning schedule, their reserves of tolerance are prodigious. “I wake up dreading these days,” says Buck, over a drink in the Haymarket Hotel. “So it’s nice to see a familiar face.”

Possibly the apex of indignity arrives on Tuesday when, in the name of telling the world that they have a new album out the following week, Buck, Mills and Stipe sit on a sofa in the MTV studios in London trying to identify types of cheese, a ritual which befalls every band appearing on the network’s Gonzo show. As befits well travelled men of a certain age and sophistication, they do rather well. “We didn’t get to play a song but we are top of the cheeseboard,” Mills notes.

Such surreality is a product both of today’s fragmented multiplatform entertainment media and of R.E.M.’s diminished commercial status. With so many different information outlets and means of consumption, record companies are increasingly inclined to strategies of blanket coverage in an attempt to maximise sales. And R.E.M.’s sales figures for their last three albums, though in the region of two to four million, represent a notable shortfall from the band’s mid-1990s peak.

More significantly for a band that enjoyed critical acclaim well ahead of commercial validation, 2004′s Around the Sun was notable for being the first R.E.M. album to receive serious brickbats in the press. So it is that in the four weeks leading to the release of their fourteenth album,Accelerate, R.E.M. undertake a multimedia orgy of self-promotion and all-around amenability. That they manage to sustain their good humour throughout is testimony to a collective belief in the one thing that keeps these three singular characters together: the music that they make.

R.E.M.’s assault on London begins on Monday at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which is staging an exhibition of photographs and artwork created for and by the band, prefaced by a playback of Accelerate. To judge from the nodding heads and mouthed lyrics, many of the assembled fans seem already to be familiar with the album, despite its not being available for purchase for another seven days. Hardly a surprise: in an attempt to deter illegal downloads, R.E.M. decided to preview the whole album by streaming it through iLike.com.

Enjoying a sneak preview of the exhibition in the ICA’s upstairs gallery, Buck observes that in the internet era, release dates are irrelevant. “A guy just told me how much he loves the new album. I said: ‘Oh really?!’ He said: ‘Don’t worry, we’re all looking forward to buying the special DVD version with the two extra tracks!’ There are more ways now to get your work heard than ever. Less ways to get paid for ‘em, though.”

Downstairs in the ICA cinema, Michael Stipe is on stage, discussing R.E.M.’s recent video work with Vincent Moon, a Parisian film-maker whom he discovered via “a friend of my boyfriend in New York”. Besides the shock of hearing Stipe so casually mentioning his sexuality – a topic of contention for many years – the conversation is low-key to the point of inaudible, until the moderator, Miranda Sawyer, invites audience participation. “As a singer and a person,” asks one heroically overearnest fan, “what does breathing mean to you?” Stipe grins broadly. “I’d like to go on record as saying I think breathing is very important.”

As the session drifts on, one man in the audience is making agitated throat-cutting gestures. Not some murderous stalker, this is R.E.M.’s manager, Bertis Downs IV, the formidable brain controlling this quasi-military campaign. He needs to get Stipe upstairs for a quick photocall, after which Channel 4 News awaits. As Stipe is ushered away, Buck casts his bandmate a sympathetic glance.

“This is harder on Michael than the rest of us. When we started MTV didn’t exist and the only time you saw a musician on the news was when he was found dead in a hotel room. Now we’re on the morning shows.”

It’s at Radio 1′s Jo Whiley Live Lounge where Buck, Mills and Stipe begin their Wednesday morning, greeting each other over a forest of BBC microphones as engineers set up an acoustic session. “Hello Michael,” Buck beams. “I’ve been up for hours.” Sticking a pair of plastic sunglasses into the same Dior suit jacket he wore at the Albert Hall on Monday night, Stipe wheezes “Good morning” and reaches for a restorative beaker of coffee. Only someone who has carefully nurtured his inner star power over three decades can look so dishevelled in such expensive clothes. Seeing a BBC camera crew, he gravely declares: “I look terrible singing in profile and great face-on. Can I ask you to bear that in mind?”

Aided by the drummer Bill Rieflin and the guitarist Scott McCaughey, R.E.M.’s unofficial members (“though that’ll change someday,” Buck hints), the group quickly rehearse a cover version, as per the Live Lounge format. They’ve chosen the Editors’ ‘Munich’ – “Does anyone have any idea why it’s called ‘Munich’?” Mills asks – and stumble through a first attempt. “Oh, what hideous misery is this!” Stipe wails in not entirely mock anguish. The ever affable Mills raises an eyebrow. “Well, maybe we could try that one again.”

Live on air, however, the bleariness is banished by the chemistry that’s sustained R.E.M. through a 28-year career, as well as serving as the bedrock of their success. The Editors cover is suddenly perfect. Dry banter abounds, much of it prompted by Whiley, a sharp host, unafraid to out Buck as the group’s resident grump (“We all get grumpy!” he protests) or raise the glum spectre of Stipe’s recent appearance on the cover of Q magazine, his head painted gold and looking far from happy.

“It was a really bad week for us, a friend had passed away,” he says. “Usually I would have said no, but I just went with it. I don’t think the pictures turned out that great.”

“I was saying, Are we really sure this is what we want to do?” Buck adds. “’Cos I think it’s kinda stupid!”

Stupidity, however, is a permanent visitor when it comes to selling your songs in the 21st century. Come Wednesday night, R.E.M. are on Regent Street, playing a rock’n'roll gig in the seductive corporate sepulchre of the world’s largest Apple store. Under a low ceiling and faced with just a few hundred diehard fans, the band relocate a deep-rooted fervour that was curiously absent at the Albert Hall. “I’m getting an iBoner,” Stipe chortles.

Afterwards, no one is thinking about the early morning flights, to Paris for Stipe, Berlin for Buck and Mills, where the cheese might taste different but the questions will remain the same. Stipe swigs lager and happily autographs copies of the new album. Mills has a large whisky to hand and a glint in his eye, jovially accepting plaudits for the band’s legendary appearance on Sesame Street (“If I had a dollar for everyone who’s told me how much they love that, I’d own Apple.”).

Buck, meanwhile, is going back to the hotel with his girlfriend, his thoughts turning to steak, a bottle of red wine and the prospect of plugging in with this leaner, faster R.E.M. for years to come. “It was pretty groovy,” he acknowledges. “Who knew that could happen? We are just reaffirming: we’re a great band, we’re still here, those of you who still buy records feel free to do so! I do this because it’ll allow me to keep doing what I love.”

Originally published on 31 March 2008 by TimesOnline


2 Responses to “Interviews: My days with the shiny happy people of R.E.M.”

  1. Mark Says:

    Great article. Thanks for posting it here. I look forward to browsing the rest of your collection, as well. happy

  2. Ivana Says:

    Feel free to use anything you need Mark! You’ll find lots of articles and quotes from the Reveal era here. happy

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