Interviews: Out Of Time?

By Tom Doyle

Lisbon, Friday morning, 5 am. A metallic grey people carrier glides a touch erratically, as is the continental way – through deserted streets, transporting a lightly pickled Michael Stipe, navy beanie hat pulled tight over his cranium, from aftershow party to The Four Seasons hotel, where his bed is calling. Six hours ago, he was onstage, taking his final bows before 16,000 Portuguese fans in Pavilhao Atlantico, at the climax of the opening date on R.E.M.’s Tour That Was Never Meant To Be. Ten minutes ago, the wiry, grey-stubbled singer was bidding goodnight to his peroxide-maned compadre Mike Mills – nicknamed “Trouble” by the band’s tour manager since he’s often, but “not always”, the bassist drily points out in his Ned Flanders drawl, the one left to blow out the candle when R.E.M. go drinking.

The mood tonight has understandably been one of celebration. In the VIP area of Club Lux, improbably owned by Stipe buddy John Malkovich, Peter Buck sat smiling beatifically though an absinthe haze (“It’s not real alcohol really – it’s like a psychedelic, Y’know, I feel good”winking, while an animated Stipe sipped white wine. Every few minutes Stipe would try to reach Cameron Diaz on his mobile phone. After dedicating “At My Most Beautiful” to the foxy actress when she came to the show, he’d looked crestfallen when she didn’t turn up for his party.

Talk turned to a recent band visit to a Prague restaurant, where the dishes on offer included the possibly mistranslated, “Hot Cock”. With a glance at Stipe, Q wondered aloud which band member had plumped for this particular delicacy. The singer raised an arch eyebrow and allowed the hit of a grin. Now, as the hotel-bound vehicle hurtles through the breaking dawn, the oblique frontman seems keen to discuss his alcoholic experiments with Q. “Vodka in left hand, espresso in the right”, he nods in solid recommendation. “You get really bombed and you’re so aware of it.”

A work-hard/play-hard elan is beginning to gel about R.E.M.. It will form the core of the band’s collective existence for the next three months. The singer yawns and gazes out of the window as the beautiful architecture flashes by. “Are we on tour?” he enquires of no-one in particular.

Fast-forward 15 hours. There’s every chance – loudly discussed by onlookers – that Courtney Love has just urinated stage left, but Michael Stipe probably hasn’t noticed. R.E.M. are in Madrid, midway through performing “The Great Beyond” in front of the 28,000 assembled. One of the few vocal tracks on their forthcoming soundtrack album for Man on the Moon, Milos Forman’s biopic of ’70s comic Andy Kaufman, it fittingly explains: “I’m pushing a elephant up the stairs/Over my shoulder a piano falls/ I’m looking for answers from the great beyond.”

Earlier Love had turned in what she was loudly proclaiming to be “Hole’s worst show in ten fucking years”, repeatedly blaming “the god of R-E-fucking-M” for sound problems yet rabidly flagging up the headliners’ imminent arrival. Then, a seemingly impromptu performance of “Talk About the Passion” from Murmur followed by Dylans’ “It’s All over Now, Baby Blue” produced a mesmeric climax to Hole’s set, as Stipe bounced eagerly in the wings (Buck showed earlier for one song, made his excuses and left.)

Notably, now that “R-E-fucking-M” are onstage, Love stands in the very same spot where Stipe was for her set, unsteady on her feet, but not drinking, largely ignoring the band and ranting the ear of new Hole drummer Samantha Maloney. Then, she slides out of view behind a flightcase. Within seconds, a pool of liquid begins to trickle around one of its castors. Her minder leans over with a towel when her disembodied hand appears over the top. “Kicked my fucking bottle of water over”, she mouths in explanation upon emerging. Onstage, Stipe scans the night sky and declares: “I can see a constellation – that makes me very happy.”

While today’s festival at La Peineta Stadium has been inauspicious (Hole, Placebo, a vile funk metal band called Molotov), R.E.M. are on hair-raising form tonight, turning in a 24-song set that peaks with a runaway “Star 69″ that finds Stipe violently battering a keyboard stool against the stage floor to accompany the scattershot lyric.

It’s not correct that R.E.M. dithered over whether or not to tour Up. The original plan, before Bill Berry bolted, was for an ambitious 10-month world jaunt in support of the quartet’s eleventh album and their first following the inking of that widely reported $80 million Warner Brothers deal. Then, following Up’s release, the newly slimmed R.E.M. – augmented by guitarist Scott McCaughey, Beck drummer Joey Waronker, and keyboardist Ken Stringfellow – embarked on an extensive club date and tv show promo tour.

That, and the moderate hits that followed in the shape of “Lotus” and “At My Most Beautiful”, failed to ignite the commercial life of the album. In fact, Up has shifted only three million world-wide units to date.

Accordingly, when R.E.M. suddenly announced a three-month tour for the summer of ‘99, it looked like the biggest commercially prompted U-turn in the career of a band who had always stood for the dogged maintenance of artistic integrity within the corporate world. Put this theory individually to the members of R.E.M. and reactions differ.

Stipe, for one, is annoyed by the suggestion that R.E.M. are touring only to prop up the sales of an ailing album. “Fucking hate it”, he states sharply. “The record’s dead in the water and has been for months. We’re doing this because we want to do it. We’ve said this since day one: we do what we wanna do and that’s all that we do. That’s how we operate.”

“Sure, it’s a U-turn,” Mills concedes, “but God, doesn’t it make sense to anyone that when you lose your drummer, you might wanna reconsider a nine, ten month tour? And why would we prop up an album that’s off the charts in virtually every country in the world? Besides that, we don’t tour to prop up albums, we tour because we like to play. People say ‘Oh well, they doing it because the record company is making them.’ But if you know anything at all about R.E.M. you know that the record company doesn’t make us do anything.”

“We decided to tour this record the week it came out,” Buck insists. “For all we knew, it was gonna sell twenty million copies. One of the main reasons for this tour is to keep the band functioning.”

This is Peter Buck hinting at the greater truth – buried at the time of Up’s release – behind this apparently elastic reasoning. In the spring and summer of 1998, R.E.M. came as close to splitting up as they’ve ever done. It’s a story that will only seep out today. As Mills, Buck and Stipe are interviewed separately, the details emerge in an elaborate game of Mr and Mrs, where each member is forced to second guess what the others have said. In the event, some of the grislier specifics – voices raised in anger, week-long huffs – will remain expertly unrevealed, but for the most part, R.E.M. will prove open and forthcoming about their darkest hour to date. In retrospect the closing track on Up sounds like a coded message from Stipe that all is not right. “Gentlemen mark your opponents, fire into your own ranks,” he sings in the lamenting “Falls to Climb”: ” ‘Me’ I am free.”

The Q interview takes place on the morning of the Madrid show in the oak-panelled bar of the Ritz. Buck, first up, retains his cool demeanour and laid-back conversational tone, although if cornered, his speech kicks up two gears into articulate, if defensive, breakneck. (“I don’t get any pleasure out of doing interviews,” he states at one point, before adding: “I’m not being rude to you, but a lot of people like the process of talking about themselves. I find it distasteful and kind of painful”winking.

An hour later, Stipe arrives in his thick rimmed glassed and a red print shirt that he seems very keen to give away (“Urgh I just don’t like it, y’know”winking. Today, he displays the playful and charming Stipe demeanour as spotted in Portugal, rather than the more truculent side that can surface. When lost in thought, he will close his eyes and attempt to balance a spoon on the tip of his nose. When his Lapsang Souchong arrives, he becomes ridiculously giggly, like a three-year-old after four packets of Tutti Fruttis. “I’m so excited about this tea,” he announces through a shaky laugh.

Fittingly for a band who’ve managed to keep their artistic fire fuelled even in testing times, it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that the divisions between the three remaining members of R.E.M. were purely creative ones. To start off with, at least. As Buck now sees it: “If we weren’t as stubborn as we are, when Bill quit we probably would’ve said ‘Hey let’s take a few months off and figure out what we’re gonna do.’ But we just ploughed straight ahead and put each other through such hell.” When Up was released last October, R.E.M. made much of this “refreshing” reconstruction of their working relationship. What they neglected to mention was that it very nearly tore them apart.

Here’s how it went – In the past, Peter Buck has played the role of band conceptualist, arriving at the studio with new ideas fully formed. Then Buck would ringlead the cutting of the basic drum, bass and guitar tracks with Mills and Berry. But with R.E.M.’s new music being built around drum machines or guest performances, Buck found that he had completed 90 per cent of his contributions to Up within the first few weeks of recording. Result: endless weeks of subsequent boredom.

“I sat there on the couch and read a book a day for, like, two months,” he confesses. “I’d go, is there anything for me to do? And they’d say, ‘No, not really.’ Mike and Michael are much more – they like little details. They’ll sit and work over one little bar of music for, like, a day. Then I’d be sitting in a hotel room, going, ‘Why am I sitting in San Francisco not working when I could be in my house not working?’ I was going nuts.”

Buck’s long-term residency on the studio couch soon wound the others up. There was an air of frustration, and then division. Mike Mills concedes the point reluctantly.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s nobody else’s business but ours. It’s very personal. It’s about as personal as things get and I myself am not usually one to talk about things that are that personal. But since Peter and Michael have discussed it, then I feel I can at least tell you what I think.”

So how did the conflict develop?

“Well, we found that different members of the band had certain ideas about how to go about making a record.”

In what sense?

“Well, in the sense that some people have ideas relatively fully formed before we start to record.”

You mean Peter.

“Peter, yeah. Myself I’m much more reactive, I tend to wait. To me, the songs tell you what they need after you start playing them. (Pauses) I fully respect Peter’s ability to see all this in his head and to hear it beforehand and have his ideas formed like that – in a way I wish I could do that – but that’s just not how I work.”

Stipe was also feeling the pressure, and found himself increasingly stuck for melodies or lyrics. He admits that, at times, he felt anger rising within him, some of it directed at the departed Berry. “Yeah. I mean, I ran through the seven steps of whatever. You go through all that stuff. I was devastated by Bill’s departure.”

Why do you think taking one member out the equation made it so different?

“What happens to a four-member family if one of them dies? That’s a little bit of conflation, but the dynamic really changes in that family and that’s what happened to us. Before Bill left, we knew we were gonna fuck around with our sound on the next record. (Flatly) Well, we had no idea how much we were gonna fuck around with it until he dropped.”

Buck admits that the division was effectively him on one side, with Mills & Stipe on the other:

“There was a period where I felt like Mike and Michael were (laughs nervously) ganging up on me. Then I think they thought I was ganging up on them. (Softly) I can be quite a terrifying person, I mean, I hate confrontation. I’ll walk away from anything, if I can. But then really when you have the confrontation, it’s not so bad. It’s like, ‘Goddamit!’ And then it’s over. I never like saying, ‘What you’re doing? It’s fucked up.’ But there was a period where we weren’t very good friends.” Stipe is not so sure about this.

“No, we were still friends. But I mean, whether or not we were gonna make it through – none of us were sure that the band were gonna survive. It was very serious and very horrifying. I’m the soft heart, the immediate woman in the band and I fell apart.”

Mills states: “We were still friends. (Grins) We just didn’t know it.”

Prompt the bassist to recall specific incidences of shouting and swearing in the studio and he emits something close to a distressed canine whimper. “Well, if there were those moments, I’d black them out, because losing your temper is counter-productive. It causes you to say things that you don’t mean, and, also, we don’t want to see our objective further recede into the distance. If you can avoid shouting and swearing, it’ll keep it a little closer at hand.”

Which of the three of you is most likely to fly off the handle?

“It might even be me. In the younger days, it was probably me.”

By the end of recording, R.E.M. found themselves encased in frustration, resentment and stony silence. “We had no idea even how to talk to each other,” Stipe admits. “It was at the end of it that we really came back together and said, We need to talk (weak laugh). This is fucked up.”

By the time Up was completed, Michael Stipe, still reeling from his writer’s block, wasn’t even sure if he actually liked it. “You go home and you listen to it and you’re like, ‘This is a piece of shit’,” the singer quietly states. “On Monday, you’re going, ‘I’ve spent a year and a half and what’s come out of it is a sticky turd.’ Then Tuesday, you wake up and you hear one song and you’re like, ‘Oh it’s not so bad.’ Wednesday, you’re like, ‘This is brilliant,’ then by Friday, you hate it again.”

But there were more pressing matters to deal with. In July, Stipe, Mills, Buck and R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs arranged a four-day crisis summit in – of all places – an Idaho lodge.

“We just wanted to be somewhere where we could focus only on what we were doing,” Mills explains. “No city distractions, no other people, no nothing, and Idaho is as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get. Basically we just talked it out. Do we wanna keep doing this? Can we make this enjoyable for everyone? If we can’t, then maybe we should consider that it’s time to move on. The essential thing is that you’ve got to realise that the band is more important than your hurt feelings. And if it comes to the point where the band is not more important than those particular personal feelings, then maybe it is time to move on.”

Had you reconciled yourself to the fact that you might not be a member of R.EM. after the summit?

“Oh, of course, yes. We were all, in our own way, prepared to walk away as a solo artist (laughs). It was very scary.”

Buck concurs: “I had to sit down and decide, ‘Why do I do this? Is it worth this emotional turmoil?’ And I came to the decision that it was. Even if we weren’t friends, if I thought we could make a great record, I’d still want to go back – it just wouldn’t be fun.”

“We just threw down – it was like the 1970’s,” Stipe half-laughs. “What’s that movie with Sigourney Weaver? The Ice Storm. It was that sort of heightened anxiety. We sat in a room for several days and vomited on each other and we emerged much much stronger, realising that, ‘Yes, these are the people that I wanna do this with’ and, ‘No, I’m not ready to give up on this’ and, ‘Yeah, this has sucked and it’s been really really hard, but let’s try and move forward from this’.”

“I think what breaks up bands,” Buck decides, “is that things fester and people won’t talk. I don’t know the guys in The Verve that well, but I’ve talked to them and you get the feeling that they had concerns that were never really addressed. We’re still pretty good at clearing the air, it seems.”

Having swerved around these lethal potholes, the road ahead for R.E.M. looked sunlit and hazard-free. But then came the poor sales of Up. Off the back of their $80 million signing deal with Warner Brothers, this has been viewed by many as calamitous: maybe the death knell of R.E.M. as a major presence.

“The $80 million is a reported number,” Stipe stresses. “Let’s set the record straight. It was someone in the US’s idea of what our deal might be. That is not coming form anyone’s mouth. Let’s put that one to bed right now, along with us breaking up on December 31, 1999.” Typically, it’s Buck who offers the most measured opinion of R.E.M.’s current standing.

“Y’know, we’re not as popular any more, we’re just not as hip,” he breezily declares. “But sales never mattered to us in 1983 and it didn’t matter when we were successful — and we still sell a lot of records. We sell, like a million records a year in catalogue alone. So when you say, ‘Gee, the record didn’t sell,’ well, we sold three million of them and also sold a million of those other ten records.”

“I like all the accoutrements of success,” he continues. “I like to stay in a nice hotel and fly first class, but y’know, sometimes those things have to take a dive to get where you need to go creatively.”

How is your relationship with Warners now?

“Well, our contract is pretty much engraved in stone. Essentially it’s in our contract that we can give them whatever record we want to and to promote it as we see fit. I suppose if things got really out there, they could sue us.”

As far as the album’s damp squib status in the US is concerned, Mills notes: “I’m a little disappointed — I’m not depressed.”

Let’s play a little game then, purely for interest’s sake. How would each member of R.E.M. feel if their next album was as artistically accomplished as Up, but only sold one million world-wide?

Buck: “If it was a great record, I’d be OK with that. Being really successful isn’t something that generally occurs with age in America. So what? I make enough money. How much money do you really need? I mean, I’ve got a bunch of it.”

Stipe: (cheerfully) “I would like more than that. I mean, if you work that hard on something, you want people to hear it. That’s where it’s frustrating. It’s not frustrating so much because of some perceived loss of power or anything like that.”

Mills: (seems temporarily lost) “Maybe I should have some coffee before I think about that. (Takes a sip) Oh that’s so good. I’m not usually a coffee drinker. Um. I’m not going to set a lever because then you have sales as a measure for your happiness and I refuse to buy into that.”

Has the thought that Warner Brothers’ handling of Up may not have been up to scratch passed through the R.E.M. camp?

Mills: “Eh, it might have passed through– but we don’t dwell on that either.”

Four days later R.E.M. invite Q to the soundcheck for their second sold-out night at London’s Earl’s Court to hear two new as-yet-vocal-less songs, which are accompanied by Stipe staring at the roof of the aircraft hanger-like structure, worried about the fate of — as he puts it — a “rat dove” (i.e. pigeon) that has managed to sneak into the building and is aimlessly flapping around in the rafters. The first new song they play is an uptempo number, echoing Bowies’ “Oh! You Pretty Things”; the second is more atmospheric, with a fast country-picking motif from Buck. Both offer concrete proof that, even on tour, the next R.E.M. album is never far from their collective thoughts.

Tonight’s gig is fantastic, but possibly only for the 3,000 people who’ve queued all day to gain access to the front-of-stage enclosure; any further back and the atmosphere is swallowed up whole by Earl’s Court’s soul-less environment. “Oh, that was great compared to last night,” points out a semi-lathered Buck backstage afterwards.

R.E.M.’s real triumph, it transpires, is only 48 hours away, when they turn in their pivotal headline set on the Friday night at the Glastonbury Festival — Stipe arriving with Courtney Love mid-afternoon by helicopter and then going to watch Marianne Faithfull — with the singer unveiling what may yet become his iconic blue-eyed panda look.

By the middle of the following week, Radio 1 will have a selection of R.E.M. tracks old and new on heavy rotation and some people are seriously using the phrase “career turnaround.” For the time being, the trio’s work here is done. Europe has been reminded of how magnificent R.E.M. remain.

“It takes equal parts of all of us to make great records,” Mike Mills had concluded earlier. “To try to shut down any one of us in any way would be a mistake. What we have to do is try to make room of all of our individualities and peculiarities. And I think that we’ve hopefully found a place where we can make that happen. We’ll know next year…”

Somewhere in deepest Idaho, there’s a lodge with a pencilled-in reservation for the year 2000, just in case.

Originally published on 2 September 1999 by Q Magazine
Source: R.E.M. Central

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