Interviews: Present Tense
By Jim Greer
In its 12 years together, R.E.M. has gone from local legend to global superstardom. Here, the fab four looks fondly back and cautiously forward, as Jim Greer reports on the sweet hell of success.
April 5, 1980. In a ramshackle desanctified church on Oconee Street, in Athens, Georgia, some boho college-types threw a party. Three bands were on the unofficial “bill,” two of them making their debuts: the Side Effects, made up of three popular art students, and an as-yet-unnamed combo (tonight they went by the temporary moniker Twisted Kites) that had rehearsed for about three weeks in the church. This band consisted of two ecclesiastical residents, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, and a rhythm section of recently transplanted Maconians, Mike Mills and Bill Berry.
By all accounts, this alcohol-and-Quaalude-nourished party was a grand success; the Side Effects were immediately popular and henceforth highly influential in Athens’s “bomp and stomp“ scene.
Their sharp, concise, extremely dance-worthy and highly unserious approach to art-school pop a la Pylon went over like gangbusters, and would soon make the Side Effects local heroes.
The final band to perform was less immediately popular, although many at the party were doubtless too soused to pass judgment by that point. Its set consisted of a least half cover songs, including the Monkees’ “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone” and the Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again”. Playing cover songs was naturally frowned upon by the way-hip Athens art crowd, who prized originality above, well, quality. But Twisted Kites managed to captivate enough members of the audience that it was suggested they find themselves an official name and play more gigs. Dennis Greenia, who helped run the 11:11 Koffee Klub, a kind of bohemian coffee bar, offered the band (who settled on the name R.E.M.) a nonpaying show; which the band used as a warm-up for its third (and final) nonpaying gig, opening for Atlanta new-wave combo, the Brains, at Tyrone’s.
Two weeks later, at the 11:11 Koffee Klub show, future band lawyer and comanager Bertis Downs, his face perhaps a bit flushed from the heat of the packed room and, you know, one or two beers, reportedly told Buck that R.E.M. Would be as big as, no, wait, bigger than the Beatles. Buck laughed. Who would want to be that big?
February 20, 1992. Up at the eco-friendly R.E.M. office (lots of natural light and recycled paper) on West Clayton Street in Athens, the week before the Grammys, office majordomo Brooke Johnson is organizing transportation to New York City and hotels for the band and some 30 or 40 friends and family members, as well as overseeing the band’s guest list for the post-Grammy, Warner Bros. Party. Seems everybody’s relatives want to go to the ceremony. “Yeah, I can tell my mom I’m on the cover of every Podunk magazine in the world”, says Buck, “but the Grammys are something she can understand and tell her friends”. Possibly the most exciting aspect for some family members is the fact that they, as well as band members, will have to register under assumed names to avoid potential harassment. “Is it really like that?” Berry’s mom asks Johnson, not realizing the compass of her son’s fame.
Stipe claims to be little affected by the hubbub surrounding the impending awards ceremony, as does Buck, when I visit him a little later the week. He’s determined to treat the Grammys with a studied irreverence – he proudly points to his intended costume, laid out neatly on a couch in his house: a pair of green pajamas with matching bathrobe. “We’re not going to win any awards”, he declares confidently. “Not that I care.”
“When you’re younger”, says Buck “you just tend to write more. You drop your pen, and that’s a reason to write a song. It was easier then. Whereas now, the inspiration – it’s not actually harder, but in those days, it was like you were inventing it.”
Does part of the band’s productivity stem from the fact that R.E.M. seems to like to play so much?
“I guess so”, he replies. “We practice four or five days a week. I enjoy it. Athens is such a small town, I can bike down to the rehearsal hall. We’re just always writing songs. I don’t really know why, other than – again, it’s just what we do. If I were a furniture builder or something, you’d probably ask why I made so many tables.”
“Almost every band that’s successful, what they tend to do is write at home, but they don’t rehearse. And then the week before they record, they get together and bang some shit out and they put it down. With us, we just play stuff all the time – ‘Losing My Religion’ for instance, we played on and off in the studio for two months. When it first started out it was, I think, Bill on bass, Mike on organ, and me on mandolin. We changed instruments a couple of times. At one point, I was playing it on guitar.“
“I think Michael, at this point, is trying to get things to flow a little bit easier. So he’s kind of writing off the top of his head again. What happens is that the three of us – Bill, Mike, and I – rehearse by ourselves for about a month because Michael is running around. And since he doesn’t play any instruments, if he sits there when we’re working songs out, it can be almost deleterious to have him there. He’s like, ‘Oh, that’s real great. Now speed it up twice as fast, throw away the chorus, write a new bridge, and change the key.’ But Michael, that’s a different song. We like to present him with finished ideas. We’ll demo them, then he’ll come in and do his thing.”
Does it help that there are three different people, each writing music?
“Sure, Bill or Mike will always be like ‘Well, I’ve got this thing.’ I mean, that’s what we do. It’s not some major creative thing. If you do it long enough, you can do it without thinking about it. Once you get to the point where you realize that a million people or more are gonna listen to the record, you start getting a little tense. But I think your first creative impulses are always the best.
“We think of what we do in a really nonromantic way”, continues Buck. “The most romantic way I ever think about what I do is that I manage to make my living using my mind. I’m proud of that. But really, when we sit and write songs, we don’t go, ‘We’re giving them this gift of genius inspiration.’ No, we’re shlubs that bang out some chords. Other people tend to take it real seriously – and we take it seriously as far as doing it right, but on the other hand, we’ll write some songs and Mike will go, ‘Oh, man, that’s a deathless piece of shit.’ You know, we just write songs.”
But did you ever think that just writing songs would bring you to this point?
“It was never our goal”, answers Buck. “Our goals were a little different, I guess, from a lot of bands. One great single – that’s what we wanted. No one expects a hit. Ideally, we were thinking, well, we could play once a month in town, make a couple hundred bucks. And maybe every couple of years or so, we’d put out an EP or a single. For a lot of the bands that I’ve followed from the punk era, it wasn’t a career. It was something they did. And they didn’t have videos and makeup artists and stuff. So we figured, if we got really lucky and we’re good at this, then we can play. And maybe in the next five or six years, we could put out an album and a couple of singles and an EP.”
August 21, 1992. The last time I saw Stipe was in a crowded Athens, Georgia, bar back in February, right before the band went off to record its new record Automatic for the People.
I came up behind and gently poked him in the ribs, just like you would any friend you saw in any bar. He jerked around with a mask of fear and loathing on his face that took a moment to pass before he recognized me and his features softened. “Oh, hi, Jim.” he said, looking relieved. For the first time I realized that there are human beings on this planet who, through no fault of their own, have to be treated differently from ordinary Joes and Janes. There really is such a thing as a rock star, and even in his hometown, where the natives have long grown accustomed to his famous face, Stipe skulks through the crowd quickly, head down, his already-slight figure hunched and drawn. He moves like a wanted man – which, of course, he is – refusing to stand on the periphery of crowds, delving instead into the relative protection of their midst. A mutual friend once told me a story about a group of frat-boy types from another city coming into town and going to one of the local bars Stipe is known to frequent (luckily, not on that particular night). After a few beers, they started banging their glasses on the tables and shouting: “Where’s Michael Stipe? We came here to party with him – ‘cause we heard he’s a party animal!” No fun, I remember thinking. Going out in public must be one long tedious game of hide-and-seek. No fun.
You could say that with the release of the decidedly uncommercial Automatic for the People (unconfirmed rumors of near-catastrophic interband strife during recording abound), R.E.M. Is a band on the cusp right now. But you’d have a hard time defining what or where that cusp might be. Certainly Out of Time’s more-or-less unforeseen success propelled the combo to new heights of popularity, but whether or not that translates into a kind of sensitivity to newfound stardom is debatable.
R.E.M.s gradual rise from the ranks of college rock icons to art-rock avatars has ensured that, at every step up the ladder, the band had to deal with renewed disgust and tortured, accusatory cries of “sellout”. So you’d figure the rock star thing must be pretty much old hat to the band, and that Out of Time added little but gloss to timeworn methods of dealing with R.E.M.’s previous celebrity (“Don’t you know, Jim”, Stipe once half-jokingly said, “all rock stars are boring”).
It’s always been easy to sense a certain ambiguity on the part of the R.E.M. boys toward their hard-won fame and fortune, an uneasiness at what they still seem to consider their good luck in the face of some of their friends’ misfortune (i.e. other Athens bands, such as Pylon or Love Tractor, who never “made it”). They’ve remained committed to the town that oversaw and supported their first fumbling efforts, investing money in restoring historic buildings, participating in local politics, and employing as many of their old friends as they can. Partly that’s an extension of the fact that all four are genuinely nice human beings who feel uncomfortable being heaped with praise and outsize checks for just being “shlubs who bang out some chords.” But a good part of it is pure and simple guilt – the members of R.E.M. are guilty of becoming big stars, and that was never the idea.
“We came out of a scene”, reminisces Buck, “that everyone firmly believed in and your goal was not to be a rock star. You didn’t dress up. You didn’t have a stage show. You didn’t have witty stage patter. You just kind of played. The people who came to see you, by and large, at least in the early day, were your friends. There were only about 80 of us in town. We were the first band to go beyond that to the college kids.”
Even before 1982’s Chronic Town EP, on I.R.S. Records – the first burp of a still-teething band – R.E.M. had suffered the slings and arrows of fanzines, at least in the band’s hometown. The original, inbred art-party Athens music scene had been begun, more or less, by the B-52’s, whose near immediate, stunning success seemed to pose no threat to R.E.M.’s continued obscurity. As Buck says, “If you had a best friend that was killed by a meteor, you wouldn’t worry about going out of the house.” At that point, the scene had begun both so decelerate and to diversify, growing to encompass not just the arty edges of Athens’s bohemia, but the frat-boy contingent as well. On any given night at the second incarnation of the 40 Watt Club, on the corner of College and Broad Streets, above the Sub and Steak Sandwich Shop, you could find Stipe or Buck serving drinks behind the bar, or, if you were lucky and had a high tolerance for supranormal temperatures, you could catch an R.E.M. gig there. Legend has it that on particularly frantic nights the windows of the club could be seen bulging outwards from the pressure of the packed crowd. R.E.M.’s growing popularity exploded the art scene into a full-fledged music scene, much to the dismay of some former scenesters. As Buck puts it, “Because of us (the Athens music scene) changed. Our friends stopped coming to see us. They’d go ‘Goddamn, we can’t dance any more, it’s all these college kids that worship you.’ And I’m not complaining at all, but where we came from, we were just doing this thing and everyone else was doing this thing. And it was supposed to be enjoyable. Then it got kind of. ‘Oh, look at the band. They’re famous.’ People start asking for your autograph and stuff.”
The band’s first full-length album, Murmur, helped provoke a similar transformation at college radio stations across the country. College radio in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was very much a fringe operation, subsisting on benevolent support from (and largely ignored by) the community. The station’s record library built up over time by purchases and donations, was often supplemented by the individual DJ’s personal collection. Unlike commercial concerns, college stations generally did not have playlists dictating what records could or could not be played. This format had the advantage of great eclecticism – in any given four-hour time slot, you could hear, say Stravinsky followed by Robert Johnson followed by Miles Davis. The music was always “good”, but it wasn’t exactly an accurate reflection of what college kids were listening to.
The success of Murmur, followed by ever-increasing numbers for 1984’s Reckoning, 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, and 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant – because these records were primarily played on, supported by and promoted through college radio – led to a gradual change in the way that that medium was both perceived and operated. Over time a massive college radio promotion network was established by major labels eager to cash in on what they rightly saw as a new avenue to record sales. Pressure from the labels, which mostly saw college radio as a convenient tracking device, or, at best, a farm system for up-and-coming acts. Induced many stations to introduce formats dictating which completely manufactured “college rock” bands the station’s DJ would be required to force upon unsuspecting listeners.
Stipe remembers a different college radio. “We used to storm the college station here in Athens, and we would play like the Banana Splits and then a Throbbing Gristle song. The show would have a group theme, and we would play for hours and come on the air every once in a while and, like, bark.”
“I recall one day in particular when the rock’n’roll show was supposed to end and the jazz show start, and the jazz guy called up and said, ‘I’ve got a flat tire and I’m gonna be about 15 minutes late, could you put on something for me?’ I put on this record and forgot to move it from 45 to 33 RPM. So I was playing this 35-minute jazz thing at the wrong speed. [College] radio then was a little bit renegade and kind of wild and fun. I think it probably still is, but it might just be on pockets.”
Whatever unwitting hand the band may have had in fomenting the arguable decline of college radio (which, despite its faults, remains the best source of new music currently available to the nonrich consumer), R.E.M. transcended the genre with 1987’s platinum Document and 1989’s Green (switching from I.R.S. to megacorporate label Warner Bros.). With those two releases, the band became way too popular to serve as useful standard-bearers for a new generation of would-be rock revolutionaries, who anyway had new heroes Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and Sonic Youth to bemoan and/or emulate.
The transformation of R.E.M. into pop (as in “popular”) stars was made complete with 1991’s Out of Time. At the time, the role seemed to sit comfortably on the band’s collective shoulder, but perhaps this was one in a long line of artfully skewed perceptions generated by the band: Automatic feels like a retraction of Out of Time’s mainstream grab, like a turtle ducking back into its shell. In ‘91, R.E.M. got a good look at superstardom. Considering that ‘92 – ‘93 tour plans are vague or nonexistent, it would seem that the band wasn’t at all happy with what it saw.
Whatever else it might be, Automatic is a kind of thumbed nose to two camps of R.E.M. watchers: those who hope the new album will meet or exceed Out of Time’s level of success, and those who wait with drool puddling in their laps for it to fail miserably. There’s no way a record this (relatively) left-field can succeed or fail on the terms mapped out for it, because it has already slipped that particular noose. Which may be a calculated move on the part of the band: if Automatic bombs on the charts, its creators can claim an artistic victory (whether or not it’s deserved). And if it doesn’t, hell, they can just shrug their shoulders and pose with, like, enigmatic smiles or whatever.
It’s a game, R.E.M. has always played to some extent, reflecting what seems to be a genuine division within the band between the desire to progress, both artistically and in terms of popular success, and the urge to remain uncompromisingly nonmainstream. The band has reportedly nearly split up more than once over just these questions: Are we as big as we want to be? Too big? Not big enough? Reconciling these contradictory urges has invested R.E.M. with a certain amount of creative tension, and ensured as well that the band’s musical output, while maintaining a consistent thread, has never remained static. In that light, Automatic can be viewed as a corrective swing designed to palliate the band’s indie-rock conscience.
But who knows, really. What makes the job of figuring R.E.M. so difficult is not just the powerful superficiality of the media, but the band’s – especially Stipe’s – savvy manipulation of that superficiality. Stipe’s innate playfulness and gradually developed desire to use his position to advocate a number of political causes has resulted in the growth of a shifting array of Stipe’s – each adapted to serve a specific purpose. He can be, by turns, incredibly earnest and completely, knowingly absurd. He can tell you with a straight face that R.E.M. never used to play covers in the early days (an easily disproven whopper), and in the next breath admonish your cynicism concerning, say, the state of college radio.
Stipe has learned, over time, to handle the complexities of being a public figure – so well, in fact, that his recent refusal to give interviews adds to the band’s allure, rather than (as has happened in the past, when he refused to talk) painting him as a pretentious would-be pop star. The difference being, of course, that Stipe now is a pop star. Which is not something anyone could have predicted on an April evening some 12 years ago.
Originally published in the November 1992 issue of SPIN