Interviews: R.E.M. – All-American Alien Boys
By David Stubbs
America’s finest band of the eighties have started the British leg of their world tour. David Stubbs met them in Germany, where drummer Bill Berry was dramatically hospitalised, and talked to Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck about southern accents, their new single “Orange Crush,” the legacy of Vietnam and why shooting George Bush won’t save America.
This is R.E.M., but this is not Athens, Georgia. Just for once. We’re in Munich, West Germany, a real oom-pah-pah sort of town, the urban equivalent of a pair of lederhosen. So closely have R.E.M. been associated with Athens, Georgia, as if their own rock were part of the landscape, that you might be forgiven for thinking that their attitude to the place was similar to that of Jesse Rae to Scotland, or that they dwelt there like reproachful prophets living on locusts and wild honey. But any feeling of being out of context that Stipe endures in being in Germany is understandable enough.
“I went to this bar last night, the ‘Wunderbar’,” he says. “It was nice, lots of non-attitude haircuts. But it was like my whole life flashing in front of me. He started with David Bowie, then Gloria Gaynor, then, ‘Love Hurts’ by Nazareth. I was almost gonna send the DJ a note.”
Still more bewildering has been that most disorienting of experiences, the German rock interview. They’ve never quite caught on, the Germans. And Stipe has just spent 10 interesting minutes with a TV crew in his hotel room.
“It was weird,” he says, attempting to be charitable. “This director guy, he had certain ideas about the rock’n’roll posture. He wanted me to mount this sofa and sit like this…”
Stipe sits atop the chair and splays his legs apart at a 180 degree angle. “Y’know, crotch central. Well, I wasn’t into that, so I sat like this, with my legs together. And this woman doing the interview, she was wearing this ridiculously short black skirt, she sat next to me on top of the sofa in the same way. And there was a mirror in front of me and you could see right up her skirt, she had orange underwear on. I was trying not to look but then she asked these… strange questions like, ‘Vot is it around you dat inspirates you?’ So I replied, ‘Well, the way you’re sitting just at the moment is quite inspirating.’ Then she realised and put the clapperboard up against her knees.”
On the road, Stipe is less reserved, eccentric, Sylvian-type figure I’d been led to expect. I hadn’t actually been warned to lock up any sharp or metal objects before Stipe came into the room, but I had been told he had a funny way of focusing then unfocusing his eyes at people and I shouldn’t be alarmed. Like how he replayed a scene of an egg being peeled in “Angel Heart” on the tour bus video four times just to focus in on the method. In Michael, it is assumed, reposes the enigma of R.E.M. When it’s suggested that we reconvene at nine am the next morning for the photos, somebody says, “Yes, Michael will definitely be up at nine,” as if it were as certain as the Sun rising and that Stipe himself was transcendentally immune to such fleshly inhibitions as hangovers.
Well, he seems regular enough to me, although given to the odd, oblique remark. As we’re leaving the bar that night, the Teutonic boisterousness of the assembled bourgeoisie leads me to observe that the Germans all seem to look like their own sausages.
“Yeah,” says Stipe, remotely, “squeezed…”
It’s not until about two minutes later that I stop in my tracks and think to myself, “Hang on a minute… Squeezed? What the hell is that supposed to mean? What’s squeezed got to do with sausages?“
Indeed, Stipe’s most curious feature is his accent, a mixture of various Americas with what to me sounds like a discernable strain of West Yorkshire. Stipe, it seems, has never visited Halifax, but he did live in Germany in his youth.
“There is a whole mélange of voices there… I do speak a lot more of a broadly Southern accent when I’m down in Georgia, though when I was 13, I desperately tried to get rid of the accent altogether.”
Today, he doesn’t feel like doing much talking, leaving that to Mike Mills and the gregarious Peter Buck. He feels “talked out”. I’m not going to decode the enigma of R.E.M. today. Or any day. In spite of the introspective, even confessional nature of R.E.M’s sound, their critical reputation has depended on confounding us, leaving us in haze. Whereas Bono and Kerr are attracted by supersaturation, bluster, epic scale, global audience, sheer size for its own sake, R.E.M. are still “Gardening At Night”, a working enigma.
They are, by their own admission, “quintessentially American”, but whereas U2 look to the Mojave desert for a feeling of roots, authenticity, the tracks of the first pioneers, Stipe seems to find ghosts, remote possibilities of being, enigma.
They struck such a resonant chord, got so many people behind them that they can no longer deal in obliquities. Since Lifes Rich Pageant they have been simpler, rockier, more pointed, more responsible. But they haven’t degenerated, like Simple Minds into clumsy common denominators. Rather, they have intensified. Whatever it is they see, fires them up and loads them out, rather than prompts them to gestures of solidarity or piety. “Turn You Inside Out” is consumed by its own flames, “Hearshirt” lost in its own thoughts, R.E.M. are still driven to distraction.
Tonight, though, is off. The gig is cancelled. The news had looked bad from the moment we arrived. Drummer Bill Berry was going to talk, but he’s been ill. Two hours later, the show’s off. Two hours after that, he’s been rushed to hospital. It’s bronchitis. If things continue to deteriorate at this rate, I could find myself sitting on a very unwanted exclusive…
Thankfully, he’s nowhere near critically ill. But Buck’s all pissed off, worried, and there’s talk that they might have to cancel the whole tour.
“It’s not worth it. I can go back home, mow my lawn,” says the guitarist. I don’t even dare ask what the legal and financial consequences would be of R.E.M. pulling out of a tour like this. Buck’s thoughts are for the fans.
“You know, this is only the third time in nine years that we’ve ever cancelled. Twice, including this, we’ve cancelled due to health, once because a club owner f***ed up, he failed to send out transportation for us.
“I feel so bad for Bill cos in the past we’ve gone on with broken toes, fractured hands, Michael’s gone onstage with an ambulance waiting out back because he was dehydrated with flu, he even did a tour on crutches once. I feel really bad because every band used to cancel Georgia.
“Kiss cancelled five times, Roxy Music cancelled eight times in a row. Cos they didn’t give a f*** about Georgia, it was miles away, it wasn’t hip, so I know what it’s like to live in a small town.”
Eventually, when all this has settled down, I get my interviews. Curiosly, at no one time do I see any of the band members together. Only separately. I later suspect that they are all Stipe in disguise, that notorious changeling. Anyway, I speak first to bassist Mike Mills. Real or not, here I come. Dachau is 20 minutes’ drive away from Munich. A few of the R.E.M. entourage decided to make a pilgrimage out there to the museum. Only Mike from the band went. Did it leave a scar?
“It was very grim. The biggest shock was seeing the ovens. That took my breath away, it was horrible. Luckily, I am pretty resilient, I can go and put it in my mind, it’s not going to make me morose for the next week. It’s just as well Michael didn’t go to Dachau, he would have taken a lot longer to recover from it.”
I heard that he travels on a separate tour bus from you guys because you get too rowdy. And that was what gave rise to the infamous (and unfounded) rumors of hanky-panky between him and Nathalie Merchant who travelled with him.
“Well, he’s a great believer in fresh air, plus air conditioning can be very bad for you. But these days, we have so many people on the road we need two busses, one for quiet, one for partying. And it helps him ensure that the environment in which he travels is similar to the environment in which he lives.”
Are Michael’s reserve, his supposed Zen eccentricities, his instinct as a changeling, the determining factors in R.E.M.? Do you go where he pulls?
“Only as far as his words go. What we do is still up to us. It tires me when you get the situation we had recently, where a magazine did a cover feature on us and used just photos of Michael and Peter on the cover under the headline ‘Doublevision’, the idea that Michael wanted to pull the band one way and Peter the other, with I guess Bill and I just sitting there saying, ‘Sure guys, whatever you want’, like a couple of dumb assholes.”
Actually, Mills’ and Berry’s role in R.E.M. is often less well publicized. Both compose and perform the harmony sections and Bill wrote the music to “Perfect Circle” from Murmur, one of five best R.E.M. songs. But the difference between the “old” R.E.M. (Fables of the Reconstruction) and the “new” (Lifes Rich Pageant), is that whereas before, Mills’ bass functioned as a lead instrument, creating a sound that was curious, introverted, understated. Today, R.E.M. are opening up, getting noisier, more direct, more upfront, more powerchords, less overtly subtle.
“Well, the songs that we’re doing now there’s less room for me to be as busy as I used to be, doing little runs and all that – today, it’s more underpinning. We got tired of writing the old R.E.M. songs, all those key changes. It was becoming a cliché.”
But Mills perhaps regrets some aspects of the new scale. He sighs a little when I ask him about their recent US tour.
“I’m not thrilled with the prospect of playing arenas. I mean, it’s easier on your psyche, at least the bathrooms work, you can eat the food, you’re not worried about whether you’re gonna be able to flush the toilet. I tell my friends not to even bother coming backstage, to meet me later in a bar, because all you get in these arenas are the DJs and the programme directors from all the radio stations that wouldn’t touch us for years, not even two years ago, but now they’re your best friend, ‘know? You get very cynical, the bullshit gets really thick, you just listen to it, smile and go your way.”
In Britain, R.E.M. are perceived as some sort of outlying manifestation of post-punk. In America, where “post-punk” means XTC’s second album and Billy Idol as opposed to the total cultural overhaulage it was here, they share a homogenous MTV landscape with the likes of The Bangles and Boz Scaggs. How do they see it?
“The most that the post-punk has done for us is the DIY aspect. I don’t know if we’ve come round to the mainstream or whether the mainstream has come round to us. Right now, we’re as big as you can possibly get in America. But that doesn’t change the way we do things. It’s worrying when ‘Stand’ reached Number Six, I mean there’s a DJ in Miami who did a medley of ‘Baby I Love Your Way’ by Peter Frampton and ‘Freebird’ and it went straight to No One. Then I think to myself, ‘Christ, do I want to be in the same chart as these morons? What does that say about us? If people like that and they like us?’”
It doesn’t seem possible to share a vision in rock these days. In the Sixties, music was what united us. Now it is the only thing that divides “us”, agreed as we are on everything else from Thatcher to the environment.
“I just met Bruce Hornsby. And he was a wonderful person, a very nice guy. He seems like he’d be wonderful to work with. And I met Chris Squires of Yes, we talked bass. And sometimes that can change your perception of their music, but…”
Peter made one or two characteristically restrained but nevertheless helpful contributions to the Presidential debate last time around, didn’t he?
“He got into trouble about that. You don’t go around saying that someone should shoot the President. And now I am praying to God, please don’t let anybody shoot the President because if they do, we’ll have Dan Quayle in power. Then we’d all be doomed. Have you read? He’s been out in some far Eastern tour and all he’s been doing is playing basketball and tennis. He was two hours late meeting the President of Indonesia because he had to play an extra game of tennis with his wife. He’s a f***ing moron, so please don’t shoot George Bush.”
I met Peter Buck in a weird Japanese bar in the basement of the hotel, whose décor and dangerous rum punches suggest that pirates, low fellows and all manner of scurvy ne’er do wells are about to burst out all over the place. Buck feels comfy and detached in bad taste environments.
“Do you mind this place?” he asks. “I hate these semi-classy bars where you have some asshole staring at you all the way through your drink because you’re not wearing a tie. I like Japanese places. When we were recording Document there used to be this bar across the road run by these mean-spirited Japanese guys. No one in the place, they’d bitch at me for sitting in the wrong seat. Real fun guys.”
He goes on to talk about a place in New Orleans, a kind of video booth where you can lip-sync along to your favourite song on a selected video backdrop.
“There’s this place in Gracelands where you can sing along with Elvis, Michael nearly did it, but he chickened out.”
Buck puts up his hand to attract a passing waitress’ attention then brings it down again.
“I gotta be careful with my hand gestures. I did that (makes a circle with forefinger and thumb) to a waiter till I realised that in some countries it’s a derogatory gesture. Dan Quayle went on a state visit to some Central American country, he was doing it the whole time. And it means, ‘I think you’re an asshole, buddy.’ You too, Dan. And never hitch-hike in Jamaica. Sticking your thumb out like that in Jamaica means ‘f*** off’.”
Dare I say that Green was getting a tiny bit post-modern in places? That’s to say, stylised, references dropped here and there to The Doors and wah-wah, jokes, special effects?
Buck: “To me, any noise that’s pleasant is not a noise any more. Taps dripping, train sounds… I’m not suggesting that we do that in R.E.M. right now, but we could loosen up a little in the future. I guess people think of us as quintessentially American, but I don’t even believe in nations, boundaries, I think of myself as a citizen of the world. Some guy drawing lines on a map and making you pay him to cross them, it sucks.”
What is your crowd becoming these days?
“It’s getting kinda more organised… we’re getting a lot more kids at our shows, screaming! The first night of the show was so shocking, this high-pitched roar of teenage voices. That weirded us out.”
Does all this make you react with humour? About what you are, what you’ve become, as opposed to, or even as well as, inflate you with a sense of mission and purpose?
“We’ve never taken ourselves seriously, although we take what we do seriously. It is a rather silly way to make your living, especially when you’re not playing to your peer group any more. We used to play to 22-year-olds, like us. Now there’s an age gap. For instance, I was in this bar and these two girls, 14 they were, approached me, they said, ‘Gee, you’re our favourite band, could you put us on your guest list?’ So I said sure, y’know, they were quite nice.
“Then after they left this older woman came over and said, ‘Did you put my daughter on your guest list? Only I hope that’s not going to be a problem.’ I said, ‘Lady, I’m 32, I’m married, I do not have a thing about 14-year-old girls.’ She said, ’32? I’m 31!’ That was wild. I could have dated her in high school!”
You’re always talking about playing acoustic, or doing acoustic versions of songs like “The One I Love”. Green was also going to be all-acoustic. Is acoustic a sort of solace for you, away from the increasing confusion and blaster of rock?
“We did an acoustic show in Boston, a benefit for this documentary about Vietnam. Three songs, $150 a seat. In the end we played for an hour. That was fun, Michael told jokes, there were babies running around, this little girl was tugging at my foot while I was trying to play my mandolin solo. I like the idea of sitting around playing acoustic for families. That’s what we’ll end up doing I guess. Sitting around in bars playing to 20 people.”
You enjoy a low-key approach.
“Yeah, I suppose we’re pretty low-key, the fact that we don’t lip-sync videos, the whole way we produce our records. I think it’s better to stumble around in the dark as we do.”
And yet you’ve somehow come to be regarded as seers. Perhaps it’s the grain of your guitars, like sand blasting across the frontiers, that deceives people into thinking that the doors of perception are about to be swept open. Doesn’t that make you uncomfortable?
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t call anybody up in the band for advice. Anyway, a seer and a mystic is someone who’s supposed to go out beyond the boundaries then come back and explain it. Whereas we’re very inwardly-directed band, it was what was happening to that year. So it makes us nervous when some people talk about the way they respect us. I mean me, I’m kind of an asshole, I drink too much, I have no patience for fools, I wouldn’t think of myself as a person to admire.”
Do R.E.M. move you to tears?
“’South Central Rain’ did, even as I was trying to remember the chords. Some things excite me on a visceral level, some move me, some things are just dumb fun. ‘Stand’ is just a dumb song. And it’s a really good dumb song.”
It’s strange that Michael’s voice has that great Appalachian sweep to it, that feeling of a landscape which provokes comparison with U2, an apparent vision of America – sandy, wide-screen – which accounts for R.E.M.’s popularity. But he’s not much of a good old boy, is he? I can’t imagine him roughing it with the rednecks and eating pigfoot. What does the South make him?
“Oddly enough, I think he’s the only one of us who was born in Georgia. Naturally, you can live in a place and take from it what you want. What he gets from it is the folk culture, the story telling culture of the old South. But yeah, he doesn’t barbecue, it’s…”
A kind of never-never South he’s into?
“Well, it exists, he goes to visit folk artists in hippy trailers. Even I don’t feel comfortable there.”
Do you know Michael fully?
“He’s probably less likely to tell you what’s on his mind than I am. There are still things he doesn’t know about me and I don’t know about him and that’s the way he’s always going to be and that’s the way it is with my wife. And that’s fine. I embarrass my wife because I’ll talk to anyone I’ll flirt with a 50-year-old waitress serving my ice cream, I’ll hunker down and talk football with guys fixing my tire at the gas station.”
Do you socialise as a band?
“I haven’t been to anybody’s house other than my own army brother’s in a year or two. Even the guys in the band, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been to anybody’s house. I saw a band, Plan 9, with Michael a couple of nights ago.”
What do you think of the newest pale American hopes, Throwing Muses and The Pixies?
“The Pixies I love, I’ll try to catch them live at the festival this weekend if I can. Throwing Muses I met when they were all 15 at this Rhode Island radio station. And they were kids, they were little kids, I mean, I was 26, they were little. And the tape was really good, that was back in 1982. I haven’t seen them since.”
Buck wanders aloud why Robyn Hitchcock is not without honour save in his own country, England, why Richard Thompson and even Elvis Costello never really get any respect and why bands that do get respect in England never last more than a fortnight.
Oh, and how by the time they get the British music press in Georgia, bands that haven’t even had their first single released in the States are already over the hill. And how US pop has degenerated into more showbiz and link-ups with soft drink firms. Yes, but all these complaints about gloss and transience make even Bob Seger feel like the “opposition”. Buck, to his credit, understands that “integrity” and “sincerity” are not enough.
“Sincere? You know, we’re not very sincere. We’re sometimes congratulated on that. There was an EP that came out on IRS once called ‘The New Sincerity’. I mean, what? Y’know, 15 per cent of the time we hit it on the head with our songs, emotionally, lyrically, thematically, the rest of the time we’re… well, some days I don’t feel sincere. Today I feel like lying.”
“Orange Crush” is the new single, on anti-Vietnam tirade couched in Stipespeak, at once oblique and aghast. But are R.E.M. indulging in a perverse form of nostalgia or is Vietnam still on the agenda?
“Well, it’s this one skeleton in the closet that keeps rattling in chains. Everything that’s gone wrong in America is due to the drawback in faith in the government after that war. 50 percent voted in the Presidential elections. Do you know how many voted in the local elections? 35 percent.
“We’ve become a transitory nation – there’s no home, no religion, no community anymore, which a lot of people depended on for their values. We’re a community of strangers. I don’t even know the names of half my relatives, my friends from school, I don’t know what they’re up to. You live alone in a place, you do what you like, drop trash, maybe even rob or beat them, nobody cares. It translates to political things, people are running scared, only afraid that what they have is gonna be taken care of, so they vote for whoever lowers taxes.”
R.E.M. are sometimes hailed as the rock band of the Nineties. But aren’t you happening in some sort of a twilight for rock, albeit not your own? Isn’t the subject of today’s rock its own, lost moments as opposed to the business of forging ahead?
“It reaches more people and it has less meaning than it used to do. It is kind of odd to think that Bob Dylan, even in his heyday, only sold 7-800,000 records. Even the Stones only had five albums that topped a million sales. And it’s sad to think that a lot of the great work was done before I was born.”
So don’t you wish you were around when the work was being done?
“Hey, I was four when the Sixties started and as far as I am concerned, they were horrible times. Mean guys with short hair who beat up little kids for no reason, television was stupid – cars were nice – there was a war on, rioting in the streets, anyone who didn’t look like everyone else was picked out of the pack and murdered. It was all right for The Byrds and The Beatles, they had limos and bodyguards. But I know what it was like to get beaten up for having hair this long in 1971 in Georgia.”
The morning before we leave, Stipe agrees to photos, even going so far as to bare his torso to write the other guys’ names all over him. The man is obviously a sport, though he maybe worries that all this will look “a bit Iggy”. He reveals how to maintain a flourishing chest of hair, but hopes I won’t write about this, so I won’t. Catlin asks him how he got the scar on his forehead.
“That’s a wild story. I hit it against my steering wheel in a crash. I wasn’t drunk, but I’d only just learned to drive. It was very foggy and I swerved to avoid a deer. I was hurt, so I got out of the car and staggered away across this field to the nearest house for help. Then I gashed myself badly on this barbed wire – and then when I reached the house the woman wouldn’t let me in, she must have thought I was some sort of a freak. I had to wait hours for the man of the house to come home. He let me in, and I proceeded to faint in their living room.”
Stipe and Catlin talk at length about cameras, a conversation which I’d have to reprint here in full if only there were space. How interested is Stipe in film-making?
“Well, we have our own film company. In fact, this summer we’re going to make eight public service announcements. It’s compulsory for US TV networks to put out a certain amount of these public service announcements – usually they’re to the effect of, we ought to be more kind to dogs and make sure we look after old people. Ours are going to be like, we ought to get the military put to use in cleaning up the environment.”
“We thought”, adds Stipe matter-of-factly, “we’d get Meryl Streep to do them. She’s done this sort of thing before.”
He’s got to be kidding. Or is anything possible?
Originally published on 27 May 1989 in Melody Maker