Interviews: R.E.M., and the Greening of a Hitmaker

By Edna Gundersen

One of the first lessons in rock’n'roll success is how to blow your own horn. R.E.M. follows a different drummer.

The four players whom Rolling Stone crowned “America’s best rock’n'roll band” remain strangers to the art of self-promotion.

“I have trouble figuring out why people like us,” says guitarist Peter Buck, 31. “I don’t know why we’ve gotten more successful. Perseverance probably. If you make decent records, eventually you get recognized.”

Thanks to decent records, particularly 1987′s Document LP and its top-10 hit, “The One I Love,” R.E.M. graduated from cult status to the stratosphere of the pop charts.
They’re still college radio darlings, but the band’s relentless touring and smartly crafted records over eight years have propelled them into the mainstream, where their artistic autonomy and lack of marketplace ambitions make them a rare breed. Tonight, R.E.M. starts a 42-city U.S.A. tour of arenas, a quantum leap from their bar-circuit days.

This is the band to watch in 1989. Their recently released sixth album, Green, shimmers with the promise of even greater commercial and artistic success. The LP is No. 12 this week on Billboards`s album chart. The second single, “Stand,” is No. 28 and climbing.

The quartet’s meaty idiosyncratic pop music, packed with ringing guitars, howitzer drum-beats and cryptic lyrics, has enchanted thinking fans and critics as well as sweaty masses on dance floors. R.E.M. is leery.

“I don’t want everyone to think we’re the greatest band in the world,” Buck says. “Melody Maker called Green the best record in 10 years and I laughed. I’m sorry, if just isn’t!”

Though bass player Mike Mills considers Green‘s songs their best yet, “I’m not satisfied, I’m never satisfied.”

Singer Michael Stipe, the youngest at 28, joins the chorus of anti-hype. “Actually, a lot of the songs on the record are pretty dumb,” he deadpans. “They’re big, dumb pop songs. Anything hugely popular is headed with simplistic ideas. It’s a gross generalization, but things that rise to the top are just bad.”

Listeners beg to differ, and Stipe himself concedes that Green is a “great record.”

The music´s merits are undeniable, but much of R.E.M.’s charm lies in this self-effacing attitude and a chemistry that bounds four seemingly mismatched personalities who collided on campus at the University of Georgia.

Buck is gregarious and animated, an avid traveler and outspoken environmentalist.

No-nonsense drummer Bill Berry, 30, grew up wanting to be an architect, until he discovered playing in the school band would bail him out of class. He fishes and plays golf. The best concert he’s seen: Count Basie.

Mills is reflective, bookish, sports-oriented and eager to produce other bands. Playing piano and doing yardwork occupy his free time.

Stipe is engigmatic, eccentric, mercurial, an outspoken defender of animal rights and phobic about earthquakes. He abhors television, never reads newspapers, rarely listens to music and derives most of his information about the word from National Public Radio.

All are politically and musically passionate.

“We’re the only real democracy in the world,” Buck says. “There are no bosses. We all routinely hate each other’s ideas, but we like each other. And we haven’t faced the typical rock band pitfalls: We never signed a deal where money disappeared. We’ve never had ego tantrums. We haven’t had the celebrity divorces and detox center stays.”

Their lifestyles have changed little since the lean early ’80s. They still rehearse five days a week, and have homes in small, musically fertile Athens, an hour from Atlanta.

Buck just bought his first new car (a Jeep), but complains there’s no time for his dream trek to Borneo. Mills’ only recent extravagance is a radio-controlled model car. Berry acquired an old house, which he’s restoring. All four contribute to charities.

Unlike their flashier rock brethren, R.E.M. are reluctant icons. “The typical temptations and trappings of huge success are unattractive to me,” Stipe says. “I would rather make music that’s respected.”

“Everybody wants to be a rock star,” Berry says. “But now that I kind of am, I’m not impressed. I used to imagine that you get off stage, drink champagne with girls, split huge amounts of money, hop in the limo and jet off to the Bahamas. Ha! It’s so unglamorous you can’t imagine. The money’s nice – we were all real poor at one point – but the money doesn’t do enough. Playing live is the fun part.”

For R.E.M. success is measured by an artistic yardstick. “Our attitude is one of absolutely no compromise,” Stipe says.

After a Document-prompted bidding war, the band signed with Warner Bros. “We were in a wonderful position to demand just about anything,” Berry says. “We only said, ‘Leave us alone.’ We didn’t want anyone to say, ‘Well, they got a big contract so now they’re making slick records.’”

Their only aim was to please themselves. “Motivation came from within,” Stipe says. “We’re very staunch and hermetic and insular.”

In keeping with its track record, which veers from the garage band bounce of Reckoning in 1984 to the moody Fables of the Reconstruction a year later, the band consciously strayed from perceived R.E.M. trademarks on Green. The LP is a new direction, an eclectic batch of engaging, accessible but not formulaic pop songs.

“We threw out all the mid-tempo, minor-key, guitar-riff songs that we can write in our sleep,” Buck says. “You have to be real critical of your own stuff. You see so many of these big happy rock groups that put out a piece of trash and think, ‘Everything we do is great.’”

Not only is R.E.M. unfazed by fame and fortune, they don’t even like to analyze how they got there. “It’s like not wanting to see your mother naked,” Berry says. “It’s better not to dwell on some things.”

Adds Mills, “We formed the band for parties, and we never hat the goal of being famous.”

Still, fame has become a part of daily life, though Buck finds it less intrusive in the small pond of Athens. “Each year, there’s a new crop of freshmen, and for about four weeks, it’s R.E.M.-spotting season. If you go to a bar during that time, you know you’ll spend an hour answering questions about yourself.”

High visibility means adjusting to new roles as gurus of their generation, a responsibility Stipe finds uncomfortable.

“I’m only 28 and not a perfect machine,” he says, mystified by the attention he’s received. “As low on the ladder of importance as pop music is, the effect it can have on people is great. It’s frightening.”

Originally published on 1 March 1989 by USA Today


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