Interviews: R.E.M. Colour Their World

On their way to Australia for the first time, we ask the $64,000 question – have the little band down the corner from Athens become the band they once despised?

Just prior to Election Day in a bar down the street from R.E.M.’s Athens, Georgia offices, Michael Stipe contemplates impending disaster.

“Eighty percent of the males in Georgia said they would vote to Bush. That terrifies me,” said America’s oddest pop star, and the man who emerged from his cocoon of obliqueness to speak publicly against Bush with a series of pro-Dukakis interviews and print ads, the latter purchased with Stipe’s own money.

Recently-married guitarist and presumably-reformed rock animal Peter Buck, who’d been moved to make a cash contribution to the Dukakis campaign was similarly distressed. “I’m appalled and disgusted the way this country’s going. In a perfect world my president wouldn’t be either of those guys, and I wish that there was someone I could feel more strongly about, but Bush scares the the shit out of me.”

The blow of the election returns was, of course, softened ever so slightly by the near-simultaneous release of R.E.M.’s sixth LP Green, the quartet’s first under its new megabucks Warner Bros deal. In the six years since their landmark debut album Murmur established the band as America’s best hope for significant homegrown ’80s music, R.E.M. have – with no apparent concessions to crassness or greed – gradually but decisively moved from the insular college-radio/club-circuit-fanzine underground to the vulgar rock mainstream. 1987′s Document went platinum and spawned an unlikely U.S. Top 10 single hit in the sinister but melodic “The One I Love.”

The lapse of the band’s I.R.S. contract in 1987 presented the determinedly homespun combo with a clear-cut choice – either confront their own mass popularity and shoot for the corporate bigtime, or retreat back in to the garage.

“We had to ask ourselves, do we really want to step into this bigger arena, and in the end there was no choice,” says deceptively clean-cut bassist Mike Mills. “We had to look at it as an opportunity, and challenge ourselves to see if we were strong enough to handle it. It was very gratifying. Here we were, this band that nobody would touch for a long time because they knew we wouldn’t do what they wanted us to do, and suddenly we were this hot property.”

“We were suddenly in this great position,” adds bluntly sardonic drummer Bill Berry. “We were telling labels that we wouldn’t sign unless they’d give us complete artistic freedom, and a lot of them were willing to give us that. So when we went in to make this record for Warner Bros we didn’t have to worry about anything other than just making another record that we were proud of.”

“There was a definite kind of record that we should have made with this one… to make us millionaires and to make our new record company happy, and this isn’t that record,” offers Buck. “But I think this record is much better than that record would have been.”

Rather than codifying R.E.M.’s most digestible components for mass consumption, Green throws some spanners into the works. Instead of their usual method of writing individually or improvising in practice sessions playing their usual axes, the band members composed several Green tracks while jamming with unfamiliar instruments. The flexibility extended to the recording sessions: Buck plays drums on the untitled closing track. Stipe bangs toy piano on “Stand,” and neophyte mandolinists Buck and Berry are featured on a trio of drumless acoustic numbers (Mills, as usual, played most of the keyboards).

“It was meant to be a departure, and that’s why a lot of it doesn’t sound like an R.E.M. record,” explains Berry. “It was almost an unspoken thing, to just grab all these instruments that we’d been picking up on tour for the last five years and actually learning to play them. We literally just sat around in the studio for weeks, forcing ourselves to play around with these instruments until something came out. We took eleven weeks in the studio – the most we’d ever taken before was seven on Document – and we used every day we had.”

Buck: “Sometimes this gets to be like a job, and when it gets like that we need to share ourselves up. The element of surprise is good – the mistakes you make, and the weird things that happen when you don’t know what you’re doing. A lot of our best stuff has come out of us not knowing what we were doing. I think we’ve been fairly successful at not repeating ourselves, and this record is just a new installment of us trying to figure out where we’re going. There were three songs that we left of this record because they sounded too much like R.E.M. songs.”

From the ingenuous exuberance of “Get Up” and “Stand,” to the metallic fierceness of “Orange Crush” and “Turn You Inside Out,” to pastoral poignance of “Wrong Child” and “You Are The Everything,” it scarcely sounds like the work of a jaded eight year old band. Buck likens 1985′s Fables Of The Reconstruction – another project on which R.E.M., faced with a pivotal career crossroads, came up with a difficult, uncommercial record.

Fables is a monumentally f***ed-up record in a lot of ways,” he says, “but a lot of my friends think it’s our best. One of the reasons I like it, as much as I look at it and think it’s a failure, is that there’s a lot of us in it. We fought a lot, and we were all in miserable physical and mental states when we made it, and we were all at our wits’ end from exhaustion and overwork. But because of that chaotic situation, a little more weird soul showed through. The record after that, Lifes Rich Pageant was a good, competent record, but it didn’t have the same kind of highs.”

The fact that R.E.M. can still evince a childlike sense of wonder at this stage of the game, as they do on Green, is due in part to a concerted effort by Stipe to write positive lyrics.

“This record’s meant to be more uplifting,” says the frontman. “Document spewed a lot of vitriol, and this one doesn’t. Having wanted that spleen, now I can kind of go beyond it and pick up the crayons again. I feel like a lot of the writing on this record is very naive and simple, and that gives it a lot of beauty and space.

“Natalie Merchant had a song on her last record called ‘Verdi Cries’ – the working title was ‘To Aida’ – and she had a notebook of 150 verses that she edited down into a beautiful, perfect song. I think she taught me a lot about taking the clunky syntax and making it into something that really works.

“I just felt that it’s time for people to be uplifted by music. I wanted to make a record that people would isten to and it would ake them incredibly happy. I don’t feel like I’ve fully succeeded in that goal, but I thought that maybe the way to achieve that was to turn inward, and I turned to the geography inside.

“I wanted to get the extreme ecstatic feeling, and to supplement it with this incredible melancholy. I can’t really work with one without the other. It’s like something you see that is so incredibly beautiful and yet it has a dark edge around the bottom that has a more sinister kind of quality to it. That really makes it full and balances it out, and makes it not just a smiley-face have-a-nice-day bumper sticker or whatever.”

Buck: “Michael worked really hard to make the songs not so angry and not so cynical. And I thought, that’s a great idea. Then I listened to the record and there’s still songs that depress me. I’m sure that Michael thinks that ‘Wrong Child’ is uplifting because it’s about acceptance. But to me, it’s still very sad.”

The eccentrically charismatic Stipe – simultaneously shy and flamboyant, solemn and hilarious, enigmatic and approachable – has emerged as an idol to sensitive, alienated teens on both sides of the Atlantic. He declines to speak in detail about his experiences with overzealous fans, reasoning that discussing these things in public only makes them worse.

“I still want to distance myself from that side of things,” he allows. “I put a great deal into the songs, and that should be enough, though history proves that it’s not.

“But it’s alright, because I love music, it moves me more than anything. I can’t think of a time when I said ‘I’m gonna be a singer,’ but it was kind of always there. And when it became possible, then I jumped at the chance, never having any ideas that I would become popular… I still only have one pair of glasses, held together by a paper clip.”

The singer says that his image is “an accurate representation of what I put out, which is not of course an accurate representation of me, but those are two different things. I’m aware of the power of it and I’m aware of the ways to manipulate it, the word ‘manipulate’ being both good and bad. I think I’m aware of how people perceive me. People change drastically when they get around me – they always have, since I was a kid.”

Green finds Stipe enunciating his abstract but increasingly focused lyrics more clearly than ever before. “I never chose to mumble or sing indecipherably, which I’ve been accused of. And I still think most of the songs are pretty decipherable, unless they’re obviously and intentionally indecipherable like ’9-9′ and ‘Radio Fee Europe.’ People have been stumped with us a lot, in terms of knowing what to write about and what to talk about, and that was a really easy thing to focus on.

“It’s a very odd position to know that people are gonna put a lot of weight in the things you say. I’d always denied that to myself, it was something I didn’t want to face. I felt like a courtjester that’s removed enough to get away with it. I’m feeling less like that now. A lot of people really do sit down and listen to the records, and it really does mean something to people. And you can say, well, you’re just a singer for a pop band, don’t be so f***ing dramatic, but evidence proves otherwise.

“I’m perfectly aware of that position that I’m in, and that on the scale of importance in this life, it means very little to the large mass of people. But it’s what I’ve chosen to do with a pretty big part of my time, and so I’m gonna do it the way that I think best.”

I ask Buck why R.E.M. hit it big when most of their roots-conscious contemporaries continue to languish in obscurity.

“Because we knew what we were doing early on, and because we worked really hard. Of our peer group of all the little American bands that came around in ´81 and ´82, we were the first to put out an independent single, we were the first band to tour America, and we were the first band to get signed to a record deal. And it wasn’t just a coincidence – some of the bands in our peer group had been playing for three years before us, but we kind of took the bull by the horns and worked a little bit harder. I used to think that Athens was the only place that had good bands, and then I went to Hoboken and saw The Bongos, but they didn’t really tour. Then I went to LA and saw The Dream Syndicate, but they didn’t really tour either. We weren’t content to just be local heroes.”

Mills: “We were very fortunate to have smart management and that’s definitely made a big difference, but it’s mainly that we just worked a lot harder than any band I know. We played anywhere and everywhere for years – biker bars, pizza parlours, gay clubs, the horrible discos that had New Wave Night every Tuesday…”

Berry: “The adjustment has always been real easy. We started touring on weekends when we were in school, and then we pushed it to Fridays and Mondays when we felt confident enough to cut classes. Since then we’ve gradually moved from one level to the next, so it was never like we woke up one morning and we were rockstars. We’ve always just been these guys who live in Athens and try to make good records.”

Through it all, R.E.M. have remained largely untouched by the routine indignities of the music industry.

“It’s a constant war of vigilance, just to make sure that we don’t do the wrong thing,” says Buck. “I haven’t done anything that I’m embarrassed about as a member of this band. Maybe a couple of jackets that I bought a couple of years ago, but as a band we certainly haven’t done anything that I’d consider morally reprehensible.”

“There’s always the temptation,” Mills admits, “to do something that you might hate yourself for later, but we’ve always managed to catch ourselves before we give in to those kind of things. None of us are unreasonable, but there are certain standard industry things that this band won’t go for.”

One concession the band will be making in the new year is a tour of the dreaded U.S. arena circuit – a move that would seem to symbolize everything R.E.M. ostensibly stood against.

According to Mills, “It’s not something we’re dying to do, but what are the options? We talked it over and thought about it for months, and there was just no way out of it. So now we have to look at it as a chance to see how good this band can be. Here’s a pair of shoes, let’s see if we can step into them.”

“I’m real ambivalent about it,” says Buck, “and I’m not sure that once we’ve done it, I’ll want to do it again. We’ll see. We did a few big dates on the last tour and a couple of them were actually better than some of the small dates…”

“We just have to deal with reality,” reasons Berry. “If you’d have asked me a couple of years ago, I would have honestly said that we’d never play in those size places. But now it’s either play in those places or don’t play those markets at all. Or play in smaller places and have people scalping tickets for $150. After this record, we can pretty much do anything we want, but right now it just seems to be the time to take that one next step. Now isn’t the time for us to regress, it’s the time for us to go for it. And on the next tour, we can pile our shit in a station wagon and go and play in bars again.”

Surprisingly, it’s Stipe who expresses the fewest reservation about R.E.M.´s new mass-market status.

“We’ve got to play to an audience that I felt was too big. Maybe it’s the preacher’s son in me, but my attitude is kind of, the more the merrier. I feel much more confident and comfortable with all of my chips on the table, rather than balanced on my shoulder in some Dr. Seuss fashion.”

“I’ll be the first to admit that I’m totally ambivalent about massive success,” Buck counters. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t try for it. We make the best records we can possibly make, and I’m very proud of this one and I hope it sells. But I’m ambivalent about what they would do to us, I’m ambivalent about playing the big places, and I’m ambivalent about having my picture taken. That doesn’t mean that I’m gonna try and sabotage our chances for success. I’m willing to embrace what I like about success, and if I’m ambivalent about the rest it’s okay because so many people aren’t.”

Stipe: “There’s a handful of bands that could have really done something, but chose instead to make jokes of themselves, and I think we can avoid that. I think we could do some pretty extreme things and get away with it. I’d say we’re swimming up the right creek – we’re still swimming up, and that’s good. We don’t hate each other, and after eight years, that is phenomenal. I love those guys, I respect them. I think their music is amazing. Their taste in shirts is another thing altogether, but they’re pretty good musicians and I’m happy with my position.”

Buck, meanwhile, is consoled by the conviction that R.E.M.’s best work lies ahead of them. “I think we’ve sort of flirted with greatness,” he opines, “but we’ve yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile On Main Street or Big Star Third. I don’t know what it’ll take to push us onto that level, but I think we’ve got it in us.”

As Peter Buck watches me drive my rent-a-car the wrong way down Athens one way Clayton Street, the situation begins making sense.

A mean-spirited, dope dealing liar is the new Leader Of The Free World, and our prospects are bleaker than ever. 1989 is as good as any for R.E.M. to became uplifting rock stars. Clear the floor and dance.

Originally published on 27 January 1989 by Juke


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