Interviews: R.E.M. Has Come Long Way From Early Days in Athens

By Bo Emerson

“Did you hear that sound?” asks R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry.

He is soaked in sweat, wriggling into a terrycloth robe in the back seat of a rental van, blasting through the snowy Minnesota night.

Minutes earlier, Mr. Berry and his compatriots had sprinted for the backstage exit at the Met Center sports arena in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington as 13.000 very happy customers cheered the finale of a two-hour-plus concert. Now Mr. Berry and guitarist Peter Buck are out-maneuvering the traffic in the parking lot, as that high-pitched squeal reverberates in their ears.

“I noticed it right away,” Mr. Berry says, “even at the first show in Louisville. It was sort of an ‘E-E-E-E-E-eeeeee.’”

“It was three steps higher than last year,” Mr. Buck agrees.

They’re not talking about feedback. The sound is produced by the very young vocal chords of teenagers, and it follows the band from city to city these days – the result, they suppose, of having a Top 20 platinum album, major label support, and your face in heavy rotation on MTV.

MTV, teenybopper fans, 13,000-seat arenas – what’s going on here? If this doesn’t sound like the little band from Athens, Ga. that you remember, you’re right. Underground no more, R.E.M. has graduated from insider acclaim to mass appeal with the million-selling Green, featuring “Stand,” an instantly infectious hoedown that vocalist Michael Stipe cheerfully dismisses as a “dumb pop song.”

“STA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-N-D!” screams a young girl named Jeanne, dancing in the aisles at the concert hall. Jeanne starts screaming for “Stand” early in the Minneapolis show, and keeps hollering until the first encore. Jeanne loves this band, but she´s not sure about their names. “Which one is Peter Buck?”

“It’s sad,” says University of Minnesota student Michael Wolf, looking around at the walls of this hockey rink, a big concrete bunker that contrasts sharply with the 5.500-seat Roy Wilkins Auditorium, where the band has played in previous years. “You look at people in the hall who’ve never seen them before,” Mr. Wolf explains, “and you say ‘I hate these people.’ But then you think it’s good that they’ve gotten the acceptance.”

Mr. Wolf is a fan from the old days, before commercial radio would give R.E.M. the time of day. During the concert, seven hard-core followers like Mr. Wolf will stand up in the front row to make a silent request for a tune from the deep past – the “Chronic Town” EP, circa 1981 – holding seven oversized cards that spell out “B-O-X-C-A-R-S.”

Historically, there has been a special rapport between R.E.M. and its listeners. The fans send the band members postcards and curious works of folk art. The band responds with a special Christmas record for fans only and other nice gestures. Almost as fervent as “Deadheads,” but more articulate, these devotees trade tapes bootlegged at live shows, and spend their vacations following the band on tour.

Bassist Mike Mills, whose round glasses and bowl haircut give him the look of the studious young Sherman from the Peabody’s Improbable History cartoons, says R.E.M.’s success doesn’t have to change things. “The relationship with the listeners hasn’t changed, but there are a lot of new listeners with whom we have basically no relationship,” he says. “A lot of people have only heard one or two songs on the radio, whereas in previous shows, it was people that knew us from touring and from the albums… We’re going to do our show regardless of who’s listening. And the people that know us, will know what we’re doing, and the people that don’t know us, most of them hopefully will come around.”

Of course, the show itself changes all the time. When four University of Georgia students got together to play for a friend’s party in 1980, their band was mostly just fast and loud. R.E.M. quickly developed its own personality, dominated by Mr. Buck’s circular crosspicking (like a man playing a Rickenbacker banjo), Michael Stipe’s rich, melodic yowl, and the irregular charm of their original songs. Critics toasted their debut album, Murmur (Rolling Stone magazine’s 1983 album of the year), saying that R.E.M. somehow had made guitar, bass, drums and voice sound new again.

There is a light side and a heavy side to this band, and the two aspects seem to take turns dominating R.E.M.´s music. Folky sounds permeated Fables of the Reconstruction, but that record also featured heavy metalish “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” On Green, the rock and folk sides have become more polarized, represented by the uranium crunch of “Turn You Inside Out” and such mandolin-enlightened acoustic tunes as “You Are The Everything” and “Hairshirt.”

The heavier side suits R.E.M.s move to arena-sized halls, which, by the way, is a step that pains many of the old faithful. The band members are quite aware of this resistance. Mr. Buck is the man who once emphatically vowed to “never, ever, ever” play any venue bigger than 12,000 seats. Now reality has caught up with his promises. The hawk-faced guitarist shrugs off the change, saying that arenas are now the best way to accommodate the people who want to see the band.

R.E.M., with opening act Indigo Girls, has sold out two shows at the 16,000-seat Omni tonight and Sunday. To play for the same number of people at the Fox Theatre, where they performed four concerts in a row last tour, they would have to schedule a week of shows. “Four days was too many at the Fox last time,” Mr. Buck says. “If you sit in the same place and play every day, you become stale, complacent.”

Maybe some fans who’ve seen the band at the old 200-seat 40-Watt Club in Athens won’t stand for The Omni. So be it, says Mr. Buck. “Being universally liked is something to be ambivalent about.”

But if arenas are a concession, the band is not giving in to other corporate rock behavior, such as formulaic shows with fixed set lists. R.E.M.’s two-hour performance usually includes about 27 songs, and by the end of the first week of the American leg of the tour, the band had already played a total of 52 different songs.

“Our goal is to get it up to 100 songs by the end of the tour,” says Mr. Buck, twisting open a Red Stripe beer in the dressing room.

“Whose goal?” says a dubious Mr. Mills.

“Fool’s goal,” comments Peter Holsapple.

The sardonic Mr. Holsapple is the official “fifth Beatle” for this tour, playing guitars and keyboards on songs that require more than four pairs of hands. “I’m the satellite guy,” he says. “All the stuff on their records that can’t be replicated by the four of them, I fill in.”

Mr. Holsapple was with the late, lamented dB’s, a Winston-Salem, N.C., band that opened for R.E.M. during its last tour. The dB’s were one of many underground bands that members of R.E.M. have staunchly championed. True to form, R.E.M. has two up-and-coming Atlanta bands – Indigo Girls and Drivin’n'Cryin – and the English cult figure Robyn Hitchcock opening the concerts on different legs of the U.S. tour.

Their willingness to tour with lesser-known groups seems to bear out Mr. Holsapple’s credo, which is: “If R.E.M. wins, everybody wins… I love seeing R.E.M. succeed,” he says. “No success would be too much for these guys.” Like the managers, roadies and technicians who work in the extended R.E.M. organization, Mr. Holsapple is impressed with the good temper of the band, not to mention their willingness to work hard. “R.E.M.´s karma seems to be great,” he says.

This work ethic, stated in songs such as “Get Up” and “Finest Worksong,” permeates the R.E.M. organization. Manager Jefferson Holt, who is suffering from a 103-degree temperature, flies from his Athens home to Minneapolis and comes to the Met Center in a wheelchair, to meet with the band and discuss the upcoming European tour.

“Is that Jefferson?” an onlooker wonders, as Mr. Holt is rolled through the Met Center corridors. “No that’s F.D.R. [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], going for his fourth term,” Mr. Holsapple quips.

By all accounts, this Minneapolis show is the best of the tour’s first six cities. The ticket-buyers stay on their feet, arms in the air, through old chestnuts (“Wolves, Lower” ), mid-period anthems (“Begin the Begin” ), and the obligatory cover version of Pylon’s “Crazy.” Twin Cities legend Bob Mould, late of Husker Du, joins the band for “See No Evil” and “Crazy,” and is welcomed warmly by his hometown fans. Messrs. Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe, et al, exit grinning.

Afterwards, Messrs. Buck, Berry, Holsapple and Hitchcock rocket over to a downtown club calles First Avenue, where some of “Purple Rain” was filmed. All but the drummer get together in the two-roomed club’s smaller room, playing tunes by the Band, the Byrds and the Beatles. This pick-up unit, dubbed the Worst Case Scenario, also assembled itself after the March 6 Chicago concert, to play a benefit at a club called The Cubby Bear Lounge, presenting what Mr. Buck calls “the history of 1965.”

The evening winds down with a bowling party at Lariat Lanes, where even the elusive Mr. Stipe joins into the middle-brow festivities. Are they happy with their new lives? Can a former thrash band from Athens play arenas and still have a good time? As they knock down pins and scarf pizza into the early hours of the frozen morning, this quartet seems to be quite relaxed indeed. “Let me put it this way,” says R.E.M. attorney Bertis Downs. “I’ve never seen Michael Stipe bowl before.”

Aside from better cheese and cold beer in the dressing room, things haven’t changed much, Mr. Mills says. “A lot of people will tell you that it can’t be done,” he says, bowling a neat strike in a 150 game. “They say that you have to alter your show for that fringe audience that has never heard of you before now, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that you can win over the fringe audience by doing the things that have gotten you as far as they’re gotten you.”

Originally published on 27 March 1989 by Atlanta Journal

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