Interviews: R.E.M. Hits It Big With Murmur
You wouldn’t know it from all the year-end critics’ polls or the way reviewers trip over all their glowing superlatives and twenty-dollar metaphors. But there are still quite a few people who don’t like R.E.M. Like the audience in Fullerton, California that sat on its hands for entire set and then ganged up on guitarist Peter Buck after the show and asked, “What do you think you’re doing? What is this shit?” Or the angry mob of macho drunks at a bar in Albuquerque, New Mexico that got so hot and bothered about the evening’s main event, a women’s hot legs contest, that R.E.M. – the opening act – was paid five hundred dollars not to play.
But those are bedtime stories compared to the epic battle R.E.M. fought against an entire squadron of terminally pickled enlisted men one night at an Air Force base in Wichita Falls, Texas.
“It was the first time they’d ever had a band that either didn’t play all covers or wasn’t superfamous,” Buck recalls. “And they pelted us onstage. There were oranges flying out of the audience, death threats, notes that came up onstage saying ‘Faggot, you die, we’re gonna get you backstage.’
“But the military police there wouldn’t let them physically assault us. There were maybe three or four guys who liked the band. But everybody else hated us so much they started beating up the guys who were enjoying it. They kept on yelling, ‘Rock‘n’roll, rock‘n’roll” So we started playing all covers- ‘I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone,’ ‘Secret Agent Man,’ ‘Route 66,’ ‘Pills’ by the New York Dolls. Finally I grabbed some guy up front and said, ’What the fuck do you mean by rock ‘n’ roll?’ And he says, ‘Def Leppard‘.”
“The thing about that show,” complains singer Michael Stipe, “is that these guys would not get really violent, because they’d be arrested by the MPs. But they had this mock violence and mock threatening and that was more trustrating to me than just having them come up and smash our heads in. That’s what drove Peter and I to kiss and rub butts together in the middle ot ‘Radio Free Europe‘.”
“Yeah,” laughs Buck, “Michael and I were rolling around on the floor, doing the bump onstage, kissing one another. It was like throwing meat to the lions. Finally Bill (Berry, the drummer) threw his sticks into the crowd and walked out. I got Sara from Let’s Active who was with us to play drums and finish the set. And at the end, they booed so loud we came back and did an encore.”
There are, according to Buck, two morals to this story. One is that “when I’m fifty years old, these will be interesting experiences to tell my grandchildren.” The other is that for all the greatness thrust on them by panting critics and hometown hipsters, R.E.M. always suspected that being Athens, Georgia’s Great White Hope would never be enough. Any blood, sweat and tears spilled in New Mexico bars or on Texas military bases was really an investment in the future.
“We knew it was easy to be local heroes” Buck admits. “It’s easy for your hometown to think you’re the greatest thing in the world. And we didn’t want to be like that. We wanted to make it all over or not at all.”
Whether R.E.M. has actually “made it” depends on who you ask. A recent review of the band’s current Reckoning album in Britain’s usually acidic New Musical Express is typical of the love letters fattening up R.E.M.’s press file back at I.R.S. Records – “One of the most beautifully exciting groups on the planet”; “When I get to heaven, the angels will be playing not harps but Rickenbackers. And they will be playing songs by REM.”
Most critics have already found that heaven on earth. In the 1981 Village Voice Pazz and Jop writers poll, R.E.M.’s humble indie debut “Radio Free Europe/Sitting Still” was voted single of the year. The following year, their I.R.S. launch Chronic Town copped the top EP spot. And in the 1983 voting, the Murmur album came dramatically close to unseating Michael Jackson’s Thriller as album of the year, probably the most competition he’s had all year. Record sales – nearly 44,000 for Chronic Town and a very encouraging 170,000 for Murmur – have gradually borne out the typing pool’s faith in the band, bolstered as well by blanket airplay on college radio and an exhausting tour schedule.
Those numbers don’t impress Peter Buck much. Shrugging his shoulders in mild disgust, he claims record sales are “completely extraneous” to any measure of R.E.M.’s greatness. And he doesn’t think the band is that great anyway. Like, compared to what?
“Oh,” he muses for a second, fidgeting in his chair in the interview chamber of his label’s high-rise headquarters, “compared to bands that I really love like the Replacements and Husker Du, the great albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Astral Weeks.
“That’s the greatness we aspire to. To be the best songwriters alive at the time we’re going, to be a tremendous live band where people go to see them and everybody walks out with their chins hanging down on their chests. To be a band that makes tremendous records that change from album to album, that presents new facets of themselves without losing touch with what originally motivated them. That’s greatness.”
They’re already good for one out of three. As a live band. R.E.M. is currently one of American rock’s best nights out, a crucial antidote to the disco stupor of identikit white funk imports and the condescending separatism of post-punk intellectuals. The magic is in their contagious abandon, a liberating ya-hoo glow radiating from Michael Stipe’s dervish twirls at the mike – dirty-blond curls bouncing around his crown like frenzied atoms – and the maniac Who-ish ballet of Buck and elfin bassist Mike Mills. It is also evident in their daredevil choice of covers, which over the years have included Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner,” a Gang of Four jam-up of Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under A Groove” and even Bloodrock’s gruesome 70s classic “D.O.A.”
That magic would be nothing without the motion. People don’t walk out of R.E.M. shows talking about how tight they were. But like a rubber band stretched to its dangerous limits, R.E.M. moves with a vigorous elastic tension that can suddenly go from the casual bounce of Murmur’s “Catapult” to the locomotive lunge of “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars)” from Chronic Town. In one song, “Wolves, Lower,” there is an improvised midsection in which everybody plays the first thing that pops into their heads for sixteen beats. And no matter how atonal Buck’s guitar gets or how randomly Mills cuts up the bass pulse, every night the band swings back onto beat seventeen with smug precision, as if it were the most likely thing in the world.
Buck admits with a laugh that R.E.M.’s sense at fun and adventure- falling down onstage. colliding into each other like a demolition derby, fearlessly taking requests- made them a pet joke among Athens musicians in the early days. “But we never actually tightened up. We just learned how to play with one another, to complement each other. All the things you’re not supposed to do – speed up tempos, slow down – we do together intuitively. We can improvise intuitively and make it sound like a song.”
Which is remarkable when you consider that Buck. for example, did not seriously pick up the guitar until just before R.E.M. was formed in the spring of 1980. His style – a haphazard cocktail of Pete Townshend thwack, arpeggiated bluegrass picking and neo-raga droning – is actually a response to Stipe’s ethereal bleating and the aggressive talking bass of Mills. Add to that the telepathic rhythm lock of Mills and drummer Bill Berry, a partnership that dates back to high school dance bands in Macon, Georgia.
“If we’re playing a song,” Mills says, “I can tell when Bill’s going to end it or change it. If there is the rare mistake he or I will make – well, maybe not that rare – I can feel when, say, he’s going to end the song one measure too soon.
The result, in terms of pure sound. is like several musical conversations going on at once, an otherworldly hubbub in which Stipe and Mills will sing different halves of a lyric in a dizzying overlap that sounds like a transatlantic phone echo (“Harborcoat” on Reckoning) or Stipe tugs at Buck’s reckless guitar surge by intoning his prayerlike vocal as if in a sleepwalk trance (“Stumble” from Chronic Town). It is a rich, full sound, sucker bait for anyone who loved the acid-folk jangle of the Byrds or the aggressive clatter of the later Velvet Underground. But not without its problems. Mike Mills says the group’s co-producer Mitch Easter originally had a lot of trouble figuring out how to get that sound on tape without hamstringing their rebel streak.
“The thing he found frustrating,” he says with an impish grin, “was that there’s not a lot of songs we have when everybody isn’t playing at the same time. We’re usually all going at the same time and no one ever stops for very long.”
It is for exactly that reason most critics only talk about R.E.M. in terms of pure sound. A calmly inscrutable album that still defies easy armchair analysis, Murmur dared you in a gentle, almost sexual way to penetrate the limpid swirl of its lyric mystery, epitomized by the melted quality of Stipe’s vocals and Buck’s silky curtains of layered electric and acoustic guitars. Buck admits it was designed to “short-circuit everything that is accepted as rock‘n’roll but that was so strong emotionally that it was real rock‘n’roll.” The album’s draping gossamer texture and liquid segues – the spooky urgent kick of “Radio Free Europe” into “Pilgrimage” with its calmer trot and churchy echo, the easy-going hee-haw intimacy of “We Walk” suddenly breaking into the record’s last desperate gallop, “West Of The Fields” – meant you couldn’t yank it apart and rationalize its exotic appeal.
Reckoning, cut in almost half the time (eleven days compared to Murmur’s sixteen), is a friendlier, more inviting record that bares R.E.M.’s uncommon soul. In “Harborcoat,” Buck’s guitar resonates with a bright pop flush while Stipe’s and Mills’ overlapping vocals spread out with the guitar in a welcoming arc. The poignant lift of the “I’m Sorry” chorus in the gorgeous “So. Central Rain” actually heightens the song’s gray melancholy. In fact, a better album title might have been Beckoning because the simpler, more open production is a clarification not only of R.E.M.’s deceptively rich sound but also of their purpose.
For the self-effacing tone of R.E.M. music – that what you hear is what you get, not some holographic image of Peter Buck as guitar hero or Michael Stipe as the tortured Southern poet – has in one sense blunted the group’s thrust. Because of the nasal mantra sound of Stipe’s voice, the very personal, narrative structure of his lyrics are often mistaken for hippie dreamspeak.
“But I approach my lyrics from the third person instead of the first person, which gives it a slight detachment. It’s kind of a protection- I would no more care to cut my gut open and display it to the 200,000 people who are going to buy the record. The songs are personal – ‘Camera,’ ‘Letter Never Sent’ from the new album – but it’s just easier to write from that perspective, to see A, B or C on that page instead of ‘you’ or ‘you and I.’ Plus I was reading this book the other day from 1938 called Fashion Is Spinach. I went down a page in the middle of a chapter and underlined every ‘I’ and ‘me’ on the page. There were fifty-five of them. It just seemed too much, too open.”
For Buck, writing songs isn’t the catharsis but the playing of them is. He recalls the first time the band played “So. Central Rain” with Michael singing – We didn’t have a PA and Michael was just singing to himself. I was almost moved to tears,” Buck also finds it strange that critics and fans are so fixated on Stipe’s lyrics, although he understands it is probably because they can’t understand half of them,
“People don’t have to know the story or the genesis of the song to get what it means to us. For example, the most moving moment I’ve had in the last couple of years was at the end of one of our tours. I hadn’t slept in days, I was tired as I could possibly be and we were doing a concert that night for a live radio show, And I was standing in the City Gardens in Trenton, New Jersey at the back door and it was just getting dark. These kids were playing touch football, the last game before dark came, and for some reason I was so moved I cried for twenty minutes.
“It sounds so trivial. But that’s more or less what ‘Perfect Circle’ on Murmur is about. I told Michael to try and capture that feeling, There’s no football in there, no kids, no twilight. But it’s all there.”
The problem Stipe originally had with singing his third-person narratives was that the band started out playing everything, as he puts it, “at Circle Jerks speed. In the first year we were together, they played everything that fast. And for various reasons, I like slow songs. So in order to slow down the songs, I sang in a slower fashion on the really fast songs. Most of the earlier songs, to sing them with the beat would have been near-impossible. ‘Gardening At Night’ was one of the first songs where that worked.”
Another one of Stipe’s favorite tricks is to write the exact opposite of what the band might be playing. Stipe usually meets the rest of the band in Mike Mills’ bedroom where they hammer out songs together. “And if I’ve had a great day and they’re playing a real slow dirge-y song, I’ll change it around a little and put some really nice words to it.”
Buck’s guitar work also has a few strange twists. What might sound at first like modal banging is really just variations on the usual C-F-G chord progression. But he favors homemade tunings like the mutant raga-bluegrass sound he gets on the short improvised fragment at the end of Reckoning- D-A-F#-D-G-D in descending order – “just something,” he says, “that I made up.”
“But part of the thing about liking us is that we’re not a really obvious band in a lot of ways,” he insists. “You have to think a bit, to throw away your preconceptions about what rock‘n’roll can be. Like we often play a lot of new material when we do a show. We played in Athens a couple of days ago and I figured we played six songs from Murmur, three from the EP and the other seventeen were new songs, covers or unreleased stuff. I like the fact that we can get away with that.”
The one thing Buck can’t understand is how some people came to the conclusion that R.E.M. is a band of born-again Christians. “We get that a lot. I guess it’s something where anybody who dares to be positive is either a Christian or on drugs.
“But there aren’t that many misconceptions about us basically because there are no conceptions. Just confusion.”
The R.E.M. story officially begins in April, 1980, Athens already had its own 40 Watt Club, so named because it had ony one light bulb, and a growing list of bands formed in the wake of the B-52’s’ success. It was there that Peter Buck, juggling a day job managing a used record store and night classes at the University of Georgia, and fellow undergrad Michael Stipe ran into Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Over a few beers, they decided to try playing together and made a date to meet back at the old dilapidated Episcopal church where Buck and Stipe had set up housekeeping.
As Buck explains, “We all got together, had a few more beers, played five songs and thought, yeah, this is okay. We rehearsed a bit and a few weeks later we were out playing.”
But for Buck, the urge to form a band like R.E.M., to play music instead of just records, dates back a few years to San Luis Obispo, California where Buck was washing dishes in a restaurant and sharing a house with four old hippies whose idea of a good time was “listening to 133 different versions of the Grateful Dead doing ‘Turn On Your Lovelight.”‘ It was almost out of perversity that when he heard about the Sex Pistols, he ordered a copy of “Anarchy In The U.K.” from a local record store.
“And talk about reactionary old hippiesl I put the Sex Pistols on the stereo at home and everybody came down and just went, ‘Aaarrghl’ These guys thought Kiss was punk rock. I used to play that record all the time just to offend them.
“When I first heard the Velvets, my fantasy was, ‘Oh, boy, I’d like to do that.’ But I acknowledged it was a fantasy. It didn’t seem like something you could really do. The Sex Pistols and the punk thing changed that.”
Punk had the same critical effect on Mike Mills, Born in California, the son of a Georgia military career man, he had a year of piano and marching band experience on tuba and sousaphone before doing the rock combo rounds in Macon with Bill Berry. The enormous shadow cast by the local Capricorn Records operation and its Dixie boogie talent roster meant that Mills could only play top 40 covers or boozy R&B party numbers to survive. After a few years of toeing the Allman Skynyrd party line, he and Berry just packed it in, selling off their equipment.
Mills was out of music entirely for two years until he met Ian Copeland, currently head of Frontier Booking International but then a newly hired talent agent at the local Paragon Agency. “Bill and I got to be friends with him,” Mills explains. “We’d go over to his house and he’d start playing us the Damned, Chelsea, the Ramones, the Dead Boys, the Sex Pistols and I would put on the headphones and play his bass along with the records, going, ‘Wow, this is fun.’ That got me interested again. So I bought all my gear back.”
Mills repurchased it from… Ian Copeland, who had bought it in the first place. (“I bought it back for less than I sold it,” he laughs.)
But in what sense is R.E.M. punk? Their dress is best described as thrift-store weird; Buck claims he never saw a leather jacket in Athens until a few months ago. The band looks like college students gone to seed, hobo’s Sunday best. Musically, R.E.M. soars where most buzzsaw bands just growl and kick up dirt. Yet the way R.E.M. has conducted its business since day one is D.I.Y. in the extreme. You might also describe it as dangerously casual. The first time they played up north they didn’t even bother to go as far as New York City.
When they did finally bother to go to New York, they prepped the press and club owners there with demo tapes – sort of.
“We barraged New York with tapes,” Buck says. Then we purposely made it as hard as possible for them to understand it,” They edited the tape so that “Sitting Still” was prefaced by a thirty-second polka version; there was no return address on the tape; Stipe made Xerox baseball cards with the band members’ faces on them; and when they wrapped it all up, they wrote in big Magic Marker letters, “Careful, Do Not Open.” “There was a certain sense of humor about it,” Buck admits with gross understatement.
Then the impossible happened. The new wave bloodhounds at the old New York Rocker got interested and Gary Sperrazza gave the tape a rave review in his “Crib Death” demo tape column. That review inspired four record companies to send letters to the band asking for tapes.
“I remember we were sitting in the van unloading for a gig we were playing in town,” Buck explains. “We opened these letters that said, ‘Please send a tape,’ and we went, ‘Oh, yeah, right,’ tore them up and threw ‘em out the window. We figured, ‘What the hell, who’s gonna sign us?‘”
If R.E.M. was so convinced of its mediocrity and unsaleability, though, they wouldn’t tour eight months out of every year. They would use those twenty-four-karat rock critic quotes as a crutch, plastering them all over record company ads instead of insisting on the simple copy line, “There’s a Murmur in the air. Out April 15,” They have turned down high-profile opening act slots on U2 and B-52’s tours to stay close to their audience in some pretty questionable venues – like the Drumstick in Lincoln, Nebraska which, much to the band’s chagrin, was actually a fried-chicken restaurant. In the interests of other new American music, R.E.M. also has a standing policy of putting top local underground bands on their club bills, some of which, like Jason & the Scorchers and Minnesota’s Replacements, have given them a damn good run for their money.
Mike Mills describes R.E.M.’s work ethic as “not so much what we want to do as what we know we don’t want to do.” It’s worked too, this kamikaze game plan of theirs, because it is based not on executive decisions and Madison Avenue math, but on their own infectious vigor and the belief they have in the capacity for loyalty in a single fan, something they are not afraid to earn. That kind of vigor and independent nerve would be applauded in any music, any time. But instead of languishing in hip Athens obscurity, R.E.M. has capitalized on the emancipating influence of punk and served as a timely reminder that the real business of making music is still a matter of attitude. It makes you wonder, however, if R.E.M. would have ever stood a chance of crossing the Georgia state line, in say, 1972.
“I’d like to think so,” says Michael Stipe, smarting a little from the implication otherwise. “I wouldn’t want to think we couldn’t have done it in 1972,” backpedals Mike Mills, “aIthough…”
“Sure,” he then retorts, “I got back into music because of the Damned and the Pistols. But if I’d heard Big Star in 1972 or ‘74, I would have felt the same way. They were a tremendous band that had a lot in common with us.
“You talk about Alex Chilton and Big Star. Alex Chilton didn’t tour. He didn’t do interviews. He put these records out and then waited for the storm to rise. If we hadn’t gone out and toured and done interviews, nobody would have bought the records. They would have gone to the critics for free and been bought by the maybe ten thousand people we know.”
Yet like Big Star, R.E.M. runs a great risk of being mythologized out of all proportion – not by high-brainfat rock videos or, in the case of Big Star, self-destructive tendencies, but by overzealous rock critics who sometimes sound like they’re beating a pulpit instead of a typewriter in those Murmur and Reckoning reviews. For Buck, the best way to fight that is to ignore it.
“If there is anything good about us, it’s that we don’t feel any need to mythologize ourselves. I’m not going to talk to every single person who bought our albums just to show them I’m a normal guy. But you do try to live your life, to have the business conducted so you’re not creating an image for yourself other than what you are.
“We’ve proved that you don’t have to be interesting to be an okay rock band,” suggests Stipe. Of course, given the present competition, R.E.M. is, at the very least, interesting. What Stipe probably means is that they have proved you don’t have to be larger than life to inspire an epic reaction in your audience, from a chorus of press hosannas to fruit and vegetable missiles launched by irate Air Force pilots. R.E.M. knows the media love affair has to end sometime, that the almost religious testifying of true fans on their behalf means that they will be playing for new audiences this year armed with impossible expectations. But if those crowds are going to hate them, Stipe for one wants them to hate him as hard as they can, to return his energy in kind.
“Think how exciting it will be two months from now when we’re playing Cow’s Ass, Illinois and some kid’s gonna come to see us expecting some really great band. And he’s going to hate us, think we’re the worst crap ever. And that’s going to incense him so much that he’s going to run home and put his own band together. And it will be incredible, the new Velvet Underground or something. That’s exciting.”
It has to be. That kid’s got a tough act to follow.
Rapid Ear Movement
R.E.M. is so blase about the tools of their trade that they almost make you embarrassed to ask for details.
Peter Buck has only two main guitars, a Rickenbacker 330 and 301 both dated 1981, that he puts through a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier with two JBL speakers. He also uses a 12-string ‘81 Rickenbacker in the studio and has a 1981 Gretsch Chef Atkins Tennessean at his disposal. Besides the Twin Reverb, Buck has a Marshall amp that he sometimes borrows from his producer Mitch Easter to make a more heavy metal racket. As for effects, he has only one – an lbanez VE400 pedal that he uses live though he isn’t too sure what it actually does.
Mike Mills’ bass setup is no World’s Fair exhibit either – a Fender Dual Showman amp with two EV 154 bass cabinets. He alternates between two black Rickenbacker 4001 basses of undetermined vintage.
Bill Berry’s current live drum kit is a standard Rogers arrangement with Zildjian cymbals, although he used a Sonor kit in the studio for Reckoning basically because it just happened to be there.
And we can assume that singer Michael Stipe uses a Shure SMiQA microphone because it is the only mike listed on the band’s insurance inventory.
Originally published on 12 July 1984 by Musician Magazine
Source: R.E.M. Central