Interviews: R.E.M. Reborn
by Craig McLean
Their last three albums dismantled their reputation as the world’s greatest band, but REM are returning to full speed with a new record, Accelerate. Craig McLean asks them how they got their mojo back.
R.E.M. have just emerged from a sex shop. Babeland is one of the Lower East Side’s finest emporiums of kinky toys and accessories. Accompanied by a tiny camera crew the band thrashed out a song then swiftly withdrew. They would repeat the performance in a restaurant, two wine bars and a deconsecrated synagogue.
It is a bright, cold morning in late January and all over New York city, singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bass player Mike Mills have been conducting themselves like fleet-footed guerrilla musos (who just happen to be 50-year-old multi-millionaire rockers). Twenty-eight years after forming and 12 years since they last released a wholly satisfying and critically acclaimed record, R.E.M. are back with a bang. A video that shoots from the hip (band rush in and out of commercial establishments, tailed by a lo-fi camera crew) to accompany an album that does the same? “We tried not to overthink this one and tried to make it short and sweet,” Mills says.
Accelerate, R.E.M.’s 14th album, is a brisk 34 minutes and 39 seconds long, almost half the length of its most immediate predecessors. Energetic and politically charged, notably in the Hurricane Katrina-inspired “Houston” (‘if the storm doesn’t kill me the government will’ the Bush-baiting “Man-sized Wreath” (“turn on the TV what do I see?/a pageantry of empty gestures all lined up at me”, and “I’m Gonna DJ” (a response to the 1999 World Trade Organisation riots in Seattle), it is a bold and refreshing change from the band’s last three albums – Up (1998), Reveal (2001) and Around the Sun (2004) – which were disappointingly flat and low key.
With characteristic bluntness, Buck offers his thoughts on where things went wrong for R.E.M. (who, alongside U2, had been one of the world’s biggest rock bands for much of the 1990s). According to Buck, Up was never finished, Reveal was too slick, and the band spent more than six months fiddling with and consequently ruining Around The Sun. The result was that, for the first time in a career that defines the phrase “long and illustrious”, R.E.M. had to weather a storm of negative reviews for an album: “R.E.M. R.I.P.?” ran one headline.
“I think maybe Mike and Michael were a little stunned at how badly that last record was received,” Buck says. “I wasn’t. I gave up on the record before we finished it. I knew it wasn’t a good record.” The damning critical and commercial response (Around the Sun sold only 300,000 copies making it the band’s worst-selling album since they signed to Warner Bros in 1988), Buck says, “bothered me – not in that I care so much for other people’s opinions, just that I shared those opinions. If we’d made this totally insane, incomprehensible record that meant a lot to me and everyone hated it, I’d be like, that’s fine, we needed to do that.”
R.E.M. have been out of sorts since the departure of their founding member and drummer Bill Berry. During the band’s 1995 Monster world tour, Berry suffered a brain aneurysm in Switzerland. He was back behind his drum kit remarkably quickly, but after the release of New Adventures in Hi-Fi in 1996, he left the band. Seemingly fully recovered, Berry now lives a life of rural quietude with his family on his farm outside Athens, the genteel, artsy Southern college town in Georgia, where R.E.M. formed.
Since the band’s first ever rehearsal in January 1980, and their debut show on April 5 that year (in the converted Episcopalian church in Athens in which Stipe and Buck lived), R.E.M. operated as a four-way “socialist democracy”: all songs were credited to Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe, with royalties paid equally, and each member had the power of veto over any creative or business decision. This stability helped the band endure the dramatic shift that occurred after they signed a $10 million record deal with Warner Bros – a breakthrough that came only as a result of almost 10 years’ serious slog on the American and European concert circuit.
At one extreme, Buck recalls playing in pizza joints “where we were changing clothes and there’s a guy slapping dough down next to you”. At the other, in 1983, the year they released their debut album, Murmur, the band supported The Police on a U.S. stadium tour. R.E.M. called it “the most wretched and abysmal experience of our lives”.
“Ha, ha!” Mills laughs. “It was pretty dire. We were opening for the biggest band in the world, we had no hits, very, very few people knew who we were – playing to 90,000 people who didn’t know or care who we were was not easy.”
But slowly things changed, and R.E.M. went from being a revered underground band (dubbed “the American Smiths” to a huge mainstream outfit. Out of Time (1991) sold 12 million copies worldwide and Automatic for the People (1992), 10 million. Automatic for the People featured “Man on the Moon”, the song that inspired Milos Forman’s biopic of the comedian Andy Kaufman by the same name (on which Stipe was a producer; he also helped produced the films Being John Malkovich and Velvet Goldmine). The album’s other massive hit was the classic tearjerker “Everybody Hurts”, a song Stipe wrote in response to hearing about a suicidal 15-year-old girl who was a pupil at the school where his sister Lynda teaches.
The album’s huge sales figures were achieved even though the band opted not to tour to promote the album, and despite Stipe refusing all interview requests – noting his newly shaved head and gaunt physique, some observers took this as evidence that Stipe was ill with HIV.
“Since we knew he wasn’t sick we just laughed at the whole thing,” says Mills, who along with Buck and Berry shouldered all the rapacious media interest in the band at that time.
The band are equally dismissive of any sensationalism surrounding Stipe’s “coming out”. When I asked him three years ago if he felt liberated having discussed his sexuality in a widely reported 2001 interview with Time, Stipe replied impatiently, “I started talking about my sexuality openly to people beyond my family, my band and my friends in 1994; I was on the cover of Out magazine in 1995. I’ve been pretty frank about my sexuality for the better part of 10 years, publicly and privately, since I was a teenager.”
But the band’s grown-up attitude to their fame – no drug or alcohol-induced breakdowns – was almost fatally undermined by the departure of Berry. “We idiotically did not recognise how threatening the dynamic of suddenly being a three-piece was,” Stipe says. And instead of taking time to take stock and (literally) regroup, “we soldiered on. There’s some credit to be given for that, but it was the stupidest, wrongest thing to do.”
Berry had a smart pop sensibility. It was he who came up with the melody for “Everybody Hurts”, one of the defining ballads of the 1990s. I ask Mills – who still sees Berry when he is back in Athens – if it has taken R.E.M. three (bad) albums and now, finally, one good one, to fully process his absence and come up with a fresh approach.
“That’s true. Until it happens, and even as it is happening, you don’t really know what the effect of it will be. You basically have to create a new language. So we’ve spent a lot of time trying to do that.”
Stipe, while generally in agreement, is bored with talking about it. “You know, it’s really uninteresting. If we can just say, it’s behind us, it’s done, it was our fault, we’re the only ones who can really take the blame for it. Let’s move on. Talk about bigger and better things.” As he says this, Stipe focuses on a crude photocopy of Accelerate’s artwork on the sofa beside him. In addition to being a keen photographer Stipe also oversees the band’s videos and artwork and he co-created the album cover image, a collage of actual buildings representing the “invented cityscape of a future city”.
I meet the three members of R.E.M. separately in a hotel room in TriBeCa, within walking distance of Stipe’s New York apartment; he may share it with his longstanding boyfriend (or he may not, and he may not even be with the same partner; Stipe is very private about his personal life). In New York, Stipe, who also has a home in Georgia, hangs out with photography, fashion and film types. He is on close terms with Courtney Love – he was a confidant and role-model to her husband Kurt Cobain (they were planning a musical collaboration before Cobain’s suicide in 1994) – and with Thom Yorke – R.E.M. asked Radiohead to support them on their 1995 American tour, and Yorke credits the sagacious Stipe with helping him cope with the sudden onrush of fame that hit the British band in the mid-1990s.
Mills divides his time between Athens and Los Angeles (“Am I in a relationship? It’s very complex!” he laughs. “Let’s leave that one off. I don’t have a good answer for you.” Buck lives in Seattle – he moved there around the time of his second marriage to Stephanie Dorgan and they have twin 13-year-old daughters.
I ask Stipe if this time round, he wanted to make a leaner, faster, louder album. “I wanted to simplify everything with the three of us,” he says. The lyricist (and occasional poet – he contributed to a 2004 book of haiku) is small, skinny, almost bird-like, and is dressed like a quietly cool version of a freightcar-hopping hobo. He speaks slowly and falteringly; he fiddles with his reading glasses and looks out of the window. “It’s very obvious but we all do come from, and are wildly inspired by punk rock. There are very obvious tips of the hat to that on this record, if only in the length of the songs and the length of the album. You get an idea across and you move on.”
The new album is produced by Garret “Jacknife” Lee, best known for working with the young indie bands Bloc Party and Editors. He says that Buck was definitely gung-ho about making a raucous record, but that Stipe too was on-message: he wanted the songs to be even shorter than their average running time of three minutes. “He was into a more extreme idea – 30-second songs,” Lee says. “And we were really brutal with the songs: anything we didn’t immediately all like, we chopped out.”
Buck tells me that the “operative phrase” that Lee used when discussing the new album was “thrilling”, not least because “there wasn’t a lot of thrills on the last one.” The guitarist is a big, bluff man routinely described as “ursine”. He is the most “muso” member of R.E.M.: an encyclopaedically knowledgeable obsessive who gave his daughters iPods pre-filled with 30,000 songs for Christmas, and an inveterate performer who moonlights with a variety of other acts, including the cult English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.
The answer, then, to R.E.M.’s creative issues was to commission a young producer from a different (sonic) world, and to work in short, sharp bursts. And to start talking properly to each other again. All three members admit that communication has been a big issue for some time. “We each had fun on the last couple of records, we just didn’t have fun with each other,” Stipe says flatly.
Stipe is never the most comfortable of interviewees or public speakers, but today he is more than that. Distracted, edgy, tired, down. At one point, with a frown of impatience he reaches over to the coffee pot sitting between us. “I hate these things, they make this terrible noise.” He unscrews the lid and what was a barely perceptible hiss disappears.
At the age of 14 when he and his family were living in Illinois, Stipe nearly died of exposure while on a trip with the scouts. He has said before that he retreated into himself after the incident, and tells me that he did not want to go outside for two years. “I was afraid of nature. I’m serious. That’s my adult memory of that period. I didn’t want to go outside for a couple of years. I didn’t trust nature. Too chaotic.”
The following year, he discovered the poet, singer and punk musician Patti Smith: a totemic figure in Stipe’s life, and to whom he is very close (in 1998 they collaborated on a book of photographs, and she sang on New Adventures in Hi-Fi). Was it this period – of introversion and artistic discovery – that started him thinking about being a songwriter?
“No, at 14, hah, that’s a little young,” he laughs mirthlessly. “I think it would be a real stretch to try and put those two incidents into one paragraph and make it make any sense at all.”
Stipe, like the other future members of R.E.M., moved to Athens to attend college; he became an art student at the University of Georgia. Buck first encountered him when he was working in the Wuxtry record store and Stipe was a regular customer. “Michael was kinda quiet but pretty intense,” Buck remembers. “He had a weird sense of fashion, which I thought was kinda cool. Back then you could look in a magazine and go, ‘OK, if I’m a hipster this is how I dress.’ You came up with your own thing – which was basically thrift store and stuff from the Chinese wig shop. So I thought, ‘This guy’s got something going.’ He told me he was a singer and was putting together a band. I was like, ‘Assuming this guy can sing at all I’m right there.’ And we started playing together and he really had a great voice.”
Stipe had an itinerant childhood – his father was a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam. He was born in Georgia but he, his two sisters and parents moved around the United States and, when he was eight, lived in Germany on a base near Frankfurt. While on tour with R.E.M. a couple of years ago, Stipe returned to the base for a visit. Realising who he was, the sentry let Stipe inside for a look. “It was basically exactly as I’d left it aged eight. It was kind of amazing.”
I tell him the New York DJ Armand Van Helden was also an army brat who spent some of his childhood on bases in Germany. For him America was a near-mythical place he called “The World”. How was Stipe’s relationship with his homeland?
“I was eight. How much do you think about where you are at that age? For me, particularly being in a military family – your world is your family. It brings everyone much closer together because it’s kind of all that you’ve got, when you’re moving around that much.”
Stipe was eight in 1968. Was his father in Vietnam then?
That was one of the deadliest years of the Vietnam War, beginning as it did with the Tet Offensive…
“Oh no, he wasn’t in Vietnam while we were in Germany, he went before that and he went after that.”
What does he remember of his father being away?
“He was gone.” Pause. “I don’t really like talking about it.”
When Stipe was writing “Orange Crush” (a song from the 1989 album Green about the defoliant Agent Orange, airdropped by the US on to Vietnamese jungle), did he draw on his father’s experiences there?
Stipe looks at me unblinkingly and says, “I really don’t like talking about it. I talk about it with him, and with my family, and that’s as far as it needs to go. He didn’t sign up for fame and fortune. Sorry.”
He would rather talk about what Accelerate represents, and the fact that the sound and speed of the new songs “has to do with something much bigger, which happens to tie in with the album title. It’s about ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] and people’s attention span and it’s millennial. We’re eight years into the 21st century and what does that mean? It’s just flying by. So who has time for an extra two verses or three choruses?”
It’s an angry record, Buck says. “I don’t know if it’s anger at looking around the world. There’s a lot of frustration on all sides. I catch a couple of references to what happened to who we used to be, who this band was and [how] we’re not respected any more.”
Stipe has never been happy to detail the specifics of R.E.M.’s lyric, but he says that “Man-sized Wreath” was “super-inspired” by events surrounding Martin Luther King Day in Atlanta a couple of years ago. “The President showed up, stood with [Dr King's widow] Coretta Scott King, and protesters were held back. He gave a speech. We [the public] paid for the trip because he flew there on Air Force One, but he was also doing a charitable event for the Republican Party the same day, so they made a couple of million bucks. He gave this speech next to Coretta, who didn’t want to stand there with him, but agreed to do so if she could make some kind of anti-war statement.”
“I’m not sure exactly how it went down,” he continues, “but there were so many protesters in Atlanta that they used buses to keep them away from him. I was so insulted by that. So that’s the genesis of that song.”
In 1988 Stipe paid for print advertisements that said: “Stipe Says – Don’t Get Bushwacked – Get Out And Vote Smart – Dukakis”. In 2004 alongside Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. played on the Vote for Change tour in support of John Kerry’s presidential campaign. But they say they won’t do anything so specific this year.
“For one thing George Bush can’t get re-elected,” Mills, who at the time of our interview, was backing John Edwards, says. “I cannot imagine there being a president as bad as him even available to the people by the time the election comes around. And also [Vote for Change concerts] are not the sort of thing you can do every four years, they won’t have any impact.”
Stipe says his “act” right now amounts to “not publicly endorsing one candidate over the other. I’m just observing. Not as a reaction to the Vote for Change tour, but really because it’s kinda fun to watch. It’s interesting to note how things are shifting out there.”
Does he feel optimistic about the way the election will go?
“No. I think we could easily wind up with a Republican president and administration. I find that absolutely terrifying. We made this record that speaks of and questions where we are in 2008. Historians are going to look back on this and say, well, the first decade of the 21st century was about the U.S. government’s reaction to 9/11. Its over-reaction. And I’m afraid there’s not a whole lot more. Is there? Or am I wrong in my outlook?”
I ask him if he is depressed by the times.
“No. This has been a really bad week, I’ll say that, for personal reasons. But overall, I feel quite balanced about it all.”
I did not pick up on the significance of his comment until a few days later when I heard that during the photoshoot Stipe had written on the back of a Polaroid: “This week has been unfathomably sad and I worked hard today to rally and that’s it”. Stipe is a serious cineaste and good friends with Todd Haynes, who directed Velvet Goldmine and the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, so he might also have been friends with the actor Heath Ledger, who starred in the Dylan film and who died barely three days before I met Stipe.
If this was the case, Stipe’s tetchy behaviour seemed more understandable. Not least because he has been here before: he was good friends with River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain, troubled and brilliant young artists who died in equally terrible circumstances (the album Monster was dedicated to them).
Back in London, R.E.M.’s PR confirmed that Stipe and Ledger were friends – their closeness underscored by a photograph of the singer and the actor sitting together at the Marc Jacobs fashion show during New York Fashion Week last September. I requested a follow-up interview with Stipe, but after considering this for a couple of days, he declined.
On my tape of our interview, during one of his many pauses, I had started to ask him about his pre-R.E.M. band, a punk combo called Bad Habits. He wanted to know why we were talking about it. I replied that I was interested to know how he had got here, and how he still had the enthusiasm to make a record as thrilling as Accelerate.
“Well, I really love my job,” he replied. “And it brings me great release, I guess, and great challenges to be able to write songs. I found a medium, one I liked, and I stuck with it, against some odds, hah!” – here he gave a dry laugh – “and I found some people that I could do that with. Through thick and thin, good times and bad times. Even the low, darker moments are actually not that bad. And we’ve never sunk to do things that we didn’t want to do. And we’ve never ever actually sucked or become mediocre or irrelevant. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
Originally published on 8 March 2008 by Telegraph