Interviews: R.E.M.’s Zen Guitar Automatic Overdrive

By Vic Garbarini

“I’m riding down the Atlanta Highway…”
- The B-52’s

Actually, it’s called Georgia Rte. 29, and it sure ain’t the Interstate. It’s more like a tangled thread weaving its maze-like way from the modern steel and glass towers of Atlanta over a hundred miles to bucolic Athens. It’s full of hairpin turns, unmarked forks, and other unexpected twists. Outside, under the diaphanous light shed by a spectral Georgia moon, the landscape appears ethereal yet incredibly vivid and alive – full of banks of pine and moss and the inevitable mounds of kudzu. That’s right, it’s a lot like an R.E.M. album, and their latest, Automatic For The People, is no exception. In fact, it’s the distilled essence of R.E.M., subtle, yet emotionally and musically their most powerful and evocative work ever.

They may not be touring (again) behind Automatic, but nobody said they wouldn’t play. That’s why I’m racing through the inky-black Georgia night to get to Athens’ legendary 40 Watt club, where bands like Pylon, The B-52’s and of course R.E.M. were nurtured throughout the ‘80s, long before anyone heard of the Seattle crew. Not only have R.E.M. been the patriarchs of alternative music over the last decade – more importantly, they’ve become living proof of the rock ideal: They’ve remained true to themselves and kept growing while selling millions. They write and play as one organism, egos truly left by the door. They are the most unassuming, unpretentious band in rock today. (And with none of that nauseating look-how-unpretentious-we-are vibe we all know and hate.) Two years ago they released Out Of Time, their most daring and unconventional album yet, nixed touring, and tossed out a moving yet uncommercial mandolin and acoustic guitar driven single “Losing My Religion” in the year of Paula Abdul and rap. Career suicide? Not quite. The album went to #1 worldwide, and the single swept the Grammys, six MTV awards, and conquered radio. With all the cynicism and nay saying in the music business, these guys proved that quality still counts, paving the way for the new alternative guitar bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Black Crowes. Their enigmatic lead singer Michael Stipe is arguably our best lyricist since Dylan. His vivid, semi-stream of consciousness lyrics are like messages from our collective subconscious, often sidestepping the intellect but understood by the heart – or some place even deeper. “Drive”, their haunting new single, is, like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” both a celebration and a warning about the power of rock, politics, and whatever you think it is. “Man On The Moon” may be the most chillingly beautiful yet endearing song they’ve ever done (and easily their best chorus and Buck’s finest guitar work). It’s the first song that truly made me laugh and cry at the same time (it’s the same release), with the elliptical look at blending two seeming opposites, mortality and humor. But I’m almost “out of time” as I screech into town and rush into the 40 Watt club to catch R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck play with his old friend Kevn Kinney of Drivin’ and Cryin’. Have I missed their set? The stage is empty, the crowd milling around. I walk into the club’s tiny record shop and literally bump into a long-haired, goateed bohemian scrutinizing a Helmet LP. Peter? “Hi, man. I thought you were coming tomorrow,” he beams. “Stick around, we’re just about to go on. I’ve got my mandolin, bouzouki, dulcimer – they may even let me play some guitar,” he laughs. “I’ll talk to you after the set.”

On stage, Buck lives up to his reputation as a Zen guitarist who plays only the right notes at the right time. Whether on dulcimer or Telecaster, Buck supports Kinney’s folkish tunes, squeezing off some pungent Scotty Moore licks in their Elvis medley, and wailing away on their crowd pleasing encore, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World.” The next day we meet at R.E.M. headquarters and walk around town. Athens seems a cross between Gone With The Wind southern gentility and New York’s East Village hipness. We stroll into a cafe where you could easily imagine Andy Griffith and Andy Warhol discussing catfish as performance art. We’re joined by bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills. Blond and bespectacled, Mills really does look like the artsy nephew of M.A.S.H.’s Father Mulcahy. I kid Buck how “Ignoreland,” Automatic’s thundering rocker, sounds like Young’s “The Loner/Cinnamon Girl” turned inside out. “Sure, I learned that dropped D tuning from listening to Neil,” he admits. “You can’t escape sounding a bit like him when you tune down and start sliding around Ds and Cs and Gs. Hell, sometimes I’ll tune to something bizarre like all Ds with an A in there to jump-start my creativity.”

Does writing on the mandolin serve the same purpose, a kind of alternative tuning strategy? “Yeah, because the mandolin is tuned like an upside down bass, so you have all these fifths bunched together and I wind up writing in keys I tend to avoid on guitar, like F. Sometimes,” he adds, “I’ll just play in front of the TV, try to bypass my intellect, do the same song over and over till suddenly the right bridge pops up.” Since Michael Stipe isn’t doing interviews this time around, we started with a Stipe quote that might shed light on the genesis of the new album.

Vic Garbarini: Michael, your vocalist, has said concerning R.E.M., “The constants remain the same, only the strategy changes.” What’s the strategy behind Automatic?
Peter Buck: It shifts. Things never come out exactly as we planned. On the new record the plan was to do it really fast in the studio with extra musicians all playing live. Instead, it turned into the most spare record we ever made, strings aside. And like last time, the first single sounds like nothing else on the radio, and that was intentional. Chris Isaak said something really funny. Seems the guy from his record company said they needed more “upbeat, danceable songs about teenage love.” And he goes, “hey, pal – fresh out of those!” [laughs]

Garbarini: The R.E.M. ethos seems to be, center all the energy on the song, rather than letting it splay out through everybody’s egos.
Mike Mills: Right, that energy goes into the songs. I think what we do best is to write a really good song with only three or four chords that isn’t boring. You hopefully reach a point in your songwriting where you write just what’s necessary for the song – no more or less. You don’t pick up the guitar and set out to write a simple song, but a “simple” song comes out, and it’s complete. Like “Drive” or “Everybody Hurts” on the new record are very basic. Yet we have enough of an identity as a band and as musicians to bring things to these songs to make them distinctly our own. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been together so long, as you said: Nobody has that kind of an ego problem about the process of making music. Engineers and producers are just amazed that we say, “Well, I want you to turn my part down.” They are stunned! “You heard me. Turn the bass DOWN!” Apparently, nobody else does that.

Garbarini: I can guarantee you that. Is part of that process transposing or playing each other’s instruments at times?
Buck: Yeah, sometimes if the mandolin was the main instrument I was playing when we put it together we might dump it later and I’d go back to guitar, like on “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.” When we demoed it, it was a kind of collaboration with all of us punching our ideas together on each other’s instruments, which we do a lot. I think Bill [Berry, drummer… most of the time] played bass, Mike played organ, I played mandolin or bouzouki. As it evolves, maybe Bill will switch back to drums and Mike to bass. We have different people playing different things on each take.
Mills: That happened with “Shiny Happy People” on the last record. It stimulates you. Like, I know that I got some of my ideas for “Everybody Hurts” from Bill’s initial bass line. In fact, I’d swear Bill played that final bass part, but they say I did – so I guess I did. I feel like the guy in Sleeper! After a record or two, it just all blurs together.

Garbarini: You started as post-punk folk rockers, toughened up your sound with Document and Green, and now you’re back to that minor key thing, but with more subtlety and power. Can you talk about this evolution? Lifes Rich Pageant seemed to be the turning point.
Buck: It was. Early on we wanted to explore this weird, post-folk, long melody-line type thing and eventually we wanted to be a little more direct – lyrically, to a certain degree, but also musically. We’d always fought against that big, New Wave/Dance drum sound. You can’t even hear the kick drum on a lot of the old blues records or Beatles records that I like. But, yeah, Lifes Rich Pageant was the point where we decided we wanted, to a certain degree, to approach some of the things that I liked about rock’n’roll that you’d hear on the radio, without really changing what the band was all about. And to a certain degree, I was tired of reading the phrase “jangle” or “chime” in every review about R.E.M. As much as I like The Byrds, we’re not really influenced by them and we’ve never sounded like them. I mean, I’ve played with Roger McGuinn and HE doesn’t think we sound like The Byrds!

Garbarini: How did these changes affect your actual playing?
Buck: Well, in addition to the drum sound coming up, the guitar sound got a lot more direct. I’d always used weird, ambient miking and overdubbed the same thing 12 times to get a really thick sound that you couldn’t pare down. The songs and performances were of a piece, take it or leave it. Then on “Fall On Me” and “The One I Love,” we opened things up with more space and dynamics. There was much more thought to the arrangements. I also started using heavier guitar sounds to accent things, bringing in a Les Paul and some Marshalls. But I shall use my original Rickenbacker – I think it’s an ’80 or ’81 – on every record. They’re still kind of done by hand. And I found a great one that I’m hanging on to.

Garbarini: “Stand” was your pop epiphany, and then you spiraled back to more subtle but potent material on the last album and especially on this one. What’s the strategy here?
Buck: Yeah, after the Green record and tour we tried to break it down and push ourselves in fresh direction as songwriters. We didn’t want to be saddled with the whole bass/drums/guitar, electric setup with a 4/4 beat. We sat around with acoustic instruments and started rearranging thins and the songwriting took a big leap. But it tended to be quieter, less traditional-rock’n’roll oriented. I mean, you write “Losing My Religion” on acoustic guitar and mandolin, and no matter how you rock it up, it’s going to have these chords and textures.

Garbarini: Automatic is like pure essence. The songs sound incredibly full but the playing is so deceptively dynamic.
Buck: On “Drive,” the acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and lead vocal were cut totally live as a demo. Later we overdubbed the accordion and the strings, and the voice and electric guitar in the bridge. But we did want to strip it down, approach rock’n’roll in a non rock’n’roll way. Lloyd Cole told me he thought that was great, because once you stop rockin’ in your old way, when you start doing it again it’s new and you’re never the same. So maybe we’re heading someplace we don’t even understand yet. Document and Green were more consciously aiming for that big sound, and we’re not retreating in any sense. We’re just trying a different approach that challenges us as songwriters. I’m not afraid to touch base with my personal clichés. I mean, I could write “Driver 8” three times a record, that’s real easy. We try to steer away from that, but I do love E minor chord [laughs]. The idea is to re-contextualize it and push it in a different direction.

Garbarini: Well, songs like “Man On The Moon” on the new album have an incredible emotional and musical impact, even without the power chords. And the chorus, with Andy Kaufman goofing on Elvis in the hereafter, is hilarious and moving at the same time. Some people have called the record morbid, but it’s more about confronting mortality and taking stock of things, no?
Buck: That was like Michael’s weird, surrealist version of heaven, just drenched, multi-colored skies and Andy and Elvis. It really blew my mind. But the death stuff – we’re the first generation since Vietnam where mortality is something that 18 year olds have to face regularly.

Garbarini: In dissecting your new approach on that song, there seems to be more going on guitar-wise than on the old-style rockers.
Buck: Yeah, there’s about eight guitars, but now they’re doing different things [laughs]. The basic rock track was done with an acoustic Gibson J300, I think that’s the number. Then there’s the Rickenbacker strumming the chords in the chorus, a Les Paul through Marshall doing the loud chords, a Telecaster through a Mesa/Boogie doing the slide parts, another Rickenbacker doing backwards strums during the bridge section, and even a bouzouki there somewhere.

Garbarini: Since you guys are Troggs fans, did you notice that the chorus is the same as in “Love Is All Around”?
Mills: Not quite, but almost. The first chords are. It’s a walk up in G to D for the Troggs; ours comes back down from B minor. “Fall On Me”, on the other hand, is those same chords. But we didn’t know it at the time! They’re one of maybe five progressions you use for a chorus. That’s why I admire Nirvana. I think it’s great how they gave a fresh twist to all that. How often does a band like that come along? Once every ten years.
Buck: About these chords: When we did that record with the Troggs, Reg [Presley, Troggs vocalist] had this great song – I can’t remember the title – but he played it and we all looked at each other and went [whispering] “It’s ‘Love Is All Around.’” And it was their same old hit with different words. So he asks: “You guys get that?” I went, “I really don’t think we’ll have any fucking problem with that one [laughs]!” It was even in the same key we’d transposed “Love Is All Around” to for R.E.M. We took our arrangement, which has mandolins and is kind of tinkly and stuff, and did it to their new song. So we kind of updated it in a strange way.

Garbarini: Mike, confess, weren’t you more of a child of the ‘70s as far as your stylistic evolution?
Mills: I’m not ashamed of it [laughs]! I wasn’t like Peter, who at 12 was reading all the mags and finding all the underground bands. I learned bass listening to the radio, like most kids. I thought Three Dog Night was fabulous! I’d even play along with it – believe it or not – Jim Croce, Seals and Croft… But later I got into Queen, even learned how to play drums to them.

Garbarini: How consciously do you go back to your sources when constructing a guitar or bass line?
Mills: For mid-tempo songs like “Man On The Moon,” which I think are the most difficult to build a line for, I’ll catch myself thinking, “Okay, how would John McVie of Fleetwood Mac handle this?” As for my sound evolving, I played a slew of basses: Ibanez, Guild, Dan Armstrong. I didn’t want to play a Fender because you see them everywhere. Finally I got a Precision because nothing reproduces that full, thick, yet high and punchy sound that a Fender has.

Garbarini: As organic as your group interplay might be, I think most people wonder, “How the hell do they manage to write music that fits Michael’s nonlinear lyrics?”
Mills: I’ll tell you the honest truth, there’s no way on God’s earth to write music to Michael’s words because, as you say, they’re just too non-linear. It’s almost always the music first. His words are made to the music and that’s why they were never printed as lyrics, because they’re not designed to stand alone as poetry, though some can, of course. On a song like “Losing My Religion” the three of us came up with the music and either he already has words in his notebook or it inspires him to think of something new. Often it’s a combination of the two. I’ve always wanted to try writing music to words, because I know that’s how Elton John does it.

Garbarini: Some fragments of Michael’s lyrics seem to be from real life, interwoven with subconscious stuff resonating around the universe. Has he ever really surprised you with a particular line or lyrics that had levels you’d never even imagined?
Buck: On a very literal level, “Losing My Religion” is an incredibly resonant phrase that hits me on a lot of levels. I thought Michael had made it up, but he insisted, “No, no, no, it’s an old Southern phrase meaning ‘at wit’s end.’” Michael a lot of times will go, “Yeah, sure, you’ve heard that.” And I’ll go, “Uh, I don’t think so.” Anyway, about two months ago I’m visiting a friend in New Orleans and I met this guy’s grandmother, who’s about 90. And he goes, “This is a guy in the band with that song you heard on the radio that you liked, ‘Losing My Religion.’” And she goes, [with heavy Southern accent], “Tsk, I hadn’t heard anyone say that phrase since I was a little girl here in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It means, ‘Lord, I’m at my wit’s end.’” I thought, “Wow, score one for Michael!” [laughs]

Garbarini: What’s really weird about you guys is that in spite of the obliqueness and mystery, the song’s essential message bypasses the rational and reaches the listener’s heart and gut. Do you ever second guess yourselves, revise the songs or ask him to be more explicit?
Buck: There’s a million ways to tell a story, and Michael’s really conscious of that. Early on, with things like “Flowers Of Guatemala,” we talked to him for a long time whether we should have a third verse that’s really explicit; a “Where have all the young men gone”-type verse showing the flowers are his funeral ornaments. We decided, no, that’s there, it’s implicit. I don’t think you’re going to hear that song and need to be told that. I’ve heard people destroy the songs having the third verse tell you what to think about. Screw that, let them make up their own minds. John Ford once said, “People like an idea a lot better if they find it themselves.” We’re really conscious of over-telling a story. I want my cab drivers and brain surgeons to be linear. But the music itself tells part of the story too, and it can carry you over hurdles to different realizations.

Garbarini: Speaking of which, you use a lot of subtle feedback and sheets of sound in your playing on Automatic. Is that intentionally meant to reinforce the underlying message of the song – or provide a musical counterpoint?
Buck: I love feedback because it’s real musical and non-technical. “Sweetness Follows” could have been really sappy if there wasn’t the discordant cello underneath and the feedback kind of giving it that edge. On some of these songs you have pretty acoustic on top and some electric, but yeah, underneath I’m playing the wrong notes consciously to undercut it a little. On the bridge to “Try Not To Breathe” there’s feedback to kind off take you to a different place – all those overtones that are supposed to be unsettling. “Find The River” or “Everybody Hurts” at first I thought could use some kind of toughening up. Then I heard the lyrics and thought, no, that’s the way the song should be.

Garbarini: Having Led Zep’s John Paul Jones do the string arrangements on Automatic is another of your “weird” but wonderful ideas that really worked. How did that come about?
Mills: Fortunately, we called him and he had a spare week, so we sent him over the tapes of the four songs that have strings on them, including “Drive”. He did the arrangements in England and then came over and we all met in Atlanta for one day with our friends from the Atlanta Symphony and did the tracks. One woman kept calling us “M.C.I.”! I like to pump myself by thinking we have similar roles playing bass, keyboards, etcetera. And he laughed and said, “Oh, yeah, I bet they call you the bass, keyboards and instigator.” I said, “Uh, yeah! … Gee, that is what they call me!” [laughs] You know what he said to me? There’s this one bit on “Everybody Hurts” where it comes back for the last verse and it’s just organ instead of piano. And just coming out of the verse into the B section I kick in the Leslie and it starts to spin and then I turn it off. You can barely notice it. And John sidles up to me and goes, “Nice touch on the Leslie there.” And I was like, “Whoa! Thank you! YES!” It just made my week. I thought, “Oh, man, maybe I’m doing something right!”

Garbarini: Peter, even though you’re a fill-and-break man, you’ve done a few tasteful solos, like on “Stand” and “The One I Love”. How do you determine when a song needs a solo, and how much has Neil Young been an inspiration?
Buck: It’s Steve Cropper for the fills and the rhythm stuff. I’ve stolen a lot of licks from him. But I love Neil Young solos – they’re not technically flashy but they’re so powerful and non-cliched. He’s got a weird harmonic ear when he does solos, like on “Rockin’ In The Free World.” When I played that last night I remembered that when he’s playing an E minor he’ll play a C, which you’re not supposed to do – it’ll be like a passing tone or something, but it works. You can catch where he got a few things; there’s T-Bone Walker in there way back, but it’s so devolved. I guess that’s true of my solos, to an extent. Usually, I’d rather write a bridge. But sometimes you don’t need one, everything that needs to be said lyrically and melodically and rhythm-wise is said during the verses and chorus. So on both these songs we knew from the beginning that some kind of solo was needed there. “The One I Love” is just a whole bunch of Hubert Sumlin-style blues lines slimmed down until it’s real clear, as opposed to a more fuzzy blues song. Ond the D chord bit, instead of bending up from the C I decided to slide up and down from C to D as a little twist. I think I had in mind not the Yardbirds but some of those old Kinks and Troggs records where you had Englishmen trying to play old Slim Harpo songs.

Garbarini: “Losing My Religion” is the opposite aesthetic – restrained bridge instead of solo – and on a mandolin. How did it come together and were you as surprised as everyone else at its enormous success?
Buck: Surprised? When Warners told us it might go all the way I said, “Oh, that’s cool… go all the way where?” It was my favorite song on the album. You have to remember, this was a full year before any of the Seattle scene broke. People were hungry for something different, and as you said before, it does sort of capture the mood of the times like “Teen Spirit” did this year. The original riff and A minor to E minor chord thing was done on a mandolin. We worked on it and literally in the space of an hour or two it was a finished track. The bridge was an afterthought – I knew it needed something. A bridge is supposed to widen the song out, either lyrically, melodically or rhythmically. But this song didn’t need anything wider. On a different song, like “Stand”, you might have wanted to kick into gear by going into a different key and really push it. Then I realized this song needed to break down and start all over again! So I came upwith that little Fleetwood Mac-type thing on the mandolin that moves you into the last verse. We presented it to Michael, and he came up with lines immediately.

Garbarini: So whaty’s the next challenge for R.E.M.?
Mills: We’re starting to write faster rock songs for the next album. We felt that was becoming too easy for a while because we’d think, “Eh, that’s good – but it sounds like an R.E.M. song, something we’ve done before.” Now our new challenge, having refreshed ourselves and improved our songwriting, is to go back and write some more fast rock songs that don’t sound cliched, and that have the energy of a younger band. So often, when musicians get older they try to write a fast rocker and you want to go “Ugh, get away, get away!”

Garbarini: The Spandex is stretching to the breaking point…
Mills: [laughs] Exactly. There’s a whole lot of bad intent and nothing real coming out of it. And if you’re gonna rock like that, you’ve got to have balls.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

After the interview, Peter is off to do a session with the pedal steel player at the 40 Watt. Meanwhile, Mike Mills offers to take me out for dinner to continue our conversation. At a local seafood restaurant, Mills greets friends in his unassuming way. They seem genuinely delighted to see him, not just because he’s a rock star but because they’ve known and liked him for years. I ask if living in Athens has helped keep the band grounded. “We lived here for years and made friends for years before we made it big. You’d come home from being a big shit in New York City and you’d be the same guy who had to borrow ten dollars to wash his clothes here in town,” he chuckles. “It helps keep things in perspective – the friends we have now are the same friends we’ve always had.” Over dinner we talk about U2, but it’s when I describe playing trombone in my high school band that Mike’s eyes light up. Minutes later we’ve wound through the shady Athens backstreets to Mills’ ante-bellum home. The music room is full of bizarre guitars that look like ‘50s kitchen appliances, an upright piano, and his acoustic Washburn bass. The guitars keep shorting out, and I finally settle on Mike’s trusty ’59 Les Paul as he unpacks… a trombone. “I thought you might give me some tips,” he grins. For two hours I knock out songs on the guitar – R.E.M. songs, Creedence and Stax numbers – while Mike marches around the hall playing leads and solos on the trombone, struggling manfully to master the slide, and getting better with each song. When I break into the opening riff of “Layla,” Mills leaps to the piano and comps out the chords, then flows right back into the beautiful coda at the end. When I stop playing, he turns and asks why. I explain that slide guitar is not my thing, especially in regular tuning, and there are all those cascading notes way up the neck and… “Hey, you can do it,” he gently chides. “It’s like you said to me about the trombone! Feel your way around, you’ll get it. We try this stuff all the time.” But I don’t have a slide. “Here, use this.” He hands me a shoehorn. What the hell… He patiently plays the coda over and over again as I stumble around until suddenly – God knows why – I’m playing the melody and sliding the tune. I feel thrilled, like a kid finally mastering his bicycle. This intuitive stuff really works. We both crack up in delight. It’s the perfect R.E.M. moment.

Thanks, Mike.

Originally published in the January 1993 issue of Guitar magazine


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