Interviews: R.E.M.: Subverting Small Town Boredom
By J.D. Considine
Almost everybody else at the Athens, Georgia Holiday Inn was there for some convention being held at the Univeristy of Georgia – seminars in bovine prosthetics or some such. I was there to interview the members of R.E.M. on their home turf and in the process soak up the local color. After all, given Athens’ ability to churn out interesting and unusual rock bands, ranging from nationally known acts like R.E.M. and the B-52’s to such stalwarts of Independant America as Pylon, the Method Actors, Love Tractor and the Swimming Pool Q’s, the local scene here must be some sort of new music nirvana. Imagine the insights to be gained, the sounds to be savored.
Imagine the 40-Watt Club, the hub of the Athens club scene since Tyrone’s, the only other venue willing to book untried talent, burned down. Standing outside the club, a discreet distance from the door, is R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, an accordion strapped to his chest. Along with two friends, one on xylophone, the other on snare drum, Stipe is faking his way through Nino Rota-style Italian Cafe music. On the sidewalk in front of the trip is Stipe’s accordion case, propped open with a few dollars inside to give passers-by the right idea. They play for about an hour, get harassed by a drunken Atlanta club owner, and make about four dollars.
This is the Athens new music scene?
“There’s not much else to do, unless you just want to sit and drink in a bar,” says R.E.M.’s bassist Mike Mills the next day. Although Mills was not party to Stipe’s bit of busking, he’s no stranger to the sort of boredom that sparks such adventures. “There aren’t any out-of-town acts that come through, except for the one or two major acts the univerisity will bring in. So when you get bored with listening to records, you get up and do it yourself.”
Which is essentially what R.E.M. did, although with uncommon success. Within a year after the band’s formation in February 1980, R.E.M. was touring the southeast. A single, “Radio Free Europe,” was released in 1981 and astonished the band by topping the single’s category in the Village Voice critics’ poll. Nor were the critics alone in their ardor. According to Mills, I.R.S. was “as surprised as we were” by how well Chronic Town sold; Murmur, the band’s album debut, leaped up the charts at an even more surprising rate and looks likely to catapult a redone “Radio Free Europe” onto the singles chart.
All of which should make the band extremely happy. “Success beyond their wildest dreams,” and all that. But at a point when other bands would be waiting with bated breath for the next week’s charts and spending their spare time at the local Porsche dealer, R.E.M. is unusually wary of success and its trappings.
“We’re kind of unassumingly ambitious, in that we never do anything expecting any kind of feedback,” explains guitarist Peter Buck. “We just do things to please ourselves – we write to please ourselves, do the cover, hand in the record and we think, ‘Hmmm, I wounder how this is going to do?’ And we still wonder – we still talk about how many records we want to sell. ‘Okay, no more than this many, because more than that and it starts getting kinda bullshit.’
“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “The record just took a big jump today, thirty places or something and I’m really pleased. I’m really happy. It’s nice to be appreciated. I just don’t know when it would start affecting us adversely.”
If worrying about the adverse effects of success when you first album makes the prodigious leap from #130 to #97 on the Billboard charts seems a bit, uh, premature, singer Michael Stipe puts things into perspective. “I was shopping the other day,” he says, “and the guy walked up to me and said, ‘You’re Michael Stipe, and you’re going to make a lot of money.’ He went on to explain how he was going to start a production company in Athens and use the Athens calling card to sell unheard-of-songwriters, get them published around the country.
“I was going, ‘Great…..’” He shakes his head in amazement. “It was a real gregarious kind of thing for this guy, while I was trying to plan my menu for the week.”
No wonder the band is tired of hearing about the wonderfully unique Athens Sound. This theory, which came into play after the B-52’s emerged from a Georgia town that none of the New York critics had ever heard of, takes the argument that if more than one band worth listening to can come out of a town nobody has ever heard of, all the bands must belong to a school founded by the first group to make it big. After all, how many ideas can there be in a town that gets the Village Voice a month late?
“It’s just a mistake to lump all the bands together,” complains Mills. “In the first place, we don’t sound like anybody else, and if you listen, they don’t really sound that much like each other, either. What it really comes down to is the same thing that’s happening in a lot of other places – there’s just a real good atmosphere here, and club owners who will let you play when you’re small and unknown. It’s a very low-pressure area, in that you can play, play a lot, and improve yourself. Because everybody is horrible when they start out. We certainly were.”
As drummer Bill Berry puts it, R.E.M. got started as “nothing more than something to do maybe annihilate a little of the boredom that you get around here.” The quartet first met at a party through a mutual friend. Berry and Mills had come up to the Univerisity of Georgia together from Macon, where they had played in an assortment of high school ensembles as well as a few southern-style top forty bands. (“We did a few originals that I would be afraid to even think about,” confesses Berry.) Stipe, whose previous experience included “a real bad punk band in St. Louis,” was living in a dilapidated church in Athens with Buck, the only on in the group who was not a day-only student at the university – he studied at night, while selling records during the day.
“When we first got together, it was just, ‘What song does everybody know?’” recalls Stipe. “We played old ’60’s, like ‘Stepping Stone,’ Troggs’ songs, stuff like that. Then Kathleen, the woman who lived there with us, had this grand idea to have a birthday party in three weeks, and she said, ‘Why don’t you guys play?’ So we sat down and wrote a bunch of songs with probably took as long to play as they did to write. I guess we had fifteen songs and a bunch of covers: we ended up doing three sets that night. It was a real hootenanny.”
Despite R.E.M.’s garage band – or, given their rehersal hall, abandoned church band-origins – the sound they emerged with was a far cry from the usual Gospel According to the Nuggets. Buck’s guitar figures tend towards lean, graceful arpeggios instead of jagged power chords, while Mills’ bass lines emerge more as a form of counter-melody than anything else. Strap on Stipe’s dark, nasal vocals and power the whole thing with Berry’s practical, melodic drumming, and you’ve got a package that’s irresistible to almost any rock fan.
But try to work out historical antecedent, and you’re fishing in an empty pond. Because of the group’s twangy guitars and resolute tunefulness, any number of listeners have likened R.E.M.’s best to “Eight Miles High” or “Turn! Turn! Turn!” But as far as the band is concerned, such comparisons are for the Byrds.
“It’s just coincidental to the way Peter picks guitar,” shrugs Mills. “None of us really listened to the Byrds until after we started getting all these comparisons. So I went out and bought a couple of Byrds albums to see what everybody was talking about, and a lot of it is in the picking style.”
“I use a pick, but also these two fingers,” says Buck, holding up his hand and waggling his second and third fingers. “What I’m trying to do now is to teach myself the Chet Atkins style without learning what Chet Atkins really sounds like.” He laughs. “I’m really limited. I certainly like the way I play, but I’m more style than anything else. I can’t sit down and play anything but what we play. And I can play a little country and western, because I’ve always liked that kind of stuff, but that’s really about all.”
Noble new wave sentiments, to be sure, but Buck has other reasons for shying away from solos. Earlier in the day, Michael Stipe and I had been out on the porch of the house where Buck and R.E.M.’s manager, Jefferson Holt, live, discussing the relative merits of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” (one of Stipe’s favorites). I mentioned that it would be a great tune for R.E.M. to cover, provided they left the guitar solo out, and Stipe replied, “That’s okay. Pete only knows one guitar solo anyway, and he did it on Murmur.”
“Yeah,” Buck agrees later, “and Mike (Mills) taught it to me. On ‘Talk About The Passion,’ that little thing. That was something Mike just taught me. I probably could have figured it out myself, because I come up with things that are pretty much similar, but I thought it was really funny – my one little guitar solo, and the bass player came up with it.”
Mills, in fact, turns out to be R.E.M.’s real utility player. In addition to the bass, he also provided the keyboard parts for Murmur. Given R.E.M.’s straightfoward stage sound, the amount of detail on the album – multitracked acoustic guitars, piano doubling the bass line, even a bit of cello on “Talk About The Passion,” vibraphone on “Pilgrimage” – may come as a surprise to fans of the band’s energetic live shows, but as Mills puts it, “Well, there’s no way that we’re going to be able to come into the studio and reproduce the live sound, and why should we? We figured we’d go into the studio and approach each song seperately, both seperate from out live performances and seperate from other songs, and see what we could do with them. As long as you’re in the studio, you might as well use what you can, as long as you’re avoiding the tinkering syndrome, of using everything you can put your hands on.”
One thing you won’t hear on an R.E.M. record, at least not all that clearly, is lyrics. Between Stipe’s swallowed enunciation and producer Mitch Easter’s intentionally murky mix, the listener is lucky if he or she can make out two words in six. Which is fine with R.E.M. “If there is a philosophy to the band,” syas Stipe, “it’s that every individual person who hears or has anything to do with the band has their own idea of what it’s about and what’s going on. What they get out of it is what they put into it, kinda. It’s great – with the EP, people would sned in their idea of what the lyrics were, and often I would like what they sent better than what they originally were.”
Nonetheless, Stipe has been toying with the idea of making up an official response to requests for lyrics. “He was just going to mimeograph a sheet and say, okay, these are the lyrics – they’re not necessarily in order, some of them are missing and some of them are extra things,” explains Buck, “but this is a vague idea of what we’re doing.”
An even vaguer idea of what the band is up to can be gleaned from the video to “Radio Free Europe,” which shows neither Europe nor free radios. Instead, it has the band wandering around a church in Summerville, Georgia, and other seemingly unrelated terrains. Perhaps R.E.M. has some secret mania for old churches, sparked by their early days in Athens; perhaps not. When Peter Buck took me by the band’s first Athens home, he was surprised to see that it was no longer condemned. “It’s a real dump,” he said, “but it’s such a cool idea, living in this old church, that every year there are kids from the university who move in. I think we lasted the longest – we were in there for almost a year.” The Summerville church, on the other hand, is the home of Howard Finster, a renowned folk artist and self-taught preacher who, among other things, receives the word of God in visions of Elvis Presley, and who, in an attempt to save the world, is fashioning a sort of Garden of eden out of other people’s junk.
What’s the point? “I think there’s a particularly southern sensibilty to it,” offers Buck (who, by the way, was born in Indiana [California] but has lived the bulk of his life in Georgia). “When we were making the album, it struck me as having a real southern sensibility, real Flannery O’Connor. That was one of the things we wanted to do on this album, affirms that we’re a southern band without pandering to the Lynyrd Skynyrd-type mentality. I don’t know if that came across, though,” he adds, laughing. “The cover’s probably more southern than the record is.”
But if R.E.M. doesn’t quite come across as the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of “Go Down Moses,” they certainly shape up as a band with an immense potential. Although Berry admits that, “we’re still basically an untight garage band,” R.E.M. is very together when it comes to managing its career and putting its “untight” musical ability to good use. It all comes down to working within certain limitations, and R.E.M. seems no more likely to his the coliseum circuit than to hire the London Symphony Orchestra for its next album. So far in its brief career, the band has turned down opening spots with the Clash, U2, and the Go Go’s – moves that have the band’s agents scratching their heads in bewilderment.
But, as Mills explains, passing up such opportunities makes far more sense than accepting them. “The thing with U2 – what they were saying was that touring with U2 would be a shortcut to getting bigger. But that’s not our goal. We didn’t start this whole thing to get a record contract and to be big. We started it in order to play live and have a good time. And it’s so much truer to the spirit of being a live band to play where everybody can see you. You can’t really communicate with people more than a hundred feet away; you lose an incredible amount of intimacy when the closest people to you are ten feet below you and twenty feet out.
“We would much rather set up in any bar in the country and just play.”
Originally published on 18 August 1983 by Musician Magazine
Source: R.E.M. Central