Interviews: Reinventing R.E.M.: The Peter Buck/Mike Mills Q & A

By Michael Goldberg

Michael Stipe prefers to be interviewed by himself.

Which is why guitarist/writer Peter Buck and bassist/keyboardist/writer Mike Mills are sitting in this suite at the luxurious Hotel Bel-Air, doing an interview without their bandmate.

In a way, though, it makes sense. For as they tell me during the interview, the two of them put together the musical tracks for months before Stipe added vocals. “Mike [Mills] and I came up with the music,” Buck says. “And particularly for this record, the record sounded exactly like it did for about six months before I heard any lyrics. So, for me, when you ask me what the record’s about, I’m like, well, it’s these instrumental textures and it’s the ideas that we have working with the drum loops.”

In late September, I spent time with the members of R.E.M. at a video shoot and then conducted separate interviews, first with Stipe (see related story), then with Buck and Mills.

Michael Goldberg: Peter, yesterday you told me that you think Up is R.E.M.’s best album. Could you guys address why you think that is? What in particular makes it the best one?
Peter Buck: My previous favorite R.E.M. records were Automatic [for the People] and [New Adventures in] Hi-Fi. Automatic sustained this mood all the way through. I thought the songs on Hi-Fi were probably stronger than that, but it was more diverse. This record — I like it now because it just doesn’t sound like us.
We were faced with a whole lot of weird stuff going on — not weird, but a drummer leaves, new producer, whole different way of working. And it’s a real challenge. And as hard as it was, we kind of lived up to the challenge. I think the songs are our best group of songs. I think it just has a really cool sound. It’s really psychedelic. I love psychedelic music, and it’s kind of updating psychedelia for the ’90s.
Mike Mills: We really didn’t want to make a record that sounded like anything we’d done before. And we were just enormously successful. Because you listen to this and — except for Michael’s vocal, which will always be constant — you can’t tell. I don’t think you can tell that it’s R.E.M., except for maybe a couple of songs. If you were to take his vocal off and listen to those tracks, you would never know that it was us.

Goldberg: You like that about it.
Mills: I do. Constancy is the hobgoblin of foolish minds, as they say. We want to do different things as a band. We want to sound different. We want to push ourselves, so on this record, we pushed real hard. [laughs] And we got to a great place.

Goldberg: How has Bill’s leaving affected the working dynamic between the three of you?
Buck: Well, right off the bat, the very first thing — there’s no rehearsal anymore. As specious as that sounds, there’s very little that a bass player and a guitar player can do together that’s preparing for a band record, so we just basically didn’t rehearse anything. We just wrote a bunch of songs and then played and played them into drum loops and stuff. So it’s not as much a performance record. On a very simple level, there’s not the sound of a band performing. There’s a couple of guys layering stuff, which gives it a more orchestral feeling.
Mills: Yeah, it just meant that all the old ways were gone, at least for this record. And we had to think of or find new ways to record. And that process of discovery is what makes the record sound like it does.

Goldberg: When Bill told you that he was gonna leave, the first decision you had to make was whether or not to go forward. Did you then proceed to asking how you wanted to move forward, and what you would change?
Mills: We didn’t really discuss how we were gonna do things differently, because we didn’t know. It was basically, well, we’re just gonna go into the studio, we have a bunch of demo tapes that are finished to one degree or another, and we knew that we’d be working with those.
So, with a lot of the songs we just had to find a starting point, whether it was to start with a guitar line that had been laid down, or with a piano line, or a drum machine. We just found a starting point, and then built on those.
‘Cause there are only a couple tracks that actually have more than one person playing at one time. That was great. It was a lot of fun to work like that. It was kind of daunting in that we didn’t know how to do it, ’cause we’d never done it before. But it was an interesting way to work, and it made for a great result.

Goldberg: R.E.M. is not the only popular band that is changing its sound in dramatic ways right now, as you know. The Pumpkins just did that, Pearl Jam seem to be trying to do that over several albums. Do you think this a contemporary trend, or do you think that bands have always tried to do that?
Buck: You look back at the ’60s — and the Beatles or Neil Young or the Rolling Stones started one place and ended up in another. I think it’s only been during the last 10 or 12 years that people have made the same record over and over and over again. I think it’s natural that our peer group is trying to find new ways to express themselves.
Mills: I think it’s definitely a product of the times, in the sense that rock‘n’roll as we know it, or knew it, isn’t dead. It’s just morphing into something else. I don’t really hear any bands coming along that are gonna change anybody’s life radically. And you have some bands that have been doing this for awhile that just realize that it’s time to push the envelope and, indeed, alter the envelope completely, if possible. I think you see the bands that have that much creativity and have that much invested in this looking for new ways to express sound and to make noise and to make records and to play live and things. And that’s why you get good experimentation from bands like U2 and the Pumpkins.

Goldberg: When you say you don’t think that bands are gonna come along that will change people’s lives, are you thinking strictly of bands, per se? Or do you think a DJ somewhere, or someone doing sampling in their basement … ?
Mills: I was speaking of bands, per se, rock‘n’roll bands, as in guys with guitars or girls with guitars or what-have-you. It’ll be interesting to see if somebody comes along and has a whole new way of presenting that sort of lineup. That’ll be great if it happens. I don’t see it happening now. As far as the other … I’m sure something will happen. Music is nothing if not evolving and changing all the time. While right now it’s almost inconceivable for me to see a DJ changing anyone’s life for the better [laughs] — that’s just a life-long prejudice — I’m certain that it will happen. It’s just hard for me to imagine because it’s not what I do. But I’d certainly love to see what the next big sea change in music is going to be.

Goldberg: Peter, what do you think?
Buck: Musical style changes a lot with technology. The idea that you could record things, and then the advent of the album in the ’50s, changed, literally, some of the biggest jazz things that existed. Birth of the Cool, the Miles Davis record, was three different 10-inch shellac records. It was recorded at the same time, but no one ever got to hear it at the same time. When the LP came in, people could stretch out. [John] Coltrane would do a 20-minute song. Technology’s changing. Who knows? Maybe cyberspace will be the thing that makes it totally different. I can’t really imagine it because maybe I’m too old or I’ve just been around too long. I think things are gonna occur musically that just wouldn’t even be something I could imagine because I’m used to three or four guys in a room playing together. Maybe those days are over. I would prefer not to think so.

Goldberg: Can you relate to the kind of stuff that, say, Beck or the Beastie Boys or a group like Gang Starr … Do you listen to any of that?
Buck: Sure. I know the Beasties’ stuff real well, and Beck’s. I understand it. That isn’t really mindboggling stuff to me. I like it a lot, but it’s not something that’s inventing a new paradigm. They’re putting things together that maybe haven’t been put together in that way before. I am really waiting for something to come along and just sweep it all away. Beck and the Beasties will be swept away just like we are, and the Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. I don’t know what that will be. Obviously it’s up to some 16-year-old in a basement right now to think it up. It will be someone who has some amazing vision and, whatever it is, we probably won’t be part of it.

Goldberg: What are some of the themes of this album?
Mills: Musically, the only theme is that anything we wanted to do, we did. It goes from one song form to another in terms of instrumentation and rhythm and tempo and all that stuff — it’s all over the place, which I love. And in a way, it’s unified by its diversity. How’s that for some rhetoric? And lyrically, there’s an interesting feeling of redemption, in a way, or of determination for someone who gets knocked down or finds himself in an awkward or untenable position and somehow manages to claw their way back to a place of comfort and safety.

Goldberg: Peter, what do you think?
Buck: I don’t think there’s one theme that runs through the record. It’s a bunch of stuff that we recorded at different times. The word “fall” appears like in four, five different songs. There’s a couple of songs about alienating work and technology. There’s at least one love song. Records have a “concept” just because people write them over the space of three or four months and ideas tend to float back and forth between the songs. But there’s nothing specific that Michael was trying to say from song to song.

Goldberg: He said that being very honest and trying to have very honest, real lyrics was important. Do you see that?
Buck: Mike and I came up with the music. And this record sounded exactly like it did for about six months before I heard any lyrics. So, for me, when you ask me what the record’s about, I’m like, well, it’s these instrumental textures and it’s the ideas that we have working with the drum loops. There’s not a lot of guitar playing all the way through. It’s really orchestral.
Literally, I figured out what the lyrics were about three weeks ago, and that was when I got the final thing. Oh, here, this is what this song’s about. Like “In the Air,” I never heard the lyrics until like the day before we mastered it. That’s just the way it works with us.
Mills: It doesn’t really matter to me, I don’t think, or to Peter as well, in terms of what it’s about. It doesn’t really matter because Peter and I concentrate on the music. That’s where fully 50 percent at least of the emotion and the power of the song is, if not more. Because when I listen to records, the lyrics are secondary to me, no offense to anyone who works their ass off on lyrics, ’cause I know how hard it is to write them.
Journalists, I think, more than anything else look for a unifying theme — we get that question all the time. “What’s the theme? What do you find repeated?” I don’t think there is anything, and I don’t think there needs to be. I think that with most records — if you go into them with an idea for a theme, then you wind up with a concept record, then you’re kind of screwed right there.
If you find a theme, it’s often in looking back. You see that there maybe is a thread that connects a few songs. But I think it’s foolish and counterproductive to try to write to a theme. And then I think it’s a lot of beatin’ the bushes for something that isn’t there to go back and find a theme. I don’t think it’s necessary and, most of the time, they don’t exist.

Goldberg: Was there a sense of “wow, this is pretty cool,” as you created the album? As songs were getting completed, was there that sense in the studio?
Buck: Oh yeah, we quite often had friends come by. We were in San Francisco, so we had people like Mark Eitzel and the High Llamas in town, so they came by. All these people that we kind of know came in and every one of them said jeez, this is great, it doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever done. These are really great tracks.
At that point, we had three vocals. So we played them the vocals, and then we started playing the instrumental stuff and it sounded really strong. It was just a matter of keeping our will and bearing down and finishing the record. A lot of that’s up to Michael. He writes the lyrics, and so he’s the one who feels the pressure when everyone in the world is saying, “my god, these tracks are amazing,” and there’s no vocal. He knows he has to live up to that. It must be tough. I wouldn’t want to be in that position. Which is why I’m the guitar player.
Mills: Not the singer.

Goldberg: How do you think your perspective about being in a band has changed since you started out? From the outside, it seems like it’s been a roller-coaster ride — to have been doing this for so long, to have been making all these records and going on all these tours…
Mills: Certainly, in the beginning, being in a band was just basically a dream come true. It’s what just about every kid I ever knew wanted to do. They wanted to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band and make a living at it.
It changes with growing up and becoming as much of an adult as I may be at this point. You realize that it’s not just fun and games. You can’t just be selfish about it. You have to consider the other people that you work with and the people that are involved peripherally with the thing that you do. It’s still the best job in the world and the most fun job that I could ever imagine. But at the same time, it’s tempered by a certain realization of the seriousness of it. At the heart of it, we’re people who are really lucky in that we get paid for what we want to do. So that part of it never changes.

Goldberg: Do you have the sense of “Well, I feel different about this now than I did when I started, and I have different goals and different things that I want to do in this context”?
Buck: Sure, when you start out, the very first time that you play a song all the way through and it sounds like the song you’re meaning to play when it’s a cover, wow, triumph. You’re there, it’s right.
Having done a huge amount of stuff over the last 18 years, we could go back and touch on some of our former glories or whatever, and maybe there are things we could do that would sell more records. But it’s just way more important for us to push ourselves forward and to challenge ourselves. Anything that isn’t challenging, I just don’t have any interest in it. I’ve done all this. I have enough money.
It’s a pleasure doing it, but I really don’t want to be doing it for any reason other than I’m doing exactly what I want to do. Any situation where, “oh, this is what’s expected of you,” I just don’t want to do that. So that’s one reason we’re not touring this time. We’re not really sure what we want to do as a touring entity.

Goldberg: Given the kind of freedom that you now have — has that given you different insights into life? Are you thinking more about what life’s really about …? Because most people are sort of chained down to jobs because they’ve got to support themselves. They’ve got all this stuff that they’re chained to, so they don’t have the freedom…
Mills: But the perspective that you get on life from a position of having all this freedom is not necessarily any greater than anyone else’s. Because the meaning of life is survival, at the end of it, and trying to make yourself as comfortable within that as possible.
So, for us to sit up here in our little luxury hotel and do our interviews and decide that we’ve got a better understanding of what life is all about because we have the freedom to do what we want to is, I think, a misapprehension.
Just because we’re in the lucky 1 percent of people who are our own boss, that doesn’t mean that our “life perspective” is any better than anyone else’s. And if you’re the guy who works 9 to 5 for five, six, seven days a week, or whatever, then I think your take on life is just as valid as — if not more so than — ours.

Goldberg: I just wondered if there are any particular insights that have come from this …
Mills: The best insights we’ve ever gotten are when — as I think with anybody in life — you deal with adversity — serious, specific adversity, in the sense of losing the people that you love or losing the job that you love. When those things are threatened, that’s when you achieve insight. If you’re lucky enough to come through it, and to keep the people that you love or to keep the job that you love, then you understand the fragility of it and the importance of it. Those are the times when you need to pay attention and listen to what life is telling you, and that’s when you learn. But I think that without adversity, you don’t ever really learn anything.
Buck: One of the things that I thought when Bill quit — I love Bill, I respect him and I respect his choice … But his whole feeling was he didn’t want to do anything that was at all painful or bothersome ever again. And I just think that’s wrong. My feeling is that anything worth doing is gonna be hard. The easy stuff — it’s easy to be an asshole, and it’s easy to not work — all the stuff that’s eawork — all the stuff that’s easy is.
Anybody can sit on the beach and drink a Corona and go swimming. Do you want to spend your whole life doing that? No. Some people do, but I think that’s a worthless life. I think that a lot of this has to do with struggle and finding out things about yourself while you’re doing things that are really hard.
This record was one of the hardest things we ever did, both as a group and as individuals. And, ideally, there will be ways on the next record that won’t be quite as hard. But coming to terms with all this stuff is rewarding in its own way.
We went through all of that — the struggles, Bill leaving, we weren’t communicating really well, we didn’t know what we were doing. We thought we did. But we didn’t have a clue.
I think we came out stronger because of it. And the record is stronger because of it. It was like reaching into the fire and pulling a coal out. It was hard work. That’s what makes life worthwhile. Everything that’s worthwhile — having children, it’s all hard work. I don’t want to live a life of indolence and leisure. I want to challenge myself. And this record was challenging. I hope the next one will be challenging, too, in a different way.

Goldberg: As fans of music, what kinds of hopes do you have for your music, and specifically for this album, and for future projects?
Buck: Well, you’ve got to remember that our hopes have kind of been fulfilled already. The record isn’t going to be out for two weeks, and it’s the record we want. So, after that, it’s just the whims of the marketing department, or the whims of the people in the world. Who knows what they’re gonna want? This could sell 20 million records or it could sell 300,000. We just have to accept it and go on and take strength from what we feel. I feel stronger about the record now than I will three months from now, because by then it’ll be over — it’s out there, people will own it. I’m on to the next stuff already. So is Mike. We’ve been writing a lot. I’ve passed around my tapes, and the guys are listening, and we’re gonna do some work sooner rather than later. So who cares what happens now?
Mills: My hope is that I’m as happy at the conclusion of the next record as I am with this one. If we’ve made some new inroads and created some new sounds and written some great songs and pulled it all together as well on the next one as we have on this one, then I’ll be ready to move on to the next one after that. You set the bar, you jump over the bar, then you set the bar a little higher and go try to jump over that one.

Goldberg: I know that you were originally gonna tour, now you’re not gonna tour. But you were saying yesterday that you might do some stuff in the summer?
Buck: Things are totally open. We may just decide next year’s the year to do benefit shows, and do a bunch of those. We’re doing the Bridge [School Benefit]. There’s things coming up, we could do that. We all kind of enjoy the summer-festival season in Europe, so we might do that. We might just do impromptu things around America. Maybe we’ll play a holiday camp. We don’t know. The idea is that we’re not taking a year off to goof around. I think we might be doing a soundtrack. There’ll be some performance stuff wedged in in different places. We’re reinventing ourselves, and one of the things that we’re doing is saying, hey, you know what, we don’t necessarily have to get on the road for eight months to fulfill ourselves. We could do little shots here and there. It’s less lucrative. If we want to go out and make money, you go out on the road for 11 months and play basketball arenas. But we could do whatever we want. Maybe we’ll play for free next year.
Mills: Or not.
Buck: I’m just speaking of benefit shows. Maybe we won’t get paid for anything we do. I don’t know.

Goldberg: It sounds like you have ideas already developing for more recording, but if you’re touring, you can’t be in the studio recording — or you could, but it’s harder.
Mills: We did that. We made a record on the road. It can be done and it can be done well. I love to tour, probably more than just about anybody, but I’m actually more excited right now about the new songs that we’re writing and the new things that we have to do. And you can make a record on the road, but at the same time, you can’t devote yourself to being creative when you’re trying to play a show every night in a different city. So, while it’ll be nice to have the next year off in terms of not having to be on the road every day, it’ll certainly be full of working, in the sense of writing songs. I wrote a song yesterday that I’m just thrilled with. And I know that Peter’s cranking them out. That’s why I look forward to next year — just to see what direction we take it in now.

Goldberg: After you’ve been around for so long, for two decades, does it amaze you guys that there’s still an R.E.M.?
Mills: Yeah, it’s ridiculous. How many bands a) get successful in the first place, b) are successful for 11 or 12 records, and c) haven’t become either just a corporate machine or a parody of themselves, or whatever. I think we’re still making records that people care about, that we care about. We don’t make records as an excuse…

Goldberg: Almost unprecedented, almost.
Mills: Almost. U2’s doing it.
Buck: Midnight Oil’s still around.
Mills: There are a few. It’s like a splash of water in the face every day to wake up and think that, my god, I’m still vital, in the sense of being creative and making good music, and the same guys that I’d rather work with more than anybody else in the world I’m still working with. How did I get this lucky?

Goldberg: From the outside, it seems like you guys have managed to survive success. In other words, you haven’t let the various things that can really drag people down drag this band down. To what do you attribute that?
Mills: Well, for one thing — and I’ll say this because I’m hoping other bands are listening when I say this — Peter’s idea in the very beginning when we were deciding how to credit the songs in terms of songwriting … I was thinking, well, if I wrote the song, I want my name on it because I wrote it and, by god, put my name behind the song. But the fact is, Peter realized early on that that’s what, more than anything else, between the credit that you get and the money that you make as a songwriter, that’s what breaks bands up faster than anything else, I think. And by distributing the money equally, we avoided that pitfall.
And the great thing was that, whether we saw this coming or not, it turns out that we all do contribute to the song. It’s not like one person does everything. It would be impossible for us, ’cause I don’t sing and Michael doesn’t play piano or guitar especially well. So, we couldn’t do it without each other.
We’ve also been very lucky in that we’ve had [attorney/manager] Bertis Downs with us this whole time, or almost the whole time. And he is just as sharp as a tack and dedicated to what we do, and has kept us out of a lot of potential pitfalls. The third thing is that we all realize that this is probably the best situation for us to make work in. In other words, the thing we do with R.E.M. is gonna be the thing we do best in our whole lives. So, therefore, we do whatever we have to do to keep the band going on a level that we can all stand. We’ve been extremely fortunate. We’ve been fairly smart about it, and we’ve had good advice.

Goldberg: Anything to add to that?
Buck: A lot of it’s luck, too. We didn’t make any wrong choices early on. By the same token, we came along at the right time. When we were gonna get a record deal, we were talking to three or four different companies. If we had signed with one of the majors that wanted us… One of our peer groups, exact same age, exact same band level signed with this label — it took them three years to get their first record out, you know. In that time, we did three records, three world tours, and we’d established ourselves. And they had totally started over, and it broke them.
If we had signed to the wrong label early on, you wouldn’t be talking to us. It could be the Bongos. The Bongos might be the biggest band on earth, and we’d be back in Georgia going, “Gee, wonder why that didn’t happen for us?” We picked the right label, but it was also luck, too. They could have gone under, they could have sued us, anything could have happened. So, you’ve got to keep your fingers crossed, as well as being smart.

Goldberg: What do you think that a band can give to the world with their music?
Buck: I think music is generally a good thing. I can’t really think of many examples where music is harmful. At the very least, I’d like to think that making a great record would help lighten someone’s load every now and again. I know that personally, as a fan, no matter what my life is like, it’s better if someone is doing work that really blows my mind. It makes me feel good.
I remember during the ’80s, there were stretches of maybe a whole year when there wouldn’t be a record that you liked. Like if U2 didn’t have a record out that year, maybe ‘86, ‘87 — I just don’t remember there being much that I thought was great. There were only a couple of us making really good records — Nick Cave, us, U2, Bob Mould, the Replacements. But then there’d be stretches where nothing happened. I hope, if nothing else, that it’ll make a light spot in people’s day. I know it does for me.
Mills: I think the universality of music is very important, in that a kid can listen and hear someone else saying what he’s feeling, whether it’s musically or lyrically. And when you see that you’re not alone in the world, and you see that there are other people that have similar aspirations or feelings or expressions of themselves, then it just keeps you from feeling so alone. Plus, it’s a great career, if you get lucky enough to have it.

Goldberg: Can you imagine a time when you won’t be in R.E.M.?
Buck: There’s certainly an age when you’re no longer necessary to the rock ‘n’ roll business. If you’re 55, and you don’t want to make it a nostalgic thing. But we could switch over to doing soundtracks. Maybe the three of us can just do stuff together, recording that doesn’t have to do with us having nice haircuts and dressing nice and hopping around onstage. I have no idea. Maybe when I’m 55, I’ll want to be in Vegas. Maybe I’ll want to be doing “Remember the ’80s with R.E.M.” tours. I have no idea what I’m gonna want to do. It could occur. But if not, there are things we could do musically.
I certainly don’t see myself retiring and not doing music. I’d go into production. The guys from the Easy Beats wrote all those great songs, and when the band broke up, they started a production company and immediately their little brother formed AC/DC, and they produced and wrote songs for their first record, had hits with them. There’s ways to go about it where you’re not necessarily the “rock guy” anymore.
Mills: The idea of not being in R.E.M. is certainly not interesting or appealing, but it’s something that we’ve all had to deal with at one time or another over the past few years. Sure, it could happen. You’d be a fool to think this is going to go on forever. But as long as we’re happy with it and we’re making great music and continuing to challenge ourselves, then there’s no reason not to. Sure there’s life after R.E.M., in many capacities.

Goldberg: Have you guys experienced any midlife crisis sort of feelings ’cause you’re older now, you’re in your 40s? It hits a lot of people at that age.
Buck: You’ve got to remember that, between us, we’ve done just about anything on earth you can do. I don’t have a whole lot of regrets about things I’ve missed. That’s what a midlife crisis is. I haven’t missed anything. I think we’re coming to terms pretty well with where we are. It remains to be seen how many records we’re going to sell this time around. If it’s not as many as maybe the record company people would hope, we can all deal with that, and I think we’re in a place where it’s fine. It is a business for younger people, so I kind of look at it and go, “whatever.” I’m willing to accept whatever I can get, as long as I can make good records.
Mills: Midlife crisis… There are various periods of reassessment in your life as you go along, and there are various crises. But I don’t think the two of them should necessarily occur at the same time. And if I had a midlife crisis, I sure wouldn’t tell anybody about it. [laughs]

Originally published on 1 November 1998 by Addicted To Noise
Source: R.E.M. Central

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