Interviews: Stipe And Mills Welcome R.E.M.’s New Era

By Gil Kaufman

Seated at a microphone in a tent backstage at the Tibetan Freedom Concert at Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium, R.E.M.’s outspoken frontman Michael Stipe and the more reserved bassist Mike Mills were trying to explain the group’s new, ambient sound.

The group had just played — for the first time live — four new songs, several of which could end up on its new LP, due in October.

“We’re dinner theater now,” Stipe said in answer to a question about the band’s new direction.

“Easy,” Mills cautioned good-naturedly, perhaps worried that the assembled media masses gathered to speak to the two members of one of the world’s biggest bands would label the group’s upcoming album “R.E.M. Go Vegas.”

“OK, I’m like dinner theater,” Stipe corrected himself. “You can be whatever you want.”

R.E.M. had just played an uncharacteristic set, and Stipe and Mills were on hand to talk about the group’s evolving sound and satisfy the intense curiosity about the band’s seemingly more experimental leaning these days, a subject that apparently has everything to do with its album-in-progress.

Changes in the group had been on display at the show, evidenced by the absence of original drummer Bill Berry — for the first time since the band formed in 1980 — and by the debut of the four introspective, theatrical new songs.

Stipe, who spent the day wrapped in a print sarong and a tight, navel-baring patterned top (or, as he called it, his “foxy” outfit), said that the band had never been into “bash-you-over-the-head rock‘n’roll.” Nonetheless, the new mid-tempo and more minimalistic songs — “Parakeet,” “Sad Professor,” “Airportman” and “Suspicion” — were a far cry from the explosive, distortion-heavy sound that the band had opted for on its last two efforts, Monster and New Adventures In Hi-Fi.

“It’s a very different kind of rock ‘n’ roll,” Stipe said of his group’s sound, which will be audible on the upcoming, still-untitled 11th album. “And, hopefully, we’re pushing the boundaries of what is thought of as rock‘n’roll just a little bit.”

The Athens, Ga., group has been recording the new material with help from Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows. The band is still recording, Stipe said, adding to the more than a dozen songs tracked in San Francisco earlier this year.

Both Stipe and Mills addressed the absence of Berry, who quit the group last year to step away from the rock scene for a while. “The band is — and will be until we quit making music — myself, Mike Mills and [guitarist] Peter Buck,” Stipe insisted.

And while the bandmembers seem determined to carry on without their friend and drummer, R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs said that Berry was there in spirit. “Bill called before the show to wish the guys good luck,” he said. He added that the call had come in on Saturday, June 13, before the cancellation of the first day of the Tibetan Freedom Concert and R.E.M.’s scheduled set due to a lightning strike that sent several fans to the hospital. R.E.M. rescheduled for the June 14 show with Joey Waronker, Beck’s tour drummer, filling in for Berry and Martin on percussion.

The show also featured another first — it was the first time in their 20-year career that R.E.M. have ever interrupted a recording session for an outside engagement. Stipe chalked it up to a promise that he made to organizers last year, after he and Mills performed a few songs at the TFC in New York. “We didn’t know what our schedule was in terms of making the record,” he said. “We certainly didn’t know we’d be a three-piece. But we wanted to hold good to our word, and, frankly, it’s a lot of fun to be here.”

And despite the perceived danger of debuting new material in front of 66,000 fans without their usual drummer, Stipe said the group had no trepidation about unveiling the new material. “I bow down at the altar of St. John’s Wort,” the singer said somewhat enigmatically.

Then he pointed to a more concrete reason for his confidence. “I feel like the new songs are really great,” he said.

He summed up by putting a more serious spin on his earlier “dinner theater” comment. “We don’t want to be an oldies act,” Stipe said.

Originally published on 25 Jun 1998 by Sonicnet
Source: R.E.M. Central


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