Interviews: Success Hasn’t Spoiled R.E.M.’s Music Or Changed The Band’s Offbeat Attitude
By Jonathan Taylor
Even the Great Wallendas probably would have admired the high wire that R.E.M. treads these days.
Long a cult and critics’ favorite, the R.E.M. group has been heralded as nothing less than the salvation of American rock and roll (folk-garage division). Now, its recently released third album finds the band–gulp!–on the verge of mass acceptance. After just five weeks on the chart, Fables of the Reconstruction is already in the top 30 and climbing.
This is, of course, the kind of achievement record companies, accountants and, for that matter, most bands strive for. But it also has been known to throw groups off balance. Suddenly, instead of simply satisfying themselves, musicians try to second-guess what the public wants–and that can be disastrous to creativity and originality.
Well, it’s pleasing, though hardly surprising, to report that the four members of R.E.M.–an iconoclastic band so long known for its individualism and offbeat attitude about pop music–appear to be unaffected by their current good fortunes. They’re walking that tightrope quite nicely, thank you.
“We’d all been aware of what success can do to you before we started this band,” R.E.M. bass player Mike Mills said in a recent phone interview from the offices of R.E.M.’s management in Athens, Ga. “I’ve seen bands who are slightly popular around town, and they start to strut their stuff.
“It doesn’t take any great human attributes to play the guitar. It takes a certain amount of physical coordination. And to do it well takes good taste and discernment. But there are plenty of jerks walking around with good taste.”
Although the group doesn’t concern itself much with good taste – take a look at the unsightly cover of its Reckoning album – it does care about quality and living up to the members’ personal expectations.
“Every time we get a new album out, the buzz begins,” guitarist Peter Buck said. “Now there’s another buzz out there. It means we’ve got to top ourselves, do better and feel better about it.
“A lot of people don’t feel that need, but we think it’s important. There’s going to come a point when we can’t make our records any better, and that’s why we always change our focus, come up with something different. For us, it’s all a process of growing, becoming better songwriters and performers, drawing more influences into the music. We eventually want to be able to do anything.”
The goals weren’t quite so lofty when the quartet–Mills, Buck, singer Michael Stipe and drummer Bill Berry–formed in an abandoned church in Athens in 1980. They were originally going to be a one-shot band for a party in the college town.
Adopting the casual attitude of thousands of garage bands and the defiant unconventionality of the punk-new wave revolutions, the four set out on a career that incorporated high standards and low pretensions.
“We’ve never really had a goal, except to just enjoy ourselves and play for parties,” Mills said. “Now, though, it’s to make the best music we can and stay proud of it. We try to do it on as much of a fun basis as possible, but we also realize the audience paid money to get in.”
The seductive, elusive folk-tinged rock and roll of R.E.M.’s independently released debut single, “Radio Free Europe,” won instant critical praise. The group’s aspirations–and acclaim–grew with each subsequent release.
Fables of the Reconstruction is the band’s most diverse collection of songs yet, with occasional strings and horns complementing the group’s simple, propulsive music. Although lacking the sense of inspired revelation that made Reckoning such an outstanding album, Fables is still a challenging, haunting and frequently beautiful album.
The elusiveness in R.E.M.’s music is typified by the album’s packaging. The Fables of the part of the title is printed on one side of the cover, and Reconstruction of the is on the other, so that the title also could be read as Reconstruction of the Fables.
Both Buck and Mills said it’s their way of avoiding being too closely pegged; “reconstruction,” of course, recalls their Southern roots. But in keeping with the group’s determinedly unpretentious image, Buck finally conceded, “It could’ve been called ‘Bad Feet’–it’s just a title.”
Similarly, the group resists being aligned too closely with the so-called “new American rock revival” – the sudden return of basic American-bred rock. The band is clearly put off by the weightiness of such a description.
No doubt the group’s decision to maintain its headquarters in Athens has helped keep the members’ egos in line.
“We’re known in Athens,” Buck said, “but then again, no one cares. We’ve been around so long, it’s certainly not a thrill to see us.”
Originally published on 11 August 1985 by Chicago Tribune
Source: R.E.M. Central