Interviews: Surprise! New LP Takes Up Acoustic Challenge

By Steve Morse

Georgia rockers R.E.M., arguably the country’s most casual superstars, are doing the unexpected once again. Not only is their new album a quiet, acoustic-oriented retreat from the limelight, but they’re not going to support it with concert tour. It’s the second straight album that R.E.M. won’t tour behind, though that didn’t hurt their last one, Out of Time, which sold 10 million copies to become the biggest seller of the band’s 12-year career.

“I love touring, but is touring the right thing to do for the band right now? We all think it isn’t,” guitarist Peter Buck says from R.E.M.’s office in Athens, Ga. “I can’t imagine touring with this new record and focusing the set around 12 songs that are mostly passive and slow. So we’re going to do another record and then tour.”

The new album, Automatic for the People, is due out Tuesday. It’s largely “moody and dense,” as Buck says in a recent interview, but it most definitely rewards repeated listens. Like a latter-day Van Morrison record, it insinuates itself slowly, thanks to singer Michael Stipe’s stream-of-conciousness lyrics – notably some anti-George Bush rhetoric in the song “Ignoreland” – and a melodic weave of Buck’s acoustic guitar and mandolin, plus string arrangements on three tunes by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.

The album is, by and large, insular, with very few guests. Call it chamber, folk-rock, if you will. It’s nowhere near as playful as Out of Time, which contained the hit singles “Losing My Religion” and “Radio Song”, but it’s not a sad record, either, despite song titles like “Everybody Hurts” and “Try Not to Breathe.” Sonically, it does make sense as the next step.

“You forget what a real musician-type instrument an acoustic guitar is,” says Buck, who hasn’t featured his electric guitar in three years. “You can’t cover up a acoustic guitar with fuzz. It’s a matter of you having to play it right. I also like the sound an acoustic guitar makes. But I just got a huge Marshall stack and a Les Paul guitar, so maybe the next record is going to be more rocking. I think that’s our plan – to make more of a rock’n'roll record and go on the road.”

Don’t look for a tour, however, before 1994.

“When we do tour, we’ll have a complete new body of work that basically has never been played live,” says bassist Mike Mills in a separate phone interview. “It will be a new thing rather than just a continuation of the same old album/tour, album/tour thing. It’ll be fresh for us. It’ll be fresh for the people. I just think it’s going to be a better idea that we wait a little longer.

“We’ll then have three records that we won’t have toured behind,” Mills says. “That’s 30-something songs and we only play 20-something in a night. So we’ll be able to play all these songs you’ve never heard live before. Of course, we’ll throw in some of the old ones just for occasional fun, but basically it’s going to be a clean slate.”

This is strange talk from a band that once toured constantly, building from an alternative, college-popular band (back in 981 when the song “Radio Free Europe” first broke), to a mainstream band that sold out arenas in 1989. Along the way, they also played a lot of surprise club dates, turning up in such Boston-area clubs as the Rat and Charlie’s Tap.

“The fact we were on the road for the entire year of 1989 had something to do with it, because by the end we were more than ready to stop,” says Mills. “But I think it’s more that we didn’t want to go out and do the same thing again. It would have just been like the last arena tour with sight changes in scenery and a few different songs. We want to wait until everybody is really fired up ad ready to go and commited to touring. If you go out and juve a half-[baked] show because you don’t want to be there, then you’re just taking people’s money.”

After 1989, some rock promoters even eyed R.E.M. as the next stadium act, but that’s never going to happen, Mills says.

“You won’t see us in stadiums. There’s only one reason to play stadiums and that’s to make a lot of money. It’s absurd. Half the people can’t even tell who’s up there. And they have to watch these big television screens. That’s gross. That has nothing to do with music at all.”

Not that R.E.M. hasn’t performed within the last few years. They did a benefit in February in Athens for a friend who lacked medical insurance and a few dates in Europe last year. Buck, the most live-oriented player in the group, has done numerous acoustic gigs with Georgia friend Kevn Kinney. Buck also sat in nearly every Wednesday in 1990-91 in Athens with a country band, the Normaltown Flyers, who just released their own album.

“I did it for free, except for all the beer I could drink,” Buck says. “But I’ve liked not getting paid. I haven’t got paid for a gig in three years and I’ve probably done 100 of them.”

Buck, Mills and drummer Bill Berry also found time this year to record an album with ’60s garage-rock relics the Troggs, whose “Wild Thing” remains a rock classic. The new album, Athens and Andover (Rhino Records) stars Troggs singer Reg Presley and has some fun but time-warped moments. “It’s kind of a neat record,” says Buck. “And Reg’s obsessions are the same. He’s still writing about women in hot pants.”

R.E.M.’s new album, due to Stipe’s poetically oblique lyrics, is naturally more complex. Some songs don’t work, such as the quirky, Randy Newman-like “Nightswimming.” But most do. There’s even an ambient, Brian Eno-like instrumental in “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1″ (recorded at Kingsway studio in New Orleans, owned by U2 coproducer Daniel Lanois); and touches of comic relief in “Man on the Moon” (about comic Andy Kaufmann) and the TV spoof, “Monty Got A Raw Deal,” with this line tucked amid an accordion texture: “Nonsense has a welcome ring.”

The most lasting memory, though, is the assault on George Bush’s conservative doctrine. The new single, “Drive,” talks about being “Bush-whacked,” while the song “Ignoreland” is even more negative toward Bush.

“It’s a total anti-Reagan/Bush diatribe, but it’s also a message to America. That’s what ‘Ignoreland’ is – America,” says Mills. “It’s people who only get their information from sound bytes and television, and who don’t really bother to research the presidential candidates; or ultimately the ore important ones, who are your local candidates.” Nothing on the album jumps out as an immediate hit single, but that doesn’t faze R.E.M. “We’re an album band anyway,” says Buck. “Are we big enough to drag out audience along to a record that isn’t a radio-ready Top 40 hit? It doesn’t matter one way or the other. But I think our fans are into the band enough that they’re not going to need a dance-pop, Top 10 single to buy the record… Our fan base will be there. I’m not worried about it. As long as we do good work, we’ll be fine.”

Originally published on 2 October 1992 by Boston Globe

4 Responses to “Interviews: Surprise! New LP Takes Up Acoustic Challenge”

  1. Kay in KCMO Says:

    Some songs don’t work, such as the quirky, Randy Newman-like “Nightswimming.”

    Randy Newman-like? Quirky?? Doesn’t work?!? Nothing about that sentence makes any kind of sense. It would be funny if it weren’t so gobsmackingly strange. Quirky? Really? I guess it does deserve a LOL after all.

  2. Ivana Says:

    LOL indeed! I love these old articles, they’re hilarious precisely because some of the band’s greatest songs/albums were totally misunderstood or undervalued when originally released.

  3. Kay in KCMO Says:

    I bothered to listen to “Nightswimming” after I read this just to see if I was missing something and, nope, this guy was on the pipe, obviously. As Bugs Bunny would say, “What a maroon!”

  4. Tony Says:

    Published in the Boston Globe by Steve Morse, huh? Well, I wonder if he’s ever noticed how often Nightswimming gets airplay on the radio in Boston…

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