Interviews: The Dream Life Of R.E.M.

By Kevin C. Johnson

Three years ago, Warner Bros. Records startled the music industry when it signed the alt-rock band R.E.M. to a new five-album deal worth $80 million. Sure, entertainers have secured bigger deals, but this one was especially noteworthy because that kind of money is usually reserved for names like Madonna or Janet Jackson. But R.E.M., arguably the 1980’s most important and well-liked rock band, is no slouch.

Albums such as Out of Time, Automatic for the People and Monster sold more than 4 million copies each. The CDs were fueled by the hit singles “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts,” and “It’s the End of the World,” all of which helped to make the group radio favorites. So while the decision to bestow $80 million on the band didn’t exactly look like a no-brainer, it at least seemed justifiable considering the group’s status. But then Up rolled over and played dead by R.E.M. standards.

Up, the band’s 11th studio CD, made its debut at an impressive, though not spectacular, No. 3 on Billboard’s top albums chart last year. (It placed behind rapper Jay-Z and R&B group Dru Hill, surprising many who thought the CD would hit the charts at No. 1.) But from its initial landing point in Billboard, Up was down, and the drop-off was swift and steady.

Four months later, after achieving mere gold status, there was no sign of Up on the charts. Consequently, R.E.M was lumped in with acts such as Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Hole, and Alanis Morissette in a spate of death-of-rock stories.

Mike Mills, longtime bassist for the band, isn’t freaking out over the band’s disappointing sales or the fact that Warner Bros. might be wondering if it made the right decision in signing the band to such a lucrative deal. In fact, Mills says R.E.M. never felt any pressure to deliver.

“Every record company that has ever signed us knows we pretty much do what we want,” says Mills, interviewed recently by phone from his Athens, Ga., home. “Sometimes (an album) sells a lot and sometimes it doesn’t. But we put enough pressure on ourselves that we don’t need anymore.”

“We don’t have any control over (an album’s shelf life),” Mills says. “We made a great record and we’re very happy with it. We can’t make everybody happy.”

With Up, R.E.M. presented a less hokey, less accessible, and often more challenging music — qualities that are celebrated in some circles but not something that usually translates into big sales. Mills once said that the CD was tailor-made for headphones.

“I had a few people tell me they normally think that it’s bull when they read that (headphones bit),” says Mills, “and I tell them to try it.”

“It’s fine in the car, too. It’s a nice, serious listen, and it works on a different level with headphones. It has enough texture and complexity where, if you listen on the headphones, you might hear something you missed before. There’s so many little things. It’s kind of an orchestrated record. Things may happen once in a song, for a second, then never happen again, like a piano bit or synthesizer noise. And there’s some percussion that comes and goes.”

Up was the first R.E.M. release since drummer Bill Berry left the group in 1997 after suffering a brain aneurysm. His departure, which didn’t happen immediately after the incident, cracked the group’s seemingly impenetrable core.

The remaining members of the group are singer Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck. For the time being, Mills says, he and the others are content to be working as a trio.

“It gives us a little more freedom in the studio to do things differently,” he says. “We’re doing some songs with very little drums or no drums. So we don’t want to ask a drummer to join the band and then have him sit around.”

On tour, the band features Beck’s drummer, Joey Waronker, who may stick around for the next CD.

Musicians Scott McCaughey (of the Young Fresh Fellows) and Ken Stringfellow (of the Posies) are also in the band for this tour, which features an opening set from local heroes Wilco. So far this tour is going more smoothly than the tour of 1995. During that lengthy, worldwide trek, Berry had the aneurysm, Stipe had a hernia operation and Mills had abdominal surgery.

R.E.M.’s recent European tour went off without incident. The members’ most complicated problem now seems to be figuring out the nightly playlist. The band goes through a process in which a choice of 50 songs is narrowed down to perhaps 22 to 24. For each concert, a few songs from “Up” are a given, and most likely they will be “Daysleeper,” “Lotus,” “Walk Unafraid,” and “At My Most Beautiful.”

“We do those every night,” says Mills. “And ‘Man on the Moon’ and ‘Losing My Religion’ are still fun to play. Everything else is kind of up for grabs. But we’re playing stuff off of every record at least once or twice a week.”

In Los Angeles, the songs that popped up included oldies from the band’s repertoire such as “The One I Love,” “Find the River,” “Fall On Me,” “Finest Worksong,” “Cuyahoga” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” In addition, R.E.M. performed “The Great Beyond,” a song from the upcoming Man on the Moon, a film about late comedian Andy Kaufman.

“But some songs never work out live,” says Mills. “(For instance,) ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’ is an OK song, but it’s something we never wanted to try live.”

Of course, the band is still not doing the poppy “Shiny Happy People,” which comes as no surprise to fans.

“Never have, never will,” says Mills. “It’s a fine song. We like it as a song. But it’s not exactly what I want people to think of as our signature piece.”

Originally published on 19 August 1999 by St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Source: R.E.M. Central

One Response to “Interviews: The Dream Life Of R.E.M.”

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