Interviews: The Weird Side Of R.E.M.

By David Fricke

Automatic For The People Features Slow, Dark, Brooding Songs

“The thing that separates this record from Out Of Time is that we have some of the weirdest songs in the world on there,” says bassist Mike Mills of R.E.M.’s forthcoming album, Automatic For The People. “We knew they were weird from the beginning. It wasn’t hard to tell.”

The album, which was coproduced by Scott Litt and R.E.M., will be released on October 6th and comes only eight months after R.E.M.’s recent Grammy hat trick, which included a Best Alternative Album trophy for 1991’s Out Of Time. But Automatic For The People is not the full-tilt rock & roll album the band originally promised. The emphasis is on Southern Gothic balladry and folk-rock torch songs, scored with a fluid mix of acoustic and electric guitars, piano, organ and spacious strings arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and Knox Chandler from the Psychedelic Furs. The album opens with two slow songs –the dark, brooding “Drive” (the first single) and the waltz-time meditation “Try Not to Breathe” — and there are only three uptempo numbers on the entire LP, among them a venomous, fuzzed-up anti-Republican tirade, “Ignoreland.”

“We were just as surprised as anybody that the album turned out like this,” Mills confesses. “We wrote fast songs. But it’s funny: Fast songs are easier to write, but is seems like it’s harder to write good ones. This time, the slow ones sounded better.”

The slow ones are also full of surprises, like the Memphis-via- Athens chamber soul of “Everybody Hurts” and the luscious background vocals in “Star Me Kitten,” which bear a strong (and deliberate, Mills concedes) resemblance to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” Singer-lyricist Michael Stipe adds a few new twists to his vocal palette, including a high, lungbusting wail in the vivacious rocker “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and a sassy imitation-Elvis gurgle in “Man on the Moon,” which sounds like the pop offspring of “Losing My Religion” and “Near Wild Heaven”.

The ear candy actually belies the sober undercurrent running through a song like “Try Not to Breathe,” in which Stipe sings from a point of view of a person facing the realities of death and old age. “It’s a slow, dark record, but it’s not depressing dark,” Mills insists. “`Everybody Hurts’ is saying, `Don’t get suicidal, don’t get depressed, because everybody hurts, you’ll come through it.’”

The album title comes from a popular soul-food restaurant in Athens, Georgia. “When they’re dishing up the food,” Mills explains, “you say, `I want some pork chops,’ and they go, `Automatic.’” But there was nothing automatic about the making of the album. Mills says that he, Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry would go on one- or two-week-long writing binges, come up with a few songs and then cut demo versions of them at John Keane’s studio in Athens.

After running up about twenty songs that way, “we took a month off and listened to them all,” Mills says. “In that sense, it wasn’t as planned out. All the ideas for the overdubs came more in the last month or so.” Two tracks, “Drive” and “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1,” were cut in the Crescent City at Daniel Lanois’s Kingsway studio. The rest of the album was recorded at Bearsville Studios, in Woodstock, NY, and Criteria Studios, in Miami, with one track and all the mixing done at a studio in Seattle.

“It’s funny — we did this record in the four corners of the U.S. just about, and I feel like I’ve been on the road enough to have toured,” says Mills, which is his way of admitting that R.E.M. will not be going on the road in the near future. “It may be that these songs weren’t the ones that kicked us in the butt enough to get us on the road. We want to go out. It’s just something that has to be hashed out over a longer period of time.”

Originally published on 1 October 1992 by Rolling Stone
Source: R.E.M. Central

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