Interviews: Welcome To The Occupation

By Allan Jones

“You can’t tell anyone you came here.”

Michael Stipe mutters this as we pull up in the drive of his house, the humid night air alive with the chatter of crickets, brown recluse spiders and rattlesnakes. Stipe has learnt the importance of protecting himself from the inquisitive glare of the unhappy, inbalanced and downright undesirables who turn up on his porch from nowhere, seeking words of wisdom or comfort from someone they see as the closest we’ve got to an Eighties rock’n'roll guru.

For that reason the house is now strictly off limits, and, if it is possible to hint f*** off, then a notice, pinned on the door does so with characteristic Stipean charm. Once inside it’s easy to see why. Common courtesy and respect for his privacy forbids any description of the interior – suffice to say it’s a magical place. An R.E.M. LP cover brought to life.

The last train to Disneyworld left the station just as R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck was waking that morning. Blinking his way across the bedroom he switched on the TV and was, once again, confronted by the Reverend Ike, who, as usual, was frothing at the mouth.

“I want you to sent me your money! And I don’t mean that jingling kind cos that only makes me nervous. I want the folding cash! Cos I need a new Cadillac. God told me, I need a new Cadillac! I don’t want my pie in the sky – I want my pie now!”

That was when Buck knew that R.E.M. had to make an album about America, 1987. America ’87 and its surreal madness. Its attempts to revive the spirit of McCarthyism, its clandestine operations in Nicaragua and the blatant ones in the Gulf. The insatiable desire for money, murder and madness – everything that, to him, a young American, meant one thing – Disneyworld.

“It’s a sideways look at the world and us. It has a kind of Orwellian wry humour. It’s not that we’re making light of America, it’s just that I can’t look at it the way Bruce Springsteen does. To me, America in 1987 is Disneyworld.”

Buck pulls apart the slats on a Venetian blind and peers out into the Athens’ sun which is nudging 100 degrees. He surveys the quiet streets around the R.E.M. office, a last bastion of sanity in a country gone bonkers.

The evening before we arrived in Athens, R.E.M. had played an unannounced gig at the neighbouring 40 Watt Club – rumours of which had shot round the close-knit community like a synapse, ensuring that the club was overflowing by the time they took the stage. According to eyewitnesses, they tore through a selection of new material and just one old song “Begin The Begin” from Lifes Rich Pageant.

The experience hat left them excited and obviously eager to talk. Even the infamously hard to pin down Stipe appeared relaxed, almost eager to please, if somewhat distracted by his friend’s dog Joey, who he was looking after for the day.

R.E.M. last studio LP, Lifes Rich Pageant, was characterised as much by the directness of the songs themselves as by Don Gehman’s lushly textured production. The man behind John Cougar and The Blasters, Gehmann grabbed R.E.M.’s intangible, intransitory meanderings by where their balls should be, and sculpted them into something very nearly approaching pop. Surprising, then, that Document, the revised title for Disneyworld, should be an almost complete about face, if anything, capturing the band in even heavier sepia tones than their pre-Pageant days. Was this desire to trip it all down and get back to basics a reaction against the highly polished sheen of Pageant, an unhappiness with a direction they’d not envisaged being pushed in perhaps?

“No, not at all,” Buck explains, walking away from the window as the blinds snap shut. “Every record is a process of reacting against the prior one. I was really happy with Pageant but none of us wanted to make that record again. I think we made the perfect record we could in that style and the new songs, because of the way we wrote them, wouldn’t have lent themselves to that big AOR thing.

“We always go into the studio with a set idea but it never comes out that way. It’s hard to write to order. I think this time we wanted a really big sound with lots of chaotic stuff on top. Big in a way that a Peter Gabriel record would be, but not as clean – full of weirdness, backwards stuff and noise.”

Document is, at times, both more violent and more whimsical than any other R.E.M. LP to date, yet is less exact in the way it executes its intentions, displaying an almost cavalier attitude to any notion of conventional songwriting or playing.

“Well, we’ve been trying to write songs lately that are a little less from following,” Mike Mills explains. “We’re trying to write a little more musically nonsensical.”

“Yeah,” Buck interrupts, “I’m probably the worst for this, I’m the one who has to have a chorus in each song. But there are three or four songs on this LP which just don’t have a chorus in the accepted sense, which is neat. Van Morrison has a lot of songs that don’t have choruses and it’s hard to work that into a rock’n'roll perspective, but we wanted the songs to flow a little bit more and be divided less into anything like verse-bridge-chorus. Where’s the bridge? Well the bridge is where the verse and chorus aren’t.”

So there was absolutely no intention of making a commercial LP then?

“I don’t have a clue what commercial means,” Michael Stipe deadpans as he’s yanked into the room by Joey. “To me, commercial is ‘Sledgehammer’ or Gang Of Four.”

Stipe’s vocals are pared down almost to a shout on Document, while Buck’s guitars screech and soar against them, defying the gravity of each particular song. In a way, Buck’s guitar work plays much the same role on Document as Stipe’s voice did on Pageant, and what few layers there are on the LP are stacked by him.

“It is our most male record,” Stipe says, tongue in cheek as he disappears to fetch a bowl of water for his canine companion, never to be seen again that afternoon. Buck takes up the conversation.

“It seemed that on the last record, there was very little room for guitars because of all the keyboard parts. This time I got a bit greedy.” He grins wickedly.

“It was a kind of release,” Mike Mills continues. “We’re coming out of the winter and we were itching to get it going so we really attacked it.”

Document was recorded in Nashville with Scott Litt who Buck admired for his “dare I admit it? Big modern drum sound.” For all its music biz connection Buck claims that Nashville was essentially a quiet town which soon succumbed to the R.E.M. way of doing things.

“Every night we’d finish at around one, go to a bar and meet the same five people.” The band describe the sessions as easy going, a far cry from those for Fables Of The Reconstruction which, from a safe distance, they now admit came close to causing a split within the band as well as a personal crisis for Buck.

“I think we were all kind of miserable,” the guitarist explains. “I hate to say it, but it was raining every day in England and we were all going through these weird pressures and I think that every band goes through these times when you think: ‘Do I want to be a rock’n'roll band?’ We were at the point where we could feel ourselves getting sucked into the business. I was pretty much a wreck for most of that time.”

“I was just drunk all the time. It’s not that I didn’t care, I was just depressed a hell of a lot and it showed within the band. I think we were thinking ‘Why can’t we just be hippies and say f*** the record. We don’t want to do it, we’re going home.’ In the end we worked through it. If we were to record those songs now, in a similar mental state to what we were in at the time, they would be very different. I do like that record. I’m not saying it was a failure. I mean, rock’n'roll isn’t showbiz, we don’t have to be happy. F*** it. As weird as that album can get, that’s how I feel every day. The thing that sums it up is that bit at the end of ‘Feeling Gravitys Pull’ where the strings come in and it goes down ‘Neargh!’I probably looked like that too.”

Document shares a similar intensity but, by and large, it’s developed into an intrinsic theme rather than a state of mind. From the unstoppable droning folk of the LP’s opening tour de force, “Finest Worksong”, to the Thirties´ WPA-Style social realist murals which adorn the cover, its central themes can scarcely be denied. Much later that same night in their favourite pizza parlour, Stipe puts it all into perspective.

“In America, if you can’t make money, they think it’s because you’re a failure. The work ethic is really intrinsic to American thought and that has a lot to do with this LP. The idea that you can work and work and get what you want and then try for even more. It’s the American dream but it’s a pipe dream that’s been exploited for years. I could get by without money, I’ve done it before. You can get by in this town without money, it’s not a necessity. But it’s kinda gross what money does to you. Businessmen say hello to me on the street now. They acknowledge me when I go into a nice restaurant. They let me put my bike in the kitchen at the best restaurant in town. I can wear a smelly tee-shirt and they’ll take me to the best table. It’s really gross.”

The likes of the Reverend Ike and his ilk offering the promised land at a price also meet with due disdain, this time from Buck.

“That whole faith thing is something that goes through American culture like a knife. It has done for years. At the turn of the century I guess it was a big thing. Amie McPherson and Father, er, what’s that bastard’s name? But he was a crook too. They all were. There’s this American evangelical, Huxterism, America’s full of religious nuts. They all came here for that reason. They got kicked out of their own countries. My family came over from Sweden because they were agnostics and atheists. They came here to get away from that.

“That’s why, when you compare our songs to writers like Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, I’m flattered but don’t quite make the connection. Flannery’s characters are all struggling to reconcile their faith to a modern world where faith doesn’t play any apparent part. In our case I’d say none of us have got any faith anyway. I don’t believe in God.”

In the past, many of R.E.M.’s finest songs have walked the fine line between patriotism and gentle celebration of certain elements of American culture. Yet, over the last year, Buck claims to have derived most pleasure from the tainted visions held by Big Black and Sonic Youth. Was theirs a view he’d been tempted to share?

“I dunno. I’m certainly not an apologist for America, though it would be a nice piece of land if you could wipe out most of the people. I think Sonic Youth’s vision is very tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think you can take all this America 1969 blood and Manson stuff at all seriously. I mean, they haven’t killed anyone yet. It’s real Alice Cooperish. They’re probably just a lot more comfortable with that imagery than I would be. I’m not a blood and guts type guy. All the clothes that I like have skulls on them but, if I wore them, I’d look a dork. I just look at it all differently to them.”

Nevertheless, the songs on Document are more overtly political and damning than anything they’ve put their name to before. “Welcome To The Occupation”, “Exhuming McCarthy” and “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” all rage with a seemingly uncontrollable anger. It’s almost as if the passion and poignancy so prevalent on Fables, stirred by the spread of inhumanity and decay, hat festered and boiled over into blind hatred.

“Well, generally Michael is really worried about this conservative trend that’s going on and the way that people in power seem to look at things,” Buck ventures. “Right now Russia has the most sensible leader they’ve ever had and Reagan is just keeping the door open for more war. Reagan is a moron and that’s all there is to it. I get upset when I think about him.”

“End Of The World” and “Strange”, a cover of the old Wire classic, are also among the most powerful and strange vocal performances Stipe has ever laid down. Both are delivered in a speed crazy rush of emotion.

“I wrote the words to ‘End Of The World’ as I sung it. When they showed me that song in the studio I just said ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.’ I wanted it to be the most bombastic vocal that I could possibly muster. Something that would completely overwhelm you and drip off your shoulders and stick in your hair like bubblegum.”

“ ‘Strange’ was a scratch vocal. I went in and sang it twice and said, ‘That’s it.’ I didn’t listen to it after that. They took it away and mixed it up and put some reverb on it. I just couldn’t be bothered with it. I put a whole load of energy into the other songs and that one was just ‘Ugh!’ It’s like spitting – you don’t want to get it over your shirt but you wanna get it out and keep walking.”

“We’ve never played before. It’s gonna be awful – I can’t wait!”

Michael Stipe is musing on the evening’s entertainment. Athens’ two rock clubs, The 40 Watt and The Uptown Lounge, offer the kind of nightly entertainment and guest appearances that, two or three years ago, would have had the average Brit rock critic salivating for more. Tonight Stipe and a couple of friends are opening for his sister’s band, Cowface. Unfortunately they are awful. Stipe whacking out a guitar drone while two beefcakes bash sheet metal with 10lb hammers – a more testing Test Department.

A tortuous 30 minutes after it begins, an end is abruptly called and Athens’ youth drifts back to the bar, unsure whether to laugh or mourn the loss of their eardrums. Only Catlin liked it and Catlin, as anyone who’s even been in a car that he’s driving will know, is quite mad.

In the early hours of the morning, in a parking lot adjacent to The 40 Watt, Stipe unveils his reason for all the recent extra curricular activities. This last year has seen him extending his work with The Golden Palominos as well as producing an LP by Hugo Largo, the bassist of whom he met when interviewed by him in New York.

“As a band, what R.E.M. are capable is still pretty limited when it comes down to it. There’s a very set position where I exist. I could never get a sledgehammer on stage and hit metal with R.E.M. I’ve done it in the early days when we used to play biker bars. I’d wear this globe as a hat and I’d take it off and pound it on stage. The bikers thought I was insane so they left me alone. I think they kinda admired me cos I was this real skinny kid with funny hair.”

“It’s not really a frustration with R.E.M. If anything, it’s been opened up so wide to us that it’s actually dangerous. But we’re able to keep things intact and stay on top of each other. R.E.M. now is kinda like the statues that look out on Easter Island.” His voice trails away, a trifle embarrassed at the veracity of the comment.

“I don’t know why that came to me,” he says. “It just did. I can’t explain that one. I was trying to make some connection and it didn’t happen.”

Do you feel there’s a responsibility as Michael Stipe to always try and be profound?

“Not really, no. I think my most artesian profundity comes when I have no idea and I’m just rambling. The best time to catch me is when I’ve had seven cups of coffee and I haven’t slept in three days. I just vomit and, if you’re there, you can catch the little chunks. I’ve read some interviews with myself and it’s like I could not believe that I had said these things, they are so amazing. It’s like Kafka or Jung. It sounds so incredible and underneath it says ‘Claims Stipe!’ And I just go ‘Wow! Something’s there after all’.”

The previous evening at a Mexican restaurant the waitress had voiced much the same opinion and stared in disbelief when we told her we’d spent 10 hours on a plane just to talk to R.E.M.

“We see them in here all the time,” she’d said. “Last week Mike Mills left his glasses in here and all the other waitresses were trying them on. It was real funny. Maybe we should have auctioned them.”

Athens hardly trades on the reputation of its most famous sons. A tee-shirt here or a poster there modestly proclaiming “Infamous Athenians!” A far cry from the intensity with which Distiples, as they’re called in Athens, study the band’s output and lyrics, often coming up with the most amazing translations and interpretations.

“I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Stipe, slurping at an iced espresso. “If I had a band, I would want people to either love them or despise them. I would hate for them to just go ‘Oh yeah.’ In a lot of ways, I think people come to the band because they think that I have some kind of answer. I am kind of questioning things in a different way but I’m just as lost as everyone else. So when I’m expected to answer these questions and spout forth with humourous and philosophical anecdotes, sometimes it’s difficult.”

Stipe’s reluctance to talk has led to Peter Buck and Mike Mills tackling most of the interview chores which they do with the geniality of old pros. I wondered whether it was the inanity or the intensity of the earlier interviews that Stipe found so repellent.

“Well, I don’t dislike doing them. It’s just actually what comes out of them which is not to my liking. I enjoy talking to people except that it’s always me, me, me which is kind agross. A lot of times in interviews I come across as very sensitive or very dour because when I talk about myself it’s like ‘Ugh,’ I get too intense. I’m real reluctant to open up.”

Does it hurt when people insist on calling you weird?

“No, I don’t care. I’ve dealt with that all my life. I don’t think anybody can hurt me really. I think they’re disappointed when they find out how normal I really am. Cos I’m not weird.”

The memory of a cold night in Glasgow two years ago flashed into my head. An everlasting vision of Stipe careering frantically across the Apollo stage, wearing watches all over his body and with the word “DOG” written in felt-tip across his forehead. This is normal behaviour?

“Oh, I was so sick that night,” he protests. “I couldn’t stand up. I hadn’t eaten anything but potatoes for a whole week cos the food is so bad in England. All I could eat was a spring of parsley before I went onstage and I was vomitting and shitting. It was just awful. I felt like a dog so I took a felt tip and wrote it on my face. But I started sweating it off while I was on stage, which looked weird.”

There are other rumours though, sightings of him reading books upside down for one! Could he remember the first time that someone remarked that what he was doing was strange or odd?

“You know my earliest memory as a child was when I was two years old and I had Scarlet Fever. I was hallucinating and I was having my picture taken. I had a sweater on and I was really miserable and there was this guy zooming in and out. To me that was weird but I can’t remember people remarking that I was weird. I don’t know… I think you block those things out.”

The following morning he’s up bright and early and already sitting by the phone in the R.E.M. office when we call. A pair of plastic sunglasses sit awkwardly on his head held together with a a wad of Sellotape over the bridge of the nose. Along the sides he’s glued strips of cardboard giving him the appearance of an Athens Terminator. In a truck parked in the street two stories below, 18 globes of the world are stacked neatly ready to be burned and bent out of shape in the video for “Worksong” that Stipe is shooting that afternoon. While he’s not nearly as sensitive as he’s constantly portrayed, Stipe is an incredibly serious and obsessive artist who never stops work, drawing inspiration from every waking moment and, often as not, every sleeping one. Indeed, he cites his dreams as an often frightening subconscious release.

“I was shot in one dream by this assassin who was sent to kill me. But I didn’t die. I was shot point blank but he didn’t kill me. In the dream, he was hired to kill me, but he couldn’t do so until I looked him in the eyes. He tracked me for a long time and I finally got tired of it so I looked him in the eyes and he shot me. But I didn’t die. So then I was sounded and went on for a while, got tired, looked him in the eye and he took an ice pick and stuck it in my temple and killed me.”

Despite the unguarded descriptions of dreams, Stipe has learnt to hold his tongue on the more mystical side of his nature. He refuses to be drawn into discussing the transgression therapy he is about to undergo, whereby he will be hypnotised and taken back to a past life.

“Well you know it’s really outside the band and I think it would infuriate them if I talked about it. We get enough shit about being hippies already, especially now my hair’s long again.”

That said, R.E.M. don’t really care two boots or too much about how they’re perceived by others. Like every good band, they understand what it is they do that is so unique and are now sitting in a position where they can afford to indulge what their conscience tells them is right.

“Every decision we’ve made that has seemed to fly in the face of common sense has worked for us,” Mike had said the previous afternoon. Peter Buck had agreed. “You know, people say that we don’t play the game but I don’t know. To a certain degree, we do things that are unpleasant to us, photosessions and the like. It’s just that we won’t do things that we feel are deplorable or are against our ideals. They’d like us to have a glitzy video where we all sing and look sincere and where there’s a pretty girl and we have to say ‘Wait a minute. If we did that we’d look such pricks.’ If you’ve got something people want you don’t have to follow the game plan. Prince doesn’t.

“Prince has weird covers and weird records. The new one sounds like a demo to me – which is partly good and partly bad. But at least he had the balls to do it.”

Likewise, R.E.M. have turned down a prospective Radio 1 session scheduled for when they hit the UK this week.

“It’s not like we won’t do it,” Buck explains, “it’s just that we’ve got better things to do. If things hadn’t have been so rushed maybe we would have found time.”

Further example of their single-mindedness is the compilation LP, Dead Letter Office. From a marketing point of view, released dangerously close to Document, the LP works so well because it includes all the embarrassing bits other bands leave out. It makes you feel that you’re listening to something that you shouldn’t be which as everyone knows was one of the earliest appeals of rock’n'roll.

“Yeah well, we didn’t have too many illusions that it would sell two million,” Buck laughs. “It’s a summertime album. Plus, if it we put it out now we can have control over what’s on it as well as the packaging. If we were to change records companies, we wouldn’t have that control. I was gonna leave out some of the ones that were more embarrassing but, ah, f*** it!”

What didn’t make it on the LP?

“I really shudder to think!”

Dreams for the future include a re-union with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, probably after the next LP, an attempt to buy the rights for the soundtrack of a cinematic version of Ian Banks’ Wasp Factory and more production work for each member of the band.

“Basically, we’re trying to learn how to produce”, Mike says. “Also it’s good to do other stuff besides performing. We can have a secondary a career so, if the band should break up, we can always to that.”

Horror of horrors you’re not seriously contemplating…?

“Well,” Buck sighs, “I’ve always thought that a band should put out 10 LPs before they split. But the thing that always worries me is that we’ll dry up. Everytime we finish an LP, that’s what we think. And it’s like ‘God, this is it guys, it’s finishing, enjoy it while you can.’ There again, I suppose we could always play Las Vegas. Nostalgia for the early Eighties! Now that I could look forward to!”

Originally published on 12 September 1987 by Melody Maker

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