Interviews: R.E.M. Drifts back to roots with song based on dream

It’s not often a band gets a live up to its name when writing a song.

Take R.E.M. for instance. Who would ever think that when first formed seven years ago in Athens, Georgia, with bandmembers Bill Berry (drums), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass) and Michael Stipe (vocals) – that Rapid Eye Movement, named after the dream-like state one reaches when asleep, would write a song based on a dream.

According to Mike Mills, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” off the new album Document, was based on dream of Michael Stipe’s.

“He had a dream with Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs – all these people with the initials L.B. having a birthday party together,” said Mills, in town to launch the new album.

“We got the music down, and apparently Michael was struggling with the melody. He said, ‘You know this song does not lend itself to melody.’ We said, ‘We can’t help you buddy, that’s your problem.’ So he decided to try a different approach.”

So the band came up with an end result that is comparable to Reunion’s “Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me).”

However, Document offers more as R.E.M.’s fifth studio album.

But Mills stops short when it comes to predicting that R.E.M. will overhaul its sound.

“There are more messages on this record than the last,” admits Mills, who also received a gold record for Lives Rich Pageant, their last studio effort.

“Michael’s just becoming comfortable with what he’s doing, so it’s easier for him to say the things he feels. Plus, things are deteriorating to the point where he feels he should say something about it.”

Mills said the United States is caught in a wave of conservatism, so lyricist Stipe thought it was a return to the McCarthy era.

“There’s a lot of repression over personal freedoms and a lot of paranoia very reminiscent of the McCarthy era,” said Mills, “which is what ‘Exhuming McCarthy’ is all about. And I agree, it’s very frightening – it’s going backwards in terms of civil liberties. Michael’s always going to be oblique about it. We’re never going to be didactic and hit people over the head. But I certainly don’t mind saying something. That’s what he sees.”

The band has had a busy year. Apart from writing and recording Document, it released an album of B-sides and collector items called Dead Letter Office. It also backed up Warren Zevon’s return to vinyl earlier this year, with Sentimental Hygiene.

“He wanted somebody to work on his demos two years ago, other than his usual L.A. session cronies,” said Mills. “He wanted a young, fresh band, and heard our records, and liked them. And we had such a good time with him that he said, ‘Hey, when I finally do this record I’d like you to come down and do some tracks.’

“And while he was in town, we happened to be doing the Hindu Love Gods single, and so we asked him to have a bang at the piano. And he said ‘I don’t know the song.’ We said ‘It doesn’t matter. Just play.’ He was a lot of fun.”

R.E.M. opens its tour with four shows at the Hammersmith Odeon in two weeks, and then returns to the States for a two-month tour. But don’t hold your breath: Canada isn’t included in the schedule.

“We’re going to take it easy,” said Mills. “We’ve got all of December off, and we’ll probably get back together to write songs early in the new year.”

He says the band is eager to try more of its new songwriting approach.

“We’re writing literally all at the same time, with everybody in the room at once,” said Mills. “Because you get a different kind of song – it’s a lot more chaotic, a lot less pop-melody oriented.”

Originally published on 27 August 1987 by Toronto Daily News

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