It was on some cruddy Michigan day in the late winter of 1984 that I was flipping through another dull issue of Rolling Stone, this one with a “Best of” critics’ poll result for ’83. The album topping the list that year was the debut full-length LP, titled Murmur, by some unknown band called R.E.M. I had this desperation for any decent new music, since it was practically impossible to find indie releases—anything cool, really—in my Upper Mitten home. So a gamble was required. I ordered Murmur from the local iron-on shirt/record shop and a week later I received this rustic looking record cover with four un-rock-looking dudes on the back cover. The needle hit the vinyl and the first tune, “Radio Free Europe,” came bouncing out. Guitar rock? No distortion? No screaming? It was a puzzling listen until later that night when, sitting in front of my mom’s stereo, I heard the last song on the first side, “Perfect Circle.” Talk about making a connection. R.E.M. was the first band to hit a melodic emotional spot in all my cynical glory, but the great thing is that it didn’t happen only to me—it happened in similar small pockets of cynicism everywhere in the U.S. of A.
Though signed to IRS Records—famous for The Go-Go’s and Police product that bankrolled the independent label—R.E.M. still had to work their asses off, as IRS wasn’t quite in the big-dog leagues. With no major hype, no big promotions and not much of an image to precede them, R.E.M. gained in popularity mostly through word of mouth, passed from friend to friend like a secret that everybody just had to know. Their image was no image: four unglamorous, non-New Wave musicians who didn’t beg for attention or live the high life in any way that even remotely resembled rock stardom. The unassuming Athens, Ga., band—guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Berry, bassist Mike Mills and singer Michael Stipe—seemed like total regular joes, except they had radically different ideas about where music was headed. That music was a hybrid of power pop and strange Mason-Dixon country rock—and maybe they did look kinda weird after all, in a southern goth kind of way.
The cult of R.E.M. grew steadily thanks to the band’s relentless touring schedule and support from the college radio circuit—this, remember, is back when “alternative rock” was still called simply “college rock.” By the spring of ’84, R.E.M.’s second release, Reckoning (third if you include the Chronic Town EP), had garnered even more attention due to the college-savvy single “So. Central Rain.” The halls they played grew larger and, as usual, the press loved but failed to really understand them, obsessing over Stipe’s lyrical mumblings more than anything else. Sure, the lyrics were puzzling, but what the press failed to visualize was the very newness of R.E.M; that perhaps Stipe wasn’t really saying much of anything in his cut-and-paste Burroughs method; that in interviews, R.E.M. was more concerned with telling the stories of eccentric Athens locals, slipping in tidbits of their personal scene, and most of all, their influences, who gained a whole new audience via R.E.M.
Third LP Fables of the Reconstruction was produced by Witchseason entrepreneur Joe Boyd, whose previous employers included Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny and fey singer-songwriter (and future cult object) Nick Drake. It was a flat-sounding, colder record, but still a great listen, under-appreciated in its day but with a haunting, timeless quality. By 1986, R.E.M. had begun to really hit it big in the burgeoning underground circuit with Life’s Rich Pageant, a vibrant LP that connected with more of the twentysomethings, particularly through the big college-radio hits “Fall On Me” and a cover of ’60s band The Clique’s “Superman.”
Then, in 1987, the inevitable happened, due in large part to overdrive MTV airplay: an actual (gasp!) Top Ten hit with “The One I Love,” from the mystical sounding Document LP, their last studio release on IRS records. As the second phase of their career started in 1988, R.E.M. had signed to Warner Brothers, who would see them through a well-publicized string of hits, world tours, rising celebrity, ailing members and incredible success. Not to dismiss this latter part of the band’s career, but for me it was the years when R.E.M was still a little underground band that made an impact on my life.
So: There comes a time in a man’s life when he must face a hero from years gone by—meaning, I got to actually interview a member of R.E.M last week, and when I say “must,” what I mean is that it was actually an honor. The member was Peter Buck, the musician who affected so much of my musical learning process. It was Buck who indirectly passed on advice about other bands to check out (Big Star, The Velvet Underground, The Replacements—even The Beach Boys), influenced me to kill the distortion on my amp and really write songs, propelled me to search out the underground history of music and understand the stranger parts of American culture. Yeah, that’s a lot of responsibility (and gratitude) to heap on one guy, but hell—he’s not gonna read the article anyway. “I try not to read about myself,” Mr. Buck told me. “It’s kind of creepy.”
The interview went all right. I’d have much rather been sitting around with the subject and a 12-pack, but instead I found myself worming on the phone and limping through the typical first question regarding new albums and so on:
“Well, it depends who you talk to [chuckles]. We have a lot of stuff finished, there’s still a fair amount of work to go. But I’m generally confident about where we are right now, a little more than halfway through.”
And other aw-shucks questions like, have you ever played in Montana before?
“No, we never have and when the opportunity to play there came up, we all felt that we have to do it. My goal is to play every state in the union, there’s only two or three left. Alaska, North Dakota …I think we played South Dakota.”
I had to get an opinion about the umpteenth wave of garage rock: “I think it’s kinda cool that the young people are listening to rock and roll again. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of years where there really weren’t a lot of new rock and roll bands. You know, I’m kind of excited about it. I’m a fan of all that stuff. It’s not that much different from the punk rock days when I grew up.” (Buck mentions recent—and Mitten!—favorites The Detroit Cobras and The Dirtbombs.)
Since the band is recording in Vancouver, BC (they cut their most recent LP, Reveal, up there at Bryan Adams’ old studio), and because Buck now lives in Seattle, I thought perhaps the band was gradually making the move from its original southern home base to the great Northwest. Michael Stipe and Mike Mills still reside in Georgia. Original drummer Bill Berry quit the biz for good in ’98. I asked what the man is up to:
“He lives at home, he’s got kind of a farm. He just putters around…He just got tired of the whole thing and he just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Getting some of the questions I’m sure he’s bombarded with safely out the way, I then had to dig into the IRS years and just shoot the breeze from a fan’s perspective. Especially regarding the album that had had such an epochal impact on me. I mentioned that it was quite a stretch from the bootlegs and demos from that year, on which they played with fervor, to the more disciplined studio sessions for Murmur:
“We had opportunities to make albums before we made Murmur, but we felt that we weren’t ready as a band; we didn’t feel we had the material yet. We wanted to make a really impressive first record, something that was different-sounding to what was being done at the time. So we waited until the right moment. It was a good experience to go into the studio and know what you’re doing. We had a fair amount of studio experience that time and we had Mitch Easter and Don Dixon with us, who were both really great.”
And how much influence did team Dixon/Easter have with arrangements, etc.?
“They were real helpful. We had the arrangements down, but they’d been in studios before and they knew how to get great sounds. If we wanted to try something off the wall, they were there to help us out. We had a great experience with them.”
The standard set by R.E.M. in the mid-’80s influenced so many bands, it drove me crazy to hear all the lukewarm rip-offs. I figured it might have driven R.E.M. a bit mad, too.
“There were a lot of bands that kind of sounded like us for a little while,” Buck says. “I still meet people who listened to our records when they were younger and they’re making really cool music now…it’s really flattering to know that we helped inspire someone a little bit.”
A major boner pulled by journalists at the time was comparing R.E.M. to The Byrds. When I picked up the latter’s greatest hits package (which I love), the only comparison I could make was that the guitar tones were similar.
“I learned a lot of stuff from listening to Roger McGuinn play guitar,” Buck admits. “It’s an easy point of comparison. I’m not sure that Michael has ever really listened to The Byrds. I certainly was influenced guitar-wise. I was influenced by a lot of things.”
R.E.M.’s devoted fans—from college students on down to geeky little 15-year-olds—traveled miles to see them in the big city, searching for autographs and scraps of knowledge. Did Buck understand us?
“Well, at the time we were probably the exact same age as most of the people who buy the records and come to see the shows, you know, 21, 22, 24, that kind of thing. So yeah, we weren’t aiming the records at them or anything, but there was definitely the feeling you recognize these people. They were the different ones in college. But as time went on and we got older, the audience kind of stayed the same. There’s a bigger difference between you and them…which is interesting also.”
June’s MOJO magazine featured a great article on the band, the most surprising revelation of which was that, even when R.E.M. was doing well, its members were still struggling in different aspects—mostly financial. I mean, they had decent tour buses, were playing 1,000-1,500 seaters…
“Well, I don’t consider it a struggle, but we were sleeping five to a room and not really eating. I can’t think of a better way to spend your early twenties, but we weren’t going back to a five-star hotel and getting room service [chuckle]. But that’s the way it goes. You gotta remember we’re getting paid $200 a night and you’re traveling all of the time. We were working musicians, we had to tour to pay the bills. And we did, it was great and I loved doing it. I thought it was an amazing life.”