The return of R.E.M.

September 21, 2003


For years now, it hasn't been easy being an R.E.M. fan.

Arguably the most creative and influential American guitar band of the '80s, it was an undeniable progenitor of the alternative-rock explosion of the '90s, and it has recorded some of the best rock albums of the last three decades -- among them "Murmur" (1983) and "Automatic for the People" (1992), which stand as unparalleled masterpieces.

But many longtime fans believe that the favorite sons of Athens, Ga., began to compromise many of their original ideals after re-signing with Warner Bros. Records as part of an $80 million mega-deal in 1996. The group hasn't released a start-to-finish great album since "Automatic"; it continues to suffer from the departure of original drummer Bill Berry, who quit in October 1997 after suffering a brain aneurysm on tour in 1995, and it is once again performing a relatively high-priced arena show while welshing on a long-standing promise to play a small theater tour as a reward for hard-core fans.

R.E.M., SPARKLEHORSE When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: United Center, 1901 W. Madison
Tickets: $35-$75
Call: (312) 559-1212

At end of the night, fans leave feeling fine

Through the '80s and into the mid-'90s, R.E.M. was once of the most galvanizing live bands in rock. Some longtime fans contend that the group just hasn't been the same since drummer Bill Berry left, and recent tours haven't been nearly as strong. But to its credit, the band continues to mix up its set lists every night, rewarding listeners with at least two or three surprises every evening.

Here are three recent set lists from the current tour:

Sept. 11, Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas: "World Leader Pretend," "Finest Worksong," "These Days," "Drive," "Animal," "Sitting Still," "Get Up," "Bad Day," "Cuyahoga," "The One I Love," "At My Most Beautiful," "Losing My Religion," "Electrolite," "Find the River," "She Just Wants to Be," "Walk Unafraid," "Man on the Moon." Encores: "Everybody Hurts," "Imitation of Life," "Nightswimming," "Final Straw," "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."

Sept. 13, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Denver: "Begin the Begin," "So Fast, So Numb," "Maps and Legends," "Drive," "Animal," "Get Up," "Driver 8," "Bad Day," "The One I Love," "I've Been High," "World Leader Pretend," "So. Central Rain," "Find the River," "Losing My Religion," "I Believe," "She Just Wants To Be," "Walk Unafraid," "Man on the Moon." Encores: "Everybody Hurts," "Nightswimming," "Imitation of Life," "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."

Sept. 14, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Denver: "Finest Worksong," "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?," "These Days," "Drive," "Animal," "Pretty Persuasion," "Bad Day," "The One I Love," "Electrolite," "The Great Beyond," "Exhuming McCarthy," "Orange Crush," "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville," "Losing My Religion," "At My Most Beautiful," "She Just Wants To Be," "Walk Unafraid," "Man on the Moon." Encores: "Everybody Hurts," "Stuck in the Middle with You," "Imitation of Life," "Country Feedback," "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."

Jim DeRogatis

Nevertheless, there's always the hope that singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and their current crop of hired hands (drummer Bill Rieflin, keyboardist Ken Stringfellow of the Posies and second guitarist Scott McCaughey) will rekindle some past glories -- especially since they're touring behind a forthcoming greatest-hits set.

The disc, "In Time: The Best of R.E.M., 1988-2003," due out Oct. 28, will chronicle the band's Warner Bros. years, both the good ("Man on the Moon," "Losing My Religion," "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?") and the mediocre ("E-Bow the Letter," "The Great Beyond"); it will include two new songs ("Bad Day" and "Animal") that should offer a sample of a disc promised for next year.

I spoke with Buck from his home in Seattle during a brief break in the tour to preview the band's show Friday at the United Center.


Q. So are you enjoying being back out on the road after such a long break?

A. Yeah, it's really great. We have a new drummer, Bill Rieflin, who I think lived in Chicago for a while.


Q. He was the drummer in Ministry for about eight years.

A. Yeah, he was also in [Ministry leader Al Jourgensen's side project] the Revolting Cocks, which I always like to remind him of. He was familiar with our work, but hadn't played it, so we had to go back and really listen to all the records. It was kind of interesting. We went back and listened to this stuff from -- God, when we were kids, pretty much -- and we learned a lot of it. We've got like an 80-song set that we're switching around quite a bit.


Q. I've seen some of the set lists, and you've actually gone as far back as your first EP, 1982's "Chronic Town."

A. Near the very end, we worked up a song that we never recorded but we wrote in 1980, before we really wrote anything else. It's not a really great song -- it's kind of like Johnny Thunders [of the New York Dolls] -- but we started playing that, too.


Q. I actually saw you do a New York Dolls tribute set at New York's old Peppermint Lounge, in the days when R.E.M. would play covers under an assumed name.

A. We did that as It Crawled From the South. We were up in New York -- I think that was when we signed the deal with IRS [Records] -- and someone wanted us to open for the Cramps. It was Halloween, right? That was fun. Funnily enough, the opening band, the Fuzz-tones -- do you remember them?


Q. Absolutely. Frontman Rudi Protrudi was a New York underground legend.

A. The drummer for that band is now in Nada Surf, and they opened for us just a week or two ago in Switzerland, I think. He came up to me and said, "Do you remember me?" I said, "God, you look awful familiar." He was like, "Well, I was 16, and I opened for you at the Peppermint Lounge opening for the Cramps." What a weird thing.


Q. Do things like that make you feel old, Peter?

A. Yeah! [Laughs] When we were rehearsing in Athens, the little record store around the corner had some R.E.M. bootlegs, and I sort of collect them, as you know. I picked one up, and it was a live show from I think the summer of 1980, and all the guys who weren't in the band then, Scott [McCaughey] and Bill [Rieflin], said, "That was pretty cool." They were laughing and cracking up. And I was just like, "God, that was 23 years ago, guys!" That's what happens when you don't die, I guess: You just keep on going.


Q. You and I have talked about the idea of rock and aging many times through the years. Every time I've interviewed you, you've promised fans that you would do a small theater tour next time out: "We'll come to a place like the Chicago Theatre, play a couple of nights, maybe have a string section, do something different." And here we are going to an arena again when we'd really love to see R.E.M. in a more intimate venue.

A. You know what happens? We start talking about, "OK, we're going to tour, what are we going to do?" And we're like, "Well, if we play small places, that means we're going to be out for like eight months." At my age, I can't be away from my kids for that long. It's more ergonomically sound for us to do bigger-size places. Although we do do club gigs occasionally.


Q. You launched this tour with a smaller show in England.

A. Two nights at the Brixton Academy. And when "Reveal" came out, we played a whole lot of things to 50 to 100 people. But then, no one can get into those shows, so people complain about those, too. There will probably be a time when we'll be playing smaller places because that will be the level we're at.


Q. Oh, come on. You've also said that every time I've interviewed you, and it hasn't happened yet.

A. It's weird, because in America, R.E.M. doesn't get on the radio anymore, although in Chicago, you've got 'XRT that still plays us. But in Europe, we have these huge hit records, and we go over there and people meet us at the airport and stuff. Then in America, it's kind of like, "Oh, those old jerks, dragging around the circuit again. Big deal." It's just the way it is in America at this point, and that's OK.


Q. You've always had a vision of R.E.M. going back into the margins from whence the band came, but it hasn't happened yet. R.E.M. is still an arena band.

A. I'd enjoy doing [smaller shows], as I said, but we can't really work that way now. But I play with [McCaughey's band] the Minus 5, and we don't ever play in front of more than 200 or 300 people.


Q. I know. I saw you do a tribute to the acid-fried '60s legend, Roky Erickson, at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, last spring.

A. Yeah, that was great! The last time I talked to Roky was in the mid-'80s, when he was at his worst, and I felt really sorry for the guy. We tried to help him out, recovering some of his publishing, and now he's doing better. I guess he's on the right medicine.


Q. Are you disheartened at all by the changes in the concert industry? A few years ago, I interviewed you in Los Angeles shortly after R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs testified before Congress along with Pearl Jam against Ticketmaster. Now the monopolization in the industry is worse than ever, with Clear Channel controlling much of the arena-rock world at the same time that the company's radio stations keep you off the airwaves.

A. There's music and there's business, and the music business has always been a real creepy thing. I'm not in your position; I don't have to go see shows at the arenas. I can't remember the last time I saw an arena show; it's been years. I can see bands in clubs that either are on the way up, or they've been doing it for a while and now they're on a smaller label. I guess it affects me personally, but then I don't think that Clear Channel is purposely excluding us from the airwaves, any more than, "Hey, you know what? R.E.M. doesn't fit into our tight little play lists."

The music business has always been creepy. It's always been weird. And that's why it's fun to do the Minus 5 stuff. We're on a small label from North Carolina, and I've met every single person at the label. I meet people who come to the shows, and I load my own equipment. For me, I kind of get to experience that, the same thing that we all grew up with.


Q. You were talking about listening to the old bootlegs. Does R.E.M. feel like a real band now the way that it did in the early '80s?

A. It really does. There was something different when it was just the four of us, but [drummer] Bill [Berry] having left, that kind of scotched that. But when you play together a lot -- Scott and I have been playing together now for like 10 or 12 years.

And Bill [Rieflin] was a great addition. He went back and listened to what Bill Berry did on drums and really got it. Bill [Berry] was a really interesting drummer. There was something he did between the hi-hat and the snare drum. It was kind of weird and magical, but Bill [Rieflin] kind of analyzed it, and it's been sounding really great. We've been having an amazing time.


Q. There were things that Bill Berry did with the tom-toms that no one other rock drummer has ever done. The sound was totally his own.

A. He was a really great drummer, and he's really underrated. I was talking to [former Chicagoan, drummer and Liz Phair producer] Brad Wood -- I did a session with him -- and he was saying, "I just miss Bill's drumming so much." Bill was a special drummer; he really was. There's so much weird stuff that he never really got credit for.


Q. When you were putting together this best-of album, did anybody call Bill and ask for his input or say, "Hey, have you gotten tired of the farm yet? Would you like to come back?"

A. I love Bill, and I still consider him a member of the band. But it makes him really nervous if you suggest maybe coming and playing with us or anything like that. He came by the studio last summer, and he was hanging out and having a great time.

We had an old song, and he started playing piano and said, "You remember that one? You should record it!" And I said, "Why don't you play tambourine on this track?" And he said, "Man, I've got to go right now!" I was at his house not too long ago, and he still plays music. But it's not the world he wants to live in.


Q. You don't think he'll ever reconsider and come back to R.E.M.?

A. I don't think so. It's funny: He and Mike did this thing where they did a benefit show for this political candidate in Athens. It was all kind of political songs -- I think they did [Neil Young's] "Ohio" -- and Bill played keyboards and drums. Then Mike got up and they did a Turtles song, "Happy Together." I thought, "Hey, that's great!" I wasn't in town -- I would have loved to have been there -- but that's pretty much it for Bill: Rehearse for four days, do this show for a benefit and then back to the farm.


Q. You're enough of a student of rock history to know that the best-of album is traditionally a "biding your time" move.

A. It is to a certain degree. It's either that or the final curtain. You were kind of polite not to say that.


Q. Right. So where does "In Time" fit in to R.E.M.'s career?

A. Well, you know, we wanted to tour this summer, and we knew that we couldn't do justice to the next album we're working on. We could put a record out, but it wouldn't be the record we wanted to make.

The record company's been thinking for years that we should try a best-of to see if we could re-establish ourselves in America, and we were like, "That makes sense. We can do the tour we want to do -- get out and play again -- and start the next record, which we have; we've got 20 or 30 things kind of recorded half-way. We can do this best-of thing, and that will buy us the time to finish this record up the way we want to, and then we can do another tour."


Q. So you'll hit the road twice in a row?

A. Yeah. I said to the other guys -- and I'm a few years older than everyone -- that we're getting to the age where we may not be able to do this physically for much longer. If someone does something to their back -- I have friends who can't hold a guitar any more -- we should do what we want to and accomplish what we want to while we're really still in good health and strong and feel like doing it. There's a certain age where I think I might just be embarrassed to do it.


Q. Oh, come on. You always say that, too! You said the same thing when I interviewed you for the first time 12 years ago!

A. I've been conscious of my own mortality for some time. Being in this business, so many of my friends have died. I don't do the things generally that have killed them.

I had a really good friend die of cancer last year. He was one of the most influential people in my early life, and he was 47. I'm 46. You don't get a lot of time in this business; I'm not guaranteed work. There will be a day when I look in the mirror and go, "You know what? I can't get onstage in front of 20-year-olds anymore."

I don't know when that will be; I don't think it will be next year, but you never know. I think it's better to assume that it can all disappear overnight than to take it all for granted. The people who take it for granted are the ones who wind up on "Behind the Music."


Q. R.E.M. has always had a Teflon coating: You've never been dragged into the sort of scandals that have befallen other rock bands. But you recently got a taste of that when you were arrested last March and charged with "ransacking" the first-class cabin of a British Airways airliner.

A. Yeah, right. Now I'm famous, great! [Laughs] That was the first thing that I thought, once I came to my senses: "Now I'm famous, good God!"

That whole thing was exactly as stupid as it sounded. A friend of mine gave me a sleeping pill, and I'd never taken one before. You'd think I would have, but I never did. He said, "Have a cognac and just go right to sleep." I just blacked out. I don't remember anything for like eight hours. Basically, I just staggered around like an idiot, bumping into things.


Q. Your experience sounded as if it could have come from a Michael Stipe lyric. He's written a lot about the perils of celebrity and people's perceptions of famous stars.

A. I think that's the way this business works. It's like Keith Richards: I read an interview with him, and he said, "Once I'm on the list being clean, no one even looks at me anymore." They assume the worst.


Q. Where would you still like to go with R.E.M.? What's left for the band to accomplish?

A. Every person in this business says the same thing, and I'll say it now and be just like everybody else, but I'm really excited about the new stuff we're working on. We have five or six things that I think are as good as anything we've done.

I was really inspired by Dylan putting out those last two records. It was great to have someone finally admitting that old age is old age, and not pretending to be 15 or 22 again. I haven't heard the new Neil Young album yet, but I'm always inspired by people who take a chance, especially someone who's been doing it as long as he has.


Q. You were talking earlier about R.E.M.'s popularity having faded in the United States. The only other superstar act that is really one of your peers, U2, is arguably bigger in America now than ever before. Why have they pulled it off and R.E.M. hasn't?

A. I don't know. They're a great live band. I'm not sure.


Q. I have my own theory: With the exception of "Achtung Baby," U2 was never quite as innovative or experimental as R.E.M., so it has always been more palatable to the mainstream. For instance, why did Love's "Forever Changes" sell less than "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"?

A. I love U2. I think they're great. They do make real commercial records, and it doesn't harm them. I'm not sure we could reach that level of commerciality without sounding bad or bogus.


Q. You still can't pull that off, where you sit down and say, "Let's top-load this album with three hit singles"?

A. I'm not sure what's required to have a hit single these days. The only things I hear on the radio are rap, hip-hop-metal or ballads about everlasting love, and I can't do any of those.

It's weird, because Europe is completely different: We'll have huge hit singles over there. We'll do interviews, and it's "'Reveal' is such a commercial album!" And in America, everyone says, "That's such a weird and difficult record."

I'm just lucky to be able to keep doing this. When you think about it, George Harrison was like 26 when the Beatles broke up. Imagine having your whole life ahead of you having been a Beatle when you're 26. "All Things Must Pass" was great, but it must have been weird for him in those wilderness years. Who was it -- [F. Scott] Fitzgerald? -- who said that in American lives there are no second acts; I've been lucky to be able to go through a few different acts.