R.E.M. comes 'Around' full circle


October 24, 2004


More than any other rock band that I grew up with, R.E.M. broke my heart.

One of the most creative, influential and righteous groups of the '80s, the quartet paved the way for the alternative explosion of the '90s, giving us one extraordinary recording after another between its 1982 debut with the "Chronic Town" EP and the brilliant "Automatic for the People" in 1992 -- an impressive 11-year run that compares with the best that any band has ever produced.

Unfortunately, the favorite sons of Athens, Ga., began a long, sad decline into uninspired mediocrity when they re-signed with Warner Bros. as part of an $80 million mega-deal in 1996, signifying the transition from a vital, groundbreaking art-rock band into just another glitzy arena-rock corporation consumed primarily with maintaining the bottom line -- something that guitarist Peter Buck now readily admits.

While Buck, singer Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills remained outspoken advocates of social justice, they compromised many of their long-standing principles by pushing forward after the 1997 departure of drummer Bill Berry when they had vowed for years that they would never continue without the four original members. Stipe grew more interested in producing movies than in making music; Buck had an embarrassing, alcohol-fueled meltdown while flying first-class to London, and in between, R.E.M. delivered the perfunctory biannual high-priced arena tour while paying lip service to longtime fans by promising more intimate and adventurous shows in the future.


When: 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $48, $73
Phone: (312) 559-1212

Last year, when the band issued its Warners-era best-of collection, "In Time," and toured the arenas playing its (not-so-great) latter-day hits -- two more things that it had earlier vowed it would never do -- these actions had all of the hallmarks of serving as a tombstone on the group's long-running career.

R.E.M. has surprised us before, however, and now, 13 years after Buck first made the pledge, the group is finally in the midst of its eagerly awaited and long-overdue theater tour. (It performs Monday and Tuesday at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress.) What's more, it's supporting "Around the Sun," its best new album since the early '90s.

The band's 13th studio effort is not a radical departure, but that is part of its charm: As its members approach 50, they have dropped the electronic experiments and the vain attempts to rock out, which marred recent releases, focusing instead on what they have always done best: quiet, melodic, heartfelt folk rock.

The harbinger of R.E.M.'s return to its roots was "Final Straw," the song that the band released for free on the Internet when the U.S. invaded Iraq. The tune found Buck trading his Rickenbacker for an acoustic guitar and Stipe singing with more passion and conviction about the state of the world than he has since "Green" in 1988. When the rest of the album arrived, it proved to be just as vital.

Yes, Berry is still sorely missed, and Mills is oddly absent in providing his signature keyboard colorings and harmonic counterpoint vocals. But songs such as "Leaving New York," "The Worst Joke Ever," "Aftermath," "High Speed Train" and "Electron Blue" are better than anything that R.E.M. has recorded in more than a decade. And while it certainly isn't the creative force that it once was, it's good to have some semblance of that group back again.

I spoke with Buck a few weeks ago from his home in Seattle, discussing the new album, the state of the band and its role as a political lightning rod on the Vote for Change tour, which found R.E.M. performing six shows with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in states that are considered critical to the coming presidential election.


Q. We're a "blue" state in Illinois, Peter, so we didn't get any of the shows R.E.M. played with Springsteen as part of the Vote for Change tour. A lot of fans of both bands were disappointed by that.

A. I know. A lot of my friends were saying, "Can't you come to Seattle? Please?" But that wasn't the point!


Q. The country is notoriously split politically right now. What kind of feedback are you getting about being such an outspoken part of Vote for Change?

A. Well, we were just in Europe, so I talked to probably a hundred journalists and another 150 people who are just fans and people who I bump into and meet, and with every single person, the question was, "What's going on in America?" People are kind of stunned and surprised that the vote is even close. But there are a lot of reasons that it might not be as bad as people think. I'm optimistic.


Q. I'm sure that as a rock historian, you've checked out the Electras, the garage-rock band that John Kerry performed and recorded with in 1961.

A. No, I haven't heard that yet!


Q. It's fairly generic garage rock -- a lot like the Kingsmen on "Louie Louie," frat boys bashing away at surf and the blues.

A. You know I like that! And I like that they did it before the Beatles. You've gotta love a bunch of white guys singing about their hoochie-koochie.

Kerry came out swinging [in the first debate], and I hope he keeps it up. It's funny, because the right wing is really good at character assassination -- look at what they did to John McCain when he ran against Bush [in the 2000 Republican primary]. It's kind of mind-boggling, and I don't understand why the Democrats don't just say, "Look, you're being lied to." The right wing is great at that -- you'd almost have to admire them, if you weren't nauseated by it.


Q. Let's talk about the new album. I've been a pretty harsh critic of the last few discs, but it seems as if there's a conviction on "Around the Sun" that hasn't been there since "Green," and a sonic approach that stretches back to "Automatic for the People."

A. We were talking three summers ago, and we were really trying to figure out what we were going to do in the big sense with our lives. Michael and Mike and I were talking, and there were days where we were saying that we could treat this as a once every three or four years hobby and tour some fun places and make records, or we could really bear down and focus and work hard. Not that we haven't worked hard [recently], but just because of Bill leaving and all the s--- that went on, it felt like we were in the right place to really push again.

With the best-of and the tour behind that, the band really came together, and we'd written a bunch of songs that I felt strongly about. We had about eight or nine of them finished before that tour, and it took every bit of willpower that I had to not do all of them every night.

I felt strongly that these were strong songs and really heartfelt and the band should do them. So the idea of going into the studio and finishing the record up -- I just felt real confident in a way that maybe we hadn't in a while.


Q. When you were recording, were you working with the newer musicians in the band -- drummer Bill Rieflin and guitarists/multi-instrumentalists Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow -- or was it just the three core R.E.M. members?

A. We like to start off with just the three of us -- hence me playing drums on "The Outsiders" and "Around the Sun." The thing is, once you kind of have the songs outlined and structured in a way that we want them to be, then you bring the other guys in.

Bill, Scott and Ken played on a good portion of the record -- Bill on almost everything, Scott and Ken on a little bit less -- but it does feel like a band, and they have a lot of input with the sounds that they go for and some of the lines that they play.


Q. We've talked about this before, but I maintain that R.E.M. lost something important with the departure of Bill Berry, and that's obvious even in these more stripped-down songs. "Automatic for the People" was stripped-down, too, but some of the things Bill was playing on that disc were incredibly subtle and unique.

A. It's funny, because when we got Bill Rieflin to play with us, he said, "What do you guys want from me?" I had played with Bill Rieflin for years, and I said, "Well, what you need to do on the old stuff is go back and listen to those records and figure out what the hell it was that Bill [Berry] did, because no one else does it."

For me, it seemed like it was a really weird interaction between what he does on the hi-hat and the kick drum. Bill [Rieflin] went through and analyzed all that -- he's a great drummer who's really musical and can play a lot of different stuff -- and I think he added a huge amount rhythmically to this record in a way that maybe we've never had. When we're playing live, we've got a lot of rock stuff going on, and it's real powerful.

Again, this was part of the whole confidence thing: It was like, "We've been on the road for five months [during the greatest-hits tour], we feel really great, and here's a drummer who we're really comfortable with." After we did a few shows, Michael said, "Bill came up to me and asked me if things were OK for me, drum-wise. And no drummer has ever done that!" With Bill Berry, it was kind of like, "The singer sings and the drummer drums." But Bill Rieflin's attitude was that he backs up the singer, and that really adds a lot.


Q. Was there a conscious move to strip down and make these songs sparer?

A. For me it was conscious. I really like [2001's] "Reveal," but it was certainly a record where we were going for this kind of lush, summertime feel. There might be 10 or 12 guitars on each track, a string section and horns, and it was cool to do that. But it just felt like [this time], if we go in as a band and perform the songs once or twice, we're gonna get a feel -- a freshness -- that we aren't going to get by trying to make it perfect. My job on the record seemed to be to get us out of, "We've done three takes -- let's pick one as opposed to trying five more."


Q. So you were taking stuff away as opposed to adding sounds?

A. Yeah. I feel like you should quit when you go in and record the song, and it sounds like a record. That's when you're done, and all the rest of it is just making sure that nobody gets itchy fingers over the space of the rest of the recording session.


Q. You seem to be playing a lot more acoustic guitar and mandolin than you have in a while.

A. It's more acoustic. You know, I'm not a great guitar player or anything, but I do have one strength, and that's that I'm a really good rhythm guitar player. I'm probably better on acoustic than electric, and all of these songs just felt like, "If I sit in the booth and play acoustic, looking into the drummer's eyes, with Michael singing and Mike and Ken and Scott playing, then everyone will follow my acoustic guitar and it will make it kind of more rhythmically dramatic." So most of the songs were done with me playing acoustic.

Q. Michael has said he took the approach of writing a lot more lyrics for this album -- not worrying about whether they would fit or not -- where in the past, he's waited until the music was finished before he even started to write. How many of these songs originated with you or Mike, and how many came from Michael?

A. It's a weird mix. A lot of the stuff we do, I'll bring it in and it will sound like a track with no vocals. The melody lines are all kind of implied -- it will be keyboards and stuff, and I'll have done the overdubs [on the demo]. But Michael comes up with a lot of the melodies. He might take some of the ideas from stuff we give him, but sometimes he comes up with totally left-field stuff, which is always a surprise. I'll be like, "Wow, I didn't realize that that was the chorus, Michael!" It's great when he's rearranging stuff.


Q. What will you be doing in the live sets? One of the best things about the greatest-hits tour was that you were pulling songs from deep in the catalog, playing a few that you haven't touched in a very long time, if ever.

A. We learned all those songs and we still know them, but obviously, the last tour was kind of the best-of tour, and it was a way to deal with that. We'd never really done that much looking back before. It was fun -- I really enjoyed it -- but we do have a new record.

We're not going to play all 13 songs every night -- you don't want to stretch an audience's attention -- but we'll do a fair amount every night, and then the ones that people expect us to do which we still love playing: "Losing My Religion," "Man on the Moon," a handful of five or six or seven that people expect. The rest will just depend on the day and the time. And we do take requests from our Web site.

It was great on the last tour when people had written in, saying, "I really want to hear this song," and we'd mention onstage that so-and-so had requested this. I think they realized that, "My God, these people are reading these things!" Ideally, you do this to reach people, and to realize that to some degree it means something to them, it's really moving.


Q. When I saw you last year at the United Center, you played "Shaking Through" from "Murmur" as a request because it had been somebody's wedding song.

A. As I said, that was really moving. I kind of forget, but music is the same way in my life: Some records have always meant something to me over time, and occasionally, I'll meet the people who have written those songs, and I'll just say, "Gosh, I can't tell you how much this has meant to me." It was nice to hear that back.


Q. You and I have done a half-dozen interviews over the last 13 years, going back to "Out of Time" in 1991, and during every one of those talks, you promised that R.E.M. would do a small-theater tour "next year" instead of playing the big arenas. Now you're finally doing it. Why did it take so long?

A. We play small places a lot, but as far as getting things together and doing a whole small-theater tour -- it just seemed like a lot of work, honestly. To be honest, it wasn't until "Monster" [in 1994] that we actually made money on a tour -- that was the first tour where we actually got a check at the end of it. But it just seemed like now's the time.


Q. Some skeptics say that R.E.M. could not have done a big arena tour at this point -- that the group no longer has the draw to fill those places.

A. We could have done it in some places: It would be the coasts and Chicago and Minneapolis. In Seattle, we could play a big place, but it's my hometown and everyone kind of thought it would be fun to play in a smaller place over two nights. But this is also where we fit now, and I'd much rather have people be really excited about getting tickets for the show than to be like, "Oh, I'll pick up tickets whenever; it's 12,000 seats and they've only sold 10,000."

What will be great about this theater tour is that you can take more chances when you can see all the way to the back row. There are songs that we really love -- like "New Test Leper" off [1996's] "New Adventures in Hi-Fi"; that's maybe my favorite song that we've ever done -- where when you play them in a bigger place, you just know it's like a popcorn number: "Oh, I have to go to the bathroom now." In a smaller place, the delicacy of a song like that can come out.

You know, before we wrap this up, I have to tell you that I read an article you wrote for New York magazine about why more bands don't call it quits, after Phish announced that it was breaking up. It was a good article, but the one thing that you never mentioned about why bands keep going is that bands have employees, and all of these people need jobs, too.


Q. What you're saying is that bands on the level of R.E.M. become corporations: Decisions are made for business reasons rather than artistic considerations.

A. That's the thing: We have probably 14 employees, and they all have pensions and health care and good jobs. I'm kind of like, "Well, I could retire, but then what are they going to do?" It gives me one more reason to keep doing this.


Q. But that can't be the only reason, because then you're really in trouble -- it's not about art anymore, it's just about commerce.

A. Absolutely. For me, I wouldn't do this if we didn't write great songs together -- or at least occasionally write them. We're good at this, and the band's dynamics -- having that interplay thing -- I've seen lots of bands that don't have that, ever. And if you have it, it seems like a sin to throw it away. Bands like the Clash -- I'm sure every one of those guys regretted letting it fall apart.


Q. I asked you this last year, when Bill Berry made a cameo appearance during the greatest-hits tour, but is there a chance we'll get to hear him drumming for R.E.M. again and adding that third harmony to Michael and Mike's vocals?

A. Well, Bill lives in his head, and if he has one thing that he has to do over the space of a week, he'll just fixate on it and worry about it for the whole week. It got worse as he got older. He just couldn't deal with everything else [besides the music]: He doesn't like meeting new people; he's nervous about travel; he's embarrassed that he doesn't speak French when we're in France; he only likes to eat certain foods, and he only likes to be awake at certain hours of the day. It just got to the point where he couldn't do it.

We got him onstage for two songs on one date of the last tour, and it was great. But I shook his hand and he walked offstage, got in his car and drove away; he didn't even stay for the end of the encore. It was, "Where's Bill?" "Oh, God, he left before the end of the encore; he said he's really tired and he wanted to go home and go to sleep!"


Q. Was that part of his personality even in the earliest days, when you were touring in that famous van with your original manager, Jefferson Holt?

A. Less so, but it started in about '92, when I started noticing that we couldn't cut tracks [in the studio] after 5 o'clock because he was gone. For a band that gets in the studio at 1, it was like, "God, we've got four hours to get this done." I understood that; he was just unhappy being away from home. He's much more settled now; he's got a young son, and he's doing a lot of the stuff he enjoys doing.

Q. It's a tough life, but you just can't stay away from it: In between R.E.M. tours, you play with McCaughey in the Minus Five and still do many other projects.

A. Well, I feel good about it. I'm lucky. God, a lot of people I know who are good musicians still have day jobs. Just because of the luck of the draw, I've gotten this [success], and I might as well use it while I can.



The best and worst of R.E.M. on album

While there were occasional missteps from its inception in the early '80s through the early '90s, R.E.M. didn't make a single bad album. But from '94 until the new "Around the Sun," it didn't make a single beginning-to-end good one. With that in mind, here's a look at the three best and three worst entries in the band's large discography.



"Murmur" (IRS, 1983): R.E.M.'s first full album boasts a sound, a style and a sustained mood that remains utterly unique in the band's catalog. Dark, layered, intricate but irresistibly melodic, the disc's mysteries haven't grown a bit less elusive or seductive in 21 years, and the single "Radio Free Europe" stands not only as the signature song of the indie-rock '80s, but as a timeless rock anthem.


"Automatic for the People" (Warner Bros., 1992): The group's second unqualified masterpiece was its last great album before its long, sorry drought, and that makes its poignant understatement seem even more powerful now: Quiet, low-key and introspective, it plays like a sustained sigh rather than a desperate last gasp. Songs such as "Everybody Hurts," "Man on the Moon" and "Nightswimming" are wise, naive, sad and hopeful all at the same time, capturing the mood of the times as thoroughly as "Murmur" did in 1983.


"Out of Time" (Warner Bros., 1991): Released the year that Nirvana broke through, the predecessor to "Automatic for the People" ceded rock's cutting edge to a new generation, giving us instead a lush, pastoral, "Pet Sounds"-inspired collection of mature, laid-back pop songs. There are some mistakes -- notably KRS-One's guest rap on "Radio Song," though I'll defend the gleefully giddy "Shiny Happy People," which the group now despises; these make the disc a close call over the rollicking "Document" (1987), which pays homage to two of my heroes by name-checking Lester Bangs in "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" and covering Wire on "Strange." Still, the sleeper tracks keep me coming back to this one time and again -- dig it out, play "Near Wild Heaven," "Texarkana" and "Country Feedback," and you'll hear what I mean.




"Up" (Warner Bros., 1998): An album of firsts, this was disc No. 1 without Bill Berry, the first with printed lyrics and the first in a long run without producer Scott Litt, who helmed two of the three classics. The goal was to make a "small," intimate album like "Automatic for the People," but songs such as "The Apologist," "Sad Professor" and "You're in the Air" are just slow, meandering, tuneless drones, and the single "Hope" is such a blatant rip-off of "Suzanne" that the group decided after the fact to credit Leonard Cohen.


"Monster" (Warner Bros., 1994): This one suckered me in at the time: Always the finely tuned P.R. machine, R.E.M., Inc., did a great job of selling its ninth album as its "return to rock." But the harsh, metallic edge and pointlessly nasty guitars mask a lack of significant musical and lyrical ideals; songs such as "Star 69" and "Bang and Blame" are so generic, they're forgotten five minutes after you play them, and Michael Stipe's Marvin Gaye imitation on "Tongue" is probably his career nadir.


"New Adventures in Hi-Fi" (Warner Bros., 1996): I sort of liked this one at first, too. It took a long time to shake my dedicated R.E.M. fandom, but it finally came when I realized that I never wanted to play any disc post-1992 a few short weeks after it had been released. The initial charms here fade fast once you realize the formula: Take one part "Monster," one part "Automatic for the People," and once again hype it as "R.E.M.'s return to form." With "New Adventures" evenly divided between lilting, atmospheric, mostly acoustic numbers and fuzz 'n' feedback-soaked glam-rock grooves, there isn't a single tune that hints at a new direction, let alone a noble failed experiment like "Ignoreland" or "Let Me In."