Musical Perversity


Request, May 1991

There aren’t many landmarks in Athens, Georgia, but the handful that are there are memorable. The Civil War’s only double-barreled cannon stands in front of City Hall, and even though it killed its inventor the one time it was fired, it still points north “just in case.” The Tree That Owns Itself juts out from an island in the middle of Findley Street, protected against the march of progress by a far-sighted, arbor-loving gent who granted the oak its freedom and protected it in perpetuity in his will. Finally there’s the crumbling steeple on Oconee Street, all that’s left of the abandoned Episcopal church where R.E.M. played its first gig in April 1980.

Like the cannon and the tree, the church looms larger in its legend than in life. Bertis Downs and Jefferson Holt, R.E.M.’s managers, suggested that the group buy the place of worship, but guitarist Peter Buck laughed at the idea. “Man, I lived there. It leaked, it was cold, and it had fleas. Dogs lived in the back. There was a grave under the stage. But,” Buck adds with a touch of pride, “everybody who comes to town to see us always goes there to take a look at it.”

Buck and his bandmates haven’t discouraged such pilgrimages; they encourage journalists to interview them at home in Athens, the better to absorb the R.E.M. mythology. The most successful guitar band to emerge from the rock underground in the 1980s, R.E.M. climbed to the top of the charts over the course of eight imaginative records, slowly expanding its fan base without sacrificing much of its credibility. For rock stars, they remain amazingly accessible, good-natured, and down-to-earth people.

Nevertheless, they’re as image-conscious as any heavy-metal band (“I never look good on the cover of Spin,” Buck complains when a publicist shows him the March issue). They maintain they’ve never had any goals more specific than making good records and having fun, but they’re well organized with firm control of their career (“They’ve always had as many strategy meetings as practice sessions,” says one Athens scenester). They know mythmaking is part of rock ’n’ roll, so they encourage it, repeating oft-told tales of the band’s origins at the church and early tours that crisscrossed the country in an old Dodge van fueled by speed and visions of Kerouac.

“It’s a very small-level myth. We haven’t set ourselves up as legendary characters,” Buck says. “We’re relatively faceless for someone who sells as many records as we do. People still walk up to me and say, ‘God, Bill, you’re the greatest drummer in the world.’”

This seems disingenuous coming from a member of a band whose last two albums sold almost two million copies each and spawned two Top 10 hits. Green and Document reached the largest audience of R.E.M.’s career, but with typical perversity, the band has veered away from the straightforward pop of the last two efforts to produce its strangest, most textured, and best album since 1983’s brilliant Murmur.

Out of Time marks several departures from the typical R.E.M. sound: The band is augmented by such odd instruments as flugelhorn and harpsichord, and there are strings on almost every track; Buck plays as much mandolin as guitar, leaving many of the six-string chores to Peter Holsapple, the former dB’s leader who joined R.E.M. for the Green World Tour, and for the first time, singer Michael Stipe is joined by two guest vocalists, Kate Pierson of fellow Athenians the B-52’s and Kris Parker, aka KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions. Bassist Mike Mills also contributes two rare lead vocals.

The first single, “Losing My Religion,” is slow and moody (the title is a Southern colloquialism for bottoming out); the follow-up, “Shiny Happy People,” breaks into a waltz midsong. The naive optimism of the latter song and the varied instrumentation and layered harmonies throughout the album recall the Beach Boys’ masterwork, Pet Sounds. Buck, Mills, and drummer Bill Berry say that album was on their minds when they were in the studio, although Stipe says he’s only heard it two or three times.

“The first two people that heard [‘Shiny Happy People’] said, ‘Boy, that’s the most cynical song, you’re really digging in that one,’ and I’m not,” Stipe says. “I wrote this to be the happiest song I’ve ever written, and I think I succeeded. I wanted this to be a really up, positive record. I feel like these are incredibly troubled times, and people need something—not to distract them or take their minds off of it—but something that says there is goodness around. You can laugh at this. You can dance to it. You can’t sing along without smiling.”

Stipe is the most written-about and least understood member of R.E.M. His subtle sense of humor is easy to miss. “I’ve always thought that the most gullible people are the ones who can lie the best,” he says, “and I’m a really gullible person, so I can really pull the wool over someone’s eyes if I want to in a joke situation.

“The whole willful obscurity tag has gotten a little tired at this point. And the Southern mystic eccentric tag has gotten a little tired, too. It should be dead and buried,” the singer says. “I’m a lot more normal than most people. I maintain that media figures, people who are seen in the public eye, are always seen as much bigger, and every gesture is seen as much broader than the average person, when in fact it’s an average person making simple gestures that are then hyperbolized through media.’’

As if to illustrate his point, Stipe wipes his face on his shirttail after finishing a slice of pizza and occasionally drops out of our conversation to grab at an imaginary dust speck floating in the air.

On Out of Time, Stipe moves away from political songs such as “Orange Crush” and “Green Grow the Rushes” to focus on the more personal themes of time, memory, and love. “It was an incredible challenge to try to write an album of love songs, because I’ve always despised love songs per se,” he says. “At the same time, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed or categorized as a political writer. I’ve spent fully a third of my adult life trying to duck categorization.”

Stipe reached a new audience with Document and Green, and many of these young fans were politicized in part by the band’s well-publicized examples (R.E.M. supported Dukakis in the ’88 election and has touted groups such as Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). He’s proud that fans share some of his views—he’s made several visits to a peace camp set up by students at the University of Georgia to protest the war in Iraq—but he’s suddenly grown uncomfortable with being a leader.

“Clearly, people need media figures or someone who speaks common sense,” Stipe says. “Nothing is ever just sensibly thought out any more. It’s all complicated and it’s all run through these levels of propaganda so that by the time it reaches Joe-Grab-a-Sandwich or Jenny-at-College, there’s nothing there. I think unfortunately people are going to be looking to us to try to get some idea of what’s going on, and I would only hope that they’d try to figure it out for themselves. I don’t really want to be the political spokesperson of my generation.

“Hopefully the things that have brought me to be politicized will prompt our fans to do a lot of investigating and try to figure out what’s going on, and most important—‘Shiny Happy People’—keep their sense of humor about it.”

As much as some of its members enjoy reveling in the myth, R.E.M. is no longer the wild young band living a beat lifestyle. They’re all in their thirties, Buck and Berry are married, and they’ve made more than enough money to be considered yuppies. A member of the Feelies, a band Buck produced in 1986, recalls that the R.E.M. guitarist was very upset one day when he arrived at the studio. When asked what was wrong, Buck said his accountant had just told him the members of R.E.M. had each earned a million dollars that year.

“I think there was something kind of similar, maybe not millionaires,” Buck says evasively when asked about the story. “It’s just kind of odd to have to think about that shit. It’s all intangible, money. It’s an idea. I really don’t even think about it too much. I have an accountant who pays my bills. I don’t think I’ve ever balanced a checkbook.’’

But not worrying about bills is a luxury, as is Buck’s stately mansion and swimming pool. The band members all own comfortable homes and other properties in Athens. Since they share the concerns of any tax-paying resident, they’ve become politically active in the town. When the county commission wanted to tear down several historic warehouses to make way for a civic center, R.E.M. funded a five-thousand-dollar study to determine the feasibility of saving the buildings. Unfortunately, the study was ignored.

The group was more successful when it supported a liberal commission candidate, Gwen O’Looney. R.E.M. gave O’Looney several thousand dollars, and when her conservative opponent, E.H. Culpepper, spread scandalous literature about her, R.E.M. withdrew the band’s account from Culpepper’s bank. “It was a savings and loan, so it was probably a good move anyway,” says Downs, who is also their attorney.

When Mills arrived in Athens as a college student a decade ago, he never imagined his band would one day give him some local political clout. “And I never would have wanted it at the time. But when you get older, certain things become more important to you. The peace and quiet of the area in which you live becomes one of the overriding concerns in your life.” These days, the thirty-three-year-old bassist probably wouldn’t want to live next door to a rock ’n’ roll party house like the one he and Berry shared on Barber Street in the early ’80s.

R.E.M. won’t be abandoning the comforts of home any time soon. For the first time in its history, the band that made its name on the club circuit by constant touring plans to stay home after releasing a new album. “We’re still trying to get our wind back from the Green World Tour,” Stipe says. “Nine months is a long time to be completely without base and to be moving that much.”

“I love to play live. We all do,” Berry says. “Ten years ago, we were a band that played live, and we’d occasionally pull off the road just long enough to make a record. There’s a lot of great things about success, but one of the downfalls is that now we’re a band that makes records, and touring has gotten to be a pain in the ass. The only way for us to do it now is to play those big halls and feed that big machine, and you’ve got to get it started six months ahead of time, and there’s huge salaries, and in order to pay for it all you’ve got to stay out for nine months. And we just didn’t want to do it this time.”

Although they said for years that they’d never play halls larger than twelve-thousand seats, the Green World Tour included shows at the largest indoor arenas. The band members bristle when they’re reminded of their earlier comments. They say it was necessary to play arenas or fans would have been shut out or forced to pay large sums to scalpers.

“It’s easy to say you won’t do it when you think you’ll never see the backstage of Madison Square Gardens” Mills says. “But playing Madison Square Garden is not ‘a big rock-star thing, it’s just being successful and doing well at your job.”

Nevertheless, some longtime fans resent the band for going back on its word—something that seems to be happening more often as the group becomes more popular. Stipe often said he’d never lip-sync on a video, but he reneged when filming the clips for “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People.” “I fainted the first time I had to do it. I’m still trying to get over the cold,” he says. “I feel like we pushed video as far as it could be pushed without lip-syncing. I’d taken such a strong stand against it, I think I finally had to prove to myself that I could do it.

“There’s gonna be people who cry sellout no matter what we do in our career, and that’s just something we’ve kind of come to terms with,” he continues. “We could put out Metal Machine Music, and someone somewhere would find some reason to consider us having sold out to corporate America. I can’t even answer to that any more, it’s such a ludicrous suggestion. Anyone who listens to the record will see that it may be the strangest thing we ever recorded, and yes, within that, there are elements of pop songs that are surely to make it to the Top 10 on radio. But I think that says more about the way radio has changed in the last twelve years than the band.”

R.E.M. can’t be accused of softening its sound for radio or kissing up to the AOR powers-that-be. “Radio Song,” the lead track on Out of Time, is a scathing indictment of the state of radio that charges programmers with avoiding adventurous music, whether it’s by a rock band like R.E.M. or a hip-hop artist like KRS-One.

“We were lucky to have two Top 10 hits, really lucky,” Berry says. “Radio is no friend of ours. They play us because kids request us, and we sell out eighteen-thousand-seat halls, so they have to. Our songs barely get into the Top 10. They’re there for a week, and it’s like, ‘See how fast we can get you out of there,’ and they do. Payola is still the thing. They think we should pay money. That’s what they want. They want indie promoters. But we’re just not going to play that game.’’

Berry, Buck, and Mills have all read Hit Men, the best-seller that detailed the record industry’s controversial practice of hiring independent promoters who can assure a record Top 40 airplay or block it out altogether. “We considered [hiring indie promoters] one time,” Berry says. “We were doing rehearsals in Knoxville, Tennessee, before the Work Tour started, and we had a meeting backstage, and Jefferson said, ‘Here’s the way it is guys. This is how you get hits.’ We always pooh-poohed the idea. We didn’t want to have anything to do with it. We weren’t even sure if that was really the case, but people were telling us this is how you do it. So we actually sat there and thought about it for a few minutes, until Mike Mills shook us out of it.”

R.E.M. refused to compromise, and the gamble paid off. “Things have gone well for us because we’ve done them the way we’ve done them,” Berry insists. “We slowly built a fan base that got bigger and bigger and bigger. If we didn’t get a Top 10 hit, we’d sell 1.1 million records instead of 1.9 like the last one did. That’s still OK We can go out and sell out a twelve-thousand-seat hall instead of an eighteen-thousand-seat hall because we don’t have a hit, and that’s OK, too. There’s worse things, and one thing worse is doing things you don’t feel good about.’’

Since the beginning, the members of R.E.M. have maintained an equal partnership that requires unanimous decisions and allows any member to veto a move he strongly disagrees with. It’s the reason the group thrives while many of its contemporaries—from the Bangles to H¸sker D¸ to X—ended in bitter feuds. “By everyone having veto power and knowing that they’re never going to have to do anything that they’re not happy with artistically or physically or mentally, it also makes you feel more positive about the entire approach and more willing to give in here or there,’’ Berry says.

“It’s a very volatile situation to be involved with a creative, moving force with as much independence as a rock band and be able to maintain friendship and creative energy,” Stipe says. “It’s hard enough for two people to keep it together and keep it going and keep it fresh, much less four or six including Jefferson and Bert. It’s pretty extraordinary that we’ve persevered.’’

From the dB’s to R.E.M. and Back Again

When R.E.M. needed someone to flesh out its sound for the Green World Tour, it was natural for the band to turn to Peter Holsapple. As a member of the now-defunct dB’s, Holsapple was a major influence on the group in its formative years, and his easygoing personality—as well as his abilities on guitar, bass, and keyboards—made him a logical candidate.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s the dB’s (who grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) and the B-52’s (based in Athens) showed rock audiences there was more to the South than the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. They helped pave the way for R.E.M. by constantly touring up and down the East Coast and drawing attention to the new wave of Southern pop. Holsapple also introduced R.E.M. to Mitch Easter, who produced Chronic Town, Murmur, and Reckoning. And R.E.M.’s decision to team up with Scott Litt was influenced by Litt’s sparkling production on the dB’s wonderful 1982 album, Repercussion.

You’d think it would be hard to become the fifth member of a group that’s been a quartet for the last decade, but Holsapple “really fit in mentally with the chemistry of the band,” Bill Berry says. He even joined R.E.M. in the studio, playing on six of the eleven basic tracks for Out of Time. “I just came in and played my parts. I don’t want to make it sound like it was anything less than that or anything more than that,’’ says the self-effacing Holsapple. “I just did as much as I could to make the overall sound sound more like they wanted to sound.’’

Holsapple will continue playing with the group—“They know my number, and they can always call me when they want me”—but now he’s concentrating on Mavericks, an album that reunites him with high school chum Chris Stamey. The two shared the singing, guitar-playing, and songwriting duties on the first two influential dB’s albums, Stands for Decibels and Repercussion. Stamey left the group in 1983 to pursue a solo career, and Holsapple continued fronting the band for two more albums before calling it quits in 1988. Although Holsapple is living in L.A. and Stamey resides in Hoboken, New Jersey, the pair linked up several times over the last two years for shows as an acoustic duo, and those casual performances inspired them to record together again. The project grew more ambitious as recording began, and now they plan to tour in a five-piece band.

Fans of the dB’s should appreciate Mavericks for Holsapple and Stamey’s beautiful harmonies, carefully sculpted hooks, and quirky, literate lyrics on gems such as “Angels,” “I Want to Break Your Heart,” and’ ‘Haven’t Got the Right (To Treat Me Wrong).” The two have an obvious chemistry that, despite some fine moments in their later work, makes this album the most consistently rewarding from either musician since Repercussion. But Holsapple and Stamey want to avoid comparisons to their old band.

“This is a different thing from the dB’s, and I think it’s really important to make that clear,” Holsapple says. “There’s a reason why we’re not going out under the name ‘the dB’s,’ and part of that is that [drummer] Will [Rigby] and [bassist] Gene [Holder] are not along. And the other thing is that we want to think this is a few years down the line, and maybe we can do something slightly different.”