Still shiny happy people
America’s biggest ever alternative rock band talk to Will Hodgkinson about life since their split as they rerelease their 1992 album Automatic for the People.
With his trimmed grey beard and alert, darting eyes, he looks more like an academic than an iconic singer of international renown. If it weren’t for the septum studs, there would be no clues to Michael Stipe’s past life at all.
‘‘Do I miss it? Of course,’’ says Stipe, who in 2011, and by mutual consent with the guitarist Peter Buck and the bassist Mike Mills, called halt on REM, whose massive hits Losing My Religion and Everybody Hurts gave buskers the world over their signature tunes and would-be suicides a reason to keep going. ‘‘Ending REM was hard on all of us.’’
Perhaps that is why Stipe, Buck and Mills – the drummer Bill Berry left in 1997 – have agreed to talk to me for the 25th anniversary reissue of Automatic for the People. REM’s 18 millionselling 1992 masterpiece cemented their status as ‘‘the acceptable edge of the unacceptable’’, as Buck put it. But by the laws of science REM should never have got so big in the first place. The band, who sold 85 million albums, formed in 1980 in Athens, Georgia, after Buck, who was working in a record shop, was impressed by the Patti Smith and Velvet Underground albums that Stipe was buying.
‘‘I was hoping we might get as popular as [1970s power pop band] Big Star,’’ says Buck. ‘‘I’m hardly complaining, but none of us felt super-comfortable sitting behind Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston at the Grammys. And the problem with being in a popular band is that you have to do so much that isn’t about the music.’’
Automatic for the People was a reaction to that situation. In 1991, Out of Time transformedREM from a hip alternative band into a phenomenon. ‘‘ Losing My Religion was the big change,’’ says Stipe, whose clipped monotone makes him seem far more earnest than he really is. ‘‘Suddenly everybody recognised me when nobody did four months previously, and it threw me off centre, for sure. Fame was something I thought I wanted, but you soon learn there is not much to it.‘‘
Stipe retreated from view, leaving Buck and Mills to do a promotional tour for Out of Time, something neither was prepared for. ‘‘It was such bull...t,’’ says Buck. ‘‘The radio stations were playing all this c..p, and then one of our songs. By the time it came to rehearsals for the next album, we knew we wanted to get away from all of that.’’
With the chief goal being to not repeat themselves, the four band members went through studios in Athens, New Orleans, Seattle and Miami, trying out new instruments and new ideas. Before long they knew they had something special. ‘‘The music was beautiful,’’ says Mills. ‘‘At the same time I was asking myself, ‘Who is going to want to hear a record about mortality, dying, changing?.’’
‘‘Honestly, we didn’t think Everybody Hurts would resonate in the way it did. It has a silly little drum machine going through it, which hampers the earnestness of the lyrics. We just thought it was sweet.’’
Back in the bistro, Stipe is revealing some surprising things about Automatic for the People, which was augmented by orchestral arrangements from Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. Everybody Hurts, he claims, is really just a version of the saccharine standard Love Hurts as played by the cheesy soft rockers Nazareth. Drive, the deadly serious ballad opening the album, is Stipe’s response to David Essex’s 1973 hit Rock On, ‘‘which was a clarion call to me as a teenager exploring my sexuality, telling me there was another world from the one I knew’’. And he confirms that the album was indeed about death. GETTY IMAGES
‘‘My grandparents were dying, I was taking care of a sick dog, and the 1980s were f...ed up, man!’’ says Stipe. ‘‘Aids took out an entire community of people As a 31-year-old I did not have the philosophical outlook I now have as a 57-year-old, so that record is me working out some nascent approach to mortality.’’
‘‘Now it seems strange to me,’’ adds Buck. ‘‘It’s one thing to accept life’s passing in your 80s, quite another in your late 20s.’’
Sweetness Follows is a mostly acoustic lament from a man burying his mother and father. Try Not to Breathe is a musical accompaniment to a suicide note. Nightswimming is a sweet reverie on youthful adventures skinnydipping in Athens. Man on the Moon is a maudlin tribute to the comedian Andy Kaufman. For the most part Automatic was flying in the face not only of the grungeobsessed mood of the times (Nirvana’s Nevermind came out a year earlier), but also of REM’s popularity.
The 25th anniversary edition includes a disc’s worth of ideas that never made it past the demo stage, alongside two unheard songs: Mike’s Pop Song and Devil Rides Backwards, rejected, claims Mills, for sounding too much like REM. Buck left his Mexico bolt hole for Los Angeles to listen to the 5.1 surround-sound remix. ‘‘It was incredibly moving to hear the music sound so alive again,’’ he says. ‘‘I was pleasantly surprised. Those guys knew what they were doing.’’
Stipe, however, couldn’t face it. ‘‘I would rather be dipped in lead and shot out of a cannon on live television than listen to any demos we made,’’ says the singer, remaining impressively stonyfaced while making this outrageous claim. ‘‘It is abject misery because I’m hearing myself at my most vulnerable and insecure. You have to embrace the more embarrassing part of yourself to be a public figure, icon, former pop star, whatever the f... I am.’’
The album also captured the point at which the interpersonal dynamic was at its most effective: Buck was the engine, Stipe says he and Mills were the lazy ones, and Berry was the editor, trimming the fat. Buck also drew up a set of rules. ‘‘We split all songwriting credits equally, which means I have 25 per cent on New Orleans Instrumental No 1, despite not playing a thing on it,’’ says Stipe. ‘‘It also means we stayed friends for life while constantly getting on each other’s nerves and annoying each other more than any wives or boyfriends could. It was all for one and one for all.’’
At least, it was until Berry left after he collapsed on stage during a concert and it was discovered he had a brain aneurysm. After he recovered, he left the band to run a hay farm. ‘‘His leaving changed the dynamic in a bad way,’’ says Stipe. ‘‘There was a power shift, REUTERS communication went down to absolute zero, and I could critique the work that came out of that period a lot more than the other records, although it wouldn’t be fair for me to do so. Nobody needs to hear my opinion.’’
Mills has played with Buck in a supergroup called the Baseball Project and run a Big Star tribute act. Buck has a group called Filthy Friends and has released solo albums, while Stipe has been writing and producing for the New York electro-disco band Fischerspooner. All seem happy enough. Yet I can’t help but feel there is an REM-shaped hole in their lives.
‘‘I went to see U2 not so long ago,’’ says Mills. ‘‘For the first two songs I thought, ‘Man, it could be me up there.’ Then about halfway through I thought, ‘But I’d have to do it all over the following night.’ And by the end of the concert I thought, ‘Thank God I’m not doing it any more.’ There’s a physical reality to being in a hugely successful band. When you’re young it’s one big party, but at some point the party aspect must diminish or you won’t survive.’’
‘‘I’m a don’t-look-back guy,’’ Buck says. ‘‘We finished at the right time and left a handful of albums I’m proud of.‘‘
‘‘Why of all people were we the ones to be chosen?’’ Stipe asks himself. ‘‘We had a modicum of talent. We were limited in what we were capable of as individuals, but as a group those limitations became something powerful. We worked hard and toured our asses off. We had Shiny Happy People and Stand, not songs I would want to be sent off on a rocket ship to represent mankind, but I’m glad we wrote them. We pulled each other up when we were down, and down when we were up. We were friends who created something together.’’
He comes to a realisation, seemingly for the first time. ‘‘You know what?’’ says Stipe, looking at me with what, I think, is a touch of surprise. ‘‘It was pretty f...ing cool.’’ – The Times