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.

Sunday News - - FEATURE -

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

Bill Berry, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe at the height of REM’s fame in 1991.

Michael Stipe says REM amounted to a group of friends who cre­ated some­thing to­gether.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.