Mojo (UK)



Talking together for the first time since they split in 2011, Athens’ finest remember the road to Out Of Time, and beyond, when alternativ­e rock ruled the waves and they were its uncompromi­sing icons. “It was intense,” they tell Tom Doyle.

ANew York morNiNg iN November 1998 aNd michael Stipe had just awoken from a “horrible, horrible, horrible nightmare”. in his troubled slumber, the r.e.m. singer found himself in a scene he describes as being “like the climactic scene of Satyricon”, Fellini’s 1969 fantasy that ends with its chief protagonis­t encolpius lost in a labyrinth, battling a gladiator in the guise of a minotaur and then suffering public humiliatio­n through impotence when forced to copulate before an audience with the voluptuous ariadne. That day, Stipe was about to face a perhaps even stranger reality. groggy and unsettled, and too spooked to shave or shower, the singer was ferried in his fragile state to kaufman astoria Studios in Queens, where he and his r.e.m. bandmates were due to tape an appearance on Sesame Street. “one of the worst days of my life,” Stipe comedy-groans. “i’m dishevelle­d, i’ve got half a beard and i have to go and sing with the muppets.” worse, perhaps, was the fact that the track the band had agreed to perform was Furry happy monsters, an even more cartoonish take on Shiny happy People, the frolicsome second single from r.e.m.’s 1991 album Out Of Time, a song they had long before appeared to disown. as hellishly hungover bassist mike mills entered the Tv studios, the first sight that greeted him in the vast hangar was Sesame Street’s resident woolly mammoth, mr Snuffleupa­gus, strung up in a corner like a hunting trophy: “i was like, oh that’s sad, take

him down, do something with him…” Joined by guitarist Peter Buck, who’d brought his four-year-old twin daughters Zoe and Zelda along, the bemused trio performed numerous takes of the song behind a gaggle of frugging Muppets, with a mauve-faced female in a red sequinned dress filling the duetting role of The B-52’s Kate Pierson on the original record. In a break, Buck began riffing on The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie on a banjo. In response, the Muppets’ animators joined in by singing John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s deathless 1978 Grease hit, Summer Nights. “You just looked around,” remembers an incredulou­s Buck, “going, Man, this is a weird way to make a living.”

ThINGS had BeeN GeTTING progressiv­ely weirder for R.e.M. since 1991, the year that Out Of Time broke them into the mainstream with worldwide sales of nine million (a figure which has since doubled), due in part to the success of the catchy if cryptic Losing My Religion and the oft-maligned Shiny happy People. “I don’t regret that song,” Stipe says of the latter. “We made a lot of money off that song. That’s not why we wrote it. We wrote it because we were challengin­g ourselves. I grew up a child of the ’60s listening to The Monkees and The archies and The Banana Splits. The guys threw me the stupidest song, that sounded so buoyant and weird and I was like, OK, I accept the challenge. So it was bubblegum music made for kids. I don’t hate it. But I don’t want to sing it.” “It was just not that much fun to play live,” says Mills in explanatio­n of the subsequent neglect of their jaunty hit. “It’s more of a song that’s made for a record, rather than to be rocked out at a concert.” as an unrepresen­tative single from what was in truth a strange, largely midpaced and often brooding acoustic-based album, it highlighte­d the odd position in which R.e.M. found themselves in 1991. Between 1983’s debut Murmur and signing to Warner Bros for Green five years later, the athens, Georgia quartet’s enigmatic college rock had borne them stealthily to arena-filling level. Then came the relatively low-key Out Of Time – accompanie­d by no tour and Michael Stipe’s sudden refusal to grant interviews, steps that seemed designed to effect a gentle retreat from the spotlight. Not so, insists Buck today. “Our perspectiv­e was that there wasn’t really a spotlight,” he offers, breezily. “We’d always lived our lives saying, ‘Well we make some records, we tour, and then we go home.’ I mean, nobody was waiting outside of our houses to take photos. It never felt like not doing interviews or not touring was gonna mean anything. and people made a big deal out of it.” a quarter of a century on from Out Of Time – an anniversar­y marked in November with its remasterin­g along with the inclusion


of a raft of demos which serve to illuminate its developmen­t – R.E.M. view the record as a point where they felt self-assured, bold and free. Entirely bored of rock post-Green, they swapped instrument­s among themselves, brought in acoustic guitars, mandolin and Hammond organ, and became something else entirely. “There was definitely the feeling that, ‘Yeah we’ve played a lot of rock’n’roll recently,’” says Buck. “But there was also… y’know, everyone wakes up and looks in the mirror and goes, ‘God, I want to be somebody else today.’” The transforma­tion had begun at the end of the year-long tour for Green in December 1989. In the first months of the new decade Buck, Mills, drummer Bill Berry and, later, Stipe began rehearsing up their new song ideas, sketching them in loose Saturday afternoon demo sessions at their friend and collaborat­or John Keane’s recording studio, a block from where Buck was living in Athens. “We’d get the music arranged for three or four songs at a time,” the guitarist remembers. “We’d just go and knock ’em out.” As the demos document, spontaneit­y and playfulnes­s were much in evidence at these preliminar­y sessions – Berry stepped up to the mike to sing the second verse of rattling FM critique Radio Song (he baulked at the idea of repeating the performanc­e on record due to his reluctance to be a “frontman”); Stipe sang an entirely different lyric on Texarkana before nixing it as unsatisfac­tory and handing it over to Mills who wrote a new lyric and sang it himself. By the time the sessions moved to Bearsville Studios in Woodstock NY, in September 1990, Out Of Time’s songs were almost fully formed, and revealed a very different R.E.M. “King of bad analogy here,” says Stipe, “but we’d had this number of colours in our crayon box, and we knew how to mix all of them. We had grown bored with that. With Out Of Time we really stepped outside of ourselves and outside of rock’n’roll.” Even so, Stipe has mixed feelings about the demos being revealed for the first time. “It pulls the curtain back a little too much for my taste,” he confesses. “But it does show process. It’s excruciati­ng at times because you hear me really trying to work through something. (Pauses)I don’t know how much you’ve heard of it?” MOJO tells him we’ve heard it all. “Oh fucking hell,” he laughs. “So it’s a disaster for me.” Seriously? Does he cringe when he hears his younger self trying to write songs? “Cringe completely,” he nods. “Full body cringe, more than once. But that’s OK. I’m proud enough of what it is. And I think I’ve proven myself to not be, um… when I think of myself as a very small person, I think I’ve proven that I’m bigger than that. To myself. Not to you. To myself.”

THESE ARE THE FIRST INTERvIEWS R.E.M. HAvE given ‘as’ R.E.M. since they decided to break up the band in 2011. Meeting Stipe and Mills individual­ly in rooms at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, and talking to Buck on the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon (while the “so retired” Berry – Mills’s words – declines to talk to MOJO), it’s instantly clear that the five years freed from the pressures of being in the band have done them all good. The last time this writer met them, also in New York, in 2008, they were promoting Accelerate, their return to propulsive electric guitar-based rock after its comparativ­ely wishy-washy and overproduc­ed predecesso­r Around The Sun. All three seemed bruised and worn-out by the effort to hold the band together since Berry’s departure – to farm hay in Farmington, Georgia – 11 years earlier. The normally affable Buck admitted he’d “hated” the way that Around The Sun had turned out, its months-long, pieced-together Pro Tools creation at odds with his inherent drive for musical spontaneit­y. Mills had been squirmingl­y determined not to divulge the details of their intra-band problems, while Stipe – always a tricksy interviewe­e – had veered from distracted to prickly to hostile. Today, Stipe is a marked contrast. The 56-year-old, now sporting an impressive­ly bushy grey beard (nigh on half a foot long) and

Continued from page 73 punkish nose spikes, is friendly and open and frequently laughs loud and hard, while even acknowledg­ing the conscious affectatio­ns of his past public image. “I mean, I think I fulfilled the role very well,” he tells MOJO at one point, “and knowingly, of poetic eccentric, the sensitive guy. But I think people liked the mystery. They liked that my character was something that they could kind of have this romantic notion about. I think. I mean, I don’t know. I’m self-absorbed but I’m not that self-absorbed.” Notably, in the five years since they broke up, none of the exmembers of R.E.M. have tried to launch a musical venture on anything near the scale of their former band. “There is the understand­ing,” says Buck, “that if any one of us were to go down that route, it’s never gonna be the same, y’know? The character of the four of us, the culture and the time we were in, and the way we approached what we did… that happens once.” Neverthele­ss, while flying under the radar, the restless Buck has been as busy as ever since R.E.M., releasing three vinyl-only solo albums of garage rock and psych folk on which he sang for the first time (the latest being last year’s Warzone Earth), while he has an album due in 2017 by Filthy Friends, his new band with Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney. “I don’t have anything I can really learn from being on a major label or being on television,” he reasons. “I’m quite happy to have done it. But I’ve been consciousl­y just concentrat­ing on what interested me which is still

songwritin­g, and playing with other people.” One of those people being Mike Mills, whom he has performed alongside in The Baseball Project and backing Joseph Arthur. Mills himself has just collaborat­ed with violinist Robert McDuffie on a classical-rock crossover project, although he too acknowledg­es that R.E.M. was a tough act to follow. “It would be absolute folly,” he states, “to try to do anything that could be remotely compared to R.E.M.” A fact Michael Stipe seems to understand only too well. While he reveals to MOJO today that he has just recently been back in the studio for the first time, producing and co-writing the forthcomin­g album Sir by New York electro duo Fischerspo­oner, he has taken something of a guerrilla approach to performing – appearing with Chris Martin to sing Losing My Religion at a benefit for victims of Hurricane Sandy at Madison Square Garden in 2012, then opening unannounce­d for Patti Smith with a set of covers at New York’s Webster Hall in 2014. Had he just got to a point where he thought, I can’t let my voice lie dormant? “Yes, with that accent!” he chuckles, acknowledg­ing your correspond­ent’s Caledonian burr. “That’s how it came to me in my dream, in a very deep Scottish accent. I love my voice, but I really needed to step away from music for a while. Music for me is all-consuming. And it’s a medium that I’ve, I think, proven my worth in. But that’s something that comes and goes…” On-stage at the first of his two Webster Hall shows with Smith, the singer confessed to the audience, “I’m nervous…” Surprising perhaps considerin­g the hundreds of gigs he’s done? “But with R.E.M.,” he stresses. “That’s a very different thing. I put together a set list of the impossible cover songs, y’know. Who the fuck would cover Imagine? I mean, how do you do that? Or People Are Strange or All The Young Dudes?” Stipe had already signed on to sing Ashes To Ashes at the longplanne­d David Bowie tribute show at Carnegie Hall in March of this year when the death of the star in January turned it into a wake. “I was devastated,” he says. “Suddenly it was a eulogy featuring the music of our dearly departed.” The last time Stipe saw Bowie was four years ago when he was invited over to Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s place in Tribeca. “Chris didn’t tell me David Bowie was standing in the fucking living room,” he beams. The two, he says, talked that night about “mostly art”. Far less welcome a surprise came in September 2015 when Donald Trump co-opted R.E.M.’s 1987 hit It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) as walk-on music at a rally in Washington, DC. Immediatel­y, Stipe – via the medium of Mike Mills’s Twitter account – exploded with fury at Trump and the Republican Party, stating: “Go fuck yourselves. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.” “Yeah, I think I might have been the first person to say, ‘Go fuck yourself’ to him in this round,” he avers with some pride today. “It’s a fucking clown car right now.”

It’s also a reminder of how politicall­ycharged, and influentia­l, R.E.M. were as a band. In the wake of the release of Out Of Time – whose CD longbox package even included a Rock The Vote petition – the group firmly tied their colours to 1992’s Bill Clinton/Al Gore

campaign. In one key speech, Gore stated, “To quote Michael… George Bush is out of time.” Did Stipe find that thrilling? Slightly strange? “I mean, it wasalittle weird,” he admits. “It got big cheers from the crowd. Yeah, it was thrilling. Of course it was, to be namechecke­d by the future Vice President.” “It was empowering,” Mills states. “We felt like we were part of the Zeitgeist.”

HOW R.E.M. REACHED THIS POINT IN the early 1990s was all the more unusual given that they operated entirely on their own terms. But in the late ’80s their impending breakthrou­gh seemed to be a given, or at least in the mind of one staffer at their original label IRS, who declared even before hearing it that 1987’s Document album would make R.E.M. “as big as U2”. Mainstream radio duly picked up on the chiming pop of lead single The One I Love, with its sarcastic and spiteful lyric misinterpr­eted as a straightfo­rward love song. Stipe says today that he wasn’t at all dismayed. “No,” he offers, brightly. “Whatever. I didn’t like the song to begin with. I thought it was too brutal. I thought the senti-


 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Going overground: (from top) Shiny Happy People; Fellini’s Satyricon fed Stipe’s nightmare the night before R.E.M. were guests on the Muppets. Talk about the passion: Buck, Stipe and Mills cut loose at The Rat, Boston, Massachuse­tts, 1983 at the time...
Going overground: (from top) Shiny Happy People; Fellini’s Satyricon fed Stipe’s nightmare the night before R.E.M. were guests on the Muppets. Talk about the passion: Buck, Stipe and Mills cut loose at The Rat, Boston, Massachuse­tts, 1983 at the time...
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 ??  ?? Life outside the bubble: (from top) David Bowie, he and Stipe talked “mostly art”; Buck’s 2015 solo album Warzone Earth; Mills’ classical-rock project; Stipe collaborat­or Casey Spooner.
Life outside the bubble: (from top) David Bowie, he and Stipe talked “mostly art”; Buck’s 2015 solo album Warzone Earth; Mills’ classical-rock project; Stipe collaborat­or Casey Spooner.

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