On the Shoulders of Its Own Mythology

Music Features R.E.M.
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“It’s happened like, three times over the last couple years,” says R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe. “I’m sitting in a café or a restaurant somewhere, and I’ll hear a song that sounds familiar and I’ll go, ‘God, that is so great. What is it?’ And over the din, the glorious din of a roomful of people yammering, I’ll find out … Jesus! It’s something I recorded when I was 21 years old.”

Stipe is conducting interviews from his dressing room in Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center, where R.E.M. is rehearsing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for the opening night of MoveOn.org’s six-city Vote for Change tour. The band has set up camp for several days as members do press for their 13th studio release, Around the Sun.

As is expected of a band of R.E.M.’s stature, the press junket is frenetic and haphazard. Interview times get bumped as media crews are shu­ed from room to room of the historic Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia. Reporters get 15 minutes with each member of the band, no matter how big or small the publication … at least, that’s what they tell us. Band members answer their questions graciously and professionally. All in all, it’s a far, frenzied cry from the band’s languid genesis in Athens, Ga.

Talk About the Passion
“All of us loved music,” Stipe says of those early days. “We all knew what it was to have a song on a record forever and ever. You couldn’t go back and change it if you don’t like it. And that led me into this kind of phase for our first couple records where the idea of creating something timeless was really important to me. The idea that 20, 50 years later, someone could hear one of these songs and it would have this very present quality to it.”

R.E.M.’s early catalogue has endured, largely because of its warm, personal feel—like a handmade sweater or a cup of homemade soup. From the start, expressions of genuine concern like “So. Central Rain” and good advice like “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” held an intimate place in the kudzu-wrapped hearts of music lovers who appreciated the band’s homespun approach to its craft—an approach both direct and oblique, masterful and naïve. In its infancy, R.E.M. was a refreshing break from the polished, arena-rock excess of groups like Journey and the contrived quirkiness of the New Romantic bands being shipped over from England.

“I didn’t like the way everything was so linear and literal in the world,” says guitarist Peter Buck. “It was the New Wave era, so every record you’d buy had four or five guys wearing wacky glasses and red shirts with zippers on them. We were a lot artier than your average rock band, so we wanted something that was more reflective of who we were, you know? Like this Southern vine that grows around this abandoned train trestle. That said more about us than a picture of us in our new clothes would.”

Maps and Legends
Although R.E.M. was very much a product of its environment, the band seemingly created art in a vacuum. By eschewing trends and outside influences, it made Southern America seem suddenly exotic, even to their countrymen. Hailing from a region previously known mostly for red clay and rednecks, they were refreshingly literate and eccentric—a lead singer who claimed he could predict earthquakes, a bass player who supposedly could smell ants, and a guitarist who shared his audience’s undying faith in the redemptive power of rock ’n’ roll. Dealing in jangly rhythms and whispered impressions, R.E.M. truly was the stuff of dreams.

Growing up listening to tracks like “Camera” and “Perfect Circle,” I became utterly convinced Stipe was capable of channeling random thoughts from the spirits of those long departed—a conviction born out by his haunting performance of “Swan Swan H” in the movie Athens, Ga. Inside/Out [see the Paste DVD sampler]. In an abandoned Southern Gothic church, Stipe transformed his angelic 26-year-old frame into that of a twittering Civil War veteran with the weight of a new century on his shoulders. That musicians of such artistic accomplishment could walk the streets of their sleepy college town as ordinary citizens added significantly to their mystique.

“I used to collapse poetically on a couch at the end of a record with my hand on my forehead and say, ‘I’ll never be able to do this again,’” Stipe says of the process that resulted in those early recordings. “I just completely drained myself. I put everything I had into not only writing the stuff but the process of recording and mixing and making the decisions you need to make to get it on a record.”

It was hard work, but R.E.M. was on a roll. In interview after interview and with each new release, the band forged a new kind of contract with its fans—one that showed it was uniquely aware of its own mythology and that it would work hard to preserve that which made R.E.M. special. Band members swore they would never lip-sync their music videos. They swore they would never play venues with more than 10,000 seats. Most famously, they prophesied a break up on New Year’s Eve, 1999, with their integrity intact.

Letter Never Sent
The most controversial renegotiation of R.E.M.’s unspoken contract was the decision to stick together when drummer Bill Berry left in 1997 following the aneurysm he experienced during the band’s ill-fated Monster tour. “He doesn’t leave his house,” Buck says of Berry now. “Lucky enough, he’s got like an 80-acre place, so you know, he pretty much just putters around there. Once a week he goes to a grocery store. He’s doing great, but he couldn’t do this. He wouldn’t want to do any of this.”

As an expression of the quartet’s solidarity, R.E.M.’s members always said they would cease to be a band if a member ever decided to quit. Berry left as the ink was drying on the band’s record-breaking $80 million contract with Warner Brothers. New Adventures in Hi-Fi was the first album released under this new contract and the last album on which Berry appeared; it also became the first R.E.M. release to sell fewer copies than its predecessor.

“Bill leaving the band was a horrible blow, but it’s only … it’s not bad when you put it in perspective, because he could have died,” says bassist Mike Mills. “As it is now, the band changed. OK, I can live with that. Bill’s still out there. I can call him when I want to, and to me, that makes everything else kind of inconsequential. But of course, it did sort of yank the rug out from under the band, and it forced us to reconsider many things, including our commitment to each other, our commitment to the band and how the hell we were going to continue as a three-piece.”

Frustrations relating to Berry’s departure and the struggle to find a new direction came to a head while the band was recording Up. Stipe and Mills would show up late for recording sessions, frustrating Buck, who was used to using downtime to work out ideas with Berry. “I was really pissed off about the way things were going,” Buck says “I didn’t feel like the other guys were focusing at all, and I think I was right in that regard.” He called an emergency meeting and they all retreated to Idaho where they spent a week hashing out their problems with the help of a facilitator.

“If you stay together long enough, you have to periodically recommit yourself to what you’re doing and make sure the lines of communication are still open,” Mills says. “That’s what happens to any group of people, no matter what the endeavor is, whether it’s business or social. The lines of communication often close down and that’s what happened to us. We weren’t really talking to each other like we should have been, and we all realized the need for either recommitment to what we were doing or to stop doing it.”

Crush With Eyeliner
Mills told me the band would be “pulling out their heavy guns” for a set with Bruce Springsteen tonight, and the show begins just as predicted, with a crunching rendition of “The One I Love” followed by an equally powerful “Begin the Begin.” Stipe & Co. then launch into a string of songs—“Leaving New York,” “She Just Wants to Be,” “Animal” and “Walk Unafraid”—in which the audience has little or no emotional investment. Judging from their reactions, the 30-somethings dominating the crowd would rather hear songs that were important to them when they were growing up. R.E.M. has never been better live, but gets only a smattering of applause for the newer songs.

Springsteen, by contrast, begins his set with the oldest, most emotionally charged song of the evening—“The Star-Spangled Banner.” Under a lone spotlight, he hunches his body over his 12-string acoustic guitar as if trying desperately to coax out notes that once united a nation. The Vote for Change audience is reminded instantly why it came tonight. Not far from the stadium is Valley Forge, where General George Washington spent the cold winter of 1778 as the British laid siege to Philadelphia. Further west are the fields of Gettysburg where, over a period of three days in the hot summer of 1863, more than 20,000 men lost their lives reshaping the terms of freedom the Founding Fathers had so eloquently put forth. The small city hall where those terms were debated stands less than five miles from where Bruce Springsteen is performing tonight.

“We remain a land of great promise, but I think we need to move America toward the fulfillment of the promise that she’s made for her citizens,” he says during a break towards the end of the show. “Economic justice. Civil rights. The protection of the environment. A living wage. Respect for others and humility in exercising our power at home and around the world. These are not impossible ideals; they are achievable goals with strong leadership and the will of a vigilant and informed American people.” He then calls a beaming Mike Mills and Peter Buck to the stage to back him on a blistering version of “Born to Run.” “Someday girl, I don’t know when,” he sings, the timeless words rocking the audience to a frenzy—“We’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go, and we’ll walk in the sun, but ’til then tramps like us, baby we were born to run!”

Rock ’n’ roll is capable of divining the truth, and Springsteen has just nailed it.

If Springsteen is the quintessential American singer—John Steinbeck’s soul wrapped in Elvis Presley’s spirit—then R.E.M. is the quintessential American band. Optimistic, entrepreneurial, once humble but now increasingly brash with confidence. The truth Springsteen has spoken so plainly for more than 30 years, R.E.M. once achieved with a mumble. As Stipe snakes across the stage—a delight to watch in his new white suit and commanding stage presence—I wonder if he could ever return to the dream state that inspired some of the band’s most intimate work. He’s a rock star now. A frontman. A product of pop culture.

“I’m the least confident person you’ll probably ever see tour in your life,” Stipe laughs, suggesting his stage presence may be a way to protect a sacred, intimate part of his soul from the glaring spotlights overhead. “No matter what anybody thinks of what we do, to me it is what it is. I recognize its shortcomings and I recognize it for what it is.”

Around the Sun
For me a record is a sea of possibilities,” says Buck. “When you start it out, it could be anything. Then the possibilities start disappearing and it becomes the record you buy.” The album’s not even out yet, and the critic in him is already deconstructing and reconstructing the album in countless possible ways. “My record would be, believe it or not, even slower and more acoustic,” he says, citing “On the Fly,” a slow song he considers among the five best R.E.M. has ever recorded but, nevertheless, is not appearing on the new album, Around the Sun.

“I like records that kind of hold a mood,” he continues. “No one’s ever said, ‘Gosh, that Nick Drake record Five Leaves Left doesn’t really have a rocker.’ That’s not the way I look at that kind of stuff, so I would have probably gone slower. I think Michael would have had a couple faster ones and Mike, I think he got pretty close to what he wanted, but I think we all did.” He then lists songs he would’ve taken off, including “Aftermath” and the soulful “Ascent of Man.”

To Stipe, Around the Sun represents the start of an incredibly prolific period. “It felt to me like every time I went to write a song I had all our greatest songs sitting on my shoulder,” he says. “But about a-year-and-a-half-ago, Bono gave me some very sage advice. ‘Every song doesn’t have to be great, just do what we do,’ he said. ‘We’re songwriters. Let’s write songs.’ And it unlatched a lock in my brain or something. I realized I can write a mediocre song. It doesn’t have to be heard by the public or even Mike and Peter. That set me off on what’s turned into the most prolific period I’ve ever experienced as a songwriter.”

Bono’s advice, leaked to the press, led to rampant speculation that Around the Sun was going to be R.E.M.’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind—a record that found U2 returning to its Joshua Tree-era roots to the delight of longtime fans. It’s speculation that Mike Mills dismisses outright. “I don’t compare any of our records to U2’s,” he says. “I love those guys, I love the work they do and I’m proud to be mentioned in the same breath as them as often as we are, but we don’t have the same goals they do. They aim big. I think we aim smaller. They wanted to make a rock record and we weren’t after that at this point. These are the songs we had, and they seemed to fit on this record.”

Shiny Happy People
R.E.M.’s official Around the Sun listening party is happening in downtown Athens at Little Kings Bar, a place so new, it’s better known locally as “that place where Pylon played their reunion show a few months back.” Tickets are $20 at the door with all proceeds going toward local family- and school-based charities. The band members are not in attendance.

Folding chairs and tables are set up in the bar’s adjoining parking lot. R.E.M. staffers, kids from the Communities in Schools program and local bankers and lawyers make up a business-casual audience who will later bid on signed R.E.M. memorabilia. An out-of-commission London city bus is currently serving as a stage for Calvin Smith, who is performing a medley of R.E.M.’s biggest hits to the accompaniment of a single electric guitar. Looking like a Nubian king with his broached turban and campy stage presence, Smith is a throwback to R.E.M.’s irreverent early days.

Around the Sun has been streaming for about a week on MySpace.com, but this listening party is being billed as a sneak peek at the new album. Very few college kids are in attendance. Occasionally a car slows down to check out images from R.E.M.’s latest concert DVD as they are broadcast on the side of the building. I start several interviews with people I think are fans before learning that they’re in some way associated with the band—employees, nannies, sons or daughters of business associates.

The fans I do talk to each reveal a different interpretation of what R.E.M. represents and where the band should be going. There’s the college girl who compares them to Maroon 5 and is shocked when I say I don’t know who Maroon 5 is. “They’re like Three Doors Down,” she says. There’s the 26-year-old woman who says their best album is Up; her 23-year-old boyfriend shakes his head and says it’s Murmur. There’s the guy who says a lot of people have been “down” on “Leaving New York” but he likes it, and the hard-core indie rocker who says she was turned on to the band when she heard “Shiny Happy People” when she was 12. Most listen politely to Around the Sun and decline to comment when I ask what they think, saying they really haven’t formed an opinion yet. One fan, who identifies herself as a regular poster on the murmurs.com fan website says the new album is much quieter than she was hoping for. “If they continue with stuff like Reveal, I’m not sure if I would be crushed if they just stopped making music.” This is a hard conclusion to come to, and she almost can’t believe she’s saying it. “If they went back to the energy of their earlier albums, I think I’d come back.”

Imitation of Life
“You can’t even think about that, and we don’t,” says Mills when I ask him how R.E.M. accommodates such a wide audience base-people for whom R.E.M. means Murmur vs. people for whom R.E.M. means Monster vs. people for whom R.E.M. means Reveal. “There are three people that we try to please,” says Mills, “and that’s myself, Peter and Michael. Four if you count the producer, Pat McCarthy. You attract fans by being honest and doing what you do,” he continues. “As we went on, I think we built up a fan base of people who appreciated what we did and why we did it. Then, when you start having hit singles you begin to attract the casual listener—people who don’t really seek out music, but they like what they hear on the radio and they’ll go buy the record. And if you don’t have hit singles, you lose the casual listener and move back to a core of people who actively seek out music and find what they like. That’s fine. That’s a natural progression of things. We like creating little worlds for people and we hope they enjoy inhabiting them with us when we do.”

R.E.M. has been creating these little worlds for almost 25 years. The band has given a lot to its fans and has created some of the most important work of its generation. When I tell Stipe I’m naturally drawn to the older albums, he understands. “Sure. Music speaks to you at the time you hear it,” he says. “I have records like that in my life, too.”

Stipe’s comment brings to mind a question I’ve been dying to ask Peter since I read years ago that he thought R.E.M. was destined to make one of the 10 best albums in the history of rock ’n’ roll. Have they done it yet? If not, are they still trying? And which records come closest to that goal?

“It’s hard for me to know because I see the joints,” he says. “I see the Frankenstein monster aspects of the songs. The bridge isn’t as good as it should be; the mix isn’t what I wanted it to be; I don’t like the third line in the second verse—all of that stuff. You grow up as a teenager and think this music is made by gods. Even though they’re only human, I still tend to think of the The Beach Boys ’66, Dylan in the ’60s, The Beatles, James Brown and The Velvet Underground as untouchable.”

He pauses for a moment before continuing. “Our stuff stands up pretty well in the era that we’re in, you know … but are they the best records of all time? I wouldn’t claim that even if I thought it was true.”