By Mark Guarino
For thirtysomethings who grew up in the ‘80s, it is difficult to believe that R.E.M., the band that signified the rise of college rock into the mainstream, is in its 22nd year.
Through two decades, R.E.M. made consistent albums that mixed a love of the Byrds, enigmatic Southern imagery and art pop sensibilities. The band, that formed while at the University of Georgia in Athens, weathered its 1988 transition to Warner Bros., which made them MTV superstars. The first significant setback came as late as 1997 when drummer Bill Berry suffered a double brain aneurysm on tour and quit.
R.E.M. has not quite recovered since. Vocalist Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills have recorded three albums following Berry’s departure — including the recently released, “Around the Sun” (Warner Bros.) — but the much more muted sound lacks the energy and songcraft of their earlier years.
Since last fall when the band released a hits collection plus played a career retrospective tour, the band has been struggling to both redefine itself and cope with their legacy that looms over their future. Considering they are one of the most influential bands of the last 20 years, the shadow their legacy casts is far and wide.
Mills, 45, talked recently by phone from Athens, where he still lives. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: I covered the Vote for Change concert in Detroit and have to admit, I never thought I’d see R.E.M. share the stage with John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen.
A: It felt like a dream. The music of those two musicians occupies such a huge place in my life and to get to stand on stage with them was extremely powerful.
Q: Other than the tour’s political goals, was getting on board also a way to play with people with whom you hadn’t had a chance to before?
A: Originally when the tour got first put together, we were going to be in one of the theatres doing one of our own shows with Bright Eyes and Bruce asked us to join him and play with his shows on the tour and we said yes.
Q: Was there discussion before on what songs you wanted him to play on?
A: No, we don’t tell Bruce what to do (laughs). We asked that if there were any R.E.M. songs he’d like to play and he said, “tell me what you’d like me to learn.” So we drew up list of songs he could choose from and he picked “Man On the Moon” and “Bad Day” and “Permanent Vacation” and then he invited us to play on “Born To Run” and I said, “okay, if I have to.”
Q: Why did you choose, at this point in your career, to play small theaters instead of the arenas?
A: We’re scaling down. A lot of folks are scaling down. The concert business in America is not what it once was. And there’s no point to play a half full arena, it’s a lot more fun to play a sold-out theatre.
Q: When you design a tour at this stage in your career, do you think new fans will show up?
A: I doubt it. I feel like at this point the audience that is coming there are pretty much solid fans and we can do whatever we want to. We can do a great show but we can certainly take a few chances if we want.
Q: Last fall, R.E.M. put out a greatest hits collection. Was that to reach kids who missed out?
A: I think that one of the things you hope for when put out a collection like that. You want to reach new people who maybe weren’t around for those records, you want to remind people we’re still here and making good music. And then for Michael, at least, it was a chance to, at last, get the ghosts of R.E.M.’s past off his back in terms of trying to match past lyrical work.
Q: Do you feel burdened by your past?
A: No, we don’t think about it when we’re trying to make music. But I think Michael, when he’s trying to write lyrics, he certainly feels the pressure we put on ourselves to maintain the high standard we set for ourselves.
Q: So you don’t ever feel burdened by albums like “Life’s Rich Pageant” or “Automatic For the People,” albums considered career peaks?
A: No, not at all. That was 10 and 12 and 14 years ago. We don’t really even think about it. We’re pretty much wrapped up in the here and now.
Q: In Detroit, you played “Exhuming McCarthy,” a song from 1987. And strange enough, it sounded relevant today. Do you find older songs take on new life in unexpected ways?
A: Well I certainly believe the pendulum swings back and forth. The sad thing is people refuse to learn from history. So a song like “Exhuming McCarthy” can resonate now just like “Welcome to the Occupation,” which we’re also playing now. Add to the fact that Michael’s lyrics are fairly specific yet they’re not so direct that they remain planted in that particular year. So a song like that or a “Final Straw” also sounds good. It’ll sound relevant in ten years depending on who’s in the White House.
Q: R.E.M. was always tagged as a political band although the songs themselves have no direct political overtones. Did you ever feel that association was unfair?
A: Without a doubt after “Green” and I guess to a lesser extent with “Automatic For the People,” people started looking for political messages in songs that didn’t have any. And we felt that was limiting. We felt people were not giving the songs a fair hearing by looking for messages that were not there. So since we never wanted to be categorized in any way, we decided to pull down the political content of whatever songs that actually had any and then devote most of our political energy to operating as individuals in our community and our homes. So we stayed away from making the big bold political statement in our music until this record when it became impossible not to.
Q: It took time for it to become okay.
A: Oh yeah, as appalled as we were by everything the Bush administration had done virtually since they got into office, it took the invasion of Iraq to really make us realize that something had to be done.
Q: How did growing up in the South influence what R.E.M. became?
A: I don’t think you necessarily hear any of the influences one gets growing up in South whether it’s hearing country or gospel or soul or blues. Because I grew up listening to all of that. You don’t hear that, but you do hear sense of relationship to history, a relationship to storytelling and an ability to ignore the trends that whiz through New York and Los Angeles.
Q: The criticism of this record is that it is almost too subdued and quiet.
A: We had some rockers but they just didn’t seem to fit this record when we tried to sequence it. We always have liked the idea of a record being somewhere where you can go for 50 or 60 minute, it should have sense of time and place. For us, the faster songs jar you out of that. So that’s just where this record took us. I think the next one might have a little more guitar on it but for this one, this just felt like the things we just needed to say.
A: Politics are unavoidable as far as the political songs. And once we started looking at the record, the overall feel of it seemed to require this particular group of songs. It’s harder to say in any more specific way than that because sequencing a record is tricky. It’s not easy because you don’t know always what you’re going for but you know you’ve got it when it happens.
Q: Do you ever feel like you’d like to go back to an old album and sequence it in a different order?
A: You kind of start over with each one. With (1998’s) “Up,” we put “Airport Man” as the first song just because we were in a cranky mood at the time.
Q: When Bill Berry quit in 1997, what was going on in the heads of the rest of you? Did you think of taking his lead and disbanding as well?
A: Probably a little of everything. We certainly thought maybe this is the time to quit. We didn’t want to but we certainly had to look at that possibility. But basically it did two things. It required us to reaffirm our commitment to the band and to each other. Which we did. And it also meant that all the old rules were up for inspection, whether it’s recording songs track-by-track or sort of piece-by-piece rather by group, or printing the lyrics. Any of the things that we ruled out for years came back to play
Q: What new rules emerged?
A: Just our ability to do anything. To put synthesizers on it, to put electronic loops on it, to print the lyrics. All those things became not just possible but perhaps desirable if not necessary.
Q: It was such a big deal when R.E.M. signed to Warner Bros. in 1988 for $10 million. But at the time, you were practically veterans, with five solid albums behind you. Now bands get signed to major labels without even releasing a single. Would R.E.M. be looking at the same career today if you just starting out?
A: It’s not healthy. You’ve got bands that don’t have time to develop and you’ve got record companies that not only drop you if your first album is not a hit, they’ll drop you if your first single is not a hit. They won’t even give you time to do a second single. Once again, that’s shortsightedness on the record companies part. Bands need time to develop. This is the time of instant gratification in almost every way. With the speed of information coming to people and the amount of information coming to people, no one has time to wait and listen.
Q: How does that affect your band?
A: We’re lucky. We have the wherewithal to be able to do whatever we want to do. Not only that, but we insist on it. But as you say, this would be a difficult time starting a band and certainly, you would have to think very seriously before signing to a major label on your first album.
Q: I wonder if the climate of depending on immediate success is going to affect the future of American pop music by diminishing the potential of new bands.
A: I think that they’ll find other ways. Whether by selling their record on their own website which is happening a lot. Some of the indie labels are still doing really good work by allowing the bands to stay sort of under the radar. Yep Roc, Matador, they all have good bands.
Q: How far do you want to take R.E.M.? Is there a future after this album?
A: I’ll tell you the truth, I can’t see past next July when the tour ends. After that, I don’t see any reason why not. We’re enjoying ourselves, we’re making good music, I don’t see any reason to quit but I’m not setting any timelines for us.