R.E.M. From Beginning To End

Music Features R.E.M.
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The last time Michael Stipe was in a studio, he, Peter Buck and Mike Mills recorded the final song for R.E.M.’s farewell compilation Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage. So you’ll have to forgive him if he’s a little choked up when he walks into our interview at the KMA Studio in New York’s famous Brill Building. R.E.M. is not a nostalgic band, he’ll insist. But still, this is a pretty big deal.

“I’m no longer in R.E.M.,” he says, a little incredulously. “That’s just crazy for me. I can’t describe how odd that is, to even say it.”

Stipe and Mills are in New York for some of their first interviews as unrestricted free agents. They’ve just disbanded one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest institutions after a full 31 years, 15 studio albums, eight official compilations, three EPs, a couple of live releases, countless bootlegs and more than 1,500 concerts. Like everything they’ve done in the last three decades, they ended things on their own terms. No sentimental victory lap, no cashing in one last time—just an announcement to the fans that R.E.M. is no more.

“I didn’t want to play Paris and Kyoto and Atlanta for the last time, singing ‘Man on the Moon’ for the last time in that city, everyone in the room knowing it,” says Stipe. “That takes the degree to which I can be maudlin to such depths. I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to feel that.”

“And then there’s the horrible mercenary aspect of it,” Mills adds. “It looks like, ‘Well, this is the last time you’re ever going to see us; you better pony up! Come out and buy those tickets, ’cause this is it.’ … R.E.M. is done. There will be no farewell tour to mop up all the money. That’s not how we operate.”

It was a final example of how a band from Athens, Ga., became superstars without following anyone else’s rulebook or getting caught up in any music-industry games that distracted from their art. It’s a familiar story now as bands have the freedom to build careers their own way, but 30 years ago it wasn’t the norm.

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R.E.M.’s story really begins in the mid ’70s in Mills’ childhood basement in Macon, Ga., where a group of students from the local Catholic prep school were coming together for a band practice. R.E.M.’s eventual rhythm section “hated each other” at first, he recalls. “[Bill Berry] was kind of a juvenile delinquent, and I was a guy who got along with pretty much everybody, including the teachers. I even got along with most of the bad boys, but I didn’t get along with Bill.”

So they were both surprised to see each other at the practice (Berry didn’t know whose house he was in as he set up his drums). “I walked down and he saw me and I saw him,” says Mills. “And we were like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ But we said, ‘All right, we’ll give it a try,’ and pretty quickly, we became best friends.”

In 1978, they left home for Athens, where they enrolled in the University of Georgia. It was there that Michael Stipe met Peter Buck at the record shop where the guitarist worked. By 1980 Buck introduced Berry and Mills to Stipe, and they all agreed to play some music together.

The four musicians, though still a little wary of one another, held their first practice in the now-famous, mostly demolished St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, where Buck and Stipe were living (Berry would move in later). Berry and Mills had already written some songs together, and Mills was excited to hear how they sounded with a quartet.

“With any band—as opposed to a group of musicians—there’s a chemistry that occurs when you play music together,” says Mills. “That was kind of clear from the very first time we ever practiced together. … I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I like what they’ve done with the music I’ve just showed them.’ That was pretty cool.”

The following night they hosted a show in the old church, playing covers of The Troggs, The Sex Pistols, The Velvet Underground and The Ramones, along with some garage-rock originals like “Permanent Vacation,” “Narrator” and “Baby I.” They settled on the name R.E.M. and spent the next two years touring up the East Coast and eventually out to California before ever releasing as much as an EP. They dropped out of school and spent a fair amount of time in New York.

“We weren’t far from here,” Stipe says. “I remember living out of this fleabag hotel on 44th St. between 5th and 6th at The Iroquois. We were in the room that James Dean had when he was here studying acting, which I loved, but it was a fleabag hotel. And I had $2 a day to live on, so I would go to Times Square at two or three in the morning and buy the largest knish I could find, which would tide me over until the next night, when I would buy another large knish. And we would get in free to clubs and stand around and try and get someone to buy you a drink. I loved it. I was living the dream.”

They found a manager in Jefferson Holt, a record-store guy from North Carolina who relocated to Athens. They found a label in Miles Copeland III’s I.R.S. Records; Copeland’s brother Ian had a booking agency in Macon, right next to where Mills and Berry practiced music as teenagers. As each successive album and tour drew in more fans, their reach expanded further from the South, but they always came back home.

“Athens was always home, and it was always a base,” Stipe says. “And it was always something that was incredibly grounding for me and the band. We still have our office there. I have my home there. We have family. It provided, in the very beginning, a place that was not a media center or a city center, but a place that was so far off the grid that it was creating its own thing—and doing so in a very interesting and creative way. It continues to inspire me in that regard.”

“You can’t ever say how bad it would have been had we lived somewhere else,” says Mills, “but I certainly think Athens had a lot to do with it—to be able to go home and be out of the insanity that is New York City and Los Angeles. That was essential for us because it enabled us to remain grounded, to hang around friends and family and not be considered rock stars, but be considered sons and brothers and friends and normal people. And you know Athens was sort of out of the winds of faddish behavior. I mean certainly trends came and went but not to the degree that they did in New York or L.A., and there was no real pressure to be this way or that way. Athens had a certain core group of people who all appreciated art and music and individuality. And so there was that support group built in too.”

Stipe had joined the band having only sung publicly a handful of times, and it took him a while to find his own style of singing—and later still to let the listener in on the words.

“The voice didn’t come until much later,” he says. “The early stuff from tapes I sound like Elvis Presley, and I’m doing this sort of rockabilly hiccup thing—which I didn’t even know why, but that’s maybe what I was listening to at the time, and it was exciting to me at the time or it fit the music. My vocal style developed from those guys writing these songs that were so fast. Mike’s favorite band was the Ramones, and we all loved punk rock and the energy of it. And when you’re largely a touring, live band and not a band that’s making records—which we were for the first two and a half years—the fast songs go over really well. Those guys were doing these really fast songs, and I couldn’t keep up. I started slowing down to counter their speeding up, and this developed into this sort of—like a drone. My voice became like a foghorn, and I discovered I had this very low part of my voice and I have a very high part of my voice—actually I’ve lost some of the high stuff. And it developed into a singing style, which developed into a writing style.”

Eventually, that style even became intelligible. “When I started applying narrative to it, I felt like I couldn’t do that live thing anymore,” he says. “I couldn’t just write whatever sound the voice sounded like, which was the word ‘Ottoman’ or ‘moral kiosk’—which is a nice song, but I don’t know what it means. Only God knows what it means. I know what I was reading in art history when I wrote it. … But I figured out after a record and a half or two records that the ‘not making sense’ thing was best left to Elizabeth Fraser and Jónsi from Sigur Rós.”

He also gradually became politicized as touring opened his eyes to a much bigger perspective on life. He was rattled by the advent of AIDS and a Reagan administration that angered him. In Europe and Japan, he encountered people his age that wanted to talk about cruise missiles instead of punk rock and realized that his band served as a face for America. But he didn’t want his politics to overtake the music.

“I wanted to have fun,” he says. “I still maintain, as a music fan, I know what I go to music for, and it’s not political discourse at all. Most of the times that a political lyric or song came out of me, it was something that I was responding to instinctually. I was not trying to write ‘Welcome to the Occupation’ or ‘The Flowers of Guatemala’ or ‘Orange Crush’ or ‘How the West was Won and Where it Got Us.’ Those songs are very political. And some of the newer stuff with George W. and Cheney, I didn’t even want to qualify those people by putting them into the songs and into the lyric. But it’s what was coming from my heart and what I was reacting to. I’m still a very angry person about injustices that are brought about by political tampering and games; it makes me sick to my stomach.”

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From the beginning, the band decided two important things: They would approach R.E.M. as a democratic entity with all songs credited to Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe. And they wouldn’t compromise when it came to saying “No” to things they didn’t want to do. There was no role model to follow other than just never accepting the status quo.

“When we came along, there were certain things that the record company would tell you you had to do,” Mills says. “Some of those involved moving to New York; some of those involved going on tour opening for really high profile bands; some of those involved dyeing your hair all the same color. There were all sorts of different things that were presented to us as things that ‘needed to be done,’ and we rejected pretty much all of them. And I think other bands have noticed that over the years.”

An exception was when the band opened for The Police at Shea Stadium. “The guy who was going to book us was Ian Copeland, the guy who ran our record company was Miles Copeland and the drummer for The Police was Stewart Copeland,” Mills recalls. “They were brothers and it was like, ‘Okay we’ll show you what we’re talking about.’ So we went out there, and we opened for them. We did seven shows, and most of them were miserable. And I don’t think we sold 10 ten more records because we opened for The Police. We pretty much proved our point to everybody that, ‘Look guys, this doesn’t do any good. All it does is piss us off.’ But I will say this: It got us to play Shea Stadium and that was very cool. To this day I remember that with great fondness. Joan Jett came over in our trailer said, ‘You’se guys are pretty good,’ and that was a high moment. She came over in her little black cat suit, and that was totally hot. I can’t think of too many other compromises that we made in the big picture, and certainly that one proved our point.”

But more important than philosophy even were the friendships that formed over the years—friendships that were often tested with the rigors of touring, clashing creative visions and every bump in the road. The first real crisis came while recording their third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, in England in the winter of 1985. Exhausted by years of non-stop touring and without producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, they came dangerously close to breaking up when faced with cold English days, a dreary commute and distasteful food.

“As with any group,” says Mills, “whether it’s a business or a marriage or a relationship of any sort, you’re gonna hit some rough spots. And what you do is you talk, you communicate. Communication is the key to any endeavor succeeding or not succeeding. So you say, ‘What do we want? What’s most important right now?’ And if continuing this band and making this work is the most important thing, how do we do that? And once you determine what it’s going to take to make everyone comfortable moving forward, then that’s what you do.”

In 1997, what was most important for Bill Berry, though, was to no longer be a pop star. He’d suffered a brain aneurysm on stage two years earlier, during R.E.M.’s world tour. Three of the members had fallen ill that year, but Berry decided that it was time for him to leave the band. He didn’t want to be the one who caused R.E.M.’s demise, and told the guys he’d stay if leaving meant they’d break up.

It changed the dynamics “more than we could have imagined,” Mills recalls. “Certainly the balance—both literally and figuratively—was upset. We knew we were a different band from that moment on. We didn’t realize right away how difficult it might become—and certainly it did. But we found ways to deal with that, and a lot of that was the commitment to the band and to the commitment to each other as friends. … Plus we wanted to continue. We had some songs that we liked and wanted to record, and so we forged on in the traditional stubborn manner of R.E.M.”

Stipe describes what each member brought to the band, and how that would change when four became three:

“Bill was an amazing editor, and he was really impatient. He’s still one of the most hyperactive people I know—moreso than I am, which is hard to imagine. But he’s really impatient with songs that drag on and on and on and are aimless and pointless. So, right away we lost a great editor and a great arranger. He wrote songs like ‘Everybody Hurts.’ He’s also a great songwriter and a great singer and obviously a great drummer, but we lost that without realizing, ‘Oh, he’s the guy that comes in that says ‘Get to the fucking end.’ So, what do you get? You get Up, which is two songs too long with songs that stretch over five minutes that are plodding because we use a drum machine. Mike reminded me that we really threw out the rulebook when Bill left the band.

“Peter loves the moment,” he continues. “He loves lightning in a bottle, but he loves what the moment brings. Inspiration from him comes in the moment. He wants to capture it on tape and never look back. When Bill left—because Bill had that impatient quality to him, that served us really well as a recording band—Peter suddenly didn’t have someone to agree with him when Mike and I are much slower and more methodical in the way we create our parts, in the way we take a song that Peter would write and add our parts to it or change it or rearrange it. So instantly things ground to a halt because Mike and I were now outnumbering Peter. It was a very obvious shift that occurred from a four-piece with chemistry to a three piece with chemistry destroyed. And what you have for the next three records is a band trying to find each other and actually going into our separate corners and fuming. We had some great moments in there. We had some great shows.We did tours that were amazingly fun and cool. And we had laughs, and we had dinners, and we had drinks, and we had a fantastic time. But when it came to the work, we were very distracted from each other.”

For a band that had been critically lauded at nearly every turn, 2004’s Around the Sun was an artistic low point. They continued to put on stellar live shows, and indeed, two of the band’s next three albums would capture their performance on stage, but they weren’t done yet in the studio. In 2008, Accelerate was hailed as a return to form, kicking off with the defiant “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “Supernatural Superserious,” which was the band’s first U.S. single to chart in seven years.

One final well-regarded album would follow (this year’s Collapse Into Now), but already R.E.M. was planning for the end. “2008 was a really successful, amazing tour for us as a band,” Stipe says. “We were at a high point, it felt like it, and we were talking about the possibility of this happening. Accelerate felt to us like we kind of went through a very low point—one of many over the course of 31 years, that’s how it goes—but we came out of it, and we were on the upswing, and we knew it and kind of felt like maybe this should be it.”

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On Nov. 18, 2008, at Mexico City’s Auditorio Nacional, R.E.M. took the stage a final time. There would be an appearance joining Patti Smith for “E-Bow The Letter” at a tribute show in Carnegie Hall and a performance for about 40 people during the recording of Part Lies Part Truth’s final songs at Hansa Studios in Berlin. But this was the last night of what was mostly likely the last tour.

“It was weird,” Stipe says. “We didn’t know, but we had all talked about it at length, and we had a pretty good idea. What actually transpired between us on stage is between us, and doesn’t need to—I’ll hold that for myself.”

“I remember I walked out on the stage after it was over,” says Mills, “and stood there by myself and looked around and thought about it: ‘If this is the end, then I can walk away with my head held high.’”

Both Stipe and Mills take great pride in having ended things on their own terms.

“That can’t be overstated enough,” says Stipe. “I think we did a great job of letting the fans know exactly how we felt. We worked very carefully on the announcement and how it was worded and the quotes that we each had for it to represent how each of us felt. And to let it be known that we’re not doing it because of some external force or because someone died or because of a drug problem or because of lawyers squaring off. There’s none of that animosity or weirdness that happens when bands break up. We didn’t actually break up; we disbanded. There’s a difference. We love each other, and we really respect each other. I’m going to see Peter when he comes through here on tour with John Wesley Harding in about a week and a half. So I get to see him play and hang out with him, and we’re going to see each other again in January. We get to live our lives now, R.E.M. having done what it did. And each of us is really proud of that—and of course bittersweet and sad and upset and on some level, personally, kind of devastated by the fact that it ended. But everything ends at some point or another, and why not do it at some point that we were in control of?”

Instead of one last tour, the band’s parting bow comes in the form of a retrospective album with three new songs recorded with Jacknife Lee: “Hallelujah,” “A Month of Saturdays,” and the final single, “We All Go Back To Where We Belong.”

“I’m very proud of the three songs that are on the retrospective, so we’re not creatively bankrupt,” says Mills. “We’re not having internal struggles: We love each other; we’re still friends. We could definitely make more great records, but it’s got to end sometime.”

Buck has already moved on, touring with John Wesley Harding, Scott McCaughey and all The Decemberists save Colin Meloy. Sometime next year Mills will be joining Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter, Jody Stephens and “whomever else we gather up” to perform Big Star’s Third album live.

“I imagine at some point I’ll be doing a solo record,” Mills says, “but I’m not in a big hurry. I’d rather work with other people for a while and see how that feels. I never really felt the need to do a solo record. All my best songs I gave to R.E.M. I never wanted to feel like I was holding any back for myself, and I didn’t really want to concentrate on writing lyrics. I just wanted R.E.M. to be the best band it possibly could.

“We made it a very specific point in R.E.M. that anyone was free to go work with other people at anytime,” he continues. “However—given that there is a certain liberation now to not being in R.E.M. anymore, to go devote my good songs to other people instead of saving them all for R.E.M.—I can go work with other people without worrying that I’m taking talent from R.E.M. that I should be applying to my own band. There’s a liberation, I think, that we all feel. It’s not relief, because relief implies some negative connotation, but there is a liberation involved that means I don’t have to worry about saving songs for R.E.M. Anything I come up with I can either save it for my solo record or do it in collaboration with another artist or whatever’s needed.”

For his part, Stipe describes the future as a “blank slate.”

“I’m still the same person I was three months ago—and a year ago and three years ago, in fact,” he says. “It’s just now that everyone knows what we knew for a while, or what we were building up to, which was that we were disbanding. … But the other things outside of R.E.M. that people know me for are things that have been there all along: film production, political activism, the sculpture stuff I’ve been doing, photography and how that plays into the sculpture stuff, because I no longer consider myself a photographer so much as someone who documents things using photography, which then become other things.”

The one thing the future doesn’t hold is reunion down the road. “Of course you never say, ‘Never,’” Stipe qualifies, “but it’s very important that people know that this is not some sort of cycle. We would say we’re taking a hiatus for five years. We would lock it in for you. We would not jerk our fans around like that, and you do not know R.E.M. very well if you’re suggesting in whatever comment on whatever blog that this is a way to rake in the cash with a big reunion tour five years from now. That’s not gonna happen.”

Both Mills and Stipe seem excited about this new post-R.E.M. world and both claim throughout our interviews that the band was never one to look backwards. But this has been a season for reflection, and they’ll all end this journey savoring the memories they’ve collected along the way.

“We’ve been so fortunate,” says Mills. “It’s been such a long and beautiful road that you know there are a million things, big and small, that go into making it the trip its been. I’ll take friends literally all over the world with me for the rest of my life from this. So that’s certainly a high point—playing festivals in the rain with 40,000 soaking wet people who just didn’t give a damn. That kind of thing is always very exciting—getting to meet presidents and heads of state and other musicians, getting to play with Neil Young and John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen.

“The only thing I’ll really miss is playing on stage with Michael and Peter. The chemistry that occurs when first the four, then the three of us are on stage together is undeniable, and that’s not going to happen anymore. So that’s sad, we’ll miss that—the chemistry between the three of us and the audience. It’s impossible to replicate. So you know I’ll certainly miss that. But they’re not gone. We can have dinner together. We will consume wine and margaritas and laugh and talk and do all those great things.”