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THE BBC RADIO 1 THREE HOUR R.E.M. SPECTACULAR
By Craig P. Lawson. Presentation ©1998

 

THE INTERVIEW

On the eve of the release of Up Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe spoke on BBC Radio 1 at length. The discussions centered around life in R.E.M. after Bill Berry, the new album Up and the 1995 world tour. Below is the transcript of the interview which includes some interesting explanations of some of the tracks on Up.

R.E.M. ON BILL BERRY

 

Question

How did it feel without Bill on the drums?

Mike

Without Bill it was different, confusing; we didn't know exactly what to do. We couldn't rehearse without a drummer. We went to the studio without writting and used the demo tapes we had and a drum machine and built on that.

Question

How did Bill break the news to you?

Michael

He wanted to tell us over the telephone. Bill was embarrassed about it, he was afraid the band was going to break up because of it. He felt bad about it. Bill said if it was going to break up the band he would keep playing drums and be miserable.

Question

Was there ever any danger of the band breaking up?

Michael

Not really. We wanted to continue. I had these forty songs in my head and was really excited about them. I really like making music, it's like my lifes' work and these guys feel the same way. We didn't really want to just hang it up.

Question

Did you miss Bill in the studio?

Peter

There was always a place where we'd look for that other opinion 'cause usually we have four opinions and we only had three. We'd look around and go "where's the dissenting voice on this one?". Bill wasn't there.

Question

It is said that Bill has a more pop sensibility and he would make you do more straight pop stuff, where you are more experimental. The new album would suggest there is some truth in that.

Peter

Bill is a pop fan. I remember showing him things I'd written and he'd say "this verse is too long" and "where's the chorus, the chorus doesn't really strike me". He really loved that kind of stuff which was all to the good for us. It really helped our arranging and writing and stuff.

Question

Peter you said that you still think of Bill as a member of the band, just a non-playing member.

Peter

When I think of what the four of us have done over the years I still feel like that's carrying on, even though we're a different band [now]. I mean we're something else [now]. R.E.M. is Bill and us. We're still called R.E.M. but it's different for me now. When I'm doing interviews I still unconsciously say "when the four of us did this". Maybe in two years from now I won't feel that way, but I still feel he's part of this whole thing.

Question

So if you'd just replaced him with another drummer that would of felt like betrayal?

Peter

It would have just been not right. We had Barret Martin who played with us on the record, who's a really great drummer, but we just couldn't face having a drummer so he ended up playing stand-up base and vibes just so we didn't;t have to come to terms with the fact that things have changed.

 

R.E.M. ON "UP"

 

Question

When it came out that you were working with drum loops and things for the new album people thought "R.E.M. are going techno!". But there is no dance element on "Up" it sounds more like the "The Young Marble Giants"

Peter

Thank you, we're huge "Young Marble Giants" fans. I listen to a lot of dance music, but I don't think it would be appropriate for us. I don't think you could dance this slow, most of the songs [on Up] are very, very, very slow. We were looking for something that is more cycadelic.

Question

Why have you put the lyrics on the new album for the first time? Is it because all the others have been rubbish?

Michael

[Laughs] Pretty much yeah. It was Mike's idea. We had a really great night in the studio in San Francisco, and I post the lyrics on the wall to keep myself writing new ones and so that these guys can see what's going on. Mike was reading them one day and said "these are really good, we should print them on the CD". Me and Peter were like "sure O.K." I don't know that it's really an indication of the new us as much as, um, kind of I think in a way everything else has been thrown out the window, why not throw that one out the window too.
Even though the lyrics are printed on "Up" I still maintain the lyrics do not read well of the page. They're written to be sung and heard, not to be read.

Mike

It leads to things like Michael Jackson printing every ooh and aah!

Michael

I don't think there's much concern for that here. I try to keep the oohs and aahs to a minimum.

Mike

Yeah, but it's a road you don't want to go down.

Question

Tell us about "Hope"

Mike

It's kind of unique to the record in that it doesn't change chords. I think there's only two, maybe three chords in the whole thing. It's all built around a looped synthesizer line that Peter wrote.

Michael

It sound remarkably like Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne".

Peter

If you see the liner notes the song is written by Cohen/Buck/Mills/Stipe. It was an unintentional similarity but after hearing it we all decided this leans a little to close to "Suzanne" for our own comfort level. So we called up his [Cohen's] people and suggested we might like to strike a deal. So we did. When the first copy of the record [Up] is sold Leonard will start to make money from it.

Question

Tell us about "At My Most Beautiful"

Michael

I think it's the only real love song on "Up". What makes it stand apart from other love songs that I've written is I'm not distancing myself from it. I worked really hard to write a song that was neither sappy or cheeseball, nor distanced and kind of clever and ironic.

Question

People have said that without Michael's voice there isn't much of Up that's instantly recognizable as R.E.M. Is that just the way it turned out or are you looking on this as a new beginning.

Mike

A little of both. I like the fact that when we played people some of the tracks before we had any vocals on them they said that this could be a whole other band.

Michael

That's not what they said Mike. They said "what the fuck is this".

Mike

Amongst other things they said that. We were going to go in that direction anyway, it just got accelerated by Bill leaving, and that's something we like.

Michael

I think in a way it was a response to New Adventures In Hi-Fi, a record that the three of us all really like a great deal. That [NAIHF] is in a way a four piece rock band performing at their best, doing guitar and drum based songs. I felt that these guys had done that as well as they could and wanted to write something that was very much in a different direction. So from the very first demo tapes that I got, the first things that we put down in Hawaii in March of 1997 it was radically different, there wasn't a guitar to be seen. It was all on Peter's little keyboards from the 1960's and 70's.

Question

People say that the new album is introspective and a little bit down-beat. Was it called Up with a hint of irony

Mike

It was a joint decision to call it Up. It's a very introspective and thoughtful album but not down-beat. Musically I think it's very uplifting. People read too much into titles, it's just a title.

Michael

It comes from a cardboard box, "This side Up".

Question

Do you ever listen to your own records?

Mike

No, never.

Michael

It's impossible.

Michael

I do. I needed to look at what we'd done to help write this record [Up]. I went back to Fables Of The Reconstruction, Out Of Time, Automatic For The People and New Adventures In Hi-Fi. I picked songs of each of those that were my favorite songs. [I looked at] My contribution, mostly lyrical, stuff that I thought was really pushing myself. Songs that I think are smarter than me, that's where I wanted to go. That was my starting point for this record [Up].

 

R.E.M. ON THE MONSTER TOUR AND NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI

 

Question

How close did the band come to cracking on the Monster tour, considering the health problems?

Peter

Not at all. It wasn't that bad except for the fact that Bill almost died. Once we came to terms with the fact that Bill was going to be OK I had a great time on that tour. Did you take your kids with you? Oh yeah, I really enjoyed that tour. We did something no one else has ever done in history. We wrote and recorded an entire record at sound check while on tour. And it isn't a throw-away, slap-dash effort, it's a very strong record.

Question

Do you think people perceived New Adventures in Hi-Fi as out-takes because it was recorded on tour?

Mike

Yeah, we got that feeling. We did one instrumental track in a dressing room, one person stood it the bathroom because the reverb' was good. I think a lot of people took that to mean we weren't really paying attention.

Question

People were perhaps taken by surprise by a record being released so soon after the Monster tour.

Peter

It was a confluence of events why it's [NAIHF] our most successful record, but creatively we all felt really good about it. It kind of put a cap on where we were as a band.

Question

You were pleased with New Adventures in Hi-Fi but it only sold, what half of the number of copies that Automatic For The People did. Was that disillusioning at the time?

Peter

It [NAIHF] sold around five million. I felt really liberated that we made a record that we were proud of, and know is a strong record, that got pretty much universally good reviews, and through some confluence of events it didn't sell, that's OK. I felt better than if we'd made a bad record that hadn't sold.

Question

Do you feel freer than ever to experiment now?

Mike

That's one of the things about New Adventures in Hi-Fi, we worked really hard on that record and it sold less than some, so that just means that you're free to do anything you want.

 

R.E.M. ON OTHER THINGS

 

Question

Did any of you ever play the drums, or was that exclusively Bill's domain.

Peter

I played the drums on Untitled from Green. It was a lifes labour, I'm the world's worst drummer. What happened was I was trying to teach Bill a drum beat and the reason I couldn't was because it just didn't work. But as I was teaching him this drum beat he started playing this guitar part that turned out to be Untitled. Mike walked in and started playing it. We couldn't learn each other's parts, so we cut it that way. It was a struggle 'cause I can't keep a drum beat to save my life. I felt sorry for these guys watching me fumble.

Michael

It's a great little song though.

Question

Do you write more independently and bring things together now?

Michael

Even when we all lived together in the church I'd have to go off to a corner to finish the lyrics. Now that corner is Georgia because Peter lives in Seattle. I flew to Europe to finish the lyrics for one song [You're In The Air] on this record [Up].

Mike

We do write separately, but we also write when we get together. How The West Was Won was written by us together in the studio.

Michael

Airportman was written, recorded, sung and mixed by us all in one day. That was an auspicious start to the San Francisco recording sessions, which ground to a screeching halt shortly afterwards, mostly due to me.

Question

Michael do you get finished sound tracks and put the lyrics to them?

Michael

The blueprint for it is that the music comes first, then the melody, then the lyrics. Language is always the hardest part and unfortunately that's the main part of my job.

Question

Michael, it took you a while as a singer to find your voice. It was as though you were shy in the beginning.

Michael

Yeah, I'm still shy. I've just learned by being in a really well known band how to deal with people. I was nineteen when we started the band. What you're seeing is us growing up very publicly through our records.

Question

Michael, tell us about the film you're involved in, "Velvet Goldmine".

Michael

I'm the executive producer of the film. I also stepped in to help with the music, because that was an obvious task that I could take care of pretty easily. I came here and asked a lot of people to kind of recreate the "glam" era. Pretty much all I had to say was "Todd Haynes" and "glam rock" and great people lined up to help. I came into it because I've known his work for a long time and I've known Todd for about ten years. Right before we went on the '95 tour he came up to me at a party in New York. He was dressed head-to-toe in 1971 glam. Like carrot hair sticking straight up and the tightest sparkley clothes, he looked ridiculous. He said "I'm writing the script for a movie about glam rock, do you want to be involved?" Right away I said "yes". It came out last night (24/10/98) here [UK].

Question

Michael, did you have glam idols when you were growing up? You are pone to wear a bit of eye make-up.

Michael

When I was 16, 17 I kind of emulated Mark Bolan and Ian Hunter. I had bad skin and greasy, curly hair. Did you have big glasses? The big glasses hid the bad skin. So those were the guys from the British glam scene that affected me. I came to it through New York TV, Patti Smith and Blondie. A lot of the magazines were referring back to Iggy Pop, The Stoogies and The Velvet Underground. So that's how I got turned on to those guys. It was about 1976 when that happened.

Question

Which is your favorite of the albums you've made?

Mike

Well I would say Up will be after its had time to settle in. Other than that it's between New Adventures and Automatic For The People.

Peter

Well I'd agree with Mike, except that I kind of like Murmur. Just because we thought we were so smart when we made it, but we were actually really stupid. We didn't have a clue. It was so long ago I can't help but have affection for it, even though I hope that I never have to hear it again.

Michael

It's easy, New Adventure and Up for me.

Question

You once said that you'd split up on December 31 1999.

Mike

You know who said that? Bill, and he just couldn't wait.

Michael

Bill was just blowing off some cheeky monkey of a journalist. Pre-internet it blossomed into this full-blown fact. Well guess what - one of us broke up.

 

By Craig P. Lawson. Presentation ©1998
"If I write a book it will be called Life and How to Live It"
e-mail:
craig_lawson@geocities.com