A three-legged dog is still a dog, proclaimed REM when Bill Berry left the fold. As they hobble north for three dates at Stirling Castle, guitarist Peter Buck reveals how the world's coolest group are staying on top. Words: Norbert lvanek/IFA & Hannah McGill
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LOVE REM?
That you‘re an unadventurous devotee of
mainstream radio rock‘.’ Or an esoterically inclined art-rock aesthete'.’ That you like undemanding bubblegum indie pop. or heart- twisting balladry. or fiddly countryish instrumentals‘.’
After almost twenty years ducking in and out of the spotlight. Georgia‘s most famous export remains as difficult to categorise as ever. They‘ve carved their own niche to the extent that comparisons are nigh on impossible. and guitarist Peter Buck isn‘t giving much away. ‘I just think we‘re the kind of band who have been around for so long that
we‘re our own main inﬂuence. We‘re kind of
making it up. We have no idea about where we‘re meant to go. This is the [kind oflrecord we‘re going to make and this is the way we‘re gonna approach promoting it.‘
In this case. that means an unusually high live profile. with their recent Glastonbury debut closely followed by British dates that will bring them to Stirling Castle for three eagerly anticipated nights. Some have churlishly suggested that the tour is a desperate attempt to bolster sales of Up. the darkly brilliant but comparatively ill-received current album.
Such concern for the marketplace would be uncharacteristic in a band whose global success seems to have been largely accidental and whose record-busting $80 million deal with Warner Bros. leaves them with little to prove. Buck. unsurprisingly. dismisses the claims. ‘I don‘t think that works for us. I‘m more concerned with how we function into the next five or six years. I think that not touring andjust making records probably isn‘t the way to go.‘
It‘s ironic that the band‘s biggest-selling albums. Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. weren‘t toured at all. ‘I know.‘ Buck concedes. ‘Maybe people don‘t want us to tour! We‘re in a different place now in terms of selling. We used to sell records like Led Zeppelin sold; we‘re a slightly different band now because we‘re in a different situation. and that‘s not a bad thing.‘
They‘re also a slightly different band after the departure of founder member Bill Berry. Buck admits that their first ever line-up change. just before Up was recorded. led to tensions between band members usually
8 THE "31‘ 8—22 Jul 1999
'Most bands in our position have moved to Beverly Hills and have celebrity cocaine problems and start dating supermodels. Peter Buck
portrayed as almost symbiotically in tune with one another. ‘There was a lot of stress for a couple of months.‘ he says. ‘which wasn‘t that bad. I think if I was selling insurance I‘d have a lot of stress every day. It was the first time in all the time we‘d been together that nobody had any idea where we were going. There was a lot of arguing and miscommunication. We tend to be not yel|ing-and-throwing-things kind of people: it was more just people being fed up and walking out of the studio. Biting little sarcasms - we‘re very good at that.‘ So much for the ‘nicest guys in rock‘ tag? ‘But once we‘d talked it all out. it was better for us to have gone through that. We feel we‘ve made a really strong record. If the record was really bad we might very well have broken up.‘
Introspective. edgy. and certainly not festooned with pop baubles like ‘Shiny Happy People‘. Up has found a more receptive audience in Europe than America. ‘We‘ve been bigger in Europe than in America for the last four or five years.‘ Buck agrees. 'l‘m not really sure why. I tend to think that we‘re quintessentially an American band. but then I see what‘s on the chart and I realise that we‘re not. In America it‘s rap. and soundtracks. and debut albums by people you‘ve never heard of. and Celine Dion. We don‘t fit in. Just going gold in America is surprising.‘
Post-Berry. REM have taken on two new musicians. Drummer Joey Waronker. best known for his work with Beck. and multi- instrumentalist Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. were REM fans from the start. Buck has found that the band‘s old material is revitalised by their enthusiasm.
‘Joey and Ken learned our early songs when they were in covers bands. so they‘ll come to soundchecks and say. “Hey. man. I‘d love to play ‘Radio Free Europe!“‘ I go. "Why?" and then I remember it was probably the second song they ever learned how to play.‘ Fans might be hoping to hear a few classics at the live dates — what are the odds? ‘We played ‘What‘s The Frequency Kenneth‘." for the first time in three years the other night and it was great . . . but we‘re certainly not going to pander by doing a greatest hits tour. We‘re going to be concentrating on the new record.‘ Typically. though. nothing‘s set in stone: ‘We change the set every night.‘
There‘s no indication that the loss of Berry is going to slow up the REM rate of production. Buck‘s mind is already on new material even as he prepares to tour Up. ‘l‘ve been doing demos but I don‘t know which way the songs are going to go. I‘m really interested in exploring some of the stuff we did on Up. Then again. we‘ve done that record and it might be interesting to try something different. This one might be a little more melodic. a little more psychedelic.‘
This supergroup is unconcerned by either the vagaries of fashion or the demands of megastardom; falling sales aren‘t enough to shake a confidence established over two decades of unabated creativity and intermittent genius. To Peter Buck, it‘s all a question of priorities.
‘Most bands in our position have moved to Beverly Hills and have celebrity cocaine problems and start dating supermodels or whatever,‘ he muses. ‘We‘re really doing good creative work. and stepping forward. and that‘s the main thing to concentrate on.‘
REM play Stirling Castle, Mon 19-Wed 21 Jul.