Since their "Green" album of 1989, R.E.M. have leapt from struggling cult misfits to "Shiny Happy People". Now, with their new album, "Automatic For The People", dangerously close to its release date, RÜDIGER RAPKE catches up with native Georgian PETER BUCK in New York, and talks to him about R.E.M.'s long, slow climb before the Shiny Happy phenomenon…

"I like New York in small doses - a week to ten days is about as much as I can handle! It's a great place to explore, there are good museums, good bands, restaurants, but after a couple of weeks, I start getting fidgety."

Peter Buck is a man constantly on the move. "I like packing suitcases," he remarks obscurely. Whether this is something he's merely forced himself to enjoy as part-penance for R.E.M.'s success, or whether he genuinely gets a kick out of deciding how many pairs of socks to pack for the next tour, is anyone's guess. No doubt he had to take a mortgage out to buy enough "hose" for the band's last tour - a sock-weary eleven-month trek. That, admits Peter, was a soul-destroying experience, and he doubts R.E.M. will ever stay out that long again. Nor does he like the idea of playing the enormo-dome circuit again:

"It took us a long time to reach the big places and that was fine. We started out in small clubs and built slowly, which is the way it should've been. I think we handled each step very well, and when we got to the stadium-size halls, I reckon we did as well as anybody else could. Very few performers carry it off properly, but I think we made a good job of it."

"The trouble is, having been there, there's nowhere else for us to go. Personally I'd rather play smaller places at this point in our career, four thousand seaters max. Next time we tour, it'll be on an international level, and it'll be hard to persuade anybody to let us play that size of venue, but honestly the big paces drain so much from you. I like theatres, so I'd much rather play multiple small gigs than just a coupla massive ones. At the same time, I never wanna go out for eleven months again - five months is about as much as I can handle!"

As such, R.E.M. won't be touring until after the next album, late next year.

"I know people will be disappointed we aren't touring this time around, but they'd be a lot more disappointed if we went out when we didn't feel like it, just to make money and sell records. I certainly don't want to take people's money unless I really do it whole-heartedly, if you see what I mean! I can't tell you how many bands I've talked to who say 'I really hate playing now, but it's so much money I can't turn it down'. That sucks."

"You've got to remember that we've done full-time touring for ten years, and now it's time to concentrate more on song-writing than touring."

Whenever R.E.M. do tour next, it's unlikely to be on a Troggs/R.E.M. double-bill, a strange suggestion mooted a while ago:

"That might be fun, but we haven't really been approached with that. The Troggs situation would be entertaining and I'm not against doing it, I just haven't thought about it recently."

Which isn't surprising. Peter and the rest of the band have had their minds geared towards recording the new R.E.M. album, "Automatic For The People", for the greater part of 1992. The band, and their fifth member, producer Scott Litt, have deliberately tried to escape the "Shiny Happy People" mould with this album:

"The album's very acoustic, there's a lot of emphasis on real instruments, if you know what I mean. There's piano, for example, on "Night Swimming", and a lot of guitar on the whole album, but it's not big upfront guitar, it's subtler than that. On quiet little songs like "Try Not To Breathe" and "Sweetness Follows", for example, the guitar is always there, but it's a discordant guitar bubbling under the surface. "Automatic For The People" isn't a real rockin' album, but I think that's fine, because there are enough of those around this year as it is!"

"It's not like we're trying to play classical music, but we always try to write songs that can break out of the mould, and , for us, not concentrating on the guitars has helped a lot. Most of the songs were written with keyboards in mind, and we had ideas for strings right from the outset. When we wrote the songs, we all sat down together with mandolins , acoustic guitars, organs and whatever, and then when we came to re-cording, we just trans-ferred to bass, drums and guitars. This is definitely not a rock'n'roll album. I love rock'n'roll, but this isn't necessarily the year that we wanna make a big rock'n'roll record."

THE title, if you're wondering, has no special significance to the album's direction or anything so pretentious. "Automatic For The People" was named after the slogan for a soul food restaurant in R.E.M.'s home town of Athens, Georgia, and just sort of grabbed them. Peter admits that the album has an "empty" sound to it. That, apparently, was just the way it turned out, nothing intentional. As with the title, the emphasis seems to be on spontaneity, with "Automatic For The People " - you know, let's just see how it turns out, and leave it be:

"At one point, we were thinking of introducing several more musicians onto the album to make the sound more live. But we already had nine musicians from Atlantic City, one other guy, and Know Chambers from the PSYCHEDELIC FURS as a guest - he plays a kind of rock'n'roll cello on "Sweetness Follows", would you believe!? Anyway, we didn't want to tamper with that emptiness. By empty, I mean introspective. I'm not sure why the album's turned out that way - there are really only one or two tracks that really look outward. Sometimes Michael (Stipe, vocalist) would have an idea in his head about lyrics, sometimes he'd be influenced more by the music. Whatever, I think maybe we're conscious of the "Shiny Happy People" thing, and are subconsciously steering ourselves away from that overtly poppy directions."

Does that mean that R.E.M. regret releasing "Shiny Happy People"?

"No, not at all. You see, we do whatever we feel is right at the time. We're definitely influenced by the times we live in. When we wrote "Shiny Happy People", we knew that people needed cheering up, so we put out something that seemed to do that. Now we're in a different mood, less extrovert perhaps, trying to reflect more how people feel these days, rather than counteracting people's feelings, as on "Shiny Happy People."

As such, R.E.M. may find it difficult to extract a single from "Automatic For The People ". It's the kind of album you have to really get involved in from start to finish, not at all instantaneous:
"It is a difficult record. I have no idea if we're big enough to have people buy whatever we do yet. I don't know if this is a record that, if you hear one song on the radio, you'll be overwhelmed by it."

"Honestly though, I think the songwriting is as strong as we've ever done, in fact most of them are better than on "Out of Time". But nobody seems to know what's gonna happen to it - we could sell ten million copies or half a million. But, for us, it's more important to progress as artists, and I know that eventually we're gonna have a record that doesn't sell. We've been waiting years for that to happen! That prospect doesn't bother me, it's not gonna ruin our lives."

BUT are R.E.M. aware that even their early college-kid audience may find the band somewhat hard to fathom these days?

"I think the last few records were pretty straightforward lyrically. There might be a couple of images that people don't get, but I think that people who buy our records generally understand what's going on. OK, I know there are kids who just want to have fun, who want to ignore deeper topics. But you've got to consider the age group who bought four million copies of Nirvana's album - teenagers! That album's got a real negative view of the world, and it most certainly hit a chord with a very young audience. It's not an easy record to get into."

"SO although kids may not be able to dance to " Automatic For The People ", I don't think we're gonna suddenly lose our audience. I remember sitting on a kerb in New Orleans a while ago, waiting to be picked up by a friend. There were some kids having a party across the street and they had a rock record on. Then they put us on, and everyone stopped dancing and stood around talking. But that's fine - at least they kept then record on! I think people will get into this album as much as the last, but for different reasons."

Maybe then " Automatic For The People" will act as a kind of antidote for all the attention R.E.M. have received since "Shiny Happy People". Michael Stipe, as frontman, must have felt the pressure more than the rest of the band:

"Since he's the singer, people tend to put all their illusions on him so that they're always thinking he's got some answer to their problems. But he's just a guy who writes songs. I think all of us feel uncomfortable telling people how to live their lives. So, people are more attracted to Michael, and yes it's probably much harder on him than it is on me, 'coz I'm just the guitar-player. Guys walk up to me and just wanna know what kind of strings I use!"

"People always expect the singer to live his life in public. Like Morrisey, he's gotta make pronouncements on everything and we always tend to feel that's not necessary. We've always tried to make the band not based on personalities, and we try to avoid talking about our personal lives. None of us do anything outside of the band, none of us go on talk shows, we try to make it so that we only ever talk about our music."

AND, talking about music, what other projects has Peter been involved in lately?:

"Well, I've got three records coming out this month that I've produced! There's Uncle Two-Fellow, The Dashboard Saviours and The Vigilantes of Love, and I'm going to be working on the Fuzztones record in December."

You'd think, therefore that music is the be-all and end-all to Peter's existence - but surprisingly that's not the case:

"Oh no. Music certainly takes up a huge amount of my life, but I would hate to be sixty years old and all I'd done is make records. I spend as much time away from the band as I can. I travel a lot, meet people and try to experience new things and new cultures. I don't wanna be one of those guys who's only happy when he's playing. I love to play, but it's nie to get away too and discover the rest of the world."

As such, Peter and R.E.M.'s main goal in life is to fold the band by the time we get to the year 2000!

"Bill (Berry, bassist) (sic - Ed) and I always said that it would be a great time to stop. We like the idea of playing on New Year's Eve 1999, coming back and doing an encore in the year 2000, and then breaking up!"

The year 2000 may sound like a long way away, but it's only eight years. What's the betting R.E.M. will still be going well into the 21st Century?

Reproduced from Indie-cator, October 1992

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