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R.E.M. Interview With Tony Fletcher

Publication Date: 
Late 1983

This is not one of those interviews with any fireworks but interesting nonetheless. It also seems that Mike and Bill were always doing something else and that Peter was the main guy doing interviews. It's engaging listening to Peter selling these reviewers about what R.E.M. is all about, selling himself like a dirty whore to these rock critics. He knows their language and I bet charges them 2.99 a minute to listen to him go off on the music biz, radio, etc.

And then of course Michael sits in the corner and makes a quip every once in awhile that doesn’t make any sense or have any rhyme or reason to it. Well maybe not that much here but that point will become more obvious as the interviews roll on.

This interview looks like from their first European trip after Murmur had been released. It's nice and long and Mr. Fletcher had written a book about R.E.M., so there is a genuine fan talking about him. I like this because it is probably his first article about them and you can hear his growing admiration for the band. 

(Late 1983) R.E.M. interview with Tony Fletcher

Without doubt, one of the finest albums of 1983 was R.E.M.'s debut 'Murmur'. Surprisingly successful in their American homeland (going top 40), it eventually picked up some worthy attention here when the band visited these shores in November. With a name standing for Rapid Eye Movement (the effect of dreaming) it is not surprising to find their music warm and emotional, a trance-like collection of hidden moments and memories. Using the simplicity of jangling guitars, a bright piano and Michael Stripe's* almost Morrison-esque voice, R.E.M. managed to put together an album that grows on the listener like no other I've ever encountered - on the first hearing its good but by the fifty-first it's a classic.

Lucky enough to be witness to all three of their British performances (The Tube, Dingwalls, and The Marquee), I became even more of a convert, and before R.E.M. returned home I found myself locked in an A& M office with Michael and guitarist Peter Buck (bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry being otherwise engaged). Michael, ever the American College Boy in his National Health specs, unkempt hair and scraggy jumper, is perfectly complemented by his partner in crime, Peter, who thought no tidier, at least befits his stage image of a nervous, twitching enthusiast. I casually asked about their deep-south small-town beginnings, and immediately wished I'd bought a C-120 with me.

"We come from Athens, a little bit outside Atlanta, Georgia,' Peter begins not pausing for breath and talking like a chipmunk on speed! "Most towns like Athens in the South don't have any interesting bands, but Athens is and always has been a bit different, because there's an Art College there which is one of the better ones in the South, so there's always been a lot of bands from there" - The B-52's and the Pylons** both come from there.  

"I'd always loved music, and worked in record stores, but I'd never formed a band, because I always thought you had to have some great gift to do it - though I'm living proof you don't! Anyway, I guess the air in Athens at the time was that it was okay to form a band, and Michael talked me into it. We're all pretty unprofessional thought Mike and Bill had played in marching bands at high school and so knew their instruments a bit but I at the time didn't have a clue."

"Anyway, we started playing and people started offering us money for dates - 50 dollars here, 75 dollars there and without even knowing about it, three or four months after forming, we had 30-40 songs of our own, and we were playing every weekend. Then one day we woke up  and thought, 'Hey, we're in a band, maybe we should try a little harder so we started phasing out things that we were bored with, like day jobs and school, and within about six of seven months we managed to go full time.'"

"It wasn't particularly easy, but we worked a lot harder than anyone else, I've ever heard of. We were quite an anomaly in that we were in a bar band that could play pizza parlours and pool halls, and we did that for about a year and a half. We kinda established a circuit of places were no-one else would have played. It certainly wasn't big time, but we were enjoying ourselves - we got to travel, and slept on people's floors, and drank beer twenty-four hours a day."

At this point, Pete pauses for a breath, I sit there stunned - is there anything he hasn't already answered? Peter laughs when I tell him how quick talker he is, telling me about the lack of sleep he's had in Britain due to nerves and excitement.

R.E.M.'s story in Peter;s own narrative may sound both simple and easy but I am assured it wasn't Michael that relates a tale of three of the group being evicted on the same day, at which they promptly went off on tour and returned when they had enough money to stay somewhere. Peter tells me that "There isn't enough money in the world to pay for what we did those few years," then add, with a smile, "except for the fact that I enjoyed it."

Rapidly building a name as the hardest working and most original band in the south, I.R.S. Records, the only large independent in the States picked them up and put out a five-track EP entitled 'Chronic Town', unavailable here, although two tracks, 'Carnival of Sorts' and '1,000,000' recently came out of on their British 12-inch sampler. Sales were encouraging, so in between their perpetual touring, R.E.M. recorded 'Murmur'. The result, for a country ignorant of breeding talent, was phenomenal, and that classic debut is not approaching sales of 200,000. While I whistle in awe, Michael and Peter remind me that in American terms, that does not amount to much, but even so, they are obviously pleased. How did they 'break' their own country, so to speak?

Peter (of course):  "Over the last year the radio stations have been realising that more and more people have been listening to radio less and less (!),  and they've been going through a real panic situation because they don't know what to play. Then they've been hiring all these guys who also don’t know what they're doing! - to tell them what to do , and they say 'Play new music.  So what's new music? They don't know!  We sneaked in the back door - "Oh they've got guitars, they're a bit different, let's put them on! And it was kinda cool because we'd be stuck in between Def Leppard and the Eurythmics, and I can't imagine people understanding what was going on but it was interesting for us, because we got a foot in the door through all the confusion." It sounds like a lot of good luck.

"Oh sure. There's millions of good bands there, but a lot of them are on real small labels that don't have the clout to get them distributed."

As I adapt to Peter's rate of talking, our chat turns to how R.E.M. see themselves and one thing is for certain it's not through a telescope like other bands. I ask them if they have any aims or purposes.

Michael: "We like making records we like playing."

Success doesn't worry you?

Peter: "It doesn't bother us. We write songs that please one another. And then hopefully, this last record pleased other people too - or at least they, bought it!"

Are you stars in America?

"Oh no, " responds Peter.  "I'd have thought just the way we handle it, even if we were as big as the biggest bands, would mean we would never negate that star attitude."

Can you be like that in America, because it seems your country loves having stars around them?

"Well they do, " says Peter, "and that's one of the sick things about America, but it’s true in England - they worship bands here too. I think we 'rea lot less worshipable than a lot of people, as we don't have a clearly defined image in the way we look or act. Which is the way we want it to be. We'd rather the music stand on its own.

And there certainly seems to be no problem from that end. R.E.M.'s glorious pop debut managed to cover both melancholy numbers like 'Talk About The Passion' and 'Pilgrimmage' to raunchier material like 'Catapult' and the stupendous 'Radio Free Europe'. Twelve slices of magic in all, but one question that would spring to any listeners' mind has to be what are all those lyrics about?

A cautious response. "Our approach to the words is that ther's no great message that should be got across, " replies Michael at length.

Peter: "There's a million ways to tell stories and rather than attract attention to the lyrics by making them too focal we'd rather have them a little less linear and more emotional so that rather than grasping a plot, you can grasp at the whole or try to be moved emotional first.  I really get turned off by intellectual rock 'n' roll that’s all thought out. We try to write as sparingly as possible and as straight from the heart as possible."

So you're trying to create more of an atmosphere with your songs?

"If you sat down with a pen and paper, " says Peter, "and wrote down all the lyrics from the album, then no song is about nothing. They're all oblique enough so that you could put your own picture in your mind to the songs. Even within the band we have varying ideas of what the songs mean."

Are you pleased with the reaction you've had so far over here?

"Yeah. Where have the audiences come from!"

A good point. Though their appearance on The Tube was stirring, it surprised all and sundry when they sold out Dingwalls the following night. In a crowd paicked like sardines it was impossible to see R.E.M., and one had to let their delightful sounds waft over the sweaty heads of 600 hipsters. Leaving early to catch the last bus home, I didn't get a chance to fully appreciate the set; that came instead at the Marquee a few days later. Again playing to a sell out crowd, they stared calmly, Michael as ever looking out of place, clinging to his microphone in stark contrast to Peter's racing around the stage like a youthful Townshend. Mike Mills, looking truly psychedelic keeps the pace smooth along with the firm drums of Bill Berr[y]. Playing to rapturous applause though to a rather stationary audience, R.E.M. soon had the sweat dripping down the walls (admittedly no had job at The Marquee).

Fourty-five minutes on and R.E.M. showed no signs of giving up; album tracks were interspersed with new songs, old favourites and even a verison of 'Femme Fatale'. Michael had now exercised himself and had joined Peter as a gibbering wreck. Eventually, after an hour and a quarter, they decided to call proceedings to a halt; despite having played too long to keep the interest, they had successfully amazed everyone with their stanima, let alone music. Back they went to America with ringing in their ears.

R.E.M. believe strongly in the future for American bands. If they have any mission at all (be it deliberate or not), it is to try to re-introduce the word 'pop' into the accepted American glossary of music terms.

Peter:  "Right now, pop is not a good thing because of all the people who have destroyed the idea of pop. We always fight about whether we are a pop band or not, and none of us cares one way or the other. But there are a lot of disposable crap artists, thirty-year old men in funny hair cuts and funny shoes who have to buy new clothes so they can 'make a new wave record'. And they all suck. And we were always titled as just a pop band because at the time there wasn't an alternative for catchy rock 'n' roll. - it was either that sell-out crap or 'something else'. I think a lot of people who would be writing good three-minute songs have been scared off by the image."

So is there room for bands to grow? Have you been an example?

"We like to think of ourselves as the tip of the iceberg," says Peter."

"We're not the the most commerical band in the world and our sales would agree with that, but we're one of the more accessible of the new American bands. It's one of our duties while we're over here to say 'It's not a wasteland over there. ' But you see England is only a little bigger than the state we come from, so you can cover England a lot quicker. Ther eare great bands in the mid-west that you'll never hear unless you go to their town."

In the meantime, what size places are you doing? Are you heading for big stadiums?

"Well, we don't want to rush into that stuff, " says Peter. "Rock 'n' roll always starts out as 'passion' and 'commitment' and ends up with these things ususally just being routine gestures."

Not that I could ever imaging R.E.M. allowing their passion and commitment to become routine. Presently recording their second album, they will be back in this country soon. Not necessarily as stars, as Peter (having the final word as ever) himself says:-

"We know that we're not likely to have a no. 1 hit and sell 20 Million records like Michael Jackson, but the idea is that we make good records and that in five years time, well still be making good records. And that's all we ask for - a chance to do what we think we can do well."

* article actually did say "Stripe" and not Stipe.
** article did refer to Pylon as "The Pylons"