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R.E.M. Shadows and Murmurs

Publication Date: 
July 1983

Oh how things have changed. Really great interview from the Murmur era describing some of the feelings that Michael has in regards to lyrics, politics, and emotion.   
R.E.M. Shadows and Murmurs
Jim Sullivan, Record
July 1983

Boston - Talk about rock 'n' roll bands-their public images and their music-and certain adjectives jump up and wave their hands in the air. Say the Clash and pretty quickly you the to "political." Mention the Cramps and "voodoo rockabilly" comes tagging along.

Talk about R.E.M., yet another fine band from Athens, Georgia, and these sort of words sift to the forefront: Oblique. Hazy. Vague. Look at their cover tof their debut LP, Murmur- a dark, murky, monochromatic shot of dried kudzu, a vine indigenous to ht south. Listen to the music and think of what you remember from the songs-you come up with these gorgeous, hook-laden, minor key melody lines sticking in your brain accompanied by lyrical snippets (and responses) like these-"Talk about the passion" (Which passion? Where?); "Boxcars, pulling out of town" (Why? Where are they going? Why is this important?); "Gardening at night" (a rock song about gardening?! At night?!!)

"House in order . . .wolves at the door" (Oh.) Fragments, shadows, murmurs.

This is confusing

"Good", says R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, with a pleased, mission accomplished tone.

We're sitting in a Boston apartment, Stipe, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and myself, following a gig that band has done with the English Beat. Buck and Stipe are comfortable as band spokesmen, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry, at the moment are quite content to let these guys do the hypothesizing. Buck shoots from the hip "If you don't have a healthy contempt for most aspects of the music business, you're a moron." Stipe is generally more restrained, but both share an abhorrence for rock trends and critical categorization, and they bounce off each other as longtime friends and bandmates can do so well.

Buck: "I never say anything I don't mean and if its embarrasses me later on I don't care."

Stipe: "Bullshit"

Buck: "No I get embarrassed all the time but I would never retract anything I said."

We've tackled the obligatory pop star stuff (Favorite dinosaurs? "Stegosaurus" for both. Former employment? "Toilet Cleaner, dishwasher and reocrd store clerk"- Buck; "I put fertilizer on rich peoples lawns"-Stipe). Now, we're zeroing in on the Big R.E.M. Puzzler" What is this addictive, hypnotic, moody, uplifting-but damn it, lyrically abstrusive-band all about? Or, put it more specifically to frontman Stipe, what does he think an audience thinks about him - I.e., the singer and communicator of tangible ideas-on stage?

"What do they have to think about me?" he responds. "They come to a club, they like the way I move, a and they like the way I sing, they maybe get some feeling out of what we do. What more do they need?"

Let's pursue the feeling route.

"If it makes them sad, fine. If it makes them happy, fine. If it makes them elated, fine," says Stipe.

Stipe's not trying to be evasive here. But what he's getting to is R.E.M.'s disavowl of, well, what really is a major part of pop mythology. To wit: When you get up on stage or make a record you're using your music as a vehicle for your heartfelt passions, political, personal and what have you. Rock 'n' roll is where the balltes are fought and sometimes (in a song anyway) resolved; where one person's solitary experience becomes an audience's.

"I'm not willing, and the whole band is not willing," says Stipe, "to throw a diatribe at anybody. Nobody cares, or nobody would care, about where I stand politically or socially or what my love life is like."

Why wouldn't they?

"Who wants to hear it from me? I'm not some great genious."

"Without sounding too arty," adds Buck, "we're making something that's very personal. NO matter how many times radio programmers or the record company says, 'Gee, if you could understand the lyrics more of if they made more linear sense you'd sell more records, ' I just say screw it. We're just in it to do what, to us, comes naturally and this is natural."

"I have no great story to tell," Stipe picks up. "No great anecdotes. None of us do."

Stipe catches himself. Actually, R.E.M. has a lot of anecdotes to tell-Buck stripping himself down to his undershorts and soaping himself up in the rain during R.E.M.s first New York City visit in 1980; Mills nearly getting his eye cut out in a drunken fight; strip searches on the way to Canada; getting insulted by a drunken Lester Bangs at a party for Pylon.

But as for storylines, revelations and politics in songs and all that . . . "That's what coffeehouses are made for and that's what coffeetables are made for," says Stipe. "If you want to talk about politics of your love life or social problems or what it's like to live in 1983, then you should do it somewhere other than on the stage."
But (back to the aforementioned myth) isn't that what pop music is all about, to bring those personal things to the stage?

"Well screw it then. I don't have a thing to do with it."

No surliness intended. Because what R.E.M. does have a lot to do with is mood and texture, sounds and that soothe and sting; Stipe thinks a lot of it would make good background music to films. When Buck is asked about pop's potential to provide some emotional resonance and pull people throught mundane life, he says, "If we could ever do that, that'd be great."

All of R.E.M.'s recordings, the initial "Radio Free Europe" single, and Chronic Town EP, the Murmur album-have been cut with North Carolina producing ace Mitch Easter (Bongos, Beat Rodeo, dBs) who have helped shape their direct-but-murky sound. "Real cheap and in the next state," chuckles Stipe, when asked about their decision to work with Easter. He quickly adds he loves Easter's approach, which on Murmur is slightly more straightforward. That is, the hazy description posed earlier might be amended to semi-hazy.

Their name, R.E.M. comes from the scientific term (rapid eye movement) for the deepest, most vivid stage of dreaming. The connection is not difficult to make-dreams wander and drift, they can be clear or disjointed, familiar or frightening. Or those qualities can become tangled. Stipe's fleeting thoughts flirt in and our of Buck's swirling, textural passages and jangling leads, anchored by Mills and Berry.

"Emotion," says Stipe, when he considers the artistic aim of it all. "One song might be really sad for me and for a person in the audience. Or for Peter it might be a real uplifting type of song. What's being said doesn't matter that much. It's the feeling, the mood."

The R.E.M. story starts out in 1980 in a rotted church in aThens. Or ex-church. It used to be a church; for a spell it served as R.E.M. living quarters, then it was trashed by the band before they moved out. "I'm kind of ashamed," says Buck "cause it's not something I'd normally do." Still, he adds quickly, "If they burned it down it'd only be marginally worse than the way we left it." No ghosts, but plenty of rats, drafts and empty beer cans scattered about the premises.

Athens, says Stipe, is a college town like any other college town-little industry, swarms of transient students. The band members, native Georgians all, at one point attended and dropped out of the University of Georgia, which, says Buck, "is known through the south as a place where if you couldn't hack it anywhere else you'd go there and fuck and drink your way through school."

R.E.M.'s master plan was hatched this way, according to Buck: "Michael and I were friends and we just said, "oh, should we form a band?" They met the other two in a club, and Stipe declared, "no fucking way am I gonna be in a band with these guys, " so they joined up with those guys, practiced and in three weeks made their public debut.
As it was the first band experience for all involved, it's not surprising to find that the quartet was uncertain of what it wanted to sound like. "We could just as easily been a Public Image-type band," says Buck, who notes, R.E.M. still periodically wallows in the joy of noise in concert. Another influence would be everybody's favorite these days, the Velvet Underground. "It's one of my favorite bands," says Buck. "You know their whole thing about having this guitar that sounds like a maelstrom and then having nice little chimes over the top of it. It works. It sounds good."
Um, but not the Byrds, a favorite reference point for thoat of us who leap to make historical rock associations. "I'd heard 'Turn, Turn, Turn'-period," says Stipe. "I heard 'Do You Wanna Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star?' by Patti Smith before I heard it by Roger McGuinn. The first time I heard "Eight Miles High," it was a commerical for a window cleaner in the late '60s. That’s how I remember the psychedelic era."

(With their tongues in cheek, R.E.M. will perform the odd Byrds cover only in Athens, wher, they say, the in-joke can be appreciated.)

R.E.M. debuted at their home, the decrepit church. "We expected 125 people and 600 showed up," says Stipe. "And the floorfell out. It was really fun: A nice evening. I don't remember the last half of it."
Buck fills in the missing details. "We knew 18 songs, 15 of them ours. We did that set and then got really loaded. People would say 'play again' and we said sure. We played for two hours-'Honky Tonk Woman,' 'God Save the Queen,' we played Roadrunner for 15 minutes."

Like practically every band, R.E.M. is wrestling with the what-do-we-do-for-our-rock-video dilemma. Unlike practically every other band, R.E.M. isn't too hot on the idea to begin with. Buck calls them three minute commericals.

"We did a video ["Wolves, Lower" from the EP] kind of against our will," Buck says. "The record company is talking about us doing one from the album. It's real up in the air. Today, I'm leaving towards not ever doing a video."

"If we end up doing one," says Stipe, "it's not gonna be the format MTV or the rock discos expect."

"No lip synching, no dwarves, no girls in lingerie;" says Buck, ticking off a few of the obvious cliches.

"The only attraction MTV has," asserts Stipe, "is that its major audience is the the kids who can't get into clubs. But most of what they're watching is Pat Benetar and Missing Persons and Triumph and stuff like that. They probably imagine they have a pretty good handle on what's going on right now in music and they don't."

"These are horrible nothing bands and, frankly, I don't care," explodes Buck. "We never wanted to join any party be part of any group.. And MTV is nothing but another way to sell records. If we can't make it to our satisfaction on the strength of our performances and records, I don't want to make it being cute boys in a video."

If big league success-that elusive quality that struck label mates the Go-Gos and (to a lesser extent) Wall of Voodoo-comes calling, how will R.E.M. answer?

Stipe figures he'll cross that bridge if and when.

"I'll be off sipping wine with Mick and Jerry on the Riviera," chirps Buck immediately.

"I don't know," he adds. "We don't think about it at all and I could shit care less when you come down to it. It's not why we do it. If we get it , that would be nice. I tw ould make my future life more comfortable, but I don't really care, much. It's more important to me that people own our record.