Automatic Pilots: For REM, success came gradually. But they still don't know what hit them. Peter Buck and Mike Mills tell of the fans, the frustrations and the baseball

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The Independent Online
Seated in leatherette armchairs in the office of their record company, Mike Mills and Peter Buck bear the traditional demeanour of rock stars on dateline-defying promotional tours - the greying skin, the parched eyes, the wilful alertness. But in this case, the pair flew into London 48 hours ago and are exhausted, not by jetlag, but by baseball. Earlier this morning, the Atlanta Braves, Buck's and Mills's favourites, qualified for the World Series, squashing the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-2. At about one in the morning, Mills had found a satellite channel screening the game on his hotel room television. And the rest was sleeplessness.

'Afterwards, I phoned the bar where we often go to watch games, and it was a euphoric time,' says Mills. According to Buck, Mills is now on the verge of faking an appendix problem in order to be flown home early for the finals against Toronto. 'Maybe I don't mind,' says Buck. 'I'll get to talk more.'

Buck and Mills are half of REM, the group currently touted in almost any periodical you care to pick up, as the best rock band in the world. This may be an exaggeration, though only a slight one. Their partners, Bill Berry the drummer and Michael Stipe the singer, are back at home in Athens, Georgia, spared the interview routine by the band's sensible rota policy: if the new album, Automatic for the People, is their eighth, then it must be Buck and Mills's turn to jabber with the press. Buck is REM's guitarist, Mills plays bass, but neither of these facts seems especially important at the moment, what with the World Series coming up.

'This year's performance by the Braves,' says Mills, who talks like a machine gun, 'is pretty much consistent with last year's. But that is a total aberration, because they were one of the worst teams in baseball, except for rare moments, for about 25 years.'

'And I must just say,' says Buck, who talks like Mills, only faster, 'Mike and I were supporting fans who wore the hats when they were bad. We're not those people who have just come to like them since they were succesful. Wear your Braves hat anywhere but Atlanta and people would laugh at you. And now people are like, 'How about them Braves?' And I just want to say, 'Oh yeah? Where have you been? I liked the Braves when they were the worst team in baseball by acclamation.' Constance and loyalty, that's the hallmark of the Braves fan.'

REM have become a big noise very gradually, which partly explains why - unusually among rock musicians - other interests occupy Buck and Mills more readily than the topic of themselves does. When the band began, at the start of the Eighties, they were a country-tinged rock group who won a low-watt fame on the American college circuit. Their light burned slightly stronger with each successive album until, with Green (1988) and Out of Time (1991), it hit full- beam. Now they sell in millions and pack out arenas. This month Automatic for the People went straight into the album chart at number one.

And yet, somehow the band remain sublimely unaltered by these changing circumstances, having failed to react to success in the received ways. Their outfits (back-of-the- Transit chic for the most part) have stayed the same. They have so far singularly failed to do a tour sponsored by Pepsi or Armani. None of them has as yet affected bodyguards or published a coffee-table book of themselves with no clothes on. 'I've put on weight,' says Mills, when asked if success has re-shaped him. 'Well, I've lost weight,' says Buck, 'so you really can't generalise.'

But you can say that, in the process, REM have taken up a distinct position for a band of their generation, being at once commercially viable and off the beaten track. Those understated tunes, built from simple guitar figures or mandolin parts, linked by Stipe's strange, keening voice, are in many ways the definition of radio unfriendly: often you have to listen to them a few times before you quite get them, and pop radio is mercilessly impatient with that kind of music. And yet there they are, on your radio. 'The chief difference,' says Buck, 'is we operate on a different level now. I like the idea that, for better or worse, we're going head to head with the business megastars.

'For such a long time we were never played on the radio. And now we can put out something fairly odd like 'Drive' and have a big hit with it. And it doesn't really fit in with formats. It was already out as a single and someone said, 'Yeah, it's kinda weird you would put out a record without a chorus.' I turned to Michael and said, 'Michael, there's no chorus. Recall all the records]' There's no beat to it, there's not many drums on it, it's got dead air, there's no chorus, it's very slow . . .'

'And,' adds Mills, 'it got twice as many Top 40 station plays in the first week as 'Losing My Religion' .'

THEIR following now spills way beyond the campuses - way beyond America and Europe, too. Out of Time was number one in Israel for nine weeks, causing a patently baffled Michael Stipe to remark to Rolling Stone magazine: 'I don't think I could walk around and purchase toilet paper if I had to think about why people in Bombay and Israel are disco dancing to 'Radio Song' .'

'It used to be students,' says Buck, 'Now it covers a lot of ground. But I still like to think if you listen to us, you tend also to read poetry, go see foreign films, wear a beret, smoke unfiltered cigarettes, eat French bread. But it crosses all bounds - you get 14-year-old girls who think Michael Stipe is the cutest guy in the world, or guys who think we're 'boogie down' men. Boogie down] I mean, which record would that be?'

The original fans stick by them, too (Mills says he likes to think of them now: gathering in the parking area before REM gigs, picnicking together out of their car boots), though there was one notable rough patch, immediately after the release of Green. 'For us,' says Mills, 'that was just another record, we didn't think about it particularly as we made it. But we had signed to Warner Brothers and all of a sudden we were supposed to be these big millionaires. And then we made a record with lots of electric guitars on it and had a hit, so we were instant pariahs in the community for that. There were people who thought we should reward their loyalty with continuing obscurity.'

'I still think Green is a good record,' says Buck. 'It reminds me of some of those Led Zeppelin records where there's one of everything: the folk song, the heavy rocker, the pop song's in the middle and the reflective, political number comes after.'

And what of that core of truly committed followers - the ones who pore furrow-browed over Stipe's impenetrable lyrics, make pilgrimages to Athens, peek in through their windows? Constance and loyalty, that's the hallmark of the REM fan - in some cases to the point of zealotry. Mills is initially defensive about this. 'I think most bands who have been around this long have that kind of following.' Buck asks: 'Chicago?' Mills backs down. 'OK, maybe not.'

Buck: 'Our fans are really obsessive, they know every non-album B-side from every foreign release. We get people on the porches of our houses occasionally. They know things about me that I didn't even know happened. But we have never sold ourselves as personalities. I could not be a pop star in sunglasses with a hat pulled low and four guys over six foot tall following me. Then again, I'm a guy, I'm six foot two and kind of forbidding - I don't really get a lot of people who worry me personally in a physical sense. I mean, maybe if I was Julia Roberts. Or Prince.'

Stipe, though, has in the past mentioned a faintly un- REM-like desire to hide away from the hassle. Mills says: 'It's different for Michael because he writes the words and people live through his lyrics and project themselves into what he sings and find maybe a lot more meaning than there may be. And they want to come up and tell him just how much he's done to their lives. 'I'm on my way to a loony bin because of your record,' that sort of stuff.'

Buck: 'No one ever asks us what our personal lives are like. But he gets it every time. What's his sex life, where does he live, what are his parents like. I feel sorry for Michael that he has to deal with it. I wouldn't trade.'

Stipe's lyrics court and thwart the curious. This is another indication of the extent to which REM's success is against the odds. Pop music favours punchy, clean messages. Care to attempt an explication of 'Disturbance at the Heron House'? Of 'Begin the Begin'? Of 'Losing My Religion'? And those are just some of the occasions when the lyrics are mostly audible, rather than merely burbled and murmured. REM have never included a complete lyric sheet with an album. Marcus Gray's exhaustive, close-printed book on the band, An REM Companion (Guinness Books), points out that there are currently four unofficial lyric books in circulation. But Gray warns: 'For every moment of revelation, (the lyric books) provide two sniggers of disbelief. 'Singer, sing me a gibbon,' being a case in point.'

These tricky lyrics are commonly the last thing to arrive in an REM song. Says Mills: 'Me or Peter will bring the beginning of a song, or maybe the best part of one, into practice. And then we all just kind of mangle it in rehearsal until it's squeezed into some sort of shape. And once it gets to be more or less formed as a song, we put it on a tape and play it to Michael. And he picks the ones which strike him the hardest and puts the words to them. Then we listen to what he's done and put in any changes, in terms of maybe more verse, or less verse, just to work around his lyrics.'

'I've used this phrase before,' says Buck, 'but it's kind of a funhouse mirror. We'll come up with something and it has a definite tone for us. And we'll give it to Michael and that tone changes completely. For instance, on Automatic for the People, 'Try Not To Breathe' was just a jolly little folk song type of thing, and then back came the lyrics pondering death and the end of life.' And Mills says he thought 'World Leader Pretend', on the Green album, was going to be the best pop song the band had ever written - until Stipe got hold of it. 'Instead, it's this kind of morose, meandering thing about some guy sitting in his room by himself. At first, I thought, Goddamit, Michael, this could have been a great pop song. But I realise it is good. Just different.

'And 'Everybody Hurts' on the new album - we were laughing so hard when we went to record it. Bill wrote most of it on guitar, so we were playing it with Peter on bass, me on drums and Bill on guitar. And we tried to demo it that way and it was just a cacophony, just horrible.'

Buck: 'Mike actually dropped the sticks at one time and on the demo you hear someone shout, 'Pick 'em up]' .'

Mills: 'And we thought, 'Well, we'll put it down, maybe it will make a nice B-side someday.' And Michael put these strong words and a strong melody to it and it turned out to be one of the best songs.'

Buck: 'For 'Man on the Moon', he didn't get the words until the last two weeks of mixing. We were saying, 'We really want this song on the record, Michael, come up with some lyrics please. And he finally came in and said, 'Well, I've got the words, I don't know if you're going to like 'em.' We said, 'Well, try them out . . .' '

What Stipe had written was probably the first pop record to mention the acrobatic party game Twister, and certainly one of the few to fashion a scenario containing the late Andy Kaufman, who starred in Taxi and also did a mean Elvis impersonation. 'We fell through the floor when we heard it,' says Buck. 'Especially when Michael got to the part where he impersonates Elvis. Because he does really great Elvis, and normally he won't even do it for us. Incidentally, we have friends who think Andy Kaufman is alive. I don't. In my experience, somebody dies, they stay dead.'

The song also contains the strangely formal line: 'Egypt was troubled by the horrible asp.' It is Buck's favourite Stipe line, chiefly, one suspects, because he recognises its provenance. 'We were talking about the movie Cleopatra. In Cleopatra, you're supposed to see Elizabeth Taylor fairly in the altogether. And one reviewer of the movie wrote something like, 'They mentioned we would see more of Elizabeth Taylor than we ever had, but I had no idea she had such a large asp.' And I told Michael that joke, and all of a sudden there's 'the horrible asp' in there.'

THE ESSENCE of the lyrics mostly slips away. But there is an allusiveness in REM's music which is easier to pin down. A piece of The Byrds here, a touch of The Band there, a large helping of American new wave from the late Seventies everywhere. They have gathered together many of the best threads left dangling by American rock music over the last 25 years, and then stitched them into an item all their own. And much of that breadth of reference is down to Peter Buck, a voracious listener.

'I read all the English papers and I try to remember if there's something I need to hear. I just heard Suede for the first time last night. Pretty good. Kind of T Rex-y. While I'm away, I put all the stuff I acquire in a box and mail it to the office. Then when I get home, it's like that scene in the first Indiana Jones movie where they take the box into the secret room and there's a pile of boxes for miles. I haven't been home for months and I must have 50 boxes back there with my name on, full of records and books that I've read and probably dirty socks. It's like Christmas: I get home and there's 50 presents I've sent myself. Also you forget what you've bought. When I got back from Denmark, I had some great stuff and I didn't remember buying any of it - like the Davy Crockett theme in Danish.' Buck offers a quick, throaty burst: 'Dee-for, Dee-for Kreckett . . .'

It was Buck who blended the mandolin into the band's texture. 'I had never even thought about playing mandolin, because everyone in Georgia plays bluegrass and it takes a hyper ability to do that - double picking very fast. Eeee, it makes me nervous. But I bought a mandolin and liked the tone, and I figured out there were three or four records that I really like which use the mandolin in a rock context. 'When I'm Dead and Gone' by McGuinness Flint - a song about Robert Johnson, which I didn't know until somebody told me - is a great song, with a real strummy mandolin. Some of the Fleetwood Mac stuff had a mandolin, and Led Zeppelin used mandolin on a couple of things. It took me into different keys. On a guitar, I don't really like the way an F sounds, but on a mandolin, it's different. So you get 'Losing My Religion', which is in F'

Both Buck and Mills invest a lot of time playing. Mills says he 'can't really walk by a guitar without picking it up.' Buck reckons: 'I spend about four hours a day playing - not practising, just trying out ideas. I always try to have an instrument around. When I'm home I really like to sit it on my lap awhile; read a newspaper with it on my lap and just strum. Or in front of the TV. What's great is baseball games, in fact, because they take no thought and there's no background music. For a while, I was writing with other programmes on and little musical themes off the TV ended up in every damn song I wrote. I write a song a day. Most of them are really awful, but I like to think at least I can tell the difference.'

But while the playing at home continues, touring is temporarily out. Says Mills: 'A tour is a major production for us now. You have to deal with a lot of things on the road that don't have anything to do with playing. Which is why we're not touring. We're just not ready to deal with all that crap at the moment. Everybody wants to see you and talk to you, and meet you after the show. It's not like that's such a hard life, but it gets in the way. And the bigger you are, the more you have to deal with it.

Buck: 'It also involves such relentless self-absorption. Every single person you talk to is concentrated on you. I'll walk backstage and all these people are my friends, but I walk in and they want to work for me. I'll say, 'Maybe I'll have a drink', and they'll go, 'I'll get it for you', and I'll have to say, 'Wait a minute, I can get my own damn drink.' '

The concerts they remember most fondly seem generally to date from times before business logistics forced them to increase the scale. Buck asks Mills: 'Remember the Queen's City inaugural ball? It was a gay disco in Charlottesville and they advertised us like the Chippendales - they're young, they're hot, they've been in Rolling Stone. And like, all these guys in diapers were pressing money on us, and rubbing their bodies against us. Remember the couple in diapers who were handcuffed? The thing was, it was totally cool. It was Hallowe'en, we played well, it was totally great. It was just, kinda like . . . this is a weird way to make a living.'

Says Mills: 'I wouldn't necessarily want to go back to five people in a van staying in little motels. But there's something to be said for being able to tour in obscurity. In the old days, it was, 'Well, we've got a gig in two hours, better get out the guitars.' Now it's, 'Is the projector working?' And what the hell does that have to do with anything? We will go back out; we just haven't talked about the format yet. Maybe we'll discuss it when the World Series is through.'-

(Photograph omitted)