New Adventures in R.E.M.
By Jim DeRogatis
Michael Stipe is doing something that he vowed he'd never do: He's lip-synching as R.E.M. films the clip for "Bittersweet Me," the second video from its tenth album of new material, New Adventures In Hi-Fi. It's late July in Los Angeles, and the favorite sons of Athens, Georgia, are gathered on a small platform in the middle of a cavernous soundstage on the lot of A&M Studios. The carefully orchestrated media campaign that greets each new R.E.M. album is about to begin, and the crowd that watches the video shoot from the sidelines includes Chris Heath of Rolling Stone; Bobbie Ann Mason, a Southern novelist hired to profile the band for The New York Times; a couple of foreign journalists, and myself.
We're all here to collect what we writers call a little bit of "color" before interviewing the band the following day. Guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills are plugged into their amps, and Bill Berry is sitting at his drums. In between takes of fake performances, we're treated to instrumental performances of "Winchester Cathedral," "Kingdom of Love," an old Soft Boys song written by Buck's pal Robyn Hitchcock, and "Catapult," a tune from R.E.M.'s first album, Murmur, that the band never plays at regular concerts anymore.
If you go back and look at the avalanche of press clippings that herald the release of every new R.E.M. album, you'll notice that a theme runs through all of them. The band members clearly decide what the emphasis of each new round of interviews will be, and they stick to the program and stress the same sound bites. Seduced by their plentiful charms, journalists willingly comply by writing the same stories. Hence Green was portrayed across the board as "the political record." Out of Time was "the experimental/orchestral record." Automatic for the People was supposed to be "the loud record," but it turned out to be "the quiet record." Monster was "the long-awaited loud record," as well as "the record where Michael Stipe talks about bisexuality but says he isn't HIV-positive."
Over the next two days, I get the impression that the group wants New Adventures In Hi-Fi be portrayed as "the record where R.E.M. proves that it's still got it." It arrives at a critical point in the band's history: It's the last album owed to Warner Bros. under the group's first contract with the label, and the first to be released since the news that R.E.M. has signed a new $80 million mega-deal with the company. It's also the first album without the group's longtime manager, Jefferson Holt, and the first after the assorted health problems suffered by Berry, Stipe, and Mills during the Monster tour showed that the musicians are no longer the indefatigable, indestructable indie-rockers who crisscrossed America in a van.
R.E.M. is the biggest business in popular music today. After months of speculation that the group might jump ship for DreamWorks SKG, the new label run by old friends Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin, or Outpost, the MCA-distributed boutique label started by longtime producer Scott Litt, the band re-upped with Warners for a five-album deal that's the largest recording contract ever awarded. It tops the $70 million that Janet Jackson received to sign with Virgin in 1995, and Jackson's attorney, Donald S. Passman, helped R.E.M. negotiate the pact. The result was announced in late August during Warner's annual corporate meeting at the Anaheim Convention Center, and thousands of employees jumped to their feet for a standing ovation.
In late July, the band members weren't tipping their hands about which label they'd wind up with, but in retrospect, their comments shed light on the strategy they'd use to drive up the price. "Even if you know you're gonna buy a car from honest Joe, you would cross the street to see what kind of a deal you're gonna get over there just so you can tell Honest Joe what you want," Buck said. Added Mills: "We're in a great position now in terms of leverage, and we're just going to take advantage of it." (That leverage included the fact that Warners, beseiged by two years of corporate infighting, couldn't afford the black eye it would get from losing its biggest act.)
Back on the video set, the band resumes its pantomime, and the sounds of "Bittersweet Me," a melancholy ballad in the mold of Automatic for the People, fill the air. "I don't know what I'm hoping for," Stipe sings on tape and mouths onstage. "I don't know what I want anymore." More than anything the musicians will say in the current round of interviews, these lines seem to sum up where the group is at right now, as well as answering the questions that many fans are posing: After 18 years as a band, what is motivating the members of R.E.M. to continue? And, perhaps more importantly, has their incredible success boxed them into a corner where it's impossible for them to challenge themselves artistically?
The day before the "Bittersweet Me" video shoot began, a few advance copies of the August issue of the English music magazine Mojo arrived in L.A. It was the first sign that R.E.M.'s designated message circa the new album might not be delivered exactly as planned. The group was pictured on the cover in a typically enigmatic Anton Corbijn photo, but the cover line was "R.E.M.: The Final Act?" Inside, writer Barney Hoskyns painted an unflattering but fairly innocuous portrait of a band adrift after parting with Holt and limping through the Monster tour, but determined as ever to control its public image. The piece ended with speculation that the group's long career might be drawing to a close.
Hoskyns was clearly mistaken on the last point, but the members of R.E.M. have seen the article, and they're not happy. "It's just more journalists looking for an angle," Mills says peevishly. "Every bit of information they had in there was wrong. It's all anonymous sources and making things up. I've got one thing to say to all those people who commented there, and that's 'Mind your own fucking business.'"
Warner Bros. has something else to say: The company retaliates by pulling all of its advertising from Mojo and making it clear that R.E.M. will never speak to the publication again--this after the group refused to comment for Hoskyn's story in the first place. The magazine's primary sin seems to have been daring to run a story about R.E.M. that R.E.M. and Warners did not explicitly sanction or control. "We've had our knuckles rapped," says Mojo editor Mat Snow. "They see press merely as an aspect of promotion as opposed to what you might call journalism, which has an insitutional position in reporting on events of what you might call public interest. And they're not interested in that." (Nevertheless, Snow was working to mend fences, and the next issue of Mojo included a rave review of New Adventures in Hi-Fi.)
The lack of bad publicity that the members of R.E.M. have received through the years is extraordinary considering the band's fame and stature. "They were randy young rock stars who did all the things--drugs, sex, drinking, you name it--that you would imagine that they'd do," says a music industry veteran who was a close associate of the band through the late '80s. "The only thing was, you never read about it."
This is what led Nirvana's Kurt Cobain--whose every stumble was well-documented--to ask with envy how they did it. The members of R.E.M. maintain that it's because there were never really any tales to tell out of school. But in fact, they worked very hard to become the Teflon Rockers, skillfully setting the tone of press coverage by controlling access and cultivating relationships with friendly writers and editors who, if aware of any shortcomings, were nonetheless united behind a group that they saw as a true, fresh alternative to corporate-rock behemoths like Aerosmith, Van Halen, Madonna, and Michael Jackson.
Then, too, there was the tight-knit core of R.E.M./Athens, Ltd., the band's corporate entity. The four musicians plus Holt and attorney Bertis Downs IV always banded together like the good ol' boys they were, and theye never let any of the really sensitive stuff escape the smoke-filled rooms where strategy was plotted. "We come from the south, where everybody gossips," Mills says. "But you're not supposed to enquire into other people's business, so we don't. It's just part of our ethic that whatever is a person's private business remains a person's private business, and that stays within our group. We're a little more boring than most rock bands are thought to be. We're a little smarter than most people who get caught doing some of those stupid things. And maybe we're a little lucky, too. But I think that we're all people with more or less genuine good will, and that gets reciprocated in the end."
One person whose store of good will seems to have eroded is former manager Holt. Holt was a record store manager from North Carolina who hopped in the van with the group in 1981 and never got out. He was immortalized as the driver in the song "Little America" from Reckoning ("Jefferson, I think we're lost!"), and album credits always listed the group as "Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe, Downs & Holt." But Holt resigned abruptly in May just as the band was gearing up to negotiate the biggest contract in rock history. R.E.M. announced that Downs would oversee its business affairs on his own, and a subtle change appeared in the credits of the new album. R.E.M. is listed as "Berry, Buck, Mills, & Stipe," and Downs is credited separately as "advisor."
In a story attributed to sources close to the group, The Los Angeles Times reported in June that R.E.M. asked Holt to leave after investigating allegations that he sexually harassed a female employee at the band's offices on West Clayton Street in Athens. Holt denied the charges and told the newspaper that the decision to part was mutual. "I've agreed to keep the terms of my agreement with R.E.M. confidential," he said. "However, 15 years is a long time, and as time passed, our friendships have changed. I think we found as time passed that we have less and less in common. I've become more interested in other things in life and wanted to spend more time pursuing those interests." (Holt could not be reached for this story.)
Buck denies that anyone connected with R.E.M. planted the sexual harassment story. "We had nothing to do with that. If we were to speak to the press and talk about things, we would look a lot better than that," he says. "I personally don't have anything to say about it--I'm legally not allowed to--but the four of us always make all decisions, and we always have. Because of some experiences we might have had in the last six months, nobody likes the word 'manager' anymore, Bertis the least of all. So he's 'advisor.' But the fact is the four of us manage ourselves.In every aspect of what we do in our lives, we try to work on our moral level. Every decision we've ever made has had elements of the moral and ethical standpoints that we all encompass, that are part of our lives, and we're all feeling really, really positive."
But some of the group's most loyal devotees are starting to question whether its moral compass has been damaged. Online newsgroups dedicated to R.E.M. were full of complaints about ticket prices on the Monster tour and the fact that the musicians often seemed stiff and bored onstage. It's often noted that the band now regularly breaks promises it made early in its career, such as Stipe's vow that he would never lip-synch on video, or Buck's pledge that the group would never play halls bigger than 5,000 seats.
An editorial in the summer, 1995, issue of 394 Oconee, one of the best of the dozen or so fanzines devoted to the group, summed up the feelings of many of its readers. "R.E.M. have become millionaires who really don't identify with the working class anymore,'' editor Pattie Kleinke wrote. "They're not the band I feel in love with 13 years ago. In a three-page article, Michael used the phrase 'media figure' at least 10 times. I'm even beginning to question their political correctness. Is it just photo ops and chances to hang out with their 'peers'--other glitzy celebrities who clutch their drinks, snort their coke, and mainline their smack at trendy parties? How could Bertis stand beside Pearl Jam during the Ticketmaster hearing and then charge $50 as base price [for R.E.M.'s concerts]? Maybe it was good P.R. at the time."
The Ticketmaster charge is the one that stings the most. Downs testified with Pearl Jam against Ticketmaster during congressional hearings into whether the company was a monopoly, but then R.E.M. allowed Ticketmaster to sell tickets and charge its usual service fees on the Monster tour. "All Bertis ever said was that we don't like monopolies," Mills says. "They're bad for business and they're morally untenable. That's all we said. I was 100 percent behind Pearl Jam in their efforts. However, touring is a very, very important part of my life, and I was not about to not tour just for the sake of saying 'Fuck you' to Ticketmaster. I'll say 'Fuck you' to Ticketmaster right now and mean it, but that doesn't mean I'll stay home and not tour if I have to use Ticketmaster."
"We were the only band in the world besides Pearl Jam that testified against Ticketmaster," Buck says. "Our lawyer testified right with Jeff [Ament] and all those guys. And the fact of the matter is it did hurt as. They cut no slack for us. You've got to understand, Ticketmaster has legally enforceable contracts with all the halls. Let's not use the word 'kickback,' because they have libel lawyers, but they get a portion of the service fee. We were pretty sure at the time that because there was a Democratic congress, that it would be investigated and something would be done, because it is clearly a monopoly. We thought we could testify and by the time we went on tour, we wouldn't have to use Ticketmaster. But the Justice Department let everybody down [when it determind that Ticketmaster is not a monopoly]."
But R.E.M. did control the largest portion of its own ticket prices. At a time when top alternative bands such as Pearl Jam and Green Day were playing shows for $20, the cost for tickets on the Monster tour averaged between $40 and $50 without the Ticketmaster service fees.
"Honestly, the ticket prices were probably too high," Buck says now. "We wanted to be in the middle of the market. We threw out the Rolling Stones and the Eagles' prices of $115 a ticket because we didn't want to do that, and we sat down in every market and determined a price so that we were exactly in the middle between the high end and the low end. In retrospect, maybe I would have come back and said, 'Let's be lower.'"
Mills has a different response. "Are you saying that $50 is too much for ticket?" he asks with obvious annoyance. "In New York City, that's not too much. And I think that our moral integrity is such that we do not ruin it by charging middle-of-the-road ticket prices. If all of our good work over the years means nothing because we were charging $50 for a ticket in New York, than so be it. I work real hard for this, and going out on the road for a year is something that's really tough. I don't mind being paid for it."
The members of R.E.M. are being paid well indeed. By signing their $80 million mega-deal, they have joined the ranks of the superstars they once opposed, including Barbra Streisand, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, all of whom signed $60 million pacts. To date, none of the artists who have signed mega-deals have produced work that stands alongside their best, and none of them have taken significant artistic chances.
In fact, signing a contract of such magnitude may be like putting a gun to your head, since it brings with it an enormous pressure to perform up to the label's commercial expectations. Industry analysts say that mega-deals often wind up losing money, but label executives continue to pursue them because, in a business full of uncertainty and one-hit wonders, they are the closest thing to a sure bet. The problem is that nobody's happy when a sure bet doesn't pay off.
The "Bittersweet Me" video features R.E.M. performing in an empty movie theater while a bogus Italian art film in the style of La Dolce Vita is projected behind them. The fake '60s film scenes are taped on the second day of shooting at the Chapman Park Building, an ornate art deco structure in downtown Los Angeles that's doubling for an Italian villa. The movie stars actor Richard Edson, now a regular in the films of Jim Jarmusch but once the drummer for Sonic Youth. Director Dominic De Joseph spends the day filming Edson and various beautiful models in period fashions cavorting on the set. The band members don't need to be present for any of this, but today is also the designated press day, so they're here to be ushered in and out of fancy air-conditioned trailers to meet the journalists for their allotted 30-minute chats.
Three long trailers are parked by the curb on the street outside the Chapman building: one for the actors, one for Stipe to hang out in, and one for Buck and Mills to do their interviews. Each has two separate rooms nicely appointed with couches, chairs, and a mini-bar. There's plenty of space for the business at hand, but Mills is angry because he wanted to have two interview trailers, one for him and one for Buck. Assistants are scurrying to see if another can be brought to the set , and I'm thinking about statements the band made in the early '80s mocking the Police for arriving at shows in three different limousines.
In the old days, up through Out of Time, R.E.M. invited writers to come to Athens for interviews. Journalists usually stayed for a few days. They soaked up the ambience at sites like the old church at 394 Oconee Street where the group played its first gigs (and which gave the fanzine its name), and they casually interacted with band members at their homes, in restaurants, and at the famous 40-Watt Club. These days, Buck lives in Seattle, Mills is in L.A., Berry has a farm outside Athens, and Stipe bounces around a lot. Since Automatic for the People, R.E.M. has done press in L.A. in a much more regimented fashion, revealing much less of themselves and sticking to the schedule set by Warner Bros.
Stipe, by far the most interesting band member and the group's biggest celebrity, only meets with most of the press for every other album. He talked for Out of Time but not Automatic for the People, and for Monster but not New Adventures in Hi-Fi. However, he does chat with Rolling Stone's Heath, and he gives a few short quotes about Nabokov to The New York Times' Mason, acknowledging those publications' positions at the top of the journalistic pecking order.
Berry, usually an affable sort, isn't talking to anyone, probably because he doesn't want to hear the inevitable questions about the brain aneurisym he suffered onstage during the Monster tour. I am granted separate interviews with Mills and Buck. The bassist is cranky and terse as usual, but Buck is effusive as always and happy to talk a mile a minute. After Stipe, Buck is R.E.M.'s most media-savvy member. He's got a neat trick of making journalists feel as if he's confiding stuff that he's never told anyone before: I've talked to three of my peers who have all gotten variations of the line, "Wow, what a great question, no one's ever really asked me that before." I've gotten the line myself all three times I've interviewed him.
"I personally like this record at least as well as Automatic, and Automatic I think is our best record," Buck says as he begins the process of using me to promote another new R.E.M. album. He goes on and on in his rapid-fire manner about how the rough tracks were recorded in different cities along the Monster tour; how soundchecks were the most creative time for the band and a source of a lot of the new material, and how the instrumental "Zither" was taped in the shower stalls of a basketball arena in Philadelphia. "I think the album's up there with our best work," he says several times, sounding as if he's trying to convince himself as much as me.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi is a good album, not a great one, and its initial charms fade fast the more you listen to it and realize that it's rather generic R.E.M.: one part Monster, one part Automatic for the People. It's evenly divided between lilting, atmospheric, mostly acoustic numbers and fuzz 'n' feedback-soaked glam-rock grooves. There isn't a single tune that hints at a new direction, let alone a noble failed experiment like "Radio Song," "Ignoreland," or "Let Me In."
Buck notes that R.E.M.'s only real peers in the world of rock are U2. But the members of U2 have bravely reinvented themselves on each of their recent albums. They have purposely hired producers like Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, Flood, and trip-hop guru Howie B. to force them to make music that doesn't sound like U2. It's a tremendous gamble that could have blown up in their faces, but instead it has produced some of their best work. In contrast, the members of R.E.M. have been working with the same producer, Litt, for almost 10 years. They aren't taking any chances.
I'm thinking about all of this as Buck is yammering on about how R.E.M. isn't going to tour behind New Adventures in Hi-Fi but will probably be back on the road after the next album in 1998. Tour, don't tour--it's the sort of classic non-story that will appear in every article written about R.E.M. in the next few months. We all know that sooner or later, the group will perform again onstage--bands that sign $80 million contracts always do. I'm determined to try to force Buck to address a real and much more interesting dilemma.
The central crisis in rock right now involves nostalgia and the problem of how a band grows old gracefully in an art form that is about doing absolutely nothing gracefully. Groups like the Rolling Stones make new music as an excuse to tour and play the old hits for paying crowds; the albums are just souvenirs. The members of R.E.M. say that what they care about is making challenging new albums, and then they tour every few years almost as if it's perfunctory chore. Is it possible to be a working, creative band and not care about both functions equally?
"When I was younger, touring was why you were in a band," Buck says. "But no matter how loose we keep it now, it's still not going to be very loose at our level. So no longer is it this really creative process. Most of those bands like the Stones really are nostalgic. They know they can get 60,000 people if they play all the hits from the '60s, and they can get 3,000 people if they play the new record. To a certain degree, I understand that, and there may be a time in my life when I'm more interested in celebrating the past than working on the present or the future. But whatever tour we do, I'm just going to want to do the new songs and songs from the last couple of records. I'm totally willing to see the audience decline in numbers if that's the case."
But signing the mega-deal suggests that R.E.M. really hasn't learned anything from the Stones. Surely Warner Bros. isn't quite so willing to see the band's audience decrease. Nostalgia is pervasive in rock today because it's safe and it's a sure-seller. The most successful tours this summer were by the re-costumed KISS, the reunited Sex Pistols, the reshuffled survivors of the Grateful Dead, and good ol' Neil Young and Crazy Horse. All of them cheerfully cranked out the sounds of yesteryear.
"Well, this is show business," Buck says. "It is lucrative, and if your option is to wash dishes somewhere or play the hits from 20 years ago, most of us will probably play the hits from 20 years ago. But nostalgia just gives me the creeps. It's not even a real emotion, it's just a pandering to past emotions. When I go see Neil Young, I want to see him do the new record. I've seen him do 'Cowgirl in the Sand' for 25 years, and it's a great song, but I just don't need to hear him do it again. It's a real tough thing, and we're in a place now where we're lucky that our early stuff wasn't big hits because we'd have this huge tail of a comet wagging behind us. As it is we have to think about it--we played one song from Reckoning every fifth night--and I like that song, but do I really want to play that stuff? Probably not."
Buck says that the thing that keeps R.E.M. going is that the group is still doing good work, and its members can't yet envision what will stop that. But I note that no artist ever recognizes or admits when he or she has started to suck.
"Believe me I hear it from everyone," Buck says, laughing. "I don't think people give us a lot of slack. They come up and say, 'I don't think you were very good live and I don't like Monster.' I think about it alot. It's the one thing I think about more often than anything. I'm very cognizant of how old I am, that this is passing and that every year the opening bands get younger and younger and the bands that I go see, I realize, 'My god, I was having sex with my girlfriend in the back of a car right around the time you were born and your parents are maybe five years older than me.' I'm cognizant of that and I know that it's gonna happen and the creative thing--very few people maintain it."
It all comes down to the definition of what exactly good rock 'n' roll is. I think it's a spontaneous explosion of personality. Some people have two and a half minutes of personality: The Kingsmen recorded "Louie, Louie," and that's as good as rock gets, but that's all they had in them. Some people have a lot more. The Rolling Stones were good until Some Girls in 1978; that's a lot of great music and heck of a lot of personality. Most bands fall somewhere in between. The question is whether you're honest enough to admit that you've run dry.
"We're trying to keep it as forward-looking as possible and not embarass ourselves, and I think we're suceeding," Buck says. "I want to be the one. There's never been a rock band that's lasted and kept at it. I'm 39 now. By the time every one of the major classic great bands, when the songwriters were my age, they had been a nostalgia band for 10 years, or five years at the very best. I want to be the one. U2--they're our age--maybe the two of us can do that. I want to be 50 and turn in a record that's great. And I know that probably then we're not gonna sell 10 million copies, and that's cool. It would be nice if we could gold and have people go, 'You know, those old fuckers really keep at it. No matter what people say, it's a really good record.' It will all trail down--we won't be sitting in four trailers talking; I'll be on the phone with you--but I think that I can do this when I'm 50.
"I've seen a lot of the pitfalls that bands have gone through, and I'm going to try to avoid most of those," Buck continues. "Everybody makes mistakes, and maybe mine won't be to become a nostagia act. But if I find myself playing 800-seat clubs and all of us are on one bus, I could do that. Maybe not every night of the year, but we're not stupid people, I'm not going to have to work like that. We're talking about maybe doing a theater tour some time, and maybe having a vibes player and a cello player and a piano player and doing some of the quieter stuff. Which is something I could do when I'm 50."
But the truth is that bands on the mega-deal level rarely have the privelege of playing small theaters with vibes and cello players. Buck and I both know this. Superstars aren't allowed to "trail down"; it's in the music industry's best interest to keep them pumped up and on the straight and narrow course that's likely to yield the greatest dividends. The only people whoever really challenge artists are the artist themselves. The fans and the press are all too willing to fall in line and buy whatever they're being sold. A knock comes at the trailer door, and Buck and I exchange pleasant goodbyes. My time is up, and the next journalist is outside waiting to take my place.
(Originally published by Request, fall 1996)