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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The rock group R.E.M. isn't exactly religious, yet religious themes keep creeping into their newest music.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Gonna DJ")

R.E.M. (Band): (Singing) Death is pretty final. I'm collecting vinyl. I'm going to DJ at the end of the world.

MONTAGNE: This from their new album "Accelerate."

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Gonna DJ")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Heaven does exist with a kicking play list. I don't want to miss it at the end of the world.

MONTAGNE: Accelerate is available on the Web today and in record stores next week. Though the music jams, the lyricist Michael Stipe sings that death is on my mind. And Michael Stipe told Steve Inskeep that it's hard to escape that subject.

Mr. MICHAEL STIPE (R.E.M. singer): My grandfather and his father and his father and his father and his father are Methodist ministers, so I come from a place of faith. I guess I question a lot in the songs how it's interpreted by other people and then how it's abused.

Mr. PETER BUCK (R.E.M guitar player): We live in the south, you know. And we're kind of swimming a sea of faith, whether it's our personal faith or not.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

That second voice is Peter Buck.

(Soundbite of music)

He's been R.E.M.'s guitar player since the group started in Athens, Georgia almost three decades ago. Peter Buck, bass player Mike Mills and Michael Stipe collaborated on a song called "Houston," that's the city that took in many victims of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.

(Soundbite of song, "Houston")

R.E.M.: (Singing) If the storm doesn't kill me the government will. I've got to get that out of my head. It's a new day today and the coffee is strong. I've finally got some rest.

Mr. STIPE: The song is from the point of view of someone whose faith is actually challenged by what they've seen and by the response to it from this administration.

INSKEEP: Their faith in the country?

Mr. STIPE: No, their faith.

INSKEEP: They're religious faith?

Mr. STIPE: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What got you writing about that?

Mr. STIPE: Well, I was, you know, I'm one of the tens of millions of Americans who was really horrified by this administration's response to Katrina. And I think the, you know, historians will look back on this period of time with as much horror as we look back on slavery, wondering how on earth we could have allowed a major city and a huge swath of surrounding country and communities around that to be washed away in a storm and not to do much more than what we did.

It was somewhere in my unconscious and it presented itself in the form of a lyric and I didn't shy away from it.

INSKEEP: Can you gentlemen describe how that song was created? Do you start with the music or do you start with the lyrics?

Mr. MIKE MILLS (R.E.M bassist): This Mike Mills speaking. You know, Peter and I tend to write the music and either send it to Michael in a demo form or if he happens to be in the room and listens that will often present some inspiration.

"Houston" started when Peter was playing it on guitar and I'd never heard it before. And I went in and sat down and started playing the organ part.

(Soundbite of music)

And that's a really fun way to create, sometimes to make up parts when you don't know where the song is going and you don't know what the chords are. It enables you to come up with things that you might not have come with otherwise if you knew the structure of the song. So that organ part was basically what I played while listening to Peter play the guitar for the first time.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: So you've got a guy playing guitar, and then Mike Mills you're inspired to add this kind of creepy organ phrase that goes again and again. And then, Michael Stipe, did that then get you in the mood to think about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Mr. STIPE: I guess so. I mean, quite often the music will present itself as something that feels - in this case, I mean, it is a little bit of a scary organ part. But, yeah, you know, I'll hear music that Peter and Mike have written.

And I've kind of always felt since the very early days that when I'm writing a vocal part, my job is to make it sound like that's the only vocal part that could ever possibly go along to that piece of music.

INSKEEP: There's another song here called "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," which is a great quote, which I just thought it was a saying. But you actually attribute it to George Herbert, described as an English clergyman and metaphysical poet.

Mr. STIPE: Metaphysical poet from the 17th century.

INSKEEP: From centuries ago.

Mr. STIPE: Yeah. Ahead of his time.

INSKEEP: What got you onto that quote?

Mr. STIPE: Well, it's one of those things that, you know, you grow up hearing: living well is the best revenge. And Peter and I were actually talking about it the other day. Like how we didn't really know what it meant.

Mr. BUCK: When I was 15, I had no idea what that meant. That made no sense to me. It's like, no, I thought revenge was the best revenge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, I almost wondered when I realized that it was a quote from a clergyman could he possibly have just meant being a virtuous person is the best revenge? Is that what he…

Mr. STIPE: I'd prefer not to think so.

INSKEEP: Basically, getting no revenge is the best revenge is what he seems to be saying perhaps.

Mr. STIPE: I'm going to hang on the metaphysical poet side of George Herbert.

Mr. BUCK: Exactly. I'd like to think that yeah that no revenge is the best revenge, but that doesn't mean that you have live, you know, what a 17th metaphysical poet would describe as a virtuous life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Living Well is the Best Revenge")

R.E.M.: (Singing) All your sad and lost apostles hum my name and flare their nostrils, choking on the bones you toss to them. Well I'm not one to sit and spin, 'cause living well's the best revenge. Baby, I am calling you on that.

INSKEEP: I wanted to get to that line, all you sad and lost apostles hum my name and flare their nostrils. That could be wicked. It could be playful. It is fun. It could be biblical. It could be profound. It could be meaningless.

Mr. STIPE: I'd like to think it's all of the above.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Speaking as the man who wrote the line. You know, there's a lot of fun in rhyming apostle and nostril. I don't know that it's been done before. But it's, you know, that song - I don't know. Do you want me to tell you what I think it's about?

INSKEEP: Please.

Mr. STIPE: All right. I write about the media a lot, and in this song it's one of those kinds of personalities on one of those news stations.

INSKEEP: Don't turn your talking points on me, history will set me free.

Mr. STIPE: Yeah. The future is ours, and you don't even…

Mr. BUCK: Don't even rate a footnote.

Mr. STIPE: …rate a footnote. AS I wrote the song I put myself in the studio and I'm basically turning the table over onto the guy.

INSKEEP: Oh, you're imagining yourself on television telling…

Mr. STIPE: It felt - would've felt…

INSKEEP: …Chris Matthews what to do.

Mr. STIPE: …so good. It felt so good. And it's a little bit immature, but that's OK, sometimes it feels good to just (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of song, "Living Well is the Best Revenge")

R.E.M.: (Singing) You work it out, let's hear that argument again. Camera three. Go now.

INSKEEP: The song is "Living Well is the Best Revenge." The group is R.E.M, which stands for rapid eye movement. And on the album Accelerate the images fly by as if in a dream.

MONTAGNE: Hear more about what Michael Stipe has to say, and also you can listen to R.E.M's entire concert at the South by Southwest music festival at npr.org/music.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News with Steve Inskeep. I'm Renee Montagne.

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