R.E.M's Accelerated Comeback Singer Michael, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills came together in Athens, Ga., in 1980 to form the group R.E.M. This year, the band released Accelerate, its 14th album.
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R.E.M's Accelerated Comeback

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R.E.M's Accelerated Comeback

R.E.M's Accelerated Comeback

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TERRY GROSS, host:

(Soundbite of song "Radio Free Europe")

R.E.M: (Singing) Resign yourself that's radio's gonna stay Reason: It could polish up the grey Put that, put that, put that up your wall That this isn't country at all Radio station, beside yourself...

GROSS: That's "Radio Free Europe" from R.E.M.'s debut album "Murmur." The song was originally released as a single in 1981 and got a lot of play on college radio. "Murmur" was released in 1983. Rolling Stone named it the Best Album of the Year over records by Michael Jackson and The Police. A special 25th anniversary remastered edition of "Murmur" was released earlier this year. R.E.M. has endured for three decades, continuing to be known for maneuvering their way through the recording industry, while holding on to their integrity. Last year, the band was inducted into the rock and roll Hall of Fame. When I spoke to lead singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bass player Mike Mills they had just released "Accelerate," R.E.M.s first CD in four years. Here's a track from it called "Man-Sized Wreath."

(Soundbite of song "Man-Sized Wreath")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Turning on the TV and what do I see? A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me - wow! I'd have thought by now we would be ready to proceed But a tearful hymn to tug the heart And a man-sized wreath - ow!

Throw it on the fire Throw it in the air Kick it out on the dance floor like you just don't care, oh Give me the sound

Wave the palms, steal the alms, fists in the air A motorcade up...

GROSS: Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, welcome to Fresh Air. It's really great to have you here.

Mr. MIKE MILLS (Bass Player, R.E.M.): Thank you.

GROSS: Now, the new CD has 11 songs and it's about 34, 35 minutes long, which is really short for a CD. Why did you want to keep it that short?

Mr. MILLS: You know, when it was vinyl that was the medium, the physical content size of the piece of plastic meant that you had to clock in at 40 minutes or less or you would overload the grooves, and you would lose any sort of sonic quality.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: And then when they came up with CDs people went, Oh, my God, I can put an hour and 20 minutes of music on this thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: And unfortunately, a lot of people did, including us. So, we just realized that was, you know, it might be a good idea at this point in our career just to reign it in a little bit and see it. It's a lot of fun to say what you have to say in a really short amount of time. And if you can do that, and if you can really get a message across and pack it with a pretty powerful punch you know in less than three minutes, or less than three and a half minutes, then it's quite an accomplishment.

GROSS: So, it's a good songwriting exercise for you?

Mr. MILLS: Yes, yes.

GROSS: Well, let me play a song from the new CD that I think is - a new song that's exciting - and it's called "Houston," and it's sung from the point of view of someone after Hurricane Katrina. And, Mike, I want to ask you about the organ or synthesizer that you're playing on this. It's so dark and so ominous. I really like the sound of it. I have no idea what you're doing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

: Well, that makes two of us...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: It's a - actually what happened was I wandered in the studio, and Peter and Scott McCaughey were playing that song on guitars, and I didn't know it, I never heard of it before. So I just sat down and started playing what came to mind, and that's pretty much what's on the record. I didn't know what Michael was going to write about lyrically, but I felt the darkness of the song. And I wanted a really angry keyboard sound. I didn't know why, but I did, and then - so it's basically it's just a nasty farfease(ph) run though a bit ol' rat(ph) pedal. And then on top of that, we've got some more of the darkness and anger of that song exists in the bass - the idea of Scott McCaughey coming up with the idea, it's a bass through a really nasty fuzz petal doubled with a bode(ph) upright bass, also through some nasty fuzz. And you know, we just knew it was a big ugly kind of scary sound, and then after Michael put the lyrics on we realized, oh my God, it sounds like a hurricane going by, which you know, we're never quite that literal you know with the music and the lyrics combining but it happened that way and it's just an excellent combination.

Mr. MICHAEL STIPE (Singer, R.E.M.): I think it's one of those cases where the music - the original music inspired me to write that lyric. And then you guys haven't heard that lyric, we took that original music and made it even more so...

Mr. MILLS: Even more so.

Mr. STIPE: And it is a very ominous musical landscape.

GROSS: Peter, do you want to say anything about it before we hear it?

Mr. PETER BUCK (Guitarist, R.E.M.): Yeah, Michael said he wanted songs that are a minute and a half long, so when they wrote it I had a clock and I just looked at the minute hand. And after a minute and a half I was done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCK: Putting as much(ph) stuff on there as we could.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So it's not always about the forethought, you know. Sometimes it just occurs. And as it just got uglier and weirder, I have noticed that the more cinematic something is when you give it to Michael the more it will catch his ear.

GROSS: Why don't we hear "Houston." This is from R.E.M.'s new album "Accelerate."

(Soundbite of song "Houston")

R.E.M.: (Singing) If the storm doesn't kill me the government will It's a new day today and the coffee is strong I've finally got some rest So a man's put to task and challenges I was taught to hold my head high Collect what is mine Make the best of what today has. Houston is filled with promise Laredo is a beautiful place And Galveston sings like that song that I loved It's meaning has not been erased. And so there are claims forgiven...

GROSS: That's "Houston" from R.E.M.'s new CD "Accelerate," and my guests are Michael Stipe, the vocalist, Peter Buck, guitarist, and Mike Mills, who plays bass and keyboards. Let's go back to when you all met in Athens, Georgia, and this would be about what year?

Mr. STIPE: 1979.

GROSS: OK. Can you each describe something about how you knew you could play with the others, that this would work, that you were compatible musically?

Mr. MILLS: Well, when we first got together in the old abandoned church I remember it was like - it was freezing. It's all I remember, it was really, really cold. Bill Berry and I had played together in bands in Macon, Georgia and we had a couple of songs that we written back then, and we showed them to Peter and Michael. And I remember it just a loving what they both did with the songs. They - Peter played guitar in a way that I'd never really heard anyone play before and even then Michael had a really great grasp on how to sing. And it was very different from how I would have done it, which is what I was looking for. So I just remember thinking, you know, I can do stuff with this guys.

GROSS: What was different about Peter's guitar playing than what you'd heard before?

Mr. MILLS: Peter, more inept.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: He had the finest ineptitude ever heard by man. Peter plays with an arpeggiated style, he has a - I love this phrase, he has the best right hand in the business. But instead of just thrashing a way and strumming chords, which you know, what everyone does, and it all tends to sound the same, you can really create melody after melody after melody by arpeggiating with the right hand, which is what Peter does, and it just opens up all the space for meat and noodle around on the bass. And it just had - I hadn't really heard it that much at that point.

GROSS: Peter, how did you start playing that way?

Mr. BUCK: You know, I remember really liking The Birds, the band The Birds, when I was learning to play guitar, and I was so ignorant about music that not realizing that Roger was finger picking and using forefingers, I just worked really hard to imitate him using a flat pick, and by the time I actually figured out that he was doing this kind of folk finger picking thing, I was kind of flat picking in a way that was a little different. And kind of - I don't know, it wasn't my own style necessarily, but it was at least a start.

GROSS: And Peter, what made you realize that you wanted to play with the other members of R.E.M. who weren't yet R.E.M. (laughing)?

Mr. BUCK: Yeah, you know, it really was just the first rehearsal, and within a day or two we had eight or ten kind of original songs. I mean, as original as we were writing at that time anyway. And they sounded good, you know. We got better as songwriters, but it seemed to fit together really well immediately, which you know, is from what I've heard later from other people doesn't usually happen.

GROSS: And Michael?

Mr. STIPE: I felt like we had to write 20 or 25 songs before we really knew what we were doing because none of us were that professional on our instruments. And Mike and Bill more so than Peter and I. When I started the band it didn't occur me to that I would have to write lyrics (laughing). I just - I kind of - had this kind of teenage fantasy - kind of fantasy idea of what it was to be in a band, and to be able to tour and what have you, and - it didn't include the actual work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STIPE: So, it took me a while to come around to that.

GROSS: The impression I got from the first time we spoke in the 90s is that when you started singing you were just a little shy about it? Would that be...

Mr. STIPE: No, I was a little shy about everything.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. STIPE: ..I think it was pathologically with so.

GROSS: My guests are Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills from the band R.E.M. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking with singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bass player Mike Mills of the band R.E.M. This year they released a new CD called "Accelerate," and a 25th anniversary edition of their first album "Murmur." Michael, you had said that in 1985 you felt that you started to come into your own and get more comfortable, you know as a songwriter and performer. Two years later, in '87, R.E.M. had its first real hit "The One I Love," and I'm wondering if you knew when you recorded this that that this was somehow going to be different, if it felt musically like something happened that hadn't happened before.

Ms. STIPE: I always said, and I think I probably stole this from Peter and Mike, or - I was said that I wouldn't know - I wouldn't know a hit single if it was sitting in my lap, and I feel like - perhaps the producer that we were working with on that record had an idea that that song could make it on to the radio, or that our time had come to be a top-40 radio band. But I certainly didn't - I certainly didn't recognize that.

Mr. MILLS: That was my, I think, eighth favorite song in that record, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really, uh huh?

Mr. BUCK: So, it wasn't - you know, it was like - oh, we'd put it on side two. It was kind of - but you know that that's fine. I mean it wasn't - we didn't write it for any particular reason other than we just wrote it, and it popped up, and then it was kind of a hit. And you know, I mean, hit singles were kind of meaningless in their way. I mean, it's just a song that you wrote that day.

Mr. MILLS: I remember talking to - when we were making "Document." There was something on "Document" that I really thought was a really great song. It might have been "End of the World," and I'm sure - I'm thinking, you know, OK, we've had a hit, maybe this is another one. I remember asking Scott Litt, do - you know do - when people are making these things I was like - for example when Petula Clark and her producers were making "Downtown," did they know what they were doing? Did they know what a great song they had? He goes, yep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: You know sometimes people know, and sometimes you don't.

GROSS: One thing that sounds different to me in this era of the band - I think Michael your voice is more out front, as opposed to more in the mix, and I guess I'm wondering how everybody felt about that.

Ms. MILLS: You know, that was fine. When we did the first record I had a kind of picture in my head that you know, it would be, wow, this weird kind of, like some record from the 60s that you just can't forget what the context was, it's just kind of this beautiful artifact. And you know, we weren't really guaranteed that we were going to get to do five records, or 14 or whatever. I mean, I was kind of thinking, well, we'll get this record, and maybe if we're really lucky we'll get another one. And you know, "Murmur," that first record - that was kind of what I thought it should be, it's kind of like a radio beacon from some other planet, you know. I mean, certainly if we'd thought radio air play was important, "Murmur" wouldn't sound like it does. But I think if we'd thought radio airplay was important we'd have made a not very good record.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "The One I Love" from 1987, since we had been talking about that? And this is R.E.M. and my guests are Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills.

(Soundbite of song "The One I Love")

R.E.M.: (Singing) This one goes out to the one I love This one goes out to the one I've left behind A simple prop to occupy my time This one goes out to the one I love Fire. Fire.

This one goes out to the one I love...

GROSS: That's R.E.M. from 1987, and my guests are Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills of R.E.M. They have a new CD, which is called "Accelerate." That song led to a recording contract with Warner Brothers. How did it change your lives on the road to be - to have, like, a major label behind you and the money for a tour? How did it change, like, how you got around, where you stayed, what your day to day life was like?

Mr. STIPE: It was exactly the same.

Mr. BUCK: It wasn't really that different.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. BUCK: You know, it - yeah. I mean, you know, we just went out and played some more.

Mr. MILLS: We broke even or made money on every single tour we ever did from the very beginning.

Mr. STIPE: Which is rare.

Mr. MILLS: Which is rare, but I mean, you see all these people screaming that they can't tour without corporate support and record company support. That's just not true. We broke even or made money every single time without any help from the record label.

It was all - you know, we lived within our means and took the door from the places we played, and we lived in, you know, one hotel room or one van or whatever it took. And we didn't want to be in debt to anyone, we did not want anyone to have any control over what we did. So, we did whatever was necessary to maintain our freedom, and it worked out really well.

GROSS: I want to jump ahead to 1991, to your recording, "Losing My Religion." And I think it's a perfect record. I mean, it's a great song, great singing, and I love the mandolin on it and the strings. Peter, let's start with the mandolin. Like, what made you think of a mandolin for this?

Mr. BUCK: You know, I think it was on the '89 tour, and I just bought a mandolin. I mean, it was just that simple. I was - had a day off in New York and found this kind of strange, you know, I'm not sure what - it wasn't an American mandolin, it was like Greek or something. And it just - I mean, it was just something to do on the bus, you know, plunk around at the thing. And so, I kind of wrote it on mandolin.

It wasn't - I didn't have any great foresight. And I never really played mandolin that much. I mean, I think if you added up the amount of time I played mandolin in my life, it might be 50 hours, and 49 hours that would be playing "Losing My Religion" on stage. So, it's not as if I - I didn't become an expert. It just became just one of those things I started using. And I guess I was hanging around with a bunch of folk musicians. And that kind of just entered my life a little bit.

GROSS: And Michael, the phrase "losing my religion," is that what came first to you lyrically? And how did it come to you as the title phrase of the song?

Mr. STIPE: I don't remember writing the song at all. I remember singing it in the studio, but I don't remember writing it. But the phrase comes from - I actually changed it. The phrase is "lost my religion." And it's a southern phrase that indicates something that has pushed you so far that you question your faith.

Mr. BUCK: It's kind of like the '20s version of blowing my mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. So I'm going to play it. This is R.E.M., "Losing My Religion."

(Soundbite of song "Losing My Religion")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Oh, life is bigger It's bigger than you And you are not me The lengths that I will go to The distance in your eyes Oh no, I've said too much I set it up

That's me in the corner That's me in the spotlight Losing my religion Trying to keep up with you And I don't know if I can do it Oh no, I've said too much I haven't said enough

I thought that I heard you laughing I thought that I heard you sing I think I thought I saw you try

Every whisper...

GROSS: That's R.E.M. and my guests from R.E.M. are Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills. And they have a new CD, which is called "Accelerate." There was a period, skipping ahead just a few more years, in 1995, when nearly everyone in the band was sick. The drummer, then Bill Berry, collapsed in stage with a brain aneurysm. Peter, you had surgery for, I think, an intestinal adhesion.

Mr. BUCK: That was Mike.

Mr. STIPE: No, that was Mike.

GROSS: That was Mike. OK.

Mr. BUCK: I've never been sick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCK: I'm still healthy.

GROSS: Good, good, good. Keep it that way.

Mr. STIPE: Peter was looking both ways before he crossed the road.

Mr. BUCK: Yeah. I was definitely just going well, you know, this is…

GROSS: And Michael, you had emergency surgery for a hernia. A couple of years after that, Bill left the band. And from what I've read, he said that he wasn't going to leave if it meant the band would split up. And you decided to all stay together. Was that the only time you've come close to breaking up?

Mr. BUCK: You know, I think being in a band is an ongoing process. And I think that everyone, at one point or another thinks, you know, I could just walk away from it. And it's kind of nice knowing that you can walk away from it. I can't imagine how resentful it would be if you just felt like OK, I can never leave this band. But the freedom to walk away means that you don't have to. You know, you're totally - we're totally able to work and take some time off, you know. And it's still an option to walk away from it. It isn't something that I have - I want to do.

Mr. MILLS: We've always given each other the freedom to do whatever we want outside the band, which is, you know, not a difficult thing to grant. And it's also helpful. I mean, you go out and you play with other people, you bring back certain inspirations and ideas that you might not have had within your little four walls. And, you know, it can be well to your advantage to do that.

GROSS: We'll talk more with the band R.E.M. after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking with singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bass player Mike Mills of the band R.E.M. This year, they released a new CD called "Accelerate," and a 25th anniversary edition of their first album, "Murmur." I'd like to ask you each about your music background, which - some of which is so, like, not the image of, like, the indie band performer - like Mike, you were in marching band, which must have really been fun. I love marches.

Mr. MILLS: It was a great fun. I played a - I carried a sousaphone around for a year, a year or two. And then we switched it over to electric bass for the high school football games. And I had somebody tote my bass out onto the field. And I stood there in a leisure suit and played electric bass while the band...

GROSS: Oh, I wish I'd seen that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: You can see my high school yearbook sometime, it's got me in there.

GROSS: And Peter, I read that your first live concert was singing - seeing "Jesus Christ Superstar" in 1970, is that right?

Mr. BUCK: Yeah, with my mom. And the guy next to me handed me a joint.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCK: I was 12.

GROSS: (Laughing) Did you take a toke?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCK: You know, I just looked at it, and I look at my mom. And I just kind of looked straight ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCK: Yeah, no, it wasn't really my thing. Yeah, you know, it was - actually, the first actual live performance I ever saw of music was when I was in second grade, and we lived in Richmond, California, which is near San Fransisco. It was like 1964 or 1965, and this band came in, and I remember they did "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Help" by the Beatles. They had a 12-string guitar. They came to our school and played at lunch hour. I have no idea why. And I just remember thinking, that's cool. And all the little girls got, you know, their arms autographed and stuff. It was all over for me then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Michael, do you remember your first concert or your first - like, this is really great music experience?

Mr. STIPE: Well, my first great music experience, I think, is probably discovering punk rock when I was 15. And I went and bought the Patti Smith album, "Horses," the day that it was released. And I decided then and there that that's what I was going to with my life was sing in a band.

GROSS: When you'd go to a club and hear puck rock, were you, like, a quiet, restrained listener or did you, you know, like, jump up and down and do the whole thing?

Mr. STIPE: I jumped up and down and did the whole thing. But I also - my kind of, like, incredible geek moment, or one of them, is that I was supposed to be 21 years old. So, I had a fake ID that said I was 24. I had really curly hair at the time and chest hair, which was really rare for a 16, 17 year old. So, I would wear my shirt unbuttoned down to my belly button to show the chest hair, because I thought that made me look older. And I would pick my hair out so that it looked like an afro, and I'd wear platform shoes.

So, I was at the punk rock show in platform shoes with a big afro and my (Laughing) shirt - it was a little bit of a mixed message going on there.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. STIPE: But I did see - I saw some pretty good - well, I got in the club. I mean, that's the good news. But I did see some pretty amazing bands. And I took pictures of most of them with my camera - with my father's camera, actually, that I would always carry with me back then.

GROSS: OK. Well, it's been great to talk with you all. Thank you so much.

Mr. STIPE: Terry, thanks so much.

Mr. MILLS: Thanks, Terry.

(Soundbite of song "It's The End Of The World")

R.E.M.: (Singing)

That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane - Lenny Bruce is not afraid. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn, world serves its own needs, dummy serve your own needs. Feed it off an aux speak, grunt, no, strength, The ladder starts to clatter with fear fight down height. Wire in a fire, representing seven games, and a government for hire at a combat site. Left of west and coming in a hurry with the furys breathing down your neck. Team by team reporters baffled, trumped, tethered cropped. Look at that low playing! Fine, then.

Uh oh, overflow, population, common food, but it'll do. Save yourself, serve yourself. World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed dummy with the rapture and the revered and the right - right. You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty psyched.

It's the end of the world as we know it. It's the end of the world as we know it. It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

Six o'clock - TV hour. Don't get caught in foreign towers. Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn.

GROSS: That's "It's The End Of The World" as we know it from R.E.M.'s 1987 album "Document." Our interview with Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills was recorded in April.

(Soundbite of song "Auld Lang Syne")

So, that ends our last show of 2008. There's so much we want to wish you for the New Year, like less anxiety than this year about money, keeping or finding a job and health insurance. Wishing for peace throughout the world may be asking too much, but let's hope for the best. We wish you and everyone you love health and happiness in 2009. Happy New Year from all of us at Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of Fresh Air staff list)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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