Thursday, February 11, 2010

R.E.M. – There’s No Comparison

Text by Julia Masi, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Interview © 1983; RBF intro © 2010 by FFanzeen
Images from the Internet

The following article and interview with R.E.M. was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #10, in 1983. It was written by Julia Masi.

As far as I know, this is one of the first full articles about R.E.M. to appear outside their local area of Athens, GA (not counting reviews). When the article came out, they were relatively unknown, though on the brink, and in a very short time, they were at the top of the college radio circuit, on their way even further up. While I never saw R.E.M. perform live, I did see them once on the street outside Irving Plaza just as they broke nationally; I was leaving and they were entering, along with their manager, the late Jefferson Holt. I recognized them, and introduced myself. Most of them did not even acknowledge my existence and just kept on walking; they didn’t need my level of publication anymore. I shouted out after them, sarcastically, “You’re welcome.” Peter Buck was the only one to turn around, genuinely smile, and say “Thanks,” before rushing off to join the others.

Still, I’ve liked some of their music over the years, and have met some pretty rabid fans (hey, Joanne), yet with some song exceptions, I never caught R.E.M.-fever. But fame is a strange and powerful thing. How else can one explain the incredibly bad photos of the 1995 Patti Smith tour taken by Michael Stipe and published in the book
Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith (Little Brown & Co., April 1998)?

What’s most important about R.E.M. is that they really did change the position of the power of college radio, which promoted the band to its heights (MTV also helped). R.E.M. became one of the stronger influences to arise out of independent music in that period. There were so many bands trying to sound like them and not succeeding, which is a sharp irony to this article. – RBF, 2010

They jokingly refer to themselves as “four pretty vague people,” but R.E.M. – Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Pete Buck, and Bill Berry – are really the most modest and misunderstood stars to soar out of Athens, Georgia. Solely on the merit of their 12” EP, Chronic Town, on IRS Records, R.E.M. have propelled themselves from playing for a few friends in an abandoned church to facing audiences of 12,000 in major concert arenas. But even though their reviews have been raves, the rock’n’roll press has only been bombarding them with left-handed compliments as they constantly compare the band to other groups who are musically incongruous. Or accuse them of being overly influenced by musical forces that they never even heard.

“It’s like the Big Boss in the Sky says, ‘You have to tell the people what the music is,’” says Michael. “We’ve been trying for two-and-a-half years to come up with a term that describes the band, but we can’t. We’re not a pop band. We’re certainly not power-pop. We’re not punk. Though maybe we were punk in the beginning, but that was two-and-a-half year ago.

“It’s not that we’re so incredibly original, but it’s hard to find a category that we fit into. The best thing we’ve come up with is “folk-rock.” With a hyphen. But that’s sort of tongue-in-cheek.

“I wouldn’t call us a dance band. We’re not predominantly on stage to make people dance. If you want to get up and dance you can. The beat is fairly obvious. If you want to just sit there you can. If you want to walk out the door, you can do that, too. Many people have.”

He finds comparisons between R.E.M. and psychedelic music to be a “pretty loaded statement. If it is psychedelia, it’s 1982 psychedelia.” He says it’s a “let-down” to be compared with bands just because they hail from the same city or state, but he is complemented that R.E.M. has been said to sound like Love, Television, and Pere Ubu. He admits that journalists who’ve found parallels with the later, “have just been listening to us talk for too long. If you pushed it to extremes you could say we sound like them but…”

“We read our reviews and laugh,” admits Peter. “Then we’ll go out and buy records to see what we’re imitating. We’ll go out of our way to buy something just to see what it is we’re supposed to sound like. I bought a Beau Brummells album because some reviews said I played like Beau Brummell. I listened to it and I didn’t recognize anything. A lot of people have compared us to the Byrds, but none of us has ever listened to them.”

“Well, I’ve heard ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’,” Michael interjects, “but I didn’t listen to anything before I was 15 [he’s 23 now – JM], except Gershwin and Mancini. My parents had limited, but very good taste. Right now, I’ve got Rhapsody in Blue in my pocket.” He’s also got a penchant for classical music, especially the Overture 1812, “with real cannons,” and Patti Smith, who is the only person he ever wrote a fan letter to. “Her mother wrote back to me! It was really a touching birthday present.”

Recently, R.E.M. has been put on the receiving end when it comes to fan mail. And they love hearing from their listeners. “We’re all fans,” admits Michael, who tries to write back, except that, “We’ve only got one typewriter (among the band), but if someone has a question that’s valid, we’ll go out of our way to answer them. That’s what we’re here for.” Although almost all the letters start out the same, “This is the first fan letter I’ve ever written,” some of them can be quite original.

Most of the people who write to Michael are trying to find out what his lyrics are. At times, his singing sounds a little muddled. “It’s intentional on our part. It’s pushing on our part. The subjectiveness. People have sent their versions of the words and I’ve changed the original because their words were better. It’s very helpful.

“I’ve always loved sitting down with a record and not having the lyric there. Having the lyrics in front of you is like taking the raisins out of the raisin bread and expecting it to taste the same.

“The people will write in to tell us that they feel like making movies when they listen to the records. And they go into detail. Or that some of the songs make them feel a certain way. That’s what we’re trying to do; to have the music so that you can subjectively have the feeling come up by yourself with it.

“Some of the letters say, ‘The first time I heard that song, I got so depressed it made me cry.’ It’s great! That’s what we’re going for. You don’t have to sit down and force yourself to listen or even like the music. It’s just there and it’s a fairly recognizable form of music. That’s no problem with the audience. They can find out what the song means to them. If they give that much thought.”
“By-and-large, they’re interesting,” says Peter. “We’ve gotten a few acid-chaser dementeds. There’s one girl who wrote us and said she’d ‘come in contact with our little sphere,’ whatever that means, and then she said something about ‘working a certain flag.’ The whole letter made no sense at all. Real psychedelic, real ‘hey, man,’ that sort of thing. A lot of it is stream of consciousness writing. Some of it is really neat, like poetry. And some of it is like a teenager on a bad trip.” Peter feels that people write to them “not so much because we’re a great band, but because we’re accessible.”

They began playing as a hobby when they lived in an old tenement building in Athens. The building was originally a church, but the congregation it served had lost all its followers at the turn of the century. A real estate agent bought it and fixed it up enough to rent it as a house. After Michael moved in, he discovered a hole in the closet that, if you crawled through on all fours, would lead you to the back room of the church, which still had its pews and pulpit intact. Michael discovered that the acoustics of the room was great and there was plenty of space for dancing.

Playing in the church had no effects on their music. “I’d love to have some great religious vision,” confesses Peter, “but it was just our garage. We had parties there. We played our first dates there. It was real wild. Very sloppy and loose.

“It’s not that we’ve improved, we’re still very loose. It’s just natural of playing there. It’s really just fun to do. The hobby has taken over our lives.

“We’re not geniuses, but we write and play together real well. What I like best about the music is that it comes from nowhere. No traumas or anything. I’ve always imagined that the Beatles or the Kinks, when they sat down to write every day, had a bolt of lightening come from somewhere. But from writing, I realize that doesn’t happen.”

“I’m the stupid one, musically,” quips Michael. I don’t know anything musically; not that the other guys do, but they have to know a bit more because they carry an instrument. I help them veto or edit songs. I write most of the words, but those guys veto them, too, if I get ridiculous or too depressed to be happy.” His main concern when writing lyrics is to transmit “feelings or attitude.”

And that’s one of the reasons why R.E.M. was reluctant to tour, opening for bands like the Go-Go’s, before their EP came out. They felt their music would be lost on an audience who was just waiting for the headlining act. And they felt it would be devastating for the band if they had to play for an audience who wasn’t paying attention to them. But now that Chronic Town is on the charts, they’re anxious to get out and play.

“I can’t wait to make eye contact with as many people as possible. I can’t wait to stare down 12,000 people,” Michael laughs. “Twelve thousand people! What a joke. But the band has a good sense of humor. I hate comedy and despise jokes, but you have to have a sense of ‘you’ to be in a band. To be in this band, anyway!”

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