Fast, furious and fun
You’d think 15 minutes with one member of R.E.M. would be a lot like 15 minutes with another. In the rush and grind of promoting “Accelerate,” the band’s 14th album, at the South by Southwest Music Conference, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills didn’t have much more to spare.
A Wednesday club show at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q led to a Thursday taping of the venerable “Austin City Limits” TV series; in between there was radio to do, a campaign’s worth of hands to shake, and a new set of songs to try to thoroughly grasp.
Media encounters inked into such a run take on an inevitable shape: for a veteran band, it means discussing the new album (this one rocks), assuring fans you still enjoy the job (“fun” is the operative word for these three), and offering some warm memories and rejiggered hopes for the future. Potentially meaningful encounters with journalists turn semianonymous, like visits from the cable guy. Even smart, friendly, seasoned artists can’t be blamed for resorting to stock answers.
But for the passing moment in which these three submit to amiable grilling, they are fully present. This is an old game for them, but they take it seriously.
“The truth is, I’ve been working so hard I haven’t had time to land,” said Stipe when asked what it means for R.E.M. to be here, at a festival rooted in the indie-rock scene the band was so instrumental in creating. When he did talk about legacy, wasn’t in terms of music, but politics, and generations.
“As a 48-year-old, I’m thrilled to have someone younger to vote for,” said the unabashed supporter of 46-year-old Sen. Barack Obama. “I think we screwed it up, you know? I’m looking at and talking to and hanging out with people born during the Reagan era, and I feel like our generation, we did what we could, but it really wasn’t enough. I think we can continue to inspire -- I hope -- or support the next generation or the generation below. But I think it’s time to pass the baton to them and see what they can do with this mess.”
Meanwhile, R.E.M. is busy redefining the romance of its own existence. Except for U2, no other band of its generation has been stuck with so much heavy meaning. As one of indie rock’s co-founders -- along with many more obscure bands, such as the Dream Syndicate and Husker Du, whom Buck habitually name-checks -- R.E.M. still represents the idea that amplified, guitar-based songs can bring people together and even form the basis for a larger life.
“Being in a band is a lifestyle,” said Mills. “Being politically active is a lifestyle. Being a fan of music is a lifestyle. You can combine those things, and it does become a big community. That’s a very difficult thing to do, and when you can pull that off -- when you can make so many people feel the same sort of passion -- you’ve done something really good for the world in general, I think.”
It’s a beautiful ideal, and on some level, it has to be an illusion. Like any long-lived band, R.E.M. is also a business that has to keep renewing itself.
The meditative, electronics-influenced albums the trio has made since drummer Bill Berry’s 1997 departure haven’t always pleased longtime fans, who miss the driving melodicism of classic works such as “Document” or “Murmur.” “Accelerate,” which hits the Internet on Monday via the Facebook-friendly music application iLike, before arriving April 1 as a physical disc, willfully answers that criticism. It is songful and determined, a frank gesture of self-acceptance.
“I’m just really personally pleased that they made this album at this point in their career, on an artistic level,” said the group’s longtime manager, Bertis Downs, backstage at “Austin City Limits.” “People wouldn’t have thought this was the record they’d make, and I’m not sure they would have thought it was the record they’d make. Whatever it does commercially -- and it’s gonna sell -- the fact that they’ve made this record in their career is a very good thing, artistically. I hope it’s the first of many, many more; it may very well not be. But I just think it’s really nice that they have.”
Asked whether “Accelerate” represents some idea of “classic R.E.M.,” Buck cringes just a bit. “You try to avoid repetition,” he said. “I could probably rewrite ‘Murmur’ every day, and that would be a little less than interesting. Sometimes you do come up with a really great chord change, and you say to yourself, you know, this sounds like something I might have done 10 years ago. But if it’s great, you take it.”
Buck is forthright, with a hint of a laugh behind his quick answers. (“Music is all he does,” Mills says of his tune-writing partner.) Playing in R.E.M. has become an extension of his larger life as a working musician in the Pacific Northwest, where nobody’s overly committed to one band. Recently Buck has played guitar with indie-pop guru Robyn Hitchcock and toured in bands with R.E.M.'s longstanding sidemen, drummer Bill Rief- lin and multi-instrumentalist Scott McCaughey. Buck’s love for playing seems inexhaustible; he still enjoys sound checks. And there are plenty of those ahead during a 5 1/2 - month world tour that stops May 29 at the Hollywood Bowl.
Hey, rock is fun
“When I was 21 or 22, playing music was one of the many, many fun things I would do,” said Buck, who is 52. “Now, there are things I’m contented about, things that give me pleasure, and things I’m glad I’ve accomplished. But there just isn’t that much fun left when you get to a certain age. Fun would be skipping school and just hanging out at the river. Rock is still one of the last frontiers of having fun.”
Mills, the band’s gentlemanly bassist, lets himself be more expansive, shooing a publicist away when the quarter-hour is up. He’s spent time doing activist work in New Orleans, which he says renewed his commitment to music, and testified before the FCC against media consolidation. Mills seems to have thought the most about what it means to still be R.E.M. nearly 30 years after it formed and a decade after Berry’s departure threw the band into crisis.
He’s upfront about the stakes in making “Accelerate” as a 35-minute-long potential hit fest. “We very seldom got stuck and there was very little acrimony,” he said, adding that when the going got tough, the trio surrendered decisions to producer Jacknife Lee. “We all realized that if we tried to butt heads like we did on the last record the band was going to break up.”
Asked the devil’s question -- would that be so bad? -- Mills didn’t hesitate.
“Whatever we do with this band is the best work we’re ever going to do as individuals. We’re all talented in other ways, but R.E.M. is far and away our life’s work. And if we’re doing things that are creative and exciting and good, then we’d like to keep on doing it.”
At this point Stipe, Buck and Mills don’t view their commitment to R.E.M. as conflicting with other endeavors. The group has adjusted to an era that favors flexibility over band monogamy. For Stipe, whose persona has always extended beyond the group’s confines, this view of R.E.M. as a renewable vehicle comes along with a more relaxed sense of his own oracular gifts.
Not second guessing
“I’ve reached a point after 20 years where I really trust my unconscious and I let it do all the work,” he said. “My real job, then, is to be a great editor of the inner thought process. I know what my vulnerabilities are, and I didn’t feel the need to edit them out or disguise them. If they found their way into the song, to just let the song be.”
For all his alleged elusiveness, Stipe is the band member most willing to look a writer in the eye, even during a 15-minute interview. Stipe’s lyrics on “Accelerate” also reach out, even when they’re a bit mysterious. Some are overtly political. Others -- like the first single, “Supernatural Superserious,” with its key line “everybody here comes from somewhere” -- offer advice and assurance that seem particularly appropriate to someone at midlife.
“It does feel like you have to have both a sense of humor and a deep interest in the world around you to move through it anymore,” said Stipe. “It’s not enough to be a lotus-eater. But I do have hope. I’m the glass-half-full guy. And I hope that I always will be.”
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: May 29, 8 p.m.
Price: On-sale date to be announced
Contact: (323) 850-2000