R.E.M. revs up its engines
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Illinois Entertainer
Every iconic act is entitled to a dud disc or two throughout its history and Athens, Georgia’s elite R.E.M. is no exception. The jangle pop purveyors turned alternative rock icons and eventually middle aged innovators were generally consistent throughout the past twenty-five years, though 2004’s sleeper Around the Sun was definitely a black cloud over its catalogue. Beyond that project’s sluggish sales and some critical lashing, front man Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills will be the first to admit it wasn’t a cornerstone collection, and as a result, cranked out a raucous, electricity-doused response via the new Accelerate (Warner Brothers).
“Over the last few years, Mike and Michael kind of got this thing where they wanted to spend a ton of time in the studio, which I hate doing because it’s frustrating and boring,” admits Buck via phone, instantly letting down his guard and unraveling with candor. “Especially with the last record, we proved it does not work, so we just kept talking and said ‘we can record quicker and simpler. It should be fun and should sound like fun.’ Before Accelerate [I said] ‘I’m not going to spend a month in the studio- just a couple weeks- and I’m only recording stuff that Michael’s going to sing and in two or three takes. I’m not going to work till four in morning because nothing ever gets done after midnight!’ So basically we spent less time making a record than we did the last one and it works.”
And unlike the last effort, the eleven lean cuts transcend well beyond the threesome’s liking, finding much more flattering critical acceptance and message board buzz. In fact, the scalding alt-rock undercurrent is clearly the band’s most immediate since the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997 and arguably the most insistent of the R.E.M.’s career entire thus far, echoing the group’s live intensity.
“That was the whole kind of proposal- to capture who we are on the stage,” Buck continues. “[Last year’s live CD/DVD] was something I wanted out because we did a bunch of songs and they sounded remarkably better live than on the record. I just wanted people to hear what the record could’ve sounded like if it hadn’t gotten so side tracked…There were good songs on the last record- you just can’t really tell- and I think the feeling was ‘let’s make a record that really focuses on who we are and what our strengths are.’ It doesn’t necessarily sound like any record we made in the past, but we’re a live band, so let’s record it live!”
Long before the band put the finishing touches on Accelerate in the sparse studio settings, members tested several tunes throughout a residency in Dublin, a true barometer for what would get included and eliminated from the final track listing. Unveiling several of the songs in concert also helped cement players’ parts, in turn keeping recording tinkering to a bare minimum.
“Mike was saying when we were on the last tour that all of the songs are better like a week after the tour starts, so we should try to do some shows before we finish the record,” Buck relates. “We all kind of said “okay, let’s do that” and it really helped us focus. You really learn what doesn’t work on stage, what works, what needs to be shortened and what needs to be sped up. It also gives you the confidence that you’re on the right track.”
After ironing out the creases in concert, the trio turned to producer Jacknife Lee, known for work with Bloc Party, The Hives, Snow Patrol, Kasabian and on U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Coincidently, Buck owned most of the albums he worked on, allowing for a comfort level long before they ever considered tag teaming.
“I was familiar with just about everything he’s worked on and I can understand how these records were made now,” Buck observes. “There’s not a lot of trickery involved and they’re all performance records, which is something we wanted to go for…I kept saying “don’t let us get bogged down. If we don’t get it on the fourth take, we just need to stop!” Some of the guys want to keep going for hours and it makes you hate the song. His whole thing was ‘we won’t start recording until we’re so ready that you guys only have to play a song twice.’ So we might sit in the studio a couple of hours getting the guitar tones or drum tones, which is fine, but then there’s these sudden bursts of energy for an hour, we get to the take and then do some quick overdubs. It’s very concise and felt very exciting.”
The end result is replete with several anthemic examples, including the assaulting “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” the garage rock appeal of “Man-Sized Wreath” and the triggering title cut. There’s also the hook heavy hit “Supernatural Superserious,” the distortion-tipped “Sing For the Submarine,” plus a super charged version of the previously introduced “I’m Gonna DJ.” On the whole, the album exudes confidence without indulging in egotism, finding the band inhaling a fresh breath of creativity, despite skeptics who bet they went down for the count long ago.
“I usually know exactly how good the record is and what it’s worth right when we finish it and I don’t have any concerns after that,” basks Buck in the aura of Accelerate. “If it’s not a good record it’s a drag, and if great record, that’s good! I think the thing that really surprised me was when [1996’s] New Adventures in Hi-Fi didn’t sell that well because I felt it was a strong record, but that’s just way it goes. Some days I think [1987’s] Document might be our best or [1992’s] Automatic [For the People]. The new one is really good and I think it’s up there with our best stuff. The fact that we accomplished it so late in our career is something I’m really excited by.”
Combing through such classic affairs (that now literally span multiple generations) indicates a true timelessness to much of R.E.M.’s material, coupled with renewed relevance. Though Buck won’t go as far as to claim the band’s all today’s rage, he’s noticed a bridging of the age gap thanks to the internet and iPod.
“The interesting thing about technology or the world in general is that there’s no past anymore,” he muses. “I’ll talk to my daughters’ friends- who are like fourteen- and ask who they like. They’ll say ‘Maroon 5 and Jimi Hendrix’ in the same sentence so it’s kind of like the old stuff doesn’t seem to be old anymore. [If an old band puts out a new record] odds are young people will hear of it one way or another.”
But Buck isn’t interested in drumming up publicity hype or making intricate marketing plans to connect with more current crowds. He insists the band isn’t eyeing any commercial prizes or singles statistics (even though commercial success catapulted R.E.M. to arena status long ago) instead letting the music do the talking on tour as members’ moods direct, just like it did back in the day.
“We don’t super intellectualize the music, nor are we particularly worried about the number of records we sell,” he confirms. “We’ve never gone out of our way to make a super hit record even though some are more popular than others. Whatever record we make is what we make, and when it comes to the tour, we usually learn about 90 songs and just pick what we want on the given night. It’s really just a matter of ‘what do you guys feel like playing today?’”
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