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Interview:
R.E.M. broadens frequency on latest album
 

By GARY GRAFF
for Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

R.E.M. is giving its fans a new album this week — but don’t expect to see a lot of the band once it’s out.

As it’s done at various points of its career, including after 1991’s multi-platinum “Out of Time,” the trio has decided not to tour in support of the new “Collapse Into Now,” which comes out Tuesday, March 8.

“It just doesn’t feel right,” explains multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills. “We’ve always gone with our gut instinct on everything, and right now it just didn’t feel like touring was the thing we needed to do.”

That said, R.E.M. — Mills, frontman Michael Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck, who co-founded the band during 1980 in Athens, Ga. (drummer Bill Berry left in 1997) — had a very strong instinct for the kind of album it wanted to make for its 15th studio release.

“With (2008’s) ‘Accelerate,’ we sort of made a statement record — everything short, fast and loud,” Mills, 52, explains. “And on this one we just wanted any good songs, regardless of the type or the tempo. What we like to do when possible is have a nice diversity, and this has that. It’s got some serious rockers. It’s got some beautiful slow stuff, and it’s got some of that nice, mid-ballad stuff we do so well.

“We just felt free to make ‘Collapse Into Now’ into whatever record it needed to be. We’ve always thought songwriting was our strong suit, or one of them, and I think this kind of displays that.”

It took a bit of doing for R.E.M. to get back into that kind of groove, however.

Prior to “Accelerate,” and particularly in the wake of disappointing sales for 2004’s “Around the Sun,” the members of R.E.M. were at odds — even as the group celebrated an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. “We had gotten into this thing where we were spending a year making a record,” says Buck, 54, “just playing with it forever. I thought we were going down the wrong path.”

Mills acknowledges that “we had a tough time making ‘Around the Sun’ ” and notes that the group members “weren’t communicating very well. When you get to a low point, communication-wise, you have to have a meeting and sit down and look at each other and go, ‘OK, what’s the deal? Are we going to keep doing this or not? And if we’re gonna do it, we have to do it the right way, which means communicating and being positive and pulling in the same direction.’

“And we decided that we could and would do that, so ‘Accelerate’ was made in that spirit.”

With that mission accomplished — “Accelerate” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, R.E.M.’s best showing in more than a decade — the group moved quickly into “Collapse Into Now,” starting work on demos in March 2009 at Buck’s home studio in Portland, Ore., shortly after coming off tour.

“Peter is a writing machine,” Mills says with a laugh about the sessions. “He never stops, so we had plenty of good stuff to work on, and then we had a couple that came in late while we were actually in the recording sessions.” Those began in November 2010 in New Orleans with “Accelerate” co-producer Jacknife Lee and continued in Berlin and Nashville.

Lee, according to Mills, remains a key ingredient in keeping R.E.M. on the track it recaptured with “Accelerate.”

“He has a great ear,” Mills explains, “and he thinks close enough to the same way we do that if we have an impasse and we can’t come to some sort of agreement, we can turn to him and say, ‘We need your guidance.’ And that’s pretty much what we said to him when we hired him; ‘We need to be able to trust you to tell us what to do when the three of us can’t come to an agreement.

“That’s extremely important. Not only do you need someone to break up those logjams but you need to have someone who’s going to be right, ’cause we’re giving over a lot of trust and power to him. It has to be someone whose answer will be one that we can live with, and (Lee) is almost always there.”

The songs for “Collapse Into Now” had largely been established in Portland, but there were still some surprises during the sessions. Mills says two of the songs, “Walk It Back” and “Every Day Is Yours to Win,” came about in the studio, as did the album-closing “Blue,” a tone poem that features guest vocals by Patti Smith.

“We were getting near the end of the Berlin sessions,” Mills recalls, “and Peter (Buck) said, ‘I have this song. Let’s record it’...and we went in and played through it with no rehearsal. I didn’t even know what the chords were. But I didn’t really think it was a candidate for the record unless something special happened.

“Then we got to Nashville and Michael (Stipe) had this spoken-word thing on it, and we said, ‘That’s cool. That’s starting to sound a little more special.’ Then we got Patti to sing on it, and by that time we said, ‘Wow, we’ve got a pretty nice song here.’ ”

Besides Smith, “Collapse Into Now” features other guests who became part of the album through “just place and timing:” Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who sang on “It Happened Today” after his band performed in Berlin; the Hidden Cameras’ Joel Gibb, also on “It Happened Today;” and Berlin resident Peaches and Patti Smith Band guitarist Lenny Kaye on “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter.”

Though it’s not touring, R.E.M. has a “Collapse Into Now” film project with videos for each song done by Stipe and guest directors such as actor James Franco, Albert Maysles, Sam Taylor-Wood and others. Meanwhile, Mills says it’s “possible” R.E.M. — whose current recording contract expires with “Collapse Into Now” — might move quicker to record its next album. He notes that there are still a substantial number of songs and ideas still around that did not make it onto this album, though he’s not sure they’ll necessarily be the starting point for another project.

“You always think you might resurrect them somewhere, but very often they just sit there,” Mills notes. “They just had their chance, and they never quite came to fruition. Once you’ve shifted your focus from that record onto something else, it’s kind of hard to revisit things.”

Meanwhile, R.E.M. will be trolling through its past his year in addition to the new album. A 25th anniversary edition of the group’s third album, “Lifes Rich Pageant” is coming, featuring “a lot of demos, some of which I think are actually better than the songs on the record.” And there will certainly be some mentions of “Out of Time,” R.E.M.’s first No. 1 album and a quadruple platinum set that launched the Top 10 hits “Losing My Religion” and “Man on the Moon.”

“It’s a record that is occasionally great and occasionally just really good,” Mills says. “It’s not as constituent as (1992’s) ‘Automatic For the People,’ but certainly the peaks of ‘Out of Time’ are pretty high.”

Its success “was a pretty big shock” for R.E.M., and one that really hasn’t been repeated. But Mills says the group is at peace with that.

“The thing about bands and music,” he explains, “is so much of it is the time in which they exist. Those were just sort of our years, and while the things we were doing were really great, they were perceived as great simply because of the nature of the time we’re in.

“And, you know, we’ve put out record since then that were really great, too, but because of the gestalt or whatever, it’s not always perceived the same way. And that’s OK, as long as we keep getting to make music the way we want to.”



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