R.E.M.: Number One With an Attitude

They are the first rock group to reach the top of the charts in over a year, but the band members aren't taking their success all that seriously

Michael Stipe from American band REM performs live on stage in the Netherlands on 11th March 1991. Credit: Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty

Michael Stipe was the last to know. Hurried, handwritten messages were already scrolling out of a fax machine back at his band's headquarters: "Congratulations, R.E.M., Athens and everyone," "Congratulations to all in the R.E.M. world" and "Congratulations. You deserve it, and as my mother would say, may it be the first of many." Bassist Mike Mills had heard the news. Guitarist Peter Buck had downed a glass of champagne, and his mom had had a good cry. Drummer Bill Berry had said: "Oh, that's weird. I'm gonna sit down."

Stipe, however, could not be found. Later it was discovered that the singer had been out at the creek near his Athens, Georgia, home, walking his three mixed-breed pups. He had then proceeded to city hall, where he had attended a meeting about the historic preservation of some buildings in the sweet-smelling, tree-lined university town of 87,000. Midway through the proceedings, Stipe noticed that a friend was staring at him and jubilantly waving her forefinger. R.E.M. was Number One.

"I sat in the meeting for two and a half hours, and I thought, 'Wow, I'm being pretty calm about this,' " Stipe says of the news that Out of Time had become the band's first album to top the Billboard charts. "And then I got outside city hall and just screamed and jumped up and down and burst into tears and ran around the block. I'd walked out of the meeting early so there weren't too many people wondering what on earth was wrong."

Just now, Stipe is sitting behind a desk in his lawyer's office. He's wearing a rumpled, automechanic-style outfit, muddy rubber boots and a bright green baseball cap. He's eating an orange. Stipe is asked if he'd like to commemorate R.E.M.'s tenure at the top by talking a little bit about the other bands in the Top Forty. The singer allows as how he doesn't know much about them. He reaches for a copy of Billboard and spends a long time trying to find the Pop Albums chart.

"Okay," Stipe says finally, then delivers his countdown in a quiet, earnest voice. "Mariah Carey I've never heard. C + C Music Factory — I think the single is great. Wilson Phillips I've heard. I have no opinion about them. The Black Crowes — they're from Atlanta, right? I have no opinion about them. Enigma have two great videos, and they're kind of floaty, right? Pretty cool. New Jack City soundtrack – Ice-T was not bad. Chris Isaak — it's about time. Queensrÿche I've never heard. Rod Stewart we don't need to talk about. ABC [Another Bad Creation] I think is pretty great. Whitney Houston I've never heard. Amy Grant I've never heard. Roxette I've never heard. The Divinyls I've never heard. The Doors — see ya. Not interested. The Rolling Stones — see ya."

Wait a minute. Back up. Stipe has never heard Whitney Houston?

"No," he says, his face a picture of innocence. "I couldn't distinguish her from Mariah Carey. I just figured out how to say Mariah. You say it like pariah."

For four years now, R.E.M. has been keeping some pretty strange company. The band's albums have always sold well in the first few months after their release — thanks primarily to hard-core fans who have followed the group since it climbed out of the college-radio cellar and became what Bill Berry ambivalently refers to as "the gurus of 1980s mysticism." R.E.M. broadened that fan base considerably by spending most of the last decade on the road. Each of the band's albums sold a little better than the previous one. A graph of R.E.M.'s record sales over the mid-Eighties, in fact, would more or less look like an up escalator.

In 1987 the band found it had a radio-ready Top Ten single on its hands with "The One I Love," and Document became the first R.E.M. album to sell a million. The follow-up, Green, spawned the hit "Stand," sold a million and a half copies and powered the group's first arena tour. Out of Time — helped along by the brooding single "Losing My Religion" — has already sold 1.7 million copies. Even R.E.M.'s back catalog is flying out of record stores. The group's now-legendary debut, Murmur, from 1983, sold only 150,000 copies upon release. It is currently hovering around 800,000.

These days, there are R.E.M. fans who think "Stand" — or even "Losing My Religion" — is the first song the band ever wrote. "The people who listen to Top Forty are generally not R.E.M. record buyers — or they weren't until the last year or two," Mike Mills says. "It's kind of surprising to listen to the fourteen-year-old girls call up and go, 'How long have you been together? I like your first record.' And it's like 'No, no. See, the first record came out when you were about one year old.' "

It's ten o'clock on a Wednesday evening, and Peter Buck is sitting on his front porch, trying to make sense of all the above. His house, which is not far from the center of town, is a gorgeous, ornate old mansion. It is full of high-ceilinged rooms liberally strewn with books, records and folk art; it has a widow's walk despite the fact that Athens is hundreds of miles from the sea. Upstairs, a friend of Buck's, the fine, left-leaning songwriter Billy Bragg, is doing some recording on an eight-track that has been set up in an empty bedroom. Mike Mills, who's scheduled to pitch in some backing vocals, is slumped in a chair in the living room. John Wesley Harding, a young British singer who's in town to play a show at the Georgia Theater, is perched atop a stool in the kitchen. Michael Stipe is up in the studio, lending his voice to a soldier's lament called "My Youngest Son Came Home Today."

As Buck talks, Stipe's and Bragg's voices drift down the massive, wooden staircase and through the screen door. Adding further to the mood, there's the fact that Buck's porch lights keep blinking on and off. The guitarist explains: Members of a local fraternity had been stealing things off his porch ("It must be because it's my house; I mean, you can't fence a plant"), so he installed motion-sensitive lights. Now his cat trips them off regularly.

"It's sort of crazy here tonight," Buck says, sitting back in a white wicker chair. "But this is how I live."

Unlike Stipe, of whom one's first impressions are that he is a gentle, solicitous person, Buck seems filled with impatience and nervous energy. R.E.M. recently finished an exhausting promotional tour in Europe. For three weeks the band members hopped from city to city, making the press rounds and playing acoustic sets similar to the remarkably thoughtful performance they turned in on MTV Unplugged a few months back — a quiet, no-frills concert in which the band recast both old and new material.

On top of that, Buck and Mills just spent another couple of weeks doing interviews at radio stations here in the States. On top of that, the band has just learned that the "Losing My Religion" video has been banned in Ireland. Irish promoters were put off in part by what they perceived as the video's "crucifixion" imagery. (Stipe has made it clear the song is not about religion; if there's a crucifixion scene among the video's sixteenth-century tableaux, he says, he can't find it.) Likewise, the Irish weren't prepared for the video's homoeroticism – among the figures seen are an angelic, blond-haired black man and a shirtless, lipsticked young man who has been tied to a tree. ("I didn't think a lot about it," Stipe says of the flap. "If they can't handle it, they don't get to see the video.")

R.E.M. decided to forego a concert tour this year — the tireless, nine-month Green tour dealt a healthy blow to the band's wanderlust — but the lives of its members have not gotten any easier.

Buck bounces his knee incessantly now. He admits to being dead tired of talking about himself. And asked if he's concerned that R.E.M.'s chart-topping success might alienate some of the band's loyal followers, he says flatly, "The people that changed their minds because of 'Losing My Religion' can just kiss my ass."

In general, Buck seems to have a far less romantic view of R.E.M.'s past than many of the band's devotees. "Yeah, I guess I jangled for a while," Buck says. "I can write that kind of stuff in my sleep. I can write 'Driver 8' every day of the week. We all can. In rehearsal it's always easy to fall back on a mid-tempo, minor-key rock thing. And we try not to rely on that. We've got tons of that shit floating around. We'll do it just to get it out of our systems, record it and file it away.

"Every song we used to write in 1982 was really fast, and we'd tear it up," Buck continues. "For me, age brings – if not wisdom – at least a little understanding. I like to play slow songs now. I like to play quiet songs, and I really didn't when I was twenty-one. I don't think I've ever, in the last five years, played the electric guitar for fun. I mean, plugging in and all that. I usually play acoustic or mandolin. I really have no interest in going back to being a rock & roll band."

If R.E.M. isn't a rock & roll band, what is it? Buck muses for a moment. "We're a rock & roll band that plays sitting down, I guess."

Bill Berry puts it this way: "I'm getting a little bigger around the midsection. The energy isn't the same. I used to be able to go out and party and wake up the next day and do it all over again. My priorities have really shifted. We're in our prime as far as writing songs goes, and that's what we feel like right now — we feel like a studio band."

If Out of Time is not the best record R.E.M. has ever made, it's only because every album from Murmur onward is awfully good — even Fables of the Reconstruction, which some band members have maligned over the years but which Stipe believes is the strongest collection of songs the group has yet written. Still, Out of Time is as challenging as anything in the catalog. For every song that sounds unmistakably like R.E.M. — the plaintive "Half a World Away," for instance — there are several that don't: the bare and edgy "Low"; the funky "Radio Song," which includes a guest rap by KRS-One; and the galloping, folksy duet "Me in Honey," which features B-52 Kate Pierson.

"We've learned to trust each other's instincts," Berry says. "If somebody suggests something, we'll try it. No matter how wacky it is. We couldn't figure out what to do for the middle of 'Get Up.' I had a dream that we should set twelve — not eleven, not thirteen — but twelve music boxes going at the same time. They were all like 'Well...okay.' And it worked. I mean, maybe it didn't work, but it's there forever now."

Buck agrees. "None of us gets exactly what we want," he says, "and you learn to live with that It's something that. I would never have believed I'd be able to do when I was twenty-four. I used to be like 'Goddamnit, this is my song. I don't like that verse. Either you change it or I will.' Now it's like 'Yeah. That's...interesting.' "

Of "Country Feedback" — a groaning, pedal-steel number that's one of the most compelling tracks on the new album — Buck explains that he and Berry wrote and recorded the music in a couple of hours. "Michael came in the next day and scatted the words," Buck says. "Usually, he has pretty concise words. We get to look them over. We'll say, 'Repeat this. Pull this out. Maybe change this line.' With 'Country Feedback,' he just had two little drawings on a piece of paper – an Indian head and an arrow, I think – and he just kind of shouted."

I could scat my way into the next century," Stipe says the following afternoon, "although I don't know how many people would want to be in the room. Given just the audacity to stand in front of a microphone and amplify yourself to a room of people – you can do pretty much whatever you want. You can read the ingredients off a cereal box." (The "lyrics" to "Voice of Harold," which is on the B sides hoe-down Dead Letter Office, consist entirely of the liner notes to a gospel album.)

Stipe is clearly uncomfortable with the cult that has grown up around his singular, imagistic lyric writing. Of lyrics like "Swan swan hummingbird, hurrah/We're all free now/What noisy cats are we/Girl and dog, he bore his cross," the singer says, "People need to realize that there's a potential for a great deal of nonsense involved — that's a crucial element in pop songs." Needless to say, Stipe deflects attempts at interpretation. "It's like a Bob Dylan song that you've loved for years and years," says Stipe, "and then you read an interview and he says, 'Oh, it's about this dog that was run over in the street.' You're like 'What! That song colored and altered my opinion of life for three years. What do you mean it's about a dead dog in the street!' "

It's a reasonable argument, but it's strange to hear it from a man who once ghostwrote a press release so journalists would know his song "Welcome to the Occupation" (from Document) was about U.S. intervention in Central America. In any case, Stipe's writing seems to be wholly intuitive. Even in cases where his source of inspiration is known — the exquisite ''Fall on Me" (from Lifes Rich Pageant) is "about" acid rain, "Sitting Still" (Murmur) is "about" Stipe's sister's working with deaf children, "Camera" (Reckoning) is "about" a close friend who was killed in a car accident — it's nearly impossible to link it with the finished song.

Somewhere, all of Stipe's lyrics are written down. "I think our publishing company has them, and they're sealed away in a vault," the singer says. "When I did go back and write them down, I had a pretty good time with it. I got all the crucial words in there, and then I just made some stuff up. I figure someone's going to read it at some point and get a real laugh out of it."

Many fans would put the aforementioned document in league with the Rosetta stone — especially where Stipe's indecipherable early lyrics are concerned — but it's off-limits, of course, "If there's something you want to know," Stipe says by way of apology, "I'll tell you."

He seems to be serious, and he's taken up on his offer. What is the chorus to "Sitting Still"?

"The chorus to 'Sitting Still,' " Stipe says, laughing. The song is on Murmur, but the band's been playing it live for years.

Stipe hums to himself for a minute. "It doesn't make any sense," he says. ''You really don't want to know."

Come on, out with it. "On the record or off the record?"

On the record.

"I'm trying to think of it. It's just a little embarrassing because it's very poorly written."

Stipe hums some more. "I can remember the first two lines," he says. " 'Up to par and Katie bar' — 'Katie bar the door' is a Southern expression. 'Up to par and Katie bar the kitchen door, but not me in.' That's it."

What's the next line? Is it "City traffic, the big hill"? Is it "Silly to try for the big kill"?

"There's no 'hill' in there, I know that," Stipe says. " 'For the big something.' I don't remember. I really don't. I haven't sung that song in five years. I mean, sung the real words. I've syllabized it. Is that a word? When we sing it in concert, I wing it. I don't know the words. I know the sounds. I can approximate them."

That's him in the corner. That's him at the bar, drinking an Amstel Light. It's midnight on Thursday, and while Peter Buck is over at the Georgia Theater playing a few numbers with John Wesley Harding, Michael Stipe is hanging out at the 40 Watt Club. Stipe has come to see Beggar Weeds, a young Jacksonville band that he produced recently. Occasionally, a friend will approach him — Ian McKaye of the iconoclastic hardcore outfit Fugazi, say — but for the most part his presence here goes unnoticed. Stipe looks like any other guy who wears a green baseball hat, shimmies a little and shouts "Yeah!" every so often.

Of late, Stipe has gone to great lengths to convince people that his lyrics are not autobiographical. Still, it's impossible to spend time with him and not have certain lines from "Losing My Religion" run through one's head: "Every whisper of every waking hour/I'm choosing my confessions" or "Oh, no, I've said too much/I haven't said enough." And then, of course, there's always "That's me in the spotlight," of which a frustrated Stipe says, "I wish I'd said, That's me in the kitchen' or 'That's me in the driveway.' "

In general, the members of R.E.M. do not discuss their personal lives, past or present. This much is known for certain: Michael Stipe was a globe-trotting army brat who befriended Peter Buck when the former was a University of Georgia art student and the latter was the manager of an Athens used-record store. (The big sellers during Buck's retail days were Saturday Night Fever and Grease.) Bill Berry and Mike Mills met during high school in Macon, Georgia, when the former was a rebel and the latter was a nerd. They played in sock-hop bands together, then packed off for the university, where they met up with Buck and Stipe. Soon the foursome was living in an abandoned church — of which there remains only a red steeple that sits in front of Steeplechase Condominiums — and playing gigs that involved goofy Sixties covers and a few originals.

Above and beyond all that, this much is rumored to be true: Michael Stipe assumes everyone is thirty-one because he's thirty-one. Peter Buck once sneezed twenty-one times. Every time Mike Mills uses his hair dryer, he thinks the phone is ringing. Bill Berry never misses The Andy Griffith Show and will often recount episodes for his wife, Mari, saying, "If I was Barney..."

Of all the band members, Stipe has always been the most closemouthed – for the simple reason that his privacy has been invaded more often than anyone else's. As Stipe puts it: "I've given so much to our audience through being a singer and through writing songs that can be very emotional and I feel like that's enough. And I guess the natural tendency is to get a little defensive about it."

Stipe's public-service work — with regard to the environment and the ethical treatment of animals, among many other things — has brought the singer a great deal of attention in recent years. Now, he says, he'd prefer to work incognito. "I'm in the process of depoliticizing myself," Stipe explains. "I'm glad that people look at the band as politically active. I think that's healthy. But it's a lot to carry, and to quote myself, not everyone can carry the weight of the world. It's enough that people know that R.E.M. are thinking, compassionate people – human beings who support a number of causes, publicly and privately. I don't have to jump on top of a building and scream. I'm not a very good speaker — that's the end-all of it. I'm not a Billy Bragg. I'm not a Peter Garrett."

Though Stipe claims to dislike being thought of as a spokesperson or as R.E.M.'s "resident oddball,'' as he was once described in these pages, there is clearly a part of him that loves to feed the myth. "He's smart, and he's manipulative, and he'll admit that," Bill Berry says. "He can twist something that's fairly ordinary into something that seems like it just has to be the new order. He's not afraid to churn up the water a little. And especially recently, I think he's actually reveling in the spotlight. He's used the word poster boy many, many times in the last six months."

It's true that the once-remote Stipe has been putting himself in the public eye a surprising amount lately – the singer even appeared, all slicked up, on the cover of Details not long ago. It's also true that he's been known to leak out bizarre or plainly misleading information. "Talking about yourself — it's not only boring, but who wants to analyze himself that much?" Stipe says. "It's all very Seventies, isn't it? I do what I do. You can't help but be flippant with someone when they ask if you have a refrigerator or not.

"I don't actively lie," Stipe continues, then hedges. "Well, the whole thing about nailing two oranges together — that was a quote I gave someone years ago, about what Fables of the Reconstruction sounded like. That was absolutely ridiculous, and I couldn't believe they printed it. I think it was Rolling Stone, in fact. I had been in the studio twelve hours doing a mix, and to have someone call transatlantic and say, 'What does it sound like?' – it's like 'Well, I don't know. It sounds like two oranges being nailed together.' "

"Sometimes Michael says things," Berry says of Stipe's occasional flights of fancy, "and the rest of us will be biting our tongues, trying not to laugh."

On Friday morning it rains, and Berry drives off in search of antiques. "Even at a fairly young age," Berry says, "I had an appreciation for antiques – even when I was a rebellious pot smoker and listened to Deep Purple and stuff. My friends and I would be driving around smoking pot, and they'd be going, 'Hey, man, that's some pretty good shit.' And I'd go, 'Wow, antiques!' "

At a store in Bishop, Georgia, Berry buys a ninety-inch saw upon which a local folk artist named Annie Wellborn has painted a scene called Peach Valley. The sixtyish man behind the register — nearly toothless and creaking back and forth in a rocking chair — thinks he knows the drummer from somewhere. He asks Berry if he's from Athens. Berry says, "Yes, sir, I sure am," and they talk about folk art for a few minutes. As Berry is turning to go, the man's face lights up: "You're in that musical group!"

"Yes, sir, I sure am."

"You've got the Number One record in America!"

"Yes, sir, we do."

Back in his Jeep, Berry laughs and shakes his head. "That was wild," he says. "That guy would never have recognized me three years ago."

Later, over country ham and iced tea at Ye Olde Colonial diner, Berry talks about the strange fact that R.E.M. suddenly belongs to the world, that Stipe is no longer the only band member whose face gets recognized. "I'll tell you the truth," Berry says. "You can only be a cult band so long. I'm thirty-two years old. I don't want to be a cult fucking hero. We went through that, and it's great and it's flattering, but those people should go out into their clubs and find the next new band. That's what alternative music is all about. It's like 'You were right that time. See if you can do it again.' "

And while some cultists may feel that they have lost R.E.M. to the world at large, very few of the band's alternative-music contemporaries have followed them out of the underground. "The machinery of big music is a very lethal thing," Mike Mills says later. "You have to deal with all the bullshit you get from record companies, from promoters, from writers. None of it is predicated on music. It's all predicated on money. And to maintain musical integrity while dealing with people who only care about money is very tough. The Replacements couldn't do it. They didn't want to put up with the bullshit. They wanted to live the rock & roll life and not have to deal with all the crap. We wanted to be a success doing what we wanted to do."

In regard to their future, the members of R.E.M. remain wary. "There are guys that have had Top Ten hits that are fry cooks right now," Mills says. "They're in prison, or they're digging ditches, or they're living with their mom somewhere. It happens. You don't ever want to get overly confident in this business. The guys in Canned Heat — they had several Top Ten hits."

Sitting in his kitchen one bright afternoon, the ever-cynical Peter Buck puts it like this: "We're Number One, but I don't think it means anything. For us it's a vindication and it's kind of cool. On the other hand, we'll be Number One for a week and then some woman with really large breasts and a really high voice — someone who hired people to write and produce her record — will be Number One. And so what's the point?

"I think the days of rock & roll bands' being Number One on the charts are over," Buck continues. "Put it this way: A&R people won't sign them. There are no clubs for them essentially. It's over.''

What about Guns n' Roses?

"Yeah, well, they're a Benny Hill band," Buck says. "They're a Benny Hill parody of what a rock & roll band should be."

Billy Bragg takes an equally dim view of the ways of the music world, but he's not as ready to dismiss R.E.M.'s success. "Is it just about cucumbers down the trousers?" he says of the music industry. "Or is it about genuine people trying to say something? Having R.E.M. in the Top Ten means something – it means a lot to guys like me who are trying to ride their beast on their own terms."

The members of R.E.M. have certainly done it their way. Some fans groused when the band launched its arena tour, others when Stipe lip-synced in the "Losing My Religion" video — chiefly because the band members had made pretty emphatic promises that they'd never resort to either.

Still, when all is said and done, R.E.M. has never pandered to radio or even come close to making a bad or lazy record. In fact, as Buck is quick to point out, the musicians have rarely heeded anyone's counsel but their own.

"Everyone gave us advice," Buck says of the group's early days. "Every day of the goddamn week. 'Get some hot chicks in bikinis! Get some disco drums!' You go, 'Really? On Murmur?' Disco drums! It's obvious that these people didn't listen to the records. It's great — people who have never, ever signed a band that has been successful will tell you how to make your band a success.

"I always thought that we were going to live and die on exactly the way that we knew how to make music," says Buck. "Taking advice or having someone tell you what to do – if someone had done that on Murmur, we would have just broken up. Man, I spent years cleaning toilets to get to the point where I don't have to take people's advice. Basically, for me, other people's advice is like 'Yeah, fuck you, too.' We always felt we knew better. We do, too."

Buck is quiet for a moment, his thoughts returning to the present. "For me, Out of Time was the right record to make," Buck says, getting up to leave. "And, good Lord, it's selling — that's the weird thing."

Buck walks out of the house, noticing, as he does, his Guns n' Roses Welcome to the Jungle welcome mat. He looks up and smiles. "I wouldn't wipe my feet on anything else."