Peter Buck on Life After R.E.M.: 'I Hate the Business'

Guitarist talks major-label burnout, low-pressure solo career, why R.E.M. never really broke up

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck discusses the band's extensive archive, his friendships with his fellow members and why he's happy to be done with major labels.
Peter Buck on Life After R.E.M.: 'I Hate the Business'

On September 21st, 2011, singer Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck of the Athens, Georgia–born rock group R.E.M. issued a statement on their website, declaring that they were "calling it a day as a band." Founded in 1980 with drummer Bill Berry, who left in 1997, R.E.M. were the American underground's breakthrough populists, achieving immediate critical acclaim with their 1983 debut album, Murmur, then steadily ascending to multi-platinum success — 1991's Out of Time and 1992's Automatic for the People sold a combined 8 million copies — without betraying their creative and cultural ideals.

But when the three remaining members decided to break up, Buck marked the occasion by compiling a list of the things he had come to hate, during R.E.M.'s lifespan, about the music business. "It was five pages long," Buck said during a rare interview in late January as he made preparations for the fifth edition of his Todos Santos Music Festival, in the small town at the southern tip of Baja California, Mexico, where he has a house.

And what was on that five-page list? "Everything," Buck replied curtly, sipping orange juice in a bar as his friends the Jayhawks were conducting a soundcheck across the street. "Everything except writing songs, playing songs and recording them. It was the money, the politics, having to meet new people 24 hours a day, not being in charge of my own decisions."

Even making R.E.M. albums became a trial at times. "Once Pro Tools was invented," Buck said, "that was no fun. We made a couple of albums where I thought, 'I don't even know if this is a record. It's just some sounds we put together.'"

But more than anything else, "I hate the business," Buck declared firmly. "And I didn't want to have anything to do with it."

The guitarist got his wish. Buck, 59, is one of the busiest ex-rock stars in America, even though you may not know it. That is because he does almost all of his work off the grid, making records and doing club gigs with old and close friends. He plays with bands like the Minus 5, his long-running combo with late-period R.E.M. guitarist Scott McCaughey, and Filthy Friends, a new outfit Buck has formed with Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker. Buck recently co-produced the Jayhawks' new album, Paging Mr. Proust. He is also a willfully eccentric solo artist, issuing quirky vinyl-only albums like 2014's I Am Back to Blow Your Mind Once Again and last year's Warzone Earth through the small, independent Mississippi Records.

Until our conversation in January, Buck and I had not spoken about the end of R.E.M. I first wrote about the group in 1982, after seeing an early, incandescent show at the New York club Danceteria, and interviewed the band regularly over the next three decades. But Buck was the only member that I did not speak to, for the record, at the time of the breakup. In fact, Buck — who lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Chloe Johnson and has two daughters by a previous marriage — was in seclusion, in Todos Santos, when R.E.M. issued that announcement. "He wanted to be away from everything," McCaughey said one day during this year's festival. "That band had been the driving force in his life, and it was a really big change for him. He didn't want to talk about it."

But over that orange juice, while explaining the genesis of his Todos Santos festival and emphasizing the pleasures that come with the stresses of throwing a long-weekend party with his favorite musicians, Buck was sharp, open and funny about his old band, that unanimous decision to shut down and the friendships that have survived his three decades in a business he can't stand. Friends also spoke of him, that weekend, with high regard.

"He's the godfather," says singer-guitarist Steve Wynn, who plays with Buck in the Baseball Project — a group that performs nothing but original songs about that American pasttime — and first met him in 1984, when Wynn was in the Dream Syndicate. "On one hand, he knows what he wants musically. But he is also an advocate. I've got cassettes in my closet of all these things Peter gave me — the first Hüsker Dü record, the first Replacements album, the Beach Boys' Love You with his handwriting on the label. We hit it off right away, being big music fans, full of piss and vinegar and wanting to set the world on fire."

R.E.M. recently signed a licensing deal with Concord Bicycle Music to handle their Warner Bros. catalog. But business meetings aside, as Buck explained, he remains close with Mills, who sang and played all weekend in Todos Santos, and Stipe. "I had dinner with Michael three weeks ago," Buck noted. "And I see Mike more often because he likes to hang out at rock & roll shows. And pretty much every band I play with — he plays with them too."

Who brought it up first — R.E.M. breaking up?
We were in Bergen, Norway [in 2008]. I really like Bergen. I wanted to see the town. I had four hours off. Instead, we had a three-hour band meeting. I was really pissed off. We were talking about adding some shows to the tour. It was a lot of money, but I didn't want to go. I won't say where it was. I looked at them and said, "If this is our last tour, I don't want to end with two half-full shows in a state you couldn't pay me to set foot in." And they went, "OK."

The last show — we were in Mexico City. We're like the Beatles there. It was great for us. And I went, "This is kind of sad." And Michael goes, "Yeah, a little. We're probably never going to play these songs again." And I went, "You might be right."

But we were doing the last record, [2011's] Collapse Into Now. We hadn't made an announcement or anything. We got together, and Michael said, "I think you guys will understand. I need to be away from this for a long time." And I said, "How about forever?" Michael looked at Mike, and Mike said, "Sounds right to me." That's how it was decided.

You were extraordinarily calm about deciding something so final.
We felt like we made a great last record. The last two records we made — I'm really proud of them. Accelerate [2008] is in my top five. But we got to the point where we wanted to go our own ways. We didn't want to keep doing 20-year-old songs. One thing you might notice about the three of us: None of us has done anything to put us in the public eye. We do stuff, but we haven't gone on talk shows, done reality TV or put together a supergroup. Collapse Into Now was our last record with a major label. I never want to be on a major label again.

Have any of them asked?
Bertis [Downes, R.E.M.'s manager] — his job is to keep people away from me, so I have no idea. I'm on Mississippi Records, and I signed myself to them.

They have a great store in Portland.
You've seen the records Eric [Isaacson, co-founder] puts out: African and psychedelic music; old gospel and blues. I said, "Hey, Eric, I'm making a solo album — you want to put it out?" He said, "What do you expect in the way of promotion?" I said, "None." "Do you want to do CDs or downloads?" "No." I just wanted to do vinyl. He was quite relieved. He told me later that he had this fear that it would be the guitar player from band X, sounding exactly like band X except with the worst singer. He was quite happy that the records were quite fucked up and weird.

How would you describe your average working day as a musician now?
I don't have an average day — ever. I play guitar pretty much every day. It tends to come in flows if I want to write. Sometimes I'll commit myself to something I'm not really prepared for, so I'll spend hours and hours coming up with stuff so it looks like I'm prepared. "I've got a studio day on Saturday — I'll see what I come up with." But working and living are pretty much the same thing for me.

In the past, they were two separate things. The world stopped for me to work. Then it would start up again when I wasn't working. Now I work at home. I do a lot of recording in Portland. I haven't done that much touring. I may do one tour as lead-singer guy — one more before I get too old. But I'm comfortable being the guitar player in the Jayhawks if they're one man short.

When you made your three solo albums, did you think of them as personal statements or just accumulations of stuff?
The first one [2012's Peter Buck] — I'd never sung before. I wasn't very good. We did that record in five days. What I like to do is get four or five songs written, get the guys together, rehearse for an afternoon, then cut everything live in one take. On the new record [Warzone Earth], I think there's two overdubbed vocals. I play in the room with the drums, the bass and guitar. We play at 120 decibels and I'm screaming. That's the way the Pretty Things did it, I imagine.

How do you look back on what R.E.M. accomplished — despite everything you hated along the way?
I'm really proud of the fact that we ended in 2011 with the ideals we started with in 1980. I'm really proud of the body of work. There are a couple of records that aren't great. But there's a couple of Bob Dylan records that aren't great.

What was the point, with R.E.M., when you realized that you had succeeded in those ideals?
In the Eighties. We were at the center of this small culture that was essentially college kids. I talk to people of a certain age, and we influenced all of them, even if it was only the way we went about doing it. That said, a lot of people think Automatic for the People is our best record, and that was after our cultural peak. I like the fact that we walked away from it, and we're not bad-mouthing each other. We're not suing each other.

Technically, the band broke up. But we didn't really. We're just not making records or touring. We own a publishing company. We own the masters to our Warner Bros. records. We own buildings. We own a warehouse with tapes and stuff that I haven't even seen. Why go to a warehouse?

We always have to talk about publishing. This guy is doing a really groovy movie, and he can't afford to pay us much. But it's a cool thing. And this song is for something I wouldn't go to see, but it will sell a million copies. We get more for that.

It's an interesting life: You are active but not especially visible. Typically, bands form to attract attention. That was the arc you fought for in R.E.M. — to go into arenas with the ideals I saw when you played Danceteria in New York in 1982.
It's funny because I did a tour with Alejandro Escovedo, and his managment company asked for my press kit. I said, "I don't have a press kit." Why would I have a press kit? Anyone who's come to a show of mine either knows who I am or doesn't. They go, "Do you have a press photo?" I sent them the one photo I have — of me wearing a monkey head, dancing in the street [on the cover of his 2013 single "You Must Fight to Live on the Planet of the Apes"]. Nobody ran that. I just don't want to do all that stuff. "What's the press kit going to say?" I don't care. Make it up.

Do you have much interest, personally, in R.E.M.'s catalog — in exhuming the vaults for special reissues or anthologies, the way Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones are mining their archives? The most unusual set R.E.M. put out was the 2014 set of MTV Unplugged shows.
We don't have a lot of leftover studio songs that are finished. We could probably put out an album of stuff that we thought was too mediocre to be on the original records.Why would we do that? Michael generally didn't finish songs if he didn't like them. It wasn't like we had 20 songs to choose from for every album. We'd have 14, and 12 would make the record. The other two might be B-sides.

If we hadn't put out all the B-sides stuff already, we'd have a nice two-CD set of pretty good songs. But I don't think about it much. It would be nice if the music could continue to be in the public eye. And to a certain extent, it is.

What do you see as the current state of rock? Did R.E.M. enjoy their success and impact in the last golden era?
I was talking to Colin Meloy [of the Decemberists]. He was going, "Boy, you guys got out at the right time. The festivals are horrible now. They all have that fucking dance tent. You get these kids who are totally tripping, walking through and yelling during your set, and then there's that thumping all night long."

The last thing that moved me as a movement was riot grrrl. I had just moved to Seattle and got to see Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, in front of 20 people —these groups that changed the world. When Corin Tucker and I are doing things, I meet 15-year-old girls all the time who come up and tell her how much that music means to them. But there is always great music. I find it every day.

Do you still feel the sense of community and purpose among your friends and colleagues that R.E.M. had — and fostered — with other bands in the Eighties underground?
Most of the people I talk to here [at Todos Santos] — they always have a new record on the go. My last one came out two months ago. That's something that is part of your life. You started it. You keep doing it. I've lost track of a lot of friends, because they don't tour or make records. They had days jobs or kids. Kids are a day job. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to do this.

You take the whole class of 1981 to 1984 — I'm not sure you could have picked who was going to be making records 30 years later. I would have put money on X as a band that would sell a million records every time, and everyone would go, "Wow, these guys are really saying something about America." I don't know what happened there. But even when you're lucky, it's tough. And when you're not lucky, it's really tough. I've been lucky my whole life.

Sometime in the mid-Eighties, the record companies figured out how to do it — how to run the music business like they were selling beans. Once that happened, everything became a rule. And people started paying more attention.  Now everyone knows how to do it. You form a rock band, record something, put it up on Bandcamp, do a little video for YouTube. I'm not putting it down. But it used to be like the Wild West. Now it's Hollywood.

Obviously, I'm not 21. I'm not hanging around the same people that my daughters are. But I'm not seeing 21-year-olds forming bands like "Fuck you to the man." They're forming bands because they can make a living at this. And there's nothing wrong with making a living at it.

Didn't you form R.E.M. to make a living as a musician?
No. I thought I'd make a couple of records, then be the guy at the record store where people would come in and go, "He made this cool record that came out in 1983." I didn't expect to make a living at it. I never owned a new car. I bought all my clothes used. I bought a house but it cost $52,000. I was the first person I ever knew who owned a house. I was like, "This isn't bad. It's got two extra bedrooms, so I can rent them out to pay the mortgage."

I got lucky. I don't have to ever work again if I don't want to. But I do a lot of work. My accountant tells me all the time now: "You do a lot of work. You just don't get paid for it."