R.E.M. on Their 'Weird, Loose' Album 'Document'

"I don't know if I have any commercial expectations for this one at all," Peter Buck says of 1987 album

Greg Allen / Retna
August 27, 1987

"This time around we wanted to make a tougher-edged record," says guitarist Peter Buck of R.E.M.'s soon-to-be-released album, Document. "Lifes Rich Pageant was kind of like the Bryan Adams records – I really liked the record, but it was very direct in a lot of ways. This time we wanted to make a loose, weird, semi-live-in-the-studio album. We wanted to have a little tougher stance."

R.E.M. spent the month of April recording the LP in Nashville's Sound Emporium studio with producer Scott Litt, whose previous credits include work with the and dBs and Katrina and the Waves; the following month the group did overdubs and mixing at the Master Control studio, in Burbank, California.

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: R.E.M., Document

The eleven songs on the album include "The One I Love" (the first single), "Exhuming McCarthy," "Odd Fellows Local 151," "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," "Fireplace" and "Welcome to the Occupation." There's also a cover of the Wire song "Strange," which Buck says sounds like "Jonathan Richman does Wire."   

"'Exhuming McCarthy,'" Buck says, "is about exactly what it sounds like – it's the Eighties, and McCarthy's coming back, so why not dig him up?" "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" is "either my favorite song on the record or my least favorite," says Buck. "I'm still deciding." And "Odd Fellows Local 151" is, lead singer Michael Stipe says, "a debunking of the myth making of Fables of the Reconstruction."

Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin made a guest appearance on "Exhuming McCarthy" and "Fireplace." R.E.M. also used a Fairlight synthesizer player on a few tracks, but Buck reports that most of those high-tech contributions were erased.   

Current plans call for R.E.M. to release three videos for Document. New York artist Robert Longo directed "The One I Love," and Jim Herbert, director of photography for the rock documentary Athens, Georgia Inside-Out, is being considered to direct another. The candidate for the third video is none other than Michael Stipe. In addition, R.E.M. recently recorded an acoustic set at McCabe's Guitar Shop, which doubles as a music club, in Santa Monica, California, and the band may use some of the songs as B sides for its singles.

Following a ten-day tour of Europe in September, R.E.M. will start a two-month American tour in October. As for whether all of this activity will bring about large-scale commercial success for R.E.M., Buck says, "With virtually every record we turn in to the record company we hear outside opinion that 'this is the one that's going to break you guys.' I think at this late date it would be really delusional to even think that's going to happen. Then again, I don't really care. I think we're doing really well, we're selling around four, five or six hundred thousand records each time without a hit single, and I'm more concerned with making a good record that will stand up five or six years from now.

"There are a few things on this album that could do well on Top Forty radio," Buck adds, "but then again I can't imagine it happening, knowing us. So I don't know if I have any commercial expectations for this one at all. I assume it will sell some, somebody's got to buy it. I know my mom will buy three or four. I don't see this as the record that's going to blast apart the chart. Although you never know. Weirder things have happened."

This story is from the August 27, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone. 

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