R.E.M.'s Brave New World

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Back in Athens for their last weekend before flying off, the band members and Holt are desperately trying to dispatch all the details that need to be dealt with before departure. Due to a bureaucratic snafu, a crew member's visa may not be ready in time, and Holt and Downs are pulling strings to make sure he is able to leave on schedule. At this point, R.E.M. is a sufficiently important Georgia industry – as he tries to check a friend into an Athens hotel, Buck unselfconsciously refers to the group as "our corporation" while negotiating with the desk clerk – that a U.S. senator intervenes in the band's behalf.

Stipe, who handles most of the band's visual imagery, needs to approve tour T-shirts. Mills is motoring back and forth to Atlanta to visit his mother and say goodbye to his family. Buck and Barrie are trying to find time to run off to the mall to buy luggage.

Finally, Holsapple and his girlfriend, Ilene, have agreed to headline a benefit at the 40 Watt for the Athens Pro-Choice Action League on Friday night. Buck rehearses with Holsapple earlier in the day and joins the duo onstage for ragged but right versions of such numbers as Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," Dion's "Drip Drop" and the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Do Right Woman." A cheerful-looking Stipe drops in to catch the action, with a group of bohemian pals, known to more cynical locals as "diStipels," in tow.

With all the hubbub, it hardly seems only sixteen months ago that R.E.M. announced that the band would take a break from performing live and possibly even recording. R.E.M.'s steps forward have always been careful – the result of an intriguing blend of deliberation, intuition and a staunch sense of integrity. The popularity that came in the wake of the platinum Document annihilated whatever vestiges remained of R.E.M.'s insulated cult status. The consequences of that change had to be analyzed and absorbed before the band could define a suitable direction.

"One thing that was affecting us was this blind acceptance and enthusiasm for anything that was said or done onstage," Mills says about the tour that followed the release of Document. "People are so frantic by the time you get into these larger halls that it's just a party no matter what you do. It makes you feel kind of weird about meaning what you do. You may put your heart and soul into something, but it doesn't matter because those people can't hear it anyway. Since it's something that we did love to do so much, we wanted to step back before we got burned out on it."

Another issue R.E.M. had to confront was the end of its contract with I.R.S. Records, the label that signed the band after the release of "Radio Free Europe." I.R.S. very much wanted to re-sign the group, and R.E.M. felt a great deal of loyalty to the label, which from the first endorsed and committed itself to the band's insistence on total creative control and progress at the band's own pace. When R.E.M. was first shopping for a contract, according to Buck, the folks at I.R.S. were "the only ones who didn't say, 'Boy, if you guys cut your hair and stop wearing dirty clothes, I can turn you into the Go-Go's.'" The band members all say that leaving I.R.S. was the hardest decision they ever made.

The key factor from the band's perspective was that I.R.S. and its overseas distributor, CBS International, had been unable to expand R.E.M.'s authence outside the U.S. Says Berry, "We got really tired of going to Europe and pretty much being given an ultimatum by the record companies over there, the affiliates of I.R.S., who were saying, 'If you don't come over and tour, we're not going to promote your record. You won't even see it on the shelves.' Then we'd get over there, and there'd be absolutely no promotion at all." The band's core of followers never grew significantly.

Needless to say, news that R.E.M. was thinking of leaving I.R.S. excited interest from virtually every major record company. Ultimately, the band was impressed both by the assurances given by Warner Bros. that R.E.M. would be a top priority of the company's overseas division and by the label's artist-oriented reputation.

"They've had some of my favorite artists on the label for years and not really bothered them so much about selling records," Buck says of Warner Bros. "Van Dyke Parks still puts out records. Randy Newman, sometimes he has hits, sometimes he doesn't – he makes great records. We figured that just looking at people's track records, you can understand what kind of business they're going to run." That Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Bros. Records, was himself a producer also weighed heavily with the band.

Still, it may be hard, at least in the public's estimation, for R.E.M. to maintain what Holt calls the "small, homey, hokey, Mayberry R.F.D. kind of feel to the way we live our lives" while earning millions of dollars, selling millions of records, pursuing international markets and working with one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world.

From the questions they asked, according to Berry, the kids at the Basement seemed to "think of Warner Bros. as literally like a monster, just something that consumes and spits out. I think a lot of kids wonder how we fit." Sitting in his office, Holt halts a conversation about the move from I.R.S. to Warner Bros., saying, "I feel completely uncomfortable discussing that situation, because I just don't think that anything said about it is going to translate, that there's any way for people to understand. It seems like you're either biased towards 'Well, they did what they had to do and went for the money' or 'God, they really did the underdog dirty.'"

In fact, nothing riles R.E.M. quite like the charge that the band has sold out. "My response is, like, Guns n' Roses," Berry says. "Great band, by the way. I love 'em. But it's like they've got this 'fuck you,' 'rock & roll kid' attitude, and they sell 7 million records. Their first record. And here we are on our sixth record – Document was our fifth full LP, it sells a million records, and 'R.E.M. has sold out.' But Guns n' Roses gets all these accolades. I don't know what we're supposed to do. I really don't."

Never known for pulling punches, Buck hits the question dead on. "Pretty much all the extreme opinions about us I think are wrong," he says. "We're not the best band in the world – nobody is – so who cares about that? And all the people who think we've sold out, I don't really care much about them either.

"I know what I do, and I'll set my job up against anyone else's any day and say that I make less concessions to what people tell me to do than anyone else around – I mean, no matter what job they do. But, then, no one's going to believe that.

"There are a lot of people who like bands when they're smaller – and I'm one of them," he says. "I really love the Replacements, but I don't go see them now. I saw them in front of twenty people fifty times, and the same with Hüsker Dü. The last time I went to see Hüsker Dü, I was, like, 800 people back and getting elbowed in the gut by a fat guy with a leather jacket.

"So whenever people say, 'You're just too big, I don't enjoy going to your shows,' I say, 'That's fine.' I understand the people who say, 'You're too popular. I'm going to go follow the Butthole Surfers.' That's valid.

"Of course," Buck says, with a wry grin, "now the Butthole Surfers are getting a little too popular."

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