The veil of secrecy surrounding R.E.M.’s forthcoming album is gradually being lifted. And those lucky enough to hold a ticket to the band’s first live performance without original member Bill Berry, on Saturday, June 13 at the annual Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, D.C., will get an abbreviated aural indoctrination.
According to R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, the band will feature songs from the next record — approximately half their yet-undetermined set time — and songs from New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Automatic For the People and Out of Time. “It’ll be interesting,” Buck says. “It’s been three years since we’ve played in public. We lost an original member, we’ll be playing with at least one member of the ensemble who will have had four hours to rehearse with us, and we’ll be playing in front of 70,000 people doing songs that no one’s ever heard.”
Buck says the line-up for the Tibet show, along with frontman Michael Stipe and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mills, will include Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin on bass, vibes and percussion, Scott McCaughey on guitar and Joey Waronker, from Beck’s band, on drums. “To set the record straight, I’m not the drummer,” says Screaming Trees skinsman Barrett Martin, who also plays with Buck in the side-project Tuatara. “I [don’t] really play drums on the [new]album besides some drum loops.”
Thus far, R.E.M. have recorded fifteen songs with vocals and have another eight they’re working on. “We’re kind of mixing, putting strings on,” Buck says. “It’s the very last couple weeks where we’re defining what it is.”
Whatever it is, it’s sonically unlike anything the group has ever done before, according to Buck. “I hope it doesn’t sound like stuff that anyone’s ever done — in a good way,” he adds. “As you go along, some doors have been closed, some doors we’ve been through. Automatic is a great record, but we’ve done that. We’re doing something else.”
Like Automatic and New Adventures, new material will feature strings, albeit in non-traditional arrangement. “It’s a little more demented (than Automatic), he says. “Automatic was fairly romantic, fairly baroque. This (new album) is gonna be kind of angular and maybe dissonant — if you can get a string section to play dissonant.”
With Bill Berry in early retirement, Buck says the group has used a drummer-by-committee program to fill the void. Thus far, Buck has played drums on two songs, Mills on one, Barrett on any songs that contains “really good drumming or percussion” and drum machines. Buck also says he’s playing most of the bass on the album — Mills’ principal instrument — while Mills concentrates on keyboards.
Life without Berry has been a mixed blessing, according to Buck. “It’s weird and depressing, but also very liberating,” he says. “In a perfect world Bill would still wanna be in the band. But in a perfect world there wouldn’t be Bosnia, AIDS and nuclear weapons.”
As usual, R.E.M. is waiting until the last minute to name the album, which will be released in October. “If you think of a good one, stick it on the end of (the) article,” Buck says, half-joking. “Maybe we’ll steal it.”