Outside the swish Connaught Hotel, London is bathed in sunshine, but very little of it finds its way into the conference room where Michael Stipe is thoroughly examining the small box of mints that sits beside every place setting. The main reason for his visit, he points out, is the Frieze Art Fair in Regents Park, which starts today. But, of course, R.E.M.’s profile – by virtue of their imminent dissolution – has rarely been higher. Sat in a neat little pile on the table are promo copies of the group’s farewell release. Dressed in dark blue denim, Stipe runs his fingers across the sleeve of Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011 and ponders that the texture doesn’t quite meet his specifications. As she leaves the room, his publicist points out that he’s not holding the finished article. “Are the three new songs on here?” he asks her. She explains to him that, forestall any pre-release leaks, those have been sent out digitally.
We could have met in a café or a pub, perhaps even ventured out to Regents Park. But as it happens, a conference room is an entirely apt setting for an encounter that, at least to begin with, feels more like business than pleasure. You can’t blame Stipe for being suspicious of his interrogators. Five years ago, an encounter with The Times virtually stalled when the singer, now 51, took exception to what he saw as the British press’s serial attempts to out him from a closet he had no interest in occupying. Elsewhere, he has been known to issue a curt “Fuck off” when greeted with a question he doesn’t like. At times, it’s been hard not to sympathise. How would you like it if you turned up to be interviewed on The Culture Show, as Stipe did in 2004, and told by Paul Morley that you had become an “oldies band”? In fact, the last time we met, two years previously, Stipe seemed reconciled to what he thought posterity would have to say about him. “That’s what will be in my obituary,” he said. “That I was a singer for a band called R.E.M. in the late 20th Century… Of course, it’s not all I want, but it’s there.”
Later on, speaking from home he keeps in Seattle (he also shares a house with his girlfriend in Portland) guitarist Peter Buck will tell me that it would have been around this period – prior to the recording of this year’s Collapse Into Now album – that the group first discussed the idea of going their separate ways. In September, a few hours before they went public with the news, it occurred to bassist Mike Mills that he should perhaps tip the wink to drummer Bill Berry, who left the band in 1997. “I left a message on his voicemail,” says Mills. “I assume he got it, but I never heard back.” Back in the conference room, Stipe’s piercing blue eyes deaden when he’s asked who first broached the idea of a split. “That’s not important, I don’t think.”
In the general scheme of things, of course, he’s right. It’s not important. But still, I don’t see why it’s a thorny issue.
“It’s nobody’s business,” he says flatly.
This doesn’t feel like a particularly transgressive question, I say.
A hint of weariness enters Stipe’s tone. “We don’t have to bat a difficult interview back and forth all day, do we?”
So we move on. Thirty years is a long time to be making records for a band who, in Buck’s words, imagined that, with hard work and the right breaks, “could be as well-known as Big Star.” Released in 1995, Monster was far from their best album, but the goodwill accumulated from 18 million combined sales of Out Of Time and Automatic For The People – both albums that they didn’t tour – propelled the group to American stadia. “That was the first tour where we weren’t just playing to our peer group,” recalls the guitarist, “Once we had a hit single, things changed a little bit. We were, like, ‘Wow, there’s so many young people out there. Like, teenage girls. One show, while Michael was talking [to the audience], Mike goes up to me and says, ‘Look how many people there are. I think at least one person in this place has murdered somebody.’ And…well, yeah… if you’ve got 56,000 people in a place, I guess there is murderer out there. I would like to think that we don’t draw an extra number of them, but you never know.”
Success on that scale impacted upon the different members of R.E.M. in different ways. Buck thinks that “it helped drive Bill away from it all.” I suggest that being in R.E.M. after Losing My Religion sent them supernova must have at times felt like being in an iron lung. The thing that collectively keeps you alive is also the thing beyond which you can never quite venture. “OK. That’s a fair enough analogy,” says Stipe, before abruptly appearing to be put out by the question. “Well, I could apply that to public transportation if you want to take it further. It gets you where you want to go [even though] it might not be the happiest ride. Or sweaters. They keep you from catching colds. Come on, really, that’s a little harsh.” Finally, witheringly: “I wouldn’t compare my 31 year career with my best friends to dialysis.”
Buck’s response is strikingly different. “It is true. I’m a particularly driven, ambitious person, he says, “Not for financial success. But every record we’ve ever made, the day we finish it, I start panicking about having a new stock of songs that are great for our next record.” Stipe recalls how, as just one of many post-punk bands emerging from the campuses of Athens, Georgia, Buck’s manic motivational energy set R.E.M. apart. “It was Pete who used his encyclopaedic knowledge of rock history to pre-empt all the stupid ways that groups fall apart. There were very simple rules,” recalls Stipe, “You share all your publishing and you don’t fight about petty things and it’s democratic. Everybody gets a veto vote, not just the singer.”
Had Buck imagined that R.E.M. might still exist in the next century, he might have come up with a rule about not halting the sessions for a new album in order to put out a greatest hits record. This was the fate that befell 2004’s disastrous Around The Sun – and, in a sense, the misstep that triggered a sequence of events that brings us to this point. “The three of us have… not different goals [but] different ways of approaching what we want to do,” explains the 54 year-old guitarist, “And mine is radically different from the other guys. I’ve found as I get older that I like to work quickly and spontaneously. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again.”
Buck has, by his own admission, been “trying to keep it fresh” ever since the group’s network TV debut (on Letterman) when the group elected to play an unnamed three day-old song which would turn out to be the imperishably wonderful S. Central Rain. He got his own way for 2008’s rawer Accelerate and the tour that followed. Longtime fans who decided to stay away this time missed what, for Buck, was the most “raucous, out-of-control” R.E.M. tour for over 25 years.
“For me,” he continues, “not knowing exactly what’s gonna happen is important. We played a total of 93 different songs on those shows, songs that we didn’t even know how to play. The feeling was, ‘Can we ever better this?’ And I thought, ‘Maybe not. Maybe this is the last tour. Um… right into making Collapse Into Now, we had a little talk about what we wanted to accomplish and decided that we wanted to make one final last great record.”
Perhaps because we thought that, if R.E.M. split, they would have done it a long time ago, we missed the signs when Michael Stipe allowed them to filter into his lyrics. It wouldn’t be unnatural to think that the dewy autumnal reverie of We All Go Back To Where We Belong, featured on the new compilation, might address the split. In fact, Stipe addressed it far more unambiguously on Collapse Into Now’s second track All The Best. “Let’s sing and rhyme/Let’s give it one more time,” goes the chorus: “It’s just like me to overstay my welcome.”
Did R.E.M. overstay their welcome? Certainly, by opening their account with a run of near-perfect albums (Murmur, Reckoning, Fables Of The Reconstruction), they set a standard that wasn’t always possible to maintain. Allow the needle to drop on almost any song R.E.M. recorded up until 1986 – from the Paisley-patterned folk-rock of Seven Chinese Brothers to the lysergic southern gothic portent of Feeling Gravity’s Pull – and the alchemy is little short of overwhelming. But perhaps mainaining that sort of quality control wasn’t the real problem, so much as the proclamation that seemed to come as standard with each album since 1998’s Up – that this was the real return to form (true in the case of Up, but less so thereafter). It’s hard to get the measure of a new record when your overriding emotion is suspicion. Maybe, now that the pressure to stay in the game is off, the music can stand or fall on its own merits.
Certainly, in the light of the split, there’s something unexpectedly moving about watching footage of the group playing the Collapse Into Now songs in the large room of Berlin’s Hansa Studios, where the album was recorded. Discoverer and Stipe’s tender post-Hurricane Katrina paean Oh My Heart sound fantastic. “There’s a good chance that we’ll never play together again,” says the guitarist. “And that’ll make me feel sad except for the fact that I played [those songs] a lot for a long time. I can’t imagine anything in this moment that would cause us to use the name R.E.M. and play songs again.” Speaking from his Athens home, bassist Mike Mills remembers that final performance, “It was a very fraught day and very emotional. But we weren’t going around saying, ‘This us the last one! Wow! This is weird!’ I think everyone was aware of it in their own way though.”
Perhaps it’s surprising that they stayed together as long as they did. Half an hour ago, Stipe referred to the rest of the band as his “best friends.” Now he seems to be urging me not to draw any conclusions about their friendship on the basis of them having been together for so long. “Proximity does not indicate intimacy,” he says, “Shared history does not indicate a feeling of love or family or anything. I have a shared history with some of my neighbours whose last names I don’t know and I couldn’t tell you whether they go for roast beef or tofu.”
Be that as it may, like all great bands when they start out, R.E.M. looked like a gang – albeit one that bore no sartorial relation to the presiding fashions of the day. Throughout the early years, the chronically shy, curly-haired Stipe and Buck, the garrulous sonic architect of the group, would share a room on tour. Pretty Persuasion came about when Stipe woke up one night and blurted to Buck that he had a dream about a nonexistent Rolling Stones single called Pretty Persuasion. Buck duly obliged with a tune that formed the basis of the song. In 2011, Buck is fundamentally unchanged, still buying more records than he can get around to playing, still jamming with friends in his spare time. And Stipe? It’s hard to believe that nearly 30 years later, the same frontman – now a keen photographer – would be uploading pictures of himself naked in his New York apartment onto his Tumblr page. For all of that, he maintains that the “eccentric in the band is not me – that should be obvious at this point.
If Stipe isn’t R.E.M.’s resident “eccentric”, the intended recipient of that accolade is unclear. Mills has long since snuck into the role of the band’s affable pragmatist. Neither is eccentricity the first word that springs to mind over the course of an hour-long conversation with Buck. You don’t get the impression that dealing with record companies is something he’ll miss. “There are some things that never change,” he explains, “Like with demos – a demo is supposed to show you what the arrangement of the song is and how it’s gonna go. And you play it to someone from the record company and they go, ‘The drums could sound bigger.’ Well, it’s a demo! My feeling has always been that nobody knows anything. If they did, all these bands they sign would have hits. Warner Brothers did not want Losing My Religion as a single. They were saying, ‘No way! There’s a mandolin on it!’ And we were like, ‘It probably won’t be a hit, but it would be a really good way to introduce people to the record. And, of course, it was our biggest hit.”
Back in London, Michael Stipe emerges into the sunshine and elects to walk to Regents Park. Perhaps he’s right. The world doesn’t feel very much like an iron lung at the minute. He expresses concern about my not wearing a cycle helmet and makes me promise to buy one. “You have children,” he says, fixing me with that unnerving stare. He also asks me not to mention this exchange, but given how much more relaxed and chatty seems outside the conference room, it would be doing him a disservice not to. Buck too, seems anything but awed by the great post-R.E.M. beyond. He has recently returned from an extended stay in a small Mexican fishing village. “I kind of have a little bag,” he explains, “I have a shirt and a pair of pants and a couple of books and I go somewhere. Other than that, my goal is to make music be my hobby.”
As goodbyes go, it’s hard to remember a more muted one than this. No final tour. No grand crescendo. But this is clearly just the way at least one member of R.E.M. wants it. Dressed in his pyjamas on this Thursday afternoon, Buck sets out his position, “We could be out there right now making a billion. But we’d be doing it for the money, and we’ve never done anything for the money… I hated rich people when I was young, and I still kind of do. Being one myself, it’s a little contradictory, but hey, I can live with that.”