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R.E.M's Accelerated Comeback

Singer Michael, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills came together in Athens, Ga., in 1980 to form the group R.E.M. This year, the band released Accelerate, its 14th album.

27:50

Other segments from the episode on December 31, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 31, 2008: Interview with Mick Jones and Tony James; Interview with Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills.

Transcript

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Fresh Air
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Carbon/Silicon: Punk Veterans Embrace the Web

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring a series of entertaining interviews from 2008. On this last day of the year, we're going to hear from the members of two bands - REM and Carbon/Silicon. Carbon/Silicon isn't nearly as well known as the bands the two co-founders came from. Mick Jones, Carbon/Silicon's lead guitarist and singer, was the lead singer of the seminal British punk band, The Clash, and co-wrote many of the band songs with Joe Strummer.

In fact, in Rolling Stone's list of the 10 best song writing duos ever, Strummer and Jones were number three, after Lennon and McCartney and Jagger and Richards. Carbon/Silicon's Tony James was the bass player in Generation X, the band that introduced singer Billy Idol. James and Jones formed Carbon/Silicon in 2002. They've released a lot of music on the Internet, but earlier this year, they released their first full-length CD. It's called the "The Last Post." When I spoke to them in January, we started with the opening track, which is called "The News."

(Soundbite of NPR's Fresh Air, January 29, 2008)

(Soundbite of song "The News")

CARBON/SILICON: (Singing) People started caring about what they eat.
And people started smiling at everyone they meet.
And people started looking for good instead of bad.
Realize what they could lose in what they always had.
People started growing instead of being crushed.
And people started slowing down instead of being rushed.
And people started looking with very different eyes.
And this information now comes as a surprise.
Good morning. Here's the news, and all of it is good.
Good evening. Here's the news, and all of it is good.
And the weather's good...

GROSS: That's "The News" from the new Carbon/Silicon recording, "The Last Post." Mick Jones, Tony James, welcome to Fresh Air.

Mr. MICK JONES (Lead Guitarist and Singer, Carbon/Silicon): Hello.

Mr. TONY JAMES (Bass Player, Carbon/Silicon): Hi, there.

GROSS: Mick, your voice has such warmth, and it's a different sound than I associate with the more confrontational style of The Clash.

Mr. JONES: Well, it's the same voice, obviously. You know, I mean, I used to sing more backup vocals, and Joe used to do the main singing. Now, I sort of do the main singing and some of the backing vocals on the record, so that's - that has obviously changed. But as far as being - we're still like - we're not quite as confrontational in terms of horribleness, but in a nice way, I still feel we are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: We've got something to say.

GROSS: Well, you first played together in the pre-Clash days in a band called London SS. What brought you back together?

Mr. JAMES: Well, we've been best friends for 30-something years, you know? And we never set out to form a band, you know? We just started off with one song, called "MP3," about giving music away on the Internet. This was five years ago. And you know, we didn't sit down and go, let's form a band. We just sat down and went, let's write a song together, you know?

Mr. JONES: Just sort of ended up doing it really...

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, and it grew into a band because we wrote a lot of songs together. And then, we thought maybe we'd go and play live, and then maybe we'd put a record out, you know, so…

Mr. JONES: But it still came out from other things because we'd been talking about it before we even started playing together. Again, we'd been talking about, how can you do music, if you're our age, with any meaning? We were looking for some meaning and everything that we were trying to do in order to bring some value to it.

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

Mr. JONES: And so we started, like, you know, we could just do this. We had to get over a lot of horrible truths about ourselves and stuff, but we managed it. And so, like, that stuff don't matter.

GROSS: Well, let's hear another track from the new Carbon/Silicon CD, called "The Last Post." And I thought we'd hear "Caesar's Palace." Before we hear it, why don't you talk about your approach to writing songs together, specifically to writing this song together?

Mr. JONES: I just write on the bus and things like that when I'm sitting upstairs, and I'm trying not to get happy slapped.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I often write a lot of stuff while I'm driving. I sit there with that, dangerous though that is, I sit there with a notepad on my nap - on my lap...

Mr. JONES: That's really dangerous, T, especially if you're on the phone with the other hand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: I've perfected this way of just scribbling on big sheets of paper on my lap, something about the rhythm of driving at 70 miles an hour.

Mr. JONES: Well, that's the same with the bus. It's like kadum, kadum, kadum, kadum...

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

Mr. JONES: And that's the way you first - you get the rhythm. It's actually in the air.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Caesar's Palace" from the new Carbon/Silicon CD.

Mr. JONES: We like this one.

GROSS: And this is Mick Jones and Tony James.

(Soundbite of song "Caesar's Palace")

CARBON/SILICON: (Singing) I wish we could see where the dreams all went.
I wish we could see where the money got spent.
I wish we could see that the greatest crime.
Was to fool all of the people to spend all their time.

I wish we could see why we need so much stuff.
I wish we could see that enough is enough.
I wish we could see that the goings got tough.
'Cause my living room's crammed, and my passion's backed off.

Value what is necessary.
Leave what is not.
And tell me what I'm doing in another shop.

I wish we could see that we're outta control.
I wish we could see that we binge out our soul.

GROSS: That's "Caesar's Palace" from the new Carbon/Silicon CD. And Carbon/Silicon features Mick Jones and Tony James. When you first started playing together in the '70s, in a band called London SS...

Mr. JONES: Yes.

GROSS: What was that band like?

Mr. JAMES: MC5.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. JONES: We did MC5 numbers and Flaming Gurus numbers and the odd Stones number and numbers off Lenny Kaye's Nuggets. It was all just copies...

Mr. JAMES: Garage rock...

GROSS: So it was like garage rock, hard rock, and a political edge...

Mr. JONES: It's a tribute to The Standells.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah. Very garage rock, not especially political at that stage.

Mr. JONES: I just really wanted to be in a band, and also that was a very bad name that we had, as well. And so, obviously...

GROSS: Well, yes. Let me just say - I mean SS, you know...

Mr. JONES: Definitely.

GROSS: As far as Nazi Germany…

Mr. JAMES: Especially, we're very ashamed at that. And that was, like, when were young and stupid, you know?

Mr. JONES: And you know, I have this theory about this band, because it never really worked out - that band.

Mr. JAMES: We never played a date or recorded anything or anything like that.

Mr. JONES: Somehow, I believe that sort of karma stopped that group being a success because it would've been a very negative thing to be propagating.

Mr. JAMES: And it was a load of old rubbish anyways, so...

Mr. JONES: You look back at the, sort of, you know, at your youthful excesses, and you go, this was a stupid idea, guys. But you know, you look back and that with the experience of being a 50-year-old now.

Mr. JAMES: And that's especially funny because we're back together again. And every person who ever asks a question - everybody brings that up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: And so, it's our shame that we have to bear.

Mr. JONES: It's our cross.

Mr. JAMES: Every time, we bear it. And we bear it. And we try - we feel shame, how shameful it is. But we shouldn't really be talking, like, making a big deal about it.

Mr. JONES: Yes.

Mr. JAMES: So fed up with it.

Mr. JONES: I know. See, now, we talked for five minutes about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Before you got into a more punk side of things, you were both into glam rock, right?

Mr. JONES: We'd like the New York Dolls and Johnny Thunders and those kind of bands.

Mr. JAMES: And the Stooges.

Mr. JONES: And the Stooges.

GROSS: So, can you talk about - like, were there two different styles that, early in your career, you inhabited on stage, both in terms of like...

Mr. JAMES: No, not at all, really. I mean I think, you know, we came out of - remember, the New York Dolls was '73, you know? So, the glam rock period was '72, '73. So, you know, it was '75 before we were playing.

Mr. JONES: And by that time, the platforms had got lower.

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Because they were so difficult. Sometimes I used to go down - I had big platforms on, and then I'd go headfirst down the stairs. So, I was glad to all that stopped.

Mr. JAMES: It was an uncomfortable look.

GROSS: So, you did the platform thing, and the glitter, and the eye makeup...

Mr. JONES: Before, before…

Mr. JAMES: Definitely, yeah - '74, '75. It was never popular with our parents.

GROSS: So what...

Mr. JONES: We went to Bieber's(ph), and we bought a load of ocelot-type material. And then, we got someone to do us a pair of really tight trousers each.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: Do you remember them? We almost had to be stitched into these trousers.

Mr. JAMES: Bieber's t-shirts only came in size zero, so you had to be really thin to get them on.

GROSS: Now, the Sex Pistols were the first, like, really famous punk band. You were already playing when they...

Mr. JAMES: Well, The Clash were already playing, right? Well, The Clash were playing…

Mr. JONES: Well, the Pistols were like about a few months - they were already going. And then, there's a couple of other groups that were going but didn't have the direction of - under than label of punk or something like that. There's bands like The Stranglers were around before...

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: ...Eddie and the Hot Rods. The Jam was sort of...

Mr. JAMES: Descol(ph).

Mr. JONES: ...playing worthy. And there's a lot of bands, but they haven't quite made the full transition. But the sector(ph) was when you see them it's not all over completely different thing. You know, I mean they...

Mr. JAMES: The Pistols definitely changed things.

Mr. JONES: They were like - they changed things, and that was like the new thing that came in after The Pistols, all punk groups that had come before it. They sort of weren't keyed up, if you know what I mean.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JAMES: And then the groups the came after The Pistols, where there was like a few of them...

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: ...that were like kind of good. But we are always saying that everybody can do it, but you still need to have a bit of an idea or something.

Mr. JAMES: Because the ironic thing was that that look was so powerful, yet people were able to change overnight because if you add long hair it was really easy to just go and cut it all off and rip the arms out off your T-shirt, and then you were on it, you know what I mean?

Mr. JONES: Yeah.

Mr. JAMES: If they'd been the other way around then you had to grow your hair...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: It would have taken...

Mr. JAMES: It would've taken years.

Mr. JONES: I did actually - because England's only a small place, you know, Britain's a pretty small place, it spreads like wildfire around the country.

Mr. JAMES: And it had taken a while to understand that to be different suddenly you could have short hair and ripped T-shirts and tight trousers instead of long hair.

Mr. JONES: All that stuff was really important because everybody had flares, right?

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

Mr. JONES: And then it looks - they looked at you and went like, Bloody hell, if you had straight trousers.

Mr. JAMES: That's right.

Mr. JONES: It was outrageous.

GROSS: Mick, can I ask you how you first met Joe Strummer?

Mr. JONES: Well, Joe was playing in this group, The 101ers...

Mr. JAMES: I mean we used to go and see 'em together...

Mr. JONES: That's right...

Mr. JAMES: ...all the time.

GROSS: And 101 was like the address of the squat that he was living in?

Mr. JONES: 101 was, yeah. 101 Walterton Road.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: Anyway, so they were quite a happening group really, and he was a really good - and so one day the rest as we approached him - like the manager - the managers went to one of his gigs, we all went to one of his gigs - and he went around the back and said, Joe now(ph), I want you to these guys, and that was us. And so we kind of like we arrange that he would come out and meet us, and we were all in this squat in Shepherd's Bush, and he came around. And that was when we first probably met him. Although we'd seen him in the dole office beforehand, and then also down Portabello(ph) Road as you do you know sort of nodding, all right, but nothing more. And then he can't come around to where we were. And then that was it, and we pretty much(ph) said do you want to join this group, these guys. And Joe could already see the way things are going and went, yeah, I'm in.

GROSS: So I guess you know, hearing you sing on Carbon/Silicon I'm wondering like, why didn't you see yourself as the lead singer of your band?

Mr. JONES: Oh, you know why? Because I start on like a Stylophone, you know this kind of electronic organ that you hear on David Bowie's Space Oddity. And then I moved up to drums, and then I moved up to bass. And then I thought, I can handle a couple more strings here, and then I started playing guitar. And so, I always wanted to - I thought it was always cooler just to play the guitar. And I just like you didn't have to work so hard, and pressure wasn't on you. And then after Joe went sort of stepped up and started doing it, but I always wanted to just do guitar and sing a few backups.

GROSS: So you didn't want the pressure being a front man?

Mr. JONES: Or anything, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: See, now you know.

GROSS: You were actually forced out of the band and...

Mr. JONES: Yeah isn't that - imagine that. That's your own band you get chucked out of. Being chucked out of band's ain't(ph) big deal. You get hit, it took years to get over though, traumatically. (Laughing) But it was - it's like, it used to happen all the time, it was called going, can we take you for a drink, and that meant we go for a drink and that means you're getting fired. If you're in a band it's like, that's all - it used to happen all the time, you know. So I just - we got fed out with each other basically.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: But you know it was loads of fun, but in the end, you know - I mean, I think the bigger we've got the more screwed up we became. You know what I mean? Because we couldn't - we were trying really hard and we couldn't handle it. It was just too much for us. And the bigger we got the worse we fell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How much of like a crisis - an identity crisis even was it for you when you were...

Mr. JONES: It was very bad.

GROSS: ..were pushed out of the class.

Mr. JONES: It was very bad for me, it was so bad. That's right around the time of the Notting Hill Carnival, so I couldn't walk around without seeing somebody I knew.

Mr. JAMES: And actually your phone's ringing...

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. JONES: And then I kind of try disguises for a while. I dyed my hair, put glasses on.

Mr. JAMES: You looked like me now?

Mr. JONES: I grow beard. I looked like Manson, I went to Paris. I was afraid to see anybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: It was a messed up period, yeah. We seemed to became friends again, though we never just got back together again as a group.

Mr. JAMES: That's right. I mean you were...

Mr. JONES: But we were close friends after.

Mr. JAMES: You were putting B.A.D. together pretty quickly, weren't you? And you were helping me to put...

Mr. JONES: Almost straight away...

Mr. JAMES: Helping me to put together Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

GROSS: Well, actually I play one really classic Clash record while you're here. So I thought we play "London Calling," and Mick Jones, you co-wrote this. Would you talk a little bit about the song, like getting the song together?

Mr. JONES: Well, it was - at the time we were writing it there was this map that they showed you if the Thames barrier ever burst its banks. They showed you what part of London would be under water. And it was like completely all around - all the west end,

Mr. JAMES: Everywhere we...

Mr. JONES: ...and everywhere we lived. If there everything like that. If it ever broke its banks we will be flooded, and that was like the original kind of apocalyptic message of the song.

(Soundbite of song "London Calling")

THE CLASH: (Singing) London calling to the faraway towns
Now that war is declared and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls
London calling, now don't look at us
Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain't got no swing
'Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
Cause London is drowning and I, live by the river.

GROSS: That's The Clash featuring guitarist Mick Jones, with their 1979 recording "London Calling." My guests are Mick Jones and Tony James, co-founders of the band Carbon/Silicon. More after our break. This is Fresh Air.

My guests are the founders of the band Carbon/Silicon, Mick Jones and Tony James. Mick Jones was the lead guitarist of The Clash and co-wrote many of their songs. Tony James played bass in Generation X and Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

Tony, I have question for you about...

Mr. JAMES: OK.

GROSS: Sigue Sigue Sputnik. And this is going to be about how you looked in it. You know, you have talked before about how during punk hair got shorter and you could change her look. You could just like cut your hair...

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

GROSS: ...and make it short. But in Zig Zig Sputnik you had this like really long spikey things piled up high on your head.

Mr. JAMES: Yes, yes.

GROSS: Was that your real hair?

Mr. JAMES: Well, that's why that band took five years to get together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: It took five years in makeup.

Mr. JAMES: Yeah, five years in makeup.

GROSS: Why did you head in that direction?

Mr. JAMES: You know what those - the colored hair were extensions. They were tied into our real hair.

GROSS: Oh, OK, OK.

Mr. JAMES: And actually the singer - it was Degville's idea because you know he had a - shared an apartment with Boy George at that time, and they both had this freaky super-extended hair, you know. And it was actually made up of bits of fur like how they used to buy this goat's hair rugs, cut it into little pieces, dye it pink and tie it into your own hair with pipe cleaners...

Mr. JONES: Hence, the word rug.

Mr. JAMES: Hence, the word rug. (Laughing) Slang for wigs in English. So all those extensions were tied into my hair, which was long, with pipe cleaners. So it was possible to take the extensions out, you know, on a weekend if you were having a day off.

Mr. JONES: Thanks for joining us for Hair Tips.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: But generally having two meters of pink hair hanging it down your back it was a pain in the ass.

Mr. JONES: And you know...

Mr. JAMES: As we're walking around in girl's high-heeled shoes. So it was a bit of a sort of a glam rock revisited. But it was a startling look, you know, and again, set it aside from everything else at that time.

GROSS: How did it feel to go into that look after coming out of punk?

Mr. JAMES: Well, it - it was - you know, again, it was shocking because suddenly everybody had short hair, and everybody look normal. So to suddenly look like this space monster was totally fresh, you know. So it was a startling look around London. Not so popular with getting girlfriends, I have to tell you.

GROSS: Why do you think that was?

Mr. JAMES: Because we looked ridiculous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, now you're on stage looking just like yourselves...

Mr. JAMES: Also, I'd have to say, you end up having sex, and then you get out of bed, and there's half a pile of pink hair still in the bed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: You know what I mean? So...

GROSS: You wouldn't take it off for your intimate moments?

Mr. JAMES: It was a real - It was a real hazard look for groupies, I tell you.

GROSS: You wouldn't take all that stuff off?

Mr. JAMES: Well, but not - oh, well, that would be really disappointing...

Mr. JONES: That takes too long.

Mr. JAMES: Take too long...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: They liked it.

Mr. JAMES: In moments...

Mr. JONES: And put it over at the side of the bed.

Mr. JAMES: In moments of extreme passion...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: And a glass on the side of the bed.

Mr. JAMES: Girls would pull your hair and it would come out in their hands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: This was before I was married, I have to tell you.

GROSS: Oh, of course. So now on stage you look like yourselves.

Mr. JAMES: We do. We look like ourselves.

Mr. JONES: Eventually we found ourselves.

Mr. JAMES: Yes.

GROSS: Is it a more...

Mr. JAMES: Hair is not an issue now.

GROSS: Is it - do you feel any more...

Mr. JONES: No good issue.

Mr. JAMES: No longer an issue.

GROSS: Do you feel any more vulnerable or naked just performing as yourselves without any special clothes or persona...

Mr. JAMES: Actually, actually I find it now more comfortable going on stage than ever because actually I'm getting up and I'm being really me. And it's just about the guitar playing and the singing, and the songs. It's not about the image suddenly, although I suppose you could say there is an image, aye, an image of 50-year old guys being themselves. But, this is not pantomime like Sputnik, and it's not an aggressive look like punk was. It's us being just ourselves.

GROSS: Mick, another question from an earlier part of your life. What - you were largely raised by your grandmother.

Mr. JONES: That's right.

GROSS: And when you were in The Clash, and The Clash was really big, you were still going home to your grandmother's place for...

Mr. JONES: Very, very often, yeah. I sometimes get myself a flat for a few months and then I ended up going back to the -

GROSS: You know, for some people it's...

Mr. JONES: Our council home.

GROSS: For some people it's so peculiar when you go back to like, the bedroom that you grew up in after you're an adult.

Mr. JONES: Oh, I know, I know.

GROSS: And it makes you feel like a child again. So what was it like after being on road with The Clash and then go home to the bedroom you grew up in your grandmother's place?

Mr. JONES: Well, it was a very - it was great, actually. It was where I learnt to play guitar, the same room. You know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. JONES: I was like, spent like a year solid in there playing all the people's records first and so, it was like very good. And then - before that I lived with my grandmother, her sister, and her sister-in-law. So it was like, I was brought up by like, three old ladies. So I suppose it does sound quite peculiar.

Mr. JAMES: What about when you signed the first record deal, and you played for your grand to go to America to see your mother, because your mother's in America...

Mr. JONES: Yeah, that's right.

Mr. JAMES: And we pretended that your grandmother's flat was our flat for three weeks and moved all the furniture out.

Mr. JONES: Oh, that's right. We had our rat pack pound(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: It was fantastic.

Mr. JAMES: We'd go clubbing...

Mr. JONES: We would tell you it was our flat.

Mr. JAMES: We go clubbing and bring girls back and say we had this really cool penthouse flat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JAMES: It was really his grandmother's house.

GROSS: How did your grandmother react when she came home?

Mr. JAMES: Well, we moved it all back again...

Mr. JONES: (unintelligible) she didn't know.

GROSS: Well, it's really been great to talk with you both. I love the new CD, thank you so much.

Mr. JONES: Thank you very much.

Mr. JONES: Thank you. I hope people get some positivity from it.

GROSS: Mick Jones and Tony James co-founded the band Carbon/Silicon. Our interview was recorded in January when they released their CD "The Last Post." Here's another track from it. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of song "War on Culture")

CARBON/SILICON: (Singing)
I say, I say, I say,
There's a conspiracy and tryin' for a coup
I think we should be free to do what we want to do.
You may ...
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R.E.M's Accelerated Comeback

TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're ending the year with entertaining interviews from 2008. In April, I spoke with the band R.E.M. Let's start with the track from their debut album "Murmur."

(Soundbite of song "Radio Free Europe")

R.E.M: (Singing) Resign yourself that's radio's gonna stay
Reason: It could polish up the grey
Put that, put that, put that up your wall
That this isn't country at all
Radio station, beside yourself...

GROSS: That's "Radio Free Europe" from R.E.M.'s debut album "Murmur." The song was originally released as a single in 1981 and got a lot of play on college radio. "Murmur" was released in 1983. Rolling Stone named it the Best Album of the Year over records by Michael Jackson and The Police. A special 25th anniversary remastered edition of "Murmur" was released earlier this year. R.E.M. has endured for three decades, continuing to be known for maneuvering their way through the recording industry, while holding on to their integrity. Last year, the band was inducted into the rock and roll Hall of Fame. When I spoke to lead singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bass player Mike Mills they had just released "Accelerate," R.E.M.s first CD in four years. Here's a track from it called "Man-Sized Wreath."

(Soundbite of song "Man-Sized Wreath")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Turning on the TV and what do I see?
A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me - wow!
I'd have thought by now we would be ready to proceed
But a tearful hymn to tug the heart
And a man-sized wreath - ow!

Throw it on the fire
Throw it in the air
Kick it out on the dance floor like you just don't care, oh
Give me the sound

Wave the palms, steal the alms, fists in the air
A motorcade up...

GROSS: Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, welcome to Fresh Air. It's really great to have you here.

Mr. MIKE MILLS (Bass Player, R.E.M.): Thank you.

GROSS: Now, the new CD has 11 songs and it's about 34, 35 minutes long, which is really short for a CD. Why did you want to keep it that short?

Mr. MILLS: You know, when it was vinyl that was the medium, the physical content size of the piece of plastic meant that you had to clock in at 40 minutes or less or you would overload the grooves, and you would lose any sort of sonic quality.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: And then when they came up with CDs people went, Oh, my God, I can put an hour and 20 minutes of music on this thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: And unfortunately, a lot of people did, including us. So, we just realized that was, you know, it might be a good idea at this point in our career just to reign it in a little bit and see it. It's a lot of fun to say what you have to say in a really short amount of time. And if you can do that, and if you can really get a message across and pack it with a pretty powerful punch you know in less than three minutes, or less than three and a half minutes, then it's quite an accomplishment.

GROSS: So, it's a good songwriting exercise for you?

Mr. MILLS: Yes, yes.

GROSS: Well, let me play a song from the new CD that I think is - a new song that's exciting - and it's called "Houston," and it's sung from the point of view of someone after Hurricane Katrina. And, Mike, I want to ask you about the organ or synthesizer that you're playing on this. It's so dark and so ominous. I really like the sound of it. I have no idea what you're doing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

: Well, that makes two of us...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: It's a - actually what happened was I wandered in the studio, and Peter and Scott McCaughey were playing that song on guitars, and I didn't know it, I never heard of it before. So I just sat down and started playing what came to mind, and that's pretty much what's on the record. I didn't know what Michael was going to write about lyrically, but I felt the darkness of the song. And I wanted a really angry keyboard sound. I didn't know why, but I did, and then - so it's basically it's just a nasty farfease(ph) run though a bit ol' rat(ph) pedal. And then on top of that, we've got some more of the darkness and anger of that song exists in the bass - the idea of Scott McCaughey coming up with the idea, it's a bass through a really nasty fuzz petal doubled with a bode(ph) upright bass, also through some nasty fuzz. And you know, we just knew it was a big ugly kind of scary sound, and then after Michael put the lyrics on we realized, oh my God, it sounds like a hurricane going by, which you know, we're never quite that literal you know with the music and the lyrics combining but it happened that way and it's just an excellent combination.

Mr. MICHAEL STIPE (Singer, R.E.M.): I think it's one of those cases where the music - the original music inspired me to write that lyric. And then you guys haven't heard that lyric, we took that original music and made it even more so...

Mr. MILLS: Even more so.

Mr. STIPE: And it is a very ominous musical landscape.

GROSS: Peter, do you want to say anything about it before we hear it?

Mr. PETER BUCK (Guitarist, R.E.M.): Yeah, Michael said he wanted songs that are a minute and a half long, so when they wrote it I had a clock and I just looked at the minute hand. And after a minute and a half I was done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCK: Putting as much(ph) stuff on there as we could.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So it's not always about the forethought, you know. Sometimes it just occurs. And as it just got uglier and weirder, I have noticed that the more cinematic something is when you give it to Michael the more it will catch his ear.

GROSS: Why don't we hear "Houston." This is from R.E.M.'s new album "Accelerate."

(Soundbite of song "Houston")

R.E.M.: (Singing) If the storm doesn't kill me the government will
It's a new day today and the coffee is strong
I've finally got some rest
So a man's put to task and challenges
I was taught to hold my head high
Collect what is mine
Make the best of what today has.
Houston is filled with promise
Laredo is a beautiful place
And Galveston sings like that song that I loved
It's meaning has not been erased.
And so there are claims forgiven...

GROSS: That's "Houston" from R.E.M.'s new CD "Accelerate," and my guests are Michael Stipe, the vocalist, Peter Buck, guitarist, and Mike Mills, who plays bass and keyboards. Let's go back to when you all met in Athens, Georgia, and this would be about what year?

Mr. STIPE: 1979.

GROSS: OK. Can you each describe something about how you knew you could play with the others, that this would work, that you were compatible musically?

Mr. MILLS: Well, when we first got together in the old abandoned church I remember it was like - it was freezing. It's all I remember, it was really, really cold. Bill Berry and I had played together in bands in Macon, Georgia and we had a couple of songs that we written back then, and we showed them to Peter and Michael. And I remember it just a loving what they both did with the songs. They - Peter played guitar in a way that I'd never really heard anyone play before and even then Michael had a really great grasp on how to sing. And it was very different from how I would have done it, which is what I was looking for. So I just remember thinking, you know, I can do stuff with this guys.

GROSS: What was different about Peter's guitar playing than what you'd heard before?

Mr. MILLS: Peter, more inept.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: He had the finest ineptitude ever heard by man. Peter plays with an arpeggiated style, he has a - I love this phrase, he has the best right hand in the business. But instead of just thrashing a way and strumming chords, which you know, what everyone does, and it all tends to sound the same, you can really create melody after melody after melody by arpeggiating with the right hand, which is what Peter does, and it just opens up all the space for meat and noodle around on the bass. And it just had - I hadn't really heard it that much at that point.

GROSS: Peter, how did you start playing that way?

Mr. BUCK: You know, I remember really liking The Birds, the band The Birds, when I was learning to play guitar, and I was so ignorant about music that not realizing that Roger was finger picking and using forefingers, I just worked really hard to imitate him using a flat pick, and by the time I actually figured out that he was doing this kind of folk finger picking thing, I was kind of flat picking in a way that was a little different. And kind of - I don't know, it wasn't my own style necessarily, but it was at least a start.

GROSS: And Peter, what made you realize that you wanted to play with the other members of R.E.M. who weren't yet R.E.M. (laughing)?

Mr. BUCK: Yeah, you know, it really was just the first rehearsal, and within a day or two we had eight or ten kind of original songs. I mean, as original as we were writing at that time anyway. And they sounded good, you know. We got better as songwriters, but it seemed to fit together really well immediately, which you know, is from what I've heard later from other people doesn't usually happen.

GROSS: And Michael?

Mr. STIPE: I felt like we had to write 20 or 25 songs before we really knew what we were doing because none of us were that professional on our instruments. And Mike and Bill more so than Peter and I. When I started the band it didn't occur me to that I would have to write lyrics (laughing). I just - I kind of - had this kind of teenage fantasy - kind of fantasy idea of what it was to be in a band, and to be able to tour and what have you, and - it didn't include the actual work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STIPE: So, it took me a while to come around to that.

GROSS: The impression I got from the first time we spoke in the 90s is that when you started singing you were just a little shy about it? Would that be...

Mr. STIPE: No, I was a little shy about everything.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. STIPE: ..I think it was pathologically with so.

GROSS: My guests are Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills from the band R.E.M. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking with singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bass player Mike Mills of the band R.E.M. This year they released a new CD called "Accelerate," and a 25th anniversary edition of their first album "Murmur." Michael, you had said that in 1985 you felt that you started to come into your own and get more comfortable, you know as a songwriter and performer. Two years later, in '87, R.E.M. had its first real hit "The One I Love," and I'm wondering if you knew when you recorded this that that this was somehow going to be different, if it felt musically like something happened that hadn't happened before.

Ms. STIPE: I always said, and I think I probably stole this from Peter and Mike, or - I was said that I wouldn't know - I wouldn't know a hit single if it was sitting in my lap, and I feel like - perhaps the producer that we were working with on that record had an idea that that song could make it on to the radio, or that our time had come to be a top-40 radio band. But I certainly didn't - I certainly didn't recognize that.

Mr. MILLS: That was my, I think, eighth favorite song in that record, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really, uh huh?

Mr. BUCK: So, it wasn't - you know, it was like - oh, we'd put it on side two. It was kind of - but you know that that's fine. I mean it wasn't - we didn't write it for any particular reason other than we just wrote it, and it popped up, and then it was kind of a hit. And you know, I mean, hit singles were kind of meaningless in their way. I mean, it's just a song that you wrote that day.

Mr. MILLS: I remember talking to - when we were making "Document." There was something on "Document" that I really thought was a really great song. It might have been "End of the World," and I'm sure - I'm thinking, you know, OK, we've had a hit, maybe this is another one. I remember asking Scott Litt, do - you know do - when people are making these things I was like - for example when Petula Clark and her producers were making "Downtown," did they know what they were doing? Did they know what a great song they had? He goes, yep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: You know sometimes people know, and sometimes you don't.

GROSS: One thing that sounds different to me in this era of the band - I think Michael your voice is more out front, as opposed to more in the mix, and I guess I'm wondering how everybody felt about that.

Ms. MILLS: You know, that was fine. When we did the first record I had a kind of picture in my head that you know, it would be, wow, this weird kind of, like some record from the 60s that you just can't forget what the context was, it's just kind of this beautiful artifact. And you know, we weren't really guaranteed that we were going to get to do five records, or 14 or whatever. I mean, I was kind of thinking, well, we'll get this record, and maybe if we're really lucky we'll get another one. And you know, "Murmur," that first record - that was kind of what I thought it should be, it's kind of like a radio beacon from some other planet, you know. I mean, certainly if we'd thought radio air play was important, "Murmur" wouldn't sound like it does. But I think if we'd thought radio airplay was important we'd have made a not very good record.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "The One I Love" from 1987, since we had been talking about that? And this is R.E.M. and my guests are Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills.

(Soundbite of song "The One I Love")

R.E.M.: (Singing) This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I've left behind
A simple prop to occupy my time
This one goes out to the one I love
Fire. Fire.

This one goes out to the one I love...

GROSS: That's R.E.M. from 1987, and my guests are Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills of R.E.M. They have a new CD, which is called "Accelerate." That song led to a recording contract with Warner Brothers. How did it change your lives on the road to be - to have, like, a major label behind you and the money for a tour? How did it change, like, how you got around, where you stayed, what your day to day life was like?

Mr. STIPE: It was exactly the same.

Mr. BUCK: It wasn't really that different.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. BUCK: You know, it - yeah. I mean, you know, we just went out and played some more.

Mr. MILLS: We broke even or made money on every single tour we ever did from the very beginning.

Mr. STIPE: Which is rare.

Mr. MILLS: Which is rare, but I mean, you see all these people screaming that they can't tour without corporate support and record company support. That's just not true. We broke even or made money every single time without any help from the record label.

It was all - you know, we lived within our means and took the door from the places we played, and we lived in, you know, one hotel room or one van or whatever it took. And we didn't want to be in debt to anyone, we did not want anyone to have any control over what we did. So, we did whatever was necessary to maintain our freedom, and it worked out really well.

GROSS: I want to jump ahead to 1991, to your recording, "Losing My Religion." And I think it's a perfect record. I mean, it's a great song, great singing, and I love the mandolin on it and the strings. Peter, let's start with the mandolin. Like, what made you think of a mandolin for this?

Mr. BUCK: You know, I think it was on the '89 tour, and I just bought a mandolin. I mean, it was just that simple. I was - had a day off in New York and found this kind of strange, you know, I'm not sure what - it wasn't an American mandolin, it was like Greek or something. And it just - I mean, it was just something to do on the bus, you know, plunk around at the thing. And so, I kind of wrote it on mandolin.

It wasn't - I didn't have any great foresight. And I never really played mandolin that much. I mean, I think if you added up the amount of time I played mandolin in my life, it might be 50 hours, and 49 hours that would be playing "Losing My Religion" on stage. So, it's not as if I - I didn't become an expert. It just became just one of those things I started using. And I guess I was hanging around with a bunch of folk musicians. And that kind of just entered my life a little bit.

GROSS: And Michael, the phrase "losing my religion," is that what came first to you lyrically? And how did it come to you as the title phrase of the song?

Mr. STIPE: I don't remember writing the song at all. I remember singing it in the studio, but I don't remember writing it. But the phrase comes from - I actually changed it. The phrase is "lost my religion." And it's a southern phrase that indicates something that has pushed you so far that you question your faith.

Mr. BUCK: It's kind of like the '20s version of blowing my mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. So I'm going to play it. This is R.E.M., "Losing My Religion."

(Soundbite of song "Losing My Religion")

R.E.M.: (Singing)
Oh, life is bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up

That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no, I've said too much
I haven't said enough

I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

Every whisper...

GROSS: That's R.E.M. and my guests from R.E.M. are Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills. And they have a new CD, which is called "Accelerate." There was a period, skipping ahead just a few more years, in 1995, when nearly everyone in the band was sick. The drummer, then Bill Berry, collapsed in stage with a brain aneurysm. Peter, you had surgery for, I think, an intestinal adhesion.

Mr. BUCK: That was Mike.

Mr. STIPE: No, that was Mike.

GROSS: That was Mike. OK.

Mr. BUCK: I've never been sick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCK: I'm still healthy.

GROSS: Good, good, good. Keep it that way.

Mr. STIPE: Peter was looking both ways before he crossed the road.

Mr. BUCK: Yeah. I was definitely just going well, you know, this is…

GROSS: And Michael, you had emergency surgery for a hernia. A couple of years after that, Bill left the band. And from what I've read, he said that he wasn't going to leave if it meant the band would split up. And you decided to all stay together. Was that the only time you've come close to breaking up?

Mr. BUCK: You know, I think being in a band is an ongoing process. And I think that everyone, at one point or another thinks, you know, I could just walk away from it. And it's kind of nice knowing that you can walk away from it. I can't imagine how resentful it would be if you just felt like OK, I can never leave this band. But the freedom to walk away means that you don't have to. You know, you're totally - we're totally able to work and take some time off, you know. And it's still an option to walk away from it. It isn't something that I have - I want to do.

Mr. MILLS: We've always given each other the freedom to do whatever we want outside the band, which is, you know, not a difficult thing to grant. And it's also helpful. I mean, you go out and you play with other people, you bring back certain inspirations and ideas that you might not have had within your little four walls. And, you know, it can be well to your advantage to do that.

GROSS: We'll talk more with the band R.E.M. after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking with singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bass player Mike Mills of the band R.E.M. This year, they released a new CD called "Accelerate," and a 25th anniversary edition of their first album, "Murmur." I'd like to ask you each about your music background, which - some of which is so, like, not the image of, like, the indie band performer - like Mike, you were in marching band, which must have really been fun. I love marches.

Mr. MILLS: It was a great fun. I played a - I carried a sousaphone around for a year, a year or two. And then we switched it over to electric bass for the high school football games. And I had somebody tote my bass out onto the field. And I stood there in a leisure suit and played electric bass while the band...

GROSS: Oh, I wish I'd seen that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLS: You can see my high school yearbook sometime, it's got me in there.

GROSS: And Peter, I read that your first live concert was singing - seeing "Jesus Christ Superstar" in 1970, is that right?

Mr. BUCK: Yeah, with my mom. And the guy next to me handed me a joint.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCK: I was 12.

GROSS: (Laughing) Did you take a toke?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCK: You know, I just looked at it, and I look at my mom. And I just kind of looked straight ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCK: Yeah, no, it wasn't really my thing. Yeah, you know, it was - actually, the first actual live performance I ever saw of music was when I was in second grade, and we lived in Richmond, California, which is near San Fransisco. It was like 1964 or 1965, and this band came in, and I remember they did "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Help" by the Beatles. They had a 12-string guitar. They came to our school and played at lunch hour. I have no idea why. And I just remember thinking, that's cool. And all the little girls got, you know, their arms autographed and stuff. It was all over for me then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Michael, do you remember your first concert or your first - like, this is really great music experience?

Mr. STIPE: Well, my first great music experience, I think, is probably discovering punk rock when I was 15. And I went and bought the Patti Smith album, "Horses," the day that it was released. And I decided then and there that that's what I was going to with my life was sing in a band.

GROSS: When you'd go to a club and hear puck rock, were you, like, a quiet, restrained listener or did you, you know, like, jump up and down and do the whole thing?

Mr. STIPE: I jumped up and down and did the whole thing. But I also - my kind of, like, incredible geek moment, or one of them, is that I was supposed to be 21 years old. So, I had a fake ID that said I was 24. I had really curly hair at the time and chest hair, which was really rare for a 16, 17 year old. So, I would wear my shirt unbuttoned down to my belly button to show the chest hair, because I thought that made me look older. And I would pick my hair out so that it looked like an afro, and I'd wear platform shoes.

So, I was at the punk rock show in platform shoes with a big afro and my (Laughing) shirt - it was a little bit of a mixed message going on there.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. STIPE: But I did see - I saw some pretty good - well, I got in the club. I mean, that's the good news. But I did see some pretty amazing bands. And I took pictures of most of them with my camera - with my father's camera, actually, that I would always carry with me back then.

GROSS: OK. Well, it's been great to talk with you all. Thank you so much.

Mr. STIPE: Terry, thanks so much.

Mr. MILLS: Thanks, Terry.

(Soundbite of song "It's The End Of The World")

R.E.M.: (Singing)

That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes,
an aeroplane - Lenny Bruce is not afraid.
Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn,
world serves its own needs, dummy serve your own needs.
Feed it off an aux speak, grunt, no, strength,
The ladder starts to clatter with fear fight down height.
Wire in a fire, representing seven games, and a government for hire at a combat site.
Left of west and coming in a hurry with the furys breathing down your neck.
Team by team reporters baffled, trumped, tethered cropped.
Look at that low playing!
Fine, then.

Uh oh, overflow, population, common food, but it'll do.
Save yourself, serve yourself. World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed dummy with the rapture and the revered and the right - right.
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty psyched.

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

Six o'clock - TV hour. Don't get caught in foreign towers.
Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn.

GROSS: That's "It's The End Of The World" as we know it from R.E.M.'s 1987 album "Document." Our interview with Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills was recorded in April.

(Soundbite of song "Auld Lang Syne")

So, that ends our last show of 2008. There's so much we want to wish you for the New Year, like less anxiety than this year about money, keeping or finding a job and health insurance. Wishing for peace throughout the world may be asking too much, but let's hope for the best. We wish you and everyone you love health and happiness in 2009. Happy New Year from all of us at Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of Fresh Air staff list)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
..COST:
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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