R.E.M. Breaks Up (Everybody Cries)

BY Jeffrey Brown  September 22, 2011 at 2:08 PM EST

R.E.M. on April 8, 1985, in Athens, Ga. Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage

R.E.M. on April 8, 1985, in Athens, Ga. Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage.

 
After 31 years as a band, R.E.M. announced Wednesday that they’re calling it quits.

In a statement on the group’s website, singer Michael Stipe explained: “A wise man once said, ‘the skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.’ We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we’re going to walk away from it.”

R.E.M. started playing in underground clubs and parties in Athens, Ga., in the early 1980s before becoming college radio stars and then eventual megastars in the mid-‘90s. They helped shape much of alternative music of the era.

Joining me on the phone is music writer Anthony DeCurtis. He’s a longtime contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine.

He also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, which is where he was when he talked to us by phone earlier today:

A transcript is after the jump.

 
Watch the R.E.M. video for “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”:

 
JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. After 31 years as a band, R.E.M. announced Wednesday that they’re calling it quits. In a statement on the group’s website, singer Michael Stipe said: “A wise man once said, ‘The skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.’ We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we’re going to walk away from it.” R.E.M. started playing in underground clubs and parties in Athens, Ga., in the early 1980s before becoming college radio stars and then eventual megastars in the mid-‘90s. They helped shape much of alternative music of the era. Joining me to talk about them on the phone is music writer Anthony DeCurtis. He’s a longtime contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Welcome to you.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: A pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Take us back to the beginning. What was R.E.M. in the early days?

ANTHONY DECURTIS: Well, as it happens, I was living in Georgia when R.E.M. formed in the early ’80s in Athens, Ga. I was living in Atlanta. It’s really hard to recreate how exciting R.E.M. was at that point. There was a sense that after punk — punk itself for all of its vitality had a kind of negative energy and it also flamed out — but R.E.M. represented something that was very optimistic, and it represented also a tremendous and very invigorating alternative to the mainstream. There was a sense in the ’80s that things were getting bigger and bigger and bigger and glossier and glossier and glossier, whereas R.E.M. demonstrated that you could just follow your own path, build your own audience and do it your way, and it was something that people really believed in. They had such a fervent audience.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a fervent, almost cult following at the beginning, but it grew and grew, and they became mega and big themselves.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: Well that’s right. They started out really at a time when it was possible to build an audience very gradually. R.E.M. didn’t have a gold or a platinum record until their fourth or fifth album, but it was as if with those early records — their first album was called “Murmur,” and the next record called “Reckoning,” an album called “Fables of the Reconstruction” — they very gradually built an audience. And when you would go to an R.E.M. show, it was as if everybody there knew the band, and many of them had met the band. The band would go talk to college radio stations and was very personal, and that sense of personal commitment was a key part of R.E.M.‘s appeal.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the music itself, fitting in against what was happening around it?

ANTHONY DECURTIS: Very interestingly, the music was something that drew on the past. People would constantly refer to the Byrds or the Velvet Underground, bands that, by the way, back in the early ’80s had more or less been forgotten by many people. R.E.M. revives that history. And also there was a consciousness about punk, they were very aware. They sounded very fresh and very contemporary, and there was a beauty, there was a melodic beauty about their music and a warmth in Michael Stipe’s singing that made it possible for people to enter these songs and almost go wherever they wanted. There were songs that had a lot of beautiful imagery in them. The word that was tossed around all the time to the point where it became almost annoying was ‘enigmatic,’ but there was a mysterious quality to R.E.M. R.E.M. is the dream state of sleep, and their songs reflected that very early on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And their business model, I guess, and their music clearly influenced many other bands.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: Absolutely. R.E.M. never really set out to be a big band; they set out to be a great band. The president of their record company, IRS Records, at first said to them, ‘You want to do things your way, you want to look the way you want, you want to do the songs you want, you want to approve all the artwork. Fine. But don’t come to me and complain that you don’t have the big house, and you don’t have the big car, and you don’t have the swimming pool. I don’t want to hear those complaints from you.’ And that’s the way R.E.M. proceeded. Eventually they got all those things. But they did it their way. They didn’t conform. And later on, bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, both spoke very personally about the impact that R.E.M. made on them both musically but also in the way they went about doing things.

JEFFREY BROWN: If you fast forward here over the next several decades, one of the original members left, they had less of an audience, they didn’t record for periods of time. Bring us up to date. What happened?

ANTHONY DECURTIS: I think it was a key moment when Bill Berry, who had had suffered an aneurysm and nearly died, he was the drummer in the band, he was also one of the songwriters in the band. They all wrote songs. Bill wrote “Everybody Hurts,” one of their big hits, for example. He finished out a tour with them and then left. And in many ways I think that really caused a big readjustment in the band. As time went on, Michael Stipe began producing movies; Peter Buck always was a big music hound, has a thousand side projects going on; and Mike Mills began exploring things like producing other bands and getting involved in the music industry in that way. Peter was living in Seattle much of the time, Michael Stipe was in New York much of the time, Mike Mills was moving between Los Angeles and Athens much of the time. For a band that had been so close and so tight, lived in such an enclosed world in Athens, Ga., these were big changes, and I think over time it became harder and harder to summon up what it was that really R.E.M. represented at this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: It sounds, though, as though they’re parting in a healthy way. At least that’s how it sounds.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: They are parting in a very R.E.M. way. No big statement, no huge farewell tour. There’s a sense of treating each other with dignity, treating each other with respect, treating their audience with respect. Now, I’d have to say I’d be shocked if they never played again together. These guys are still friends, but I think rather than just kind of let things drift, they felt a need to mark this. And they did it in a very R.E.M.-like way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Before I let you go, do you have a favorite song or songs or album to recommend for the first-timer with R.E.M.? Or even for those who are quite familiar with them? What’s your favorite?

ANTHONY DECURTIS: I have a lot of songs, but you know, the one that really just seems the most timely, maybe it’s a little obvious, but it’s a song that says a lot, I think, it’s called “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine…)”

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s it?

ANTHONY DECURTIS: Well, I mean, look, the first song. “Radio Free Europe” was a song that launched R.E.M. and launched the whole movement. “Radio Free Europe” is one of the classic songs of the American underground. And that’s a song that anytime I hear just summons up everything that R.E.M. represents.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok. Anthony DeCurtis on the band R.E.M. Thanks so much.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: Thank you. It was a pleasure

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us once again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.