Now it can be told: In 2004, during the recording and release of the “Around the Sun” (Warner Bros.) album, R.E.M. was on the ropes.
“It’s really hard to make a record that’s exciting to listen to if you’re so sick of the songs that you just want to kill yourself - the way we were working, that’s the way it would be,” says R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, calling from his Seattle home. “I remember we went in one night and Bill (Rieflin, the band’s drummer) said, `Oh my God, we’re not re-recording that again, are we?’ How can you get a good take if everyone in the band feels that way?”
Afterward, there was talk about whether the band, pioneers of indie rock and recent inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, would continue. “I think that all three of us could leave the band any day - it’s an option we have and the older we get and the longer we’ve done it, the more likely that option is,” Buck says. “We’ve already outlived all but U2 and the Rolling Stones really. We’ve never broken up. We’ve never been away.”
But the struggle with “Around the Sun” actually ended up energizing R.E.M. When it came time to work on a new album, Buck, singer Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills were adamant - they weren’t going to go through that kind of ordeal again. “I was very positive about it,” Buck says. “I was saying, `Guys, we’re a great live band and we write great songs and that’s all it takes. So let’s go into the studio and capture what we do onstage as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel and spending eight months just working things to death.’ It’s not fun and it doesn’t work. By the time we finished the last record, believe me, everyone agreed with me.”
The resulting album “Accelerate,” released in April to the strongest reviews and warmest radio reception R.E.M. has enjoyed in more than a decade, only cemented the band’s belief that they had tapped into something new, that they were ready to enjoy themselves. And now, as the band embarks on a world tour that runs through October, they’re ready to show fans what has them so revved up.
“We made a record that we feel real strongly about and is a lot of fun to play live, and there’s nothing better than to tour in the spring and the summertime and see the world,” Buck says. “Once we started hearing these songs, I thought, `We could put this record out in mono and it’d be a good record.’”
“Accelerate” is packed with tight arrangements and raucous guitars, from the snarling “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “Man-Sized Wreath” to the charming power-pop single “Supernatural Superserious” and Buck says the new album offers the band some special opportunities for the tour.
“Obviously, we love the new record because it’s new, but given that it’s 35 minutes long and I doubt that we’re going to play every single song from it, that leaves an hour and a half to go through our past work,” he says. “Generally, what we do is we learn between 80 and 90 songs and, on the day of the show, basically it’s me and a magic marker and a pad, going, `What do you guys feel like playing?’ I’m sick of this song, sick of that one, maybe let’s try this one, let’s do this one acoustic. We try to keep it really spontaneous and not by rote and it really makes it more fun for us.
“For me, it means it’s a less professional show in that we don’t always know where we’re supposed to be standing and sometimes one guy will start a song while the other guy is changing his instrument,” he adds, laughing. “But it keeps it from being a Broadway play, which is a good thing.”
Considering the ever-splintering of the music industry, Buck says he understands that the tour may be the way that many R.E.M. fans hear the songs of “Accelerate” for the first time, which makes the concerts even more important.
“It’s a whole new world out there now,” he says. “Everyone is selling less records, we sold less records. ... If we’d have had this record, with these kind of reviews and the kind of radio airplay we’re getting, in 1994, we would sell 6 million or 7 million records - 8 or 10 million worldwide. What do we do now - maybe 2 or 3 ? I’ll take it. Two or 3 million is a lot.
“At the point we are in our career, or whatever it’s laughingly called, we’re not really selling our brand-new record, we’re selling who we are: `This is a great band. They made a great record. They’re going to be coming to your town this summer,’” Buck continues. “I want people to hear it. I prefer they buy it. But if they download it, it’s OK with me, because it’s something I’m really proud of, and really, in the long run, the more people who hear this record, the better it is for us.”