IT SHOULDN’T HAPPEN to a rock band attempting to carry themselves with dignity. But having survived many moments that would have crushed lesser bands – not least the burst aneurysm that nearly killed drummer Bill Berry onstage in Lausanne in 1995 – R.E.M had to run the gauntlet of the Muppets.
“One of the worst days of my life,” reveals Michael Stipe in the latest issue of MOJO magazine (available in the UK from Tuesday, October 25), explaining how a night in 1998 riven with troubling dreams turned into a day more surreal than any of them: “I’m dishevelled, I’ve got half a beard and I have to go and sing with the Muppets.”
R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck, wrestling with hangovers and other demons, found the experience similarly discomfiting (it certainly sheds new light on the footage, below).
On top of everything else, R.E.M. were playing Shiny Happy People (or a muppet variant thereof), the jaunty ditty they’d had a prickly relationship with ever since it became the second single from their breakthrough 1991 album, Out Of Time. It wasn’t even a particularly representative track from the often mournful, acoustic-flavoured album, but it helped propel the group – formerly poster boys for the Alternative Rock boom – into a mainstream that was beckoning after the incremental advances made by 1987’s Document and 1988’s Green album (their debut for major label Warners) and their accompanying tours.
Yet for Out Of Time, R.E.M. kicked against the norms of turn-of-the-’90s rock. With the arena moves of Green set aside, quiet, humble songs – many featuring Peter Buck’s mandolin – played out. There wouldn’t even be a tour.
“With Out Of Time we really stepped outside of ourselves and outside of rock’n’roll,” Stipe tells MOJO’s Tom Doyle.
R.E.M. also reflect on the journey that took them to Out Of Time, and the problems they had adjusting to its aftermath, as the spotlight fell on Stipe as an enigmatic frontman of unpublicised sexuality and Peter Buck went walkabout as his marriage fell apart. “It was interesting to be in one of the biggest bands in the world and just falling off the face of the earth,” says the latter.
It’s the first time the group have come together to talk since they announced their split in 2011, and they talk of frictions that led to the final impasse and their lives since. There’s even the hint of a possibility that Michael Stipe might make a solo record, after helping produce the forthcoming album by New York art-dance duo Fischerspooner. “At some point hopefully I won’t disappoint you,” the singer tells MOJO.
Also in our R.E.M. fest: producer Scott Litt on recording R.E.M.’s breakthrough albums; Victoria Segal on the new Out Of Time 25th Anniversary deluxe package, including its illuminating disc of demos; and Keith Cameron remembers a night in an ersatz cantina with Bingo Hand Job – are you R.E.M. in disguise?
And elsewhere in the new issue of MOJO, Brian Wilson writes of the fear that haunted The Beach Boys’ greatest music; we tell the definitive inside story of Bowie’s last act – Lazarus; Roy Harper returns from hell; Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan box sets come under the microscope; Metallica’s Lars Ulrich gets (back) on the couch; Syd Arthur psych out Paul Weller and more.
Meanwhile our scuzztastic covermount CD celebrates the Golden Age of alternative rock with 15 songs by Dinosaur Jr, Lemonheads, Pavement, Galaxie 500 and more!
PHOTO: Guido Harari