By Gllian G. Gaar
Choosing an album title can be a tricky business — particularly if you’re in the happy position of having released a lot of them over the years. So getting an outside opinion is always helpful, especially if it comes from someone who’s pretty
creative in her own right.
Which is how Patti Smith ended up choosing the title of R.E.M.’s latest record. Smith was in the studio with the band, adding her unmistakable vocals to what would become the album’s closing track “Blue.” “We couldn’t decide on a title for the album,” the band’s guitarist, Peter Buck, recalls. “And I just went, ‘Hey Patti, what do you want to call the record?’ Michael [Stipe, R.E.M.’s lead singer] has a bunch of stuff written in his notebook, and Patti went through them and said, ‘Well — Collapse Into Now.’ And I thought, ‘Well, Patti Smith named it for us — that’s great!’”
It’s been three long years for R.E.M. fans since the release of 2008’s “Accelerate,” and “Collapse Into Now” is also only the band’s fourth studio release in a decade — quite a difference from the band’s prolific early years, when albums dropped more regularly. “Not to name drop, but I was talking to Bruce Springsteen about discovering at a certain point, as you get older, that you actually have a life,” says Buck. “I told him, ‘We put out a record a year for seven years in a row,’ and he goes, ‘You’re kidding! I never did that.’ We would make a record in January, then tour for nine months and make another record the next January. And it was great. I liked doing that. But life interferes! Now I’ve got children, and we have other things going on.
“And it’s also the way the business works now; they don’t want a record from you every year,” he continues. “They want one every couple years. There’s an understanding that, at least before the whole download thing happened, that you could market a record for a year. So that became like, why would you put a record out while you’re still marketing the first one? Though now, you know, you have three weeks and it’s over. But really, doing the work is the same; you write songs that mean something to you and record them to the best of your ability. The business changes, but I’m not running the music business. I’m a musician; it’s someone else’s job to market it.”
“Collapse Into Now” reveals R.E.M. to be in fine form, from the ringing guitars of the opening track “Discoverer,” which has one of Stipe’s most majestic vocals, to the haunting, languid “Blue.” And more contemplative numbers like “Überlin” aside, it’s a record that sees R.E.M. imbued with a fresh, new energy.
Vinyl junkies will also be pleased to hear that “Collapse Into Now,” like the band’s other records, will be available on vinyl as well as CD and downloads. “We insisted everything come out on vinyl,” Buck says. “It’s a small market, but I like the fact that people buy these things on vinyl. And they do sound good; I always get a copy on vinyl.”
A music buff as well as a musician, Buck has kept up with format changes in the industry as a matter of course. “I don’t think that anything sounds better than a mono 45 RPM single,” he declares. “But, hell, they don’t even make those any more! And I travel all the time, so even if I buy the CD, I do the MP3 thing — between driving in my car and walking places and traveling, I just have a huge amount of music. But if I’m sitting around the house and listening for pleasure, I always like vinyl. And I’m totally fine buying a reissue of something. And all this amazing unreleased stuff that’s coming out — I just yesterday got Tim Buckley, his first record, with a whole CD of demos [the latest version recently released by Rhino Handmade]. It’s just great to see that stuff. I never knew it existed, and as far as I was concerned, it didn’t until I could find it. It’s super exciting. You realize how much of this stuff is history.”
Buck has a collection that any music fan would envy, with recordings running into the thousands. “I probably have about 10,000 albums,” he says. “Right now they’re all crated up ’cause I’m in the process of changing places, but it’s a lot. It’s just stuff I bought my entire life. And CDs, I keep buying those, too. I don’t buy as much vinyl any more just because I don’t have space for it. It’s overwhelming for me, and for anyone who has to deal with it! It’s like a museum, but no one sees it. I need to get them out there.”
Buck’s interest in music began as a child. “I was fascinated by music when I was a little kid,” he recalls. “The first live band I ever saw, I think they were called The Postmen. And it was 1965 and they came and played when I was in second grade. They played Byrds and Beatles songs on 12-string guitar, and I was just like, ‘Oh man, this is great!’ It was totally cool. I was like, ‘Boy, I want to do that!’ I kind of figured out early what I wanted to do.”
Unsurprisingly, given his Postmen experience, Buck was first keenly interested in The Beatles. “I loved The Beatles growing up,” he says. “But it’s kind of hard to say you like them now because you can’t really listen to the records. They’re all imprinted in your brain, and you can’t even really hear them any more. But it certainly was what started me off.”
His musical interests later expanded when he began working at Wuxtry Records in Athens, Ga. — the same store where he’d first meet Michael Stipe, another music fan. “It’s the hipster record store,” Buck explains. “It had used records, so I got to play everything in the store. It really broadened my knowledge of music; my boss was really into country blues, which I’d never heard that much, I’d only listened to electric blues. So I was 20 and playing old reissues of 1930s blues records, Arhoolie Records and things like that. It taught me a lot. And I started listening to jazz; I’d never listened to much of it before. And then, you’re in a store eight or nine hours a day with nothing to do but play records and help customers. So I’d be playing anything.
“But the big ‘Road To Damascus’ thing to me was the whole punk rock thing,” he continues. “From Patti Smith through ’82, that was an era when there was just incredible stuff going on. There was always new things every day. It’s the only time I only played current records. I wouldn’t even consider playing a record that was two years old. It was cool living right in the present. And every day, The Clash would put out a record, or some punk band from Ohio, and it was just a constant discovery. It was an exciting time for me. It was probably the last era in rock ’n’ roll that was looking forward. I mean, everything now — no one’s going really forward anywhere. It seems like everyone’s just recycling things. Which can be OK. But it was a totally exciting time to be 17 or 18.”
And it would surely have been even more exciting if a 17-year-old Buck had known he would one day record with Patti Smith, whose appearance gives a darker tone to a largely upbeat record. It was part of the band’s efforts to make their new album as different as possible from their recent releases. “‘Around The Sun’ [released in 2004] was kind of a disaster in a lot of ways,” he admits. “None of us liked it. ‘Accelerate’ is a record I really love, but it was very much kind of a monomaniacal record. This time, we tried to get back to working in a way that was more sensible, like not spending a lot of time and not over-thinking it. Mike and I were concentrating on writing short fast songs, just ’cause we had a couple slow records in a row.
“This record covers a lot of ground,” he continues. “Emotionally and musically it covers pretty much everything we’ve done in the past and it touches a lot of bases that we didn’t do on the last record. And the couple previous to that.” There’s also something of a “concept” feel to the record, with the opening musical theme of “Discoverer” coming back in at the album’s end.
Recording began in 2009 and took place over the following year in a variety of locales, including New Orleans, Berlin and Nashville, Tenn. “If it was just up to me, I would make the whole record in two weeks, probably in Athens!” says Buck. “But everyone likes to move around. New Orleans is one of my favorite cities; I’ve been going there since I was 17. It seemed like a great excuse to spend time there. And Berlin, well, Europe in the summertime can be fun.” And how does all that affect the songs? “Most of the stuff is written before we get in the studio, musically,” Buck explains. “But Michael’s always writing lyrics, and I know there’s a couple things that are specific to New Orleans and Berlin when he was writing. ‘Überlin’ is kind of a reflection of his day in the city and then his night in the city. You go places and ideally you soak some of it up, but we didn’t go to New Orleans to make a funk record or Berlin to make a techno record. So it’s kind of subtle.” Nonetheless, he says the folky “Oh My Heart” reflects where it was recorded: “Just because I’ve spent so much time in New Orleans and it’s got that vibe to it.”
It took a bit of effort to get Smith on the album. The band had originally hoped they’d be able to record when both acts were in Germany. “We wanted Patti, when she was in Berlin, to come by the studio,” says Buck. “But their bus came in at 4, they did the show, and the bus left at 1 in the morning, so she didn’t have time. But we kept talking about it; we just thought it’d be great to have Patti on the record. Patti’s someone that, for Michael and I, particularly, kind of kickstarted the ’70s, and the new music we were listening to then, and it’s been a huge influence on us. We have worked with her in the past, but it’s just a thrill to write a song with her and have her on a record. We just sit there not believing that it’s occurring while it’s occurring.” It’s not surprising that, of all the guest vocals on the record, Smith’s is the most prominent.
Smith’s guitarist, Lenny Kaye, was also drafted to contribute a searing guitar line to the lively “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter,” a gleefully raucous number with a lot of fun wordplay. “I had this picture of this kind of MC-5-ish guitar solo for the song,” Buck explains, “which I can fake if I had to. But you might as well get someone like Lenny who can really do it.” The track also features some brash outbursts from musician/performance artist Peaches.
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder also puts in an appearance, contributing a smooth harmony vocal to “It Happened Today.”
“Eddie actually just came to the studio to listen to the record,” says Buck. “I think Michael suggested, ‘Hey, you want to sing on something?’ And he did!”
Despite the amount of time spent in the studio, Buck says there are only a few tracks that didn’t make the album. “Michael doesn’t finish a lot that doesn’t make the record,” he says. “Musically, there was probably 20 things that I brought in that didn’t get used. I always over-write, so I’ve got a big pile of really nice things sitting around that I can use somewhere or other. But this record, as it goes on, you kind of see what the record’s all about. Particularly in Michael’s case, to finish the record you think ‘Well, we need a song like this’ or ‘We need a song like that.’ It was pretty obvious what needed to be on the record. And the things that got left off were nothing particularly good.”
Touring plans for R.E.M. are up in the air at the moment (oddly, considering the album’s songs would readily translate to live performance), which leaves Buck with plenty of time to check out new music on his own. “At my age, you don’t really expect to have something change your life,” he says. “But you want it to. I mean, honestly I haven’t really seen anything that’s going to change my life recently, but you keep hoping. You want to see cool new bands and you want good things to happen. There’s always someone to switch it around on you. I still go to see a lot of shows ’cause you never know. And I go to clubs and see younger bands ’cause you never know when someone’s going to do something that blows your mind.”
And you’re just as likely to see Buck in a record store as a club. “I still go to the record store Tuesday and buy whatever comes out,” he says. “In the last couple weeks I bought the Phantom Band’s album; I bought the Decemberists record last week. I just keep buying stuff. There’s always new stuff and I’m always hoping something will really excite me. And some of it I buy is really boring, but you never know.”
Buck also has innumerable side projects that keep him busy. “The Baseball Project record I think comes out the same week as the R.E.M. record,” he notes, referring to a band whose other members include Linda Pitmon, Steve Wynn, and Scott McCaughey, who also performs with R.E.M. and whose second album “Volume 2: High and Inside” is scheduled for release in March on Yep Roc Records. “Me and Scott and some of the folks from the Decemberists backed up John Wesley Harding on his new record, which is really good,” he adds. “And I’ve got a session this afternoon, even though I feel like shit. I’ve got a cold; I’ll take some cold medication and drink lots of fluids. Maybe something really spicy will do it. It’s for a guy named Fernando. He’s down here in Portland [Oregon]. He’s got three or four records out. He’s a good friend and it’s really really cool stuff. You should look his stuff up.”
But R.E.M. remains Buck’s main gig, a band which celebrates its 31st birthday this year and shows no signs of stopping. What’s the secret to the band’s longevity? “You know, there’s no secret,” Buck insists. “You just wake up and write songs and record ’em. It’s not that we’ve totally kept it together the whole time. Like any band, we’re here and there and back and forth. But we like working together. And as long as the work is good it’s something you want to pursue.
For Peter Buck, it all goes back to “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968,” the landmark garage rock compilation assembled by Jac Holzman and Lenny Kaye and released in 1972. “For me, the reason I started collecting records, for lack of a better word, was when I bought ‘Nuggets’ when I was 14,” Buck recalls. “I just loved it. And I was looking at it and I realized, all these bands I’ve never heard of have albums out! So basically, I just tried to find the records. And they were all out-of-print, so I just started going to used record stores and finding the Shadows of Knight and Electric Prunes records and all that stuff. And it was just essentially to hear the music. I never really spent a lot of money looking for collector’s stuff.”
Nonetheless, with a collection of singles, albums and CDs that runs into the thousands (over 10,000 albums alone), you’d expect to find a few rarities. In Buck’s case, the ones that came immediately to mind were Beatles-related, starting with the very first record he purchased.
“I think it was ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’” he says. “Though it might have been ‘She Loves You.’ I was 6. And I bought both of those singles within a month of each other. I don’t remember which one was first. All I remember is having the two of them; I only had two records, so I just played each side like five times in a row! Drove my parents crazy. I know that I cut the covers in half and tacked them to the wall when I was like 10. But in later years I got the covers off the wall and put them in a little plastic bag with the record just for nostalgia’s sake.”
Buck also has a Beatles album with an unexpected autograph. “One thing, whenever I see it, that kind of makes me smile is I have a mono English copy of the first Beatles album, ‘Please Please Me,’” he says. “I bought it used and on the back it’s from a girl, and it says ‘Dear Joe, I hope your first record does as well as this one did.’ And I don’t know who Joe is or whoever, but I like to smile and think, that’s kind of cool, that she had this record and I guess her boyfriend’s band put out a record or something. it just feels like a kind of cool thing to have.”
And then there’s a real Beatles rarity. “I found a test pressing of, it’s a 45 for some reason, of the Beatles doing ‘Across the Universe,’” says Buck, “but it’s the version that’s on that English compilation [‘No One’s Gonna Change Our World,’ a charity record released in 1969], so it must’ve been some kind of reference lacquer. I bought it in the ‘70s. I’m assuming it’s pretty rare, because at the time that version was only on that particular record. So I have some kind of weird test pressing of it. I’m sure it must be worth something now. But at the time I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ I didn’t even really know there was another version of it when I got it. It just said ‘Across the Universe’ on it, and I picked it up for a dollar in like a flea market in Atlanta.”
Another example of how rarities can turn up in the most unexpected places.