R.E.M. is back. Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe never really went away, but R.E.M. hasn't seemed the same in recent years.
The R.E.M. that has re-emerged in 2008 is, once again, the one fans first loved.
The consensus on "Accelerate," the Athens-based trio's 14th studio album, is that it's the group's best work since the 1997 departure of drummer Bill Berry. British music weekly NME says the album "crucially echoes a time when they made their best music, if not necessarily their biggest-selling."
R.E.M. seemed re-energized by the new material at a show at Austin, Texas, venue Stubbs Bar-B-Q in March, where the whole band was in a playful, celebratory mood.
Now, the band is taking its rock 'n' roll revival to the world. The North American leg of the 2008 world tour ends at Lakewood Amphitheatre Saturday. Then Stipe, bassist Mills and guitarist Buck head to Europe for a stretch that runs into early October.
Recently Buck, 51, answered questions from his Seattle home about the new album and the tour.
Q: Did you change the way you'd been making albums for "Accelerate"?
A: Yeah. It seemed like we'd turned into one of those bands that just book like a million months in the studio and just beat it to death. The last record, for me, just wasn't really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can't stand it anymore. I kept saying "Guys, we've got to be focused, we've got to be prepared in the studio. Rather than booking two months, let's book 10 days." And it worked really well. We went in, everyone was really prepared. There was a lot of energy, because it was such a short period of time.
Q: So making yourself do it in a shorter period was beneficial?
A: I've been saying that for 10 years and no one ever listened to me. Having some kind of restriction on what you can do can be a positive thing. It means that you have to make decisions. And the last record was a record where there wasn't a single decision made for the first seven months. I just couldn't do that anymore. And I think the other guys kind of agreed that it didn't work. We needed to make a focused record, and you have to be focused.
Q: Do you think you achieved that?
A: Yeah. I feel real confident that it's a good record and represents who we are right now and the spontaneity that we can bring to the shows when we play live.
Q: Did you feel like you had something to prove with "Accelerate"?
A: Really, only to myself. I mean, as far as everything else, I could never make another record and I'd be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I'd be rich and people would still remember me to one degree or another. But, I want to make great records. I want us to be a great band. And I don't see any reason in doing it if we're not great. We never had any problem on stage, it's just with the recording aspect of it.
Q: Has playing the new stuff re-energized the live show?
A: When we took the songs over to Dublin to play them to get ready for the record, it just felt real great. It totally felt like this is the band we are and this is where we should be.
Q: How much will the set list change from night to night for this upcoming tour?
A: It changes every night. We usually have 80 or 90 songs we can pull out on any given day. And, we'll do the new record and the five or six hits that everyone really expects us to do, and then it's just completely what we feel like on that given day.
Q: I was surprised and pleased to hear "Second Guessing" [from the band's second album, "Reckoning"] at the Stubbs show.
A: When we did the Dublin shows, we thought we wouldn't play anything that we normally played on our tours. So we went back and listened to a lot of the old records and picked out a lot of stuff we hadn't played at all. It was really pretty cool. It was a great experience re-learning those songs and remembering who wrote them and what the band was all about.
Q: How was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction experience?
A: I think it's probably an honor best savored in retrospect. I mean, it was great and I appreciate it, but those things are just a pain in the [butt]. I like to have it done and now feel like, well, it's finished.
Q: Are you still a voracious collector of music?
A: As soon as I finish this stuff, it's Tuesday. It's new releases day, so I'm probably going to head up to my local, which is a good 40-minute walk, and do some shopping. That's kind of how I spend the Tuesdays.
Q: Sounds like a good way to keep in shape, too.
A: You gotta do something. A man can't just sit around the house.
Q: What do you think the young Wuxtry [the still-kicking Athens record store] employee you were about 30 years ago would think of the Peter Buck of today?
A: Well, I don't have a job, so I think he'd be pretty happy, you know.
I just remember when I was growing up, the neighborhood I lived in, it kind of reminded me of that movie "The Ice Storm" — except I don't think anybody had any energy to have affairs or anything. Every adult, you could just see in their faces that they hated life. They hated their job. They hated everything. I didn't know an adult that was happy. I thought all adults were supposed to be depressed, because life was [expletive]. I remember when I was about 13, saying, "I'm never going to have a job, look at what it does to these people. How horrible." So I've based my life on the fact that I wanted to do creative stuff. And I was perfectly willing to be poor, just to do what I wanted to do. And I got lucky and I won the lottery, but I avoided that trap.
Q: If you could go back and give that young version of you one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Buy Microsoft? Honestly, I don't care about money. I think the idea is that, if somehow I knew I had some goal to work toward as teenager, life would have been a little happier as opposed to being kind of a nutty, depressed teenager. But, I think it's better not to know. I got lucky and I did the right thing.
Q: Since you're no longer living in Georgia, is there anything you miss about it?
A: The good thing is I get to go back pretty regularly. I still have tons of friends there. I still kind of consider myself a Southerner, because that's where all my growing up happened.
Q: What is the most important ingredient in R.E.M.'s longevity?
A: We're just really stubborn. I feel like I still have things I want to accomplish. I never really understood that whole thing where people get in a band, it gets kind of successful and they decide that what they really want to do is not be in a band anymore, or not work. To me, this is what I do. I wanted to make a lot of records. I want to make great records.
R.E.M. with Modest Mouse and the National. 6:30 p.m. June 21. $65-$75; $35 lawn. Lakewood Amphitheatre, 2002 Lakewood Way, Atlanta. 404-443-5090, 404-249-6400, www.livenation.com/venue/getVenue/venueId/238.
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