When your original drummer Bill Berry quit in 1997 and you decided with guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills to continue as a trio, you said if a dog loses one of its four legs, it will still remain the same dog but has to learn running in a different way. After a decade, do you think you have learnt to run well?
Yes and we even learnt how to jump around or jump through the hoops. We spent the past decade as a trio, which was sometimes easier, sometimes more difficult and sometimes so difficult that it was easier because of that.
Over the past years, Bill Berry appeared at some of your concerts and sat behind the drums for several songs. In 2007, you even recorded a song together in the studio: John Lennon's song #9 Dream for Amnesty International's Darfur aid album Make Some Noise. What was it like working together in the studio after a decade?
It was good fun. We recorded a cover song, which is very different from recording our own song. It was the cover for a very famous song, for a noble purpose. The atmosphere was very friendly and it was good to be in the studio with Bill.
Bill Berry also appeared as a drummer with you when R.E.M. was inaugurated in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Did this signify a career threshold for you? After a career of more than 25 years, do you also think of the band as an institution that has a responsibility to audiences? Or was it just another award to you?
It was a great honour. That's all. (laughing)
If we look at your past decade, R.E.M. has become much more popular in Europe than in America. How can you explain that your fans remained more loyal in Europe?
I don't know. But I am very happy for it. (starts laughing)
The last interview by est.hu was made with Mike Mills in 2004, at the time the album Around the Sun came out, so I will ask you more about the things that happened since. However, I still want to ask you first, which were your personal favourite R.E.M. albums in the past 25 years. Do you have permanent favourites or do they change?
I have favourite songs rather than favourite albums. Lately, it has become very fashionable to say bad things about Around The Sun, but from that album Electron Blue is one of my all-time favourites. I like Accelerate a lot, I love it being so short and straight to the point. But I think New Adventures In Hi-Fi (the last album recorded in the original four-member setup in 1996) is still one of my favourite albums.
Your new producer Jacknife Lee had previously worked with Snow Patrol (Final Straw, Eyes Open), U2 (How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb), Kasabian (Kasabian) and the Editors (An End Has A Start). How did you choose him? Which of his works convinced you?
It was more his reputation. The Edge from U2 helped us a lot to realise that Jacknife Lee would be a great producer now for R.E.M. We are good friends with U2 members and also great fans of theirs, just like they are fans of us. I often go to them for advice and we talk a lot. The Edge thought Jacknife Lee would be the right producer for us because they could work well together. For this, you have to know that Jacknife is also an Irish guy.
What did he add to the album?
His deep curiosity, which helped us a lot in the studio. It gave us encouragement.
One can tell from listening to this album that you are again enjoying rock music, guitars and energetic, fast songs.
It simply shows where we are at now as people and as a band. One cannot ask much more in art or in music from a new work, but to precisely represent the moment of creation. And Accelerate suits that.
Your lyrics on Accelerate are quite political. Around The Sun was already more political than your previous few albums but this one is even more so. It reminds me of one of my favourite R.E.M. albums, Green, published exactly 20 years ago, in 1988.
I would not draw such parallels but you are welcome to (laughing). I guess that's a good point.
The song Until The Day Is Done from the new album is for instance similar to such protest songs as Dylan's Masters of War and Lennon's Working Class Hero.
(very seriously) Thank you! That's a great acknowledgment. It's only a song but I am very satisfied with it. For me, it' the sister song of I Wanted To Be Wrong from the album Around The Sun. They are both very cool, fictional but not hyperbolic. I cannot think of the right word now, but they show a somewhat romantic but dark vision of our country, an almost hopeless image, but still searching in hopelessness for something that I think is the essence of my country and the essence of the human spirit. My country represents human spirit and that we are able to rise above what we are. We can create something greater then ourselves, become part of an experiment and try to lift the human spirit and our possibilities. I really believe that this is America, I believe that it represents it at a certain level. Reality is obviously far behind the possibilities, the dream. But the dream still exists, I think, in many places around the world.
To what extent can you and should you mix music with politics?
I do not like political music, so the fact that we make political music is almost embarrassing. I believe songs are first of all songs, before being political attacks or praises. When I listen to music, I do not like being preached, that's not why I listen to music. I would like to think that songs like Living Well Is The Best Revenge, I Wanted To Be Wrong or even actually Until The Day Is Done will create a beautiful emotional experience. They express a feeling, an emotion through music before being political messages.
During the previous presidential election, in the autumn of 2004, you were campaigning with the Vote For Change tour in the company of performers like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam. Are you planning something similar for the 2008 elections?
I don't know, nothing is planned yet. But I am very enthusiastic of the possibility that Obama may be elected president. I think he represents something that the country is looking for, something outside the political system, outside of the world of career politicians, outside Washington. Finally, there is someone who really represents change and I think the country is ready for it. After more than seven years of the Bush administration and a completely unnecessary war, I think it is time. R.E.M. will be touring until the end of November so I do not know what will be happening during the elections. For the time being, I am happy just to give interviews and say what I think of the country's situation and what would be good for it.
Who are your favourite performers, which are your favourite albums these days?
At the moment, my greatest favourite is Santogold's album...
I believe it is the best female pop album of the year.
...and I also like MGMT a lot.
That is for me the album of the year. By the way, they played here at Sziget Festival the day before yesterday and we also interviewed them.
I like National a lot, who have also been the opener at some of out concerts. The Editors have also toured with us, they are also an excellent band. Yesterday in Salzburg, at a festival we played, Mike Mills and I watched a show by Ladytron, which was incredibly good.
Ever since the beginning of the nineties, R.E.M. made their clips with some of the best directors (Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, Stéphane Sednaoui, Tarsem, Garth Jennings, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), but a few weeks ago you said you considered music video a dead medium and you do not want to record traditional videos anymore.
Yes, I think the age of the music video is over, its time is gone. The internet and YouTube are much more important and influential in this area now than MTV - that is commonly understood. However, this does not mean anything bad about MTV, which is still a viable source of entertainment and pop culture. The internet did not exist in the heyday of the music video and the music video did not exist in the heyday of the radio. One thing always replaces the other.
So the internet killed the video star? Like the famous song said about the radio?
How do you see the future of R.E.M. in five years' time?
I have no idea where we will be in five years' time. All I know is that we have created a life's work which I am very proud of. We have not set a goal and have no concrete idea about what the future may hold. I think this attitude always worked well for the band in the past. That suits me perfectly well. Every day I only know one day more, whatever has to come will come.
Interviewer: Zsolt Déri
Photo: est.hu, Máté Nándorfi