For R.E.M., 'just playing' isn't enough On the road: Its members all healthy for a change, the band is putting together an album while touring.

October 16, 1995|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Peter Buck knows people are worried about his health.

It isn't that he's sick; in fact, it's just the opposite. Since starting out on their current tour, every other member of R.E.M. has been stricken by some ailment or other. First, drummer Bill Berry suffered an aneurysm. Then bassist Mike Mills was hospitalized with a stomach blockage.

After singer Michael Stipe went in for hernia surgery, it seemed only a matter of time before guitarist Buck would be attended to by physicians. The only real question was what medical emergency would finally befall him.

Well, wonder no longer. "I had a hangnail," says Buck. "I count that as my little tour thing."

A hangnail? How can that possibly count? Well, he replies, "I've ++ never had a hangnail in my life, and I had one on the last day of the tour in Europe.

"Personally, I've always been really healthy," he continues, over the phone from a tour stop in Richmond, Va. "And [the other injuries] were getting progressively less severe. Bill's aneurism was serious and life-threatening and scary. Mike's stomach thing, which they couldn't figure out and he was in agony for a week, that was pretty scary, but not life-threatening. And Michael's was not a joke, but it was what it was. People have those operations all the time.

"So the hangnail, that's right in keeping with the trajectory."

That hasn't stopped fans from fussing over him, of course. "I have more people coming up to me and saying, 'Good luck,' or giving me crystals or whatever," he says, obviously bemused. "I was positively clanking at one point, they were giving so many of these rocks."

Health care issues aside, Buck has been enjoying this latest leg of the tour, because it finds the band doing something different on the road: Cutting a new album. "It's kind of fun for us," he says. "I think the reason that we got kind of bored with touring in '89 was that we were just playing. Playing is really fun, but you don't really write songs when you play. Even if you change the set every night, you're still only doing 40 songs, or 45 songs or whatever.

"It doesn't really give you a lot of creative outlet. So we made this promise to ourselves that we were going to spend a lot of time writing songs, and rehearsing, and recording. And that's what we've been doing. We've got a bunch of new songs in the set, and we've got a little DAT player/recorder with a mixing board in our dressing room, so every night we kind of record song ideas, then work on them at soundcheck the next day."

Playing new songs may be fun for the band, but it's not without risk, since concert-goers generally want to hear songs they know.

"Our audiences are way more open-minded than most people's audiences," Buck says. "Still, asking them to listen to half an hour of songs they haven't ever heard ever, unless they own bootlegs, is kind of hard.

"We've got, I think, five new songs in the set," he adds. Only one of them, "Wake-Up Bomb," is likely to be familiar to fans, and then only if they remember it from the band's performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. "We have one called 'Undertow,' that's really weird, but it's really dramatic, and that gets a good response," Buck says. "And we have one called 'Revolution' that's really fast, and people cheer in the middle of it. But I think they cheer in the middle because the lights come up."

There are quiet moments in the show, too, but nothing near as gentle and unamplified as the sound R.E.M. delivered on "Automatic for the People" through songs like "Losing My Religion." With "Monster" and the new songs, R.E.M. comes across as a rock 'n' roll band -- loud, aggressive, heavily amplified -- and that is not the way every fan would prefer the band to be.

"A lot of people like us as the acoustic, quieter band," he says. "Those are the records that initially sold huge amounts for us. And I think it does confound people's expectations a little bit, that we're not playing a greatest hits set, that we're doing a lot of stuff that they haven't heard.

"I mean, I know that the reason that we've sold literally 30 million records in the '90s is because of 'Losing My Religion.' The rest of our work is good, too, but that record just opened up the marketplace in a way that nothing else ever had, and it reached home to a lot of people all over the world.

"To a lot of people, that's what we are," he says. "That one song." And does that bother him? "I don't have a problem with it. I love that song. If we had never had a hit, and then 'Shiny, Happy People' was a hit, and people thought we were that," he adds, chuckling, "that would probably be a pain

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