R.E.M. playing because it can

Concert: The band isn't out promoting its recent album, which came out almost a year ago. It's on the road for the sake of the road.

September 09, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Other rock bands may go on tour to drum up interest in their current album, but not R.E.M. These alt rock legends didn't even hit the road in support of their most popular album, 1991's "Out of Time." For them, roadwork is not business as usual.

So why is the group touring now, almost a year after the release of its latest album, "Up"? Basically, because they feel like it.

As bassist and keyboardist Mike Mills explains, the group did a few promotional appearances in Europe last year and had a blast. "[They] were so much fun, and we enjoyed playing so much that we decided we would do a tour," he says over the phone from the band's home base in Athens, Ga. "That's why we're out here."

It's been a while. R.E.M. hasn't been on the road since the "Monster" tour in 1995, during which drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm in Lausanne, Switzerland. Although Berry completed the tour, he left R.E.M. after recording "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" in 1996. Although the rest of the band -- Mills, guitarist Peter Buck and singer Michael Stipe -- announced that it would continue without Berry, the band gave only a handful of performances before the release of "Up" last October.

Now, however, R.E.M. seems eager to make up for lost time. Without a specific album to promote, Mills and company are free to play pretty much anything they want. Consequently, the set list changes every night, and no two shows are alike.

"It's a very liberating thing, this tour," he says. "It's a great freedom to go out there and make a set list of basically anything you want. We're playing some of the hits, and some of the non-hits, and whatever strikes our fancy."

It helps that R.E.M., in its current incarnation, has a lot of leeway instrumentally, thanks to the three guest musicians who flank Mills, Buck and Stipe onstage. "We have a lot of range," says Mills.

"Counting Ken Stringfellow, Scott McCoy, and myself, we have three guys who can play guitar, bass or keyboards. Peter even plays keyboards on one song. So we can cover a lot of bases."

Even drummer Joey Waronker adds to the band's versatility. "He's not just pounding the skins all the time," says Mills. "He's got a lot of other things that he does as well."

With the extra voices onstage, R.E.M. is able to expand upon its songs, in some cases rethinking the original arrangements entirely. "There are parts that are being played that aren't on the records," says Mills. "There are a couple of things we do that are just purely acoustic, and then some of them actually rock more than on the record. But mostly, we're just doing songs that we really like to play and don't need that much jazzing up."

Though the band feels free to play pretty much anything from its catalog, Mills admits that the group does play a lot of material from "Up" -- in part because radio doesn't.

"These are weird times we're living in right now," he says. "It's like there's a lot of novelty stuff on the radio, and [everything else is] really genre-specific. And since we've never been ones to fit in any particular genre

"It's funny, because we started completely out of the mainstream, and now I feel like we're there again," he adds.

Mills doesn't expect R.E.M.'s next release to get a lot of airplay, either. However, that won't keep people from hearing it, because the project is the soundtrack to Milos Forman's Andy Kaufman bio-pic, "Man On the Moon."

Naturally, the filmmakers wanted to use R.E.M.'s Kaufman tribute -- the 1993 single "Man on the Moon" -- as its movie's title song. "The logical extension was to see if we could get them to let us do the music," says Mills. "They agreed to let us take it, and Peter and I and Michael spent a month in L.A. doing it."

Apart from the title tune and one new song, Mills says that the score is "strictly instrumental" and that recording it proved a creative challenge for the band. "You're writing for other purposes than just self-gratification," he says. "You have to please several other people."

Typically, the band would come up with a couple different ideas for each scene. "Then they listen to it and pick one they like," he says. "Or what Milos Forman is known for doing is taking a piece of music and trying it in several different places and seeing where he likes it best."

Making the process even more challenging was the fact that R.E.M., in order to accommodate its touring schedule, wrote the music before the film's final cut was completed. "Normally, the composer won't get the picture until it's a lot closer to being locked," explains Mills.

At this point, Mills still has not seen the film's final cut. "But I have seen several versions of it, and I think it's great," he says. "Jim Carrey is a really, really good actor. It's amazing how much he inhabits Andy Kaufman."

R.E.M.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion

Tickets: $25 lawn (pavilion sold out)

Call: 410-730-2424 for information, 410-481-6500 for tickets

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