The ‘New’ R.E.M. – 1999

By Erik Flannigan, Rocket Magazine, 1999

Doing more than just augmenting the core trio are Joey Waronker (Beck’s drummer) and two Seattlites, Ken Stringfellow of the Posies and Saltine and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and Minus 5. Aside from Joey’s drums, there isn’t a single instrument onstage that Ken and Scott won’t touch over the course of the night, as they bounce back and forth across the stage playing organ, synthesizer, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, pedal steel or bass, depending on the song. Stringfellow and McCaughey are enjoying themselves, both sharing in and helping to foster the sense of controlled abandon that fuels the entire band’s performance.

Three nights earlier, Stringfellow, McCaughey and Buck sit together at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle, something they would be doing regardless of being asked to convene to discuss R.E.M.’s Seattle connection–specifically how they met, became friends, and now find themselves playing so damn well together.

Buck sees the current lineup as the third distinct incarnation of the band. The first began with R.E.M.’s formation in Athens, Georgia, in 1980 and lasted through 1989’s tour in support of their first Warner Bros. album, Green. The second spanned 1990 to drummer Bill Berry’s departure in 1997, a period which saw R.E.M. achieve its greatest commercial success on the strength of three consecutive hit albums–Out of Time, Automatic for the People and Monster. The post-Berry era commenced with the recording of last year’s Up and continues with this year’s off-again, on-again tour. McCaughey was in the studio with Buck, Stipe and Mills for two months (as much time as he spent on all of the Young Fresh Fellows albums combined, he jokes), joined by fellow Seattlite and Buck pal drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees and Tuatara).

R.E.M. were resolved to tour behind the album that became Up (a declaration of their intent was one of the mitigating comments tied to the official announcement of Berry’s exit), but after the reportedly strained experience of the recording sessions, they abandoned a full-scale world tour in favor of a TV-appearance-laden promotional jaunt through Europe and the U.S. in late ’98 and early ’99.

The about-face, earlier this year, to go ahead and book modest tours both here and abroad, came as a direct result of the success of those promo shows and how much fun the new lineup had playing them. The change, Buck assures, was not due to any pressure from Warner Bros. as some have speculated. “We had already canceled it. People knew we weren’t going to tour.”

“I don’t think it had anything to do with we should,'” McCaughey concurs. “But then everybody had a great time [on the promo tour], and they thought, Well, maybe we should just do a shorter one.'”

McCaughey, who began working with R.E.M. as a sideman in 1995, knows a good R.E.M. show when he sees one. He saw the band’s first-ever Seattle appearance in 1984 and was introduced to Buck when R.E.M. came back to town a year later. “I hadn’t met him yet,” says McCaughey, “but I knew that he liked the Fellows, because he mentioned us during an interview on KCMUÉ. So I went down to the Paramount, found him, gave him a copy of the Squirrels record, and told him we were playing that night which is why I couldn’t come to his show.”

“I get a lot of records handed to me,” Buck chimes in. “And I still try to listen, but in those days I used to play them all. I liked the Fellows right away.”

“By the time R.E.M. played Seattle in ’89,” McCaughey continues, “Peter had come to see the Fellows at least two or three times in Athens. He’d come to the shows and we’d hang out a little bit. Then, the last time we played Athens, we did the party at your house after the show’ thing–air drumming to Big Star albums, you know, stuff like that. I remember at 5 in the morning, Peter asked, ‘Where are you guys staying tonight?’ ‘Um, gee, we hadn’t really thought about it.’ ‘Well, you can stay here.’

“Then when they came to Seattle to work on Automatic for the People [in 1992], Peter called me up. He probably didn’t know anybody else in town. We’d go out to eat or have drinks pretty regularly while he was here. And then he ended up moving out here. Once he was here, we started playing together a lot, doing all the Minus 5 stuff.”

“Scott introduced me to Stephanie,” Buck adds, referring to his wife Stephanie Dorgan, owner of the Crocodile.

It was their experience recording and performing in and around the Minus 5 between 1992 and 1994 that led Buck to ask McCaughey if he might be interested in touring with R.E.M. for their 1995 world tour behind Monster. “He knew we got along,” McCaughey explains. “He said, ‘I wouldn’t ask you if the Fellows were playing a lot.’ But the Fellows were not really doing anything; we’d kind of brought it down to a crawl. I told him, ‘Sure, I’d like to try.’ I had to audition because I didn’t know the rest of the guys as well.”

That process proved to be a bit daunting. “I was totally stressed out,” McCaughey freely admits. “It was super weird, because, for one thing, I’m not really confident as a musician. I just strum chords and pound chords out so I can write songs. That’s basically my theory as a musician: to learn as many instruments as you can, just well enough so that you can write a song on each. I am not a session guy. They gave me some songs to practice, maybe five or six, of which the one I practiced the most we didn’t play at the audition. They immediately started teaching me “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?,” which I’d never heard before. But that was good, because what’s really important to them–and I didn’t know it at the time–is that you can learn a brand new song right off the bat and just kind of go with it.

“On the last tour, in ’95, we were playing almost every song off New Adventures in Hi-Fi–at least instrumentally–at every soundcheck. We were learning a new song every three or four shows,” says McCaughey, who plays guitar and keyboards on that album. “We’re doing that on this tour, too. We’re already playing four or five new songs that we practice at soundcheck that don’t have lyrics yet.

“Basically, Peter’s thing is, ‘I get along with you. I don’t want to have somebody on tour for a year who I don’t get along with.’ So that was the most important thing, and the fact that I could play a little bit of a lot of different instruments.”

Ken Stringfellow’s personal history with R.E.M. began in 1983 when he heard “Radio Free Europe” on what was then Seattle’s modern rock station, KYYX. “I was living in Bellingham and there were only certain days I could actually pick up KYYX,” he recalls. “It took me about a year to figure out who the band was, because they didn’t back-announce the song. I finally found a cassette of Murmur, and I remember listening to it all the time. R.E.M. was one of the first non-classic-rock bands that I liked. I didn’t have any idea what they were singing, but it was interesting sounding and different.

“I should also note that my high school band covered ‘Second Guessing’ [from Reckoning]. And in the Posies’ first show ever–which was actually just Jon [Auer] and I before we had a band–we played ‘Sitting Still’ [from Murmur].” Stringfellow pauses before admitting just how big an R.E.M. fan he eventually became. “At some point somewhere in there I wrote them a fan letter,” he says a bit sheepishly. “I don’t remember exactly what it said, but I know I was trying to be kind of arty when I wrote them, because they seemed kind of arty. When I was in the band office in Athens a couple of months ago, I asked somebody, ‘So, has all that fan mail from the mid-’80s been destroyed by now?'”

Audition jitters are also part of Stringfellow’s how-he-got-here story, but not with R.E.M. “I’d just had a terrible experience auditioning for Grant Lee Buffalo,” he explains. “Not terrible because of them, but I was so nervous that I became incapable of playing. I went down there and I couldn’t do it. Auditioning is just way too serious.

“As for R.E.M., the first thing that happened was Peter kept calling me and saying, ‘Hey, do you want to play some music?’ I said, ÔSure. I have to go on tour for a couple of months, but when I get back that would be great.’ A few months later I called him because Stephanie had mentioned something to me about playing bass on some demos. It kind of seemed more like a Minus 5 project at that point. Then he told me, ‘Actually, we’re doing an R.E.M. tour for about a year and we need somebody to play guitar and keyboards, so we think you should audition.’ Then a week later he calls and says, ‘Well, actually we canceled the tour, but we still want you to audition.’ Finally it was, ‘If you just want to come down to San Francisco in about a month, you have the gig. You don’t have to audition.”

The San Francisco rehearsals were in advance of R.E.M.’s appearance at last October’s Bridge School Benefit concerts organized by Neil Young, the first of a series of promotional gigs the band was playing in lieu of the proper tour they would eventually book. “We only had two days in San Francisco,” says Stringfellow. “I was practicing keyboard parts on Neil Young’s pump organ. In fact, a significant portion of the second rehearsal was spent practicing ‘On the Beach’ and ‘Ambulance Blues’ with Neil himself.”

R.E.M. wound up performing the latter with Young at both Bridge shows (fanclub members can look forward to hearing “Ambulance Blues” on this year’s annual Christmas single). “I remember Neil walking up to me and saying into my ear, ‘You guys are in a groove,'” Buck recounts with a measure of pride.

Cover versions and forgotten chestnuts are a big part of the ever-changing set lists that have marked R.E.M.’s ’99 campaign so far, much to the delight of longtime fans, among whom you can count McCaughey, Stringfellow and Waronker. “Joey and Ken are directly responsible for songs like ‘Pretty Persuasion’ [from Reckoning] getting into the show,” Buck concedes.

“Anything up through Green I knew better than they did,” says Stringfellow.

So, moving forward, is R.E.M. a six-man band? Yes and no. The touring lineup has already contributed to the soundtrack for Man on the Moon, the Andy Kaufman biopic starring Jim Carrey and directed by Milos Forman, due out this fall. R.E.M. is playing one of the new songs written for Man on the Moon, “The Great Beyond,” on the current tour, and more new music is being written in soundchecks every day, suggesting that while, as McCaughey is quick to point out, R.E.M. “is absolutely those four and now three guys,” he and Stringfellow look to be continuing contributors.

For his part, Buck is already in the planning stages for R.E.M.’s next record, which sounds a bit like their White Album: “I’ll probably record some this fall and we’ll go into the studio next February. I see it as having maybe four band songs, where we’re all in the room together, then some things we’ve demoed apart with additional instrumentation added. I’ve got about 20 songs ready.”

But before any of that there’s still the U.S. tour (including a September 2 homecoming date to kick off Bumbershoot at Seattle Center’s Memorial Stadium), which, if the Greek Theater show and the band’s recent European dates are any indication, will prove R.E.M. to be as vital as they ever were. Surprisingly, 19 years on, that’s the kind of critical opinion that still means something to Buck. “We played the Glastonbury Festival this year,” he says. “And in the last three years, we’ve received some negative press in England. So we came to Glastonbury, heard some great music, came out onstage and scorched the Earth.”

The press agreed. “Tonight they aimed for the stars and hit home with a set of such pain and sadness that any questions about decreasing sales, diminishing powers and sliding relevance were dismissed,” writes Mojo magazine of the Glastonbury show. “R.E.M. [are] unquestionably the greatest band on the planet again.”