Twenty-five Years Later, R.E.M. Looks Back on Automatic For The People

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R.E.M, pictured in Miami in 1991. Left to r: Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry, Mike Mills. Photo by Anton Corbijn

Mike Mills knew the song needed something, but he didn’t know what. “Try Not To Breathe,” which would become the second track on R.E.M.’s best-selling Automatic For The People, was almost done, a quietly affecting meditation on mortality sung from the point of view of someone who is dying but doesn’t want to be a burden on the family left behind. Already the arrangement was turning into a delicate balancing at: Adding too much might break the song’s gentle spell, might turn its quiet resignation into melodrama.

“I just knew something needed to go in that song, but I didn’t know what,” says Mills, the band’s bass player, keyboard player, back-up singer, occasional lead singer, and one of its four collaborative songwriters. “We were in the studio in Miami, and I sent everybody away. It was just me and [producer] Scott Litt. He sat in the control room while I tried all these different things.” It took hours of singing and experimenting and debating and trying again until Mills starting ghosting Michael Stipe’s lead melody, his voice shooting up into his upper register. It’s a tender variation on the main melody, one of several vocal hooks layered in the song, turning it into a conversation between the dying narrator and some other presence, perhaps a ghost or a comforting angel.

“When I hit that one line, Scott and I looked at each other, and bam, that was it. You could just tell. Those background vocals are one of my favorite parts of the record.”

Automatic For The People is an album where song and sound merge, where the notes and the instruments and the arrangements become as integral to the whole as the words and melodies. R.E.M. had always been innovative in its democracy: Frontman Michael Stipe might have been the most recognizable member, but the band worked as a unit, each member equal to the others. Perhaps most crucially, they all got equal songwriting credit, an unusual arrangement for any rock band. On Automatic For The People they showed how well that set-up worked and created one of the finest albums of the 1990s and one of the most affecting meditations on death and recovery ever committed to wax.

A new reissue celebrates the album’s 25th anniversary by gathering up the detritus of the album’s creation, starting with loose demos recorded by the three instrumentalists and ending with the only live date they played to support Automatic For The People. As reissues go, it expands the context for the record, providing real insight into its creation and into the statement they were making with these songs — even if they didn’t quite know at that time what they wanted to say.

“You play what you’ve got,” says Bertis Downs, the band’s long-time attorney (although he’s listed as a full member of the band in the Automatic liner notes). “Sometimes you have a great live show. Sometimes it’s great demos. Those have been our two main variables [when we put previous album reissues together]. In this case we had both. And Anton [Corbijn] found some photographs that everybody forgot he’d done. They were on contact sheets and had never been developed properly. So we put them all in the same package with this beautiful book and new liner notes. The album deserves that kind of treatment. It’s a challenging record.”

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It helped that they didn’t have to tour. For 1991’s Out Of Time R.E.M. decided not to promote the album with live dates. They made a similar decision for Automatic For The People, a decision virtually unheard of. At the peak of their popularity R.E.M. were barely even performing live anymore. “They had toured consistently up through ’89,” says Downs. “And they started touring again in ’95. When you look back on it, it’s crazy. These were their two most commercially successful records, but they were off the road entirely.”

R.E.M. had become essentially a studio band, but that freed them up from having to plan a live show in the studio. “We had some freedom knowing we didn’t have to take the songs on the road immediately,” says Mills. “We could worry about figuring out the live show at another time. This was purely about being able to sit and concentrate on the record. Not that I would ever put us in the same sentence as the Beatles, but maybe it’s a little analogous to what they were doing after they stopped touring and didn’t have to worry about taking their songs out on the road.”

With time on their hands in Athens, Georgia, the musicians still treated the band as a job. Mills, guitarist Peter Buck, and drummer Bill Berry would report to the studio everyday and work out ideas, even before anything had solidified into a new album. They’d bring in new ideas, flesh out sounds and themes, and form them into something that had the loose shape of a song, often with choruses and bridges.

In addition to live cuts from the one and only show the band played to promote Automatic — for a Greenpeace benefit at the venerable 40 Watt Club in Athens — this new reissue includes many of these early drafts, showing how the songs came into the world and how they changed from the demos to the final album sessions. “It was always important that the songs be interesting as instrumentals,” says Mills. “The weren’t just there to be vehicles for the lyrics. They had to be fun for us to play and interesting to listen to on their own.”

Once they had hammered out the demos, the band handed the tapes over to Stipe, who was responsible for what Mills estimates to be roughly 98 percent of the lyrics. His process was much looser, much more mystical; he simply had to be inspired. On the demos “Howler Monkey” and “C to D Slide 13,” you can hear him humming rough melodies, singing scratch vocals, mumbling random syllables, figuring out which vowels work here and which consonants work there. It’s a form of taking notes — or, perhaps more accurately, a form of channeling something within the rhythms and melodies of his friends and co-conspirators. Those two demos became the fuzzy agitpunk anthem “Ignoreland” and the Andy Kaufman eulogy “Man On The Moon,” respectively.

“It’s fun for fans to see how the sausage is made, I think, but it’s agony for Michael,” says Mills. “If there were any of my nascent vocals on there, I probably wouldn’t be very happy about it. Musically, a lot of the songs were pretty finished by the time we recorded the actual demos, so you don’t have to hear us plodding our way through unfinished demos.”

The album that emerged from this process shows a band with a wide frame of reference. It’s arguably the most diverse and experimental album R.E.M. ever recorded, one that shows the band’s considerable musical and emotional range. It toggles between the dark glam folk of opener “ Drive” and the understated atmospherics of “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1,” between the secular hymn to skinnydipping “Nightswimming” and the boudoir soundscape of “Star Me Kitten,” whose wall of ooohs and aaahs not only betray a fascination with 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” but also provide a seductive backdrop to one of Stipe’s most erotic set of lyrics. (Original title: “Fuck Me Kitten.”)

“Our rule on this record was no R.E.M. songs. No songs that sounded like us. That’s why you end up with ‘Ignoreland’ and ‘Kitten’ on the album and why you have ‘Mike’s Pop Song’ and “Peter’s New Song” on the box set. We liked them but they sounded too much like R.E.M. songs. So we had to put them aside.”

If they couldn’t sound like R.E.M., they couldn’t sound like anyone else either. The members were determined not to ape any pop trends, including and especially grunge, which was hitting peak popularity when Automatic was released. Mills admits he was the band’s cop, arresting the progress of any parts that sounded too close to someone else’s songs. “If you go out and see a band that’s really hot, that makes you want to go and write a great song, but it doesn’t make you want to go and write a great song that sounds just like that band. So we tried not to worry too much about what was going on in the music world when we were writing songs. We weren’t reacting in opposition to grunge, and we certainly weren’t trying to be a part of it. It really didn’t have anything to do with us in terms of musicality.

“We were a very insular band. We had our little studio in Athens and we didn’t worry too much about the outside world.”

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Stipe wasn’t writing R.E.M. songs either. Automatic often proves as mysterious as previous R.E.M. albums, as dodgy with specific meaning and subject matter. He was always impressionistic, and songs like “Drive” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” don’t give up their points readily. These songs are embedded with references to pop culture: “Drive” borrows from Bill Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock” and David Essex’s glam anthem “Rock On,” as though he’s riffing on the very notion of rocking. “Montie Got A Raw Deal” merges the tragedy of closeted actor Montgomery Clift with the game show Let’s Make A Deal. “Man On The Moon” wonders what Andy Kaufman is doing in heaven today. Automatic reaches out into the world, examining pop culture for clues to some spiritual mystery.

“When Michael went to write lyrics, you never knew what he was going to come up with,” says Downs. “They had the record finished except for ‘Man On The Moon’ and they had ‘Man On The Moon’ finished except for the lyrics. Michael had been watching some old Andy Kaufman stuff and went walking around Seattle with the tape in his Walkman — the old-timey Walkman. That’s how he came up with that song.”

“You look for inspiration wherever you can find it,” says Mills. “On this record Michael allowed some of his youthful influences to come out a little bit, so you get something like the Tokens’ ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ on ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight.’ We didn’t like nostalgia. We were not a backwards-looking band, really at any stage ever, but there’s nothing wrong with having touchstones. What Michael brought to the songs was very personal.”

Mills believes those references may stem from the album’s larger themes of loss and death. “None of us was expecting an album about mortality and passage. That was not our plan going in. It wasn’t Michael’s plan going in. But when he listened to the songs we gave him, the inspiration he got was toward weightier subjects.”

In addition to “Try Not To Breathe,” with its fading narrator surveying the last moments of life, “Sweetness Follows” and “Everybody Hurts” offer slightly more reassuring thoughts on grief and recovery and constitute a new mode of songwriting for Stipe. When the band made their first recordings in the early 1980s, he sang-mumbled obscure lyrics that demanded to be decoded. On a few of the album’s most memorable songs, he adopts a much more direct vocal and lyrical approach, speaking directly to his listener in a tone meant to empathize and comfort. “When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life,” he sings on “Everybody Hurts,” “well, hang on.”

Of course, that last line could be taken different ways. “Well, hang on” could mean it will only get better or the ride will only get bumpier. “That’s the talent in what Michael did. He was able to express things that weren’t maudlin, that weren’t clichés, but that helped you get through the process. I like to think there’s a general note of optimism. Yes, there is a great deal of sadness in life, and there’s always more to come. But it’s still the life you have.”

What prompted such a dark tone for Automatic For The People? According to Mills, it was less an event that was haunting the band, but a life milestone they had reached all around the same time. “Turning 30 is a milestone in anyone’s life. We had all just turned 30, which I think comes into play on this album. You start thinking about things more seriously than you previously did. That’s when you start losing friends. People get sick and die for the first time in your life — if you’re lucky. That affects what you’re thinking about.”

And that may explain the album’s long life — not only why it was so popular in 1992, but also why it still sounds so stirring in 2017. People keep turning thirty, and they keep getting new perspective on these songs and their subjects. It is, in other words, an album that ages and changes with the listener. “It’s been interesting to look at it from the perspective of an adult 25 years down the road,” says Mills of the new reissue. “You can see how the time has elapsed between then and now. It feels like a continuum. It’s the same people. It’s the same life. You just go along day by day.”

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