"Hooray, we're done": The inside story behind R.E.M.'s disbandment

The never-before-told story behind the band's decision to walk away -- and one emotional and private final concert

Published April 7, 2013 7:30PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "R.E.M.: Perfect Circle"

R.E.M.’s stature in modern music was celebrated on March 11, 2009, with a tribute concert in New York. There had been similar such events over the years, of course, including the one in 2006 in Athens where the trio had reunited with Bill Berry, but nothing on the level of this, at Carnegie Hall. With Calexico taking the reins as house band, the benefit concert (for children’s music education charities) featured a veritable who’s who of R.E.M.’s 1980s independent peers (the dB’s, Feelies, Throwing Muses), a healthy smattering of acclaimed newer acts (Kimya Dawson, Keren Ann, Guster), a couple of their Athens compatriots (Apples In Stereo, Vic Chestnut); it was closed out by their leading light, Patti Smith. Each act got to perform just the one song, and they ran the range of R.E.M.’s catalog, from ‘Sitting Still’ (Bob Mould) to ‘Supernatural Superserious’ (Marshall Crenshaw). After Patti Smith sang ‘New Test Leper,' Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe came out to join her for a finale of ‘E-Bow The Letter.' This was to be the last time that the three remaining founding members of R.E.M. performed together in public.

Did they know as much at the time? It was certainly on their minds. Eighteen months later, after the break-up, Michael Stipe confessed that the discussion had started “On our last tour, 2008. During that we were kind of going, well, where could we go from here? We could tell we were on an upswing. It was important to us that we didn’t whimper out with our tails between our legs. We wanted to feel we were at the peak of our powers, and the tour felt like that.” It had become apparent to audiences that as Michael Stipe got older, he got better as a front man; in hindsight that was because he knew he had a finite time to prove as much. “Once I reached my forties, I thought to myself that if I’m going to play live now, I need to really mean this. I can’t go out and be a little bit, for one moment slovenly in my choices as a performer.”

Mike Mills confirmed that, “We were discussing various options on the 2008 tour and I think each of us individually came to the conclusion that probably the best thing to do would be to stop. And once we started broaching that subject with each other we agreed that that was the direction to go.”

And yet for all this talk between the band members, there was never any question but that R.E.M. would make another album; all interviews, blog posts, and press statements in the wake of the 2008 world tour assured people as much. By R.E.M.’s recent standards, they were relatively quick about getting back into it as well. Come May of 2009, and Buck, Mills, guitarist Scott McCaughey, drummer Bill Rieflin and producer Jacknife Lee gathered at the Jackpot! Recording Studio in Portland (where McCaughey now lived, as did Buck’s girlfriend, the guitarist going through a messy divorce with his second wife Stephanie) to record over a dozen instrumentals. Several of the louder ideas laid down that week would turn into songs for the next album (‘All The Best,’ ‘That Someone Is You’ and, in more aggressive form than as finally released, ‘It Happened Today’) although, when interviewed by Pitchfork Media during the Portland demos, Buck announced that “If it were me making all the decisions, I’d say the record would be a lot broader than the last one.”

Jacknife Lee felt that there had been consensus on this even before making the previous album. 'Accelerate' “had an agenda behind it,” he says, one that he defined as “Let’s puff our chests out and stretch our limbs a bit and stand up and jump about.” (The group also frequently used the word ‘agenda’ when describing 'Accelerate.') He recalls telling Bertis Downs that, “Once we get past that, we’ve made a point, now we can just concentrate on making a great record.” 'Accelerate' was a great record of course, and for the first time in at least seven years, an R.E.M. album showed up on a number of annual American year-end polls. But as the group approached what they suspected would be their swan song – a decision that, for all the commonality within the trio, had yet to be finalized, let alone discussed with anyone else – there was no doubt that the group wanted to make an equally excellent, but musically more varied, album.

Allocating the time to record it, as a band, with Stipe, was easier considered than done, however, given that the members remained constantly in motion. Michael Stipe continued to engage his multiple personalities – the activist and celebrity who co-hosted one of President Obama’s Inauguration Parties and showed up on late-night talk shows was also a reinvigorated visual artist. “About five years ago I sat bolt upright in bed and said to myself, ‘I want to make sculpture,’ ” he told the Guardian after the final album was completed. “I don’t know where it came from, and I’m not even sure what sculpture is any more, but it just hit me like a truck.”

Stipe’s medium was to replicate items of personal relevance in bronze, and in the summer of 2008, as his rock group toured the planet, he presented a show of five such items (a camera, a cassette tape, etc.) at Manhattan’s Rogan Gallery under the title ‘Relics.’ In August 2009, his life-size sculpture of an American buffalo would be installed in the window of Athens’ new Hotel Indigo, his first exhibited piece in his college hometown, where he had initially signed up as an art student almost 30 years previous.

For his part, Buck (along with McCaughey and Rieflin) had a new album by Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 to promote, and their travels not only took them through Europe as usual, but to opening slots with Portland’s prominent new stars the Decemberists that concluded at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, where Buck joined the headliners for a tour-ending encore of ‘Begin The Begin’ and accepted an invitation to play on their next album. Buck and McCaughey also got to tour yet another of their acts, the Baseball Project, whose album, released in the midst of all the attention afforded Accelerate, was the realization of a long-term dream between McCaughey and (former Dream Syndicate front man) Steve Wynn, to write and record songs about America’s pastime. (Though heartfelt, they were appropriately irreverent, as the title ‘Ted Fucking Williams’ no doubt clarifies.) The tour in September, with Linda Pitmon on drums, turned into a two-hour-plus bonanza that rotated the Minus 5 into the Baseball Project and then the Steve Wynn IV. Buck would take to the merchandising table in the interval, knowing that the presence of a bona fide rock star – and his willingness to sign newly purchased CDs – could often play its part in helping double the night’s overall take.

While waiting for the group to arrange their calendars, Lee was hired to revisit the Dublin Olympia tapes and compile a double CD; Vincent Moon likewise was asked to compile his films from across the residency into a single reel. The live package was released as both a CD and a CD/DVD package in October under the name R.E.M. Live At The Olympia – though if the CD cover was to be taken at face value, that title continued as In Dublin 39 Songs. By any standards – even those of R.E.M. on a mission to reacquire their magic – that represented a phenomenal turnover of material on a five-night run. As well as revealing all but two of the 'Accelerate' songs in suitably “raw, immediate” form, to quote Stipe’s initial intent for the material, and apart from providing suitably energetic revisitations of so much 'Chronic Town' and 'Reckoning' material, the Live At The Olympia CD offered the added bonus of the previously unreleased ‘On The Fly’ and ‘Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance,’ each sounding phenomenally complete already for songs that were ultimately considered unworthy of inclusion on Accelerate. Further to the choice and number of songs, and the fact that, to use the necessary terminology, they rocked, the recordings captured the group in almost candid, light-hearted mood, and the comfortable environment of the small theatre provided for more intimate video footage too. It was as far removed as possible from 'Perfect Square' while still depicting the same band, and a further return to basics from the previous Dublin concert to have been released on CD/DVD, 2007’s R.E.M. Live. Unfortunately, in a living instance of ‘the Boy who Cried Wolf’ the public, having been force-fed official R.E.M. live releases on a tourly basis of late, didn’t buy it – certainly not in the numbers that they should have. A $100, four-LP, two-CD, DVD package appeared to pale in importance next to the inexpensive Deluxe double-CD remastered edition of 'Reckoning' released earlier in the year. Live At The Olympia remains R.E.M.’s most under-rated, under-sold official release – and for new fans looking for a way into the band’s live appeal, the essential purchase.

* * *

R.E.M. eventually reconvened to record their fifteenth album in November. Part of the delay had been down to a struggle to find the right (non) studio. Stipe liked to be somewhere warm for his vocal cords. “So we started looking in the Southern Hemisphere,” says Lee, but they came up short. “Started looking in France and couldn’t find anything.” Eventually the group decided to hone in on New Orleans, the scene of many a momentous gig, some important recording sessions and, given the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, a good place to bring their business. A studio aptly called the Music Shed – essentially a big warehouse – was booked, Jacknife Lee brought in the same engineers (Sam Bell and Tom McFall) as had helped make Accelerate a success, and in a three-week spate of activity, the group recorded much as they had in Vancouver last time around, laying down a large chunk of the album in first, second or third takes. All of them loud. “It could have been Accelerate Part 2,” says McCaughey, “because we had a real brace of ‘two guitars, bass and drums’ songs.”

As such, there was a concerted effort to move away from this constriction. “The last thing any of us wanted to do was 'Accelerate' Part 2, and so we tried to, I guess, expand on that,” stressed Stipe as the album reached completion, to which Buck noted that, “The record was meant to be a very inclusive, wide record, so there’s all kinds of stuff on there: fast, slow, loud, quiet, a lot of really emotional things.” That emotional bent was evident on ‘Oh My Heart,’ which Buck was to note as a rare case of a song being influenced by its recording location, “Just because I’ve spent so much time in New Orleans and it’s got that vibe to it.” The pace of initial recording proved sufficiently rapid that New Orleans’ Bonerama horns were brought in to add subtle colour to its introduction. The horns were also used on ‘Discoverer,’ the guitar riff for which Buck wrote one night after leaving the studio and which was quickly recorded the following day. The energy and enjoyment factor was such that Michael Stipe allowed fans a relatively rare insight into the process, taking smart-phone video around the studio and uploading it to YouTube for the fun of it.

Given this satisfying speed, it was frustrating for certain parties that it was to be almost five months before the group reconvened. (Jacknife Lee did travel to Athens in March to record vocals for the song ‘Every Day Is Yours To Win’ at Michael Stipe’s house.) Part of the delay was a result of searching, again, for a suitable foreign (non) studio, this time as far as Italy; eventually, the group circled back to New Orleans, but only if they could find a bigger room to record in. The Music Shed, aided by local grants, converted another part of the warehouse largely to R.E.M.’s specs, and the sessions resumed in April.

The down time had not exactly been wasted. When Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, Jacknife Lee’s other major client, sought to record a “pure country music” album (though his influences were in fact the modern alt-country acts like Calexico and Wilco), Lee suggested he recruit Peter Buck as partner. At the start of January 2010, the pair entered the studio in Portland, with Jacknife Lee, Scott McCaughey and many others, on an eight-day recording blitz that resulted in a complete album, The Place We Ran From (“a twisted love letter to the States,” as Lightbody put it) featuring guest vocals from singer M Ward and actress Zooey Deschanel and a host of minor-league stars. Even by the standards of R.E.M.’s bullish guitarist, this was a rapid recording session, and Lee’s ability to effectively outBuck Peter Buck helped bring the two closer together. (Lee notes that after completing Accelerate, he was “friends with all the band, but less so with Peter before we started the Tired Pony record.”) The Place We Ran From was considered sufficiently successful that a nucleus of Tired Pony, including the producer, agreed to tour it in July, which would serve to keep R.E.M.’s recording on task when the two projects clashed.

But in the meantime, there was the return to New Orleans. Peter Buck who, like Michael Stipe, had visited the city in the wake of Katrina and been horrified to find “a ghost town”, now saw that it had “really come back. It still has the same vibe.” Part of that vibe was its reputation as a party town and R.E.M., while never going too far over the top, were always a party band. There were some long nights, and yet they were productive – such as the soiree in Mike Mills’ suite after an evening with Michael Stipe on the town where the former settled onto the piano and hammered out what would become ‘Walk It Back’ alongside a group of carousing friends. It was recorded in one take the next day, warts and all, to which Stipe would apply some simply stated lyrics: “You, you can’t turn away/You’ve asked me to stay/But something needs to change.” For ‘Oh My Heart,’ Stipe picked up where he had left off in ‘Houston,’ his protagonist now back in New Orleans. “The storm didn’t kill me, the government changed,” he noticed with rare repetition of a previous lyric and a proud pronouncement of Obama’s election. ‘That Someone Is You,’ one of the album’s most entertaining numbers, included a pop-culture reference to indie icons New Order and Young Marble Giants.

As for the track that would become the album’s opening cut, the anthemic ‘Discoverer,’ it “wrote itself for me,” Stipe said, with evident delight. “I didn’t have to work real hard on it, and I always love those songs because they just come from some more unconscious place.” That may not have been coincidental to the fact that, “It’s somewhat autobiographic which is also for me as a writer very unusual. It’s unique to us and it’s unique to me, in terms of what I write about.” More so than ‘Leaving New York,’ ‘Discoverer’ was a love letter to his adopted home city, and as he explained in giving an interview from Manhattan on the record’s release, “It’s about a moment that occurred on Houston Street, when I was stumbling down the street having been at a party, a vodka in one hand and an espresso in the other, and just being so inspired by the energy of the city and the people. It’s a moment-of-discovery song, about discovering oneself and suddenly feeling this huge sense of possibility. New York can do that to you.” Indeed.

The song that would follow ‘Discoverer’ on the album, ‘All The Best,’ seemed to follow on both musically (brash and bold) and lyrically (optimistic and confident). Except that this one was a love letter to the fans, and in that sense the most important song on the album: “Let’s sing and rhyme, let’s give it one more time, let’s show the kids how to do it, fine, fine, fine.”

For Jacknife Lee, who had already been given hints by Bertis Downs and who had picked up on individual and collective vibes (“We never really spoke about it, though there were a few moments individually where we touched on it”), and who debated and dissected the lyrics with Stipe more so than anyone else, these words were bold as day light: ‘All The Best,’ he says, “is about the end of the band.”

Stipe would not deny this: “That whole record was a whole big goodbye,” he said afterwards, staggered that the fans had not picked up on such blatant clues.

But if so, the fans were not the only ones. “I just thought we were carrying off the high we were on from Accelerate and the fun we were having being a band and just making another record,” says Scott McCaughey, who was excluded from the break-up conversations, despite his long tenure with the band and his incredibly close friendship with Peter Buck. “I knew it would be the last record in the (Warner Brothers) contract but to me that didn’t mean anything necessarily.”

It was common knowledge that R.E.M.’s contract was up after the new album, their three consecutive five-album deals representing a longer run of unbroken contracts than perhaps any band had honored, ever. R.E.M. would have no trouble securing a new record deal: they were still one of the biggest bands on the planet (Accelerate had gone to number one in nine countries and top ten in countless more), arguably the most consistent, and were in the midst of a creative upswing. But they would never again be able to secure a deal even remotely like the one they’d (re-)signed with Warner Brothers at the peak of their global popularity, a deal – regardless of whether or not it was worth $60,000,000, or whether it was the biggest of all time – that had demonstrated excessive faith in R.E.M.’s continued popularity, even before the industry collapsed. All around R.E.M., superstar acts were suffering from declining record sales; some had taken to abandoning major labels and giving away their albums for whatever the fans wanted to pay (Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails); others stepped down to independent labels and potentially larger slices of what was most certainly now a smaller pie. And some stayed within the major label fray, recognizing that there were distribution and marketing benefits that the independents could not match. It was a confusing and disconcerting time, and R.E.M. could be excused for not fancying the massive reduction in both financial advances and commercial expectations that any new contract would bring.

Money, of course, had never been their reason for making music, and the fact that they were thriving creatively had to weigh heavily on any decision to call it a day. But that, of itself, was perhaps all the justification that was needed. If their fifteenth album could come close to their fourteenth in quality, that would mean two back-to-back triumphs and the ability to close the curtain on a high note. Did they really want to push on, beyond that, with a different label and a different set-up, and run the risk of making albums that would, almost inevitably, disappoint all over again, and cause personal disharmony once more? What would they be sticking around for if they went for a sixteenth (and seventeenth, etc.) album: acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? They’d done it all, they’d said it all, and at this point, with the new album, they were starting to repeat it all; the songs they were finalizing in New Orleans were beginning to sound very much like a journey through R.E.M.’s catalog, as if they wanted to make a Greatest Hits out of songs they’d never released from across their thirty years.

* * *

R.E.M. chose Hansa TonStudio in Berlin for the final session of their final album. Berlin was a favored city – especially for Michael Stipe, and it was his vocals that would be the main beneficiary of the location – and the studio itself was globally renowned for the David Bowie and Iggy Pop albums of the late 1970s, as well as the source of U2’s comeback record, 'Achtung Baby.' More recently, Jacknife Lee had produced Snow Patrol’s 'A Hundred Million Suns' there in 2008, and R.E.M. had stopped in to see him and check out the location when their tour passed through Berlin that summer. Hansa was located in the heart of the city, near Potsdamer Platz by the old Berlin Wall; Grouse Lodge this was not. With only three weeks available before Buck, McCaughey and Lee set off on their Tired Pony tour; R.E.M. nonetheless worked hard to make the most of it. The songs grew more varied, and the lyrics became defined; Stipe took the opportunity to pen another love song to another favored city – in this case, ‘Überlin.’ Throughout, his perfectionism did no waver, as evident from his description of the process behind the seemingly stream-of-consciousness ‘Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter.’

“That song was a surprise. I had concern about the chorus; it took me a long time to write. I rewrote it 14 times, and wrote the background part and had all that and rewrote that seven times and discarded it. I did what I do. I finally landed on a chorus that I liked; I recorded it.” It was only when the band performed it live in the Hansa studio, to film, that Stipe realized his attention to detail had paid off. “It was really the first time that as a band we’d performed the song, and I sang the chorus, and by the time I got to the third chorus, I realized, ‘This is not an okay chorus, this is a great chorus.’ ”

While in Berlin, the band also sent out another (unheeded?) signal that they might be wrapping things up for ever as they took to the bars and concert halls of Berlin and invited their friends to appear on the album. Two of the guest vocalists were Canadian-born gay/bisexual musicians who had found refuge in modern Berlin’s artistic embrace. Singer/rapper/musician/performance artist Peaches, famed for her explicit sexual subject matter (e.g. a 2006 album entitled Impeach My Bush), proved a natural addition to ‘Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter,’ shout-singing along to the chorus, throwing in a semi-rap dialogue and adding something approximating harmonies. Joel Gibb of indie group Hidden Cameras was recruited to sing backing vocals on ‘It Happened Today,’ written about the death of someone close to the band (“This is not a parable, this is a terrible thing,” Stipe warned listeners with the opening line). When Pearl Jam came to Berlin for a concert, Eddie Vedder stopped into Hansa for a social visit, and left with his distinctive holler further filling the enormous phonetic chorus for ‘It Happened Today.’ Patti Smith played Berlin a week later and, as with Pearl Jam, R.E.M. took the evening off to see her in concert, the various members joining in on various encores. Attempts to get Smith into the studio were stymied by her band’s tight touring schedule, but the idea was not completely discounted – there was still a mixing session to follow in Nashville in September, after all.

The album had taken sufficient shape that on the last day of recording at Hansa, the group opted to record one more track. Scott McCaughey recalls Peter Buck saying, ‘Let’s just go in and do this really fucked up thing.’ Jacknife Lee played his newly acquired musical saw, partly to settle a bet with Peter Buck that he wouldn’t be able to get a note out of it. McCaughey played lead guitar – “my best Neil Young whatever” – at Buck’s request. The jam went down on tape “because we’re always recording,” says Lee, “but it wasn’t like a performance.”

“We did it one time and forgot about it.” McCaughey, who was not needed for the mix session, might have done so; Lee did not. It was no small matter that R.E.M. brought in a camera crew during that final week at Hansa. As a group that typically documented everything, it made sense to get additional mileage out of a famous studio location; given that the band had sent out firm signals that there would be no tour for the album, it was necessary to get some live footage. But for those in the know – limited, largely, to the three founding members, Bertis Downs and, having gleaned it over the course of the recording sessions, Jacknife Lee – it would mark something potentially much more significant: a final performance by the band.

A small audience of family and friends was invited into the downstairs hall at Hansa, where they mostly sat on flight cases up against the walls; R.E.M. set up facing each other, more or less in the round, and played their way through as much of the new album as they could, as emphatically as they could. In the process, they delivered vastly more powerful, thoroughly live audio-visual renditions of what would be the album’s lead single, ‘Mine Smells Like Honey,’ ‘All The Best,’ and Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter’; for ‘Oh My Heart,’ with Scott McCaughey on accordion, they huddled close together, as when they had recorded it, to the point that they were almost breathing on each other. The edits that would be shared with the public revealed a band entirely on top of its game, as powerful and present as it had ever been: Peter Buck still on treasured black Rickenbacker, swaying with the rhythm if no longer jumping around to it, Mike Mills resolutely focused on those melodic bass lines and distinctive vocals, Michael Stipe’s professorial beard, horn-rimmed glasses and work-day suit failing to disguise his complete emotional commitment, and McCaughey and Rieflin serving notice that for the past three years, R.E.M. had been very much a band once again. Throughout, the boom of the vast hall lent itself to a particularly resonant live sound. To all outwards intents and purposes, this was a group very much looking forward.

It was the performance of ‘Discoverer’ that gave it away. The official film showed Michael Stipe’s complete giving of himself to his delivery – “It was what it was! Let’s all get on with it, now!” – before removing his glasses, always a signal of immersion in the moment, and following that line with the four further cries of the title and then the fifth and final one, drawing out its four syllables into as many measures. “Wow,” concluded Mike Mills, and Stipe blinked, grinned and led a round of applause, as the camera edits ducked and dived amongst the various band members. The camera that was fixed on Stipe’s face throughout the take, however, would prove that much more revealing of the emotional meaning: Stipe was clearly blinking away tears. “Hooray, we’re done,” he said quietly, leading the applause (the words were not included on the official video); it would appear evident that he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Either the man behind the camera presumed that Stipe broke into tears at the end of every performance, else he was damned good at keeping a secret. Either way, R.E.M. had just played their last gig.

Excerpted from "R.E.M.: Perfect Circle" by Tony Fletcher. Published by Omnibus Press. Copyright 2013 by Tony Fletcher. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.

By Tony Fletcher

Tony Fletcher is the author of several books about music, including "A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths" (Three Rivers Press). His music recent biography is "In The Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett" (Oxford University Press). He can be found at ijamming.net and twitter.com/tonyfletcher. He can be found at ijamming.net or on Twitter at @tonyfletcher.

MORE FROM Tony Fletcher

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Michael Stipe Music R.e.m. R.e.m.: Perfect Circle