Peter Buck: "I think we were all really ready for a change"

Exclusive: Talking R.E.M., Tired Pony and the future, with an inspired Peter Buck -- in perhaps his last interview

Published October 9, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

 Peter Buck    (Isaac Hecker)
Peter Buck (Isaac Hecker)

It was winter 1990, and Peter Buck would have been off R.E.M.'s massive world tour for "Green" by only a matter of weeks. He'd already put the tour buses and fancy hotels behind him, however, and hopped back in the van to tour small clubs with his pal Kevn Kinney. I was interviewing Kinney (the Drivin N Cryin lead singer) for the college paper, post-sound check in the back of the Paradise in Boston, when Buck just wandered over and joined us, dropping a bottle of something expensive and brown on the table for everyone. Bottle service, courtesy of the most influential guitarist of his era.

That's a moment a 19-year-old R.E.M. freak isn't likely to forget. But the scene also encapsulated Buck, who didn't need to be doing any of it. After a year playing stadiums worldwide, nothing other than a love of music compelled him to drive city to city with Kinney, playing 500-capacity clubs. He sure didn't need to join the interview -- or bring us all drinks. But that's Peter Buck -- music lover, culture obsessive, loyal friend, gracious conversationalist, generous host. He's the guy always ready to lend his fame to a good band, whether by playing or producing the album, or by going on the road -- and he might, very quietly, also be writing the check that pays for it all.

Almost 25 years later, that's still the case. Buck has always stood at the ready to produce an album or get in the van with friends. He made four albums -- in August! His list of credits is an amazing one that covers some of the most vital rock artists of the last several decades: the Replacements, the Feelies, Uncle Tupelo, Robyn Hitchcock, Corin Tucker, the Decemberists, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Vega, Warren Zevon, not to mention his work with the Minus 5, the Baseball Project, Tuatara, Grant-Lee Phillips, John Wesley Harding and so many more -- including his latest project, Tired Pony, Buck's second album collaborating with Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody.

Buck was the member of R.E.M. who always wanted to do more, faster -- so maybe it's no surprise that he has filled his time since the beloved Rock & Roll Hall of Famers disbanded in 2011 on project after project, while also curating the Todos Santos music festival, where all of these many acts often play together. Then there's his solo career fronting a blisteringly fun bluesy/rockabilly band, often backed by all-stars he's lent his name to in the past; a second vinyl-only album is close, and one song has already been revealed.

What Buck doesn't do often anymore is talk to the press. That's too bad for us -- Buck's a voracious reader and listener, and just a thoughtful, honest guy with great stories. He's great at this part of the game, but he doesn't like it or want to do it anymore -- and thoughtful and honest enough to make the decision just to stop. At this point, Buck says, he's simply made the decision to do exactly the projects he wants to do -- and to eliminate anything that he's tired of doing. It's an envious position. In fact, he suggested this might be among his final interviews, if not the last one.

He's in New York and open to a conversation today, however, to support the terrific new Tired Pony album, "The Ghost of the Mountain." Buck and Lightbody recorded this with a constellation of stars, and in the manner they both enjoy -- quickly while having a lot of fun, master craftsmen enjoying the creative spark that flows from relaxed yet serious collaboration. If the first Tired Pony album felt a little lo-fi and on-the-fly, the very pleasurable "Ghost of the Mountain" manages a more sweeping and cinematic sonic palette. It could be the extra day or so they spent this time around!

On a brilliant fall afternoon, we wandered into Gramercy Park -- well, Buck managed to get a key, you don't just wander into that park -- and sat on a bench. Buck recalled sneaking behind these gates with beers in decades past when R.E.M. was just starting out, but carried only an energy drink as we revisited his career. We talked about why he enjoys collaboration, about the offer he made Michael Stipe and Mike Mills to continue R.E.M., then how he made his decisions about life after the band -- and why he won't miss playing R.E.M. hits the way some fans might hope.

From the outside, it looks like you’re having fun -- and doing exactly what you want to do.

I’m enjoying myself. I mean, I generally try to. I spent a lot of nights looking at the ceiling wondering why I’m not having that much fun. The whole thing with R.E.M. ends and I then I have to figure out what to do with my life.

Which is a big question to answer after three decades together.

Yes. When I was a kid I wanted to be a musician. I became one -- and then the options are either to not do it all, or do it on a much reduced level, which is fun. And my decision was I’m just going to treat it as a hobby. I’m not going to do anything I don’t want to do, ever. So I play a lot of music. I don’t get paid for any of it.

It feels like you are on the road constantly -- with Wesley Stace, the Baseball Project, Robyn Hitchcock, now Tired Pony.

Nope. Everyone says that, but not really. It’s not like we're doing a two-month tour. I hate to say it: I lived in the Midwest, but we can’t sell tickets there. There’s no point in getting in the van and doing that. So you know, we tend to do some dates on the East Coast, some on the West. I made four records in August, but really I spent a lot of time just doing whatever I do.

Which is what? What's a day like now?

Traveling. I have kids. I write a lot of music. I play music. I do a lot of walking.

Which all sounds very nice. 

It's great. My daughter's with me now and we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and back. I hadn’t done it since the '80s. She’d never done it. She got totally excited. They're in college now, but before when they were home they would kind of ignore me because I was always around. And now that they are gone, they kind of appreciate the fact that I’m in town, and hanging around. I kind of have a reason to exist, whether it's either creative things or doing whatever charity things it is that I do. I try to leave this world at least a slightly better place than it was. But I want to have a lot of fun.

(laughs) I remember when R.E.M. announced the disbandment, you were suffering horrible back pain and really laid up. It seemed like Michael and Mike did most of the talking. That must have been a difficult period -- trying to figure out your middle-age identity after three decades in R.E.M., while also dealing with all that pain.

It seemed like everything occurred at once. I remember I felt really sorry for myself for a day or two, and then I thought, well, this is bullshit. I have got a million friends; if I was broke I could just call them and stay on their couches for 10 years. I still have whatever ability I had, which isn't a lot. I’ve got great family, great friends. You know, I don’t have to work for a reason; there's no need.

I was just down. Disheartened when things end. When lots of things end -- I was really sad when my kids went off to college. They weren’t.

I’ve just got to remember who am I and consider what I'm going to put my time to doing. You know, I'm like a lot of people my age -- music is not something I need to do 24 hours a day, but I want to continue to create. And I want to do things that are interesting and entertaining and fun.

What excites you about a project? About taking on a collaboration?

Well, it's always about someone who I like and respect and who has tools that I don’t have. I’m singing now in my solo group, but no one really describes it as singing. It's like, whatever. It’s a kind of rock 'n' roll thing.

I’m getting kind of good at it, I’d say. But I’m never going to have the kind of voice where you want me to sing the "Star Spangled Banner." I like to work with people that have interesting creative abilities that I don’t have. People that I can learn from. People that I enjoy hanging out with. We laugh a lot making all my records. We also work really quickly. So you can have time to laugh and not be about to pull your hair out.

My guess is your connection to Gary Lightbody came through (R.E.M. producer) Jacknife Lee.

Exactly. I met Gary in 2007, I think, and he was a fan. I actually saw his band the first tour they did in America in front of 50 people. I was with [longtime R.E.M. musician] Scott McCaughey, and I remember saying, "You know, I don’t know how the business works anymore, but these guys could be really big if they get lucky." And 10 years later they were really huge. Jack knew Gary was talking about doing something outside of Snow Patrol and he wanted to be fast and spontaneous.

Your favorite way to work! 

(laughs) Gary’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders now with Snow Patrol. They’ve got people who say, you know, our Christmas bonus depends on Snow Patrol being good. The idea was for us to make an album really quickly and spontaneously. We had eight days booked for the first one, and then if nothing worked out, ehh. But it turned out well and we like each other’s company.

Are you able to counsel someone like that? I mean having been through it and knowing what it's like having the weight of the world on you, those expectations ...

Occasionally. But it is its own thing. I mean, you can't really say something about the fact that Snow Patrol is that huge, and the pressure. It is the same pressure I felt with R.E.M. You've got the crew, people counting on you for lifetime jobs. But occasionally I would just sit down and say, "Well, you know what, this is not that important. It's time to calm down, take a deep breath, we can do it. I’ll give advice if necessary, but I don’t really know if I’m that wise in the ways of the world. I'm kind of cynical about the whole business. No one sells records anymore. You should just make a record you enjoy.

You spent a little more time on this second album than you did on the first one.

An extra day. I think it was up to 10 days, aside from mixing.

It feels like it's got a much bigger palette.

Well, we did 14 songs in 10 days of recording. And then one whole day was vocals and percussions. So I basically did two songs a day for seven days, and then some half days and some fixing things.

What a fun way to work.

It was. Except for Gary, we were all rooming together. It was somebody’s house in Topanga Canyon so we would go home and put on the stereo and blast music and drink wine. And it was very nice.

Feels like making a record in the '70s or something.

Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, it's funny because we were rehearsing in London a while ago and we went in and there was a case of water, and that’s it. I said if this was the '70s we would have piles of sushi and individual cocaine allotments.


But you know what, I’ve never done that. I’ve never made a record like that. Or rehearsed like that. So it was kind of like, this is good. We get in, we get out. We work really hard. There’s no false conception of who you are. You are drinking lukewarm water in a hot room and off you go.

The new album feels a little less folksy than the first, a little more polished, but still very much an American record.

Yeah, that’s kind of what it's all about. I mean, I’d like to push it to, you know, somewhere else. You know, I kind of wanted to make a Krautrock record.

I can hear a little of that.

Well, I always play six-string bass with the fuzz a lot because I get that total Teutonic wah wah wah underneath, which I quite enjoy. It isn’t really my great gift or anything, but you know, if everyone’s playing kind of chimey guitar, then I’ll do something else.

That's been your strategy for 20 years.

Ideally, yeah. If something starts to sound too much like me, I lose interest.

Gary's sense of America and the South was probably formed by listening to a lot of R.E.M. albums. 

You know, the world is how we perceive it, not how it is. My South is way different from someone who’s born there, or someone who is driving through it. But yeah, his perception is kind of colored by that in the same way that my perception of England is colored first by the Beatles. His American picture is music and books and films.

[We've been doing this Todos Santos music festival in Mexico and] I want the local kids to see that culture is something you invent, not something that comes from somewhere else. And that was something I learned – not that I went to art school – at the art school at the University of Georgia in the early '80s. Howard Finster, Mose Tolliver, all these folk artists were doing their work a block from where we live. It says more about your life than Impressionist painters, who I like too, but you you can go to Howard Finster's place and shake his hand and buy a piece of his work for $100. And if you go back a couple of times, he gets to know you, and that was all part of my understanding -- art isn’t something that happens in New York or Paris, it happens everywhere. And if it's good, you can represent where you’re from, to a certain degree. That’s a little bit of what R.E.M. was trying to do. We didn’t say we’re super Southern, but I think we gave a sense of place.

And then someone like me, growing up in suburban Connecticut, learns about Howard Finster because he does the "Reckoning" cover, or because you make a video at his place. Or gets turned on to Flannery O'Connor because you mention her in an interview.

We had bands open for us that we really respected. At a time when no one knew who the Minutemen were, I would play tapes of them for writers in England, and they'd say, "This is amazing. This is a revolution happening right now in America and nobody’s paying attention to it." We'd talk about it, whether it's Howard Finster or Flannery O'Connor. You know, we weren’t getting a lot of information either. I grew up in Atlanta in 1978, and every once in a while somebody would have a Melody Maker that was six weeks old.

The B-52s went to New York and they would tell you things. I didn’t know them very well, but you'd hear, "Wow, there’s this great band called Gang of Four." My whole thing was whenever I would do interviews, I'd say, you know, it feels like there’s only 20 people in this town, but there’s 20 people in every town in America interested in these things. I'm still really good friends with a lot of them -- Steve Wynn, Bob Mould. People who helped shape scenes where they lived.

Your solo album is out on Mississippi Records, a label run by an actual record store in Portland, where you live. I'm guessing that also goes back to your interest in nurturing local scenes.

Mississippi is a record store and a label and they’re in every good record store in America -- they usually have their own section. It's all jazz, gospel, blues, African music -- I think there's two of us alive on the label. I wanted to be involved with that. I think we were going to partner up. I don’t really want to get paid for the [solo album]. So we’re not talking about taking the money and putting out some interesting records, about buying an actual pressing machine. I like the idea that we could just have this little thing. I kinda feel like what I want to do is get local bands, and just say, you know what, no record contract, we’ll put out your single, we’ll sell it in the stores, we can ship it overseas, maybe you’ll get signed somewhere else. Maybe we can get local people on the radio stations just to play these things and get a local kind of thing going on. Or maybe now it's websites, which I’m not against by any stretch of the imagination. I listen to WWOZ, the New Orleans station, a lot.

Some people thought it was exclusionary when you made the first solo album vinyl only. Sounds like the second one will be as well. What's your thinking there?

Well, when R.E.M. went the way of all flesh -- it was all amicable and we decided and we agreed 100 percent, but it left me thinking, well, I’ve been dissatisfied for a few years with what has gone on. So what don’t I like? And I sat down and made a list of things I like and a list of things I don’t like. The things I don’t like had nothing to do with music -- it was all the other stuff. The business part of it, and you know, the interviews. I’ve only done five in the last five years. I don’t promote my own stuff with interviews because I don’t need to. But for years I’ve been saying I hate the way CDs sound, and on top of that I don’t like records that are made on Pro-Tools, even though that makes it easier. So I went all the way to the other side. I’ve been lucky enough where I don’t have to make a living making records. So I can do it exactly the way I want to -- and if that’s seen as exclusionary, that’s OK, but you know, you can order the records.

Why is that experience of buying the music so important to you?

I download stuff, legally and also illegally -- most of the illegal stuff I download, it's not available, like live tapes or out-of-print records -- but I still buy records all the time. But honestly, when I download a record, do I really care about it as much as if I’ve gone somewhere and actually walked a mile? So if you want my record you either have to write away to order it or you have to drive or walk somewhere to pick it up. I mean there’s less than 6,000. I’m not going to sell a million records. But I’m doing exactly what I want and I enjoy it.

I still feel like we’re all in this together. I like the idea that whatever little things I’m involved in, it's all about putting people together. You know, I’ve been famous. It was fun. I liked it, and I was rich -- and I liked that, too, but that’s not why you do it. All the things that surrounded R.E.M. -- we had people who worked for us for 20 years. I can’t tell you how many people met at our shows and married and had kids. All of that, you’re making community connections. The charities we gave to, we used to have the tables in front at the shows, kids would join Greenpeace or Amnesty -- all things that were non-controversial but important. I like that. In America, there was a generation of kids that were connected through us. I think you can’t ask for anything more.

So you mentioned a list of things you like to do and the list of things you don't. What was on the list that you liked?

Well, I still want to speak Spanish better. I get to the point where I go down there for four months and I’m having conversations, and then I go away for six months – I need to do an immersion class. One thing I said I’d focus on when the band broke up was my musicianship -- but when the band broke up, my arm was paralyzed. I literally couldn’t play guitar for six months. So I’ve actually just spent a year practicing, trying to get it back. My two fingertips on this hand are still numb -- my hand is still numb from here down, which is why I started singing. I just thought, I’ll write a bunch of words, hire someone else to play guitar. By the time we did my first record I still couldn’t play things off the first R.E.M. record. On the other hand, I wasn’t really going for that anyway -- so I became a different kind of guitar player. But honestly, I sit at home now three or four times a week and for two hours I try to go through R.E.M. songs that are really difficult to play, or someone else's songs, and I’ve gotten most of it back. I still can’t really finger pick. Something in these fingers, I just can’t do it. But then I was never a great finger picker anyway. It's just something you have to deal with.

What's it like transitioning from the guy who never sang, to the guy fronting the band?

I’ve always enjoyed getting up onstage. I always feel nervous in a studio. I have a couple of glasses of wine and go onstage, and I don’t feel nervous at all. How bad can it be? Honestly, I probably sing as well as Johnny Thunders. I’ve been singing for six months, a year. I’ve enjoyed the process, I like making the records. It’ll definitely be a footnote to whatever else I’ve done in my career --I’m doing it for my own satisfaction and no one else's. I’m really lucky because I feel like I don’t want to work months on one thing -- but I do want to spend two or three weeks of just super-extended effort, and then go do something else. This year I’m doing a record with Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney, and the stuff we’ve done is really good.

I'd love to know the stories behind some of your earlier collaborations. You produced the Feelies album "The Good Earth," played the guitar solo on the Replacements' "I Will Dare," and produced the terrific Uncle Tupelo acoustic album "March 16-20." I suppose it makes perfect sense, given the way you like to work, that you made the Uncle Tupelo album they did in less than a week. How did that come about?

I went to see Uncle Tupelo and they were playing to 20 people. They opened with "Great Atomic Power," and I went up to them after and said, "Hey, that's cool. You opened with a Louvin Brothers song." Jay and Jeff looked at each other and said, "We’ve been playing that for two years and no one’s ever noticed that before." So we talked for like an hour about country, bluegrass, vocal duets and how they influenced everyone and how they influenced the Beatles, and how that kind of harmony comes from the Osborne Records. They said they were thinking of doing an acoustic record. I said if you have the songs written, we can do it in a week.

They stayed at my house -- I had cases of beer and they didn't want to drink anymore. They wanted Mountain Dew. So I got them a case of Mountain Dew. I said if we’re going to do an  album in a week we’re going to have to mix it all in one day, and we have to record four songs a day with overdubs. Every night we’d get done around midnight, I assigned them four finished songs by tomorrow at noon. I'd tell them, "I’m going to go out to the clubs, they’re open for another hour and a half. Come back at 3 and play them for me." It was a great record

I remember [longtime R.E.M. engineer] John Keane, about five days in he looked at me and he said, "These kids are really good." And I went, "Well, no one's going to buy it. This is another record I’ve produced that will sell 100 copies and we’ll never hear from again." And luckily things worked out for everyone. But at that point they played in Athens and got 30 people.

And how did you end up playing the guitar solo on the Replacements' "I Will Dare"? You were just in the studio with them?

Well, at one point I was supposed to produce the third record. And, you know, they only had about five songs, Steve Fjelstad is great; they didn’t really need a producer. So I just kind of hung out with them at night and got drunk. I had a couple little suggestions, and Bob Stinson had some kind of scorching solo and Paul was like, "I don’t know ..." So I just kind of did it. It's nice to be on there. It’s a great record.

They’re out there now doing it again now. 

I've heard good things, but it's only been a couple shows.

I don’t think you start doing it again if you’re only going to do three shows, right?

Well, one rock 'n' roll theory is you don’t rehearse more times than you’re going to play.

You've continued to play a lot with Mike Mills -- with the Baseball Project, he joined you in New York with Robyn Hitchcock, in London with Tired Pony.

We just pretty much finished a Baseball Project record. Mike is in the band now. Michael [Stipe] isn’t really into performing in public now, and I totally accept that. That’s totally cool. I saw him three nights ago. He knows he has a standing offer every time he feels like getting up -- but I haven’t asked him because I know he doesn’t want to. I don’t want him to feel bad turning me down. But Mike, he's played in a solo band, he's played with the Baseball Project, he's played with Robyn and the Minus Five. We’ll continue to cross paths.

Tired Pony's doing Letterman tonight. Have you ever had a moment with Dave where you just kind of lock eyes and be like, “Man, it has been a 30-year path, to who we are now and who we were then"? R.E.M. were one of the very first musical guests on his late night show.

My daughter asked me, when did you first do the show?  I looked it up: October 6, 1983.  I almost said 1930.  It was a brand-new show. We were third-billed to a guy who welded.


No, literally a welder. He welded some stuff.  You could smell it all through the hall. Dave has the weight of the world on his shoulders. We always say hello. Last time I was on he goes, “Hey, Peter! Good to see you again.” You could tell he knew who I was. And he really loved the Baseball Project. But you know, it is weird. It’s like, “Oh god! I’ve been playing this guy's show for 30 years.”

Doing what I do, the same people keep cropping up -- if they don’t die, you know.  There’s a lot of us who haven’t given up making music. And everyone’s finding a way to do it.

But as far as R.E.M.: It sounds like you all knew on that tour in 2008 that the band was coming to an end -- that there would be another album, but probably not another tour. 

I don’t think we knew it at the beginning of the tour. Definitely by the end of the tour, we were talking about it. And the feeling was,“Well, haven’t we done this?” Done this in the sense of been done with it. And you know, we were in kind of a convenient place, last record on our record deal. No one really wanted to tour much like that again.

Do you miss playing those songs? 

Well, I love those songs. But I never want to play "Losing My Religion" again. "Man on the Moon," it’s a great song. But it’s five minutes long and I’ve played it a couple thousand times.

So once we’re thinking we’re not going to tour, and we’re not going to get a record deal probably, we talked about what we wanted to do. What we could possibly do. And there wasn’t anything that we decided we needed to do. And there also wasn’t anything that we really agreed on that we all wanted to do. 'Cause I was saying, “You know we could always do what Tom Waits does. Write a record on an independent and play theaters.” And everyone’s like, “I dunno.”  That sounded OK to me, but I’m not going to push for it.  You know, some people wanted to get away from it for a while. I wanted to pursue it, maybe not with R.E.M. I think we were all really ready for a change. Which is why I started singing and writing lyrics. I’ve never done this, but I’m just going to try it.

I saw two of the shows on that tour, and as a fan, you’re always looking for a sign.  At the end of both shows Michael was like, “We’ll see you soon!”  I’m like, “OK, we’re safe. There will be another one.”

Well, you know …

I was taking him at his word!

I love the Rolling Stones. I wish I’d seen them in this last tour. But I don’t want to be playing 30-year-old songs when I’m 70. I mean, the thing that I really enjoy about my solo show is that every song I’m playing is a year old. I’ve done plenty of things where I’ve written it at 4 in the morning, taught it to myself.

You get to start over.

Completely start over.  There’s no one going, “Well, why don’t you play that thing from your first record?”

Is there an album from the catalog that you feel is underappreciated?

I think if you asked all of us, we'd all have "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" in the top third, in the top five. And I love "Collapse Into Now."

It's a beautiful album. And the perfect way to write your own ending.

But you know, I also think if you put "Oh My Heart" on "Automatic for the People," you'd make it a better album.

Would you ever want to write a book? A novel, a memoir? 

I guess I could write something about my life, but I don’t really want to do that. I like being a little bit private.  At one point when I could write, and couldn’t really play guitar, I outlined a novel.  And I was going to start it and it just wasn’t original enough, and I just didn’t think I had the energy in me. I don’t think I have a novel in me. I’ve read Graham Greene, so I can’t say I can write.

Your journalism and criticism is terrific.

I’m kind of glib. I can figure out which end of the sentence the period goes. I’m not sure I need to go and try to find a book deal, and I don’t want to talk about the band because that’s private. I don’t want to talk about my kids because they don’t want that. Relationships, no way. I was thinking at one point I would write something that was non-sequential. Just about various things, mostly non-musical.

Like Dylan's "Chronicles."

Yeah, but then I know I’d only be getting a deal because I’m a guy in a band.  And they’d say, “Where’s the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll?” So, I’m just kind of enjoying kind of media silence. I haven’t done any interviews since –

It has been a long time ...

And I don’t think I’ll do anymore.  No videos, not photos.  The only photo session I ever did – for myself – I wore a monkey mask. You know, I kind of like the fact that maybe I’m done saying things to the public. I’m just finished.

Well, maybe that’s a good last word.

Of course, I’m saying this in an interview. How hypocritical is that?

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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