Peter Buck sounds off: Looking back at R.E.M's "Out of Time" and "Losing Our Religion"

Salon speaks to the R.E.M. guitarist about the album that broke the band out of its cult status

Published December 17, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

Peter Buck (Getty/Paras Griffin)
Peter Buck (Getty/Paras Griffin)

R.E.M. has been reissuing deluxe versions of all its original albums, and the new two-CD, 25th anniversary version of “Out of Time” may be the best of them yet. It’s a reminder of a time when this eccentric, often elusive band from Athens, Georgia, became one of the biggest bands on earth, largely through “Radio Song,” “Shiny Happy People,” and, their biggest hit and a song that still sounds fresh despite the overplay, “Losing My Religion.” The album went to the top of the U.S. and U.K. charts and has sold 18 million copies worldwide. 

The anniversary set’s second disc includes 19 demos, many of them acoustic and some of them instrumental. They recall the warm, atmospheric sound the group got on its early albums like “Reckoning” and “Fables of the Reconstruction.”

Salon spoke to Peter Buck, the band’s guitarist, now based in Portland, Oregon, about what that period was like, and how it fits into the band’s career and vision of itself. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Hey Peter. The interesting thing about “Out of Time” is that you guys had been a band for about a decade and you certainly had a following. I was a member of the church, but it was like being a U.S. Smiths fan or something, this small, proud group. Then with “Out of Time,” you suddenly become this huge band and everybody’s parents have heard “Losing My Religion.” What was it like for you guys to suddenly have this enormous hit on your hands?

In a way it was irrelevant. We were doing it, the record came out and sold a lot but we weren't touring. We did some videos and did a few interviews. All I really noticed was that if I was in public where some place had MTV on I would see a video. Other than that, it didn't really seem to mean anything. I'm not complaining but it was like, "Oh okay, I don't know how that happened."

Right. It's like you are happy that the record's getting around and people like it, but it didn't really change the way you thought about what you were doing, it sounds like.

No, we decided we’re going to . . . try something a little different for the band, stay off the road, make a record, which was less rock ‘n’ roll. In some sense as well, we have a fan base and some of them will like this and some won't. The power of having one hit single was what that was all about.

Give us a sense of what you guys were interested in, thinking about and so on, when you started to make the demos for “Out of Time.” I think you made those in Athens, right?

Yeah, we weren't really even thinking about them being demos. We were working like five days a week mostly, unless one of us skipped a day, and every couple of weeks we'd just go to John Keane's studio and put stuff down so we didn’t have to think about it anymore or worry about it. I had completely forgotten that we had done that except for the fact that a couple of things, like “Country Feedback,” I think we took that version. There's a couple of other things from John's studio we just melded it into making the record. It wasn't until we started looking through the tapes and stuff that we realized that, "Oh yeah, there is like hours of recording of that stuff." It completely flipped my mind.

When you started on these songs, your last record I think had been “Green,” which had some college-radio hits and some pumped-up songs. The one before that had been “Document,” which had some weird, moody, classic inscrutable R.E.M. stuff. What were you guys aiming for when you started to make “Out of Time”? Were you tired of making rock records to some extent, wanting to do something more acoustic, more textured?

Mainly it was just that we'd spent the previous 10 or 11 years consistently on the road, every second of it. Just the idea that we weren't going to have to do that for a while really affected the way we approached the very beginning. I just didn't really even plug my amp in. I was with my acoustic guitar and mandolin, a lot of keyboard. It wasn't a plan. It was what we felt like doing that week, that month. I wished that I had known and we'd planned this stuff out, because we hadn't. It just all of a sudden occurred. I had no idea what was going on.

For any artist in any field, a lot of this is intuitive. It sounds like you guys weren't really conscious of “This is going to be our mandolin record!” or anything like that.

Yeah, maybe somebody has that big-picture thing but as it is, you write some songs and you are playing them and then there's some more songs. When you get 10, 12 or 13 songs in, you start realizing, "Oh this as a body of work that has this meaning to us." But when you're on the first day of rehearsal it's just, “What has anyone got? Do you have any good songs? Do you have anything interesting?”

Right, but at some point somebody started playing mandolin. At some point you brought Peter Holsapple in to play acoustic guitar on “Losing My Religion.” There was some thinking that you were doing a somewhat acoustic, rustic kind of thing.

I was playing mandolin and I think we brought Peter in right for the recording. But the writing, all the stuff when we got together and played, was just the four of us. It was definitely the feeling that well there's just not a lot in the way of electric guitar on this record, which wasn't really something that we had planned out. Sometimes you just follow your instincts and I couldn't tell you what we were thinking. It was just, "Oh, here's a bunch of songs," I remember saying to Bertis [Downs], our manager [and our assistant]. They're like, "Oh that's a cool song."

If that song had been on “Lifes Rich Pageant,” it wouldn’t have been that shocking. That's when you became more extroverted, the lyrics clearer, the song structures firmer.

Yeah. We were definitely playing with stuff that we'd done before. But it really wasn't until we were mixing the record at Prince's studio at Paisley Park that we started to picture the way the record was coming across and what it was about in a lot of ways. At that point it was just a tumble of songs: What do we leave on what do we take off?

Give me a sense of what the process of finding this extra stuff was. How did you and the others  put this 25th anniversary thing together.

I've been always conscious of keeping our historical records and stuff. We have a place where all tapes are kept where it's fairly easy to find. Did we want to have everything on there and make it really huge? I think the decision was that we wanted to show the process from the first time it was recorded, which means we probably wrote it a few days before to right before the record started, where some of the stuff is barely finished.

I like the way that second disc works because you have these five really lush, beautiful, mostly acoustic, totally instrumental songs and then you go to “Radio Song.” It's the first song where you hear a human voice and it's that countdown at the beginning.

Yeah it's like every recording thing. You are making a picture of something that doesn't really exist. It's how the process works and the process is kind of haphazard too but in retrospect you go, "Oh yeah that's how we did it. We did acoustic, then vocal, and then. . ." and I think a couple of things actually end up on the record in slightly different form. Before we went in to make a record, we set a big pile of tapes with stuff on it. In retrospect you get to see what it was you were heading towards and whether you knew what you were doing or not.

It's funny, the great records, by you guys or anybody, really seem so perfect, like, “Wow you couldn't move the songs around; it’s so finished.” And then you go back to the original recordings and you see, well, George Martin could have put the piano on this song instead of that one, or could have sequenced “Revolver” differently.

I think this was the first record that we did when we went into the studio that we had a pretty good idea of what it was going to sound like just because we had a fair amount of time recording stuff. Generally we'd write them on the road and maybe record something over a weekend and then boom, it's made the record. I remember thinking, "Gosh we have done a lot of work already," and we actually did do a few things from the pre-sessions.

Give me a sense of how your guitar style came together, and then how it changed over time.

As much as I grew up listening to all the 60s stuff when I was a kid. [But] I didn't want to be a lead guitar soloist. I was not interested in really working that way. I was a rhythm guitar player. My whole point was to sell as much space as I could without… I didn't really want to use fuzz tone a lot because everyone else did, the whole pump-the-whole-club-abuzz. I just built the personal style out of broken chords, melodies and all that stuff.


Yeah, arpeggiating and two-note chords and sliding things. With time you realize, "Well, I don't have to play everything on the first pass; I can overdub this and that." A lot of “Out of Time” was built on an acoustic guitar base, then you [add] bits and pieces, here and there, around it.

Yeah, punk was really about the song, the lyrics and the force of it rather than being a Claptonesque, Hendrix-y, Townshend-esque wild-man soloist.

A lot of the guys who were soloists were coming out of the blues thing, where it's a verse and a chorus than a solo, whereas I was more interested in songwriting which was verse, chorus, bridge, intro and that kind of stuff.

What about Roger McGuinn? I hate to be obvious, but how much of a Byrds freak were you as a kid?

It was part of what I listened to, a lot of it. I don't think I consciously thought about it all that much, but when the band started playing, definitely he was a role model for how to take simple chords, really, and turn them into something really melodic and interesting in the song, trying to combine the rhythm with a melodic line. He was an important guitar player for me.

What about any jazz guitarist or folk guitarist? Any of those guys who mattered to you or came to interest you as the band was going on?

Probably nothing from jazz. I grew up in the South, so folk and mountain music and all that stuff was around. I played it with a fair amount of people, not really well but a lot of those chords are in songs. I've been manipulating them around to have a bridge, a verse and a chorus and all that. I've sat in rooms and watched people play amazing stuff and that certainly was an influence.

Finally, you are doing a lot production out there and you played on the Alejandro record and I saw you on stage at what may have been the last December show for a long time, at that outdoor place outside Portland. You are keeping busy, you have a lot of things going on as a player, producer; I think you are a father too. Do you ever think you want to get the old gang back together?

No, I'm really proud of the fact that we did it for the exact right length of time and did it as well as we possibly could have. I see those guys all the time and we just don't ever talk about doing this again. We have enough stuff in our lives and honestly those let's-get-the-band-back-together things, they never work. At the very best it's about nostalgia and we just don't have any of it. I think people got to see us if they wanted to.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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