Peter Buck of R.E.M.: "How many people write songs when they're 70? I want to be one of them"

Salon talks to the garrulous musician about "Automatic For The People," road trips, not drinking and Filthy Friends

Published November 3, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Paras Griffin)
(Getty/Paras Griffin)

Peter Buck is the hardest-working man in rock 'n' roll — and that's no hyperbole. This was always the case when R.E.M. was an ongoing entity; the guitarist could always be found producing bands or hopping onstage for guest appearances. But since the Athens quartet called it a day in 2011, Buck's activity has accelerated significantly.

In fact, when Salon dials up Buck to talk about the reissue of R.E.M.'s 1992 opus "Automatic For The People," which is out on November 10, he's brimming with news about new albums in the works with Alejandro Escovedo, Joseph Arthur and Filthy Friends, his band with Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker. Plans are already set to record the second Filthy Friends LP, even though their debut, "Invitation," arrived just a few months ago. That band in particular — which also features Scott McCaughey, Kurt Bloch and drumming from Bill Rieflin and Linda Pitmon — has Buck fired up from a songwriting and aesthetic standpoint.

"I just did this thing where, so I'm thinking, 'Okay, Filthy Friends, the presentation,'" he says. "I went, 'You know, I'm going to use the black Ric[kenbacker],' the one I've used on every R.E.M. record, on most of the songs. It's that important to me. I don't like to travel with that guitar, but I'll do it. But [I thought], 'What about my other guitars?' and I started thinking, 'I'm going glitter.' I've just gone out and bought five Gibson glitter guitars from the last 30 years that sound great and look great. I'm just thinking, 'Yeah, you know what? An older guy wearing black or a flowered shirt and a glitter guitar, I can be that guy.'"

Buck has also been looking back a bit at "Automatic For The People," which is being reissued in several configurations. One version includes a cutting-edge Dolby Atmos mix. "I'm very wary about that stuff, but I went and sat and listened to it, and it was incredibly moving," he says. "It was like being in the center of the record. . . . One of the things I was kind of surprised at — there's a feeling of a huge amount of space in a lot of the songs, but there's all kinds of stuff going on. It was layered well."

But, as ever, Buck is all about looking to the future. As is made clear during a candid, hour-long chat, he has new songs to write, walks to take and records to make. The freewheeling conversation starts with musings about Buck's lack of online and social media presence — and turns to how he's always being asked to blurb books or, especially recently, share memories about musicians who have passed.

"For me, I always get, 'Whenever anyone dies, what is my comment?'" he says. "Grant Hart's death meant a lot to me, but I didn't want to talk about it. Tom Petty, it broke my heart. He seemed to be in a good place in life. But I don't want to talk about that. And, at the age I am, so many more people that I loved, worshiped and worked with are passing. And it's like, 'I don't want to spend my weeks writing obituaries.'"

We're talking about "Automatic for the People," which is so focused on mortality. It's kind of weird, timing-wise; the anniversary comes up this year for the record.

At the time we were doing that record, and the time Michael was writing the lyrics, it was the first time in our life since we met when Michael [Stipe] was 18 and I was 21, and the other guys [Mike Mills and Bill Berry] were 20 — or maybe I was 22 — [that] we weren't working 350 days a year. That gives you a little time for reflection. And it was also the time in your life when your older relatives start going. My father had already passed. Everybody's grandparents were passing. And the AIDS stuff just swept through our community.

Mortality was on Michael's mind a lot, which doesn't, you know, necessarily make it a morbid record. It comes through, to me, as a record, that it tells you that life's worth living, that that is a part of life that is not going away anytime soon.

I went back and listened to the record and, yeah, so many people think the record is this one thing. But there are a lot of different emotional shades on the record — it's fanciful, and there's anger and nostalgia. It's not just, "This is about mortality."

"Ignoreland" was our angry political rant about coming up through the Reagan years. "Find The River" has a lot of feel of remembered youth, [although] I think we can all analyze that song in a slightly different way — and I'm not going to tell you what mine is. It's still leaves the feeling that the journey is sweet. "Sweetness Follows," which is maybe my favorite song on the record, is not a negative song about death. As the guy who was coming in with guitar riffs and bass riffs and stuff like mandolin riffs, that wasn't what was on our mind in rehearsal.

Some of the songs came together at the tail-end of mixing "Out Of Time." How did the instrumental demos come together then?

I remember strongly when we were mixing "Out Of Time," Michael had this poem, and Mike had this music. And Mike started playing the music, and Michael looked at his poem and sang over the music — and, literally, in one pass, it was "Nightswimming." If memory serves, the melody is almost exactly the same — I don't think we changed it.

Knowing that we had that — I remember somebody saying, "Should we record this, like, right now and put it on the record?" And I remember someone saying, "You know, I think the record works the way it is. Let's just save it until the next one." At the very end of the process, I always get antsy, so I recorded demos. I had acoustic demos of "Drive" and "Try Not to Breathe." So the first day of rehearsal for "Automatic," those are the three songs that we had finished. Which kind of told us about where we were going.

"Monty Got A Raw Deal" you wrote in a New Orleans hotel room. That was another one where the demo and how it was finished are very similar.

I guess the story I said at the time, and I'm sure it's true, I was playing mandolin. And I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if a mandolin wasn't quite so tinkly?" Someone told me about a bouzouki. We had just made a bit of money — and somebody said, "This company Sobell, they make the best bouzouki in the world." For me, at the time, it was a lot of money. It was more money than I had ever spent on an instrument; it was $2,000. And I just went, "Gosh, I don't know." My transportation after "Out of Time" was a 20-year-old Schwinn bicycle painted with, like, gold paint that flaked off on every item of clothing I had. I didn't buy a new car; I didn't go out and buy a huge house. I thought, "Okay, I'm going to buy this instrument."

I do remember being somewhere in some hotel. It might've been when I was doing my solo road trip. And that song came because there was something going on. I would stay in motels — crappy motels — road tripping by myself, grow a beard and [hang] out in old man bars. And [I remember] writing it because there was some drug deal, gang-bang something going on. It fell together so completely fast. Whatever I put down was exactly like what occurred the first time I played.

How else did your road trip influence the music you were writing?

It was '91. That's when I was getting to the end of a relationship, and it was one of those things where we weren't working as much. I was traveling with the band, but then I'd traveled solo. Mostly after "Automatic," but before it too, I would just get in my car and go somewhere, take a guitar and a leather jacket and a big box of cassettes and just be by myself. I did it for a couple of years.

I remembered it as a great time. There's a part of me that, right now, just wants to put down all four albums I'm working on, and all my relationships, and put a bunch of shit in my car and go. My wife and I [recently] just got in the car. We were super overwhelmed with the whole shooting in Las Vegas and [the deaths of] Tom Petty and Grant Hart. We just got in the car and drove 4,000 miles down to the tip of Baja, California, and hung out there, and then drove back. I got to do my road trip, but I had the companion, which was nice.

Sometimes, as you guys did, taking that break and unplugging and getting back to your life and recalibrating yourself is so valuable. Because everything is so in-your-face and 24-7, it's hard to do that.

I try not to go online — I literally do not know how to turn the television on, 'cause there are, like, four of those zappers. I don't listen to the radio — I listen to either CDs or an iPod in my car. I don't read newspapers. My circle of friends, we might be pissed off about whatever asshole move Trump or his people is pulling, but it's not a big part of my life. But still, all this shit, it is. It seeps in.

We were in Baja and driving through mountains, so you wouldn't see another car for like an hour, and then we'd stay in some so roach motel in a town of like 1,000 people and wander around. I don't know — there's a place where I live in my head that sometimes, I've got to make that literal and disappear out there in the real world. And, I gotta say, I feel 100 percent better after it.

The day [of ] the [Las Vegas] shooting, I woke up, and that just was so insane to me. And then I got a phone call that Tom Petty's dead. Ten minutes later, Chris Martin called me — I was going to go see Coldplay [in Portland]. And he goes, "You want to play 'Free Fallin'" tonight?" and I said, "Yeah, sure." I got out my guitar and played the record and figured it out. I was playing a Tom Petty song for a couple of hours.

You know, I hadn't been in front of 20,000 people in years. We walk onstage, there's a moment of silence. And then we played "Free Fallin'," and I just kind of broke down, you know?

And it was everything else — there's a bunch of other stuff like that going on in my life. I was just . . . [makes noise of being at loss for words] Just had trouble getting a handle on it. So we got in the car and got the fuck out.

By the time I got back, after three weeks, I met Joseph Arthur in Todos Santos and we wrote this group of songs, played them at a bar there, and then we drove to Los Angeles and played them at his [art] opening. It felt like, okay, I'm bringing something living out of this death and sadness. I guess that's what my life has always been about — life's sad, and being able to touch some of that in your heart or your soul or whatever it is, and bring it out in some way. I don't know if it makes the world a better place, or makes me a better or happier person. It worked, whatever it was.

You produced Uncle Tupelo ["March 16-20, 1992"] right before demoing for "Automatic" started. Did that have any bearing, from your perspective, on how you approached things?

I think it probably did. I went to see the Uncle Tupelo guys — I think their second record wasn't out yet. There were like 30 people there. And the first song they opened with was that Louvin Brothers song "Atomic Power." I wandered up and said, "Hey, loved the set, loved the songs. It was cool that you guys opened with a Louvin Brothers song." And Jay [Farrar] and Jeff [Tweedy] looked at each other and smiled. I think Jeff said, "You know, we've probably played that song a hundred times, and nobody's ever known that it's a Louvin Brothers song."

Somehow me producing a record came up. And they said, "Well, we want to make an acoustic record," which I took to mean very little electric stuff. What it actually meant was absolutely no electric stuff. We did it in five days, and it was a performance-oriented group of songs, everyone sitting in a room. Although there were overdubs, they were live performances. The interplay of the acoustics was really moving, too. Those were cool tunes. I'm sure a little bit of that leaked into the writing and performing of "Automatic."

Re-listening to "Automatic," and hearing the interplay between the instruments, it is interesting how things fit together. A friend of mine observed how different the tones were on this record, and I think he's right.

I don't really use pedals anymore. I never used them much — I had a guitar, an amp and my hands. All of that — just by changing pickups on your guitar, volume on the amp and tone settings, and the way you use your fingers, you can get a completely different tone. As well as I have a ton of guitars and I switch them around. I don't necessarily get a good tone and use it for a whole session. Every song is going to be different. My favorite records have that feel. It's like . . . gosh, that's a total metal-punk guitar sound, and then the next one's got a ringy-chimey one, and the next has got some grimy blues feel. I love that.

I do too. And I think that speaks to why every song on "Automatic" has a different tone and emotional approach. Sonically, they're very distinct — but they all fit together. The sequencing was well done to make everything hang together.

Well, sequencing was great. We spent a lot of time on that. I would say that having Scott Litt and Clif Norrell overseeing everything we're doing. . . . Even though we covered a fair amount of ground, and there were, tonally, a lot of different things going on, they did a great job of pulling it together into a cohesive whole. It could've been very easily more like [The Beatles'] "The White Album," say, where everything is really different. And I love "The White Album," but they sound like different bands on different days. This feels like a coherent whole even though it covers a fair amount of ground.

"The White Album," it sounds like they tossed the songs in the air and arranged them how they fell. I love that record too, but . . .

The weird thing about it is, I think it's this great transcendent work — and yet fully half of the songs I never want to hear again. Do I want to hear "Rocky Raccoon"? No. Do I want to hear either one of the "Honey Pie"s? No. I don't want to hear "Savoy Truffle" or "Good Night" or "Revolution 9." The fact that so much great work is on there — and even the stuff that I'm tired of has quality.

We're going to do the [next] Filthy Friends record in February, and I'm driving Corin [Tucker] crazy, because we keep writing. I keep saying, "We need to do a two-record set that covers all this ground." And she's looking in terror that I'm going to make her do it, which I'm not. But I think we want to have enough songs to cover that amount of ground, because we could do a lot of stuff that we haven't done yet.

When you make a record, you're always thinking, "Okay, what do we need? What do we have?" So over the last couple of months, I've been writing things that are unlike anything we've done, demoing them and giving them to Corin and adding her feedback as she tells me what to change, her notes. I went back to using drum machines on a couple of things, thought I'd give it this feel. Not sure if we're using that on the record. It's exciting. We might be making two records at the same time, who knows?

What was it like working with John Paul Jones on "Automatic For the People"?

He's about what you'd think he is, given his post-Led Zeppelin career. He's a very smart, kind of dry-humored guy. I mean, I've played with some of the best in the world — and he is maybe the best all-around player I've played with. We still play together really regularly; we're friends. I played with him this summer; we're going to play together in March. Having him as a string arranger — I picked him because I always loved the keyboard things that were like strings, or the string parts on [Led Zeppelin's] "Kashmir," but also knowing that he arranged all the stuff on the Donovan records, really eclectic. He used strings in a way that were not very romantic. They were a little edgier, which I liked. You don't want saccharine; you want something that has a little edge and motion. We didn't tell him that — he wrote the stuff down, he came in with it, and it was great.

You are on the upcoming Minus 5 holiday record, correct? What can we expect from that?

Not traditional holiday songs. They're songs written by Scott [McCaughey] — I think I get credit on one or two of them, I don't know. He just did it, and it's his perspective on holidays. You're not getting a happy, holly-jolly holiday record. It's a little psychedelic. I think it's a really cool record. [I was like] "We're making a Christmas record? Cool, man!" My whole job is — Scott works in his basement, so he gets down a drum machine, and puts down keyboards and bass and guitar. Then he'll go, "Peter, I need 12-string, and I need a riff." And it's like, "Great!" I keep a lot of the instruments at his house, so we'll spend an afternoon [there], and we'll do four songs. We probably would, like, have work in the studio one day a week on something — my new stuff, his new stuff, someone else's stuff, overdubs. It's my way of socializing. Musicians are better at hanging out doing music than they are hanging around talking about whatever.

I know you have that other band with Scott, The No Ones.

We did that thing in Norway. And I played with Frode [Strømstad] and Arne [Kjelsrud Mathisen], the two guys in this band called I Was A King. And they're really talented. Scott had heard it and said, "Let's make an EP for this festival." I got a text from Scott, "I need 12-string and a riff." I'm like, "Yeah, sure." We decided, "Well, it's a band called the No Ones, and everyone gets songwriting credit." Right before the festival, somebody said, "Well, we decided we're going to make a record. Let's finish some more songs."

So I threw in three or four things I had; Scott finished a couple. And they came over here and we made a record in five days. I haven't heard the finished mix, and I think they had some cool people do overdubs. It's a rock record, but it's like a psychedelic, weird [record]. I really like it. That will probably be out sometime next year. I don't have any great hopes anymore for anything selling, but I have this goal that it would be great to do a 20-date tour of Norway. You get on Norwegian radio and play — I would love doing that.

I'm touring with Alejandro [Escovedo] in a couple of weeks, and me and Scott and him have about 12 songs about three-quarters of the way ready. We're going to try to finish in those weeks, and make another Alejandro co-write, co-produced record in the coming year.

On my little road trip to Mexico, I got a text that said, "Hey, it's Joseph Arthur. I'm in town," in Todos Santos. He showed up with this guitar and his backpack and goes, "Hey, can I stay here?" I was like, "Yeah," and we wrote an album's worth of songs in three days, performed them in a club on Thursday night. He's coming up here Thursday to polish 'em up and finish a couple more and then go into the studio Saturday to put down good demos for the beginning of the record in November. I think Tchad Blake's doing it.

And tomorrow, Corin's coming over and we've got about six new songs we're going to try to finish. She doesn't want me to tell people how many we have finished, but we have a lot finished. We've got a list of things that we have demoed and worked on that are halfway there we're going to go through. I've unfortunately got three new ones for her; I think she may have a breakdown. She can always ignore the ones that don't say anything to her.

I'm just writing a lot, figuring they'll end up somewhere, somehow, sometime. Maybe I'll make a solo record someday, but maybe I'm done with that, I don't know.

Mississippi Records did a good job with your solo records. It was nice to track them down — it was like the old days, when you couldn't go online and get anything. It was an active process, which was kind of refreshing.

That was the whole point. I felt like, "I'm going to make these records. They're definitely not for people who are R.E.M. fans. I don't want there to be any hype about it. I don't want radio stations to be playing them, I don't want reviews comparing it to R.E.M. And I don't want it on CD. I'm just going to put it on vinyl, make one announcement on my webpage and then Mississippi can deal with. In my mind, we went platinum — we sold 8,000 of the first one [2012's "Peter Buck"].


I know! That is with not one interview, no promo copies, no reviews, no airplay. I think the other two each sold around six [thousand copies]. The third record [2015's "Warzone Earth"], I was going through a really personally bad time. I quit drinking about two years ago. And I made this record, and I kept on saying to people it was like the punk rock Big Star Third. And that third record — given the fact I can't sing, is kind of that, punk rock Big Star Third. I mean, it's a complete chronicle of a dissolution of a personality. Thankfully, things are much better now.

Oh, good. Sometimes you just get to a certain point where you're at a crossroads and you're like, "I gotta do something. I gotta do something drastic."

I've suffered from depression and anxiety for years, since I was, like, eight, as well as I can remember. And I always could work it out or work my way through it. But I've been drinking and taking drugs pretty seriously since I was fourteen. It was made clear to me by a couple of people, in the nicest way possible, and I figured it out, but the place I was going was not a place that anyone wants to go. And I just said, "Okay, you know what? I quit. That's it, I'm done." And everyone went, "Yeah, right." I said, "No, I'm serious." Everyone kind of was like, "Well, you know, you have to go to AA, you know you have to go to therapy, you have to go to a clinic." I said, "No, I can just quit." So I just quit. Not to say that I didn't go to therapy later [Laughs]. But you know, I just said, "Okay, that's it, I'm fucking done." And that's it.

And you said it's been two years now?


That's great! Congratulations.

When you see me backstage now, I'm drinking bubbly water.

Not La Croix? Everyone loves La Croix.

You know, La Croix is like crack — they started selling at, like, 25 cents a can and then tripled the price once they got some sales. La Croix would be good, but I get some Topo Chico.

I drink water, coffee and maybe some wine, and that's it.

I never drank coffee in my life, and now I get a shot of espresso every morning if I can do it.

When you come to coffee later in life, that's better. You don't want to get hooked early.

I mean, I had one cup of coffee somewhere with a shot of whiskey in it. But I was 58 before I ever drank coffee. And I don't have to have it — but when we're done [with this interview], I'm probably going to walk downtown and get a little [espresso] shot on the way. There's a guitar shop I'm going to go to. And I've got some songs to write. It's the way I keep myself not focusing on the insanity and depression of the other stuff in the world.

Keeping going, keeping busy and doing what makes you happy — it's such a simple thing, but . . .

Some of my friends are going through similar things. And, honestly, nobody I knew drank as much as I did. It's not humanly possible. I'm immortal, apparently. A lot of my friends are changing lives in a lot of ways. And the feeling — or else my thought is — "Okay, you know, we've had this amazing run of great shit, and you don't want to have the last 15 years be, 'Oh, yeah, then he kind of worked and sat around the house fucked up all the time and didn't make any work.'" We might have 30 more years of living, but who knows how long I get to . . . You know, I've got mild arthritis in my right hand, and it's not a big deal, but it may be a big deal someday.

And how many people write songs when they're 70? Not that many. I want to be one of them. I want to be one of those guys who, even if I'm too old to get onstage, makes records.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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