Scott Litt on R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People," an album that "captured a moment in time"

The producer talks mixing in Dolby Atmos, making the record, and its legacy

Published November 18, 2017 3:30PM (EST)

Automatic for the People by R.E.M. and produced by Scott Litt (Warner Bros.)
Automatic for the People by R.E.M. and produced by Scott Litt (Warner Bros.)

Producer Scott Litt was behind the boards for every R.E.M. album between 1987's "Document" and 1996's "New Adventures In Hi-Fi." He's also been involved in the band's ongoing reissue campaign, including the recent deluxe take on 1992's "Automatic for the People." This particular release is notable for including a version of the album mixed with Dolby Atmos, a cutting-edge sound technology that produces "spatial audio." (Ars Technica does a deep dive on Atmos and "Automatic," for the curious.)

Litt and engineer Clif Norrell worked on the Atmos mix, and the former says that leveraging the new mixing technology was a boon for the music. "The biggest challenge and delight of it was we could be much more expressive with the strings with the four songs that John Paul Jones did arrangements on," he says. "When we were recording those, he came in with the charts, and then we would work with him and pare them down to work around other things that we had already put onto the tape, or parts that we were planning to put onto the tape. So we would have to kind of make room.

"When we did the Dolby [Atmos] mix, we didn't have to make a lot of room anymore," he says. "It was like, 'Whoa, if we put the strings over here, and we put the guitars over here . . . .' And you can arrange an orchestra in a semi-circle or in some way that you would be actually seeing the orchestra, where the violas are here and the violins are here, and so forth. There was all this room to make all the parts read much better."

Song-wise, Litt was happy that "Ignoreland" — a song he said "was always a little bit of a sore spot for me, and maybe the rest of the band, I'm not sure" — emerged "better than I ever thought it did" thanks to Atmos. "It started out great — it used to be called 'Howler Monkey' when we first started it. It was a winning track," he says. "And then as Michael [Stipe] wrote words for it, and Mike [Mills] did stuff, and everybody started piling on, you can tell. You can always tell with me, if there's something that I play on on a record, then you know that we went down every road possible." He laughs. "It's like, 'All right, let the producer get out there and try something. Let's see what he's feeling on this.'"

Working on the Dolby Atmos mix also informed how Litt approached remastering "Automatic for the People" with the album's original mastering engineer, Stephen Marcussen. "[I remastered 'Automatic'] after I had started with some of the Atmos stuff," he explains. "I was refreshed. So when we remastered the album — and that wasn't a remix, it was just remastering, getting the two-track tapes and then EQing them differently and doing things differently that can be done now — I brought some of that sensibility to the remastering as well."

Litt rang up Salon to reminisce about making "Automatic for the People" and ponder the album's legacy.

Going back and listening to "Automatic," there were so many unique tones and textures on this record. I know that there were distorted cellos and Peter Buck had bought a bouzouki, for example. Every R.E.M. record sounds different, but this one in particular sounds singular.

As a producer, "Automatic" was a special time. I think it was having to do with the fact that [R.E.M. was] coming from "Out of Time," and particularly "Losing My Religion" . . . "Document" was the first full-length album that we did together. And I remember when we finished "The One I Love," that it sounded to me, and I've said this before, like it could fit on the radio with Whitney Houston or anything else. It felt perfect in its own way — and represented rock guitar music, riff music — but it worked as a complete little thing. It could work with everything.

The next big breakthrough, as far as commercially, was "Out of Time" and "Losing My Religion," which became a worldwide song. Making a song that was mandolin-based, let's say . . . It wasn't necessarily a rock song but, sonically, it still worked with things that were around it. There was enough going on, the song was that good, that it worked on that level.

When you have a success with "Losing My Religion," [a song] that's kind of doing it on its own terms, then it really frees you up to just go for it, to really [explore] whatever idea [you want]. Even if it might not work, the band is in such a good place that they're willing to try things without the fear of embarrassment. You have the wrong environment in the studio, it's hard to get the best results. After "Out of Time," it was like we could try anything.

Like you [can] point to Mike Mills' background vocals on "Try Not to Breathe." [Litt sings them.] They're really unique. I don't think that's a part that he would've tried earlier in their career, just because it's kind of out there. It's not really a vocal part; it's more like a string part or something like that. Having that time — and being able to go not for craziness, but what might be perfect — was what marked "Automatic" for me. I think that explains a lot of the different textures.

You said distorted cello — there is that on "Sweetness Follows." That was kind of where "Out of Time" was; there were basically strings or some sort of arrangement on every song. "Automatic" ended up as somewhat of a somber record, [but] instead of orchestration on every song, there's orchestration on four. When they are there, it's big.

Then the other parts — instead of having an orchestra on "Sweetness Follows," it was, "Let's pare it down to one cello, but let's fuck it up." That kind of thing. That experimentation, and making it more of a black-and-white [approach] — [either] a lot of strings, or just a little string — and not really a gray area.

When I think about that record, I think, "Yeah, there's a lot of textures," but I wouldn't necessarily call it a colorful record. I still see it in almost a black-and-white way, if that sounds weird.

No — honestly, that's always the way I've looked at the record. I think also because the artwork and Anton Corbijn's pictures too . . .

That's a good point, now that you say that. And maybe that's part of my remembrance too, those pictures. Because it was anything but a black-and-white experience. We were all over the map doing the record. I remember the pictures that they took for the album were done in Miami. We were at the beach, and it was really nice, and we were having a ball. It was swimming in the morning in the ocean. It was very interesting that the record came out with the artwork that was indeed very black and white because the experience was colorful. [Laughs.]

"Automatic" was recorded in a few different studios and places, including Daniel Lanois' house. How did going all over the place influence the record's sound?

Well, I think that we got the best out of those places. Starting with basic tracks, they had a different feel. Starting at Lanois' place, Kingsway, if you've ever heard of it or been there, it's an old Victorian house. It's not like there's sound booths and things like that. We were in a demo frame of mind. For the most part, I think a lot of the reason we were there is I think Peter had purchased a house in New Orleans and was talking about it.

So we went down there, and when we recorded "Drive," I remember that particularly well, because there were no click tracks or anything involved. The drums were set up kind of near me next to the console, and Michael was singing on the second-story landing. Mike was on the stairs somewhere. It was one of those situations.

I was kind of out there conducting the band, because [drummer] Bill [Berry] wasn't really used to playing a song where the drums came in and out. And usually you would do that where the drums would be overdubbed to an existing take, and you would just stop playing at a certain part. This was like, they were still following Bill, but there were parts where he stopped, and then we would have to follow the rhythm guitar. It was unique in its recording in that regard.

But then in Florida, we were in a big real studio. We were able to use the piano that they used on [Derek and the Dominos'] "Layla" for "Nightswimming." Even though it wasn't in our studio, we ran cables like 100 yards to the other studio to be able to record that piano. We tried to get the best out of every unique place that we went to. Cutting tracks in Bearsville too, we were familiar with that. We had mixed a record there ["Green"], but we said, "Geez, this would be a good place to record." So that went into the memory banks and that got pulled into play.

Everything had its place, and it showed off the best of what we got. The Atlanta [studio] part was just basically to take advantage of the strings, because we had used those players on "Out of Time" and there was a nice studio there in which to do the string overdubs, and the Atlanta Symphony was there.

I can't really explain the mixing in Seattle. That was in the early days of SSL consoles and they had one up there. Usually now you wouldn't really go into a new place to mix if you haven't experienced it, but we did. Thankfully, it worked out well.

As you were working with the band, what really stood out to you about the music and what they were coming up with, as compared to the previous records? What really made this music distinctive?

I don't know. That's a good question. There have always been kind of evocative instrumentation ideas throughout my history with them. "Green," it's all over that [album] — "Hairshirt" and all these songs that are just approached differently. There was always that element from "Green" that translated then to "Out of Time."

I believe that in "Automatic," what makes it unique is that it was just more realized. The drum parts were exactly right. The mood of the rhythm section and the lyrics that Michael would write . . .  You know, a lot of times there would be a rhythm track already recorded or mostly done before Michael would print the lyrics. The melody would usually be there in some way, shape or form. And I think in this record maybe that worked out perfectly.

I mean, I've heard [Michael] say, or Peter say, that this record was supposed to be a different record when it started — and it didn't end up that way. That's why "Monster" ended up that way. But "Automatic" ended up being a different record than even they had thought, and I would say that Michael's lyrics and melody made that happen. The tracks were fitting with what he was singing about.

Then you look at something like "Ignoreland," which this is maybe a song that doesn't almost belong on the record in a weird way, unless it's like ...

You know, you listen to "Sgt. Pepper['s Lonely Hearts Club Band]" and — not to compare — but "Sgt. Pepper," they left off "Strawberry Fields [Forever]" and "Penny Lane." You would think that particularly "Penny Lane" would be perfect on "Sgt. Pepper," but they didn't put it on there. That record — there's a couple of different moments in there where it's like when you listen to it now, it's like, "Well, this song I guess belongs on here, but it's not like 'Strawberry Fields' from beginning to end perfectly." There's other things going on.

And I think in "Automatic," there's some moments that are more like, "Oh, we need an uptempo song. Let's cut a more rock track." It's like "[The] Sidewinder [Sleeps Tonite]" is more midtempo. "Ignoreland" is more raucous. These are safety valve things to almost have, "Gosh, we need a faster song here." I mean, sometimes it comes down to that. It comes down to, "God, this could be a snooze if we don't pull this off."

And now, in retrospect, it's like, "Gosh, we could've maybe trimmed here or there" or, you know, in my eyes, make it perfect. Although, I ran into Chris Martin once at a Patti Smith concert and he was going on and on about "Ignoreland," and I was like, "God, really?" Sometimes the off thing does and can work, and more it's maybe a slap in the face or cold water splashed on you.

There are things I'd have maybe done different, but I think the overall mood and what Michael was writing about ended up working really, really well with the tracks that we had recorded.

One of the things I think is really interesting is that you've mentioned that "Automatic" wouldn't have turned out the way it did without "Out of Time." For example, the band had written "Nightswimming," and recorded the demo at Paisley Park when "Out of Time" was being mixed. It's so interesting, because both records turned out so differently, but yet there's so much of a link to that. I think maybe a lot of people might not necessarily realize this.

Yeah. It's funny, because I was probably talking at the time that "Out of Time" couldn't have been made without "Green," in my opinion. For me, it was the beginning of really [a] more almost symphonic [era]. We were going for something.

It's like, you're working in Bearsville, right, and it's the middle of the night. And you go outside and you hear these crickets and they're just going nuts. There are so many of them, and it's such music. You're like, "God, this should be on the record. This sounds insane." So you record these crickets and then all of a sudden, well, these heavy electric guitars aren't gonna work against these crickets. [Laughs.]

So, yeah. There's a lot of that on "Out of Time." And I think [on] "Out of Time," the fact that Peter had wanted there to be arrangement on all the songs, come hell or high water, influenced that. And then "Automatic" just got better at knowing which songs needed instrumentation and which ones didn't.

I certainly see a link between them all. I have my favorites. And I see "Document" and "Green" together in a certain way — and I see "Automatic" and "Out of Time" together, in a way. I mean, I'm old enough to remember when bands had a period where they would have, let's say, two albums that really nailed it.

I always think of the Grateful Dead with "American Beauty" and "Workingman's Dead." The Beatles not, because the Beatles every record was great. Or the Stones — even though people all love "Exile on Main Street," that was never my fave. "Beggar's Banquet" and then "Let it Bleed" were my records. So you hit the sweet spot where it's like, God, you're doing really good work and you know it. "Automatic" and "Out of Time," to me — that stretch of time will always be that for me with R.E.M.

I just read an interview with Michael on NPR, and it's funny you mentioned the '70s earlier. He mentioned that, subconsciously, stuff like Nazareth and David Essex and Elton John was influencing him. It's funny looking at "Automatic" via a prism of it being influenced by the '70s, because I think that's something that's surfacing now maybe a little bit more than it did at the time. I'm very intrigued by that.

I don't know how the band felt — I don't think they felt that way — but usually when I start a project, and I hear the demos and where it's going, I imagine a sound in my head. I like to have a little bit of a point on the horizon to think about.

When I heard "Drive" and the symphonic-ness of it, it made me think of a Queen record, where it would come down to nothing and then it would kind of explode. And now people do that all the time because of ProTools and there's a million records now that have that dynamic of, like, it's real quiet then it gets real loud. It's a lot easier to do when you're moving digital files around, but in those days, it wasn't. Those people had to really work hard at it.

"Drive," the last string line in the last verse, there's a [Litt sings a melody line that scales upward] and that to me is an homage to "machine, machine, machine, machine, machine" — it's a Kraftwerk thing. The guitar and the strings are definitely a Queen thing. "Star Me Kitten" is a 10cc, "I'm Not in Love" thing. There's a million of them. [Laughs.] For me.

As soon as ["Automatic"] started to take form, it was like gosh, I want to make a record that's really ambitious, that has things that are just different and show the work that you're investing in it to realize it. I don't know Nazareth — and I know David Essex, the "Rock On" stuff. I'm sure that was Michael's thing for "Drive," "Hey, kids, rock and roll." But I never saw that as a "Rock On"; I always saw it as Queen. But that's me.

I like the different perspectives. That's very cool.

As they say, it's not who does it first — it's who does it second. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Absolutely. It's true.

Isn't it? It's like the first one opens the door and doesn't necessarily get the credit that they deserve. The second one through the door is usually the one that gets the accolades. [Laughs.]

It's whoever, in a figurative sense, amplifies the sound to more people. One hundred percent. You see that in so many bands.

And I don't like to name them, because it's doing 'em a disservice, but boy, it's really true. That's what Brian Eno would always say about Velvet Underground. And not even the Velvets are a seminal band for me, 'cause they are and they aren't. But [Eno] says only 10,000 people bought the record but 5,000 of them started a band. That kind of thing.

The Ramones now — it's like the fucking Ramones now, you hear 'em all over the place, like on every commercial, on every TV break, everywhere. But back in the day, they couldn't get arrested. Their thing about never being able to have a top 10 or 20 record or anything like that or even one that charted, was a bummer for them. I know it was for Joey [Ramone] — I didn't know him, but I heard him talk enough about it. It's like, why else would you get Phil Spector to make a record with you? It just shows that the ones that are ahead of the curve usually do not get the credit that they deserve. But it's the one riding the wave that maybe does.

That's what's nice; at least that R.E.M. actually did get the credit — they did succeed in doing that, which is cool.

One of the things that I've always prided myself on was that I was able to work with R.E.M. and Nirvana, and I always — now, people will disagree with me on this — saw that as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones of that certain era. I don't mean to dis other groups, particularly Pearl Jam or somebody like that, [who are] amazing. That I was lucky enough, during the world that was alternative music, to be able to work with some of the best artists in that field, was something that I'll always be thankful for.

You look in hindsight, because there's so been so much attention with "Nevermind" as well and all this stuff turning 25, it's amazing the reverberations you do still see. I grew up on Nirvana, too, and of course R.E.M. — and now that I'm an adult, it's very interesting looking back and seeing where you see the little influences and inspirations pop up.

I remember mixing "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies" for [Nirvana's] "In Utero," and I remember "Heart-Shaped Box" was gonna be the first single. And the anticipation for that — I don't think I can remember any other song that I've worked on, except "Jesse" by Carly Simon, because that was the first top 10 song I had ever mixed. I heard it on WABC in New York, which was still playing pop music then, and it was real exciting for me.

But I remember the anticipation for the next Nirvana record after "Nevermind," and it was fucking insane. There was, like, Nirvana watch, and "When's it gonna happen?" I remember I was with my niece and her friends, and it was at a birthday party, and I was getting gas. And there I heard it on KROQ and people were freaking out. It was like God, the anticipation.

I guess it's now it's Taylor Swift, right? It gets that same kind of vibe. She's one of the few — I don't know if people think about other artists quite the same at this point as they do with [her], like "Oh my God, what's Taylor doing?"

Where do you see "Automatic's" legacy today?

I'm critical — and I'm critical, because of stuff that I am involved in, because I always hear stuff that I wish I had done differently or whatever. I was going to say, as a co-producer, and you're working with the band, there are compromises that you have to make. You can't just be [a] my-way-or-the-highway kind of person. There are some producers that are like that, but they don't tend to have the kind of relationships that I had with R.E.M., where you do six albums. That's kind of, "Gee, you've got a place in this mix, and we need you to be this person in here."

Where do I see the legacy of it? I see it as one of the best of the alternative genre of music, that it was rock 'n' roll enough that it didn't lose fans that like a harder edge, and it was poignant and lyrical enough that it really attracted people that would relate [to the fact] that it was really telling a story.

I'm honored that it's considered . . . .You know, a lot of people say it's R.E.M.'s best record. I think it's a very consistent record. Some things are realized more than others, and it's not a completely conceptual record. There's a mood about it, and there's a feeling about it. There's a lot of different emotions in that particular record. ["Automatic"] is a very emotional record that captured a moment in time. It was a piece of art that was made during the heyday of alternative music.

All of these records I think have stood up really well. It's always so disappointing when you listen to records you loved when you were younger, and you're like, "Oh, that really hasn't aged very well." But there's no disappointment with "Out of Time" and "Automatic."

There's always people that prefer R.E.M.'s first record, or first couple of records, and I get it. The only problem is — and Michael will tell you — that lyrically he wasn't really ready. On a lot, he was. But on a lot of is kind of melodic parts that could be stream-of-consciousness, but they're more attitude than they are really lyrically getting something over.

I think he just got better and better and better at that, and became more free to do that in his own heart. I think that "Automatic" is one of those records that maybe started out one way, but just the strength of the material and what the message ended up [being], it was taken to another place by that.

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.

MORE FROM Annie Zaleski

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

Editor's Picks Music R.e.m. Rock N Roll Scott Litt