25 years after its original release, R.E.M.’s most misunderstood album Monster is getting the lavish reissue treatment. Peter Buck, the band’s mercurial guitarist, talks to Alex Wisgard about the songs which were “in the air” around its creation.
By 1994, R.E.M. hadn’t been on tour for five years. After the last show for their 1988 major label debut Green, Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Mike Mills and Peter Buck retreated to their hometown of Athens, Georgia and wrote Out of Time and Automatic for the People, two sparse, acoustically-driven records, that were made on their own terms and in their own time. Their ninth album Monster was the sound of the band saying goodbye to all that, in the form of a loud, brash, queer rock record.
Songs of consolation like “Everybody Hurts” may have been what brought them their biggest audiences to date, but those crowds were confronted with insular - if stadium-ready - new material, littered with sociopathic characters and music that was somehow as obnoxious as it was introverted. Yet, sat at the awkward nexus between the dying embers of grunge and the rise of Britpop and Riot grrrl, Monster didn’t really fit in anywhere. When you take the band’s back catalogue into consideration, it still doesn’t, but its status as the ugly stepchild of the band’s discography is unfair.
Since R.E.M. folded in 2011, Peter Buck has been a busy guy and this year has been no different. “I’ve got three more records coming out in the next year,” he tells me, running down his forthcoming release schedule. “The next Arthur Buck record is finished. Scott McCaughey and I are in this Norwegian band called The No Ones, which we co-wrote and played on when we were playing in Norway. Corin and I are in the process of writing for the next Filthy Friends album and of course, she’s in the middle of the Sleater-Kinney tour right now.”
And yet, having been in one of the biggest rock bands in living memory, Buck now finds himself casting an eye to the past, as the R.E.M. machine grinds into gear once again, this time for Monster’s 25th anniversary. You wonder if Buck gets a sense of déjà vu about the whole thing, not just talking about a record that’s a quarter of a century old, but talking about talking about that record. Still, at least he gets to be more selective about the press he chooses to do than he was the first time around.
“It’s just a weird part of my life,” he tells me. “Every year or two, I have to go back and examine something that happened 25 years before. I remember sitting in the Chateau Marmont for a week, doing ten interviews a day. Me and Bill paired up and Mike and Michael paired up. It was a lot, and none of us ever turned around and said ‘I’m not doing all this crap.’ In a way, maybe we should have.”
This wasn’t just because the band - and particularly Stipe - had to process the loss of their friend River Phoenix in October 1993, or Kurt Cobain in April 1994. It was the fact that, despite R.E.M. doing better than they ever had done, amongst themselves they were doing pretty terribly. Aside from nearly breaking up during Monster’s recording, Mills nearly passed out during the final take of lead single “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” due to what turned out to be a severe case of appendicitis.
Meanwhile, the gargantuan run of shows to promote the record saw Mills, Stipe and, most notably Berry, spend extended time in the hospital, the latter for an onstage aneurysm during a show in Switzerland early in the tour. “I know it was hard finishing that record, and there was some hard stuff on the tour.” Buck recalls. “But I don’t look back and think how horrible something was. I just think ‘OK, that was pretty intense, but it was something we lived through.’”
I put it to him that he was the only member of the band to get out of that era unscathed and he laughs and says “Physically, yeah” but his tone quickly becomes more sombre. “I have nightmares still about Bill collapsing. I thought he was dead, and I’m glad that he fell down in my arms. So much of that stuff sticks with you. I hung out with Bill three weeks ago and we played together, so it must have turned out OK.”
The incident continues to haunt Buck and has impacted the way he’s viewed more recent health issues which befell his bandmates in other projects, particularly the mystery ailment that afflicted musician Alejandro Escovedo in 2013. Similarly, Buck’s Minus 5 bandmate Scott McCaughey, who joined R.E.M. as a backing guitarist for the Monster tour, suffered a debilitating stroke in 2017. McCaughey - who plays on every project Buck currently has going - took less than six months to start doing shows again and released the excellent Stroke Manor, his first album since his illness, for this year’s Record Store Day. “Scott’s great,” Buck tells me, marvelling at his friend’s progress. “He’s working really hard to bring himself all the way back. It’s kind of miraculous.”
As for Monster, their garishly orange covered ninth album has earned its stripes in recent years and is available in a 25th anniversary reissue, with its artwork now a more palatable shade of blue. There’s the obligatory remaster, a stellar live show from halfway through the tour, a disc of demos and a full remix from producer Scott Litt. “He wasn’t happy with the mix. To me, once the record is made, it’s made, and that’s what it is, so I kind of approached it as a fan. I think it’s a cool thing to have in the package, but I don’t think it’s going to supersede the original.”
Buck’s approach to music has always been fanlike and I figure that his decision to talk about nine key songs from the time of Monster was a result of wanting to talk about other people’s records. Still, since he’s running through the music he most associates with this most high-anxiety and high-profile era of his former band, I’m not letting him get out so easily. To his credit, he willingly answers my questions about his former band with grace.
“Given that we'd make whatever record we were going to make,” Buck says, by way of explaining his mindset going into the release of his band’s ninth album the first time around, “We wanted people to buy it and hear it. I wanted it to be on every radio station in the world. I don’t really do that kind of thing much anymore.”
“And of course, here I am doing another interview about Monster, so I guess some things never change.”
“There was all that stuff coming out of England at the time - I guess they called it Britpop, but I liked the fact that this song was really short and sharp and angular.
“So much of Britpop was about sounding like the ‘60s, but just a little amped up. I was doing some promo thing and I think I got a white label pressing of this single and I went “Wow, that’s kind of amazing.” I didn’t know who they were, it just felt like a cool record. It doesn’t really hark back to anything I really loved, other than maybe the Wire years, which seems like pretty unexplored territory.
“On the Monster tour, we had Oasis, Blur did two shows, Echobelly were out on tour with us for a while and Sleeper did a couple of shows. It seemed like a good idea and we wanted to see these bands play.
“Possibly my favourite band from that era was The Auteurs. Luke Haines and I have just made a record together and I think that’s coming out in the spring. I’d never met him, but we’d just send stuff back and forth and then we went to a show together when I was over in London six months ago. I guess it’ll come out as a Luke Haines / Peter Buck record, it’s hard making up band names, you always have to say who you are!”
“From the time I first saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show I was really interested in what was going on in England. I grew up living in the South, with Southern Rock, and as much as I was hearing all that stuff, everyone else was listening to it. It was everywhere, so it was kind of exciting to see people who were putting on a show.
“T. Rex was always there. When punk rock happened, it was the most exciting thing on Earth, but I didn’t throw away my T. Rex or Al Green records. I always had vinyl and I’d always buy records, but I think older stuff was starting to be reintroduced into our lives when we were making Monster, because it wasn’t until 1992 or 1993 that I got my first CD player.
"They were reissuing all this stuff that you couldn’t get anywhere else and I had one in my car, so I started buying CDs that I hadn’t heard in a while. I’d buy anything - Jimmie Rodgers, T. Rex, Hank Williams, The Beatles - things I hadn’t played in a million years, and so T. Rex is on a playlist of mine, mentally.
“I actually saw T. Rex on The Slider tour and The Doobie Brothers opened! There weren’t many people there, you probably had a 2,000-seater that had 1,000 kids in it, so I went right to the front. Marc Bolan did an acoustic set, where he sat down on probably like a ten-thousand-dollar rug.
“He was drinking out of this cup and he passed it to the guy next to me, who passed it on to me and I drank it and I passed it down the front row. I turned to the guy next to me and asked “What was that?!” And the guy said “That’s Marc’s favourite drink, red wine and Coca Cola!” So I drank from the same cup as Marc Bolan - the first time I ever had what I now know to be a Kalimotxo, as they call it in Spain - when I was 15.”
“I had the Stooges records when I was a kid and I tried to go see them, but I couldn’t get in. They wouldn’t take my fake ID, and usually my fake ID was accepted because I didn’t really look my age. It was sold out and they wouldn’t let sixteen-year olds in to get drunk, so I listened to the show outside the door. It’s the same recording that came out on that Raw Power box set, but I remember thinking “God, this is a lot of songs that I’ve never heard of!”
“I listen to “No Fun” and think that a song like “I Took Your Name” is kind of a direct descendent of it. It’s not quite the same chords, but just that kind of monolithic, two-note chord progression that’s big and noisy, and I always loved that about them.
“As much as I love Raw Power, that stuff’s hard to play, and it’s hard to play “No Fun” right, but it’s easy to get the chords down. I’ve never heard anyone do a Stooges song as well as the Stooges do. It looks simple, but it’s just like the Ramones. Almost anyone can figure out the chords to a Ramones song, but I’ve never heard anyone play them as well as the Ramones. You’ve just gotta be those people to do it.
“We did play “Funtime” as well, though - I think that ended up on a fanclub single. I’ll tell you the reason we did it. I had a video cassette of all this rock and roll stuff that someone gave me and I saw Iggy and David Bowie do it on The Dinah Shore Show.
"We were driving to a gig and we said “Hey, let’s just do that”, so we did it as a rehearsal once at the show, did it three or four times. It wasn’t really the intention to be just like the record, because we weren’t really listening to the record. So that kind of stuff was part of our lives, people might not notice how it affected the band, but it was something we all paid attention to.”
“I have a real strong memory of all four of us being in a car somewhere on the way to an interview - I have a feeling it might have been Japan - and “Seether” was blasting out of the car stereo.
"I remember saying “Wow, this is great - turn this up!” I think that one of the reasons it’s on this list is that I just read this article online about how great they were, so I’ve been going back and listening to that stuff again.
“But again, that song is deceptively simple. There’s not that many chords, there’s no key changes really. It’s just a great piece of music and I remember that being around a lot at that time.
"When that whole thing happened in Seattle, I loved a lot of it – we made a record there in ’92, and I moved there in ’93 - but some of the music was an inch away from heavy metal in some respects and that never really interested me. So the less you had a hot-shit guitar player, the better it was for me.
“When we first started, every city had its own little thing. Omaha, Nebraska had bands there and the bands in one part of California wouldn’t sound the same as bands in San Diego. But kind of like Detroit, Seattle always had a sort of blue-collar work ethic musically. And heavy metal was very popular up here, so pretty much all those guys playing grunge – I hate that word – grew up listening to heavy metal. I never did. We had Southern rock, we didn’t have to have heavy metal.”
“I always noticed that there was this year or two where every other band sounded like R.E.M., and then right after that they sounded like The Replacements and then after that they sounded like Sonic Youth. So there was this feeling that there was this stuff in the culture that reached out beyond - especially with Sonic Youth. There were a lot of bands who got really successful, that outdid Sonic Youth in terms of selling more records.
“Sonic Youth toured with us in the United States for weeks on end and this was an nreleased song at the time, but it was kind of ballsy. They’d play 45 minute sets and they ended with a 25 minute song, and it was really beautiful. I’d watch them play it almost every night. It was very soundscapey.
“At some point or another we’d always try to work out new songs onstage, and we did it again on the tour in ’95. But the Monster stuff was untested. Did that make it more nerve-wracking? It was all nerve-wracking! I just live on the edge of nerve-wracking all the time.
“It felt like there was a lot of pressure and the first few shows were rough, because it had been quite a while. But the agreement that we were writing the next record [New Adventures in Hi-Fi] on the road really focussed us in a way that was really good for us. When we were doing promo for Monster at the Chateau Marmont and I remember saying 'This is a really long tour, and I think we should try and write and record a whole record while we’re on tour.'”
"This was during an interview. We did another interview and Bill said “Yeah, Peter says we should write and record a whole record while we’re on tour!”
“When we broke for lunch, Mike and Michael came in and said 'We just did an interview and they said you’d told them we were going to write and record a whole record while we’re on tour. What’s that all about?!' But it gave us something to do! We all brought in stuff, because we didn’t have anything finished before the tour started – maybe “Revolution”. We worked on them and Michael would work on lyrics. By the end of the tour we were doing seven new songs and we recorded almost all of the album at soundchecks. One in a bathroom. And I think there was two songs that we wrote in the studio when we were going in to mix the other stuff.
“I still feel New Adventures is a really strong record, given the craziness, the adversity and the illness. It was the first time that people were standing outside our hotels and screaming and chasing us around – that was the only time in our lives that ever happened to us, but we’d just show up and work every day, right up until the very last day of the tour, after 130-something shows.
“We did a two-hour soundcheck, even though we’d been at the venue for three nights, because there were one or two songs we really thought we could get better. The version of “Low Desert” was the last thing ever played at soundcheck on that tour and we got it that day. Everyone was just so tired and ready to go home.”
“I think the record is Arc/Weld, but I think “Weld” is the feedback section of it. I could be wrong, but let’s pretend I’m right with that one!
“Sonic Youth did that tour with Neil and they were like “Yeah, the crew were assholes, but Neil did this crazy feedback stuff.” So when that record came out, I remember just listening to it – it was kind of hard to believe, people putting on this kind of Metal Machine Music for our generation. And it was just in the air, that you could do this really noisy guitar stuff. I haven’t put it on in a while, maybe I should go back and listen to it again.
“Another thing that happened on that tour with Sonic Youth was that Neil had bought some kind of video camera and he’d just turn it on and leave it in hidden places. He edited that together into a film, and I think I got a copy of that from Sonic Youth. It’s kind of amazing – the band rehearsing and Neil weeding them out, just with the camera running in the corner of the room, not pointing at anything, with people just walking past it.
“I’d been seeing Neil play for most of my life, I didn’t really know him then. We first met him when we did the Bridge School Concert in about 1999, but when he comes to town, I usually get to say hello. We’re not best friends or anything – he never calls me!” [laughs]
“I saw Nirvana on tour in 1989 or 1990, and then when they came through again the week after Nevermind came out, and they stayed at my house after playing to about 500 people. I didn’t know them really well, but I really loved them.
“Then I moved to Seattle, and all of a sudden all of this shit’s going on around me, which was really surprising. Half the people in town were on heroin and I’d never really been anywhere that had weather like that.
“There was a real closed-offness in a really weird way. The sudden success of all these bands meant there was a lot of paranoia and weirdness, but that said, I was friends with a lot of those people - well, acquaintances. I remember going out to dinner in LA with the Nirvana guys right before In Utero came out, and they wanted to go some place where no one would recognise them. So we drove to Inglewood, which is 30 miles away from Hollywood, ate at a BBQ joint and nobody recognised us! We were the only white people there and they asked us “Y’all a country and western band?” “No, mam!”
“When “Heart Shaped Box” came out on the radio, I thought it was the perfect way to go about following up the biggest record of the decade. I really liked the fact that it wasn’t what I expected - it’s kind of a pretty song, in a way. Right before they went off to record the album, they did an unannounced show at a local club here, The Crocodile, and there was maybe 100 people there. They played for two hours, all unreleased material - some of it unrehearsed, also - so I probably first heard that song then. I’d love to have a tape of that, it was really crazy. It’s hard to picture, but it was such a good-vibe night.”
“I love Mudhoney, and one of the reasons I love them is that they didn’t take themselves really seriously. You could tell what they listened to - they loved punk rock, but they were totally a garage band.
“Touch Me I’m Sick” is just the most obvious song, their big hit, but they were a band who never really super-successful, so I would still see them really regularly. Between the time I moved to Seattle in ’93 and moved out in ’99, I saw them ten or twelve times. They were a cool band. It’s funny, I live in Portland now and Steve Turner lives about a quarter of a mile away from me.
“I never would have thought that the lyrics to this song would have had an influence on Monster, but I can see it. I have no idea whether Michael’s ever heard this record - maybe he has, but you never know. But Monster’s definitely not written from Michael’s personal perspective. I think what cycles through all of it is paranoia and stuff. When we got really successful, I’m not sure we really loved the process, so we just got crazier and crazier. But it did feel like we were musically reinventing ourselves, so it seemed like maybe Michael was doing that too.”
“Bikini Kill was the first band I saw that was part of this new thing that was coming out of Olympia. Riot grrrl was inclusive, it was energetic and it was in-your-face. You’d go to the show and Kathleen would yell “All the men get to the back! Women up front!” - I was standing at the back anyway, so I was cool with it. But I understood it.
“Take something like the whole Britpop thing, that was just a bunch of bands who kind of got successful at the same time, there wasn’t any intellectual or political underpinnings to it. I was talking to Corin Tucker about it, and I was saying that I hate the way these scenes get labelled and she told me “No, we thought that name up, that’s our name.” It was very rigorously intellectual and political, and also total rock and roll. I completely loved it.
“I could have easily put Sleater-Kinney on here, but I didn’t discover them until about 1996. I think that’s about when they started and I don’t think I saw them until after the first or second record. But Sleater-Kinney is maybe my favourite punk band ever – them and the Ramones.”