NEW YORK (Billboard) - Think fast. R.E.M. has banished the quiet, dream-like mood of their last two records and is about to unleash the hard, sharp-eyed “Accelerate,” their first album in four years.
As Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills follow the first single’s edit-it-yourself video with the album’s launch on iLike and a worldwide tour, frontman Stipe spoke to Billboard.com about the set’s “really fast, really raw” take on politics, teenage geekdom and the media; and how he and his bandmates “worked really hard to try to upset the things we had gotten bogged down in.”
Q: Your decision to premiere “Accelerate” on iLike follows neatly from the decision to pretty much open-source the video for “Supernatural Superserious.”
Michael Stipe: Good term there. I think that was my idea but it was based on stuff that (director) Vincent Moon had done that I really admired. I thought, “Well, we can take this and expand on the idea and offer something that’s a little bit of fun,” which I think is in keeping not only with the footage that he was able to get of the band kind of stumbling around New York, but with the song itself, which has a little bit of a sense of humor.
Q: A sense of humor, and a fun guitar riff. You’ve said the song was about teenage humiliation and the kinds of things that follow you through your life. I thought that was interesting because I wondered what inspired you to write that now, long after adolescence?
Stipe: We all have our geek moments that we kind of carry with us or that have some impact on us throughout our lives (laughs). I hate to use the term ‘geek anthem’ but it’s a little bit, for me, like that. I have friends — who are adults — who move with such grace and poise through life and in fact completely embrace the incredibly stupid aspects of growing up and the humiliating teenage moments. They can totally laugh about and make fun of themselves and allow themselves to be, I think, more of a complete adult because of it. So that was really kind of the inspiration for the song.
Q: I think we have all harbored things like that years and decades later, and then we think, “Why am I thinking about this now?”
Stipe: Yeah, it’s like that one horrifying school picture where you either knew or didn’t know that that was the day they were taking the school picture. Okay, so now anyone in the world can now pull that up online if they want to look at you when you were in sixth grade and had, whatever, really stupid glasses. But the song inhabits an almost more internal humiliation, something that happens to all of us because we were all kids and we all have insecurities on some level or the other. This one, I kind of particularly wrote it around a seance gone horribly wrong at a summer camp that then manifested itself later in life as kind of a sexual deviance, but a fun one.
Q: Most of the songs on the record, like “Supernatural,” sound like the band re-exploring rock and a harder sound. Did you set out to do that?
Stipe: No, I think more than anything we wanted to stay on point. We wanted to do a record really fast so there was no way for us to overthink it. In terms of the material, we kind of went to the most obvious place. We wrote really fast songs and we tried to keep them really raw and in-your-face, and that’s what we wound up with.
Q: This record is also out in an election year. Is the character in “Mr. Richards” a politician? Are you talking about the state of the country there, like Dylan’s “Mr. Jones”? Is “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” a call to action?
Stipe: “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” to me, is more aimed at a figure in the media. “Mr. Richards” is definitely a political figure. It’s really about the injustices that we face under a system where somebody can, can ... can disregard ... Let me pull my thoughts together. I always stammer when I get really upset (laughs). It’s about injustices and one of those great injustices — and you’ll find plenty of examples of it in the current U.S. administration — is people that get away with something that is almost inhuman. Rather than that being shameful, they wear it like a badge of honor. The fact that they did something so corrupt and actually got away with it, rather than just dropping it into the bottom drawer of their desk, it’s like, “I’m even more Teflon than you think I am.” Like, “Look at what I can do.”
Q: Mission accomplished?
Stipe: Yeah, exactly. And that’s so insulting to me. I don’t know if it comes from a Christian upbringing or what, but one of the core foundations of my ideas of morality and ethics is about justice, and when injustice happens and it can be traced back to a person or a group of people, how very upset that makes me.
Q: Did you write the lyrics for the album while Mike and Peter were writing the music?
Stipe: My promise to them was that I would show up on the first day of recording with finished lyrics. So, the first stint that we did was in Vancouver, and the first day I showed up, I had seven songs. We were recording every day, probably eight or nine hours a day. I finished another song while we were there and started another half of a song. By the time we got to Dublin, (where) we did these live shows, these kind of live rehearsals before we went into the studio, I finished the song that I had started in Vancouver and had written another one.
My part of it was to not have to have Peter sitting on the couch for four weeks waiting for me to finish lyrics; (to not) have Mike not knowing how to sing a background vocal or where to take the bass part or the keyboard part because he didn’t know where the vocal melody was going to go.
It was kind of like there was an agreement between the three of us that we were all going to try to work really hard to try to upset the things that we had gotten bogged down in the past. And to try to make a record really fast and really in-your-face and really raw and make our decisions quickly and then live with them rather than picking apart every single thing and overworking it, which is what had happened on the last record.
Q: Who picked the opening bands, the National and Modest Mouse, for the summer leg of your upcoming tour?
Stipe: All three of us. I had seen the National and met the guys really briefly at the Oxygen Festival. Peter knew the band and I took Mike to see a show they played in London. Mike was completely blown away by them live. Peter is friends with Johnny (Marr, Modest Mouse’s guitarist) and we all like the band a real lot (laughs). We thought, “Well, this is going to be a really great bill.” I’ve never seen Modest Mouse perform before, (so) for me it’s going to be super exciting to have that kind of daily inspiration. That’s really what having great opening bands can provide.