In this exclusive chat, the R.E.M. guitar hero talks extensively about his fantastic collaboration with the onetime Auteurs frontman and much more
Calling from his home in Portland, Oregon, Peter Buck admits that he’s been a little stir crazy lately, thanks to that city’s notoriously rainy winters.
“I’m emptying my house out a little bit,” the guitarist admits. “You know how that goes: ‘I found something – I don’t even know what this is. I should get rid of it.’”
But, he adds, today is sunny for the first time in a long while, and it’s put him in a good mood.
Another reason for Buck’s upbeat demeanor is a new project he’s been doing with Luke Haines, ex-vocalist for The Auteurs. Their debut album together, Beat Poetry for Survivalists, was released on March 6. But before he discusses the music itself, Buck wants to make one correction: “I always have to give the caveat that I don’t really do ‘projects.’ I’m just as focused on this as I was with R.E.M.”
Since R.E.M. called it quits in 2011, Buck has kept busy working as a guitarist in other bands, such as Arthur Buck (with Joseph Arthur) and the supergroup Filthy Friends (with Scott McCaughey of The Minus 5, Linda Pitmon, Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, and Kurt Block). He’s also worked as a producer for bands such as The Fleshtones, Eyelids and The Jayhawks, among many others. As a guitarist-for-hire, he’s gigged with The Replacements, Eels, and Billy Bragg. In between all that, he’s found time to release three solo albums.
So it’s interesting, given his prolific output, that Buck wasn’t even thinking about music when he first reached out to Haines – even though he says he’d been a fan of The Auteurs since that band’s 1993 debut album, New Wave.
AUDIO: The Auteurs New Wave (full album)
“This is work that we weren’t planning to do,” Buck admits. “We connected through the Internet over some of his artwork that I was going to buy.” It wasn’t long, though, before their conversations turned to songs, and they began discussing a collaboration.
“I write a lot, and I don’t always know what to do with it,” Buck says, which led him to wonder if the famously quirky Haines could find an interesting way to contribute to the material. So Buck emailed Haines some songs, and waited to see what would happen. “It was just an experiment. I’d send him a song, and then a month later, he’d write back. And I went, ‘Wow, that’s really wild. I didn’t really perceive that song going in that direction!’ Then I’d send him another one. We were probably halfway through before we realized that we were in the process of making an album.” The blend of two familiar elements – Haines’ famously offbeat lyrics and Buck’s inventive and melodic guitar riffs – results in an utterly unique sound.
Their long-distance approach was so productive that Buck and Haines remained on opposite sides of the world for the entire songwriting and recording process – they didn’t even meet face to face until after everything was finalized, and a separate business matter brought Buck to London, where Haines lives. In the end, “We got to hang out for approximately an hour and a half,” Buck says, amused.
Now that the album’s release date is finally nigh, Buck looks forward to showing the world the unique results of this collaboration. “Everything I put out, I firmly believe that yeah, it’s a cool record, and certain people will like it. One of the things I like about the Luke record is that it really doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever done before, and nothing he’s ever done, either. So I’m excited – I can’t wait for people to hear it. And on the other hand, it doesn’t really matter much one way or another what people think about it – you have to do it for your own satisfaction.”
VIDEO: Luke Haines and Peter Buck “Jack Parsons”
This resistance to doing things for the sake of popularity is not a new ethos for Buck. As he recalls, R.E.M. also deliberately decided not to jump on trends. “We were definitely trying not to sound exactly like everyone else sounded. Everything went really digital and cold-sounding in the ‘80s. Our records were really warm. We’d play live in the studio.”
But while being in R.E.M. taught Buck the importance of standing firm on his musical vision, it also showed him how to compromise when working with bandmates, a skill that he says has served him well in all his other collaborations. “One of the things about collaborating is, you have to collaborate,” he says. “When I was working with Michael [Stipe], with R.E.M., I know that there were certain things he was going for, and certain things he felt great about and wanted to try, and other things he had no interest in.”
So far, Buck’s instincts on how to proceed have served him well: R.E.M., after all, is consistently cited as one of the most influential bands that emerged in the 1980s. Their 15 studio albums were all successful, earning them several Grammy nominations (and winning three) and selling more than 85 million albums.
VIDEO: R.E.M. “World Leader Pretend” from Tourfilm
Even though he was a member of one of the most successful bands of all time, Buck is quick to point out that his career hasn’t always been perfect. “There’ve been failures along the way, but whatever. I think I only made one record that I’m not proud of, and that was just a process of what we were going through.” (He declines to say which album that is.) “But everything I’m working on now, if I don’t like it, I’m out.”
Buck says he’d dreamed of being a musician from a very early age. “Everyone in my generation has the exact same story: I saw the Beatles [on The Ed Sullivan Show] on February 9, 1964. I was a great old five years old. I mean, I definitely wanted to play guitar and have my hair hang on my forehead. That was almost 60 years ago – goodness. And I’ve got long hair and I’m playing guitar! So at the very simplest level, I succeeded.
“I took it a step at a time. If you’d asked me when I was 19 what I’d most want to have happen, I would have said, ‘I’d love to have an album out and get to go play New York City.’ Then, once you go there, you’re like, ‘Oh, two records out would be nice.’ And things worked out fairly well.”
As for how he created the distinctive guitar sound that would bring him such success, Buck credits the eras in which he had his formative years. The music of the 1960s, he says, “just imprinted in my brain, the idea of chord changes, melodies, interesting guitar riffs. Punk rock did change how I focused on it. Those two things, by the time 1980 rolled around, I’d assimilated all of that.” In the end, Buck took those influences and created a jangly, innovative sound that has made him one of the most instantly recognizable (and imitated) guitarists in rock music.
And, Buck says, he’s still trying to hone his craft, even now. “I play guitar every day. It’s a process of growing. I play guitar a little differently now than I did a year ago. And technically, I’m a way better guitar player than 30 years ago. I’m not sure you can tell, but I can,” he says, amused.
Considering the advance buzz for this new album with Luke Haines, as well as the praise so many of his other bands and collaborations have earned, it seems that Buck’s skills will likely continue to be in high demand as long as he’s willing to keep working. “Things are always slotting into place. There’ll be something else that’ll happen. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I don’t really have to go out and pay the bills or worry about my insurance. I don’t really have to make money to do this. All I have to do is do work that has meaning for me. It is nice.” And with that, Buck excuses himself so he can finally get out of his house and walk around in the sunshine.