Reeling in the years with the guitar legend from R.E.M., Tuatara, Filthy Friends, The Baseball Project and a ton of other bands you should be listening to
It’s two years ago and Corin Tucker – she of Sleater-Kinney fame – is telling me about growing up, rather isolated, in North Dakota, and finding comfort and solace in the music of R.E.M.
“I was a huge fan,” she says. “I always appreciated not only their music but how they presented themselves, how they were these really thoughtful men. In the 1980s, there weren’t a lot of them running around. They seemed to treat women completely equally and were thoughtful about the environment. There was a lot of stuff I was really impressed with.”
Her comment brought me back to a cover story I wrote long ago for The Record, Rolling Stone’s short-lived offshoot music magazine, when Rolling Stone itself was shifting focus. I’d spent some time with all four members and came away with something similar. They were born of the punk and new wave generation, but there was something comforting and soothing about their music, while still being stimulating. It was Byrds-ian, jangly folk-rock with an aura of mystery it. That latter part, owing in large part to Michael Stipe’s not exactly articulate lyric phrasing. Early mumble-core. Buck played guitar, bass, banjo and mandolin and was best-known, of course, for those open strings and chiming chords on his Rickenbacker. Mike Mills played bass and sang great harmony vocals. Bill Berry was on drums.
The five-song Chronic Town EP kicked it off in 1982. Murmur, featuring the song that broke them, “Radio Free Europe,” came the following year and then 14 more before the band called it quits after Collapse Into Now in 2011.
Me, I never jumped off the R.E.M. train. There were certainly highs and lows, softer records and harder records, but the mis-steps were really few and far between.
In 1984, they did a surprise gig at the small Rat club in Boston, following the previous night’s “proper” gig at a Harvard University. I reviewed them both for the Boston Globe and called this one “a loose and friendly set of obscure originals and favorite cover tunes – The Tokens “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black,” and they covered everyone from Pylon to the New York Dolls to the Velvet Underground.”
The “proper” gig: “R.E.M.’s set was more special, inducing a blend of emotional, physical and intellectual responses. Graceful and elegiac at times, hard-hitting and thrashing at others. A wistful, compelling show.”
When I came to the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album 12 years later, I (again for the Boston Globe) wrote: “This is a rich, textured album with a constant shuffling of up-and-down moods – of contrasting lyrics and melodies. There’s a sense of struggle, attempts at redemption throughout. Its rewards grow with repeated plays.”
One of Buck’s primary roles – to a degree when R.E.M. was still a thing, but more so after – has been that of a happy journeyman or collaborator. Have guitar, will travel. Tucker was talking to me as part of a feature on Filthy Friends, the band she’d formed with Buck, her Portland, Ore.-neighbor. Some other Buck efforts: Robyn Hitchcock, The Baseball Project (with R.E.M.’s Mills), Tuatara (his instrumental jazz-prog band with Scott McCaughey, Steve Berlin and others), Hindu Love Gods (with Warren Zevon), Tired Pony, Joseph Arthur and drivin’ and cryin’s Kevin Kinney.
VIDEO: Kevin Kinney and Peter Buck on MTV 120 Minutes
When we met up in 1990, he was doing an acoustic tour with Kinney. “Many people are doing it because they think it’s hip,” Buck said about the wave of unplugged gigs, all the rage on MTV. “But if you write good songs and you’re proud of ‘em, you can sit and sing ‘em. But you can’t polish a turd.”
For Buck, who turns 65 on Dec. 6, his post-R.E.M touring days have meant a downscaling in venue sizes and touring situations. He’s fine with that. “I might have a history in some people’s minds, but with [Filthy Friends] I don’t have a history,” he says. And what he says, I’m thinking, goes for everyone else he’s chosen to play with. “We make it up as we go along. Aside from the actual writing, recording and playing, I get to hang out with people I like a lot. We’re all in great shape and you’ve gotta work hard to do this. The fact that it is harder makes it more special.”
“Whenever I’m doing something that works, I’m super-focused, 100 percent. A lot of what I end up doing – I hate to sound like Leni Riefenstahl – but it’s like the force of will. I can’t just sit around and do nothing. There will be time for that when I’m older.”
I don’t know anyone who’s handled fame – or semi-fame as he calls it – better than Buck. “Being semi-famous doesn’t have a lot of advantages,” he says in Boston after one of those sideman/collaborator gigs. “But you can use it here and there.” Right now, “this a busman’s holiday – a vacation for me.”
Let me take you back to 1990 when, having signed that huge deal with Warner Bros., It wasn’t a huge leap to believe Buck and his R.E.M. mates would be a good deal richer than when they first plowed out of Athens, Ga. in the early ’80s.
What kind of up-grade might that entail?
Backstage, after a gig, Buck is still wearing jeans he bought in 1981, still swigging Jack Daniels on ice in a plastic cup, and still shooting from the hip. That is, he tells me about a band that toured with R.E.M. whose road manager thought R.E.M. had ripped off $500 a night from the band’s take.
Buck fumes that he didn’t steal even when he was poor – and – I truly love this logic – if he did steal, he wouldn’t stoop to that amount. Plus, he notes, bands that have toured with R.E.M. – 10,000 Maniacs, Dream Syndicate, Indigo Girls, drivin’ ‘n’ cryin, Camper Van Beethoven, NRBQ – have not suffered by the exposure to huge audiences. He blasts the producers of MTV’s acoustic show, MTV Unplugged for refusing to give him and Kevin Kinney airtime, because he says, they told him he wasn’t famous enough.
He also maintains his status as a real rock fan, stating he buys over 1,000 records a year; he plays in a country-western band in Athens every Wednesday night he’s home; he holds a drunken jam at his own house on Tuesdays; he claims that 100-plus acid trips taken as a teen-ager brought him more well-adjusted into the adult world.
And he rather enjoys when the piss is taken out of him. In 2001, Buck, Stipe and Mills appeared in an episode of The Simpsons and played in Homer’s garage-cum-bar, mistakenly thinking it was a benefit concert for a liberal cause. Homer sang “It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” with them, adding some hilarious Homer-esque lyrics. R.E.M. got angry when they found out they were duped. Stipe smashed a beer bottle, with Buck admonishing him “That’s not the R.E.M. way.” Stipe agrees and then they picked up the shards to recycle them.
VIDEO: R.E.M. on The Simpsons
It was a funny sendup, though Buck notes, “We could have been made much more fun of. I thought the people that wrote the show were very kind to us. They didn’t even mention our ages. It’s a good show and kind of subversive in a way, and that show will be on when I’m dead.”
There was, though, one real-life public tantrum Buck threw. On an April 2001 flight to London, he took a sleeping pill he’d never taken previously, allegedly drank a lot of wine, and behaved badly. Buck called it something akin to a mid-life crisis in public.
“I wouldn’t want to repeat the process,” he told me later. “I’m not saying it was a bad thing, but I’m just past it now. And after that whole year of nonsense, I was found not guilty and therefore I have a cleaner legal record than George W. Bush. So, you know, you have to put all these things in perspective.”
In 2002, I caught Buck on a four-band tour; he played in three of them. The four bands were Tuatara, Minus 5, Wayward Shamans, and CeDell Davis. It comprised 11 musicians, two guitar techs, one bus, no roadies and no star treatment for anyone.
Describing Tuatara, which he put together in 1997, he said, “There’s hooks and melodies and harmonies, and there’s also a lot of free soloing. I personally am not playing jazz; I’m kind of doing 21st-century surf guitar over in the corner. As a musician, you’re bound and determined that you have to support the lyrics, whatever the song is about. No matter how great the riffs are that come up behind it, you’ve got to fit the vocals. Well, we don’t have vocals, and it gives you a bit more freedom.”
Buck was the big name on the bill, advertised as such on marquees. He shrugs. “They always put my name on there ’cause it’s easy, and I end up doing more of the interviews ’cause that’s part of the deal. But this whole tour is a cooperative venture. Everyone from the guitar techs to me gets paid exactly the same. We all load the equipment in; we all take turns at the merchandise booth.
“It’s a 21st-century business model, you know? With the record industry falling to pieces and industry in general, I mean, look at the stock market. We’re trying to find a way to do this on a smaller level, do it the way we want to.”
While his status didn’t enter into the picture, Buck laughed and said the others did make concessions because of his age, which was then 45: He doesn’t have to haul any of the heavy drums around.
In this century, Buck has released three solo albums, Peter Buck, I Am Back To Blow Your Mind Once Again and Warzone Earth.
When we spoke two years ago … It’s an inevitable question whenever you talk to a member of a once-beloved, but broken-up, band, I had to ask: Any chance of an R.E.M. reunion?
“I’m proud of the work,” Buck says. “But it’s also something that happened in a different lifetime and I was such a different person That said, it’s nice to have accomplished something that you’re proud of but it’s also nice to not have to go out celebrating it every year. I don’t want to go out and be doing old songs, and bringing back the ‘glory days.’”
VIDEO: R.E.M. performing “King of Birds” in 1989’s Tourfilm
Steve Wynn, who’s led The Dream Syndicate off and on since the early ‘80s, is one of Buck’s longtime friends and colleagues. (They play together in The Baseball Project.) I asked for his take on their relationship and here’s what came back.
“I met Peter Buck back in the fall of ‘83 when I was making Medicine Show in San Francisco with the Dream Syndicate. It was a pretty stressful and contentious session so I was happy to get away for an evening when I was invited by my friend Dan Vallor to see R.E.M. play at the Kabuki Theater. I really liked the band’s first EP and Murmur as well and there’s still some discussion about whether I actually took 5 copies the band’s first single from Peter himself when I was working at Rhino Records.
“Peter and I hit it off immediately that night. We ended up talking after the show and into the night, ending up sitting by the water near Fisherman’s Wharf as the sun was coming up, whiskey bottle in hand and most likely debating the various merits of some obscure 60’s record or another. A friendship for life was born.
The next year, R.E.M. invited The Dream Syndicate to open their 8-week US tour for Reckoning. The tension in our band, particularly between me and guitarist Karl Precoda, had only grown by then so I spent much of my time on the R.E.M. bus, hanging out with Peter. The band was very gracious to me and to our band in general, talking us up whenever possible, even covering the title track to Medicine Show a few times on the tour, just a handful of minutes after we’d played it in our set. I watched every one of their sets, to this day the most I’ve ever seen any other band play by a long shot.
We stayed in touch and would always hang out when Peter came to LA. He and I both loved a Mexican restaurant on Sunset Boulevard called El Compadre, and would often shoot the shit there during the day over burritos and margaritas, shielding our eyes against the harsh sun when we’d leave late in the afternoon. One day he came to town and called me about 8 in the morning.
“I’m going to drive to Tijuana,” he said. “Do you want to come?” I told him I had a gig that night in Riverside and he said, “Great—we’ll stop there on the way back.” We both bought gaudy sombreros that day.
I asked Peter to play on my second solo album Dazzling Display and he was part of the core band on the album along with some serious session cats like Denny Fongheiser and Fernando Saunders. I think Peter enjoyed being part of a Wrecking Crew kind of vibe and sliding into the background as a team player, even as Out of Time was at the same time scaling the charts. We drove to the session over Topanga Canyon every day in my rickety Suzuki Samurai. It’s a wonder we’re both still here to tell the story.
A few years down the line in 2007, R.E.M. was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a lavish party was thrown the night before the ceremony at Del Posto, one of the best restaurants in the city at the time. What a great party! As is often the case, my wife Linda [Pitmon, drummer with The Baseball Project with Buck in Filthy Friends] and I were the last to leave but giving us competition for the title was Scott McCaughey, who somehow I’d never hung out with at length despite having many friends in common. Much like when I first met Peter, Scott and I hit it off immediately and at some point, the conversation turned to our mutual desire to make an album entirely about baseball. Within three months we wrote the songs that are on Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails and had enlisted Peter and Linda to round out the band. For some reason I can’t remember, Peter wasn’t able to be there when we tracked the songs but came in on the last day and did 41 overdubs in three hours, all of which were inspired, spot-on and all of which made the record. He’s great in the studio and, much like myself, likes to keep moving, knock ‘em out and move on.
We’ve had a great time since then in The Baseball Project and even though Peter isn’t the obsessive die-hard baseball fan that Linda, Scott, Mike Mills and I are about the game, he has really gotten more and more into baseball and often will text me during games. He claims that his team is the Washington Senators and loves talking about Boog Powell. I think he might have a song about Boog on our next album that we’re recording next month with Mitch Easter in North Carolina.
He’s one of my best friends and one of my favorite people on the planet. I’ll give him a call on his birthday and I’m sure we’ll pick up the conversation somewhere we left off on that SF beach back in ’83.
VIDEO: The Baseball Project on Letterman