R.E.M. On Reissuing 'Automatic For The People'

Nov 11, 2017
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One of the greatest rock albums of all time is out again 25 years after it was released - with more songs and more sound, the deluxe anniversary edition of R.EM.'s "Automatic For The People." It sold over 18 million copies when it first came out and includes the classic singles "Man On The Moon," "Nightswimming," "Everybody Hurts" and "Drive."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRIVE")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Hey hey kids, rock and roll. Nobody tells you where to go, baby.

SIMON: R.E.M., of course - Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe - they disbanded amicably in 2011, but they are all behind this reissue. Michael Stipe and Mike Mills join us now from our studios in New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL STIPE: Thank you for having us.

MIKE MILLS: Glad to be here.

SIMON: Now, when you released this album, you weren't an overnight success. You had released seven records, I believe. Then you put this out and suddenly you're one of the biggest bands in the world. Did you - was that on your mind at all?

STIPE: It was the record before this, "Out Of Time," that had the single "Losing My Religion," which became our first international, smash hit single. So we were following this immense success with a record that doesn't - takes a very different tact. It became - "Automatic For The People" is a slower record, a more somber record reflecting on transition and death and sadness. And it might not have been the tactic that most bands would have taken, but it's where we wound up.

SIMON: Let's hear some music from this classic album. First track we want to hear is "Everybody Hurts."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYBODY HURTS")

R.E.M.: (Singing) When your day is long and the night - the night is yours alone.

SIMON: This has become a kind of anthem for people over the years, hasn't it?

STIPE: It has. People like that song a lot. And I think they find - I don't know. Music has such a - music in general has such a powerful connection to the heart. It's like a direct line to our feelings and to memories of places that we were when we heard a song. A lot of people found songs on this record that really spoke to them about a lot of different things.

SIMON: Yeah. And Mike Mills, what's it like for you to hear it now?

MILLS: Well, you know, it's - I've actually been thinking on a musical level about electric piano and how it pops up in some really odd songs - rock 'n' roll songs that you wouldn't expect. The Beatles used a lot of electric piano. Billy Preston played it. So when I listen to that, I say, you know, that's funny. I don't know what made us decide to put an electric piano on that record. But I really like it, and it adds to the sort of mournful character of that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYBODY HURTS")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Sometimes - and everybody hurts.

SIMON: Another song I want to ask you about - we want to hear now "Monty Got A Raw Deal."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONTY GOT A RAW DEAL")

R.E.M.: (Singing) Monty this seems strange to me. The movies had that movie thing. But nonsense has a welcome ring. And heroes don't come easy.

SIMON: This song was inspired by Montgomery Clift - right...

STIPE: That's right.

SIMON: ...And his story of kind of living a closeted existence?

STIPE: No, I think it was less about that and more about just the Hollywood system. I did have the opportunity, years after this record came out, to approach Elizabeth Taylor and say I wrote a song about Montgomery Clift and I wrote you into the second verse. And she turned around - she was sat at a table at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. It was Elton John's 50th birthday dinner. She turned around and she grabbed my arm and she said, the love that we shared then did not have a name. It was the deepest love I've ever experienced. It didn't have a name then, and it doesn't have a name now.

SIMON: Oh, my God.

STIPE: Yeah. I called my best friend right away and said, this is what Elizabeth Taylor just told me about her and Montgomery Clift. And she said - my best friend loves biographies and reads every one of them. And she said she's never said that publicly ever.

SIMON: By the way, I've got to tell you, you know, people who interview people professionally work all of their lives to get something that good. And you just turned around at your seat and got it.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLS: Location, location, location.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Listening to this album - listening to your work 25 years later...

STIPE: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Anything you'd like to do over?

STIPE: Of course. I am our worst critic. I am R.E.M.'s worst critic. And I think that's just a part of writing the stories, inventing these characters, trying to breathe life into pop lyrics, which is really a kind of played out format. It's not - you know, every love song has ever been written has been written already. And so to try to write a love song that's different from anything prior is a really high calling, and I took it quite seriously - as I do - to try to, you know, not only not repeat myself but not repeat my heroes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRY NOT TO BREATHE")

R.E.M.: (Singing) I will try not to breathe. I can hold my head still with my hands at my knees. These eyes are the eyes of the old.

SIMON: This interview would be negligent and incomplete if I didn't ask both of you - you knew this was coming - you like each other so much. You do such good work together. R.E.M. is over?

MILLS: That is correct - because if all of those statements are to be true, they must all be true.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLS: That's the nature of it. It's something - you know, we're kind of proud of being a band that...

STIPE: Made a graceful exit.

MILLS: Yeah. I mean, it's not easy to do in this business. And...

STIPE: It's really hard just to walk away from something that, you know...

MILLS: And, you know, holding our integrity intact, maintaining our friendships, allowing ourselves to go off and do other things - those were all things that played into our decision. And we're all pretty actually quite happy with it.

STIPE: R.E.M. means so much to all of us. We just didn't want to drive it into the ground. And I think we all recognized that it was time to just cap it and allow it to be what it was - and then what it is. And that's what today is about. That's what we're - you know, we're really proud of this record. We're really proud of a lot of the work that we did. And I'd like to see it live on, not only with the fans who were there the first time around but with new generations of fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF R.E.M. SONG, "NIGHTSWIMMING")

SIMON: Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, R.E.M. - the band is releasing the 25th anniversary edition of "Automatic For The People."

Gentlemen, thanks so much.

STIPE: Thanks for having us.

MILLS: Our pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHTSWIMMING")

R.E.M.: (Singing) The photograph on the dashboard taken years... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.