R.E.M. Splits With Drummer Bill Berry

October 30 [17:30 EDT] -- After more than 17 years in one of the most influential bands of the last two decades, drummer Bill Berry has announced that he is leaving R.E.M.

Berry, who formed the band along with Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck in 1980, announced his decision on Thursday saying, "I've been playing drums since age nine. I'm at a point in my life where some of my priorities have shifted. I loved my seventeen years with R.E.M. but I'm ready to reflect, assess, and move on to a different phase of my life. The four of us will continue our close friendship and I look forward to hearing their future efforts as the world's biggest R.E.M. fan."

The move comes as the group is writing songs and preparing to record its next album, and is planning a 1999 tour to coincide with that album's release. R.E.M.'s remaining members note that Berry will not be replaced in the band's permanent line-up, and that outside musicians will be brought in as needed for recording

and touring.

The group is quick to point out that the situation is a totally amicable one, and all four band members will visit the MTV area of America Online (keyword: "MTV Yack," then enter the arena) for a live chat Friday afternoon at 3 p.m. Eastern time to discuss the decision. For now, Berry says his future plans are undecided.

"It's the end of an era for us... Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe... and that's sad," frontman Stipe said of the move. "I'm happy for Bill; it's what he really wants and I think it's a courageous decision. For me, Mike and Peter, as R.E.M., are we still R.E.M.? I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn how to run differently."

In all, the group has released 11 albums with Berry behind the kit, two of which (1991's "Out Of Time" and 1994's "Monster") went to number one. Their most recent effort, "New Adventures In Hi-Fi," debuted at number two on the charts last year, and came on the heels of a new $80 million

contract with Warner.

While the collective history of R.E.M. is rooted in the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, Berry and bassist Mills have known each since their days in junior high school, however, they were hardly fast friends. In a 1990 interview with MTV's Kurt Loder, Berry said that his "rebellious" persona and Mills' studious, polite, straight-A personality were polar opposites, and that the two "really did despise each other."

The two were finally brought together by a mutual friend who brought his musician pals together to jam. "We're all set up and everybody's there except the bass player," Berry explained. "So here I spent the last half hour setting up all these drums, and we're all down there tuning up waiting for the bass player, which is what we still do. And who should walk down the steps but Mike Mills. To this day, if I had to play the clarinet or the guitar,

I would have packed my stuff and left, but I looked at the drums and I said, 'Oh boy, I'm stuck here. It's his house.'" [1.6MB QuickTime]

Berry and Mills then buried their differences, and soon became, in Berry's estimation, best friends. The two hooked up with fellow UGA student Stipe and record store manager Buck in 1980. The four got together for the first time after Buck and Berry crossed paths, and tried to set up a jam session that almost never came together.

"I said, 'A friend of mine up here plays bass. We've got bass and drums up here. Let's get together and see what happens,'" Berry said. "As it turns out, one of us didn't make it, so we bagged the idea. It never would have happened, but I saw Pete again three weeks later in a bar and we said, 'Let's just give it one more shot,' and we did, and got together, and it was great. It was like magic.

So it almost didn't happen." [1.4MB QuickTime]

On April 5, 1980, the band played their first formal gig at a party under the name Twisted Kites. Soon thereafter, they adopted the name R.E.M., and began playing out with increasing frequency. It was only a matter of months before the band impressed I.R.S. Records head Jay Boberg at a New Orleans show, and consequently landed a deal with the label.

The first full-length release from Berry and company, 1983's "Murmur," offered up the dense mix of ringing guitars and cryptic lyrics that would be the band's hallmark for the next 14 years. After seven albums that helped to establish I.R.S. as a potent musical force, the band signed to Warner Bros. releasing its major label debut, "Green," in 1988. Since then, the band has released six albums for the label, and inked a new deal worth $80 million.

Of course, the road wasn't always a smooth one for the band. In 1995, during the band's first tour in five years,

Berry suffered a brain aneurysm. After a brief hiatus, Berry and the rest of the band returned to the road and finished the tour.

"As sad as this is," Mills said of Berry's decision to leave the band, "the fact that Bill is still around to be my friend puts everything in perspective. I look forward to playing golf with Bill, and music with Michael and Peter."