R.E.M.'s drummer Bill Berry has decided to call it quits. Yet even at one of the most difficult periods in their 17-year career, R.E.M. somehow manage to present a unified front. Gathered in the Athens, Ga. R.E.M. offices on Friday afternoon (Oct. 31), singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and Berry answered questions about Thursday's unexpected announcement. In the process, the quartet that changed the face of rock 'n' roll over more than a decade, spoke about the future of the band and the difficulty of soldiering on without the man who was both the keeper of the beat and whom they still consider to be a vital part of their extended family.
ATN: It seems clear you didn't come to this decision overnight. How long have you been mulling over in your mind quitting the band?
Bill Berry: I would say it first impacted me when we started work on this (upcoming) record in Hawaii earlier this year. I just didn't have that same drive to go in and work like I used to. It's hard to describe, but I realized that there was something just very ghastly wrong. I wasn't enthused about it. I thought maybe this was a phase, maybe I don't want to bring this up right now, but months later I felt the same way. I still do to this moment.
ATN: Had you ever felt that way before about recording a new album?
Berry: No. I've always been really excited about it. Just like these guys are real excited about making this next record. I just don't share that enthusiasm and I don't want to weigh them down.
ATN: When you were sick in 1995 (Berry suffered a brain aneurysm on stage that required surgery), did you entertain any thoughts then that maybe this wasn't the right thing for you to be doing anymore?
Berry: Yeah, it first started dawning on me when I was recuperating. I wasn't specifically thinking about quitting the band, but maybe reassessing my priorities and things I want to do with the rest of my life. Maybe not as much travel, for one. Being away from home. I had a lot of time to lay around in a hospital bed and think about things. Maybe I started feeling sorry for myself.
ATN: Were you under a doctor's orders at that point to take it easy, to not tour?
Berry: Absolutely not. I was encouraged to be as active as I wanted to be. I played a round of golf 10 days after I had surgery.
ATN: Are you still under a doctor's care now?
ATN: So you're feeling pretty good?
Berry: Physically, I'm 100 percent. My brain is back to normal, for whatever good that is.
ATN: When you were in Hawaii, was everyone working together on the album? Were you as involved as you usually are in sessions?
Berry: Well, we were, except I kind of wasn't. I found myself wandering out to the beach and looking at the waves and stuff while the other guys were inside working away. I put some things on tape, but my heart wasn't in it.
ATN: Did any of you notice that?
Michael Stipe: Yeah, we noticed, I mean, Bill's always been there and he just wasn't as involved in Hawaii. And maybe personally we were trying to gloss over that. Like maybe he was just having a bad week or something.
ATN: When did you realize that it was maybe more than just a bad week?
Stipe: About three weeks ago.
ATN: How did the announcement come down? Did he call all of you individually, or as a group?
Stipe: He did it in a really cool way. It was our first day of rehearsal and he said he had some news and he wanted to talk to all of us in person and not by telephone and said that he didn't want to continue. He didn't want to be in the band anymore.
ATN: What was your reaction?
Stipe: I was shocked. I was speechless and I felt like I could probably change his mind and convince him to stay. But after talking to him for three weeks, I know that he doesn't want to stay and we have to respect that. The first thing he said when he dropped this bomb on us is if it was going to break up the band, he wasn't going to leave.
ATN: Bill, what if they would have said, 'then we're going to break up the band?'
Berry: Then we'd be in the studio right now working on the record instead of having to deal with this.
ATN: Do you think you could have made that decision, if it was going to break up the band you could have put this personal decision aside and just go ahead?
Berry: I was prepared to. I said it and I meant it.
ATN: Mike, you having known Bill for as long or longer than any of the members, what was your first reaction when you heard this news?
Mike Mills: I knew he hadn't been extremely happy with all the things that go along with being in the band for awhile. I just didn't think that it would happen this soon. I was disappointed, I was hoping that he'd change his mind in the next couple of weeks. But it became apparent that wasn't going to happen, so we just have to make the best of it.
ATN: What about you, Peter?
Peter Buck: I just said 'well, don't make up your mind right now.' I had to come to terms with the idea that he didn't want to continue and then I had to get used to it. I also knew he didn't wake up that morning and feel like 'oh, I don't want to do this anymore.' After talking to him for three weeks and talking to each other, it just became really apparent that he had no interest whatsoever in being in the band anymore.
ATN: Were there any problems during the sessions for New Adventures in Hi-Fi? Any sense then that maybe you were running out of steam?
Berry: No, it doesn't date back that far.
ATN: Has there been any time when any of the other three of you have thought that you didn't want to do this anymore?
Stipe: The last record was so... we went through so many things with the last record that were painful outside of the band. We felt we deserved a year off to reflect. Bill reflected in a different way than the rest of us. The rest of us are really excited about working on the new record and Bill's reflection led him down a different path. We just have to respect that. Bill's middle name in the band, since 1984 when we were in Japan has been "I Go Now." He was always the first to leave. Always the one who gets up from dinner. And always the one who left the session early. He wakes up at six in the morning. He keeps a farmer's hours. Peter, Mike and I stay up until four in the morning and get up at 11 or 12. He's always been the one who was always out the door before everyone else. So, true to form...
ATN: I've seen in one of the other interviews that you (Peter Buck) discussed this with Bill pretty extensively. Was there a discussion where the two of you sat down and you tried to change his mind?
Buck: I was just so shocked that when it was first presented to me, I made him promise that no decisions would be made for awhile, so that I could process the information and he could think about it. I didn't know how long he had been thinking about this. I didn't realize it had been six months. I just thought he was stressed out with things. You can't really talk a friend out of doing something like that. It's his decision and I just have to accept it. But it took awhile to get to that point.
ATN: How do you think the band will carry on without Bill? Will it be the same band, or will it be a radical change in the sound?
Stipe: Your guess is as good as ours. We've had exactly three weeks to process this and figure out exactly how we want to present it to the world. It's been three days since I knew for sure that Bill was really going to carry through with this thing. Peter, Mike and I have a lot of songs we're really excited about and we don't want to quit making music. As far as we're concerned, as far as Bill is concerned, R.E.M. is still R.E.M. We're just three members now.
ATN: It's been written that you have 40 songs worked up in some fashion for this album. Did all four of you work on the new songs together? Are these all R.E.M. songs, written, as usual, by all four members?
Stipe: Bill brought in a couple of ideas, but most of the stuff from Hawaii was Peter and Mike's.
(Check out part 2 of the R.E.M. interview Monday when the band discusses its new album and how Berry's leaving will impact that.)
Addicted To Noise Senior Editor Matt Melucci contributed to this interview.
Oct. 31, 1997, 4 p.m. PDT]