R.E.M. Trio Play 'Musical Chairs' For Next Album

As band copes with departure of longtime drummer, it looks forward to recording next album.

Even as the departure from R. E. M. of his long-time friend and bandmate Bill Berry sinks in, guitarist Peter Buck finds himself looking ahead to a new era for the three remaining members of the Athens, Ga. band.

First off comes plans for R.E.M.'s 11th full-length album, their first as a trio.

Berry's announcement last week that he would be quitting the band

after 17 years came just as R.E.M. were beginning preproduction for this album.

While some would think the news would slow R.E.M. down, Buck, who says the

band has written most of the music for the LP, vowed to forge ahead with the preproduction work and the already scheduled recording sessions.

Despite the loss of Berry, the influential band plans to continue on the daring musical course it set out on five years ago. "[Berry's leaving has] certainly taken the wind out of

our sails a little bit," Buck said, "but we've got a studio booked for several

months from now and most of the music has been written, but not all the lyrics

yet. Now we've got three months to work on those lyrics."

Once the lyrics come together, Buck said the band would be "going right

ahead" with the recording of their new album, due out in early 1999. As

they have done since their mega-selling Automatic for the People (1992),

each of the remaining three members will use this project to continue

experimenting on instruments other than those they normally play.

"[Bassist] Mike [Mills] has been picking up the keyboards, Peter's been playing

a lot of keyboards," frontman/singer Michael Stipe said. "There's not very much

guitar to what we're doing so far. Everyone isn't playing the instruments they're

supposed to be playing."

The still-untitled album will be produced by Pat McCarthy (U2, Counting Crows), who engineered R.E.M.'s last album New Adventures in Hi-Fi

(1996) and Monster (1994). In their second break with the past,

McCarthy's production credit marks the first time since 1987's Document,

that the band will not work with long-time producer Scott Litt, who is said to be

too busy with his Outpost label to lend a hand.

Stipe said Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows leader Scott McCaughey had come down to Athens, Ga. to play some rhythm guitar and keyboards and that the rest

of the band had been continuing their experimentation with musical

instruments. This mix-and-match method of assigning instrumentation has sort

of become R.E.M.'s new approach to songwriting. "On Automatic we

purposely played musical chairs and everybody did what they weren't

supposed to do," said Stipe. "Since that record, that's kind of the way we've been doing it."

Elaborating that the band's formula is that "we don't have a formula or pre-set

notion," Mills said, "whatever a song seems to need is what we'll do. If

somebody wants to play vibes or Moog synthesizer we'll do that."

The remaining band mates say they will not replace Berry. Any fill-ins for Berry will be strictly temporary, Mills said. "Barrett [Martin, drummer for Buck's experimental side project Tuatara and the Screaming Trees] came out to play vibes and bass marimba and all these other great instruments that he has, not to play drums," said Mills. "We're not going to replace Bill and we're not looking for any other drummers. When we get in the studio and we need a drummer, we'll hire somebody for that instrument only."

Saying that he contributed little to the more than 40 song ideas the band have

generated since they first started work on the album in Hawaii earlier this year,

Berry explained that he could not get interested in the creative process

anymore. "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," he added. "I had two little

snippets that I brought in when we first started in Hawaii, but basically when

you're spending the day on the beach, your stuff gets lost. That's the way it

should be."

As for what the band might sound like in the absence of long-time beat-

keeper/backing vocalist Berry, Stipe speculated it could be an amalgam of the

different outside projects the various members have been involved in lately.

"Mike's been working on soundtracks. I've been working on movies," Stipe said,

referring, respectively, to Mills' coordination of the soundtrack to A Cool, Dry

Place and Stipe's work on the glam-era flick Velvet Goldmine, which

his film company is co-producing. "Peter's been working with the Minus 5 and

Tuatara and if you look at those records and you looked at various soundtracks,

you might get a little idea of the direction we're heading in. It just happens in this

kind of organic way.

"Those are somewhat reflected in the music the guys have brought in on this

record," Stipe added. "But it's really early. Honestly, [Berry's leaving] has kind of

pushed any capacity for creative thought aside. This is just a much bigger

thing."

[Tues., Nov. 11, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]