By Sarah Bennett
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Photo courtesy Warner Bros. RecordsThe members of REM—the influential band from Athens, Georgia, that helped usher in '80s-era alternative rock with its jangly guitar hooks; mumbled, abstract lyrics; and a fiercely independent spirit—refuse to glance over their shoulders, even while approaching their silver anniversary.
Sure, the original indie quartet—singer/lyricist Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry (who retired in 1997 for health reasons)—eventually reached bigger audiences with 1987's Document, 1988's Green, 1991's Out of Time and 1992's Automatic for the People. The band was filling arenas rather than theaters, thanks to such hit songs as "The One I Love," "Stand," "Orange Crush" and "Losing My Religion." But rather than cater to newer (and possibly blander) audience expectations, REM pushed forward, producing some of their most experimental, uneven and harder-to-digest works, with 1994's Monster, 1998's Up and 2001's Revealleaning heavily—albeit with mixed results—on more modern, high-tech production techniques. And that's why they're still a vital, viable band—that firm grip on their creative rudder. No milking the oldies—whether stumbling or progressing, the band stays relevant by taking musical risks and capturing the social climate of the moment.
Their just-released 13th album, Around the Sun, is a prime example: fans longing for REM's earlier, harder-rocking style may not warm to the layered keyboards, drum machines and double-tracked harmonies that dominate Around the Sun's lush mix, but others will find comfort in the rather subdued collection of post-Sept. 11 laments that offer both personal ("Final Straw") and political ("I Wanted to Be Wrong," "The Worst Joke Ever") feelings of sadness, anger, isolation and disbelief. For the most part, lyricist Stipe smartly uses metaphor instead of brute force to make his political points, as in the haunting "I Wanted to Be Wrong": "I told you I wanted to be wrong/But everyone is humming a song/That I don't understand." But surprisingly, a sense of hope rises above the despair.
"I don't really see Around the Sun as being that somber," Mills said by phone recently. "Michael always recognizes at least a thread of optimism through his words, and musically, there is an odd beauty in the melancholy tone—one that can even be a bit cathartic. When we play these songs live, we feel empowered by them . . . and I hope we lift our fans up in the process."
But can this new album and U.S. tour—which kicked off Oct. 13 at LA's Greek Theatre—reinvigorate dwindling domestic sales? Each of REM's past four releases has charted below the previous one. And the band's concert Saturday night at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine is far from being sold-out.
"We never got into this business to sell a ton of records," says Mills, "and we really have very little control over that, anyway. At the moment, we're big in Europe but not here, and I have no idea why. We have managed to make a career out of making the music we want to make regardless of trends in the music industry. What's key is that our core fans have stayed with us no matter what weird side trips we've taken."
The biggest recent challenge for REM and the other rockers (including Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne) who performed on the recent Vote for Change Tour was to raise political awareness, particularly among young, undecided voters in the so-called swing states.
"The percentage of people who vote is ridiculously low, so what we're really trying to do is energize the people who don't go to the polls and destroy the apathy out there," Mills says. "These non-voters disguise their lack of willingness to make a decision by saying it doesn't matter, and that just isn't a defensible position, is it?"
Mills isn't shy about bashing the Bush administration, calling "pathetic" and "un-American" its use of the fear of terrorism to quash public dissent while creating an "us vs. them" mentality. No argument there, but why should we care about the political views of REM and other rockers?
"Why should you care about what anyone thinks?" asks Mills. "Discussion and debate is what's important. We live in a democracy, so people are free to express themselves, which includes telling us to shove it. But we're really not telling people how to vote; what we're making clear is who we're voting for and the reasons why. The rest is up to them."
Mills has called Dubya the most deceiving, secretive president ever. And in the Oct. 14 issue of Rolling Stone, he comments, "The Vote for Change Tour is a wake-up call. . . . We may alienate some fans . . . but this is so important it's worth it. If I piss a few people off, good. Because frankly, I'm scared."
So if Bush and Cheney do get re-elected, will it be the end of the world as we . . . . well, you know the rest?
"Of course it would be very distressing—tremendously demoralizing," Mills said. "I admit we'd like to see the end of the current administration . After all, the tour is called 'Vote for Change,' not continuation."REM WITH FIVE EIGHT AT THE VERIZON WIRELESS AMPHITHEATER, 8808 IRVINE CENTER DR., IRVINE, (949) 855-8096. SAT., 8 P.M. $20-$75. ALL AGES.