For several reasons (the Get Back documentary, a couple concerts I’ve been to recently, etc.), I’ve been obsessed for weeks with the idea of a band and how insane it is that anyone would be able to sustain a relationship like that for an extended period of time. It’s impressive to me that a band that’s truly built on collaboration could create one successful album together, much less several albums over a decade plus.
That’s why this show I just watched about R.E.M. blew my mind. The show is called “Song Exploder.” Song Exploder is a podcast I listen to sometimes, but they also put out a few documentary-style episodes on Netflix. The gist of the podcast/show is they bring an artist on to discuss one song in their discography, and the artist talks about how the song got made and what went in to creating each constituent part. Normally, the “bandleader” or “principal songwriter” or whatever is the main speaker, and any contribution from anyone else who worked on the song is secondary to the head honcho.
R.E.M. went on the show to talk about “Losing My Religion,” no doubt their most famous song. If you know a decent amount about R.E.M., you know that Michael Stipe is the lead singer and lyricist, and it would make sense to assume Stipe has “control” of the band in some way. Every band has someone in “control.” After watching the Song Exploder episode, I’m not convinced R.E.M. operated in that way at all.
Losing My Religion
The song was built around a mandolin riff that guitarist Peter Buck came up with while fiddling around at his house. Once the riff was built, I would imagine most documentaries would cut to the “bandleader” saying how much they liked the riff and how they then took it and ran with it. Song Exploder instead talks next to drummer Bill Berry, who says he is the one who knew they had to make a song out of the riff. He says he tried to play congas to give the song a “latin feel,” because the riff itself should be the standout. But the “general consensus was” that “we” felt the song needed a bit more power, so Berry switched to some straight up drumming. Song Exploder cuts back to Peter Buck, who explains that all his drummer friends beg him to explain how Bill Berry is such a good drummer.
I guess that’s a relatively mundane sequence of events, but to me it was revelatory. This Song Exploder episode was filmed while these guys were all in their 60s. They have not made music together in over a decade. And yet, all they can talk about the entire time is how good the other band members are, and how the band as a whole decided to change the direction of the song. This is not how broken up 60-year-old bandmates speak about each other. A lot of bandmates who broke up would get on something like Song Exploder and distort history to make themselves look like the hero behind “Losing My Religion.” Instead, Peter Buck goes on to say that bassist Mike Mills’ bassline made Buck’s own mundane mandolin part stand out.
Maybe all this socialist harmony is undercut when Mills says a song doesn’t go anywhere unless Stipe is inspired to write lyrics for it. But that doesn’t feel like Mills saying Stipe is the ultimate one who decides if an R.E.M. song gets made. It feels more like Mills saying that they are not an instrumental band, and Stipe’s part is just one-fourth of the necessary components for R.E.M. to decide if an R.E.M. song gets made.
R.E.M. seemed to operate under the idea that each band member had total autonomy to create their own part, and it seems as though they never undermined this idea in the way that, say, Paul McCartney appeared to in the Get Back documentary. R.E.M. appears to take this idea so seriously that when the Song Exploder host asks Peter Buck what he thinks Stipe’s lyrics mean, he says he has his own ideas, but it is not his place to say. In fact, he says he and Stipe would never even talk about what Stipe’s lyrics meant.
If anyone in the band were to have a huge ego about “Losing My Religion,” I guess it would be Stipe himself. He’s the lyricist and lead singer of a song that has been streamed over 750,000,000 times on Spotify. Instead, when Stipe listens to the isolated vocal track, his only comment is about Mills’ and Berry’s backing vocals. “Fuck, they’re so good,” he says.
I think R.E.M.’s penchant for collaboration is obvious even if you listen to their music stripped of the band’s commentary. The first three songs on their second album Reckoning paints a clear picture of R.E.M. as “Band” with a capital B.
The opening track, “Harborcoat,” is driven by Bill Berry’s drums without a doubt. The song begins with snare hits like gunshots. From there Berry drives the verses with fast, sharp cymbal hits. The chorus has overlaying vocals and background vocals, strummed guitar, and a quiet bass part, but Berry continues his propulsive drumming. The guitar riff in the pre-chorus is awesome, and Stipe sounds great, but I’d call the song a show for Bill Berry.
The second song allows Berry to take somewhat of a backseat. I don’t mean to say Berry’s drum part isn’t great here; what I really mean is his drum part is opening up space for Buck and Mills to do some crazy stuff with their guitar and bass. Mills’ bass part is much louder than it is on “Harborcoat,” and Buck creates four separate guitar parts that work in very different ways. One strummed part controls the verses, which is backed up by a lower part that is essentially mimicking the main part. The chorus has two parts, as well: one arpeggio part and a part with a separate effect take turns leading the way. Once again, Stipe is great, but the song is an engine for Buck and Mills.
And then Stipe finally gets to shine on “So. Central Rain.” Mills, Buck, and Berry all do their part here, but Stipe’s calm delivery of the verses and his surprising shouts of “I’m Sorry” in the chorus are the highlights of the song, and create one of the highlights of the whole album.
There are a million ways for a band to make great music. But this has to be the best way, yeah? R.E.M. made music together for 32 years, stopped making music on their own terms because they just didn’t feel like making music anymore, and have sworn ever since that they don’t have any intention of making more music together. Interestingly enough, though, Buck mentions in the Song Exploder episode that the four of them still talk and hang out regularly. “It’s not as if the band is broken up, we just don’t make music anymore,” he says.
Listening to R.E.M., it makes sense to me that they operated in this collaborative way. Music can be incredible when the creative engine is driven by one person (Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, Adam Granduciel, Paul McCartney, millions of others). And I used to think it was the most impressive thing when someone could get in a studio, play every instrument themselves, and release an album with a one-person credit list. But I actually think what R.E.M. did is even more impressive. They managed to listen to each other and allow each other enough space to create music that was undoubtedly better than the sum of its parts. Michael Stipe is not Michael Jackson. Bill Berry is not Neil Peart. Mike Mills is not Jaco Pastorius. Peter Buck is not Jimi Hendrix. But together, the four of them were R.E.M., and I guess they still are.