The InsiderOne Daily Report

  Tuesday, April 3, 2001

Peter Buck — Just One Of The Guys

InsiderOne's Michael Goldberg writes: Peter Buck wears his success well. Being the guitarist and one of the songwriters in R.E.M. has made him "famous enough," he says; as he tells it, he and his bandmates Michael Stipe and Mike Mills aren't interested in compromising their work in any way, even if that means less popularity in the future. "I don't really care about being famous," he told me. "I'm as famous as I need to be, and I've got enough money." The other day I flew up to Portland to speak with Buck about R.E.M.'s upcoming album, Reveal, a lyrically deep, sonically spacious, at times experimental work that I think is their best since Out of Time. Initially we were going to do dinner in Seattle, where Buck has lived for some years now. But then he suggested that I catch him in Portland, where he was performing in one of the other bands he's in, the Minus 5; they had a gig opening for Guided By Voices at Portland's old Crystal Ballroom on Saturday, March 31. (The Minus 5 are a rockin' garage-pop combo led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Scott McCaughey, who also contributes to R.E.M. albums and is a member of their touring group.) So it was that Buck and I were sitting across the table from each other in a booth at a bar downstairs from the ballroom, which allowed me to see him in a non-R.E.M. setting. Some of the bar's employees and a few customers noticed Buck (wearing black pants and a leather jacket over a flowered shirt) and said hello. No one acted like having a key member of one of the most influential bands of the last two decades in their bar was any big deal. I asked one of the bartenders if he would mind turning down the stereo — which was playing "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," a Kinks hit from the '60s, at that moment — so that it wouldn't interfere with the digital recording I was making of my conversation with Buck. He didn't hesitate to accommodate me; his graciousness struck me not as deference to Buck's presence, but as plain old politeness (something you tend to find in places other than New York, L.A. and San Francisco). "I think we [Buck, Stipe and Mills] all were feeling we had to make a great record.... We had to walk out of there [the recording studio] feeling like it was a really strong record," said Buck, who comes across as both unpretentious and very grounded. "We're at the age where we feel like we've really got to focus and buckle down. How many more records are we going to make in our life? Three? Four? The only reason I want to make records is to make great records, and the only way you can do that is to keep pushing yourself. This record could have sounded just like Automatic[Automatic for the People] but that would be like going back to your high school prom or something. I don't worry at all about [how many they sell]." Buck likes the role of the working musician, both recording and playing live. As a contrast to the arenas and amphitheaters of R.E.M. tours, he seems to love performing in the clubs and theaters where the Minus 5 and Tuatara (the other non-R.E.M. band he's in) appear. During their set, when the Minus 5 were bashing it out to a small but focused audience, Buck was smiling, jumping up and down — basically rocking away as he played Fender bass with the same focus that he brings to his guitar work. GBV's Robert Pollard teased the audience later, telling those that arrived late that it was too bad, 'cause they'd missed the Minus 5 and "R.E.M.'s Peter Buck." (I'd say about 400 or so caught the Minus Five set, with the place filling to over 1200 by the time GBV went on a few hours later.) During sound check Buck — not some hired guitar tech — dealt with his own instrument. He seems to genuinely like the stuff that connects him to real life, far from the rarefied rock-star world. In the dressing room, too, he was just one of the guys, taking the lead in getting all the Minus 5 members to autograph the cover of a new album, In Rock, that they only sell at shows. It's a cool idea, and something that we're seeing more and more of — artists pressing up low-fi or home-studio recordings and offering them only off Web sites and/or at shows. Artists, whose per-CD cost runs about $1.25, can sell it for $10 and make a whole lot more than they could using a distributor to put it into stores. Plus the album is more special when you can only get it at a show, especially when it's actually autographed an hour or so before the band hits the stage. Working with McCaughey (Buck contributed three songs to the In Rock album) seems to have reawakened Buck up to the possibilities of doing things the DIY way (after all, the first R.E.M. single, "Radio Free Europe," was a very indie release — critic Douglas Wolk has called it "a song that in a very real way created 'alternative rock.'"). Buck told me he was thinking about releasing an instrumental album. "I've got plenty of material recorded," he said, explaining that there were many things he'd written and recorded over the years that just didn't fit an R.E.M. album. And if he does put a solo album together, he said he may just sell it off the Web. Buck, still as much of a fan as he was when he worked in an Athens, Ga. record store pre-R.E.M., said that among the artists he's been listening to during the past year are At the Drive-In, Oranger and Godspeed You Black Emperor! "Something new is always going to be more exciting than something that's been around a while," he said. "You should see my car. CDs everywhere."

The InsiderOne Daily Report appears weekdays at 9 AM PST, except when it doesn't.

Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

copyright (c) 2000, 2001 michael goldberg | design by elephantcloud