R.E.M. at the Hollywood Bowl

On the side of the stage at the Hollywood Bowl, wobbling in the wind, there’s an oversized white board with the names of approximately 75 R.E.M. songs: all the material, old and new, that they’ve prepared for their 2008 world tour. The band–Peter Buck (guitar) and Mike Mills (bass), plus longtime associates Bill Rieflin (drums) and Scott McCaughey (utility infielder)–amble out into the sunshine for soundcheck and rip into an excellent instrumental version of “Sitting Still,” from their debut record Murmur.

Michael Stipe strolls onstage a little before 3 p.m., wearing ludicrously large wraparound sunglasses, and calls an audible: “I’ve Been High,” a yearning ballad from 2001’s Reveal. “Third day of the tour and we’re adding a song that we didn’t rehearse,” Buck says cheerfully. The band proceeds through “Until the Day Is Done,” “Circus Envy,” and “Life and How to Live It.” Stipe wanders over to consult the white board. He props it up against McCaughey’s organ and walks away; it promptly falls over. Mills stands at his microphone, waiting for the next song.

“Pretty Persuasion,” Stipe decides.

Mills responds, “Bow-wow-wow-yippee-yo-yippee-yay.”

In the hallway backstage, there are signs for three different dressing rooms: “SM.BR,” “PB.MM,” and “JMS.” There’s also a sign for “DIRTY TOWELS.” Buck explains the separate rooms: “I get really wired before the show, jumping up and down and pacing, and Michael doesn’t want to see that. The way he deals with the show is to pretend it’s not really existing. For me, it’s an act of will to feel good enough about going onstage.”

Inside the room with his and Mills’ initials on it, Peter Buck is sitting on a couch, playing acoustic guitar and pondering a blank sheet of paper that will contain the band’s setlist. “I’m pretty good about mixing up the emotion of the song, the tempo of the song, the popularity of the song,” Buck says. “But every now and then, you’ll look at it, and say, ‘Oh, there’s five songs in D in a row.’ All of the new songs are shorter, so we play more songs,” he adds. “It’s like the Ramones.”

Last night, Buck was tempted by a midnight Elvis Costello concert, but at age 51, he opted to go back to his hotel room to “put my PJs on and hang out and read.” (He always takes a big pile of books on tour. Recently read: The Man Who Invented China, by Simon Winchester, and The Worst Hard Time, a Dust Bowl history by Timothy Egan.) “I’ve been going on the road since I was a teenager,” he says. “The playing part is natural, but the shaking hands and the not sleeping and the weird food gets harder.”

Next door, Stipe is idly sketching out a wine-bottle label he’s designing for the Food Bank for New York City. All he has so far is a bunch of curved triangles; he tries rotating the sheet of paper to see if it looks better upside-down.

Stipe opens up his laptop; many afternoons, he spends the time between soundcheck and the show screwing around on the web. He hops from photos of George W. Bush striking chimp-like poses at the Air Force Academy graduation, to his own photography site futurepicenter.com, to the website of the designer who made his excessive sunglasses, maisonmartinmargiela.com. They’re designed to make wearers look as if they have identity-protecting black bars over their eyes, although they also evoke Star Trek‘s Geordi La Forge. “I haven’t had the balls yet to wear them onstage,” Stipe says. “They’re a little off-putting.”

He accidentally pulls up the image of a proposed R.E.M. t-shirt, with the maxim “Youth is wasted on the young.” Stipe says, “We were going to make that into a t-shirt, and Peter was like, ‘Maybe that’s not the slogan we want to attach to a band that’s celebrating its 28th anniversary.'”

For the first week of the tour, Stipe gave up coffee and wine. “Just to ground myself,” he says. Once he gets off the road, Stipe finds that for six to twelve months, he gets an adrenaline rush every night around 9 p.m.: his body thinks it’s showtime. But that circadian rhythm hasn’t kicked in yet, so his assistant, David Belisle (also the author of the R.E.M. photo book Hello), brings him a coffee. Stipe goggles at the size of it: “Are you trying to kill me?”

Buck sticks his head into the room. “Hey, Michael,” he says. “Is ‘Fall on Me’ out of the set or in? We didn’t do it last time we were here.”

“We didn’t?” Stipe says. “Let’s do it.”

On the wall, there’s a vintage photograph of Ella Fitzgerald performing at the Bowl. Stipe shakes his head. “As if this wasn’t daunting enough.” The band’s played the venue once before, four years ago. “I was nervous,” Stipe remembers. “I got all puffed up in my chest and walked out with all this faux confidence, trying to be tough, this means nothing to me, and of course, I promptly fell off the stage.”

Stipe pulls up his pants leg to show the scar from his pratfall, and then excuses himself. “I have to go shave… my head.”

As showtime gets closer, more people mill about backstage. Many cheeks are kissed. “Everyone’s family is here,” Buck says. “And everybody I’ve ever met in the music business.”

Mills stands around the hallway, wearing a long-sleeved Springsteen t-shirt, drinking red wine out of a white coffee cup. “I don’t want to look like a sot,” he jokes, “even if I am.” He discusses how he retains dozens of basslines: “If I try to play without singing, I can’t remember how to play it. But if I sing, the subconscious takes over.” Has he learned anything about playing large venues over the years? Mills shrugs. “The fact is, the onus is pretty much on Michael. He’s the one that has the most control over the crowd. Peter and I, we can play well, but we can’t really, by ourselves, elevate or lower anything.”

Mills reflects on R.E.M.’s last few tours. “We went out in ’89 on the way to becoming the biggest band in the world. We went out in ’95 pretty much as the biggest band of the world. And then we took all that time off and didn’t go out again until ’99 and it was… I don’t like the term ‘proving yourself,’ but it was interesting to be an underdog rather than an overdog.” Mills offers a crooked grin. “There’s less expectations, which means you have more freedom.”

Buck’s setlist for the night has been typed up and printed out in large quantities. It’s on legal paper for the first time, at Mills’ request–to fit in the Ramones-style cavalcade of songs, the font had been reduced to a size he couldn’t read. “Guys, I need some spacing here,” he complained. “I can’t tell what I’m doing.”

Does that mean your eyesight’s declining as you age?

“No, it means the damn songs are too close together!” Mills says, and laughs. “I wear glasses anyway.”

R.E.M. end up playing twenty-six songs in just under two hours–including eight of the eleven tracks from their new album, Accelerate. The band seems to take the record’s title as a command, revving up familiar songs like “Fall on Me” (and a surprisingly rocking “Happy Birthday to You”). Highlights include the set-closing “I’m Gonna DJ” and a gorgeous acoustic version of “Let Me In.” The only drawback is an underpowered sound system that leaves fans in the upper reaches of the Bowl chanting for more volume.

Stipe gives his own review during the encore: “Not bad for the third show on the tour, I guess.”

Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a much shorter version) in Rolling Stone 1055 (June 26, 2008).