Everything You Could Ever Want To Know About R.E.M. From Author John Hunter
Author John Hunter has just released the book Maps and Legends: The Story of R.E.M. – the most comprehensive biography of the band yet published.
Maps and Legends covers R.E.M.‘s entire career, from “Radio Free Europe” to Collapse Into Now, and also delves deeply into the background of each of the band members.
As part of his research for Maps and Legends, Hunter went through over a thousand original newspaper and magazine articles about R.E.M. (including an article written nearly 30 years ago by WDHA’s Jim Monaghan), and watched and listened to hundreds of video and audio interviews with the band. He also conducted new / original interviews with eyewitness sources and members of the band’s inner circle, ranging from high school classmates, bandmates, and friends of Peter Buck and Michael Stipe, to Hib-Tone Records founder Jonny Hibbert and the band’s catalyst Kathleen O’Brien, to Jeff Walls of Guadalcanal Diary and R.E.M. producer John Keane.
JIM MONAGHAN – Here at 105.5 WDHA, my listeners know I am a huge fan of the band R.E.M. ,and I think my next guest is as well. He should be – he’s just written what, a 700-page book? Maps and legends – the Story of REM. John Hunter, good morning and welcome to WDHA.
JOHN HUNTER – Good morning, Jim. How are you?
JM – I’m good, and I am a huge fan of the band, although I must admit there’s lot that I didn’t know about this band, specifically a lot of the stuff that was going on behind the scenes in the interpersonal relationships, going all the way back to the earliest days.
JH – I’m glad I was able to shine alight on that to whatever degree I did.
JM – Mike Mills, for example, was probably the guy who sat next to me in biology. You know, I’ve thought many times over the years, John, why this band never got back together again. I’m sure they’ve been offered a gazillion dollars, maybe not Led Zeppelin money, but I’m sure it’s been a lot of money that’s been thrown their way. And in reading the book, it’s pretty obvious why there has not been a reunion. I didn’t realize the extent to which, again, referring to the interpersonal relationships, the way these guys just did not get along. How did they manage to hide that so well?
JH – I wouldn’t say that’s true. I think I do write in the book that there was some friction between Mike Mills and Michael Stipe early on, and I think at the end of their career, Peter Buck was frustrated after Bill Berry left and he wanted to work at one pace quicker. And Michael Stipe and Mike Mills were much more about taking their time. So I think there were some interpersonal conflicts and anytime you get groups of people working together, there are going to be conflicts, I would assume. But I think R.E.M. were a classic case of a band where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And part of the reason for that would be just like in a marriage or a romantic relationship, opposites attract. And Michael Stipe and Mike Mills are very different people in a lot of ways, but opposites do attract, and I think they complement each other’s weaknesses and fill in the parts the other person is missing, if that makes any sense. R.E.M. certainly have that to the same degree as the Beatles or any other group of four people who come together to do something that none of them could have done on their own. And were there maybe some tensions and arguments along the way? Sure. But I think they all recognized that the chemistry they had was very special. And even when, again, I guess in the analogy of a marriage, even if you get into a fight with your wife or your husband, you still love them and recognize that you’re much better off with them than without them. So to answer why they’ve never gotten back together, I would say, to me, it’s because they achieved everything they set out to achieve and more. They stayed together for 30 years. With “Losing My Religion” and Automatic For the People they were arguably the biggest band in the world. They kept going for 15 years after that, and unlike a lot of bands, from the Pixies to Blur who recently reunited, they didn’t really have any unfinished business. They did what they set out to do.
JM – There’s a lot of early history of the band going back even before the R.E.M. days. But one of the things that struck me, John, was the reactions of people when they heard them for the first time. I remember my reaction. It was a demo for “Radio Free Europe.” I was the music director at a radio station for a while. We had a series called Prisoners of Rock, and R.E.M. had submitted that demo. Marshall Crenshaw submitted a demo, the Smithereens, a bunch of artists who ended up getting signed. And I remember being captivated by the sound of what I heard. For you, when you first heard R.E.M., what was it about them that captivated you?
JH – I first heard them in 1983 when I was 15 years old in Raleigh, North Carolina,a nd Murmur was their first album. And it was played on our local FM radio station, WQDR because that was kind of a freewheeling, experimental radio station. So they played them from the beginning, and also because they had a huge North Carolina connection. They had recorded Murmur in Charlotte, North Carolina, so there was a bit of a North Carolina was their home away from home. So I think they got on the regular radio relatively early there. That’s how I first heard them. I guess what appealed to me about them was they sounded to me like the Byrds. I love the Byrds, 60s rock like that. I grew up listening to my mother’s record collection from the 60s. I don’t know if that was necessarily a fashionable sound at the time, but I loved it.
JM – Well, I went out and bought a Rickenbacker 360 Jetglo because Peter Buck played one. I’ll tell you that right now.
JH – I did, too. I had a Rickenbacker 330 black and loved it and gave playing music a shot myself. And I think that’s one of the great things about R.E.M. And I guess, for lack of a better term, what you’d call the punk or the alternative movement was this idea that anyone could do it. Could I do it as well as they did it? No. But I think sounds like you, myself, and dozens of other people I know personally were inspired to pick up a guitar and make music because of their example. And that’s something I’ll always treasure you know, playing music is even more rewarding than listening to it, and I love listening to music.
JM – For me, I think part of it was that I could play what Peter played. And there’s a reference in the book a little bit later on that he was concerned that he was – actually this is later in the band’s career – that he was actually becoming competent on the guitar. In those early days, the arpeggios, and the fact that they know basic chords. I think he said he wrote a lot of songs in the key of a because he was most comfortable playing that .And that’s something musician I go, yeah, I could do this.
JH – Yeah, I was inspired by them you Know, partly to play you know. Because I wasn’t the world’s greatest musician, never was and never became one, but it looked like something that you could do. You know, Peter wasn’t playing flashy solos or he wasn’t a virtuoso musician, but yet he was so creative with what he could do and what he did do. He was original, he was creative. That arpeggiated sound hadn’t been heard in a long time, and it wasn’t even exactly copying the Byrds. It was his own way of playing those arpeggios. And I think what they stand for in so many ways was that I guess that punk ideal that it’s just as important to have good taste as it is to be a virtuoso musician.
JM – There’s a reference in the book, I believe, where Peter Buck said he once dreamed of being like Jimmy Page playing a 20-minute guitar solo, and he ends upplaying a 22-second guitar solo or something like that.
JH – Well, for sure. I mean, he was born in 1956 and he grew up, as I write in the book, on the West Coast. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He was there when the Byrds and the Beatles were blowing up in the he liked the Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, all the things that a teenager of that era would like. Was he ever going to be like a Jimmy Page kind of player? Probably not going to be taking a solo like “Stairway To Heaven” or playing a 20-minute jam like “Dazed and Confused.” But what he did do, he was very very good at and very influential and very original and very creative. And even though he, by choice or by lack of ability to do so, was not a great solo guitar player, but he was such a great guitar player in so many other ways.
JM – John Hunter my guest this morning. His new book Maps and Legends – the Story of R.E.M. There are a lot of references in the book to some of the early shows. Six people showing up in Brooklyn, the reaction that they got at the Air Force Academy.
JH – For sure like Spinal Tap. You’ve seen the movie Spinal Tap?
JM – Oh, yes!
JH – I think it’s like life imitating fiction or the other way around. I think the gig you mentioned at the Air Force, I think it was in Texas, was pretty much like the show where Spinal Tap plays the military base and everything goes wrong.
JM – What do you think it was that kept them going through that? There’s equipment failures, there’s all different kinds of things going on in those early days .What do you think it was that kept these four guys going?
JH – You know, that happens to every band and some plow through and make it and some don’t. And I think what they had, one of the things I write about in the book was that for different reasons, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe were incredibly driven. Peter Buck came to the band relatively late. He was a little bit older, in his early 20 swhen they started, whereas George Harrison, I think, was playing in the Beatles and Hamburg when he was 17. But once he got a taste of it, he was, I think, incredibly driven for reasons dating back to his childhood. Michael Stipe had been trying to play in these punk bands in Illinois and in Athens for several years. Bill Berry and Mike Mills had played in garage bands in Macon and then they had kind of given up on playing music. Bill Berry came to Athens to go to college wanting to be a lawyer, but then when he failed out of school, he wasn’t going to be a lawyer anymore and the band was like, failure was not an option. So I think they soldiered through those shows where they played to eight people in Detroit, and a lot of bands faced with that, they can’t make it. But back then, before the Internet, there was no way to tweet that you were coming to town or post on social media. You had to get in the van, staple some posters to a telephone pole and hope people showed up. They did that and every time they played somewhere to eight people, the next time they’d come back, there’d be 50 people and then the next time they came back next year, there’d be 500. And you know what I mean.
JM – One of my favorite asides in the book is where they open for a Billy Squire cover band. Not Billy Squire, a Billy Squire cover band that you’re referencing there in one of those shows.
JH – That’s the classic. I think most bands, the Beatles went through some horrific shows like that when they were starting out, embarrassing, playing to four people. And it breaks a lot of bands and some bands forge through it. And one of the things that struck me when I was researching and writing the book was that I didn’t realize the degree to which they went through that. I had this impression that they played their first show at the church and then it was kind of a steady uphill climb. And in some ways that is true, but in 1981 and 1982, I think they were a lot closer to failure than is commonly acknowledged. I mean, there really were a lot of those shows where they were playing to eight people or the sound system crapped out or they got lost and didn’t make it to the show in time. It’s a tough row to hoe. And to their credit, they did it.
JM – You make a reference in the book, in fact, there’s, I think, a bootleg recording of one of their shows in the New York City area where you can hear somebody in the crowd yell, “Don’t be discouraged. Don’t be discouraged!”
JH – Yep. Yeah, I listened to probably about a hundred bootleg recordings of their early shows in the course of writing this book. And that’s on one of those tapes. Yeah. You can hear a guy in the audience yelling at Peter Buck, “Man, don’t give up. Keep going.” And I think that was a moment captured on tape that sort of captured the reality of what they were up against.
JM – How long did it actually take youto put the book together, John?
JH – Five years. I went to Athens and Atlanta in 2018 to interview people on a three or four day road trip. It’s an idea I had Kicking around forever. And then once I interviewed some of those sources, I sat down and started to write, and I have a full time job and a wife and a life outsid eof this, and I stole time Where I could. Over the course of about five years. I have to say that the COVID year, it was an awful tragedy, but it gave me about six to nine months to really do this, 12 hours a day.
JM – If you’re into the band R.E.M. as I am., It’s a great read. Maps and Legends – the Story of R.E.M. John Hunter, thank you so much for you rtime this morning here at WDHA, and best of luck with this book.
JH – Thank you so much for having me on your show. I really appreciate it.