Peter Buck on R.E.M: “No matter how good our last record was, it wasn’t really our time any more”
Eleven years after the dissolution of R.E.M., their former songwriter-guitarist Peter Buck appears to be more in demand than ever. Aside from busying himself with forthcoming albums for supergroups Filthy Friends, The Baseball Project and The No Ones, he has just released All The Kids Are Super Bummed Out, his second collaboration with ex-Auteurs leader Luke Haines.
The pair conspire to make an often spectacular racket, featuring some of the most ferocious guitar work of Buck’s career, wonky synths and Haines’s deeply surreal, comic-sinister wordplay. Regular contributors Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon are on board too, as is legendary Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye.
Was there always a plan to make a second album with Luke?
Oh yeah. The first one was so easy. We just did it over the internet. We were going to be in England in April 2020 for a tour, we had a few new songs, and the plan was to make a band record. But like everyone else in the world, things didn’t go quite according to plan. So we ended up doing it just like the last one [2020’s Beat Poetry For Survivalists], recording in our various basements and attics. It’s interesting working with Luke, because it’s not a group that’s really played together. It’s a case of piling stuff on and seeing where it goes.
Is it true that the Luke collaboration began when you bought one of his paintings of Lou Reed a few years back?
Yeah, he did it for his New York In The ’70s record . I like to have art by people that I know and like. I wrote to him, and he suggested I send over a couple of tracks. We made the whole first record without ever meeting. It wasn’t till I was over there touring with Filthy Friends that we actually sat down and had a drink together. So prior to our first tour, I’d spent one hour with him.
Working with Luke is really interesting, because I never know what he’s going to do with a piece of music I send him. His melodic sense is really strange, in a good way. I think this record is a lot better than the first one. It’s a really powerful record, partly because we realised there are no rules whatsoever. Lyrically, it feels like Luke’s sending messages from the front, where everything’s falling apart and all that’s left are B-level celebrities and this nostalgic path that’s not really nostalgic.
How did you arrive at the title?
I was talking to my neighbour, who’s a doctor, before the vaccine was available: “Are you okay? How’s it going?” And he said: “I’m fine. I’ve been working with infectious diseases all my life, but it’s justthat all the kids are super bummed out. Not just mine, every kid.” So it just worked its way in there. I suggested the title to Luke and he loved it.
Besides Luke, you seem to be dipping in and out of so many different bands at the moment: Filthy Friends, The No Ones, The Baseball Project, The Minus 5. Do you prefer this more low-key career to the one you had with R.E.M.?
Yeah. I’m really grateful that I got to experience the heights that R.E.M. reached, but when it was over I didn’t have a lot of interest in pursuing that type of largeness again. I don’t think it would be available to me anyway. But there are certainly ways that I could have extended that popularity – get a group with someone else famous, get a publicist, all that crap.
I see these other bands, they’re older guys and they’re trying to keep up. But all I really want to do is write songs, play them and record them.
When were you happiest during your time in R.E.M.?
The eighties, I think. But when it got really big, I don’t know if anyone really enjoys that. When the non-musical stuff became so intense, it took away some of the pleasure for me. It’s just the stuff where you kind of wake up and go: “God, I don’t really want to have my picture taken today. And I don’t really want to pretend to be an actor in some video where I can’t act.”
I loved playing Glastonbury and playing in front of lots of people and selling multiple millions of records, but it was never the reason I did it. And when we got to the point where we decided that it was the end, it felt like a great shared experience. I wouldn’t change it, but I’m not gonna go back to it.
So it all ended at the right time?
I think so. The last two records were really strong. But I just felt like no matter how good our last record was, it wasn’t really our time any more. And that’s fair, I understand that. And we were lucky. The last tour we did, we were still playing to huge amounts of people. We went to South America, which was like being The Beatles. So everyone felt like, yeah, this is a really good stopping point.
I’m guessing it was pretty liberating for you to get away from all that expectation, so you could collaborate with whoever and do things at your own pace?
I’m really lucky that my phone rings and I get to be able to work with people. But I only do things if there’s a chance I’m going to learn something or it’s going to be fun, ideally both. I just spent a month in Brazil with a bunch of people that I’ve never really played with much. It was kind of a slightly different musical language, and I picked up some clues on that.
I worked with a guy named Nando Reis, who’s really popular down there and who I’ve already recorded with. It was super-fun. I’m at the point where I don’t want a record company telling me how to make records. I want to give a record company a record, and say: “Here it is. Do you like it?” And if not, that’s cool and we’ll walk away. That applies to everything I do now.
Is it too early to ask if there’s likely to be a third album from you and Luke?
Oh, we’re definitely going to work on another one. One of the things I’m recording today is something for the next record. We have shows booked in February, at least. Ideally, when we get around to touring, we’ll already have a few new songs. Who knows? Maybe we’ll just continue working together remotely, because it’s also really cheap.
All The Kids Are Super Bummed is out now via Cherry Red Records.