Q&A: R.E.M.’s Peter Buck On His New Band With Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker & Automatic For The People’s 25th Anniversary Reissue
Even at the height of R.E.M.’s success, guitarist Peter Buck didn’t like to take breaks. During his free moments, Buck would play with Warren Zevon in the Hindu Love Gods, gig with Robyn Hitchcock and the Minus 5, and joined the instrumental group Tuatara, among others. After R.E.M. ended their 30-year career in 2011, Buck didn’t miss a beat. He started releasing solo albums at a rapid pace, often on tiny labels with little promotion. He talked in interviews about how he was completely over the music industry grind, so it’s a bit surprising to see him making a high-profile push with his latest project, Filthy Friends. But their album Invitation, due out this month, is worth the effort.
An alt-music supergroup of sorts, Filthy Friends includes within its ranks Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, longtime R.E.M. sideman and Minus 5 member Scott McCaughey, touring R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin, and the Fastbacks’ Kurt Bloch. Buck’s signature chiming guitar licks abound; there are times the album recalls the passionate outrage of R.E.M.’s Document and Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat, but Buck and Tucker’s chemistry and the palpable urgency keep things from sounding too nostalgic. Of course, Buck being Buck, the group formed while he was working on his last solo album, and he’s since formed yet another group, the No Ones, with McCaughey as well as Frode Strømstad and Arne Kjelsrud Mathisen of Norwegian band I Was A King. During a rare moment of downtime, Buck and I chatted about the new album, wading back into the industry, and why we shouldn’t expect to see R.E.M. headline Coachella anytime soon.
STEREOGUM: I noticed that since R.E.M. broke up, you’ve put out at least one album a year, if not more. What do you think is behind that pace?
BUCK: You know, I never really liked the slow pace. When you work in a big group, it becomes more like you have a record every two years, every three years. I just write a lot and I like to push my stuff into whatever new direction. Corin and I were excited about the process of making this record, so we’ve already written most of the next one, too. So ideally one a year would be a great way to go.
STEREOGUM: In the early days of R.E.M., you guys had an album out basically every year or every other year, but as the band went on it slowed down.
BUCK: I think that’s natural. When you’re learning and starting out, you’re just batting them out. And also we didn’t have any money, so we put out — I think there were seven or eight years in a row where we put out a record because, well, you put out a record, then you tour it for a year and that’s what pays the bills. Now it’s just, how many years do we even have left? I’d like to do as much good work as I can before it ends.
STEREOGUM: Filthy Friends are basically the touring version of R.E.M. minus a few people plus Corin and Kurt. How did the band come about?
BUCK: It was my solo band, basically. Bill I’ve played with for 15 years, Scott for 35. Kurt, I’ve played with him, but I’ve never been in a band with him. But that was my solo band when we did the solo records.
STEREOGUM: How did you and Corin come to work together?
BUCK: I met her back in the ’90s right after the first Sleater-Kinney record. Sleater-Kinney were just one of my favorite bands of all time. I didn’t know her that well. I’d known her husband Lance Bangs, the filmmaker, since he was 18 or 19. He came to Athens and he worked with R.E.M. for a bunch of years. The very last thing R.E.M. did was filmed in 2010 and Lance ran that. She’d always kind of been around, but I didn’t know her very well. On my first solo record, I had a song called “Nothing Means Nothing” that I just felt needed a female vocalist and I called her. From the very first note, I kind of suggested, “Well, let’s see if we can write songs together because this works really well,” and then the writing process went very well.
STEREOGUM: She was a huge fan of yours growing up. Did you think it would be weird for her to work with someone she admired like you? Did it take a while, for both of you, for it to be normal to be doing this?
BUCK: I don’t think it’s weird, in that we are also friends. But every now and again I have times where I look over at her and I go, “Oh yeah, well I’ve seen Sleater-Kinney a hundred times too,” and she does that exact same thing. I know that I’ll do something that seems a little R.E.M.-ish and I notice that she notices it. But we try and avoid that.
STEREOGUM: Listening to the album, it does seem like a very different thing for both of you, but there are moments where it does have that signature jangle that we all know. As you get older, are you more comfortable with the attitude of, “This is how I sound and I’m not going to sweat it too much?”
BUCK: To a certain degree. When I do sessions, and I do a lot of them for fun essentially, somebody will want me to play a 12-string or jangle and, you know, that’s fine. I also do other stuff too. I avoided doing any of that stuff when I was doing my solo stuff, just because it felt really weird to be like, “Oh, it sounds like R.E.M. except for the crappy vocalist,” and that’s what you try and avoid. I’ve been trying to not do that.
STEREOGUM: What was the making of the album like for you two? How long did it take to feel like you found a middle ground for everyone’s writing styles?
BUCK: When we started writing originally, it was just a give and take. It wasn’t hard. [Corin] had a great facility for melodies that clicked with the words. We ended up having five or six things that we thought were really good songs and we were like, “Well, maybe we should record it and see what happens.” I think we were aiming at making an album, but you never know if that is going to work, so you start with the writing. When we got to 15 songs, it had seemed like a real record, so we started to think about who was going to mix it, what was on the record, that kind of thing.
STEREOGUM: Back in the day with R.E.M., you guys were writing very political songs like “Exhuming McCarthy,” and I know that “Despierta,” the first Filthy Friends songs we heard, was for the 30 Days, 30 Songs anti-Trump project. Is a part of you flabbergasted that you’re back here having to do the same thing all over again after after all the progress there had been for a little while?
BUCK: I thought Nixon was bad. I think flabbergasted is what everyone in the entire world is thinking.
STEREOGUM: A lot of the solo albums you’ve been releasing have been on very small labels and some of them were just vinyl-only, and you would talk in interviews about how over the music industry you are. For this album, you’ve hired a publicist. You’re on a fairly big indie label. It seems like you’re trying to give this more of a push. Is that accurate?
BUCK: I have a responsibility to the guys that are in the band to make the most of this. We’ve worked hard. We’re gonna go out and do shows. I love the record and I want people to hear it. I want to be able to do another one and another one. That said, we still made the record the same way I made my solo records: write songs and record them. The idea was that we were going to have a finished record that we were going to hand over to whoever was interested so that we didn’t have to go through a process of an A&R guy telling us what songs he likes. We gave them a sequenced, mastered record. “This is the record and if you want to put it out, call us.” It’s the best of both worlds. We do have a slightly higher profile but we get to do exactly what we want to.
STEREOGUM: Where do you live these days?
BUCK: I’m in Portland [Oregon] a lot, then I travel, so wherever I end up is where I am. But I guess if you say where my clothes and my record collection and books and guitars are, that’s Portland right now.
STEREOGUM: So it’s easy for you guys to kind of all get together?
BUCK: In the band? Yeah. I played music with Mike Mills yesterday in Norway and I saw Michael [Stipe] two weeks ago. We see each other pretty regularly. We’re not gonna make an R.E.M. record or anything.
STEREOGUM: Oh, I actually meant Filthy Friends, but that’s cool that you talk to the other guys. I didn’t know that.
BUCK: Oh yeah, yeah Filthy Friends. Corin lives near me so whenever we’re in town we get together once a week and write. Scott lives in Seattle. Linda lives in New York, unfortunately, and Kurt is in Seattle. But we manage to get together pretty regularly, and now that the record is gearing up, we’re seeing each other a fair amount.
STEREOGUM: Your work ethic is pretty crazy. You’re not one of those people who seems to slow down as you get older. It seems that you’re going faster.
BUCK: I think part of it is the knowledge that you never know when it’s going to end. Whether there’s going to be a day when no one is going to see us play, or maybe I won’t write a song again, or maybe it’s arthritis. You always gotta worry about that. I feel you have to do as much as you can while you can. I like writing and I like recording. Just getting the work done — that’s important.
STEREOGUM: Do you ever get burned out or get too exhausted to keep going?
BUCK: It’s not that hard. I have these phases where I don’t write anything that I think is good for a couple weeks or a month, but I’m writing and throwing the stuff away and then one day things get exciting again. It’s not like I have a job where there is one thing only. My thinking is that, if I do get burned out on it or get really tired of it, then I’ll quit or take a year off, and there is nothing wrong with that either. I just have things to do before it gets too hard physically or mentally or whatever.
STEREOGUM: So, R.E.M. is doing a release for the 25th anniversary of Automatic For The People. What are you guys looking to put together for the reissue? And how do you feel about the album now, 25 years later?
BUCK: I have to listen to it, but I still think it’s a strong record. I just OK-ed an 80-minute CD of, I guess, the demos, but they were just things we were recording, building up to the record. There’s some cool instrumentals. There’s some cool vocals. I think there’s one or two songs that no one has heard. I think it’s a cool package. I think there will be something live on there, too. It’s a record that I really like. I’m glad we made that kind of record at that time.
STEREOGUM: You were already a pretty popular band before that one came out, but that one took you to an even higher level. What was it like to be such a huge band for a couple years like that? Were you comfortable? Was it strange?
BUCK: I don’t think anyone really loved the whole super-popular thing. Honestly, I am a lot more comfortable doing what I am now, which is — if I’m lucky — playing to 400 or 500 people and [selling] whatever those kinds of records sell nowadays. I’d rather much work at this level, to just keep doing it. The bigger you get the more chains there are on you. I feel pretty pleased right now.
STEREOGUM: So it sounds like you don’t miss the days of headlining arenas or anything.
BUCK: No, if any of us missed it, we could do it again. I think we did it. I think we took that all the way to the shore. Now we’re onto the next thing.
STEREOGUM: You guys didn’t tour for Automatic For The People?
BUCK: No, we did not.
STEREOGUM: What happened there? Did you make the album and just decided to take a long break?
BUCK: Yeah, I think we had been on the road at that point for 11 or 12 years. We decided to make a couple records quickly and not go on the road. It was great for us. I think it worked out really well. We just felt that we had done that and the reason we broke up the last time… we just felt like we were finished. Do we need to go on the road and do these songs again? Not really.
STEREOGUM: In addition to the stuff with Filthy Friends, you’re going to keep releasing solo albums?
BUCK: I don’t know. I think the last one is as good a record that I am going to make. It was of the moment and very cathartic. It really caught the mood that I was in at the time. I don’t know if I could do anything better. I’ve written a bunch of stuff, but I listened to the songs that I’ve written and I go, “Eh, would I buy that record?” I don’t know. I’m just holding off. There may come a day.
STEREOGUM: It seems like you spend all your time doing music. Do you have other hobbies or anything else that you do when you’re not making music?
BUCK: Not really. I do what other people do. I go for long walks. I travel. I don’t socialize as much. I read books. I play guitar five times a day. I don’t have a hobby like painting or something where it takes a lot of time. Is traveling a hobby? I used to travel for work and then I just… I’m in France because I was in Norway doing those shows and I’m like, “Hey I’m in Europe, let’s go to France.”
STEREOGUM: Do you keep up with current music at all? Are there any current bands that you like?
BUCK: I do and I don’t. I listened to the Kendrick Lamar record To Pimp A Butterfly and I love that record, but I love the backing music, so I started looking online to see who was who. I’m also into the Kamasi Washington records and the Thundercat records, the Flying Lotus guy and Anderson .Paak. I discovered this whole little realm of like hip-hop pop music with a little bit of free jazz in it. I think that’s pretty groovy. But I’m not listening to a lot of pop music really. Mostly the stuff I listen to in rock ‘n’ roll is people I know.
STEREOGUM: You said that Automatic For The People has a few songs that people haven’t heard. How much stuff do you think is out there in the archives that even the superfans haven’t heard before?
BUCK: It’s more kind of little pieces here and there. It’s not like Neil Young, where it’s all unreleased records. I don’t think there’s more than a few good songs around, but there’s been alternate versions and some on-the-way-to-versions. But if I like a record, I always want to hear the other stuff. Automatic has a couple songs that aren’t on the record. There’s some interesting stuff.
STEREOGUM: Out of curiosity, how soon after R.E.M. ended did you start getting offers from Coachella and other festivals seeing if you would reunite?
BUCK: Our manager handles all that and I have never seen an offer, so I am assuming they must come but he knows that we’re not really that interested. I haven’t heard anything at all really. My assumption is that if we made a couple phone calls we could make something happen but that’s just not something we’re interested in.
Invitation is out 8/25 via Kill Rock Stars.