Stereogum Presents… Drive XV: A Tribute To Automatic For The People

Stereogum Presents… Drive XV: A Tribute To Automatic For The People

Introduction

After OKX, our 10-year cover tribute to the Radiohead classic OK Computer, we soon began narrowing the list of prospects for our next celebratory project: sifting, sorting, debating, etc. But when we realized we were approaching a decade and a half since the release of R.E.M.‘s Automatic For The People (originally released 10/5/92) — surprised by that period of time as we had been by discovering it had been a full decade since OK Computer — we knew we had our next project chosen.

It’s a similar sort of awe and respect we have for Automatic, an album that stood out of step from the angsty grunge and brainy indie rock of that era; in that sense, it’s also an album out of time, and one that still affects us all here at Stereogum. Now 15 years on, and with R.E.M. showing signs of increased activity, releasing a CD/DVD set R.E.M. Live on 10/16 and working furiously and furtively on a new album expected next year, it’s an ideal moment to reflect upon and celebrate this personal, critical, and commercial favorite.

We embarked upon Drive XV months before we learned R.E.M. would be releasing a live album (their first) the same month. The timing was fortuitous, however; it meant the band was in requisite promotional mode. Thus Stereogum was granted time to speak with Mike Mills, whose commentary on each Automatic track you’ll see as you browse the tracklist.

As for Automatic, maybe nothing speaks to the influence this record’s had on the current crop of indie rockers more directly than the amazing number of high-caliber artists who expressed interest in contributing to the compilation. So although Drive XV launches with single covers of each Automatic song, we will add exclusive versions from even more artists in the coming weeks. Each track’s page has a dedicated comment section; we’re sure you’ll make good use of that.

Lots of hard work went into bringing Drive XV together, so we’d like to give thanks to album cover illustrators Heads Of State, to Warner Brothers and REM HQ’s David Bell and Kevin O’Neil, to master masterer Paul Geissinger, and of course to R.E.M. and all the bands who contributed. We hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed putting it together.

(Click here to read our essay Sweetness Followed: 15 Years After Automatic.)

Stereogum Presents… Drive XV: A Tribute to Automatic For The People

1. The Veils – “Drive” [Download]

The Veils On “Drive”
“I think the only way you can approach covering a song by a band this colossal is to pretend that you’re just playing one of your friend’s songs — that’s what we did anyway. It’s always a rewarding expedition doing a cover version, scraping away layers ’til you find something in there you never expected to find and then exposing it. I never realized what a scary, desperate, nostalgic, diamond of a song this was until now.”
Finn Andrews

Mike Mills On “Drive”
“I remember the video was pretty interesting. Peter and I aren’t big video fans or participants, but it was pretty interesting to get beat up by a fire hose, which is pretty much what we did. We’ve played it a lot, it’s been in virtually every show that we’ve done since we’ve put it out, and after a while, you know, you want to give things a little bit of a different treatment. The MTV Awards we did, it was fun to do, that was a chance to surprise a whole lot of people at one time. Music is not immutable, it’s organic, and while there are some songs we never change live, that was one that could do with a little moving around.”

2. Dappled Cities – “Try Not To Breathe” [Download]

Dappled Cities On “Try Not To Breathe”
“We chose ‘Try Not To Breathe’ because it felt like we could take it some place else from the original. It is such a balanced underplayed song on the record that we though we’d try the opposite and make something grand out of it. I love cover songs that sound nothing like the original but have references to what the original tried to do so hopefully that’s what we did.”

Mike Mills On “Try Not To Breathe”
“A beautiful song, personally one of my favorite backing vocals that I ever did. I felt like John Lennon when I came up with it. It’s very nice to feel like John Lennon even if it’s just for five seconds.”

3. Rogue Wave – “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” [Download]

Rogue Wave on “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
“R.E.M. was my favorite band growing up, especially when they first started out. I loved how mysterious their words were, their DIY aesthetic in their t-shirts and album art, Michael Stipe’s Salvation Army boots and rumors that he put mustard in his hair sometimes before a show. I idolized this band and their skewed message. It was everything I wanted to be for the most part. By the time Automatic For The People came out, I had expanded my horizons considerably, but I was still excited about how the band continued to change and try new sounds, new ideas, new instrumentation. ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ is far and away one of my favorite songs from the record. I love how odd the lyrics are, as if Michael Stipe can barely fit in each line what he wants to say. I also like how it borrows from another melody (‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’) to make its own song. Instead of covering their version exactly, we instead tried to borrow from their melody and make our own song.”
Zach Rogue

Mike Mills On “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
“That’s a song that to this day I’m not really sure what it’s about, but it’s a lot of fun. We never do it live, but it’s a good record. It’s just one of those songs that never seemed like it need to be done live. We might’ve messed around with it at sound check a couple of times, but it never felt like something we should really try.”

4. Meat Puppets – “Everybody Hurts” [Download]

Meat Puppets On “Everybody Hurts”
“It’s a tribute to Elvis too, on the 30th anniversary of his departure … Puppets channeling R.E.M. channeling Elvis. Recorded in Rasputin’s glass castle on Jupiter.”
Curt Kirkwood

Mike Mills On “Everybody Hurts”
“A fairly simple song musically, with a nice electric piano signature on it that’s really good, and of course Jonesy did fantastic strings. If anyone is kinda ‘uhhh’ about it, they’ve probably heard it too much, that’s what happens when you have songs that become big hits. When you have a song like that or ‘Losing My Religion’ they tend to pass on from belonging to us to belonging to the world at large.”

5. Figurines – “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1″ [Download]

Figurines On “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1″
“We’ve always dug R.E.M.’s stuff so you can imagine that this story that follows did quite an impression on us the first time we ever did a US show. We had a show at the Crocodile in Seattle in March ’06 and one of the Danish journalists that was on the tour had a contact to Scott McCoughey and Peter Buck. Apparently Peter Buck had showed up to see another band on the bill that night but caught our last encore and liked it so much that he went to see the following day’s Portland show with Scott McCoughey and a few pictures were taken afterwards. Whether the story about the Seattle show is true or not we never really found out, but we liked the story too much to ask for the truth. But imagine being five guys from Denmark playing their just second US show and spot those two fellas among the modest audience that showed up. That could give any rock band rapid eye movements.”

Mike Mills On “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1″
“That’s a groovy little thing. Peter had a volume pedal or some sort of weird guitar that made those noises. We were just messing around making sounds, and decided to throw that song together. That came out of the sound of that guitar, that’s what got that song going.”

6. Sara Quin (Feat. Kaki King) – “Sweetness Follows” [Download]

Sara Quin (Tegan & Sara) On “Sweetness Follows”
“When I was in grade six, my then boyfriend had an older brother who introduced him to the world of Monty Python, Adidas high tops and R.E.M. By association, well before I had ever thought to throw away my New Kids On The Block tapes and Double Dragon video games, I was ‘in the know.’ Automatic For The People was a Christmas gift from my mom when I was in the seventh grade. My friends and I would hang off my step dads workout equipment in the basement of my house, blasting this album. ‘Sweetness Follows’ is so pretty, with such a strange anticlimactic chorus, which I still love and admire about it. It’s interesting to me, with only the perspective of a small career in my lenses, to imagine what R.E.M. was thinking and experiencing after they put this album out. I always wonder if artists knew they were making something classic, something that would influence a geeky 12-year-old to dance in the basement in the suburbs.”

Mike Mills On “Sweetness Follows”
“That’s a beautiful song with a lovely cello on it, I think Knox Chandler played that part. We play it occasionally. There are a lot of songs that we really enjoy, but you don’t want to play them every night. That’s the advantage of having a big back catalog, because we like to change the setlist every night and it’s good to have a lot of songs that you can put into rotation.”

7. Catfish Haven – “Monty Got A Raw Deal” [Download]

Catfish Haven On “Monty Got A Raw Deal”
“R.E.M. are definitely an inescapable musical force for any musician or music fan. Automatic For The People was a huge commercial success for R.E.M. and around the time of its release you couldn’t turn on MTV without seeing videos for ‘Man On The Moon’ or ‘Drive’ or ‘Everybody Hurts.’ We opted to go with a non-hit single and with a song that we felt we could both pay homage to musically and also make our own. The simplicity of ‘Monty Got A Raw Deal’ allowed us to easily put our own twist on it without completely changing the original. We had a blast recording this track with engineer Mike Lust at his Phantom Manor Studio. Many a beer was consumed in honor of this project. Hope you all enjoy it.”
Miguel Castillo

Mike Mills On “Monty Got A Raw Deal”
“That’s obviously about Montgomery Clift. The bass is actually an old Guild electric bass that’s only about two feet long, the strings are rubber surgical tubing, when you play it, you get sort of a sound like an upright bass. For me, that’s what I think of when I think of that song. It looks like a lap steel with surgical tubing on it, it’s very strange.”

8. The Forms – “Ignoreland” [Download]

The Forms On “Ignoreland”
“There is much talk these days about the death of the album and singles being the future, but Automatic For The People is one of the best arguments to be made for preserving the album format. In theory, an album is supposed to be something more than a mere collection of songs, something with an overall theme or coherence, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more hard-hitting example than Automatic. We chose ‘Ignoreland’ because Michael Stipe’s melody in it is great on so many levels, and it inspired us to try to reimagine the music that could potentially surround it. The original version is very densely layered, so we tried a more minimalist approach, incorporating the melody into the bassline and only using bass and drums as the instruments. This version of the song was recorded with Steve Albini at his studio in Chicago.”
Alex Tween

Mike Mills On “Ignoreland”
“The political song on there. In a way, it kinda stands out from the rest sonically and lyrically, but it’s good to vent about the people we were angry with at the time. I don’t recall playing it live.”

9. Blitzen Trapper – “Star Me Kitten” [Download]

Blitzen Trapper On “Star Me Kitten”
“R.E.M. were a huge part of my adolescence. Green was the first cassette I ever bought with my own money. When Automatic came out, I remember being intrigued by the delicious, yellow, plastic cassette. The first time Eric (Earley) and I listened to it was in my friend Kyle’s Celica. I think Eric was skipping school. The cryptic lyrics are what still stick with me from that first listen. That is what makes R.E.M. so great. From Murmur to Monster, what the hell is he talking about? ‘Star Me Kitten’ is a perfect example, wonderfully cryptic, yet audible enough to infer your own mea
Drew Laughery

Mike Mills Talks On “Star Me Kitten”
“AKA ‘Fuck Me Kitten.’ That’s a wacky little song. The thing that stands out for me is how we did the voices on it, which is for me to load my voice into an AKAI and have about eight notes and play it back on an 8-track mini soundboard with eight faders on it so I could bring up my eight notes as needed. We actually did that one live a few times, too.”

10. Shout Out Louds – “Man On The Moon” [Download]

Shout Out Louds On “Man On The Moon”
“The whole band are big fans of Andy Kaufman and that is the reason why we choose that song. We used a lot of bongos because Andy was a hell of a bongo player. I think he would really like this version. Michael (Stipe) is doing a fine job, too. I remember that he looked really cool in that cowboy hat in the video.”
Adam Olenius

Mike Mills On “Man On The Moon”
“What can you say, you know? One of our finer, finer efforts. That came together literally on the last day of recording. We had the music all finished and we were all pushing Michael to get it done and he came in with all those great words and melodies on that last day of recording.”

11. The Wrens – “Nightswimming” [Download]

The Wrens On “Nightswimming”
“But OK, why I like the song, ‘Nightswimming’ … just ’cause it’s beautiful. It’s simple, almost like one of their older songs (well, older as in ‘early to mid ’80s’) — harmonically, although their songs usually are (sets of four chords, four times etc.), and arrangement-wise where there’s a good old fashioned worked-out piano accompaniment part. It’s not just chords like Sir Elton would play (that is the first and probable last time I will type the phrase ‘Sir Elton’) and it’s not just a counter melody on the piano like say, the Cure would play. It’s actually both — a riff that drives the song around the block the whole time and the chords to show the scenery changing behind it.

“And I love the was Stipe sings it in that it sounds not only like he may have done whole chunks of it in a couple of takes but that he may even be working the variations of melody out — where the various syllables are gonna go rhythmically & melodically — kinda on the spot, too. Just a hunch I get — I could be completely off it and it’ll turn out they slaved on this for a year straight and overdubbed every breath and glottal noise. I also like that if you listen to right before the strings come in, you can hear what’s probably a mixing mistake and the strings kind of burp out there for a second, go away, and then come in properly. Ah … pre-computer mixing.

“I don’t like the maudlin English horn or whatever that is at the end. Makes it sound like an ’80s BBC comedy has just returned from a PBS pledge-drive break.

“So all that stuff I love about the song, I basically crapped on in our version. Sorry, R.E.M.”
Charles Bissell

Mike Mills On “Nightswimming”
“Great song. Michael had some ideas floating around. Normally his ideas come after the music, and in this case he had some ideas he wanted to put down. He’d been looking for the right musical situation, and I came in with that music one day and he loved it and we worked it out in, I think, one day.”

12. Dr. Dog – “Find The River” [Download]

Dr. Dog On “Find The River”
“We chose ‘Find The River’ ’cause we’ve always liked it? It’s a really pretty song.”

Mike Mills On “Find The River”
“‘Find The River’ is a beautiful thing. That was actually done at John Keane’s studio in Athens. It was pretty much a demo, but the demo was so well done that we ended up using it for the record.”

Bonus: The Narrator – “Try Not To Breathe” [Download]

The Narrator On “Try Not To Breathe”
“An old roommate of mine left a cassette of Automatic For The People in our bathroom when she moved out, and over the last couple of years I’ve played it several million times on the ol’ boombox. Each side is the perfect length for a shower and whatnot, and then you have the other side for next time. The tape’s plastic is transparent yellow! Remember?! It’s hard sometimes to listen to records that have such huge singles (like “Everybody Hurts” or “Man On The Moon,” which I heard faintly in the background at Home Depot while waiting for keys to be copied the other night), but there’s something about Automatic For The People that never gets old. I can’t really put my finger on why this song stands out to me — I just love it. It’s powerful, but in some ways never really goes anywhere. Our bassist James says this is R.E.M.’s ‘Smiths song.’ Good call, James.”
Sam Axelrod

Bonus: Amanda Palmer & Cormac Bride – “Everybody Hurts” [Download]

Amanda Palmer On “Everybody Hurts”
“I had just landed from the UK and got an email from Stereogum at around 5 pm that they wanted a cover of an REM song. It sounded like fun, but they had a deadline, and I was only in town for two more days. I said yes anyway and then about 13 minutes later Cormac called randomly to say ‘hi,’ so I asked if he would come over at night with his guitar, but the computer was being weird and we only had two working tracks, and we wanted to record it totally live, and I didn’t know how to fix it, and so we called Noah, who was at the Columbus having drinks with Troy, and he didn’t want to come back to fix it right then, so I called Vessela next door to see if maybe she wanted to come over and record a track of names of people she had hurt in her Bulgarian accent because I thought that would be great and we would add Max with a people he had hurt in his British accent and Lee would add a list with Lee in his Montana accent and Cormac and I would both do a hurt list too and then we’d have this great jumble of names of hurt people … and Vessela said sure and Max said sure and Lee said sure and I told them we were waiting for Noah to come back and fix the computer and Vessela said maybe troy could fix it and I said but he’s with Noah at the bar. And Noah finally came home and we finally recorded it at 2:30 in the morning, and then we were done and everybody who was going to record names of people they had wronged had gone to bed so we didn’t get to do that part. Don’t throw your hand.”

Bonus: Ferraby Lionheart – “Man On The Moon” [Download]

Ferraby Lionheart On “Man On The Moon”
“I have a distinct memory of Automatic For The People because it came out during the brief window of my growing up years when my family got cable and we had MTV. I feel lucky that ‘Man On The Moon’ was assigned to me, I really like that song. I went in the studio with my friend and played it a couple different ways and I asked him, ‘Which way do you think is better?’ I think I like singing other peoples songs better than my own sometimes.”

Bonus: Oxford Collapse – “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” [Download]

“I bought Automatic For The People on the day it came out and it subsequently became the soundtrack to my year in Eighth Grade. It still sounds like R.E.M.’s swan song; it is certainly their last exceptional record. Its quiet beauty and haunting evocations of death and sorrow have aged gracefully; to my 13-year-old ears I couldn’t understand much of it; it’s one of those records that grows in substance as you live with it. We chose ‘Sidewinder’ because it’s unique on the record — it’s the one silly song. It foreshadows cloyingly gay Stipe coming up with the most annoying chorus of their career, but woven between is a wonderfully earnest diatribe basically saying, ‘leave me the F alone.’ And as with any song in which its featured on the album, the string section makes it.”
Dan Fetherston

Bonus: Blanche – “Find The River” [Download]

Blanche On “Find The River”
“I remember the shape of your head because you stood in front of me the whole show.” I saw R.E.M. for the first time after their album Reckoning came out, and being a 6’4″ gent with strange hair, that was the complaint a drunken stranger told me a couple years later. “Stay off the highway; word is it’s not so safe.” Those lyrics from the R.E.M. song “Green Grow the Rushes” were the last thing we heard before a car slammed into us doing 80 miles an hour coming home from a concert many years ago. “Find The River” has all of those things that defined R.E.M., mysterious lyrics that mean different things to different people, the “jangly!” guitars, etcetera … but best of all, they sounded like no one else. For our Blanche version of this song, we all agreed that we had absolutely no idea what this song meant. So we tried to record it as if we did, so the hazy abstraction was stripped away. We changed the time signature and tried to keep the line “Nothing is going my way” sounding sad, but with an easy listening flair. We wanted the verse plinky and dramatic, and really make the arrangement bare — like the Kinks, perhaps. For the chorus, we tried to give it an early ’70s feeling country politician sound (Eddie Arnold, Charlie Rich…). It sounds nothing like the Kinks or Eddie Arnold, so perhaps we succeeded with what you’re supposed to do at the very least when you cover someone’s song. Make it your own…”

Bonus: You Say Party! We Say Die! – “Nightswimming” [Download]

You Say Party! We Say Die! On “Nightswimming”
“We chose to cover ‘Nightswimming’ because it is a beautiful song full of nostalgia, heartfelt remembering, and longing. I have always been drawn to water and found that the most peaceful moments I have ever experienced … the closest I have ever felt to god and nature … has been when I am floating on my back in water, at night, looking up to an eyeful of stars. It is such a romantic memory for me. I feel a connection in the lyrics, a kinship to my own personal experience with night swimming.”
Becky Ninkovic

“Everyone expects YSPWSD to be an exclamation point factory ala Le Tigre/YYY’s understudy in freshman political science. You’d suppose we’d take ‘Man On The Moon’ and give it the 190 bpm post-whatever treatment. Rather Becky and I decided to pick ‘Nightswimming’ based on it’s delicacy and grace that comes so easy from just Michael Stipe’s voice and a piano. We both connected with the song instantly and enjoy it’s ability to convey a feeling of nostalgia for the youth we enjoyed in rain-soaked Vancouver. R.E.M. is a band that sits more in one’s peripheral and doesn’t always demand the attention it deserves. They just do what they do and blindside you with brilliance time and time again.”
Stephen O’Shea

Bonus: Jana Hunter – “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1″ [Download]

Jana Hunter On “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1″
“R.E.M. were a staple throughout my growing years, a favorite of older siblings, passed down and thoroughly embedded. ‘New Orleans’ seemed wandering and malleable, and also, comfortable — an easy choice.”

Bonus: Elk City – “Everybody Hurts” [Download]

Elk City On “Everybody Hurts”
“‘Everybody Hurts’ took courage. In 1992, when all the world had gone grunge and lo-fi, R.E.M. made one of their quietest and most-produced records. It seemed brave to me at the time and still does today. It takes maturity as an artist to risk being cliché, and the track is simply breathtaking. So straightforward, and so true. It was a challenge to re-interpret ‘Everybody Hurts.’ I hope we’ve done it justice.”
Ray Ketchem

“From a recovered R.E.M. purist, who, for a long time considered Green to be the Last Great R.E.M. album, Automatic For The People is a triumph: “Everybody Hurts” AND ‘Nightswimming’ AND ‘Man On The Moon’ AND ‘Try Not To Breathe’ AND ‘Drive’ AND ‘Find The River’ AND ‘Sweetness Follows’ AND ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’ on one album? They utterly outdid themselves at a time in their career when they had nothing to prove. Ollie, Ollie, Ollie, this is more than genius. This is work of committed genius.”
Renée LoBue

Bonus: Frida Hyvönen – “Everybody Hurts” [Download]

Frida Hyvönen On “Everybody Hurts”
“I heard this song for the first time when I was 14 or 15. I wanted to record this song like an echo of the way it felt to me then, and imagined singing it to console a 14-year-old version of myself.”

Bonus: Bodies Of Water – “Everybody Hurts” [Download]

Bodies Of Water On “Everybody Hurts”
“‘Everybody hurts — take comfort in your friends.’

“It could be that we’re encouraged to take comfort in the fact that our friends are the most prevalent example of mankind living in pain (since they, like everybody else, hurt). Does being reminded of the unexceptional nature of our individual pain assuages it somehow? Maybe at least if we appreciate the ubiquity of pain we can’t pity ourselves.

“It could be that carousing with your friends (and knowing they’re available for carousing) is the most comforting thing about them.

“In the end, I think ‘Don’t throw your hand’ is the soundest advice in the song. As bad as you feel and as messed as you are, whatever you take comfort in or don’t, just don’t start throwing your hand around.

“An interesting note: I thought this meant hurling your severed hand, while Meredith thought that it meant waving your hand around spastically, like a baby. Whatever. It’s gross and weird.”

COVER ART

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cover art for 'Stereogum Presents... DRIVE XV: A Tribute To Automatic For The People'

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