September 2007. The trying shooting of Beirut’s film had just finished in NYC, and the band’s evening show was about to start at Brooklyn’s Masonic Temple, when Bertis Down, the quirky and hilarious guy who serves as manager for REM, called. “The band is OK for a Take Away Show tomorrow night in Athens.” A few months later, during a projection of his films, Jem Cohen had great pleasure telling this anecdote: that when he showed Stipe the movie the movie he had just shot with Elliot Smith (Stipe and Cohen used to work together), Stipe just laughed and said, “who would want to watch a musician play an instrument?”
The whole thing started on May, at the end of Arcade Fire’s tour, with a phone call from the Low Lows’ drummer. He talked about “a huge band he couldn’t reveal the name of”. A few days after, there was another phone call (“Hello, this is Michael Stipe from REM”), late on a drunken night. Then, the meeting in Dublin during a 5-show tour for the preparation of the new album, and the rehearsal of some new songs at the Olympia Theatre. The meeting ended in a toss-up between London; New York; and Athens, Georgia.
I flew to Athens, a little town near Atlanta, a city known for its rich musical landscape: B-52’s, Of Montreal, Vic Chesnutt, Olivia Tremor Control, and REM, above all. The chauffeur drove directly to Michael Stipe’s place. A huge gate opened slowly to an estate full of art pieces of every kind: Koudelka’s photos on the walls and various sculptures, some made by Stipe himself. They were puzzling elements that created a rich and complex world, which is rare for an artist as famous as he is. He never disclaimed his artistic taste and curiosity. He’s even produced some of his friends’ movies (Spike Jonze, Todd Haynes…).
On that September evening, while the rest of the band was waiting for him at the studio in the famous Seney-Stovall chapel a few minutes away, Mr. Stipe knew very well that he had the opportunity to take revenge in the most amazing way. Ten years had passed since drummer Bill Berry left. Ten years through the wringer for REM, between dud albums, doubts, and some wonderful songs here and there. But he believes in this new album more than ever: for him, it’s a return to the roots. It’s a feeling that he’s heading in the right direction with producer Jacknife Lee (Bloc Party, Editors, U2) and a regained inspiration. Everyone showed so much enthusiasm, although the album was still being recorded, that it might have seemed suspicious. A few months after, however, history proved these early supporters right.
Languid on the sofa, Stipe brought up the Take Away Shows. He showed some to his band mates, thought it over, and even suggested ideas for the direction. He said he thought he could do one a cappella with the tape recorder he’s been using to record his voice over Buck and Mills’ instrumentals. He showed interest in The National and the videos for “Boxer”, and for the Arcade Fire movie that was never released. This represented a “challenge” for him and his band – an acoustic session with new songs – but the word “challenge” has always guided him, even during, and especially in, his artistic collaborations.
Doing a Take Away Show with REM could be seen as a way to rejuvenate their image. Obviously, it’s part of the whole thing. Putting aside the huge venues and ultra-sophisticated recording studios to play in the street—that’s a pretty cool thing to do, certainly seen as chic. But when you push “REC” for the first time, doubts descend: what if it didn’t work? What if the band looked ridiculous, old-fashioned, too used to playing their songs perfectly in front of bigger, more impressive cameras? Most of the bands filmed for the Take Away Shows are young and almost beginners; they participate in acoustic sessions often with great pleasure and curiosity (though it also provides some very welcome promotion.) So what would it be like with such an “old” band, so experienced in the classical media stuff?
That night, of the seven songs played in only two hours, it took until the third song– “Living Well”, crammed in the car–to finally see the doubts fade away. It happened when Stipe burst into laughter, finding sincere pleasure in taking part of this little game. After that moment, everything seemed to be floating, made up of dreamlike elements. Like when “Born To Be Wild” came right after “Living Well”, but no one will be able to see that – that’s record companies’ stuff. It was a night in Athens which (almost) changed into a trip between old friends.
“On The Fly” is not on the album Accelerate . Still, it’s a beautiful song only performed live but which, in the end, didn’t made the cut for the album. Thus, it exists only as this acoustic version, played in one of the many little houses you find in Stipe’s garden. The songs that night were played only once. Everything went perfectly, without any mistake or the need to rehearse. This broke the weird feeling that you often have as an audience member at a thousand-spectator show with confusing scenography (take a look at the live REM DVD released recently), which turns the musicians into puppets who only seem to play. Regaining this intimate relationship with REM likely results from the fascination with these images, shot during that night on September 21st.
It was very, very late, but Michael insisted on shooting a last song, “Sing for the Submarine”, in the weird silo near the swimming pool.
Of all the acoustic versions of songs still being recorded, the most beautiful things came from changing the songs’ shapes, making them evolve by having them confront a unique situation. The echo of Michael’s elbow against the silo’s walls and the energy given off by the performance–both made this not only the session’s climax, but also the turning-point for the Take Away Shows project. The album version will be strongly influenced by all of this, for sure. This was no longer about documenting the creative process as mere witnesses, but as almost-participants. Still, there were underlying questions: where are we coming from (to provoke or to document, to testify or to try and change the course of things), and for whom are we doing this?
March 24th, 2008, Royal Albert Hall, London. More than a year after the first phone call, REM is back, a week before Accelerate comes out. Furious first notes, first arm movements from Stipe, some exulted words, spit sprinkling the first row. The audience screamed: REM was REALLY back, and this was an amazing surprise. On a long-awaited “Losing My Religion”, Michael glanced at me and waved discreetly. It was the last detail marking the end of a beautiful adventure, one that had given me a crazy freedom for experimenting ideas and developing new formats. Still, I can’t remember well how nor why it all started. Smirking, Mr. Stipe, a glass in his hand, bent over and whispered, “I think we’ve done something quite unique together.”
Translated by Nora