R.E.M.'s Peter Buck Talks 'Automatic for the People' Before 25th Anniversary Reissue: 'I Didn't Expect It to Be a Huge Hit'
Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M. perform at Madison Square Garden in New York City
R.E.M. will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Automatic for the People with a deluxe reissue of the album that found the band at the height of its commercial and critical success. It's due in three different configurations on Nov. 10 from Concord's reissue imprint, Craft Recordings, including a Deluxe Anniversary Edition that will feature the album remixed in Dolby Atmos.
Original album producer Scott Litt and engineer Clif Norrell remixed the album using the technology, which offers a three-dimensional listening experience previously used mostly for films. This is the first major music release to utilize the technology.
Craft Recordings President Sig Sigworth, who previously worked with the band during its '80s stint on IRS Records, is spearheading the R.E.M. reissue campaign. This marks the label's second deluxe 25th anniversary package, following last year's Out of Time reissue, which received a similar treatment, but Sigworth notes the addition of the album mixed in Dolby Atmos makes this package even more special. He points to a remark Norrell is heard making about the improved sound of the album in the promotional video for the release: "It's like a sculpture rather than a painting."
The set will also include 20 previously unreleased demos from the album's recording sessions, including "Mike's Pop Song," which is now available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play and for purchase at Amazon and iTunes. The second disc of the two-disc 25th Anniversary and Deluxe Edition is the concert recording, "Live at the 40 Watt Club 11/19/92," which captures the band in its hometown of Athens, Ga. at a benefit concert for Alternative NRG/Greenpeace, playing its only show that year. Also included with the Deluxe Edition, packaged in a 12-by-12-inch lift-top box, is a 60-page book featuring never released photos by Anton Corbijn and Melodie McDaniel, and new liner notes by music journalist Tom Doyle. The album will also be released on 180-gram vinyl.
Since the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees disbanded amicably in 2011, guitarist Peter Buck has been the most musically active. His latest band, Filthy Friends, released its debut album, Invitation, in late August and is still playing live dates to support it. Buck recently took a break from his schedule to sit down in the studio with former bandmate, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills, Litt and Norrell to listen to the remix in Dolby Atmos, which he refers to as "the 13-speaker thing."
He says he was initially a little skeptical, but he came away impressed. "I'm usually a little ambivalent about things like that," Buck says. "But I was kind of blown away at what it sounded like. I didn't go as far as Dark Side of the Moon, but it's not that kind of record. It has amazing ambient and percussion sound. It's a really good record and I was surprised how strong it all sounded at this point."
Automatic for the People, named for an expression used by the proprietor of an Athens, Ga. eatery the band frequented, was originally released on Oct. 6, 1992. It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, behind Garth Brooks' The Chase, and went on to sell 3.52 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 18 million worldwide.
It followed R.E.M.'s breakout success with the Billbaord 200-topping 1991 album Out of Time and the omnipresent single "Losing My Religion," allowing the band the time and freedom to follow its creative muse. Although the quartet, fronted by singer Michael Stipe and also including drummer Bill Berry, had earned its reputation from seemingly endless touring, it did not support Out of Time or Automatic with tours, the two albums that ended up being the band's best-sellers. "That's not in the playbook," noted Bertis Downs, the band's long-time manager. "It's weird the way it worked out."
Just as the mandolin-laden "Losing My Religion" had upended then-current pop standards, Automatic for the People also bucked contemporary trends with its somber string-soaked mediations on death and mortality, including "Try Not to Breathe" and "Sweetness Follows." The album actually began to take shape almost immediately following Out of Time. "I'm not sure what we were aiming for, but when we were mixing Out of Time, Michael and Mike did 'Nightswimming,' so we knew that existed, and we had demos of 'Drive' and 'Try Not to Breathe,'" Buck recalls. He says that those three "really strong songs" set the tone for the album.
Like other classic rock bands with rabid followings, R.E.M. has been the subject of bootlegs featuring demos and alternate recordings, but many of the demos on the Automatic bonus disc have never been circulated. "What leaks out is usually the stuff we did outside of [longtime associate] John Keane's studio," Buck says. "That stuff sat in his house and then we moved it to the vault." Buck, who recently listened to the demo disc on his car CD player, says some of it even sounded new to him. "There's a track called 'Arabic Feedback' that I have no memory of knocking out," he relates.
Overall, Buck was a bit surprised by the success of the album, which included the hit singles "Man on the Moon" and "Everybody Hurts." "My feeling was -- not in a negative way -- is that it was kind of a down record with a lot of minor keys, and we were at the age when Michael was thinking a lot about mortality, so I didn't expect it to be a huge hit," he explains. Yet according to the guitarist, when he played the advance cassette for friends, "Everyone thought it was a great record."
However, Buck stops short at calling Automatic his favorite album. "It is a strong record, but I'm a little confused with what we came up with," he says. "I go through and look at all of our stuff and it all has different meanings… Murmur was my childhood dream since I was seven."
Still, he says that the material on Automatic has held up over time -- noting the band's final show on Nov. 18, 2008, in Mexico City, featured four songs from the album, 16 years after its release. "That's nothing to flinch at."