It might be coincidental: R.E.M. started out as a college band. They live in a college town. And now they're planted at the top of the college charts. In fact, the four-man group from Athens, Ga., has been referred to as ``the Beatles of college radio.'' And after six years and five records, R.E.M. continues to attract a large following of college-age listeners.
``I'm not sure why it's happening,'' said lead singer and lyricist Michael Stipe, in a recent Monitor interview during R.E.M.'s nationwide tour. ``A lot of the people that were working college radio in 1980 and 1981 were our age and were kind of hip to the independent record scene, which was very small at the time in America,'' says Stipe, in reference to the fact that R.E.M. first recorded on an independent label. ``A lot of those people picked up on us and just have never dropped the ball.''
Part of R.E.M.'s appeal is the band's unwillingness to submit to various conventions within the music industry. The group has prided itself on developing a do-it-yourself reputation and on trying to maintain artistic independence in the face of commercial pressures.
For example, R.E.M. has never enclosed lyric sheets with their albums - despite criticism about the vagueness of their lyrics and strong prodding from their record company. Also, as a young band, R.E.M. turned down offers that other new bands would have jumped at - the opportunity to be the opening act for such well-known groups as U2 and the B52s.
``We felt from the very beginning that building up a grassroots following and letting it grow in a very slow, more organic manner was much more real than, say, putting out an album, having a hit single, being immediately popular with two million 16-year-old kids, and then having them drop your next album like a hot potato,'' says Stipe.
R.E.M.'s success as measured by the pop billboards has been consistent. In 1983 their release ``Murmur'' was on many critics' lists for 10 best albums of the year. Rolling Stone magazine voted it best album of the year, surpassing Michael Jackson's ``Thriller.'' ``Reckoning'' and ``Fables of the Reconstruction'' maintained a steady standing in the top third of the charts, as their newest record, ``Lifes Rich Pageant,'' is doing now.
``Lifes Rich Pageant,'' however, has a direct rock deliverance that the band hasn't shown before.
``I think `Pageant' is a lot more hard hitting musically and lyrically,'' says Stipe.
``All of our records up to the last one were very quiet and subterranean....''
Stipe's vocals are a trademark of R.E.M. His resonating baritone acts as a fourth instrument, complementing lead guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry. The fact that the lyrics aren't clearly discernible only adds to the musicality of the songs in the eyes of some critics and fans. Because Stipe's lyrics aren't always easily heard - and often don't make sense - R.E.M. has been tagged an enigmatic band. Through reverberating sound and certain recognizable phrases, Stipe's vocals are more impressionistic than message-laden, forcing listeners to come up with their own interpretations.
Stipe, who has a keen interest in photography and art, incorporates personal observations and inspiration into his lyrics. ``I had an experience last year that I really would like to have forgotten, and it turned into `Begin the Begin' [from ``Lifes Rich Pageant''], and I didn't even like the experience, but it affected me so strongly that I kept referring back to it in my notebooks and in my thinking. And it turned into one of the better songs on the record.
``I get inspiration from everything,'' he continues, ``and, being that we're living in the age of media and everything, certainly world issues are going to come into that.... There's also that kind of `Southernness' to a lot of our songs, and a lot of it comes out in the lyrics, just because the place that I live is so unique....''
R.E.M.'s music, however, isn't ``Southern rock.'' The band members' Southern roots have influenced them more intuitively than musically.
``Georgia is a very kind of subterranean thing,'' adds Stipe in his deep, soft-spoken voice. ``It's very humid, very slow, very much like syrup, and a lot of that creeps into the music and the words.
``It's not that innate kind of stereotypical Southern thing, but it's certainly there - between the grooves. And you can feel it more than you can hear it.''
R.E.M.'s responsibility as a band, as Stipe sees it, is ``to make good music. I mean, we're just a rock band.
``We're not world leaders, and we're not the type of thing that's going to influence an entire nation to rise up and change the way they see things....''
He maintains that people look to the band for entertainment and probably don't want to hear political dogma or personal views on world issues.
``If I sneak that in here and there, then maybe it's a good thing, but I think that there's a very fine line between abusing the power and the voice that you have with an audience, and using it to their benefit and to your benefit.''