SXSW ’08: R.E.M. Aren’t Looking Back

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How’s this for jumping right into South by Southwest 2008? An interview with the single biggest name playing this year’s festival: R.E.M.

Exactly one year ago, the iconic band from Athens, GA — the men for whom the term “alternative rock” was practically invented were in New York, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And as undeniable an honor as that was, they are just as happy, if not more so, to be mixing it up with the kids down in Austin, where tomorrow night they’ll headline the venerable Stubb’s, in a show that will likely lean heavily on songs from the band’s hard-charging new album, Accelerate, due April 1.

Only a couple of hours after stepping off a plane in a beautiful cloudless 70 degree Austin, there was a calm before the storm of SXSW around the main drag, Sixth Street. But it was a thoroughly upbeat R.E.M. that I sat down with for about an hour at a nearby hotel, clearly excited to be playing what is, somewhat surprisingly, their first-ever South by Southwest.

Mike Mills explained that it just never worked out, schedule-wise, for R.E.M. to play the festival in the past. However, they have each attended it individually, including Peter Buck, who made a pilgrimage to Austin last year to catch Iggy Pop’s memorable festival-closing show at Stubb’s. But more than anything, they said, they wanted to play SXSW this year because they are very proud of Accelerate, an album that Michael Stipe said “in many ways saved this band.” It’s no secret that the bandmembers went through a period where they hardly spoke to each other, before finally last year deciding what they needed was a reinvigorating shot of the kind of urgent rock ‘n’ roll that defined them back in the day.

Still, in no way, they say, is this an album that looks to the past. “We’re not a band that’s very good at looking back,” said Stipe, whose personal working title for the record was Future Tense. “Otherwise we would have just done 12 “Losing My Religion”s. So anyone who hears the “old R.E.M.” in new tunes like “Horse to Water” (a rocker they call their “Joan Jett song”) or the single “Supernatural Superserious,” is missing the point. Says Mills, “This is nothing more than who we are right now. This is R.E.M., 2008.”

Still ahead this year is a tour with indie giants the National and Modest Mouse, the result of Buck and Johnny Marr repeatedly running into each other while record shopping. That, coupled with a video project collaboration with La Blogotheque’s Vincent Moon, an interactive re-edit-it-yourself site for “Supernatural Superserious” and an appearance here at the hajj of indie music, and you’d think R.E.M. were a band 20 years younger. But Stipe says they’re doing their own thing — he says he remembers as a kid thinking it rather pathetic when older bands tried to glom onto the young thing. All his band is doing now is looking for new ways to do something different.

For more from R.E.M., check out their answers to our “5X5 @ SXSW.” For more of Norris’ adventures in Austin, watch some “John TV.” Plus check back with the Newsroom blog throughout SXSW for more highlights, and be sure to visit our sister blog You R Here for concert reviews, photos and more.