Ask Bill Berry what made the biggest difference in the sound of R.E.M.'s new album, "Monster," and he answers, "Pete bought a Marshall."
"Pete," of course, is R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and the Marshall question is a Marshall amp -- the burly, watt-pumping, speaker-shredding amplifier of choice for big-time guitar gods. You've heard the mighty Marshall roar if ever you've spent time listening to rockers like Aerosmith, Kiss and Metallica -- bands that specialize in crunching power chords and ear-splitting solos.
R.E.M., on the other hand, made its name on a quieter, twangier brand of alternative rock. Read through old reviews of R.E.M. albums, and you'll see the band's guitar sound described as "jangly," "chiming," even "Byrds-like." But "crunching"? Perish the thought.
"We never had Marshall amps for those records," says Berry, over the phone from the band's office in Athens, Ga. "But this is a guitar-oriented record, it really is. We purposely dug out the Les Pauls and, hey, we bought a Marshall. What can I say? We've joined the rock and roll world."
Well, sorta. It's true that "Monster" (see accompanying review) has a bigger, beefier sound than the band's last couple of albums, "Automatic for the People" and "Out of Time." Gone is the ornate, moody sound and dark, reflective mood those albums purveyed, and in their places is an energy and enthusiasm that make "Monster" R.E.M.'s most ebullient album since 1988's "Green."
It will also spark the band's first road work since the "Green" tour, something Berry says is not unrelated to the sound of the album.
"Knowing that we were going to tour, we knew it would have to be rocking," he says. "And we wanted to make a really live-sounding record."
This wasn't an entirely new approach for the band. "When we were first making records, we did them that way because we couldn't do them any other way," he says. "We couldn't afford to spend a whole lot of time in the studio."
But by the time the band got around to its last two albums, the recording process had taken a new direction, one that emphasized expanded arrangements and interesting instrumentation. "Our tendency was to sit there in the studio and go, 'Well, this song is good, but it needs something,' and then we'd end up adding tracks," he says.
"That's fine, but that's not always the way to do it. The idea on this record was to just empty our pockets and just pick up those things that we thought were absolutely essential to making a good rock and roll record. Nothing else. We decided that rather than adding to embellish a song, we would take away -- reduce it to its key elements, then take one of those elements and really emphasize it."
Most of the time, that meant focusing on the guitar and the voice. Buck's guitar tone was filtered through a variety of effects, while Michael Stipe's vocals included everything from a gruff grumble (on "King of Comedy") to a spry falsetto (on "Tongue").
A fair amount of experimentation went into this process, often with unexpected results. There's an odd, rubbery sound in the chorus to the current single, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", that Berry likens to a cross between a guitar and a machine gun. "What happened was, Mike [Mills, the bassist] played a guitar chord, and we recorded that. Then I went back, and by playing a roll on the snare drum, we triggered that guitar chord."
"That was so neat that we highlighted it a lot," says Berry. "There were some over-dubbed guitars on that song, but all of a sudden, they were extraneous. It was like, 'Hey, we don't even need those any more.' So we pulled them out."
As for the vocals, they're always the last thing recorded, in large part because Stipe generally doesn't have the words written until then. "We've always made records that way," says Berry. "We write songs, and then Michael comes up with lyrics way late in the game -- almost at a nerve-wrackingly late stage, I may add."
Not that he's complaining. Stipe's singing, as Berry admits, "is, let's face it, why people listen. You don't hear many
instrumentals on the radio, and there's a good reason for that -- because anyone can relate to a lyric or a vocal or a singing style, but even proficient guitarists aren't going to really know every little idiosyncrasy and nuance that we added to a guitar part. It's really not that important. That's fluff, really.
"If the track floats the vocal, then it's done its job. Period. Because really, Michael's the star of the band. And that's as it should be. We're all very comfortable with that, by the way."
Being the star of the band does have its price. "There are a lot of rumors out there [about Stipe]," Berry says. "They're all completely unfounded. You heard the newest thing -- that Courtney Love is carrying his love child?" He laughs. "That's the latest we've heard."
Perhaps the most persistent source of rumors is Stipe's gaunt appearance, which prompted inordinate speculation over the singer's health. "He's not sick," says Berry. "He doesn't eat a lot. And when he does, it doesn't resemble anything like what I eat. He eats, like, roots and berries and nuts. And he's hyper. I mean, he never stops. He'll sleep about three or four hours a day."
Berry adds that even though Stipe is "to tabloid status now," the singer doesn't resent the attention. "He's comfortable with it, which is good. I don't think I could be. But he just kind of laughs if off, and realizes that anybody with any intelligence realizes it's all just bull."