We ran part one of this interview in Tape Op #8. In case you missed it, Don discussed all the events in his life that led him into the recording studio and left us hanging at the point where he was about to begin work on the first REM records. Thanks for waiting, and here we go...
Here's the atmosphere when this band comes on the scene: their immediate successful influence band was B-52's. And their initial gigs were party gigs, just like B-52's. The way that Stipe got the lyrical content that he did get into these records was that nobody could hear it or gave a shit, not because they had big meetings about what it was going to be. Their lack of knowing what each other was doing was a big part of the success. Mitch and I recognized that that was one of the strengths, and that if we began changing elemental things about them to make them sound more like they were from Memphis, then we would lose the more interesting, but perhaps more commercial, aspects of their party band. The label didn't necessarily understand this, they just said, "Well, here's a band that people seem to like." Despite how cool people perceive IRS as being, they spent a lot of money on the Alarm. And they put a lot of pressure on us to deliver Thompson Twin-like singles for them because that's what was hot. We were looking at an era, where almost especially in hip, college scenes, it was almost all British, almost all drum machines, almost all synthesizer. Guitars were dead. As a matter of fact, REM was scared to death of any kind of vague distortion on a guitar at all. We [the producers] had come from the house of the Holy Grail of distorted guitar-land. Guitar sounds to us were boxes turned up loud. It wasn't this clean thing. So we had to work hard to get guitar sounds we could stand, that we felt like did something, that meant anything, that wouldn't also make them [REM] go "Oh, I heard some distortion, people are going to think that we're a hair band!" or whatever label people were using back then.
Did his playing make your job easier though? Lots of arpeggiation — did you sit there and go, "Roger McGuinn, OK, lemme think of the Byrds records, how they were recorded"?
Maybe, but Byrds records have lots more classic guitar sounds that we were allowed to have, especially on that first album.
A lot more compression too.
Maybe so, but we got the compressors working very hard on those records. But what we tried to do was use them playing almost everything, the basic parts. I played bass on "Perfect Circle" or because Mike Mills was playing piano, and it just needed a real plain sort of bass part. So "Perfect Circle" is Mills and Bill Berry, one's playing a tack piano, and the other one's playing the regular Yamaha piano, both at the same time, real close together, I just had one mic on them.
So most of the songs were done live?
No, not necessarily. I always try to make everybody play together, and then I use whatever sounds I can. Typically, if bands already know their songs, they play better all together. If they're hearing the singing, then they know where they are and they don't have to count. That's a big thing, trying to get the guys to sing.
Were REM comfortable in the studio at this point [during the Murmur sessions]?
Not really, they didn't know much about it. What happened is that IRS signed them, said, "OK, now you don't want to make these backwoods records anymore," you know, they're in California. They knew that Mitch Easter, he's probably in the Klan or something [laughter]. So they encouraged the band to work with some guy from Boston, relatively well known guy, Steve "something-or-other". He took them in the studio and made them do the typical thing of beating them to death, made them do 800 takes of a song, told them that Bill sucked, that Bill couldn't possibly play on the record, that they'd have to replace him. He produced these not very good recordings, very modern by 1981 standards, which meant it sounded like the Cars. Which is not horrible, just not exactly what we had in mind. I mean, our records are kind of close, they're not real ambient, they're kind of simple. The ambiance that is there...