How R.E.M. Taught Me to Rock

The guitarist for acclaimed Canadian indie rock band Sloan shares how R.E.M., who broke up last week, influenced him and a generation of musicians

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Sloan at left; R.E.M. at right

I first met R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck in the spring of 2005, when my band Sloan was playing a handful of dates on the West Coast of the United States. The group that was opening for us was The Minus 5, a side project for Peter and Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey. I'd never met Peter before the tour, but had hoped to relay to him how much the early years of R.E.M. meant to me: how they changed my musical life, how they carved a band structure and business model that would influence our own group, and how via interviews he introduced me to a world of great music that was in the shadow of Billboard's Top 100.

Yet before I could say any of this to him, Peter remarked to me, "Hey, thanks so much for letting us open these shows for you guys and having us come along on this run."

OK, hold on. Peter Buck was thanking us for coming on this tour? It was a total mind bender. I tried to play it cool, but my inner 15-year-old self was freaking out.

Here was the first band that made me think, "Y'know, maybe, I could do this!"

Twenty-one years prior, I heard "So. Central Rain" for the first time at a record store, and I became an instant R.E.M. fan. Within the first 10 seconds of the opening guitar phrase, I was hooked. Everything about them appealed to me: the guitar sounds, the briefly decipherable moments of melancholy lyrics, Michael Stipe's voice, the band's energy, their look. R.E.M. immediately became "my" band. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was a pivotal point for me, a moment that would play a part in my future as a career musician.

I heard their second LP, Reckoning, first, and immediately went back to both 1983's Murmur and 1982's Chronic Town EP, which I would eventually track down after a 12-hour drive for family trip to Boston (such were the dark ages of pre-internet in Halifax, Nova Scotia). I'm sure they were just being themselves and not calculating, but their music was such an original mix of '60's pop aesthetics and New York art rock/new wave filtered through a hazy gauze of murky southern influence. Mitch Easter's production on the early recordings occasionally accentuated their more idiosyncratic tendencies, but never in a way that alienated a broader audience. They were the most charismatic and most appealing band that the early 1980s U.S. underground musical renaissance had to offer.

Here was the first band that made me think, "Y'know, maybe, I could do this!" Like millions of kids in the late 1970s, I loved popular music, particularly the sounds of KISS, ABBA, The Bee Gees, as well other larger-than-life rockers with an eye for spectacle. Even later, when I delved into The Beatles, David Bowie, and The Who, bands still seemed like they were from another world. I could be a fan but couldn't imagine actually being like them on the stage of an arena. I mean, how do you get there?

R.E.M. represented the possibility. They came from a small town and were made up of an art student, a record-store clerk, and two buddies who jammed together in high school. I could relate to them. I read the stories of Peter Buck buying a guitar, quickly learning a handful of rudimentary chords, and then hammering some original songs together for a party that turned out to be R.E.M.'s first show. You didn't have to be a virtuoso like Jimmy Page or Brian May to get on stage and play original music. It was a revelation to me.

True, much of punk and American hardcore that preceded R.E.M. came from a similar, homespun, D.I.Y. attitude. I liked some of it, but I never pictured myself in such an aggressive musical context. I gravitated more towards pop and melody in rock 'n' roll, and R.E.M. was the first band I came across that was playing the kind of music that connected with me and maintained this D.I.Y. sensibility.

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Jay Ferguson plays guitar for Sloan.

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