In R.E.M., each member was key. No one was dispensable. Stipe was the enigmatic and original lead vocalist. Mike Mills provided the choir-boy counter-point backing vocals and highly musical, and often unusual, melodic bass runs. Bill Berry, not content to be "just" the drummer, wrote some of the band's biggest hits. And Peter Buck… I basically wanted to be Peter Buck. The perfect combination of Pete Townshend's hyper energy and Keith Richards laser cool, with a guitar style that somehow linked the '60's Rickenbacker legacy with that of the economical approach of Lovin' Spoonful's Zal Yanovsky and Stax's Steve Cropper. Each R.E.M. member had their own role to play, and their fusion created an unmistakable and original blend. Sloan has always tried to be the same way.
The band's music influenced a wave of bands that followed in the 1980s, but its business model was perhaps of equal impact. Splitting the songwriting credit four ways and sharing the profits equally kept every member in the same boat and represented perhaps the only truly functioning rock democracy in those days. The members stayed in their small town of Athens, Georgia for years and resisted the temptation to move to New York or Los Angeles. They built a fan base from the grassroots up, and always preferred to bring younger bands that they liked on their own tours as opening acts instead of caving into pressure to bring the latest hot property. All of these decisions filtered their way down to how Sloan operates, and have helped to keep us happy with our accomplishments and, most importantly, have helped us stay together for twenty years.
For me personally, R.E.M. was also a gateway drug into the American underground music scene of the 1980s. Peter Buck played on The Replacements' seminal Let It Be? I'd better check it out. He was wearing a Husker Du Metal Circus t-shirt in a snapshot in Creem magazine? I'll put that album on my shopping list. One of the band's favorite albums of 1986 is Sonic Youth's EVOL? I'd better order it from the SST catalogue. So much of what R.E.M. championed fueled my interest in the D.I.Y. spirit of new music in the 1980s and further stoked my dream of being in a working band from a remote area. The artists Peter Buck mentioned in magazine interviews made for an alternate history of pop music, leading me to records like Radio City by Big Star, Nick Drake's Bryter Layter, and the third LP by The Velvet Underground.
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As with many bands with a long career, I must admit I fell out of pace with R.E.M.'s records during the late 1990s and 2000s. Perhaps it was my own changing musical taste, or maybe it felt like there was an ingredient that was missing upon the departure of Bill Berry in 1997 (further proof that no one was replaceable in the group?). When I heard that the band's members had called it a day after 31 years of musical service, I felt regretful that I hadn't kept up with their live appearances in Toronto and missed a final chance to see them in concert. I suppose that's what lucrative reunion tours are for these days, but until then I'll have to return to my grainy VHS tapes of their glorious old TV appearances.
In the summer of 2008, I had the chance to spend some time hanging out with another musical hero, The Smiths' Johnny Marr. At the time he was playing in the group Modest Mouse, the opening act on R.E.M.'s tour supporting Accelerate. We had a met a couple times recently in Canada and we had a mutual friend, so he kindly dropped by Sloan's Bowery Ballroom show in New York on his night off. Knowing I was an R.E.M. fan, he had a story to share. He said Peter Buck asked him about the recent day off in Toronto, and Johnny mentioned that he had had dinner with one of the guys in Sloan. According to Johnny, at that point, Peter fished into his travel bag and pulled out our latest LP, Parallel Play, and said "Great, I have their new one right here!"
Once again, my inner 15 year old self was freaking out.