Tuesday, July 9, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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R.E.M.'s Peter Buck: talking about the passion

Seattle Times staff reporter

Back in 1980, a native of Berkeley, Calif., who had lived all over the country was hanging around the University of Georgia, half-heartedly going to school, with only a vague notion of his future: "I was either going to teach high school or be a musician, those were the two choices."

He started playing guitar with Michael Stipe, Bill Berry and Mike Mills, and it soon became obvious that Peter Buck was going to be a musician, not a teacher — though, at 45, the lanky man with the somewhat distant look could pass for a hip English lit prof.

Last week, the busy Buck did an interview during a lunchtime hour in Madison Park. "I've been here a million times," he says, sitting on a picnic bench in the park, not far from the home he shares with his wife, Crocodile Café owner Stephanie Dorgan, and their 8-year-old twins.

In 1992, long after R.E.M. had established itself as one of America's top rock bands, Buck decided to leave Georgia for Seattle. Why did he move here? "Personal reasons," he says, showing early in the interview a tendency to be brusque about his personal life.

He is much more eager to talk about music in general or his various projects; his move to Seattle may have unleashed his musical creativity, and he has become an important part of the Seattle music community.

Buck is a member of two Seattle bands, the instrumental ambient-groove band Tuatara ("to-a-tara") and pop/ outfit the Minus 5. Both bands have rotating lineups, but they all feature Buck, Young Fresh Fellows guitarist Scott McCaughey and former Screaming Trees/Mad Season drummer Barrett Martin.

Tuatara — new album: "The Cinemathique," which recalls the soundtracks of the old sci-fi show "The Prisoner" — and the Minus 5 will be playing at the Crocodile on Wednesday and Thursday, along with Arkansas bluesman Cedell Davis and Martin's Afro-Cuban percussion band the Wayward Shamans.

The Crocodile shows kick off a national tour of those four acts and the Fast Horse record label, which Buck envisions as a sort of halfway house for wayward bands.

"I think a lot of people are finding unless you sell 10 million labels, a major label isn't the place to be. I can't tell you the number of people I know who get dropped from a major label, put out their own label and say 'Man I made five times as much this year as last year.' "

R.E.M., by the way, does sell by the millions; in 1996, the band signed a five-record, $80 million contract with Warner Brothers. Since the deal, R.E.M. has released four albums, including the "Man in the Moon" soundtrack. While the band's popularity is due in large part to the lyrical and singing talents of the clever and charismatic Stipe, Buck's contributions as the backbone of the jangly, melodic pop music of R.E.M. have not been lost on critics.

"Peter Buck's guitar parts often ring like half-remembered Byrds songs," wrote Jon Pareles of the New York Times, in a 1995 concert review, "but they can also crackle with distortion or shoulder ahead like garage-band stomps ... "

Pop-music critic Ann Powers (now a curator with the Experience Music Project) has praised Buck's "radiant musicianship," and a Times of London writer noted "Buck's obsessive pursuit of musical and literary knowledge."

Music in all its flavors

Indeed, the guitarist's tastes run from jazz giant John Coltrane to electronic DJ Shadow to garage rockers the Young Fresh Fellows.

The latter, "one of my favorite bands of all time," features old friend McCaughey — the only person Buck knew when he moved to Seattle. "He introduced me to people like Barrett, Ken Stringfellow, all the Walkabouts." McCaughey also introduced Buck to Dorgan.

With the Minus 5 and Tuatara, Buck has performed at the Crocodile dozens of times. He's also a regular audience member at the Belltown club (he eagerly recalls seeing the Strokes, the White Stripes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at the Croc in one week last year).

Buck's pacific, seemingly charmed and relatively private life was shattered when, in April 2001, he was arrested at a London airport for unruly behavior during a flight from Seattle. His trial began in November, was delayed for months, and finally on April 5 — the 22nd anniversary of R.E.M.'s first show, at a church in Athens — Buck was acquitted, his defense successfully arguing that his in-flight behavior was an adverse reaction to a powerful sleeping pill.

Was the trial the most stressful time of his life? "It was stressful. It was something I'm glad to get behind me, let's put it that way," Buck says, rather abruptly.

He was more verbose on the subject in a column he wrote for Britain's Q magazine just before the verdict: "This whole year of legal (garbage) has just been one more experience, in a life not exactly empty of experiences. It's not the most pleasant thing I've had to go through, and it's been kind of humiliating, but so what?

"R.E.M. opened for Bow Wow Wow on two separate occasions. After that, all humiliation is relative.

"... Over the space of the year, the trial has not killed me, nor has it made me stronger. It has made me, variously: depressed, anxiety ridden, sleepless, amused, angry and, finally, bored."

Music and family

Still, during the Madison Park interview, Buck says he continued to do his favorite things while the trial hung over his head.

"I did a lot of work. You've got to decide what's important in your life and not let that suffer. I spent time with my kids and did a whole lot of work, wrote a whole lot of songs, worked with Cedell Davis and Pete Yorn."

Now that the legal worries are behind him, he and his old Athens mates are doing pre-production work on the next album by R.E.M., a group that has been together forever, in band years. Buck attributes the longevity of the band to members having diverse projects.

"I think it helps that we do get away — for the first 10 or 12 years we did it every day. Everyone's able to explore different aspects of their life, and I'm able to do a lot of different music stuff, so that's great."

Mills and Stipe live "mostly in Georgia" (Berry is no longer with the band) but that isn't necessarily where R.E.M. does all of its recording. "We travel around — I was just (in Athens) last week for two weeks to do some recording. ... We work in Vancouver, we've worked in Seattle for a couple records."

Seattle has become quite a base for R.E.M., as it is also home to McCaughey and Stringfellow, who have recorded and toured with R.E.M. and will be on the new album, Buck says.

"It makes it kind of easy because if we're going to do something we can come rehearse at my house and learn all the songs, then we go (to record), we're prepared — the Seattle contingent knows everything and is ready to go."

Buck seems to be always ready to go and dislikes long breaks when he isn't doing anything of musical interest.

"The reason I became a musician is a) I didn't want to have a real job, I've succeeded in that; but b) it's an amazing way to see the world and meet new people and learn new things. Pretty much everyone I play with or work with I learn something from ... I think it's really death to a lot of musicians my age where they're very successful and say, 'Well, I'll take two years off, then I'll come back and make a record and tour one summer' — you just sort of lose it. Doing creative work is like running a marathon, you've got to do it really regularly."

On this afternoon, for example, he planned to return home to rehearse Tuatara and Minus 5 material with McCaughey and others, and record some ideas he has for new R.E.M. songs.

Asked what he plans to be doing five years from now, Buck shoots a fast answer: "In my 50s, I probably won't be performing in public much — that's why I'm doing it now. I'll probably be doing more session stuff, I'd say soundtracks but I hate movies, maybe minor-league soundtrack stuff ...

"Then again," he deadpans, "maybe I'll get a hair weave and be playing stadiums in spandex."

Tom Scanlon:


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