Hive Five: Deciphering Why R.E.M. Disbanded

Michael Stipe performs with R.E.M. in Madrid, October 2008. Photo: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

R.E.M. broke up back in September with little fanfare — no final tour, no huge press conference, just a note on their website announcing that after more than 30 years they were “calling it quits as a band.” It was a fitting end for a group that was notoriously mysterious, mumbly and allergic to explaining themselves. Last week they released a career-spanning, 40-song retrospective, Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, that could have been their final statement as a band. (It contains three new songs, including the wistful, sentimental ballad “We All Go Back to Where We Belong” which seems to address the end of R.E.M.) But for maybe the first time in their long career the three final members of the band — Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe — didn’t seem content to simply let their music speak for them. So instead we’ve had a week-long R.E.M. press onslaught. Here’s Stipe chatting on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon next to the Muppets; there he is again, being interviewed alongside Mills on CNN; don’t forget the pieces in seemingly every English-language newspaper and website. With so much material out there, surely we have finally gotten some answers as to what caused the band’s breakup or why now? Not exactly. This is R.E.M., after all, and they are nothing if not masters of obfuscation and opacity. But they did let a few nuggets of information slip out. Taken together, perhaps, they give something of a picture as to why the band who brought left-of-the-dial “college-rock” to mainstream radio have given it all up. Or maybe it’s all just one final performance. Either way, here’s five possible reasons it was time for to put R.E.M. to bed for good.

1. The Need for Closure

As Michael Stipe told Salon, “I felt like it wasn’t fair to each of us to let what had been side projects remain side projects while everyone’s saying, ‘So, when’s the next R.E.M. tour?’ That wouldn’t be fair to Peter right now, out with John Wesley Harding. People need to know this is it. Enjoy it. Be in the moment, be there for that. For each of us moving forward from this, letting it whimper away didn’t feel right. We needed it to be a finite thing.”

2.Ending the Band Seemed Like the Best Idea

All things must end sometime, and the three founding members agreed that the timing was right to end R.E.M. Mike Mills told Billboard, “We started talking about it on the ’08 tour. [We said,] ‘We’ve got some decisions to make in a couple of years. What are we gonna do?’ And as we talked about it, we all realized that we’d independently all came up with the idea that calling it a day was the best idea.”

3. Ending on a High Note Seemed Like the Best Idea

Stipe told The Quietus, “During [our last tour] we were kind of going, ‘Well, where we could go from here?’ We could tell we were on an upswing. It was important to us that we didn’t whimper out with our tails between our legs. We wanted to feel we were at the peak of our powers, and the tour felt like that.”

4. Creative Differences!

Peter Buck told The Guardian, “The three of us have … not different goals [but] different ways of approaching what we want to do. And mine is radically different from the other guys. I’ve found as I get older that I like to work quickly and spontaneously. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again.”

5. After 31 Years, Fifteen Studio Albums and Legions of Adoring Fans, They Finally Felt a Sense of Accomplishment

Mills told Scotland on Sunday, “But the essential thing is that we disbanded on our own terms. There were no external or internal forces, there was no negativity, no anger, and there were no attorneys. It was a mutually agreed upon decision to walk away basically at the top of our game. We just made two records [2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse Into Now] that I’m extremely happy with, and we accomplished pretty much everything we ever set out to.”

 

 

 

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