Hardwired…To Survive: In Conversation with Metallica

metallica-hardwired

Death, addiction, law suits… Through all the trials and tribulations, Metallica have somehow survived over 35 years on hard rock’s relentless road. The youthful fire which scorched a blazing path through the metal scene back in the early 1980’s still burns brightly despite all four members now being in their fifties. Here JAMES HETFIELD and LARS ULRICH talk about how Metallica evolved from wild-eyed thrash punks to one of the biggest bands on the planet.

You celebrated your sixth number one album in November when your latest record, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct, topped the charts around the world. After all your success, do you still get a kick from that happening?

James: Oh man…for sure! But you know, it’s bizarre, and very surprising, yes. The older we get, the more special getting a number one album is going to get. After 35 years, that this can still happen, it’s great. It’s the oxygen we need, being in a band and playing music, so we get to live a little longer!

Lars: Even now when we put out a record, you never know what to expect. These are changing times in music so having a number one record in all these wonderful countries is an amazing thing. Obviously, we’d prefer to release records that people like rather than not but having number one records is not why we get out of bed in the morning. We want to make music for people to enjoy and if it’s successful then that’s a bonus. But you know what, the fact that Metallica can still release records that matter to people is a great thing, that hard music still matters to people is a great thing. I feel like rock groups are becoming a minority these days. There are fewer and fewer bands that a doing well on a global scale so being one of them is a privilege. It’s a good time to be in Metallica.

Hardwired… was the first album to be released on your own Blackened Recordings label. How different was this experience compared to others?

metallica-hardwired-album-artJames: It wasn’t that different at all. We went about this with the same process as we have every single time. I would say, that as it was on our own label – which is just our own label in the US, we’re still on Universal in the rest of the world – we were able to take our time, to start writing without deadlines, no one saying ‘ hey, we need it by this time.’ That was maybe the only thing which was unusual from previous albums.

Lars: The main difference was not in the recording of it but what happened on the day immediately after we were finished because we now have to do 90% of the work ourselves whereas 10 or 20 years ago, other people and other companies did most of the work. We have a much bigger infrastructure now and all these people who, for better or worse, answer to the band members rather than a CEO so we have a different post-recording set up.

Part of that set-up is being responsible for your own master recordings, which now belong to you. How did that come about?

Lars: Back in the early 90s, Cliff, one of our managers, was talking about this amazing place of total independence and creative freedom which would come from owning your own master recordings. It would offer us a total disassociation from the music business. When that was explained to us, it obviously made a lot of sense. So when we entered into contract negotiations, that was always the primary modus operandi, to eventually own our back catalogue. Any disassociation and dynamic which releases you is a great thing because you are truly free to do what you want.

James: Elektra were a good fit for us but we always wanted to own our own masters at some point – and why wouldn’t you? It’s really great to own them because they’re ours after all! A lot of bands from the 70s and 80s did not see that as an option or even care about it. We’re fortunate to have had some pretty savvy business management.

That shows a lot of foresight, to look ahead and to plan stages of your career way in the future. Did you have some idea at the time that the music industry was going to change so dramatically?

James: Hell no! We had no clue. I don’t think anyone did. At the time, the labels were like banks; you loaned them your music and they gave you money so you could tour or do whatever you wanted with it. They paid you up front, that’s pretty much how it was. We knew it would be great to own our masters but we had no idea what was going to happen with the industry.

Do you have any plans to delve back in and re-release material?

jamesJames: We’re definitely going remaster the back catalogue. We’ve always been very instrumental in the sonics, how our music sounds. That’s very important to us. Obviously there are some records that sound better than others. The soundtrack to the film Through the Never sounded great and Hardwired… also sounds fantastic. We’re very happy with (Hardwired… producer)Greg Fidelman and his sonics. So he’s going through the back catalogue and he’ll remaster them. Along with the re-releasing, we’ll try and make them all very special packages. But these days, what do you do? What hasn’t been done by someone else? There are special editions with this and that… I guess we’re on a pretty nostalgic trip these days with the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, the Master of Puppets book, revisiting the old records. So these remasters will come out with a lot of cool stuff, nostalgic pictures and stories we’ll dig up.

When looking back at your back catalogue, do you have any favourites or regrets? Any records where you now think, ‘what the hell were we thinking?’

James: There are things I would like to change on some of the records but it gives them so much character and such uniqueness that you can’t change them. I find it a little frustrating when bands re-record classic albums with pretty much the same songs and everything, and then have it replacing the original. It kinda erases that piece of history. These records are a product of a certain time in life, in the career of the band; they’re snapshots of history and they’re part of our story. Okay, so And Justice for All could use a little more low end and St. Anger could use a little less tin snare drum but those things are what make those records part of our history. So, no regrets.

Metallica started out in another age, when vinyl was god. You now have your own vinyl printing plant in Germany. Will you be joining the campaign to restore the format to its former glories?

James: Just because we grew up with and love vinyl, it doesn’t mean it’s the only and best format for us. We’re champions of getting music out any way and any how. Like Lars said, there are still fans who want to buy our music on record so we’ll cater for that but we’re excited by the challenges the digital world sets us and we like to be challenged. Saying that, I do love vinyl. It’s an experience, an event. It’s very tangible. You hold the record, take it from the sleeve, place the needle on the groove. About six months ago I was in Los Angeles visiting some old high school buddies and we just sat around, listening to vinyl…stuff like Kansas. Just the act of flicking through the boxes, smelling the cardboard, reading the sleeve notes, and listening to that warm sound. It’s a very immersive experience.

So, you’re essentially your own bosses now. Would you say it’s been a natural progression, to evolve from crazy kids with guitars to rock stars-slash-businessmen?

larsLars: I’d like to think that we’re still crazy adults, still trying to figure it all out. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a businessman but obviously when you have an organisation and bunch of people who work for you, there’s a point where you at least have to act mature. I think we do our best and I think we have a pretty decent balance in terms of how those two sides of us play out. I think it’s possible to wear those two hats but not necessarily at the same time. We have a trusted group of people who we’ve worked with for a long time who advise us on how we connect the dots, which is an invaluable thing to have. I’m 52 now, but I still feel like that crazy kid, trying to work out what’s going on at times so to have a trusted team behind us, having our own set up and being fiercely independent like Metallica is, that’s really a cool thing which we’re very proud of.

James: Lars is the more business-savvy guy and I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been partnered with him in this thing for 35 years. He followed Motorhead around, he followed Diamondhead around, learning from them and other bands; how they did things, why they made the decisions they made, why is one manager better than another. He is just very inquisitive when it comes to the business side of things. To have someone with that drive and quest for knowledge, that’s been invaluable. Me? I just…didn’t want a job! I wanted to play music, create and have my therapy and career wrapped into one! So it’s good to learn from others and apply that to your own life and path but you know, deep down, we’re still rebels, we’re still risk takers, we like being challenged by life and being faced with the question ‘what do we do next with this gift we have?’ Planning and preparation is only part of it. Guts, soul and fire are also invaluable weapons.

I find it hard to imagine Metallica sitting around in glass-walled offices shouting into phones with ties askew like in some HBO corporate drama…

James: There are no ties, man, and we’re very rarely in an office. As for shouting into phones, we pay people to do that. I think the bigger picture is about who’s in control, who’s running the ship and who’s just having a good time being in the band. It might be fairly obvious but Lars and I have been the two guys who put this band together; we formed this thing from day one and have had this vision. We’ve been in the driving seat but Kurt and Rob are always ready to go with us wherever this ride takes us, they’re always willing, always up for the challenge, and we’re all excited about where we’re heading.

You’ve always been fiercely proud of your independence. How important do you think being independent and remaining true to your own vision is to having a long and successful career?

james-lars-metallica-32824823-508-605James: For us, yes it has been important but for other people? I don’t know. Back in the day, when we were starting out, getting signed by a label was a huge thing. I don’t think that’s such a huge thing now. The fact that you can make your own music in your basement and press it and put it out yourself is wonderful but how far do you get with that? Do you eventually sign up with someone who’s bigger? These are all different business decision you need to make. You need to ask yourself ‘what is it we want to do?’ Do you want to tour the world, stay local? You should do what makes you happy.

Lars: We’ve always felt that we were outsiders, that we never really belonged to anything so even when we became successful, we still felt like successful outsiders. I guess we never really felt the need to play the game. The best thing about our success is that it has afforded us the opportunity to carve our own creative path. I’ll always be incredibly thankful for that. Primarily, independence for us means that we’ve never really taken money from anybody; we’ve never owed anybody anything. Our managers from very early on protected us from being in debt to anyone. As James said, when we started out record companies were like banks. You had to take money to make records, and then repay what it cost to produce that from your profits. And that’s something we’ve never really had to do so we’ve been pretty appreciative of that.

I imagine being flexible and adaptable also helps in maintaining a career. You’ve seen a lot of changes since you started out, especially with the dawn of the Internet age. How has Metallica coped with the shift to a digital world?

Lars: We’ve adapted quite well, thanks for asking! We’re sat here surrounded by technology linking us to the world, and Metallica’s music is available on numerous digital and streaming platforms and formats. I think that’s very cool. But you have to remember that there are places on this beautiful planet where people still buy CDs or vinyl, so for every move you make in the digital world, there are still fans who are still more traditional in the way they buy and listen to your music. Living in San Francisco where we’re surrounded by all the latest technology, you have to remember that there are other places in the world where the more traditional formats are still the way to go.

James: We’ve always been control freaks. As artists we’ve always felt the need to have at least some control over how our art is presented. Whether you’re an artist or a sculpture, looking to place your painting or sculpture in a gallery or museum, you’re going to have a strong opinion on how it’s hung or where it’s placed because that’s part of the artistic vision. We’ve always felt the same way. So when the floodgates opened and music was all over the internet, going for free, it scared us for sure and we didn’t know what to think about that but obviously now, it’s a great and convenient way to get your music so adapting to it is the only way to survive. I think that’s true for anyone in any walk of life. We do our best in the digital world; with Hardwired… we released a song at a time, a video at a time, a video for each song, and that works in this era. We like to surprise people and it’s hard to surprise people these days but the Internet gives us new ways to do this. It’s a new creative challenge.

The topic of free music on the Internet must be a thorny issue for Metallica, given the legal issues you had with peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster at the turn of the millennium. Do you feel that you were unfairly treated or misrepresented during that case?

napsterJames: The way people saw us then was beyond our control. What people think about us, about me, is none of my business. I knew it was the right thing to do, and as I said, it is a great and convenient way of getting music but I wish the record companies had not embraced it as much as they did and I wish it had unfolded in a different way but we couldn’t control that. The way we were portrayed…Well, we were an easy target. Someone who is established and who is concerned about their art is there to be shot at. Other artists came up to us and said that they supported what we were doing and were proud that we were sticking up for them but they would not come out of the shadows to help us. That left a bitter taste.

Lars: It was a street fight and the other guys painted this picture that it was between Metallica and their fans, and Metallica against downloading which it really wasn’t. It wasn’t about downloading, it was about choice. If I want to give away my music for free, whose choice is that? Is it my choice or someone else’s choice? So as it’s my music, I would presume it was my choice. But that choice was taken away from us. That was the real issue but they made it about us versus our fans which was a really smart move because it made us the bad guys. I do think we were misrepresented but we should have seen that coming. It was a strange summer, that’s for sure.

That strange summer included a South Park episode portraying you, Lars, crying by your pool because you could no longer afford to have a gold-plated shark tank bar installed due to people illegally downloading Metallica’s music.

Lars: That has floated across my eyeballs, yes.

And?

Lars: I’m a pretty thick-skinned person and we took a lot of hits that summer, and that was one of them. Everyone had an opinion, and it was a little weird, let’s leave it at that! Sometimes bad press is better than no press, right? Anyway we survived to fight another day.

James: South Park is no stranger to taking the piss out of anybody. I love it. It’s great to laugh at yourself. If anyone thinks of Lars that way, that’s up to them.

So you never fancied having a gold-plated shark tank bar then?

James: We’re pretty practical people. You look at us and we’re not too image conscious. We’ll put our money into a stage set or a good production or something, like making a movie. The money we’ve made from this has been reinvested in the band, for trying and exploring new things. As far as decadence goes, there’s none of that. We’d kick each other’s asses. That doesn’t fit the Metallica mould whatsoever.

The Napster case was just one of many tough times the band has been through. What’s the closest you’ve ever come to splitting up?

moLars: I would say that during period around the Some Kind of Monster documentary where it shows James going away to rehab and taking a year out of Metallica to figure out some things on his own. When he came back from that year away with a new set of tools for engaging and interacting with us, I wasn’t sure for the first six months how that was going to work out because I wasn’t sure I could adhere to those particular ways. It took a couple of years for things to really settle but we found the right balances and by the time the St Anger cycle was over in 2004 it had kinda fallen into a functional dynamic. We’ve had the best ten years together since then, when it all fell back into place around 2005 and 2006, and we really appreciate each other and what we have so it worked out but it was pretty ropey there for a while. We weren’t quite sure what was going to happen. I’m not a big fan of the ‘what if,’ questions because who knows what would have happened if we had split. If you turn left or turn right, things could work out differently. But we’re here, we’re talking to you and Hardwired… is out in the world. Trying to imagine a world where Metallica split ten years or so ago is a waste of energy.

At least by staying together you’ve avoided the tedious line of questioning about reforming. It seems to be the fashionable thing these days for defunct bands to get back together.

Lars: There are lot of bands that reform for a lot of different reasons and since I don’t know the internal dynamics, it’s hard to comment on. There could be someone who says ‘I’m reforming this band for $20 million’ and I’d say ‘good on ya!’ Who the hell am I to say that you shouldn’t do that. I can barely keep my own shit together! The world doesn’t need another person being critical of someone else’s decisions.

The Oasis documentary ‘Supersonic’ has increased the chatter on the Internet about whether Oasis will reform. As a friend of Noel Gallagher and fan of the band, what’s your take on the rumours, Lars?

noelgallagherlarsulrichu2partieshomegcxmq2hrlialLars: There may be a lot of talk on the Internet about Oasis getting back together but I don’t think there’s a lot of talk in Noel Gallagher’s head about that. Just imagine if you were Noel Gallagher and every interviewer asks you about whether Oasis are getting back together. Could you imagine how fucking annoying that must be? That would drive me fucking batshit crazy! I don’t think it’ll happen. From what I see he seems perfectly content doing what he’s doing and I think what he’s doing is great. If he is going to reform Oasis, I’m pretty sure I won’t be the first one he asks for advice.

The scenes of Oasis at Knebworth, playing to 250,000 fans over two days are very impressive but that pales into insignificance when put next to Metallica’s Tushino Airfield show in Moscow in 1991 where an estimated 1.6 million people attended.

James: Everybody you talk to about that show will give you a different figure of how many attended but I can tell you that there was a fuck of a lot of people! It was crazy. That was a wild afternoon, I can tell you.

Lars: Big shows like that are insane and it never becomes normal playing to such huge crowds. But I love playing stadiums, I love playing festivals, I love playing small theatres… I just love playing live to people. We’re lucky to be able to play the full range of venues and to have that choice is a privilege. The day any of it becomes normal, you have my permission to come and slap me around the head a little bit. I think the older I get, the more my eyes open to see how amazing this all is. You know, it’s 35 years since we started and this amount of people still care and still roll along for the ride.

On the topic of touring, you’ve made it clear that that from now on you won’t be going out for the long-haul but will play for two weeks and then have two weeks off to spend with your families. Does it get easier to juggle family life with the music career as you get older?

James: It does. We’re extremely fortunate to be where we are. To be able to do two weeks on, two weeks off is really great. Not only for our families but for our own sanity, and our own physical, mental and spiritual well-being. We need to do that. We can’t tour like we did in our 20s, that’s for sure. It needs to be age-appropriate touring for us these days. Whatever it takes for us to get on the stage, have fun and be at 110%, that’s what we’ll do.

I bet your families will be happy to see more of you.

dacdff7b9b39dc4832b568a86a08936fJames: You’d have to ask them! I’m totally into embarrassing my kids; wherever, whenever, as much as possible. I’ve got three teenagers now and life’s a little different. I’m very involved in their lives and I love each and every one of them to death and really want their dreams to be realised, and hopefully be part of those dreams. I try not to hover too much, enable them too much, allow them to struggle when they have to struggle. I’m less strict than my wife but we’re a great team; I learn from her, she learns from me. We definitely have different parenting skills but I think the kids benefit from both.

And you’ll get some time to yourself? Maybe do a little skateboarding, James?

It’s been a while since I’ve been on a board, man. We played the House of Vans in London at the end of last year and that was very cool to see those kids doing their thing. Some of the crew had a go but those days are done for me, for sure. I’ve got other passions now. We all need ‘you’ time. You need to get away. There’s still a lone wolf in me who loves solitude, loves going solo whether it’s music, hunting, hiking or camping, whatever – just getting out on my own. Or getting in the garage and tinkering with something, getting really detailed and lost in a project, I love doing that.

How to become a rock star in 2016: Three tips by Lars Ulrich

Find like-minded people like yourselves who are passionate

We’re all very different characters but at the core of it, we’re a band that have been going forward together. James and I are perhaps at the steering wheel with Kirk and Rob sitting in the back but we all get a say in where we’re going. We’ve seen band members come and go but even those who are not with us now have shared the passion of being in Metallica. Passion means you’ll fight about stuff from time to time but you’ll be fighting for the good of the band. Finding people ready to do that, to get in the trenches with you and go the distance, that’s the solid base you need.

Stay true to your own vision and ideals

We’ve made choices and music that have not always been popular with everyone but you know, that’s not really why we make these choices. We’ve done what we’ve done because we’ve believed in every single part of it. If we always made music to a template of what has brought us success in the past, we would sound the same and never progress, and that would be like a kind of creative death. We could just slip the same record into a different sleeve and take the rest of the year off. We welcome challenges and set ourselves challenges to keep things interesting for everyone involved. People will try and tell you to go another way and will sell it as the best thing for the band, but you – the band – should be the only ones making those decisions. Don’t let anybody talk you out of them. Listen to those you trust but stand firm together.

Stay committed

Stay the course. Hang in there. If you’re talented, someone will find you.

This article first appeared in an edited form in The Red Bulletin Magazine.

 

WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG? Available to buy on Amazon and Lulu.com NOW

coverimage_lulu 2After exploding onto the British music scene only two years previously, Oasis played the biggest free-standing gigs the UK had ever seen over two nights at Knebworth Park in the summer of 1996. Playing to a combined crowd of 250,000 people on what would become the defining weekend of the Britpop era, Oasis made good on their many claims that they were destined to be the biggest band on the planet. What happened next is a rollercoaster ride through the wildest excesses of rock ‘n’ roll; from the highs of mega-stardom, mass adoration and tabloid ubiquity, to the lows of drug psychosis, mindless mayhem and a media backlash. WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG? charts Oasis’s journey from the mid-90s euphoria of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? to the turn-of-the-century comedown of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants; from the all-conquering Knebworth shows through the cocaine blizzard of Be Here Now, the madness and chaos of their 1997 world tour and out the other side.

Buy WHERE DID IT ALL GO WRONG? on Amazon

The National’s Bryce Dessner: 10 years of the MusicNow festival

MusicNow-compilationPerhaps all rock stars, at some time, get the urge to bring the artists and the musicians they love together in one place and present them to the public. Some are happy to curate established events and use them as kind of living mixtape of favourites. Others – like Bryce Dessner, the guitarist with the US rock band The National – have a larger, longer-term vision which results in the establishment of a completely new festival. Dessner began satisfying his own personal urge ten years ago this month after holding a series of discussions with Murray Sinclaire, an arts benefactor and businessman in his home town of Cincinnati. Those discussions led to the creation of the MusicNow festival.

“It really just started as a conversation about honouring our hometown and the long tradition of great music that we have in Cincinnati,” Dessner says. “Murray acted as a sounding board to my ideas on bringing a really intimate, arts-driven, homemade feeling festival to the city which would combine Cincinnati’s classical traditions with the amazing indie, punk and rock scene that has existed here for a long time. I wanted it to be the antithesis of the huge commercial rock festivals we have here, like Lollapalooza – which are great but are a certain kind of experience, and for MusicNow to act as a kind of alternative space for artists to really develop new work and new collaborations.”

As MusicNow took shape, Dessner held on to an unshakeable tenet at the core of his vision for the festival: artists would be provided with an environment in which they could collaborate and experiment without the pressure they may get from their own big tours and shows. Over the festival’s decade of life, this tenet has provided the basis for eclectic and exclusive performances from artists such as influential American composer Philip Glass, Grammy Award-winning Tuareg troupe Tinariwen, Big Apple troubadour Sharon Van Etten and Burmese musician Kyaw Kyaw Naing.

“MusicNow has always fostered works in progress and given artists the confidence to take risks,” Dessner says. “By keeping it small, using volunteers, creating a family vibe… We’ve built something of a refuge for creativity here. You can almost see the weight fall off the shoulders of some artists who may be expected to perform a certain way on the commercial circuit but who feel free to present radically different works here or allow work to develop organically in front of a live audience.”

As with any experiment, reactions cannot always be predicted and some audiences attending the early days of the festival got more than they bargained for from artists such as Detroit balladeer Sufjan Stevens who arrived with a certain reputation but immediately used MusicNow’s climate to play with perceptions.

“There was always a risk at the start that the audiences could be confused by some performances, especially as we offered them only the most oblique hints of what might happen when they arrive at the show,” says Dessner. “But this became part of the festival’s identity over time. You may think you know Bon Iver but you may not expect him to workshop and perform a whole new album in front of you as he did in 2010. You may know composers David Lang and Nico Muhly but you probably never expected them to unveil world premieres here alongside works by Krzysztof Pendereck, the Polish master, and Alexander Scriabin. But they did, without fanfare, last year. That potential for unexpected magic is now what draws people to MusicNow.”

“I’ve played a bunch of times myself, both as a collaborator and as a solo artist,” says contemporary classical music composer Muhly. “Each time, I have presented things that were not just new to Cincinnati, but new to me: pieces with the ink still drying or pieces in desperate need of a set of ears other than my own.”

music-bryce-dessnerBryce Dessner has high hopes of more magical moments from this year’s anniversary roll call. Sufjan Stevens returns to the festival for a third time, along with Will Butler from Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire, Seattle-based solo artist Perfume Genius and Brooklyn alt-country rockers The Lone Bellow. Dessner’s band The National will also perform, collaborating with the full Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to the alternative music talent on show, Dessner has commissioned works from last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music winner Caroline Shaw and Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center will also play host to Ragner Kjartansson’s film, ‘A Lot of Sorrow’, documenting The National’s MoMA PS1 performance in which they played their song ‘Sorrow’ for six hours straight in front of a live audience, as part of the festival.

Once this ten-year anniversary has passed, Dessner admits that he may finally take stock of what the festival he created a decade ago has truly achieved before moving ahead with future programmes – although what direction these will take is anyone’s guess.

“I always saw it as a ten-year thing so I’m not sure what happens next,” says Dessner. “I’m open to ideas. What I do know is that we’ll continue to champion cutting edge, progressive programming and hope that people will continue to be inspired by that.”

MusicNOW Festival. March 11 – 15, 2015
http://www.musicnowfestival.org

This article first appeared in The Economist.

Back in the Bright Lights: The Return of Interpol

Interpol_062_color

It is the curse of every band with a highly acclaimed and much loved debut album that each subsequent release will be compared to that first artistic statement. Critics will await new material with a certain morbid fascination, eager to remark on how close to total extinguishment the band’s early creative fire has become while fans will nervously check their calendars in the breathless hope that when the next album drops, their lives will change again. And so it is with Interpol as they prepare to release their fifth album, El Pintor, in September with the glare from 2002’s Turn On The Bright Lights still blinding supporters and detractors alike.

“We’re fiercely proud of the first record and realise that it has a very special place for a lot of our fans in our catalogue but we never judge our other material against that,” says Paul Banks, the band’s frontman. “It’s great that we have a record that’s special to people and it’s understandable that some people don’t come along with us on our journey when they’re so beholden to that. I mean that’s cool, if that’s what you love about the band then keep listening to the first record but we need to get out there and make new stuff.”

Forming in New York City in 1997 with singer Banks sharing guitar duties with founding member Daniel Kessler, augmented on bass by Carlos Dengler and Greg Dundy on drums, Interpol quickly built a reputation as a band that worked hard and played hard, combining a dedication to touring with an equally committed devotion to the Big Apple’s nightlife. By the time debut album Turn On The Bright Lights was primed and ready, the band – now with Sam Fogarino on drums – were already on first name terms with many of post-9/11 New York’s cocaine and couture set and were being heralded as one of the most pivotal outfits to emerge from the city’s vibrant underground music scene along with bands such as The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The release of Turn On The Bright Lights saw Interpol’s career go into warp drive. Originally seen as a less conventional band than The Strokes or The White Stripes which had effortlessly stepped out of the indie clique into the mainstream spotlight, Interpol now had a calling card with such a zeitgeist-defining appeal that it would become acknowledged as one of the most highly regarded and influential albums of the post-millennium rock scene. With its staccato bass, urgent, jittery guitars and unsettling lyrics often delivered in a bone-dry monotone, Interpol’s debut quickly had them labelled as post-punk revivalists, constantly compared to bands like Joy Division.

Now, some 12 years since their break-through, Interpol are ready to deliver El Pintor, an album that, unsurprisingly, has been held up to the high watermark of their debut and has not been found wanting. Many of those who have already heard it have compared it favourably to Turn On The Bright Lights, not only in quality but also in delivery and energy.

interpol1“People who have heard the record are saying this is the best music we’ve made since the first album,” says Banks. “I’m not going to agree or disagree with that because it’s all opinion. We always set out to make the best record we can and hope that people respond to that. El Pintor is definitely a more immediate rock record than the previous one and has a lot more in common with Turn on the Bright Lights than say, Our Love to Admire or Interpol.”

“That’s not to say the new album is a simplification of our sound,” he adds. “It’s just more of a fucking rock onslaught, man. Songs like ‘Ancient Ways’ and ‘All the Rage Back Home,’ they’re still born of Daniel’s experimentalism but with a massive pair strapped on. Just listen to ‘Same Town New Story’ – now that’s a rare bird.”

Fans will be encouraged by the early indications of a more direct and electrified sound. Many feared that energy and drive was a thing of the dim and distant past.

After 2004’s slightly more pop oriented Antics, the second album which avoided the dreaded sophomore slump and gave the fans hope of the band’s ability to potentially deliver another future masterpiece, Interpol finally succumbed to the lure of the majors and left indie label Matador for Capitol Records in late 2006.

The third album, Our Love to Admire, was pitched by Capitol as the record that would turn Interpol into arena headliners. To that end, Our Love to Admire was a far more polished affair but one which, shorn of the rough edges, exposed the band’s limitations for the first time. Despite it becoming the band’s highest-charting and biggest-selling effort, it was given the cold shoulder by many. In response, as if waiting for the chance to knock down what they had helped to build up, the critics instigated the first waves of a backlash.

“I was always really disappointed about what people said about the band at that time, I think they really missed the mark,” says Banks. “I stopped reading all press after I read something bad about the third record so I never read anything about the fourth. I think artists are more thin-skinned than most people think and probably more thin-skinned than most other people full stop. I used to be a lot more sensitive about the criticism than I am now. For me, the press became something we just had to tune out. Because the negative stuff was a little harsh, in my opinion. The ultimate barometer for us is the reaction of the crowd. When the crowds at our shows are bigger and they’re all singing the songs, that’s the critique that matters.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “I think music criticism has worth and it has a place but it won’t change what I do as an artist. As long as the fans are satisfied and I’ve expressed myself the way I wanted to through that music then little else matters. It’s all opinion and it’s very unlikely that you’ll see eye-to-eye with everyone. I rarely ever read any reviews because, for the most part, a critic is given the record and expected to churn out an article to a strict deadline – which means they maybe listen to the record once. I said a couple of years ago that our music requires repeated listens for people to really understand it and I stand by that to a certain extent because there’s a lot going on in there that most people won’t get from hearing it once and to dismiss it so quickly is a little insulting.”

tumblr_lkixhhhRm51qcvf0to1_500For their fourth, self-titled album, main composers Kessler and Dengler (right) made the decision to push Interpol away from the radio-friendly accessibility of Our Love to Admire and take the band into what the flamboyant and charismatic bassist termed “sturm und drang” – a stormy symphony more akin to a grand Teutonic opera than a 21st century rock record. Pushing the orchestration to its limits and reducing the guitars in favour of layers of keyboards, the band hoped that the challenges they had set themselves on 2010’s Interpol and the return to Matador prior to the album’s release would push them out of their mid-phase comfort zone and into a return to form.

“For the last album, Daniel came in with some really experimental stuff, a lot of electronics and leftfield orchestration and then Carlos took Daniels stuff and pushed it another five degrees,” says Banks. “Carlos always took the experimentalism that little bit further, going into really sophisticated orchestration. That last album was like fucking math! But that’s not a criticism of Carlos or that approach.”

“I’m really proud of that record but it’s quite out there, it’s not a lightweight album and I think people are still taking their time to get their heads around it,” he adds. “In a way, I feel that the self-titled album is the definitive Interpol record as it’s the most complete and cohesive album that we’ve made. Not because it is a summation of what we’d done before that but because it’s a good representation of where we were at that point and because it was the most evolved.”

Others didn’t see it that way. While the band’s supporters lauded Interpol’s bravery in releasing an art-rock opus at a time when albums needed to contain at least two killer singles to be deemed a success, sections of the press savaged the fourth album, calling it bloated and self-indulgent. The overall feeling of implosion was compounded by Dengler’s decision to quit the band in the wake of the album’s release.

Banks is reluctant to open up too much about Dengler’s departure, citing previous betrayals by the media after confiding in them in the past, but he makes it clear that it was an amicable parting of the ways. “I’m his biggest fan and I think Carlos is a genius but I made a decision very early on in this band that I was willing to put up with a whole lot of crap from people if they were what I considered to be a genius,” he says. “The benefits that come from that level of creativity far outweigh any annoyance which can arise from someone being an asshole. So I will say that I miss Carlos, I miss the energy that he’s taken with him but it was a departure that was more like the ending of a marriage where one person says, ‘it’s not working – I have to leave’ rather than a brother betraying you.”

Banks rejects the idea that the return to an edgier, more stripped-down sound on El Pintor was due to the absence of Dengler’s experimental influence. “The fact that El Pintor is more direct is not a reaction to Carlos leaving the band in the way that we thought, ‘okay we’re free of the complicated shit, let’s get back to basics’ because we never go back, we never try to replicate. If Carlos’ departure has influenced anything on this album, it’s the fact that we had to work out what we were going to be like as a band without him and we discovered an exhilaration in that, an excitement from working out how to be a three-piece. So of course we’re a different band now but whereas before we were a molecule with four atoms attached to it, we’re still that molecule but with three atoms now and as a result we’re creating a different energy. There is a different dynamic in the studio, of course, because of that. Three is a good number for debates because unless someone perennially sits on the fence, two are going to have to come down on the same side of the argument at some point and shit gets sorted easier that way.”

images_uploads_album_ole-1069_interpol_-_el_pintor1Interpol as a trio have worked in much the same way as Interpol the quartet would have done in approaching the writing and recording of El Pintor, according to Banks. “Daniel comes in with what he’s been working on, just as before, and we work on that as a band, feeding into that and seeing where we can all take it. Usually what develops is just based on feel. It organically develops from Daniel’s vision. It’s really hard to try and set a specific target in terms of a sound when you’re in such a collaborative band. We start with the raw material of Daniel’s ideas and then listen to each other as it starts to grow. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and our music so we trust in that spark of creation and let it develop, let it build. It always finds its own way.”

“The writing is already done before we even step into the recording studio so our process is to develop the material and get sharp with it in the rehearsal rooms,” he adds. “We never write in the studio because writing an album when you’re in the studio is fucking expensive. No-one except those bands which have millions behind them can do that because endless studio time requires a massive budget, and when you’re writing on that particular clock, you’re burning through the dollars. A rehearsal room is like a hundredth of the price of a studio so we’ve got all the songs ready before we start running the tapes.”

What is different, of course, is that there are now three members – which meant either someone from within the band had to take over bass duties for the album or a new recruit had to be found and bedded in. The band decided it would be easier to keep responsibility for the four-string in-house. “When Carlos left we had this initial thought of ‘shit, you know, we’re going to have to start auditioning for bass players if we’re going to make this new record,'” says Banks. “It was only because I’d played bass on both my solo records that I felt capable to step up when Daniel suggested it. I don’t think I’d have been keen to do it had I not had the experience before but I really enjoyed it and I play bass on all the album tracks.”

Banks agrees with the notion that El Pintor marks the beginning of the next phase of Interpol but is reluctant to speculate as to where the band may go from here. What he hopes is that Interpol can continue to evolve and confound expectations.

“No-one was wrong when they said that we were post-punk revivalists but it was a simplistic label, a reduction of what we are as artists,” he says. “I’m honoured in a way that people took the time to try and define us but definitions change. What we are now is a rock band. That’s what we are and what we do. We’re happy with that. As we grow, perhaps we can become something undefinable.”

A Q&A based on this interview with Paul Banks appeared in CLASH Magazine

This full-length feature also appeared on PULUCHE.COM

In Conversation: John Lydon

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Virgin Records may be celebrating the 40th anniversary of its first album release this year, Mike Oldfield’s debut ‘Tubular Bells’, but no commemoration of the label’s legacy would be complete without some involvement from one of its most notorious sons: a certain John Lydon.

Here, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten talks about his former label, the general state of the music industry and the world in general.

Your relationship with Virgin Records has been a famously tumultuous one, with numerous love-ins and bust-ups scattered throughout your career, both with Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited. So what made you agree to honour the label’s 40th anniversary on your current tour with PiL?

Let’s face it: if Virgin is going to celebrate their years as a company they can hardly avoid me. It has been a love-hate relationship, but I’ve got to say I really enjoyed working with Virgin. It’s not common to find someone like Richard Branson, who threw his whole company behind the title ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’, and backed it to the hilt with a huge poster campaign.

He heard people bitching about it, about us using foul language, and he backed it. He backed me in court when we were fighting to use that. As a result, we made “bollocks” part of the English language, which it always was, but we fought for and won the right to use it. It was not a small thing at that time.

Did that support from Virgin allow the Pistols the freedom to embrace the chaos? There were legal challenges and a lot of establishment scaremongering going on around the band and the label at the time of ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’.

All of the things we were getting accused of – and actually getting up to, let’s be honest – carried heavy penalties and it was good to have that kind of company behind you. They were like the cavalry, backing you up – not so much with horses, but tanks. Knowing that made it easier to be us, knowing you could rely on them.

When we got raided on the Thames (on the promotional ‘God The Save The Queen’ boat trip in 1977), I was quite happy to point at Malcolm (McLaren, manager) and Richard when the police asked who the Sex Pistols were. I knew they’d take care of things. But I also did it as a stich-up. I was hardly an angel, let’s not mess about. Everybody seemed to get arrested that night apart from Johnny Rotten.

But the relationship with Virgin eventually turned sour. What, in your opinion, changed?

When the record company started, the staff were like your friends. But that all changed. Virgin was set up to be an alternative to the other record companies. At the time, the EMIs and such were very corporate, very stiff and most people had to wear shirt and tie except a few trendy ambassadors in fake hippie gear, and it never really worked. Virgin was very loose in comparison, but then it went very corporate on us.

The company started to be manipulated and run by the accounting department, and that’s not any way to run any business because that’s the death and ruination of originality and dexterity. You can’t be approaching it with a tried and tested, and therefore staid, financial model. And be under no illusion, I’ve earned Virgin a pretty penny over the years and introduced them to all manner of things, not just the Pistols and PiL. It’s a shame they haven’t shown more gratitude.

You’ve been locked in a long-running dispute with various labels including Virgin over the rights to your own music, which is one of the reasons why it’s taken PiL nearly 20 years to put out this latest album (‘This Is PiL’). Are you free to talk about what happened now?

Well, I was denied access to my career for a large period of time. Record companies came up with these blanket agreements where everyone would get the same low fee and you wouldn’t have the rights to your songs. They could be thrown into any old advertising campaign and you could end up selling second-hand mattresses or something. This kind of thing created a real tension between me and the labels. And that’s just one of the many, many issues.

You always ended up getting challenged by the accounting department because you wouldn’t agree to go along with that or the release of ‘Best of’s or compilations and you were stopping them earning money off you. These end up being black marks against you. If you make shit, you’ll earn the money but that would contaminate what I feel is the purity of PiL.

It’s taken nearly two decades for me to get out of that, and I haven’t made any rubbish just to speed the process up. We’ve had to form our own label. We have distribution deals, but we’re self-funding so everything is reliant on filling the halls, the venues, for the gigs because that’s our future, where our money is earned. Nobody makes money from records anymore, and haven’t for a long time. The only reason I’m now able to freely use my own material is through persistence.

We were all still linked to that original Pistols deal. There was no renegotiation on that. I was trapped from what seemed to be a great promise from the beginning. The deal with Virgin, for instance, turned into a musical death trap for me. It was a shackle; they wouldn’t release records from me, they wouldn’t fund me, so I could literally not function and I had to go outside of music to raise any kind of money at all.

And that’s difficult because you can’t compromise your integrity. In the creative industries you have to be able to hop to new things regularly. Not being allowed to is one of the causes of the general malaise in the music industry that is felt today.

To what extent was your involvement in endorsements such as the Dairy Crest (Country Life) commercials and your appearance on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! linked to your situation with the labels? You got quite a lot of stick for doing both from people who questioned your motives.

Well, the money for the butter ads wasn’t huge but it helped me put something up against the outstanding debt, and I could start crawling my way slowly and surely out of those constraints. I could then basically buy myself out of those restrictive contracts. When I worked with the butter people, they gave me a free hand. I enjoyed working with them very, very much, and there was a lot of mutual respect. But it wasn’t done for any scandalous reasons. It was quite anarchistic of them to want to connect themselves to Mr Rotten.

Then when I did I’m A Celebrity… I could have easily taken that money and put that money into PiL, but I agreed to do that for charity reasons so that’s where all that went. There’s no greed in me. But that’s not the kind of story that gets printed about me. What I didn’t know at the time was that I’m A Celebrity… is heavily linked to the newspapers. It’s so tightly knit with the headlines and the scandal weaving, it’s very hard to get any truth printed.

Do you still find that people have an agenda for working with you, or are looking to exploit you in much the same way as they did with the Pistols?

There are a lot of arseholes out there who want to grab onto me and create a controversy by using my name for their own good, and that’s never been my way. I attack governments, institutions – these are the things that I find oppressive in life, not personal tit-for-tats or brawling in a discotheque. This celebrity culture, which is corporate at its rotten core, is my enemy. The only enemies I have these days are institutions that try to manipulate me or my words.

Controversy is contrived these days, and ugly too. You’ve got this useless gossip about who’s shagging whom and all this innuendo, which has gone beyond that and into out-and-out lies printed as truth. It’s all led to a completely meaningless universe; it’s shallow, trivial… Facebook-y and Twittery… There are all these nobodies with their blogs and personal agendas clogging up the drain. Opinion without knowledge can be a spiteful, useless thing, but unfortunately that’s what gets rewarded now.

There is a way to get out of it, and that’s just walk away from it. I don’t need it. I don’t live in that world. To maintain any kind of integrity on the Internet is damn hard. We monitor ourselves religiously here and pride ourselves on putting nothing but the truth out on our website. But it’s then taken by other sites and altered. It’s a constant battle.

Would it be possible for a band like the Sex Pistols to evolve and make an impact in today’s musical climate, or is the industry set up to smother true mavericks and rebels in favour of the lowest common denominator?

I wish there was someone out there who I could consider a rightful heir, but I’m not seeing it. Corporate control is stifling creative rebellion but it’s not a conspiracy: it’s a money-making scheme. It’s cottoned on to the safe codge, the safe bet – anything that’s outside of that is pushed aside.

Can music still make a difference and be a voice for social change?

There’s been a lot of nonsense about how music doesn’t change things and every couple of years some famous person comes up with that quote when really they’re just describing themselves. It just creates this general belief that the younger you are, the less prone you are to demonstration and chaos and change you are. It’s ridiculous, as it’s an upside-down universe now. The voice of rebellion was always a young one, but not anymore. It’s us old folk.

The fact that kids have gotten everything they wanted for so long, that everything’s too easy… there’s an element of that to it. There’s no rebellion because they’ve never had to fight for anything. In the record industry, all you have to do these days to sell your record is to wear a bikini and flash your arse. And that’s just the boys. Where’s the mystery, the intelligence, the depth, the content, the point, the purpose in life? That’s all been removed. It’s all about jewellery and showing off. It’s one dimensional.

Would you say that this is unique to the music industry or is it a general attitude in society?

I weep for society sometimes, but I’m also really hopeful because things do happen which excite me. I really hope that there’s going to be a tipping point where we’ve all had enough of the lies and spin. I believe we have it in all of us to rise up.

For me, the best glimpse of this was the Occupy movement, which was a combination of all different elements that disagreed with each other but came together to face a common enemy. It was mocked by the media; but the more it was mocked, the closer I came attached to it. I think civil disobedience is a wonderful thing. I thought the uprisings all across the Arab World were thrilling, breathtaking, something not seen for a generation and certainly not in that part of the world.

What about back home in the UK? You live in Los Angeles now but you still have a very strong opinion on what’s happening back in Britain. Is England’s Dreaming now a nightmare?

This government, this Tory-Liberal coalition… they’re laughable. They’re a bunch of people ill equipped for the jobs they’ve been given. They’re the embodiment of all that class animosity which is still rampant in the UK. Both Labour and the Conservatives have said that they have strived to break down the class system, but I don’t believe that either of them has done anything of the kind. They’ve alienated all of us.

We the people, regardless of the class we come from, we are equal. This doesn’t seem to be the view of any politician out there. The thing is, we have to vote because it’s the lesser of two evils. That’s what we confront every fucking four years! We’ve fought for that right. But politics has to change from the grassroots upwards, starting with your local council elections. Get yourself involved. Don’t expect the world to do everything for you. It won’t. Unless you do it for yourself, it won’t happen – that’s the punk ethos. Make change by example, not dictation.

This interview first appeared in CLASH Magazine

45th Anniversary Album Review: The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album)

al10For many, The Beatles had been omnipresent and all-powerful for most of the mid-60s, but the Fab Four truly hit their peak in 1968, the year after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had inspired a huge cultural and musical shift. That album’s combination of commercial success, critical acclaim and huge counter-cultural impact had elevated the band to previously unimaginable heights for a musical act; their opinions were sought on all manner of topics, their every move was documented, even their fashion choices were deemed worthy of front page news. By the start of 1968, The Beatles were more than a pop band – and the pressure and expectation of being something other than musicians would both inspire one of their greatest albums and ultimately lead to their demise.

Their ninth official album, The Beatles – forever known as The White Album, was recorded at a time of great turmoil within the band and one of global upheaval, revolution and war in the outside world. While The Beatles would be pilloried for not using their global influence to address the issues of the time on The White Album, on a meta-level, the tension and imploding relationships at the heart of the band powered many of the songs that critics would laud as some of the band’s best work.

The White Album is certainly the band’s most eclectic album; one which displays their artistry and range but also lays bare the fraying of the bond and the dilution of the vision. Here was a band at the peak of their powers but at war with itself. John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the creative axis, would record in different studios with different engineers; George Harrison, an increasingly frustrated and underused songwriter of no little genius, would frequently let his explosive anger loose, while Ringo Starr became so disillusioned with the in-fighting that he quit the band during the sessions, leaving the others to share drumming duties on a number of tracks before he returned.

Yet despite – or in spite of – this growing animosity which created a singularly diverse collection of songs as each Beatle explored their own possibilities, The White Album is, for the most part, the complete Beatles collection. It is not, of course, a Greatest Hits record but it is a kind of Best Of…, not in the sense that it’s a cherry-picked selection from their back catalogue but it is the ultimate compilation of the styles and genres which inspired The Beatles and which became woven into the band’s musical fabric. That such a sprawling, unprecedented (for 1968) assemblage of tastes can sit so comfortably on one album is testament to that intangible greatness that made The Beatles what they were: four working class lads from Liverpool who went on to rule the world.

The White Album pretty much has it all in terms of style, which is its great strength and a large part of its enduring appeal but also one of the sticks critics have used to beat it with. It ranges from the whimsical (“Rocky Raccoon”) to experimental (“Revolution #9”); from tender (“Blackbird”) to tormented (“Yer Blues”). It takes in 1930s dance-hall music (“Honey Pie”), classical chamber music (“Piggies”) and country (“Don’t Pass Me By”). While it is admirable and impressive that The Beatles could turn their hands to all manner of genres and bend them to their own will with such proficiency, the diversity on show alienated some observers who wanted a more cohesive Beatles album. This was never going to happen with few of the songs being played by the full band and some even recorded solo.

And yet, as each individual member began to explore his own talent in the midst of this discord, some magnificent music is made. Lennon sounds torn and ready to burst out of his skin – and the role of a Beatle – on “Yer Blues” and as a result he produces one of his greatest and most authentic vocals he ever put down as a member of the band, while his acerbic attack on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on “Sexy Sadie” must be the most beautiful character assassination of all time. Elsewhere, Harrison touches the hem of Krishna with the sublime “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, a reminder to the band’s central song-writing duo that they weren’t the only ones blessed with genius, and serves up a serious groove on the ridiculously catchy “Savoy Truffle”. McCartney, possibly at his most twee on tracks like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Honey Pie”, gets back to his roots and displays his considerable rock chops on the peerless “Helter Skelter” and balls-out stomp of “Birthday”.

Trying to recommend only a handful of tracks from The White Album is an impossible task considering the strength of the double album’s 30 songs but it would be tragic to skip through “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”, “Revolution 1”, “Dear Prudence”, “Glass Onion”… If one would have to skip any track, most people’s favourite for the chop would be densely layered eight-minute-and-thirteen-second sound collage “Revolution 9” which has inspired both awe and derision in equal measure. Its inclusion alone is evidence of the power The Beatles had at the time but also, perhaps, the waning authority of long-time producer George Martin.

The White Album went to number 1 in both the United Kingdom and the United States on its release in November 1968 but received mixed reviews from critics. In the months that followed the album’s release, relationships between the four band members and their inner circle soured further with Ringo Starr later referring to that post-recording period as the start of “months and years of misery” and Paul McCartney describing it as a turning point for the group. During that time, both George Harrison and John Lennon would privately leave the band, only to return after pleas from McCartney and Starr. The band would release a soundtrack to the animated film Yellow Submarine and the studio album Abbey Road in 1969 before their final record, Let it Be, was released in May 1970 – some five months after the official break-up of the band.

The White Album would go on to sell more than 20 million copies worldwide and has since been viewed by critics as one of the greatest albums of all time.

 This article first appeared on: PULUCHE.COM

25th Anniversary Album Review: Green – R.E.M.

greenIn 1988, R.E.M. were standing on shifting sands. The quartet from Athens, Georgia had been cultivating an underground following over the previous seven years after arriving on the scene as an unknown college rock band but the success of 1987′s “The One I Love” had changed the game for them. The US Top 10 hit had turned the band’s cult status into that of genuine pop stars.

It was an uncomfortable segue for some fans and the band themselves felt that they were on the cusp of a major change. In fact, a literal major change helped to push R.E.M. in the direction that in less than five years would see them become one of the biggest acts on the planet.

The success of “The One I Love” gave the band the confidence and the power to finally jump ship from IRS, the label that had released their early and murky Deep South repertoire. Unhappy at the label’s distribution policy which they felt was holding them back, R.E.M. left for Warner Bros in a deal which was reportedly between $6 million and $12 million. More alarm bells sounded for the fans who felt the band were beginning to sell out. In fact, other labels offered them more cash but Warner’s gave them what they wanted most: total creative freedom.

That freedom gave birth to what many consider to be not only their true breakthrough album but one of their greatest: Green.

Rather than taking it easy after securing their major label contract, R.E.M. used the power of Warner’s and the freedom of expression afforded them to release an album of quite startling ambition, in the context of their career and the late-80′s alternative rock scene in which Green was released.

They would go on and have bigger hits and garner wider mass appeal but Green could be argued as a document of the band at the height of its creative powers. Green sees the band expanding both musically and lyrically, balancing their subtle politicking with a more playful approach which allows them to flex their muscles.

Switching, in guitarist Peter Buck’s words, from “minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk-rock-balladish things” to major key rock songs, R.E.M. left nobody in doubt that they were after the biggest prizes.

Opening with “Pop Song 89” was a brave statement of this ambition, with its Doors-esque intro and Michael Stipe’s almost chirpy delivery which seemed a word away from the sludgy days of Murmur and Reckoning.

Followed by the sweet, dreamy “Get Up,” with its massive guitars and handclaps, and the plaintive mandolin workout of “You Are the Everything,” Green opens in three very different styles before the bubble-gum pop of “Stand” bursts forth with hit-single written all over it.

There’s a freedom about these songs which feels like the band is breaking out of its chains – albeit while riding an out of control emotional rollercoaster, and being allowed to do so thanks to producer Scott Litt’s restraint.

The good mood is then tempered by “World Leader Pretend,” with its Cold War imagery and analysis of emotional stasis and personal failings. It’s a dark but beautiful song which seems to be a practice run for the equally introspective and soul-searching “Losing My Religion” which would catapult them further into the rock stratosphere on its release three years later.

The album’s first half ends with “The Wrong Child” which plays out like a regression hypnosis session, all dreamy recollection and eerie, disembodied harmonies over playful, child-like strings.

As if to wake the listener up, we’re shook back to consciousness by Buck’s staccato guitars, Bill Berry’s carpet-bombing drums and Mike Mills’ artillery bursts of bass on “Orange Crush.” The song, which according to Stipe was about a young American football player leaving the comforts of home to fight in the Vietnam War, bravely reopens old wounds and assures those who may have been worrying about the band’s embracing of the lighter side of pop that Stipe and Co. would not be abandoning their angst-ridden roots or letting anyone off the hook.

If the fans needed further convincing that dark forces could still play their part, the pounding, weirded-out stomp of “Turn You Inside Out” follows. The mood is lifted again with the lilting “Hairshirt” but before the chiming “Untitled” brings Green to what – for R.E.M. in 1988, at least – could be considered a happy ending, we have the downbeat stream of consciousness of “I Remember California.”

Commendations

R.E.M would have greater commercial success and a wider reach with 1991′s Out of Time but Green was the important transitional album in terms of style and substance.

Earlier albums had been steeped in the folk legends of their home state with stories set in the swamps and forests of Georgia.

Green was bursting with youthful innocence and simplicity, especially in its mostly light and playful first half which owed much to its Sixties-inflected pop influences.

Far from being too sickly sweet, however, R.E.M. managed to balance the lightness of songs such as “Stand” and “Pop Song ’89″ with the ominous and introverted “World Leader Pretend,” the ferocious and apocalyptic “Orange Crush” and the discordant psychedelic grind of “Turn You Inside Out.”

Somewhere in-between, helped by Peter Buck’s nascent mandolin playing – getting its first outing on Green – there are neo-folk numbers such as “Hairshirt” and “You Are the Everything.”

R.E.M. may have attracted legions of fans through their swampy take on new wave and post punk but it would be their growing and hugely proficient range, first exhibited on Green, which would make them megastars.

Next Steps

Green marked the end of one era for R.E.M. but the beginning of a new chapter which would prove hugely successful.

Their last record of the 1980′s, the band would take a three year recording break after Green to return with 1991′s Out of Time which would top the album charts in both the US and the UK, going gold in Britain and marking the band’s European breakthrough.

But Out of Time would not have been possible without Green which remains a proficient, challenging and often euphoric hybrid of the band’s embryonic darkness and their increasing use of lighter shades which would punctuate their early major label releases – but which would eventually became an all too blinding glare in their later years. In this respect, Green contains the ultimate distillation of the essence of R.E.M.

This article first appeared on PULUCHE.COM