Peter Buck doesn't need me.
Thirty years amassing one of the most sanctified discographies in American music—and a bank account festooned with zeroes—has ensured him of that. R.E.M., the immeasurably influential band whose sound his glistening arpeggios defined, broke up in 2011, and as far as the 57-year-old guitarist was concerned, he didn't need to speak with another journalist ever again. By his count, he's given only three interviews in the last three years, and none to media in Portland, where he got married last year and is a part-time resident.
It's not like he doesn't have anything to talk about. He's still in bands, including the country-leaning Tired Pony and Robert Fripp's ambient Slow Music project, and he's released two solo albums on local label Mississippi Records. Compared to the massive rock-'n'-roll machine that formerly employed him, though, those projects are the model airplanes of his rock-star retirement—hobbies to keep himself occupied between trips to Kauai and Todos Santos, Mexico. He doesn't need to promote them. If they find an audience, great. If not, well, those zeroes aren't going anywhere.
And so, when I sit down with Buck and his de facto consigliere, Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5, on the front porch of Liberty Glass off North Mississippi Avenue, my first question is obvious.
Willamette Week: Why are you talking to me?
Peter Buck: When REM ended, at one point I was telling Scott and my wife, "That's it, I'm done. I'm finished, I'm never do this again." And everyone's like, "You're so full of shit." I thought I'm never going to play in public again. I have nothing to say as a songwriter, I don't want to sing. So I immediately wrote 10 songs and started singing them. But what I wanted to do was write and play and perform and work with people I respect. Everything else, whether it's the red carpet or getting my picture taken, I didn't really want to do. I don't feel like I do have anything to say to anybody in any real way. But I'm doing a couple shows locally, and this is one of the places I consider home.
Scott McCaughey: You also did great in putting out your records on possibly the only record label that does no promotion at all.
Buck: I really like Mississippi Records. I probably owned 40 of their records before. I went to Eric [Isaacson, the label's owner] and said, "I'm making a record, I'm wondering if you want to put it out." He goes, "What do you think about promotion?" "I don't want any." "What do you think about CDs or downloads?" "I don't want any of that." "Promo copies?" "No." He goes, "Well, I can do all that."
But you're still a member of REM, and with the band going away there's going to be some demand to hear your material. Eric didn't try to push you to do more promo, because it might help the label financially?
Buck: Eric's pretty laissez faire about that stuff, which is one of the reasons I like them. Every label, including when I work with Yep Roc or even Merge, you start getting phone calls: "Can you do an interview with Joe Blow from The Dickville Daily Ball?" As a matter of fact, I don't think I can. I've got nothing to say.
You've said that music for you now is more of a hobby than a living.
Buck: It's a living in the sense that it's what I do more than anything else. I lose money at it. I pay bills. It's still a business, even though it's a business that has more cash out-flow than in-flow. I'd like to break even. But what I really want to do is make records exactly the way I want to do. For my solo thing, I only want to play 45 minutes or 50 minutes. I don't want to do interviews with every newspaper, I don't want to do photo sessions. We opened for Alejandro Escovedo, and that's great. They put his picture in the paper and I don't have to talk to anybody. It's hard because a lot of the places we go I've had relationship with journalists for years, but I don't want to spend a week talking on the phone.
Was that always the dream, to be able to make music and not worry about the extra stuff? People who have regular jobs work so they can retire eventually retire. Is it the same with you?
Buck: But I work all the time. I've seen people who have money and don't do anything with themselves, and it drives them insane. You have to work. Admittedly, sometimes I'll be writing a song at 3 in the morning and I'll go, "Is anyone waiting for this piece of shit?" But you just write it anyway. I don't know if I'm just too stupid to quit or if I'm really driven to do it. I also socialize through music. The people I work with are people who are my friends. You go record for four hours then go have dinner. I don't feel the need to maximize my potential as a hit-making artist, because I don't have any. That said, I'm proud of the records.
Did you have much of a perception of what life was going to be like after R.E.M.?
Buck: My options were put together a band with semi-famous people and be, like, the Asia of alternative rock. That didn't really strike me. Then you can get a band with a bunch of 22-year-olds and touring for 10 months a year? That didn't really strike me. Go to Nashville and write songs for people whose records I wouldn't listen to? Meh. I thought, I'll do these solo records, and they're meant to be a complete expression of a portion of who I am. I just wanted to do something recorded completely the way I wanted to, which is super fast. We spent two and a half days on the first record and five days on the second. But everything I do is stuff I've been connected with in the past. I still write songs, I just don't expect to hear them on the radio. Sometimes, doing things for the sake of doing them is worthwhile.
Were any of the ideas on those records ones you've harbored since the R.E.M. days?
Buck: I had said all the way up to the day I decided to make the record that I'm never going to sing in public or write a record. But then I was just like, if I don't do it, I'm just going to write songs for other people to sing. The feeling was, this is the least likely thing I can think of, besides becoming an actor. I'll sing. I've got the voice I deserve. I've got a gravelly voice. It sounds like what I am: A guy in his mid-'50s who's halfway out of his mind.
I don't know if I had any perception of what a Peter Buck solo album would sound like, but I definitely didn't think it'd be so Tom Waits-y.
Buck: I have 20 songs I demoed for R.E.M. that didn't get used, and I could easily find another singer and make a record that would sound exactly like what the next R.E.M. record would've sounded like. I'm not complaining, I had a great run of all of it, but I feel like I've gotten off the treadmill. This is where I would've ended up anyway, even if R.E.M. hadn't been successful: playing for 200 people on a Tuesday. I'm really happy 200 people show up.
You never envisioned playing in R.E.M. until you were Rolling Stones age?
Buck: We always said from the very beginning that when it starts to get like a job, we're not going to do it anymore. It didn't become a job, but it felt like it was going to get there. There were five good reasons why we shouldn't pursue it. The only reasons we could think to pursue it is money and fame, and I've got enough of both. There's always the hope you're going to make the great, great, great record, and I think our last record [2011's Collapse Into Now] was as great as we were going to make. I think it's in the top five of our albums. But we didn't really have the audience we used to have. We'd finished our record deal. Everyone said, "You guys should tour this record," but didn't we do that for 30 years? I respect the fans enough not to go out there just to stroke my ego. And I started feeling a little stupid being a 50 year old playing whatever festivals we're doing with guys literally half our age—even though we smoked most of them, to tell you truth.
We opened for the Verve, and we left those guys with their tail between their legs. We didn't open for them, we got paid more, but we went on before them. Michael [Stipe]'s like, "This sucks." I said, "Well, if you want to make them look bad, let's just do all of our hit singles. We've never done that before." So we played 90 minutes, and every song was a top 10 single somewhere. We walked off and went, "See ya, boys! Enjoy playing that unreleased new record of yours." Nice guys, too.
I'll be honest, when I heard "R.E.M. is breaking up," I thought, "They'll come back in five, six years, everyone will have missed them and they'll get back a bit of that audience they lost." Why should I not feel that way?
Buck: I can't say we're never going to play together again. But I was hanging out with Michael and Mike [Mills, R.E.M.'s bassist], and we were laughing because everyone goes, "Someone will give you $10 million to tour Europe one summer and you'll go." I can't really imagine. We're in different places in our lives. You know, never say never, but I just can't imagine. Every year that goes by, we don't talk about it. W did the right thing at the right time. We would've been an oldies band, and I didn't want to keep going out there and reminding everyone how great we used to be. I'm great right now. Thing is, it's a different kind of greatness.
Footage leaked out of your wedding reception at the Wonder Ballroom, with you guys all getting up and playing songs together, and it seemed like you were really careful of not having all four R.E.M. members on stage. Was that a conscious decision?
Buck: I didn't care about it. I think Michael was conscious of it. Bill [Berry, R.E.M.'s original drummer] wanted all four of us to play, and it was like, Bill, we don't want to have to every day answer the question, "Oh, you're back together?" In a way, we never broke up. We have a corporation, we own property, we own the masters to most of our records, we have band meetings, we hang out together, when I'm in New York I give Michael a call, Mike plays in at least two of the bands I'm in. It's just that we choose not to pursue a career as the four of us.
Can you remember the first time you came to Portland?
Yeah, 1984. We played at Starry Night. I have a strong memory that there was something really smelly about the dressing room. We sat in the parking lot, and there was broken glass everywhere, and drank really warm beer outside of our really smelly van before the show. Now I'm married, so I'm here a lot. I'm paying taxes here this year. But I'm not even here half the year. So I'm kind of a local guy, in as much as I'm local in Athens [Ga.] and Todos Santos in Mexico and Seattle. I lived in New York for a while. I have a place in New Orleans and Hawaii. There's like 20, 30 places where I go. But the places where I play music are going to be closer to my heart than, like, Hawaii, where I go to sit on the beach and drink beer.
What's your favorite bar in Portland?
Buck: The only bar I go to is Dot's. Much of my social life, and my drinking life, occurs at dinner with friends. I go out three times a week. Dot's is great because it's open late, and if I'm awake by myself, I'll wander down. They have these soul-funk nights, and I'm the guy who stands by the DJ, "What are you playing? That's really cool."
You DJ at Savoy Tavern, too. You must have an insane record collection at this point.
Buck: I don't know if it's insane but it's obsessive. It's not a collection. I don't buy records and put them away—I play them. Eric gave me an original mono copy of Revolver as a gift. Some people would just look at it, but I took it out and played it for a bunch of people. I'd never heard the English mono version of Revolver. It's a totally different record. We played the American mono version and the American stereo version, and everyone concluded that the English mono Revolver is far superior. But some people would just put that in their collection under "Beatles" and never play it.
Is there a crown jewel in your collection?
Buck: One thing I'm really happy to have, which I've actually played at Savoy, is the original Car Records single of "I Am the Cosmos" by Chris Bell. They made like 500 of them. I've never seen one for sale anywhere. I'd never even seen a picture of it.
Is there anyone in the music world you've never actually met at this point?
Buck: I've been in rooms with people I really respect and not talked to them. I've been in the same room with Bob Dylan twice, and we did have a conversation because he talked to me. But what am I going to say? "Hey Bob, I love your work!" Everyone says that. Ask him questions about his marriage? I mean, I would've loved to hang out with Howlin' Wolf in 1962, but I was 6. I don't think I would've gotten much out of him.
Do you feel you have a certain amount of anonymity in Portland?
Buck: Pretty much anywhere. If I go to a rock show people will talk to me, but I spent the whole day walking around this neighborhood and no one said a word to me. My picture wasn't on the cover of the records, and they're not on the cover of my own records. I try not to be in the videos, I never did talk shows, I didn't go to parties. It's a really comfortable level. I get respect from people who know what I've done, but it's not overwhelming. I can ride the bus. I went to see the Breeders [at Wonder Ballroom] with Mike Mills when he was in town last, and we couldn't get a cab. So I hitchhiked home. I bumped into the guy who picked us up not too long ago and he goes, "You totally inspired me, I started a gypsy cab company."
McCaughey: Still inspiring people!
Do you feel like you're part of the music culture here?
Buck: Well, I'm here and I'm gone. It's one of five places I move around to on a regular basis. I think I've been in Mexico and New York more this year than I've been in Portland. I've got really good friends here. I play music here. But I've got a suitcase. I'm pretty much at home wherever I go.
SEE IT: Peter Buck plays the Secret Society, 116 NE Russell St., with Super-Earth, on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 29-30. 8 pm. $5. 21 .