R.E.M. has come a long way from the time in 1982 when a club owner rewarded the broke-and-hungry band for a successful show by giving it a "bonus" of 20 promotional key chains.
Not only is the name R.E.M. virtually a generic term for the folk-rock wing of American underground pop, but "Document," the Georgia quartet's fifth album (not counting the 1982 debut EP and a recent compilation of odds and ends) has just shipped at nearly gold (500,000 copies) status.
Musically, the band has changed in that time, too. Getting to know the swirling, mystery-shrouded material on the group's first full album, 1983's "Murmur," was like peeling an onion layer by layer. "Document" is another story. Everything--the crisp production, Michael Stipe's vocals (previously notable for being hard to decipher), tangible lyrics dealing with love and politics, a playful sense of humor--is marked by directness.
But R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, 30, insists that the change is only relative.
"Let's face it, barring Prince, we're still the weirdest act in the Top 40," said the fast-talking Buck, sitting in the Universal City headquarters of I.R.S. Records.
Still, Buck agrees that "Document" represents a step toward accessibility for the band.
"I guess the main thing is Michael's vocals," he said. "He had something to say and wanted everybody to understand it."
Buck acknowledges, though, that some of the band's hard-core cult following may find the lack of mystery in the current sound something of a disappointment.
"That happens," he said, shrugging. "But a lot of those fans that were the lightning rods in the early days have already moved on to other bands anyway, and that's good. Rock needs people like that to find and support new acts."
The past year has also seen the band increase its visibility through various outside projects. Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry played on most of Warren Zevon's recent album, and Buck has just finished recording with English singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.
The most conclusive proof of the band's rise in fame, Buck said, is that interviewers' questions have gotten generally sharper. "This time people seem to be better informed about us," he said, having gone through several days of a grueling interview schedule. "I haven't gotten a single 'Where did you get the name?' "
But Buck stressed that R.E.M. has not really abandoned its cult status and "made a leap into the next stratosphere" a la U2, with which it shared the "critics' favorite underdog" title just a few years ago. Nor does he expect that to happen. After all, this is a band that titled one of the new album's catchiest songs "Exhuming McCarthy."
"We can still make a record that's not commercial and that won't get airplay," he said. "Anything U2 did now would get played."