R.E.M.’s Peter Buck Discusses New ‘Bummed Out’ Concept Album

Guitarist explains how pandemic shaped his latest songs. REM band member Peter Buck discussed recording a double concept album in an October 2022 interview.

Peter Buck’s musical collaboration with Luke Haines began as so many of them do: with a random connection. The former R.E.M. guitarist bought a painting of Lou Reed by Haines, and it sparked the thought that perhaps the two of them should work together.

Quarantine scuttled plans for the pair to play shows in support of their debut, 2020’s Beat Poetry for Survivalists. But, as Buck details below, the songs kept flowing.

All the Kids Are Super Bummed Out is the sprawling double-album “monster-piece” manifesto that emerged from their efforts. It’s a conceptual project that will leave you hoping for a sequel – although perhaps one with a less dismal subject matter. Buck shared some of the highlights from the time they spent working on the new album with UCR.

This stuff that you’ve been doing with Luke Haines feels like it completes the cycle of what you started with the initial albums that you did solo. Does it feel that way to you?
My solo records, I just wanted to prove a point to myself. This is something I’ve never done; I’m just gonna do it. I can’t sing, fuck it. You know what? I’m not worried about it. [Laughs] I’m going to make these records – and you know, they were written and recorded, I don’t think I spent more than five days on any of those records. Yet, they have something. You don’t go through those records looking for good singing, but the songs are good and the playing is pretty amazing. With Luke, I don’t know, I [just] started sending him stuff. The first couple of things I sent him were just things I’d written that day. “Here’s three guitars and a drum machine and a synth and a bass.” At a certain point, I kind of realized there weren’t any boundaries there. Anything I send him, he’s going to finish. Particularly with this record, my feeling was, “It’s the summer of 2021, and do I really need to write a pretty song in E Minor with a nice guitar riff?” It wasn’t what I was feeling. It wasn’t what I was experiencing. I mean, out here in Portland, we had the fires, the heatwaves, the protests when they sent the feds in and the feds turned them into riots. It was just hellacious out here, in some ways. I was just like, “Yeah, writing a song with a structure? Fuck that!” Something like “Exit Space,” it was like, “Here’s just a template of what I’m feeling like right now, and it doesn’t make sense. Here you go, Luke!”

How did that doomy choral section at the beginning of “Exit Space” develop?
I was recording overdubs for somebody else, for a song. I don’t even remember which song. I went, “Oh, I’ll just put a bunch of feedback on it.” I sent it off with the song and they used bits and pieces of it. But I kind of went, “Gosh, all of these three things that weren’t meant to be played together sound really fucked up if you play them together!” So I sent them off to Scott [McCaughey]. That was at a point where we weren’t able to get together because, you know, he’s on medication.

He’s had all of the health issues.
Yeah, so he really didn’t want to get COVID. So I didn’t even see him for a year, but we would send each other stuff through the mail. I sent him these three tracks of feedback and Scott put this little piano part [on] that actually is a chord change that occurs five minutes in. I sent it to Luke, and he immediately sent it back.

Scott always seems like he’s a secret weapon with a lot of your stuff, especially on this material you’re doing with Luke.
It started off that Luke wanted me to write songs with him. I was sending him stuff, and Scott was playing on it. I was in the middle of something and it’s like, “Man, we should send Luke something. I just don’t have time to go in the studio to do anything. Why don’t you just send him something? We need an up-tempo song.” Scott started writing, and this record, I think we just decided that all three of us are just going to split the publishing. You know, I would take his songs and rewrite them, and he would take mine and rewrite them or add stuff, and then Luke would change it. So yeah, he’s all over the record as a songwriter and performer.

This is a great headphone album. We were talking about “Exit Space” earlier and it’s got what sounds like a psychotic, laughing monkey. It seems like it would have been fun to conjure things like that and make them a reality.
At one point, that song was like nine minutes long. Luke cut it down. He said, “I don’t know, there’s only so much of that monkey stuff that I think people can take.” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I’m always down for more monkeys on the record!” But that one, I was talking to my next-door neighbor, who is a doctor and I was like, “So, how are you doing with this COVID thing?” She said, “Oh, I’m fine. I’ve been around infectious diseases my entire life.” But she goes, “All the kids are super bummed out.” I said, “Hey Luke, I think this one might be called All the Kids Are Super Bummed Out.” So that’s the record title and that was just purely an adult thing, how tough it is for not just her kids, but all of the kids that aren’t able to get together, aren’t going to schoolThe lyrics on this album are fun, with things like “The Commies Are Coming.”
It just feels like you were a witness to – not the end of the world or the end of civilization, but certainly, the falling apart of a culture. It’s like, what have you got? Has-been celebrities and scandals, it’s all there. That song, “The Commies are Coming,” I got a new recording thing at my house. I didn’t have anything here for a long time and I hadn’t really used it. I don’t have any monitoring things, so I had to use my headphones. The first four things I did, I was like, “Oh, it sounds cool.” Then, I hear them later and it’s like, “Fuck, it sounds like it was recorded in a blast furnace!” I mean, everything is super high end-y. It was either my ears or the headphones. [Laughs] So it was really tough for everyone to deal with, because like, two guitars and bass are just nothing but treble. On the other hand, it’s kind of appropriate.

When did you realize you had a concept record taking shape?
Originally, we were just trying to write songs so that when we did the tour in 2020 – which obviously never happened – we wouldn’t be playing 10 songs. Because it’s like, I don’t want to go out and play for 45 minutes. So let’s get like 60 songs and maybe we’ll do one of Luke’s songs or an acoustic cover or something. We were just throwing stuff down. Then when we realized, “Yeah, we’re not going to be doing this tour anytime soon.” That’s when everything just spun out of control in kind of a good way. The songwriting process got way weirder, noisier and crazier. Luke reacted to all of that, I think. It’s funny how many songs have deaths from the sky and Communist paranoia and stuff, and it all was written before the Ukraine thing – way before.

Do you think you and Luke Haines will be able to play some shows in the States?
I hope so. I’m not 100% certain how Luke’s visa thing would work. I don’t really have a booking agent here, and I have no idea – we played England and sold the shows out. I don’t know who would come see us. I mean, to a certain degree at the level we’re at, it doesn’t really matter, you know. But also, it’s kind of debilitating to have those Tuesday nights in the rain with 35 people, which you want to avoid. Generally, what all of my bands have been doing is this: We do the West Coast using my equipment from Portland. We do the East Coast using my Georgia equipment, which is like, Athens, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, Washington, New York, maybe Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, you know. And then, if we can get a good gig in Chicago and Minneapolis, that could be done. So I would like to see it happen. But it’s really hard at our age to get in the van and just drive somewhere and go, “Oh, we’re playing to 35 people and the club smells bad.” It is kind of mentally debilitating. [Laughs]

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