The Buck Stops Here

As part of Tuatara, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck heads in new musical directions.

Because of the prevalence of Skerik's sax on this and other cuts, many observers have described Tuatara as a jazz band--a definition that makes Buck a bit nervous. "As much as I am resolutely not playing jazz, some of the guys are," he concedes. "The rest of us are accompanying them in a kind of rock/pop-ish manner. But the music does remind me of that era when rock music was first starting to influence things like soundtrack stuff--where you'd have this big, swinging four- or five-piece horn section and the drummer's really kicking it, but you've also got a wah-wah guitar or a slinky guitar solo. It was the era when those things were starting to cross-pollinate, and the jazz guys were going, 'These rock guys--some of them are all right.'

"I've been listening to jazz since I was fifteen, and I'd always listen to the wild stuff, whether it was Miles Davis or Coltrane or, when I got a little bit older, Eric Dolphy. That's the kind of jazz I like--but I don't play that stuff. When I hear horn sections coming up with all these crazy lines, I think, 'What would I do with these guys, since I'm not a jazz guitar player?' See, my jazz chops are way, way down the list of what I can do, but I can do other stuff. So my ideas will be like, 'I'll do a contra-harmony,' or 'I'll do a little melody fragment here that'll lead into this.' Or I'll want to put a hook in, because I'm a rock guy; I like hooks. Jazz guys don't mind starting a song and for three minutes nothing happens except for some kind of cool interplay. But if a rock song's been going for three minutes, you'd better be to the third chorus."

Playing such music live is even more of a challenge, but Buck was eager to take it up; Tuatara backed Eitzel on his 1997 tour and headlined additional gigs last summer. Buck knew that there was a strong possibility that R.E.M. boosters would be disappointed by Tuatara's eclectic nature, but most of his worst fears never came to pass.

"A lot of people came because I'm in R.E.M. and they wanted to see this famous guy and wondered what he was doing," he acknowledges. "And some of them might never have heard a jazz record. Not that I'm playing jazz, but in a world where R.E.M. might be the weirdest thing you like, Tuatara could probably sound pretty strange. But I've got to say that the response was really good. If we played to 500 people, maybe 10 percent of the audience would leave, and the rest would stay for three hours--and some of them would come to the next town, because every show was different; we did different songs, and the songs were different lengths and sometimes had different tempos and time signatures. So all in all, I feel really positive about it."

He's also pleased that most listeners have applauded his decision to stretch instead of branding him a snooty wanker for venturing so far from the rock basics. "When we played L.A., Paul Westerberg from the Replacements was there," he says. "I've known Paul since about '82, and we're really good friends, and he's great, and he's totally sober. And he watched the whole show, which I couldn't believe. And afterward I said, 'Hey, Paul, how are you doing?' And he said, 'Well, Peter, that was pretty...experimental.' And I went, 'Hey, Paul, if you were still drinking, you'd be calling bullshit on us right now.' And he just started laughing.

"To a certain degree, people are going to think Tuatara is pretentious. But none of us are saying, 'This is jazz' or 'This is world music.' We're a pop band that happens to use some jazz players and ethnic instruments from around the world. But one of the great things about Tuatara is that it's not particularly authentic. It's all these ideas filtered through us--and this is what comes out."

Tuatara sounds more assured than ever on Trading With the Enemy. The lineup heard on the disc is larger than before--McCaughey and Berlin are major contributors, and they're supplemented by percussionist Elizabeth Pupo-Walker, brass experts Christopher Littlefield and Craig Flory, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Stone. Moreover, the songs seem less like amalgamations of disparate elements than units that are complete in and of themselves. The fabulous opener, "The Streets of New Delhi," is a should-be cop-show theme highlighted by Littlefield's invigorating trumpet stabs; "Smuggleros Cove" and "Night in the Emerald City" are filled with musical dark corners and clever twists; "Fela the Conqueror" and "L'Espionnage Pomme de Terre" are mock fusion that's both thrilling and good-humored; and "Afterburner" uses melodic notions that pit spy vs. spy. Great art it's not; lots of fun it is.

In Buck's view, Trading With the Enemy works better than its predecessor because the musicians have spent more time together. "A lot of it was composed when we were touring in May or during downtime in the studio," he says. "So as opposed to Barrett and Justin putting down things on a four-track and us overdubbing, it was written with the thought of having all of us playing the whole time. It's more band-oriented, and it feels more like a group dynamic. I was really happy with the last one, but as good as it is, it did have the feel of different people coming in on different days recording different things. But this time around, it tended to be groups of us who went in and recorded. Not every single one of us could go in on every single day; there were a couple of things that were recorded when I was in Hawaii. But I was mostly there, and so was everybody else."

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