The Buck Stops Here

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

Since the release of 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, three-quarters of R.E.M., the band more responsible than any other for bringing the alternative-rock movement into the cultural mainstream, has been branching out in non-musical directions. Bassist Mike Mills is something of a regular on the celebrity golf circuit and has even commented about the sport on ESPN alongside Hootie & the Blowfish's Darius Rucker. Lead singer Michael Stipe has dabbled in film production and recently appeared on Charlie Rose's PBS chat show and other TV forums to hype his latest vanity project, a book-length collection of photos he took of rocker Patti Smith. And drummer Bill Berry, who suffered a brain aneurysm in March 1995, decided that he liked living more than rocking and resigned from the group he'd anchored since its 1980 birth.

By contrast, guitarist Peter Buck has spent much of the past two years making more music. He's all over The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy, an enjoyable 1997 platter by the Minus 5, a combo led by Scott McCaughey (of Young Fresh Fellows fame). He also served as maestro for West, a brooding but rewarding 1997 album by onetime American Music Club frontman Mark Eitzel, and he plays a variety of instruments for Tuatara, whose alluring second CD for Epic Records, Trading With the Enemy, hit stores in late June. Just as important, he seems as stimulated as ever by these experiences.

"Music for me is just like breathing," he says, his words flooding from him in a rapid torrent. "It's something I do really naturally. It's not something I necessarily do really well. Then again, no one's ever said I'm a great breather, either. But it's something that I love doing, and given the fact that I'm able to work with people who I really respect, I'm learning new things all the time. Like in Tuatara, I'll learn a scale that I never knew, or I'll work with a songwriter and think, 'That's an interesting way to structure a song,' or, 'Gee, why would the bridge be here? That's great.' I'm still picking up huge amounts of tips."

Like the Minus 5, Tuatara is not Buck's band. "I always go to pains to stress that I'm a side guy," Buck notes. "It's not my vision. I'm working to help other people find their vision and to bring ideas to it." This statement should not be interpreted as mere modesty (a quality Buck has plenty of). The creative forces behind Tuatara are Justin Harwood, the bassist for Luna, and Barrett Martin, who drums with Screaming Trees. Given that New York-based Luna is an art band often likened to the Velvet Underground and Screaming Trees exemplifies the Seattle sound still called grunge in some corners, this pairing seems unlikely. But, as Buck points out, both Harwood and Martin have musical interests that go beyond their primary gigs.

"They first got together to demo stuff for possible soundtrack purposes," he says. "They love soundtrack music, and they thought, 'Hey, we're both in bands, but wouldn't it be great if we could get some soundtrack work, too?' So they called some friends in to do it with them."

Fortunately for Martin and Harwood, they have a lot of talented acquaintances, including McCaughey, Critters Buggin saxophonist Skerik and Buck, who splits his time between Seattle and Hawaii. Buck felt a connection with these players from the start. "I went in, and we improvised and made up, like, three songs on the spot--and they were good songs," he says.

Martin agreed, and so did the folks at his imprint. "Barrett called me up and said, 'I played it for the label, and they don't think it's a soundtrack; they think it's a band. So now we've got a four-record deal,'" Buck remembers. "And I was like, 'Cool. What label is it?' He said, 'Epic,' and I said, 'Do they know I'm on Warner Bros. [R.E.M.'s label]?' He said, 'I guess. Do you think it's a problem?' And I said, 'I don't know. I suppose I should talk to a lawyer or something.'" This legal conver-sation obviously went well: On Tuatara's 1997 bow, Breaking the Ethers, Buck is listed as one of four members of the group, alongside Martin, Harwood and Skerik.

Buck fans who thought Ethers would sound like his previous work were soon disabused of this notion. None of the eleven tracks on the disc (three of which were co-written by Buck) incorporate vocals, and most have virtually nothing to do with rock. "Breaking the Ethers/ Serengeti," the first number, rolls along on a world-music rhythm bed--congas, tablas and something called a "thunder drum" figure prominently--before flowering into an island melody sparked by Skerik's sax and Martin's marimba. Other offerings are equally offbeat. "Dark State of Mind" is suspenseful and atmospheric; "Saturday Night Church" features Los Lobos's Steve Berlin on, of all things, bass pennywhistle; "The Desert Sky" finds Martin's sitar dueling with Buck's dulcimer; and "Land of Apples" is a hallucinatory workout not far removed from some of Tortoise's more accessible concoctions. As for "The Getaway," on which Buck and Pearl Jam's Mike McCready allow their electric guitars to butt heads, it's a honking, squawking opus that wouldn't sound out of place as part of the score for In the Heat of the Night.

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."

The entire gang is participating in Tuatara's latest tour; only Berlin will miss a handful of dates. The venues on the jaunt are generally smaller than those R.E.M. has seen during the Nineties, but Buck doesn't mind. For him, one stage is as good as the next. "I'm glad that I've gotten a chance to play at places for a huge amount of people; it's a weird and different thing, and I like it a lot. But there's something to be said for playing a club. We played in Chapel Hill on the last tour, and there was a guy who was really drunk in front of me. He was yelling, and in a big place, I probably wouldn't have noticed that he was being an asshole. But there, he was right in front of me, so I went, 'Hey, you, I don't know where you think you are, but I can hear you. Now shut up. Turn your ass around and go to the back of the room if you want to yell.' Well, he left for a while, but then he came back to the front of the stage and he yelled at me, and I yelled at him. But after the show we talked for a while, and I bought him a drink, which was a cool thing I couldn't have done in a twenty-thousand seater."

Buck has a remarkable memory when it comes to shows; when a 1984 date R.E.M. played with Dream Syndicate in Glenwood Springs is mentioned to him, he reels off specific details about the venue, the set and even the watermelon that Stipe ate during the encore. And because he's romanticized this period of his career, his jaunts with Tuatara have felt like going home. "I only have really nice thoughts about the old times," he confesses. "Enough time has gone by that I've forgotten the being hungry and the being cold and the being completely broke and sleeping in the van. All you remember are these guys who were totaly strong about what they were doing and who went out and burned down every stage they could. And the same thing goes for Tuatara. I can tell you that the worst motel I ever stayed at in my life was in Boston during the Tuatara tour. But what kind of person would I be if I only remembered that stuff or dwelled on it? I'd rather think about what a good time I'm having."

This enthusiasm extends to the forthcoming R.E.M. album, which is set for release in late October. The recording sessions, which took place mainly in San Francisco, found Stipe, Mills and Buck working in the studio without departed drummer Berry for the first time. Attempting to fill in for him were several Tuatara principals. According to Buck, "Mike and I play percussion, and we hired Barrett to be a studio drummer, vibes player, bass player and percussionist. Scott McCaughey plays bass, guitar and percussion, Mike plays most of the keyboards, and I play a lot of bass. There's not a lot of guitar on the record, actually. It's kind of out there, but in a good way.

The as-yet-untitled album "isn't really that influenced by Tuatara," Buck continues. "It's more influenced by the fact that a founding member--one of my brothers, for lack of a better word--decided that he couldn't do it anymore. And that's okay; I'm totally fine with that. In one way, it's a drag, because Bill is gone, but it's also completely liberating. Bill didn't want to do it, so now we're going to find a different way to be this band. And the music we made doesn't sound like anything we've ever done--and it doesn't sound that much like stuff that anyone else has ever done. I can hear the hallmark parts of the old R.E.M. stuff, except that there's no guitars on it. So no one's going to notice some of the chord changes and the melodies."

If the R.E.M. disc truly is as radical a departure as Buck implies, Tuatara will have been good training for him. After all, the lesser-known of his groups has already taught him a great deal about how to deal with expectations. "I'd really hate for people to come see us thinking it'll be anything like R.E.M.," he says. "It isn't. But it's still cool."

American Music Festival, with Chris Isaak, the BoDeans, Pete Droge, Tuatara and Chris Stills. 10:30 a.m. Sunday, July 12, Winter Park Ski Resort, $30, 830-

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