20 Years Ago: Bill Berry Leaves R.E.M.
There’s an old joke that goes, “What do you call people who hang out with musicians all the time? Drummers.”
That’s a sly insult to many talented percussionists of all stripes, and yet, rock fans laugh because they recognize the pecking order. In the opinion of the fans (if not the bands) the drummer is the low guy on the totem pole, with rare exceptions. He’s the one you might be able to replace without drastically altering the band’s sound. That’s the theory anyway.
But when R.E.M. announced on Oct. 30, 1997 that drummer Bill Berry was leaving the group, it was a little different. Long-running fans of the alternative rockers took the news hard. After all, R.E.M. were a democratic unit, who had maintained order by remaining friends as their band became more and more popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They credited all of their songs to Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, no matter who created them. And just a couple of years prior to this big reveal, the quartet had infamously claimed that if any member left the band, R.E.M. would cease to exist.
Fans who had taken R.E.M. at their earnest word had to wonder, would Berry’s departure mean the end of the band? In fact, the situation was the exact opposite.
“The first thing he said when he dropped this bomb on us is if it was going to break up the band, he wasn’t going to leave,” frontman Stipe told Addicted to Noise the day after the announcement. Berry concurred: “I was prepared to [stay]. I said it and I meant it.”
But, after a multi-week process of denial, anger, sadness and acceptance, it became clear to the other members of R.E.M. that Berry was no longer happy in the band. The 39-year-old was ready to retire and become a hay farmer, trading in his drumsticks for a pitchfork.
The drummer explained that when the group had reconvened in Hawaii to begin working on their new record (what would become 1998’s Up), he no longer felt the same passion for making music that Buck, Mills and Stipe shared.
“I found myself wandering out to the beach and looking at the waves and stuff while the other guys were inside working away,” Berry said. “I put some things on tape, but my heart wasn’t in it.”
The other three members of R.E.M. noticed Berry’s physical and creative absence. After all, he wasn’t “just” the drummer in the band. Since the four guys had founded the band in 1980 in Athens, Ga., Berry had contributed guitar, bass, mandolin, piano and vocals to R.E.M. performances, demos and album recordings. He was R.E.M.’s editor, a voice for getting to the hook and a force against getting too fussy.
And he’d been a significant melodic contributor alongside guitarist Buck and bassist/keyboardist Mills, coming up with the initial ideals for “Man on the Moon,” “Perfect Circle” and “Everybody Hurts” among many other songs. On the final R.E.M. studio album to feature Berry, 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, he had co-written the appropriately titled “Leave.”
When asked if his uneasy feelings dated back to working on the previous album, Berry said they did not – although it had been a tumultuous couple of years. R.E.M. had been cobbling together New Adventures while they were touring the world in 1995, their first huge trek in six years. It was also the tour that saw three of R.E.M.’s four members land in the hospital, with the most serious circumstance involving Berry.
On March 1, 1995, in Lausanne, Switzerland, Berry collapsed on stage mid-set, the result of what turned out to be two aneurysms on the right side of his brain. The drummer underwent a successful craniotomy, rested up and made a full recovery. Before long, he was playing golf and back to touring with his bandmates. Even though Berry had survived, the experience had an effect on his future.
“I would say that the opportunity I had to reflect while lying on my back in a Swiss hospital bed,” Berry said in an online chat in 1997. “I began to sense that my priorities had shifted somewhat and that I was looking forward to maybe a simpler life... with less travel involved.”
Mills, who had known Berry since they were teenagers in Macon, Ga, said he noticed that his friend had grown increasingly weary of life on the road. Berry also admitted to having grown tired of being in the media spotlight, doing interviews, existing as a public figure and appearing in videos.
“Bill has mentioned that he’s maybe not enjoying some of the things that go on around the music as much as we have in the past,” Buck told MTV News. “Interviews, you know, videos – there’s a lot of things that go along with this that can get really stressful. If you’re not enjoying yourself musically, [it] makes it worse.”
After careful consideration and lots of conversations with his bandmates, Berry decided it was time for him to redirect his focus to something other than music. The drummer, who had always been an early riser, decided to put his energy into his hay farm in Farmington, outside of Athens.
“I’ve been playing the drums since age nine,” Berry said in an official statement (via Rolling Stone) from the band. “I’m at a point in my life where my priorities have shifted. I loved my 17 years with R.E.M. but I’m ready to ... move on to a different phase of my life.”
In the meantime, R.E.M. moved into a different phase of their career. Buck, Mills and Stipe claimed they would not replace Berry with a full-time drummer, instead becoming a trio that would rely on the assistance of hired hands. The transition wasn’t easy. With Berry’s exit, Stipe entered a depression that carried over into writer’s block. The first recording sessions without R.E.M.’s founding drummer were difficult and didn’t always feature the band members working together. They nearly broke up, almost breaking the promise they had given Berry.
But the dense, electronic tangle of Up arrived just under a year after Berry’s official departure and R.E.M. continued on. A 1999 tour helped them congeal as a three-piece, augmented by drummer Joey Waronker, and touring multi-instrumentalists Scott McCaughey and Ken Stringfellow. Ministry thumper Bill Rieflin would eventually become R.E.M.’s go-to percussionist as they performed and recorded in the ’00s, before calling it a day in 2011.
Although Berry never rejoined R.E.M. on a permanent basis, he did partner with his old bandmates on a variety of one-off occasions between 2003 and 2007, usually for shows that did require him to travel too far (i.e. concerts in Raleigh, N. C., and Athens and a wedding reception for an R.E.M. guitar tech). When the band were welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, Berry agreed to man the drums at the induction ceremony.
“It’s a great chance to get back together and perform with R.E.M., which I always loved doing,” he told Online Athens ahead of the performance. “This opportunity also does not require me to climb onto [a] bus or plane to do it again and again for several consecutive months.”
In the lead-up to the ceremony, Berry also made one last recording with Buck, Mills and Stipe – a cover of John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” for a charity album. And, following R.E.M.’s 2011 breakup, Berry and Mills have been known to join Buck onstage to play songs like “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” or “(I Am) Superman” when the Minus 5 (of which Buck and McCaughey are members) come to Athens and play the 40 Watt Club.
Looking back on R.E.M.’s 31 years as a band, it’s difficult not to see the drummer’s exit as one of a few signposts in the band’s career. Coming as R.E.M.’s records were about to stop becoming event releases (as mainstream music tastes were shifting), the departure of Bill Berry is an easy demarcation point for when the band entered a popular and – some would say – creative decline. “They were never the same without Berry” is both a true statement and a lazy criticism.
“It’s the end of an era for us... Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe... and that’s sad,” Stipe said in 1997. “For me, Mike and Peter, as R.E.M., are we still R.E.M.? I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn how to run differently.”
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