The new documentary Automatic Unearthed tells all about R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People as the group celebrates the album’s 25th anniversary (and box set reissue). And a highlight for all concerned was Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones writing string arrangements for four of the songs — as evidenced by a clip from the movie, premiering exclusively below. Head here for more info about the documentary and box set.
Bassist-keyboardist Mike Mills tells Billboard that it was producer Scott Litt’s idea to recruit Jones to write the arrangements for “Drive,” “Everybody Hurts,” “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and “Nightswimming.” “It hadn’t occurred to us, and we didn’t think he’d say yes, but as soon as he mentioned (Jones’) name and I thought about ‘Kashmir,’ it was like, ‘Well, shit, why not?'” Mills recalls. “And then we sent him the stuff and he liked it and he came down and listened and did exactly what we wanted, which was to elevate the songs without dominating them. It really added a whole other level of beauty and a whole other thing to listen to that really completed these songs in a way.
“I mean, ‘Everybody Hurts’ would not be what it is without the strings. And ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight’ is really a song that’s much better with (strings); It gave it a little gravity that I think it kind of needed.”
Mills — who in the documentary recalls Jones complimenting his Hammond organ work — also remembers a night out on the town with Jones as “a really good time. I just really enjoyed talking to him and getting stores about Bonzo (John Bonham) and stuff like that.”
Automatic Unearthed, which is not included in the Automatic box set, premieres on YouTube on Friday (Dec. 8).
Automatic, of course, was one of R.E.M.’s crowning achievements, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and certified quadruple platinum. “Drive” and “Man On The Moon” also appeared on a variety of charts, along with “Everybody Hurts” and “Man On The Moon.” “It’s really nice to know what an impact it’s had on people, that it’s held together this well for so long,” says Mills, who’s been out promoting the reissue, which includes live tracks, demos and outtakes. “We were riding the wave. Even though we were sort of against the grunge monster at the time, we were just doing good work and we had a lot of people on our side and they heard something they connected to in what we were doing.”
Mills has joined forces with R.E.M. mates Michael Stipe and Peter Buck in making the rounds to promote the Automatic box set in recent weeks. But that “reunion” should not give fans any hope of the group working together again after splitting up during 2011. “In a word — no,” Mills says with a laugh. “Michael and I have a really great time doing the press trips. We go off and we go to really fun cities and have great dinners and work hard all day. But if anything it reinforces the idea that we did the right thing by breaking up when we did.” Mills is, however, confident that there will be more digs into R.E.M.’s catalog for deluxe versions of subsequent albums.
“That’s really up to the record companies. They’re the driving force behind it, not us,” he says. “We wouldn’t be looking backwards if it weren’t for the record companies wanting to do these reissues. And we’re happy with them on an artistic level because mastering science has changed so much that you can actually make them sound better. And at this point the distance of time is so great that it’s OK to look back a little bit, even though that’s not something any of us never really did or wanted to do. But given the time and the effect these records have had on ourselves and on people, it’s OK to revisit them. I think there’s probably plenty of material (for future reissues) that are worth listening to.”