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R.E.M. discusses band's breakup, friendship and Songwriters Hall of Fame honor

R.E.M. on their beginning and their breakup
R.E.M. reflects on band's beginning, breakup and more in rare interview 08:58

R.E.M. started as a college band and quickly grew into a supergroup, taking indie rock to the top of the pop charts with an exceptional catalog of 15 studio albums. On Thursday, the band will be recognized for its achievements by being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The iconic group — featuring frontman Michael Stipe on vocals, Peter Buck on guitar, Mike Mills on bass and Bill Berry on drums – decided to part ways in 2011 after a decades-long run. 

In a rare interview, the group talked about how they formed, found their sound and what led to their breakup.

Group reunites for rare interview

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the four original members of R.E.M. sat down together for an interview with "CBS Mornings."

"You know, we lived or died on the strength of our songs. So this is a huge honor," Buck said of being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside fellow 2024 inductees Hillary Lindsey, Timothy "Timbaland" Mosley, Dean Pitchford and Steely Dan. Country music star Cindy Walker was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year.

"It is the hardest thing that we do. And it's the thing that we've worked on the most from the very beginning," Mills added.

The band formed at the University of Georgia in Athens. At the beginning of their career, Berry said they wrote songs as fast as they could "just to put food on the table."

Finding their sound

But The quartet quickly found their sound. Most of their writing was done inside the same rehearsal space in Athens.

"It felt like kismet to me. When it happened, it felt right," Stipe said.

They showed up in the studio every afternoon with a list of ideas and to see if it inspired any band members. Mills, Buck and Berry would write the music and then leave the lyrics to Stipe, who Mills called one of the best "melodists" in the world.

When asked about the pressure of songwriting from labels waiting for the next release, Stipe joked that Buck was always waiting for R.E.M.'s next album.

"Somebody's got to drive the train, and we were all more than happy to have Peter be sort of our motivator," Mills said.

"More than happy" may not be the phrase I would use," Buck said.

"Looking back," Stipe said with a laugh. "There's a body of work that wouldn't be there had you not been pushing us as hard as you did.

Some songs came easily — like "Losing My Religion."

Buck jokes that he still doesn't play mandolin and Stipe can't recall the inspiration behind the lyrics, though he does remember the lyrics to the chorus were originally was written as "That's me in the kitchen — not the spotlight."

Stipe said he loves the song, but the group never imagined it would be a hit. Mills said it should never have been one.

"It's like a bumblebee. They shouldn't be able to fly. That song shouldn't have been a hit," he added.

R.E.M.'s amicable breakup

In 1995, Berry suffered a double brain aneurysm on stage in Switzerland. He recovered but left the band two years later. R.E.M. carried on, but never quite recovered its equilibrium before disbanding in 2011.

After Berry's departure, Buck admitted the band struggled to agree on things musically — from the kind of music, how to record it and whether to go on tour, among other decisions.

"We could barely agree on where to go to dinner. And now, we can just agree on where to go to dinner," Buck said.

But the band members are thrilled to reconnect to celebrate a major achievement.

"We're also here to tell the tale, and we're sitting at the same table together with deep admiration and … lifelong friendship," Stipe said. "A lot of people that do this can't claim that."

Ultimately, the bandmates said they never had any second thoughts about walking away when they did — everyone but Berry, that is.

"That was a weird time for me," he explained. "And I made it weird for these guys, too."

But his bandmates said they respected his decision. Berry explained that his brain surgery and recovery lowered his energy level and that he didn't have the same drive he once did. So, he decided to walk away, which he didn't regret until later in life.

"I think we quit at the right time. This is a really good place to finish, you know – great tour, great album, go home," Buck said.

Though they are reuniting to celebrate their illustrious catalog, don't expect an R.E.M. reunion tour. When asked what it would take to get the band back together one last time, Mills joked "a comet." His band members agreed there was nothing that would make them reconsider their decision.

"It'd never be as good," Buck said.

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