From R.E.M. to Filthy Friends, Peter Buck puts song above self
The R.E.M. man talks guitar chemistry, raw riffs and Emerald Valley, his latest album with Filthy Friends, which also features Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker.
Image: Ingrid Renan
Peter Buck is a team player. He might have spent 31 years as the lone guitarist in R.E.M., one of the biggest rock bands of all time, but he considers himself a rhythm guy who’s there to facilitate things. That song-first selflessness is crystal clear in his current gig with Filthy Friends, where he slots in and keeps the whole endeavour ticking over while his bandmates enjoy free rein to get pyrotechnic.
“The things I like about listening to a classic rock single are the things I like about playing,” Buck says. “I’ve never been someone who wanted to play for 10 minutes and solo for five of it. I can solo, but there are better people out there. I write parts – that’s where everything takes off from.”
In 1981, we had our first glimpse of what it meant for Peter Buck to write a guitar part when R.E.M.’s debut single, Radio Free Europe, was released on the miniscule Hib-Tone label. It was a pencil sketch of the band’s magical four-way chemistry that would be filled in over time, with Buck’s jangling Rickenbacker riffs darting between Mike Mills’ melodic bass, Bill Berry’s metronomic drums and the esoteric wonder of Michael Stipe’s voice.
In the following decades, as they moved from college-rock heroes to chart-topping megastars, the band never lost sight of what it meant to function as a unit. And wherever they ended up – Document’s anthemic rabble-rousing, the sophisti-pop of Out Of Time or Monster’s heavy riffage – Buck had parts to hand that ensured the engine always turned over the first time.
Indie-rock supergroup Filthy Friends, formed back in 2014, presents a different sort of problem, but Buck’s approach to it is informed by how he’s successfully done things in the past. He’s happy to find a lane of his own while Corin Tucker, one half of Sleater-Kinney’s iconic dual-lead attack, and the freewheeling, imaginative veteran Kurt Bloch do their thing.
“With it being a three-guitar band, it’s helpful to stake out your space,” Buck says. “With R.E.M., I put down the main guitar and then overdubbed various things, but when we’re rehearsing, both Corin and Kurt have ideas. They’re a little bit more improvisational. I’m the rhythm-guitar player, I hold it down.”
Emerald Valley, the band’s new LP, captures this dynamic perfectly. Tucker, who played Buck’s Fender Musicmaster in the studio, is a hugely physical guitarist whose interjections add muscle to the songs, while Bloch is always on hand with a lead line that’s just a little weirder than it initially seems.
Buck’s contributions, meanwhile, thrillingly sound like Peter Buck Playing Guitar. The opening riff to album standout Only Lovers Are Broken couldn’t have been delivered by anybody else – his black Rickenbacker 360, which has featured on every record he’s cut in his career, comes across as every bit the “magical sword in his hands” that Tucker described in a recent interview.
“I like the idea that both Corin and Kurt are coming up with melodies that push the songs in different directions,” Buck says. “Generally, I come up with chord changes and kind-of riffs, and Corin will indicate where there’s space she could do something with. She quite often uses a melody line that’s either close to her vocal, or a statement.”
Sowing the seeds
Filthy Friends’ first record, 2017’s Invitation, was the result of Buck and Tucker figuring out how they might work together during their downtime from solo work and Sleater-Kinney respectively. The seeds were there – they were existing fans of their respective bands, and Tucker’s husband, the filmmaker Lance Bangs, shot R.E.M. videos in the old days – but they perhaps surprised even themselves with how well they complemented one another.
Buck’s commitment to creating beginning-to-end, meticulous guitar structures immediately bounced off Tucker’s more jagged playing and narrative drive, and on Emerald Valley that interaction has only become more pointed. Tucker’s lyrical sights are trained on a host of modern ills – Donald Trump, climate change, creeping gentrification – and Buck has rustled up canvasses for her to work on.
“Corin had a thematic feel of where she wanted the record to flow, which was great because once you’ve written a few songs, you know where you’re going,” Buck says. “I try to map it out for myself first. I essentially try to write a lot of stuff and throw it at her – anything she gets excited about is something we do.”
Buck has guitars dotted in rooms around his house, just in case inspiration strikes. The songs on Emerald Valley were written over a protracted period of time – some even pre-date Invitation – allowing him to wander from idea to idea, guitar to guitar.
The languorous, drone-like chords of the Trump-baiting November Man, for instance, were written on a Rock N Roll Relics custom strung entirely with E strings, Velvet Underground style, partly because it was to hand. The ringing Laurel Canyon cool of Break Me, meanwhile, came together in a funk the day after Buck’s fellow Rickenbacker icon Tom Petty died.
While rehearsing the songs pre-recording, Buck took eight to 10 guitars from his collection along to a series of sessions as he sought to narrow down his options. A Gibson Les Paul that was in regular rotation during his R.E.M. days made the trip, as did the Rock N Roll Relics axe and a single-pickup Satellite Coronet. “It’s got a P-90, but it’s not as crunchy as an old Gibson,” he says of the San Diego company’s distinctive model.
Buck’s Rickenbacker, though, is rarely far from his mind. Playing it is like a second language to him – he can hear how things will pan out on that instrument before picking it up. “I have other guitars, but generally, when I’m thinking about a rhythm-guitar tone that’s the guitar I’m thinking about, unless it’s something really loud,” he says.
Understanding how your gear will respond in certain situations is important for a guitarist such as Buck, who is notoriously pedal-phobic. That comes to the fore in Filthy Friends, where he studiously avoids crossing into the pedal-heavy world that Tucker and Bloch are happy in. Essentially, his approach is to find new ways of operating within a tight set of parameters, working with familiar gear to create new sounds.
“It helps having the Rick and an amp set up so that it’s real chimy and has a little bit of overload,” Buck says. “Switching to a P-90, I get the kind of fuzzy feel without having to hit a fuzz pedal. I’ll use pedals on stage sometimes because there’s no avoiding it, but I prefer to work with different-size amps, different guitars, to get the sounds I want without any processing.
“It’s a matter of trying to find a tone before the song starts. All the records that my generation listened to, they didn’t have pedals. Keith Richards seldom did, The Beatles did occasionally. Given Corin and Kurt use really processed tones, I think it’s helpful. Between two processed guitars, occasionally a bass through a fuzz and different reverbs going on with vocals and drums, it’s nice to have something that just sounds like a guitar.”
Buck’s playing, regardless of the competing creative mores of his time in R.E.M., as a solo artist, when collaborating with Joseph Arthur in Arthur Buck, or with Filthy Friends, has always been tethered to this conceit. The foundations of his career are based not on figuring out how to make his guitar sound like a fighter jet, but on understanding his strengths and weaknesses, working on his craft and understanding how to make subtle improvements.
R.E.M. only worked up the potential to be stadium giants because, throughout the 80s, their independent releases each sold more than the last. Buck made similar progress, beginning with finding his studio voice on their debut, Murmur, where he first learned to lay down a rhythm track and drop in to add emphasis, grit, or heft to segments of the songs.
“I’d been writing songs and playing guitar for years, but that first record was the starting point for me using the studio as a tool for overdubs,” he says. “There’s probably a lot more guitars on Murmur than you might think. All guitar-sounding, and I don’t think I had any pedals for that record at all. I was changing amps or volume. That was where it all started for me – prior to that we just went on stage and played pretty loud.”
Across four decades, Buck has never strayed from his own quiet, understated sort of cool. He’s remained more influential than famous, and not by accident. During Road Movie, R.E.M.’s impressionistic 1996 concert film, he laconically rattles off a slate of iconic songs while sporting a dress shirt that seems to change colour with the lighting. Across the stage, Mills exemplifies nerdy style as a sort of dime-store Jimmy Page, while a magnetic, Kohl-eyed Stipe stares down the front row of the crowd. “I’ve always felt that my job is to back up the lead singer,” Buck says, forever the team player.
Filthy Friends’ Emerald Valley is out now on Kill Rock Stars. The band play shows in Dublin, Oxted and London between May 29 and 31.
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