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Interview with John Hunter – Writer of Maps and Legends: The Story of R.E.M. – Part 2

by Killian Laher

No More Workhorse caught up with author John Hunter about his self-published R.E.M. book for a lengthy chat about his book and the band that inspired it.

You can read Part 1 of the interview here.

NMW: Was it difficult to get the book published?

JH: I published it myself. Publishing a book yourself is difficult. I’ve learned a lot. I just ordered a third printing last week, so I first published it as an ebook on Apple Books. That didn’t do too hot. Then I scraped together enough money to publish the physical book and that pretty quickly sold out. The second printing did really well. I have ten copies of it left and I’ve ordered a 1000 copies of the third printing. So I have to say it’s exceeded my expectations, but it’s been a learning experience. I would like to license it to a publisher, particularly in the UK, because it’s so expensive to ship it there. But I think when you write a book in America, there’s a chicken and egg problem, where if you’ve never written a book, you can’t get a literary agent. And if you don’t have a literary agent, you can’t really place it with a publisher. I don’t know if it’s like that in the UK. If you don’t have an agent, publishers won’t even look at your manuscript or your book. But if you don’t have a book, you can’t get an agent.

NMW: What would be your favourite era or album of R.E.M.?

JH: Reckoning, without a doubt. Again, I saw them for the first time in 1984 when they were touring behind Reckoning. So I was 16 and that’s a very impressionable age. I think it’s fair to say that most people latch on to the music that hits them in their teens. So if I could step back for myself, I would say that probably to some degree, my fondness for that album has to do with me being the right age to receive it. Even if I could distance myself from that, I still think it’s their best album by far. Two that don’t have that attachment to my teenage years would be Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi… probably Fables of the Reconstruction as well.

Of course, the band badmouthed Fables for a long time, I think it had to do with the state of mind they were in when they recorded it. But I think it’s a fantastic collection of songs. I think Joe Boyd, contrary to popular belief, actually did a very good job producing it.

I like the murkiness of it. I like the jangliness of it. Life’s Rich Pageant sounds great and it rocks, and it was a step forward for them. But I like Fables because it was the last album where they still had that jangliness. I’m a huge fan of the Byrds and folk rock, and that was, like I said earlier, when I was a kid, my mum had the Simon and Garfunkel and Byrds albums and I latched onto those, and those albums were not popular in the late 70s, early 80s. Rock had moved on to Led Zeppelin and other stuff.

That kind of sound was not mainstream at that time, but I really liked it. And one of the things that really attracted me to R.E.M. was that they sounded like the Byrds, which they would deny, but I think they clearly did. I loved the Byrds at a time when it wasn’t fashionable. When R.E.M. came along, that was a huge part of the appeal to me, was that they sounded like the Byrds. Fables is the last album where they really sounded like that. Both Fables and Up were made in trying times for them. I’m sure that was no fun for them to make those records, but whatever jolt you get from being in kind of a bad situation seeps into those records. You could say the same thing about Blood on the Tracks or whatever. A lot of great records have been made when the artist who made them wasn’t necessarily having a great moment in their life.

NMW: What do you think of noughties-era R.E.M.?

JH: Half of Reveal is great. I love I’ll Take the Rain, I think that’s a fantastic track. That doesn’t get enough attention or respect or love. No matter how many problems they had with their albums in the noughties, they still could really deliver live. Some of those songs, like She Just Wants To Be from Reveal, really came to life in concert. I saw them in 2003 and 2004 and they put on a great show both times. I don’t really like the album Accelerate, but I do like the title track to that album. Oh My Heart from Collapse Into Now is one of the best songs they ever did. We All Go Back To Where We Belong from that last greatest hits album (Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011) is a fantastic song. If you’re going to release a last single, that’s a pretty good last single to go out on. The four albums that followed Up are not perfect, but they certainly have their moments. Aftermath on Around the Sun, I think is a fantastic track.

NMW: Do you think R.E.M. is still finding a new audience?

JH: That’s a tough one, and I’ve thought about that a lot. I had this coworker a few years ago who was a young indie rock musician, and she has put out two or three records and is somewhat successful in the Pitchfork world. She didn’t really know who they were, and I gave her a copy of Reckoning. I have seven or eight copies of Reckoning because I’m kind of an obsessive record collector and I have a lot of copies of all their records. She loved it. I think a lot of younger people only know them as the band that did Losing my Religion and Man on the Moon.

I guess Nirvana have hit with young people more. I guess if Michael Stipe had committed suicide in 1992, there would probably be a myth around R.E.M. like there is around Nirvana. I think there’s a lot of truth to the fact that R.E.M. lasted so long that they weren’t really cool anymore. The Smiths broke up in 1987, and whatever you think of the Smiths, their catalogue is more or less perfect. I think that last album, Strangeways Here We Come, is showing some real signs of decline. But basically, the Smiths’ career is pretty impeccable. If R.E.M. had broken up around the time of Document, I think you’d have these perfect five albums that they made for IRS. And in some ways, they might be more highly regarded today. Or if they’d broken up after Automatic for the People. I think they did carry on too long, and I think maybe in some ways that has hurt their legacy because to young people, they became that boring band that your dad or your uncle likes.

They don’t have the myth of ‘they broke up too soon’, like the Pixies. For the Pixies, it was a good move to break up and then reform because people missed them. There was this feeling that they hadn’t perhaps achieved what they could have achieved. So people are rooting for them, but R.E.M. achieved everything that they ever wanted to achieve and more. So there’s no sort of ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ myth about them, right?

I don’t think they have the reach with young people that they should. I think that could change at any time. There was that phenomenon where younger people discovered Kate Bush from Running Up the Hill being used on a TV show (Stranger Things). Last year, the R.E.M. song, Strange Currencies was used on a TV show called The Bear. That generated a lot of buzz in America. I think any legacy band, like R.E.M. are always one song away on a TV show from perhaps having that Kate Bush phenomenon.

One thing that my wife talks to me about a lot, and I’ve noticed, too, is when we’re around young people and they’ll be humming a song and they’ll be talking about a song that’s pretty obscure. We’ll say, how do you know that song? The answer is always from a TV show, a movie or a video game. That’s not how I discover music, but it is, apparently, how a lot of young people do. The band Lush were never big in America, but then one of their songs (De-Luxe) got used on that Guitar Hero video game. That one song is now fairly well known because so many people game.

There’s a huge back catalogue of R.E.M. there for people to explore. There are 15 albums, so there’s no shortage of different eras for people to get into. By the end of their career, I think they were more popular in Ireland, the UK and Europe than they were in the States.

NMW: Do you think music is in a good state these days or is that something that interests you?

JH: That’s a tough one. I’d have to plead guilty to being a boring 56-year-old guy. My favourite album last year was the Blur album (The Ballad of Darren). Blur are the last band where I can identify all the members and have sort of kept up with them through thick and thin. The new albums I listened to last year a lot were the Rolling Stones album (Hackney Diamonds) and the Blur album. So that, unfortunately, says a lot about my involvement with new music. I like that band Alvvays but I guess the reason I like them is because they remind me of 80s indie rock. I listen to a lot of jazz. I got so disillusioned with grunge and Pearl Jam and all that that I stopped listening to rock music for a few years and got into jazz. And I’ve never really left that.

NMW: Have you any other plans to do any more writing?

JH: I’ve just gotten this third edition of the book ordered and I think I’ve got every last typo out of it. I’ve started writing a new book which is going to be about the sort of hippie Christian Jesus music phenomenon of the 1970s. In 1966, you had John Lennon getting the Beatles in trouble for saying that they were bigger than Jesus. Five years later, John Lennon was quoted as saying, every time I turn on the radio, I think there must be a God, because I hear George singing My Sweet Lord! One thing that’s really interesting to me is how the whole 60s counterculture went from sort of being anti-religious to the opposite. One of the theses of my book was that the sixties went too far in some ways, and there was an inevitable counter-revolution. Part of that was this Christian Rock phenomenon.

That’s what I’m working on now. I think the goal would be for that to come out in 2025. I have a couple more ideas kicking around. I came to this thing of writing books pretty late in life, but I have three or four more ideas and I would like to finish those. I think, God willing, I’ll keep doing this for another ten or 15 years.

After all of this, I can still put on Reckoning or Automatic for the People and enjoy it, and I’m grateful for that. There were times where I thought I would never want to listen to one of their records again, but thankfully I am able to do that and I would like to stop thinking about them and talking about them and just get to the point where I’m able to put on one of their records and just enjoy it for the music. Even after spending five years and thousands of hours with them, I am still able to listen to Fables of the Reconstruction and enjoy it.