The Buck stops here

With Tuatara and R.E.M., Peter Buck goes on some new adventures in hi-fi

Since the release of 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, three-quarters of R.E.M.--the band more responsible than any other for bringing so-called alternative rock into the cultural mainstream--has been branching out in non-musical directions. Bassist Mike Mills is something of a regular on the celebrity golf circuit and has even commented about the sport on ESPN alongside Hootie and the Blowfish's Darius Rucker. Lead singer Michael Stipe has dabbled in film production and recently appeared on Charlie Rose's PBS chat show and other TV forums to hype his latest vanity project, a book-length collection of photos he took of rocker Patti Smith. And drummer Bill Berry, who suffered a brain aneurysm in March 1995, decided he liked living more than rocking and resigned from the group he'd anchored since its 1980 birth.

By contrast, guitarist Peter Buck has spent much of the past two years making more music. He's all over The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy, an enjoyable 1997 platter by the Minus 5, a combo led by Scott McCaughey (of Young Fresh Fellows fame). He also served as maestro for West, a brooding but rewarding 1997 album by onetime American Music Club frontman Mark Eitzel, and he plays a variety of instruments for Tuatara, whose alluring second CD for Epic Records, Trading With the Enemy, hit stores in late June. Just as important, he seems as stimulated as ever by these experiences.

"Music for me is just like breathing," he says, his words flooding from him in a rapid torrent. "It's something I do really naturally. It's not something I necessarily do really well. Then again, no one's ever said I'm a great breather, either. But it's something that I love doing, and given the fact that I'm able to work with people who I really respect, I'm learning new things all the time. Like in Tuatara, I'll learn a scale that I never knew, or I'll work with a songwriter and think, 'That's an interesting way to structure a song,' or, 'Gee, why would the bridge be here? That's great.' I'm still picking up huge amounts of tips."

Like the Minus 5, Tuatara is not Buck's band. "I always go to pains to stress that I'm a side guy," Buck notes. "It's not my vision. I'm working to help other people find their vision and to bring ideas to it." This statement should not be interpreted as mere modesty (a quality Buck has plenty of). The creative forces behind Tuatara are Justin Harwood, the bassist for Luna, and Barrett Martin, who drums with Screaming Trees. Given that New York-based Luna is an art band often likened to the Velvet Underground, and Screaming Trees exemplifies the Seattle sound still called grunge in some corners, this pairing seems unlikely. But, as Buck points out, both Harwood and Martin have musical interests that go beyond their primary gigs.

"They first got together to demo stuff for possible soundtrack purposes," he says. "They love soundtrack music, and they thought, 'Hey, we're both in bands, but wouldn't it be great if we could get some soundtrack work too?' So they called some friends in to do it with them."

Fortunately for Martin and Harwood, they have a lot of talented acquaintances, including McCaughey, Critters Buggin saxophonist Skerik, and Buck, who splits his time between Seattle and Hawaii. Buck felt a connection with these players from the start. "I went in, and we improvised and made up, like, three songs on the spot--and they were good songs," he says.

Martin agreed, and so did the folks at his imprint. "Barrett called me up and said, 'I played it for the label, and they don't think it's a soundtrack; they think it's a band. So now we've got a four-record deal,'" Buck remembers. "And I was like, 'Cool. What label is it?' He said, 'Epic,' and I said, 'Do they know I'm on Warner Bros. [R.E.M.'s label]?' He said, 'I guess. Do you think it's a problem?' And I said, 'I don't know. I suppose I should talk to a lawyer or something.'" This legal conversation obviously went well: On Tuatara's 1997 debut, Breaking the Ethers, Buck is listed as one of four members of the group, alongside Martin, Harwood, and Skerik.

Buck fans who thought Ethers would sound like his previous work were soon disabused of this notion. None of the 11 tracks on the disc (three of which were co-written by Buck) incorporates vocals, and most have virtually nothing to do with rock. "Breaking the Ethers/Serengeti," the first number, rolls along on a world-music rhythm bed--congas, tablas, and something called a "thunder drum" figure prominently--before flowering into an island melody sparked by Skerik's sax and Martin's marimba. Other offerings are equally offbeat: "Dark State of Mind" is suspenseful and atmospheric; "Saturday Night Church" features Los Lobos' Steve Berlin on, of all things, bass pennywhistle; "The Desert Sky" finds Martin's sitar dueling with Buck's dulcimer; and "Land of Apples" is a hallucinatory workout not far removed from some of Tortoise's more accessible concoctions. As for "The Getaway," on which Buck and Pearl Jam's Mike McCready allow their electric guitars to butt heads, it's a honking, squawking opus that wouldn't sound out of place as part of the score for In the Heat of the Night.

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