From R.E.M. Guitarist to Hollywood Lighting Technician: Nathan December’s Wild RideInterview • June 18, 2023 • Rolling Stone
He travelled the world with some of the biggest rock bands of the Nineties before putting the guitar down to work on movies like Iron Man and Thor
By Andy Greene
Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features guitarist Nathan December.
Nathan December lived a dream life back in the Nineties, even though very few people knew his name. It started when Ethan Hawke tapped him to play guitar on the Reality Bites soundtrack, and then invited him to act in the 1994 movie as his bandmate. It continued later that year, when R.E.M. hired him as a guitarist for the worldwide Monster tour and the New Adventures in Hi-Fi sessions. He rounded out the decade by playing on Liz Phair’s Whitechocolatespaceegg, helping the Goo Goo Dolls finish up Dizzy Up the Girl, and accompanying that band on an epic tour to promote the hit album.
But things took a turn in the early 2000s, when December’s solo career fizzled on the launch pad, guitar bands faded from the culture, and his savings dried up. He found himself crashing on a friend’s couch and painting houses for $100 a day. That’s when a friend helped him find work on Hollywood movie sets as a lighting technician. The work isn’t as glamorous as playing “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” to 20,000 screaming R.E.M. fans, but the pay is quite nice, the benefits are great, and it gives him time to play in a cover band on nights and weekends. It’s also allowed him to work on movies like Iron Man and Thor alongside set technicians who know little about his past.
“It would eke out every once in a while,” December tells Rolling Stone via Zoom from his home in Woodland Hills, California. “I certainly didn’t tell people. It wasn’t my place. I wasn’t like, ‘You should have known me when I was…’ But about once per every shoot, someone will saddle up to me and go, ‘Hey man, did you play with fuckin’ R.E.M.?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ They’d just lose their mind and go, ‘What are you doing here?’ I’d go, ‘I’m making my check and getting insurance, just like you. What do you think I’m doing here?'”
December grew up in the upscale Los Angeles suburb Palos Verdes. His three older siblings all loved music, and their copies of Frampton Comes Alive! and Deep Purple’s Machine Head filtered down to him when he was in elementary school. The first record he bought with his own money was Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic, kicking off a love of hard rock that continues to this day. His first concert took place at the Santa Barbara Bowl when his sister took him to see Loggins and Messina. Once he was old enough to go on his own, he gravitated towards metal shows, like the infamous 1986 Ozzy Osbourne/Metallica double bill.
Prior to that, he attended Heavy Metal Day at the US Festival. Forty years later, practically to the day, he can still recite the acts in the exact order they played. “It was Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Triumph, Scorpions, and then Van Halen,” he says. “That was a watershed moment. It was actual recognition of all the music that we liked. That said, it was a brutal day since it was so hot and dirty and there were no real facilities set up on the grounds, just a total shit show.”
He began playing guitar when he was nine years old. It started when his sister’s boyfriend wanted to distract him so he could have alone time with her. “He was this hippy guy,” says December. “He taught me three chords, showed me ‘Home on the Range,’ and told me to go off and practice. I disappeared with the guitar. I don’t remember what happened with the guy, but that was it for me.”
Lessons at a music store taught him much more than three chords and “Home on the Range,” and he was forming bands with his friends by the age of 13. “It was all I wanted to do,” he says. “We were playing everything from Joe Jackson to Elvis Costello, but then we’d throw in a Rush song or even ‘Walk Don’t Run’ by the Ventures. Whatever we could figure out, we’d play. As I got older, we put together a heavy metal band. We’d do half originals and half covers.”
Many of his friends moved on to college after high school. “At the time, all I thought of college was, ‘Four more years of school,'” December says. “I just didn’t want to do that. Nobody told me that you meet all your bandmates in college. I don’t know know I missed that whole drinking and going to college and finding my bandmates thing. I just worked every shitty job in the world and played in bands at night.”
For a solid decade after high school, December took on random jobs — including busboy, waiter, messenger, and factory worker — while playing in bands during his off-hours, including the Chili Peppers-meets-Sex Pistols punk/funk group Warsaw Cocktail. At no point did he even consider putting down the guitar. “My dad would have loved it if I finally hung it up and said, ‘I’m going to go and become a teacher,'” he says. “I didn’t look at it that way. My identity was playing guitar. It’s what I knew how to do.”
But nothing happened for him until a young actor named Ethan Hawke got him a bit role in one of his movies.
How did you wind up in Reality Bites?
That is a great story. I co-ran a studio called Cole Rehearsal in Hollywood. It was a phenomenal place. It was a great ground zero for people that rehearsed in Hollywood. Jack Irons, who used to play drums in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Chris Wagner, the bass player in Mary’s Danish, somehow got roped into doing the music for a movie for a very young Ethan Hawke. The needed a guitar player.
The deal was that we were going to record two songs for him, but he also needed to know a little about playing guitar to look effective in the movie. I volunteered to work out with him and get him in playing shape. He knew a little but, but not much. I sort of had a little boot camp with him. We then went and recorded these songs. It was fun.
About a month later, I got this call out of the blue. It was Ethan. He goes, “Hey, listen. Tit-for-tat, we’re going to film the music scenes at this little club in L.A. I’ll get you Taft-Hartley [union fees].” I didn’t know what any of that meant, but I was like, “Fuck yeah, I’ll come down.”
I just hung out in his trailer all day as he smokes my cigarettes. We played that music. It was fantastic. Then a week and a half later, he sent me a carton of cigarettes with a thank you note. He was super nice.
The whole shoot for you was one day?
Yeah. The band stuff was one day. I don’t know if the club still exists. It was at the bottom of La Cienega. It was called Fais Do-Do. It was an alternative club that was also a Cajun kitchen.
So you’re on “Add It Up” and “I’m Nuthin’?”
Yeah. All the guitar you see in the movie or hear on those songs on the soundtrack is me playing.
Did Ben Stiller give you any direction as the movie’s director?
A little bit. They really shot enough to make two music videos. They over-shot it completely and cut in about ten seconds for each song. But we were filming all day. He’d be like, “Come to the front of the stage and thrash around. Now the camera is going to pan left to right, so everybody face that way.” It was a bunch of that. Once we were playing, it was just us playing.
When you watch that movie when you’re young, you’re rooting for her to get together with Ethan Hawke’s character. When you watch it when you’re older, you sort of root for Ben Stiller.
Ben Stiller had a better long-term plan. He was more upwardly mobile. Ethan Hawke was sort of this drifter shitbag.
Ben Stiller took her crappy home movies and made them Into something people would watch. That was thoughtful.
It’s weird how the triangle shifts when you watch it as an adult. Ethan Hawke just smokes everyone’s cigarettes and is this negative prick the whole time. And his dad was dead. That’s his whole Achilles’ Heel.
People always debate about whether Singles or Reality Bites is the quintessential Nineties movie about young slackers. Which one is it from your perspective?
Here’s what I would say: The musical cameos in Singles are absolutely jaw-dropping. The fact that all those people at that time were in one movie — such a cross-section of people — that was a real coup. It’s an amazing thing.
The plot of Singles isn’t much to write home about. It’s just basically Bridget Fonda and Campbell Scott falling in and out of love six times. But Reality Bites is, to me, a picture about what teenage life was like at that point. It talks about MTV and takes place in Austin. It was more about what people are going through than Singles.
When did you join the band Careless?
That was another thing that came about from running Cole Rehearsal. [Former Minor Threat guitarist] Brian Baker was in [hardcore band] Junkyard at that point. And so when we started our relationship, he wasn’t Brian Baker from Minor Threat and Dag Nasty and all that stuff. He was Brian Baker from Junkyard. And that was kind of a big deal to me. I was like, “This guy is cool.”
Well, I would always read books at the front counter when I was working. One day he brought in some book and was like, “Here, you might like this.” When Junkyard broke up, we started hanging out a lot. He was like, “I want you to hear these things things I’m working on.” They were much more Bob Mould and Sugar, and stuff we both really liked. I said, “I want to be part of this. I want to do this.” That was the nexus of that. This was the end of 1991, early 1992. It lasted until 1994. That will bring us to all the other stuff in the story.
Were you a big R.E.M. fan in the Eighties and early Nineties?
Fanatic. Peter Buck was probably one of my top three guitar influences. His chord shapes, his style of playing, the fact that he was sort of an anti-guitar hero. He didn’t do solos. It was just about the atmospherics and stuff… It was fine to like Maiden and Priest. And Van Halen were always going to have my heart. They were it for me. But certain bands, R.E.M. being one of them, they’d come along and you couldn’t deny. They freaked us all out when they came out because they were so different.
They kept changing, too. My colleague Rob Sheffield has said that if you split their career in half, you still have two Hall of Fame-level bands.
I would agree with that, absolutely. I can remember where I was the first time I heard “The One I Love” on the radio. I knew it was going to be different for them from then on. I was like, “They changed the mix and Michael is out front. You can hear him.” That’s because [producer] Scott Litt got ahold of them. I’ll never forget it. I was driving messenger and I pulled the car over. I listened to the whole song. I was just like, “Oh, my God.”
And then with Out of Time and Automatic for the People, they brought it to a whole other level.
Yeah. Green too. The run that they had from the mid-Eighties through the late Nineties was absolutely insane.
To have two albums as enormous as Out of Time and Automatic and not tour them was pretty unusual.
We all think that. And yet, having hung around with them, they are completely organic. They make decisions in their own camp. I can totally see them going, like, “We don’t want to tour right now.” They spent about eight years on the road. They were like, “We just don’t want to do that.” I can’t think of many bands that stop touring at that station in their career. I mean, the Beatles, obviously. But not many others.
How did you first hear about the possibility of going on tour with them?
OK, here’s the story…I’m in Careless. Careless features Brian Baker, myself, a bass player named Todd Muscat, who still plays with Junkyard, and [future Goo Goo Dolls member] Mike Malinin on drums. Our management was the same management as the Goo Goo Dolls since we liked Superstar Car Wash and records like that. Their management was in L.A. We looked them up to see if they’d manage us, and they said “yes.” I knew that whole camp.
Scott Litt used to bring bands into Cole to do pre-production with them. Brian and I knew him. He was a super nice guy, very affable. And Brian obviously has this whole pedigree. When R.E.M. wanted an additional guitar player at that point, they initially reached out to Brian. I was still kind of playing with Brian. I was like, “Dude, Jesus Christ. You gotta do that.”
Brian went and played with them a couple of times. But being R.E.M., they move at a glacial pace. He didn’t hear back from them for months. In the interim, Bad Religion called him up and went, “Listen, do you want to be a full-on member? [Guitarist] Brett Gurewitz is going to stay home and write songs. We need a guy now.” He knew all those guys and went, “Yeah.”
The last thing he did when he went out the door was he told Scott Litt, “Listen, the guy you should get for this Nathan. He is just the Peter Buck Encyclopedia. Trust me. This would be a good thing.” I owe that gig to Brian Baker. I wold say that on the record, on my children’s eyes, that he is responsible for that.
What happened next?
I was working at a fax maintenance and repair place. This is when fax machines were everywhere. They were a big deal. Business all had them. I spent my day delivering and repairing fax machines. The phone rings. I pick it up. Someone asks for Nathan. I say, “This is him.” This drawling voice says, ‘”You probably don’t know who this is, but my name is Jefferson Holt. I manage a band called R.E.M.” Of course, I obviously knew who Jefferson Holt was. I went, “How’s it going?”
They invited me out to New York for an audition. I knew they were looking at three people, but I don’t know who the other two were. To this day, I don’t know.
Where did you first meet the band?
First I went down to the “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” video shoot to meet them since they were all in L.A. They did that at some warehouse. I went down to meet them there at like midnight. You have to understand, I’m a fanatic. I’m barely able to control my bowels. I’m freaking out. I was like, “There’s Michael Stipe!” He was like, “Oh, you have pictures on you,” since I have tattoos. He’s like, “I have pictures too,” and he showed me a tattoo on his palm. It was like meeting aliens. It was just insane.
What happened from there?
Then they asked me to New York. I played with them. They had told me a few songs to learn. They said, “What do you want to play?” I said, “Anything you’ve ever written, really.” I think that was definitely a mark in my favor. We played a bunch of stuff, old, new. They showed me “Kenneth” that night, and it was just crazy since it’s like 96 chords in a row. It wasn’t out yet. They wanted to see how quickly I could process.
We did all that. It went great. And then like six weeks went by. I heard nothing. I don’t know if you can imagine what that felt like. It would be like if you had a lottery scratcher that took you six weeks to rub the numbers off of. I was like, “What is happening here?”
Jefferson eventually calls me back. He’s like, “The guys really liked you. They want you to come out to Atlanta and play with them again.” I come out to Atlanta. It’s me and one other person. I don’t know their name since they kept it very separate. And now they are doing pre-production since they’re getting ready to tour. It was like, “Bring a guitar and plug in.”
I played with them for about two days. I was supposed to fly home on a Friday. That Thursday night when I was supposed to fly back to my hotel, they said, “The band may want you to play again tomorrow, so we’re going to change your flight.” I was like, “OK, whatever. That’s fine.”
The p.a. kid picked me up Friday morning and took me to their rehearsal place. One of the techs was like, “They’re all in the kitchen. They want to see you in there.” I was like, “What the fuck?” I went in the kitchen and it’s Jefferson Holt and [R.E.M. co-manager] Bertis Downs. They were like, “We want to welcome you to the tour.”
It was the craziest morning of my life. I had to call my boss at home and go, “There’s bad news and good news. The bad news is you have to replace me. The good news is that I’m going to be on Saturday Night Live in a week.”
This is after 10 years of struggle. You’re suddenly part of the biggest band on the planet. That must have been hard to process.
I literally went from playing Club Lingerie to Saturday Night Live in the space of about four weeks. I don’t even know if I can describe the mayhem that was going on since they were going to tour again. You have to remember what that was like at the time. It was the biggest thing in the world. It was just crazy.
Tell me how you and Peter worked together. What was your role?
First of all, there were three of us. It was Peter, me, and Scott McCaughey. He was real tight with Peter since Peter moved to Seattle and Scott is a big Seattle stalwart. They became fast friends. Scott is a multi-instrumentalist, and he had a band called the Young Fresh Fellows. They were fantastic.
It was very rare the three of us would play the electric guitar on the same song. Usually if Peter or I was playing electric, Scott McCaughey would play acoustic or he’d go over to the keyboards. If Peter was playing mandolin, I played electric. I only played acoustic on “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” I didn’t play much acoustic on that tour at all.
R.E.M. in concert, July 1995. December is playing slide guitar at far left. Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mirrorpix//Getty Images
We would sort of huddle up and break down what was in a song and who was going to play what. We’d break down “Finest Worksong” and he’d go, “You should do the slide part.” I was like, “OK.” That would be my part on the song, all the slide stuff. It was super cool.
Are there certain songs where you played lead?
I’d say “Finest Worksong” was a big one since I played slide. I played electric guitar on “Losing My Religion” that wasn’t actually on the recorded version. It was a request from Peter. It was a distorted, almost Neil Young-ish electric guitar. People were very divided on it in the reviews of the tour. I wanted to call up the press and be like, “Look, Peter told me to do this. I’m not just making this up.” There was the mandolin and the acoustics, and the this other guitar doing its thing. It was weird.
The first time you played with them in public was at SNL. You can see a lot of behind-the-scenes footage in the documentary they put out.
Yeah. Rough Cut. That was that week at SNL.
What was it like for you to walk onto that set and play for millions of people across the country? Was it overwhelming?
I’m going to say this, and I don’t want it to be misconstrued, but I couldn’t wait. It wasn’t overwhelming. It’s what I picture when a minor-league player that trips around minor-league baseball for ten years finally gets to go up to the Yankees. That’s what you’ve been waiting to do. I wasn’t like, “Jeez, I hope I don’t fuck this up.” There was none of that. I was like, “Let’s go. Let’s do this.” And everyone else was overwhelmed for me, like my friends and family at the time. They were all freaking out and I, oddly, wasn’t.
Did you meet Bill Murray and Sarah Jessica Parker? Did you go to the afterparty?
I did. That is when Chris Farley was on, and Norm Macdonald. I believe Adam Sandler was still on the show. There were some phenomenal people. I got to see Chris Farley rehearse. I’ll never, ever, ever forget that. That was crazier to me than playing with R.E.M. I was like, “Oh, my God, that’s Chris Farley right there, sharing a cup of coffee with me in the hall.”
Then you flew to Australia to start the tour.
We had a little break for Christmas. Then we flew to Australia in the first week of 1995 to start the tour proper.
How did the travel work? Are you staying in the same hotels as the band? On the same planes?
Yeah. The only difference would be that the four guys and Bertis and Jefferson flew first-class. Scott and I and the heads of the crew flew in business, which was cool. I didn’t give a fuck. That was fantastic.
Did you and Scott grow close since you were experiencing the same thing at the same time?
Yes and no. Scott traveled on Peter’s bus. Each guy had his own bus. Scott traveled with Peter, Peter’s then-wife, and his newborn twins. I traveled on Mike Mills’ bus. We were on the “I’ll drink you under the table” bus. We were the last to leave and the last to arrive all the time. I got the good end of that stick. I was on the right bus, believe me. His girlfriend and different people would come sometimes, but it was mostly just me and him.
How was opening night in Perth? I’m sure that was a huge moment.
Opening night in Perth was bizarre only in the sense that we did pre-production at the place we were opening at for like eight days. There was media there camped outside the whole time. You’d go outside and there would be 400, 500 people camped out trying to get a view of Michael [Stipe]. They knew we were there. When we actually lowered the lights and started “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” for the first time, it was an out-of-body experience. My feet were not touching the floor.
Michael was so famous at that point, and he had a very distinct look. It must have been madness for him everywhere he went.
Yes. It was the first time where he had shaved his head. He looked like this little alien. There was no blending in for him. It didn’t matter if he wore a hat, no hat, big jacket, no jacket, that was Michael fuckin’ Stipe. He’s one of the most enigmatic and charismatic people I’ve ever seen in my life. It was weird to see Michael try and have a coffee in a cafe on a day off. It was just impossible.
You played Budokan in Japan not long after that. So many iconic live albums were cut there that I’m sure you loved as a kid, and now you’re on that stage.
That tour touched all of my heartstring venues, period. Budokan, Madison Square Garden, Slane Castle. It was insane. At Budokan, I sat in my dressing room and played Cheap Trick songs on my guitar to warm up for an hour. It drove everyone nuts. I was like, “You gotta play Cheap Trick at Budokan, come on!”
The setlist changed a lot from night to night, and you’d do cool covers like “Galveston” or “Wichita Lineman.” It was always a little different.
Basically, the set was about 60 percent solid. The other 40 percent was very open-ended from night to night. There were obviously things they knew they had to play, and they were willing to make that concession.
But I’ll tell you one funny story. We were about four months into the tour. It was before Bill [Berry] had his aneurysm. We were huddling up to figure out the set at soundcheck that day. The one song they had refused to play was “The One I Love” since they were just burnt on it. They didn’t want to play it anymore.
I said, “I just want to say something. Not for nothing, but I’m the one here who is the closest to the people in those seats as far as watching you and loving you and stuff. If I went to see you and you didn’t play that song, especially if it was my first time seeing you, it would break my heart.”
They were like, “I don’t think it’s that big a deal.” I said, “OK, let’s play it tonight. If it doesn’t go over, or it goes over fair to middling, you never need to humor me again. But I’m willing to bet you guys like $500 that it will go well.” They said, “OK, let’s do this.”
They figured it out in soundcheck. It was like three chords, whatever. We get halfway through the set that night. Here comes that song in the setlist. I look back at Bill like, “Here we go, motherfucker.” He goes [imitates drum intro] and the roof came off the place just from the drum fill. I thought they were going to tear the timbers out. I just played the whole song with a shit-eating grin on my face like, “I told you!” From then on, we played it. It was the one time I stepped in like a fan.
As the tour goes from Hong Kong to Singapore to Europe, did it ever just become sort of a blur to you?
The beautiful thing was they didn’t do some crazy Bon Jovi schedule where it was like five on, one off. It was a pretty humane schedule since they were grown-ups and they knew how to do it. It would be two shows on, one off. You got to see a little bit of the countries that we were in. They are cultured guys. It wasn’t just like going to McDonald’s and doing your laundry. There were always interesting things afoot on days off because of the company that they kept.
It wasn’t much of a blur, partially since it was my first time out of America. I’d been to Israel as a kid, but this was the first time I’d been to any of these places. I was trying to soak in as much as I could.
Bill had his aneurysm onstage in Switzerland in March 1995. What’s your memory of that night?
I can tell you exactly what happened. There’s a part during the show where we played “Country Feedback.” Bill comes out from behind the drum kit to play bass on that song. Well, the bass rig was on my side. Bill came out and we were going to play “Country Feedback.” He says to me, “Man, Nathan, I don’t feel so good.” I say, “What’s going on?” He says, “My head hurts really bad.”
We played “Country Feedback” and he’s just standing there with his head down, but he always played like that. I didn’t think anything of it. When we finished that song, he went to take the bass off, and he sort of sat down by the bass rig. We were like, “What the fuck? This is weird.” They kept the lights out and we all huddled around Bill to see what was wrong. Basically, we all thought he was having some sort of migraine or something. He had a splitting headache and he couldn’t really focus on anything. They got him offstage. Joey Peters from Grant Lee Buffalo finished the show for him, which was really surreal.
What happened with Bill later that night?
We didn’t know the extent of Bill’s problem until the next morning. He actually went to sleep that night. Early the next morning, he went to the hospital. I got a call in my room. They said, “Bill’s at the cranial center in Lausanne.” And here’s the other thing. Lausanne is the center of the world for cranial surgery. It’s where they invented all these procedures, and that’s where we were. They took Bill like 15 minutes down the road to the place. He was in surgery in about half an hour.
It’s the craziest thing. He was just 37.
We found out it’s not an age-related thing. It’s a total fluke thing that can happen in your brain bag. It just happened. I can’t believe that he went to sleep that night. He just took a bunch of Tylenol and went to sleep.
It became this hinge moment of his life. Everything changed after that.
Yeah. It was really heart-stopping. I don’t mean to use that in the cliché sense. We didn’t know what was happening. We thought Bill was going to die.
You must have thought the tour was over.
Of course. But that was like fourth on the list. We’re in Switzerland. This is all happening. We’re halfway across the world. Everyone speaks French. Nobody knows what’s going on. Bill’s in the hospital. Nobody can give us a clear picture of what’s happening. The tour was obviously in jeopardy, but we didn’t know if Bill was going to live or not.
He was back onstage two months later.
He was playing drums six weeks later, I found out. And we resumed the tour two weeks after that.
That’s just unreal.
Yeah. But I’ll say this. Bill was a pretty fit dude. He had a real “I’m going to do it” sense, better than anyone else I knew. If anyone would bounce back from this and play drums in six weeks, it was Bill Berry.
Two months after that, Mike Mills goes down and needs surgery in his abdomen. Not long after that, Michael Stops needs hernia surgery. The press kept saying the tour was cursed.
The best thing that we did when we resumed the tour after Bill’s aneurysm, the gatefold page of the program for the tour was Bill’s cranial X-ray. It was such a knowing little wink to everything they’d been through. It was such an R.E.M. thing to put this brain X-ray in the midst of all this photography. They just rolled with it. They just kept getting surgeries. [Laughs.]
Peter must have been nervous. He was next in line.
Yeah. Peter was nervous. I remember on the last night of the tour I had him sign the back of one of my guitars. I had a lot of people sign my guitar on that tour, people whose paths we crossed. He wrote, “A stellar year. The only question is: When is your surgery scheduled?” It had been on his mind since the press was making a big deal out of it. “One left to go…”
The list of opening acts on that tour is pretty amazing. It’s Sonic Youth, Oasis, the Cranberries, Radiohead…
I can’t even tell you what it was like. I had the privilege of watching Radiohead touring on The Bends. I got to watch them from the wings every night for four weeks. It changed how I approached playing music, even at that age.
We would watch them every night and be like, “How are we going to go on after that?” They were playing “Fake Plastic Trees.” They’d close with “Creep.” They were just otherworldly. Besides Ed, they were these teeny, little guys from Britain. They just made the most insane sound. It was so beautiful. Michael got the advance of The Bends the week before it came out since that’s when they started touring with us. We were listening in the van on the way to rehearsal. We were just like, “Oh, my God. Fuck! This is a nightmare. They’re so good!”
How can anyone top that?
The beauty of R.E.M. is they don’t need to top anyone. And they can pick and choose who they bring on tour. They took Grant Lee Buffalo because Michael loved them. We toured with Oasis because they were the burgeoning thing in England at the time. It was just a gift. It was a fuckin’ gift.
When did talk begin about cutting a new record while the band was still on the road?
The whole time. But it really started when Bill came back from his aneurysm and we saw that things were going to proceed as planned for the rest of the year. Scott Litt had a mobile unit out with us. He would pop in and out of the tour every other week or something and make contact with us. We’d record the new songs at soundcheck.
It was half for documenting the live shows. But they write all the time. We were putting new songs in the set. We played six songs from New Adventures in Hi-Fi before that record came out.
You’re on the vast majority of the songs. That must have been fun.
It was pretty cool. My only thing is this. I’m sort of a purist. This is a cornerstone of the R.E.M. mantra. They play new stuff on tour. They’ve done it their whole career. God bless. I get that. But when I see a band, that’s not really what I’m going for. “Next up is something you’ve never heard for five minutes.” Some people love that, but that’s not for me. I always felt a little bit uncomfortable playing the new stuff live, since you could see on some people’s faces this look of “this isn’t what I signed up for.”
Most bands say they can’t write on tour, let alone record a whole album.
I was sort of incredulous at first. I thought they meant, “We’ll write on tour, and then return to the studio and sift through things and see what we like.” It was like, “No. That thing we were working on at soundcheck yesterday, we’re going to do that again for an hour and a half.” It turns out into “Binky the Doormat” after a week.
And that’s the master recording.
All the masters went back to Scott Litt’s studio, and I lived near it in L.A. The job I was tasked with after the tour was, “Listen, we need you to do us a total solid. We’ll pay you to do this. We want you to go through the tapes and find two or three solid versions of each of the new songs.” Every tape was like, “This is Spain, and here’s ‘Binky the Doormat.’ It’s really good until we get to the second verse, and then it falls apart. Scratch that. Move on.”
As the tour went on, the songs got more complete. I had to go through all those tapes and find the bones for that record. What they did was use the ones they liked and build the songs out of that. Some of them were pretty complete. “Wake-Up Bomb” was pretty complete.
The record sounds so clean. You’d never know it was made outside of a studio.
It was a lot of very close mic’ing, and a lot of digital stuff. It’s not that different from a recording process. It’s not like they were using room mics in the back of the arena. Everything was mic’d up onstage. They’d just use soundcheck as a time to record and stretch out.
The tour ends at the Omni back in Atlanta. You film it. You finally play “Radio Free Europe.” That must have been a great night.
“Radio Free Europe” was a complete impromptu thing. It was like being 17 in a band again. We huddled at the side of the stage and went, “What the fuck are we going to play?” We had played everything. It was either Mills or me that floated it out. Somebody wanted to do “Radio Free Europe.” They were like, “Do you know it? Do you know it?” Then we just went out there and played it. Mike and I are doing backups together. He looks at me and goes, “You do know it!” I went. “Of course I know it! What are you talking about?” It was like being in the world’s best cover band for the night. It was great. They were just pulling shit out of their hat. It was great.
When the tour ends, was there any talk of your future in the band? Where did you think it was going at that point?
It was a very finite thing for me. Scott was in a different situation since him and Peter had a musical relationship in and out of R.E.M. They were the same age and stuff. I was very much the auxiliary. I was younger than those guys. I was also still trying to do my own bands. R.E.M. was a leverage point for me so I could go home and do my own thing.
There was no, “Listen, next time we tour, we’re going to take you.” They made it very clear up front because of all the things they went through with Peter Holsapple. They had a very specific legal proceeding so that there was no confusion and so that I couldn’t go, “Hey, I was there and I helped write all that.” They were very guarded about that. [Editor’s note: In 1991, touring guitarist Holsapple reportedly got into an ugly dispute with the band over songwriting credits for Out of Time.]
How did your Goo Goo Dolls chapter start?
When the R.E.M. tour ended, I came home, formed my own band, and tried for a year and half to get a record deal. We were pretty good, but we didn’t get a record deal. Mike, my old drummer, was playing with the Goo Goo Dolls. A couple of times, the Goos brought me to play “Name” on TV when that song was really big since they needed two guitars. I had just done R.E.M. I’d go on Jay Leno and play it with them just for fun.
Times goes by. They’re making Dizzy Up the Girl. It’s a lot more textural. There’s a lot more stuff going on. My band is sort of reaching the end of its tether. We’re not getting a deal. I’m losing my mind. Basically, Johnny [Rzeznik] comes to me and says, “Listen, do you want to go out on tour with us, playing guitar? It’ll be about seven or eight months’ work.” That’s usually what their tours were at the time. I said, “Oh, you guys finally want to sound good live. You want two guitar players. OK. Let’s do this.”
I was kidding. We knew each other. I was delighted. I loved their music. The only thing that was disconcerting for me was that, for me, the Goo Goo Dolls were sort of this pop-punk band that used to play in shorts and t-shirts and jeans and stuff. Right when I joined is when they turned the corner and John Rzeznik got pulled into the machine and it became pants and velvet shirts. I was like, “What the fuck? I thought we were going to be like Soul Asylum.” We turned into something totally different.
You’re credited on Dizzy Up the Girl.
I played a couple little bits on Dizzy. I think it was more of a courtesy than anything else. They had the bones of the album worked out, and they had a lot of people come in and play on a track or two. It was just for fun and because they had the time and the budget. Rob Cavallo liked the idea of having other people play on stuff. I’m on a couple little bits, but I’m not playing mandolin or slide on “Iris.” Some people think I played it on the record, and I did not. That is a gentleman named Tim Pierce, who is a phenomenal player.
They list you as a “musician” in the credits.
I played little bits on a couple of little things like “Broadway” and “Amigone.” But it wasn’t anything where you’d go, “There’s my part.”
That album exploded.
That was the thing. I remember when they recorded “Iris.” We were all rehearsing at the same facility, Swing House. Mike came in. I wasn’t in the band at the time. I had my own band. I said, “Mike, how is that thing you did for that movie?” I knew it was kind of orchestral. He said, “It’s either the best thing we’ve ever done or the biggest piece of shit we’ve ever done. I can’t tell.”
They just didn’t know. That [City of Angels] soundtrack wasn’t even supposed to have that as a single. It had Alanis Morissette, Peter Gabriel, Sarah McLachlan. “Iris” was like an afterthought, and it became “Iris.”
This was just before Napster, when anyone who wanted that song had to spend $20 for that whole soundtrack.
Of course, Dizzy was being mixed when that soundtrack came out. They immediately added “Iris” to it. They realized what was going on. But I’m guessing the first 500,000 or million purchases of “Iris” were from the City of Angels soundtrack.
The tour must have bee nuts since it took place during their peak.
Here’s what was cool. I always tell people this was the main difference. With the R.E.M. tour, I was joining a band that was at their absolute apex as far as the mayhem. They were an established thing. They were R.E.M. With the Goo Goo Dolls, we started that tour at the Galaxy Ballroom in Southern California, which holds like 350 people. By the time we were finishing that tour, we were doing three nights at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.
You got to see the whole progression. I got to see the whole machine at work as far as, “There’s another single. Now we’re going to do Leno again.” There was a lot of weird TV spots at 7 a.m. when we were on tour. It was all that shit.
How many of you were on stage for that tour?
Five. There was Robby [Takac], John, and Mike, and then there was Dave Schulz, who was a phenomenal keyboard player and singer. They knew him from Buffalo. He was a local stalwart. And there was me.
You’d go on a show like Leno, the five of you would play, and then just the three of them would go sit on the couch?
Yeah. There was one time when we were first doing it, before Dave Schulz joined on keyboards, when we were still doing promo for “Iris.” We went on MTV with Carson Daly. We played “Iris” and I’m playing mandolin and slide and all this shit. They go to break and the guys were like, “Come onto the couch with us.” Carson Daly winds up asking questions about who I am as he’s interviewing them. It’s kind of cool, whatever.
Believe you me, Warner Bros. sent word down the channel the next day. “Look, you guys are a three-piece.” This was the age of post-Nirvana. “You are three faces selling a record, not four guys or five guys. He doesn’t go on the couch.” It was like, “Copy that. Wasn’t my idea.”
I remember when they went on Howard Stern around this time. Did you perform with them in the studio?
No. They did that by themselves. We were listening, and we were dying a thousand deaths for them. They were really good sports about it. I was like, “You know you’re going into the fuckin’ lion’s den going in to see Howard, right? He’s going to have some weird shit going on.” They were like, “Maybe it won’t be so bad.”
They had a “gay dance party” going on, with naked little people. Mike didn’t even go. It was just John and Robby anyway. Here’s the thing. Howard was actually super sweet to those guys. He liked them for a long time. If he has you on the show, it’s not because he doesn’t like you. He was really effusively thankful to John and Robby for playing along. It did wonders for them. People talked about that shit for like two years.
They waited four years to make Gutterflowers after Dizzy. That’s a long time between albums.
Yeah. I don’t know entirely what the situation was. I know Johnny wanted to decompress from “Iris” because six or seven months of touring turned into three years. It was a large sandwich to eat all in three bites. He needed some decompression. And I think when they started writing again, the songs didn’t come quickly. There was a lot of, “God, what do we do now?” Anybody with a song like that would have trepidation. How do you follow “Iris”?
You think there’s no such thing as a song that gets too big, but this might be one. If a song defines you and overshadows everything else in your catalog, you can be in trouble.
It definitely put the acoustic [guitar] in John’s hand for the rest of his career. That was something I sort of lamented because John is a goddamn good [electric] guitar player and I love his rock songs. I love their earlier stuff for that reason. I saw it happening. He saw it happening. It was like, “Oh, you’re the guy with the acoustic now.” He has been ever since.
How was your experience with Liz Phair on Whitechocolatespaceegg?
That was really weird. Scott Litt was producing that record. When I was playing with R.E.M., we all went into the studio one day with her and Scott. I didn’t say two words to her. I didn’t think anything of it. She was super cool, but Michael was there and she was talking to Michael.
After the R.E.M. tour, a few months go by. Scott calls me up and goes, “I’m doing Liz’s record at my studio. I’d love you to come up and play some guitar.” I was like, “OK. Sure.” I just grabbed a guitar and went down there.
She was pregnant at the time with her first child. She was super sweet, so nice. She’s awesome. She was like, “We want you to make a guitar sound that sounds like a frozen lake cracking open.” I’m like, “Uhh….I know how to sound like Keith Richards. What does a frozen lake cracking open even sound like?”
It was a lot of noise-derived atmospheric stuff. They were sampling a lot. I just played on a lot of different songs, and they used bits and pieces of what they wanted to use.
You’re on “Perfect World,” “Fantasize,” “Headache,” and a bunch of other songs on the album.
“Fantasize” was the one that we all did with her when R.E.M. was in the studio.
Tell me about co-writing “When I Hated Him” with Bijou Phillips.
I had a publishing deal after R.E.M. with a publishing company, Rondo Music, for a year. One of the things they did besides trying to get my solo band off the ground was that every once in a while they’d say, “Can we have you write with so-and-so and see what comes out of it?” Bijou came to my house since I had a studio in the back. We spent a day writing. That was the song we got out of it.
Her career didn’t really take off, but she’s a good singer.
She was surprisingly strong. When they asked me I was like, “Come on, you guys. This is fucked up.” Then she came over and actually had a set of pipes and a melodic sensibility. I was like, “Holy shit.” But she was doing so many things at the same time. Nobody knew if she was an actress or musician or what. It kind of worked against her, I think.
What did you do for DC Talk?
When I had my publishing deal, I got to do one of the greatest musical things ever. Part of Rondo Music is Myles Copeland. He’s Stewart Copeland’s brother who had I.R.S. Records. Well, he has a castle in France, an actual castle. And every year, he sent about 12 writers to this castle, kept them there for a week, and had them write in groups of three every day. The idea was to write a song a day. It was just this pool of people. They kept you closed up in this castle and filled you up with gourmet food and Bordeaux wine.
We wrote songs. DC Talk was one of the bands that was there. I wound up writing with them one day. My stuff with them was the only stuff that wound up on their record. We wrote “Chance.”
During this time, I take it your main goal was to get your own band going.
That was when my own band was happening. It wasn’t named after me, but I was fronting it and was doing the lion’s share of the writing and stuff. Unfortunately, my ego was dictating to me that that’s what I should be doing. In hindsight, now that I’m a grown-up adult, I see that I probably should have kept playing guitar for people. But I was like, [mock pompous voice] “I have things to say!” It turns out, I really didn’t have much to say.
What was the name of your band?
Holy Bulls. We were named after a race horse called Holy Bull in the Kentucky Derby. I loved that horse’s name, so we were Holy Bulls.
You got a song on an Iggy Pop tribute album.
Yeah. Two guys we knew were producing that. Almost all of those bands rehearsed out of Swing House rehearsal studios, which is now a huge recording complex. But it was in its infancy at the time. Those were all bands that are playing together on that scene in L.A.
The industry changed a lot in the early 2000s. Napster hits. Rock & roll fades from the culture. Teen pop and hip-hop become dominant. What impact did that have on you?
Nu-metal. If it had a guitar in it, it was fuckin’ Limp Bizkit or Korn. It was brutal. It was a brutal time.
How were you paying the bills around 2001, 2002?
[Laughs.] Well, I had a lot of drinking and substance problems that finally caught up with me by the end of the Goo Goo Dolls tour. I had augered my career into the ground and burned down the whole village. My marriage was over. My career was in shambles. I was not very dependable. Etc etc. I basically was living on a friend’s couch and painting houses for 100 bucks a day in 2000, 2001. That’s because I got sober in 2000. It was a huge shift.
I also joined a friend’s band that was on a small label. I sort of pulled myself out of the auxiliary circuit and joined his band to play guitar. I was like, “No, I’m in this band. This is what I’m going to do.” Then we got dropped like a year later. At that point, I’m like 33, 34 years old, which is, you know, dead in rock & roll.
How did you transition into working on movies?
I was living on a friend’s couch. He was working as a best boy. That’s the electrician that works on films and television. He says to me one day, “This is bullshit. I’m tired of paying for your pizza and stuff. You need to make more money.” I said, “More than $100 a day painting houses? Yeah. I do.” He goes, “You’re going to come do what I do.”
This wasn’t some passion of mine. This wasn’t, “Oh, now I’m going to segue into film because that’s my second love.” I just showed up, shut my mouth, learned how to do set lighting, and eventually got in the set lighting union. It was my new job, and I’ve been doing my new job for 19 years now.
You worked on Iron Man. That’s pretty incredible.
I worked on the first Iron Man before Marvel knew what they had on their hands.
That’s now seen as one of the most important movies of the 2000s. It changed everything in terms of big Hollywood films.
It was fantastic to work on. It was great.
Did you realize at the time it was something special?
Not at all. Robert Downey Jr. was basically coming out of exile. It was a huge risk that Marvel was taking. Jon Favreau was directing it, which we all thought was crazy since he was the guy from Swingers.
It was just a total shit show. Jeff Bridges was bald and riding around on a Segway. He’s like six foot 8. We were like, “What the hell is going on here?” Then we saw the suit. We were like, “Oh, that’s cool.” The suit stopped everybody when we first saw it. “Ah, this might be cool.”
When it came out, it was fuckin’ rockin’. I saw it at the Cinerama Dome at a screening. I was like, “This movie is great!” It was fun. And it was Marvel’s first movie, so they didn’t know what they were doing.
What was your role?
I was a rigging electrician. The rigging electricians are the ones that actually put in the power grids that power the sets and set lighting. Everywhere you go, the riggers show up first and they put in power. They’re building the city before production gets there.
How was your experience working on Thor?
Thor was pretty good. I worked with guys that were in with Marvel. We did a bunch of Marvel stuff before they moved it to Atlanta, because Marvel eventually moved everything there. That was a no-go for me.
Thor was cool since it was the first time that Chris Hemsworth was really starring in something. We all saw him get off the golf cart one day in the outfit and we were like, “Holy fuck. That dude is Thor!” It was unbelievable. Marvel did a good job with those movies as far as the people they put in them and how they made them iconic.
Those movies have grossed them billions of dollars since then.
We had no idea it was going to beget the Marvel Universe. I’m sure Marvel had designs like this, but we didn’t see it in the early days. It was just weird little cross samples, like Captain America’s shield was an Easter egg in Iron Man, so you knew somewhere along the line they had to make a Captain America movie. We were like, “Marvel will make some movies for a while and it’ll be a thing.” But look at it now. It’s a goddamn cinematic universe.
I see you’ve also worked on Big Love, The Newsroom, and lots of other shows.
Yeah. I’ve done mostly TV because films have mostly gravitated out of L.A. and gone to Canada and England and Atlanta, New Orleans, New Mexico. They really don’t do features as much here anymore. But they do a ton of TV, so that’s been my bread and butter.
That remains your primary job today?
That pays the bills. And I play guitar in a cover band with a bunch of guys from Santa Clarita. I’m their ringer from Woodland Hills. We’re called BarFly.
What kind of songs do you play?
It sounds exactly like if you’re listening to Jack FM. I’m not kidding. If you listen to Jack FM for an hour and they do 18 songs, we do 15 of them. We play “Good Times, Bad Times” from Zeppelin, “Synchronicity II” by the Police, “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” Bon Jovi, a little Van Halen, like “Panama.” It’s all the stuff you want to hear if you have four beers in you.
Do you play anything by R.E.M.?
When I first joined, they made me do “The One I Love” for a little while, but then I got bored of that. I was like, “We don’t need to do that.”
You were as bored as that song as they were in 1995.
I didn’t write it. I don’t have any claim to it. If you’re just playing it as a cover song, all three verses are the same.
I see on your website that you also give guitar lessons.
Yes. I do. That was something that started before Covid. It had to do with the age my boys were at. They were 8 and 9 at the time, and a lot of their friends’ parents found out that I had played with R.E.M. They were like, “Do you ever teach guitar?” I was like, “Of course, I can do that.” I do that now on the weekends. I teach adults too, but primarily kids. I’ll teach an adult if they want to learn.
Are you working on a show right now?
I just finished working on Mayans M.C., that Sons of Anarchy spinoff. It just did its final season. Now the writers are on strike, so none of us are working. But if you’re watching a TV show and two people are talking and you can see their faces, I’ve done my job. That’s what I tell people. My wife is a set decorator. She has a career. She makes decisions. She’s artistic. She picks and chooses things that show up on screen. It’s very fulfilling. A monkey could do what I do. I just set the lamps, turn them on, and they go, “OK, let’s shoot.”
That’s still pretty important.
Sure. If there’s no power, there’s no show. Mostly it’s great I can be covered in tattoos, wear shorts, have a nose ring, and make six figures a year, and have great insurance. That’s really cool. And it’s the same bubble as touring. The minute I got into the union, I was like, “Oh, I get this. It’s all these dudes that went to school and didn’t wind up using it, and now we’re all here.” It was exactly like touring.
Lots of people who were in your position 20 years ago wouldn’t have been able to make this transition. Their ego wouldn’t have allowed it.
I think it’s the humility that comes with getting sober. You have to examine where you’re at. You can’t lie to yourself and be like, “I’m still a rock star.” I had kids by that point. I had my first two daughters from my first marriage. There were things I was responsible for. I didn’t have the opportunity to smoke cigarettes on the couch and play guitar and bum rides off people. I had to provide for people. It really wasn’t an option for me. It was an ethic my parents put in me when they said, “If you’re not going to school, you have to work.”
Do you have any regrets looking back, though?
Yes. Look, it sounds like absolute first-world white-people problems to say I have regrets. I’ve seen more than 99.99 percent of the people that I know, except for ones like Brian that are still in Bad Religion. I don’t have any regrets. I just wish I had the humility and the field of vision to continue to play guitar for other people. I think that’s really what I’m there for.
I’ll put it this way. I’m a pretty good songwriter. I’m an OK singer. My voice is kind of an acquired taste. But playing guitar for other people is a thing I did really well. I feel like if I had been a grown-up, I would have realized that’s a better thing for me, and I’d probably still be doing that. That’s a regret that I have. I wasn’t smart enough to just move on and be the guy that plays in Green Day or plays in Weezer or whatever. Those guys are out there.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next five or ten years?
Well, I still play guitar every day. I’m never not going to do that. I have a guitar in my lap every day at some point. If I had goals, it’s to raise my kids with my wife. I have twin boys, and they play a bunch of instruments. I have two older daughters. All four of them are fascinating, artistic kids. It’s really cool to watch them become people, and try and guide that a little bit.
If you were offered a big tour right now, would you take it?
If somebody is reading this right now that wants to offer me a tour and it can feed my children and I can have insurance, I would definitely accept the phone call. I can’t say much more than that, since my wife would skin me alive. “You were asking for a job in Rolling Stone?” But of course. I have all my gear. I have all my guitars. I’ve never played better. My gear has never sounded better. I got nobody to share it with besides my cover band. It’s a little weird, but I think I could still pitch in the majors if I had to.