Originally created 09/22/96

Low-Key Athens Attitude Allows R.E.M. Low-Profile Local Life



ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - After worldwide tours and multi-million recording deals, R.E.M. still comes home to this funky college town where the rock quartet can hang out as if they were the same guys who played keg parties 16 years ago.

Even since the band rocketed to superstar status on its 1991 album "Out of Time" - a No. 1 record that earned three Grammys - residents have followed an unspoken rule that allows R.E.M. to keep a low profile.

That's a main reason that the band, which recently signed a deal with Warner Bros. Records worth a reported $80 million, has remained based in Athens, 60 miles east of Atlanta.

Posters heralding the band's just-released 10th album, "New Adventures in Hi-Fi," are plastered on windows of downtown record shops, but other than that, there's little hubbub around R.E.M. in Athens.

It's a town where band members can pass unmolested among frat boys, body-piercing beatniks and other assorted characters, where the music stops and the bars close just hours before churches open for Sunday services.

Tourists making the rounds of R.E.M.'s local haunts occasionally spot members of the band sipping coffee at Jittery Joe's or checking out a show at the 40-Watt Club.

But Southern hospitality aside, residents aren't willing to help sightseers find the band's offices and homes.

"Everybody in town knows their office and studio space is across the street, but nobody points it out," said Muriel Pritchett, who's answered her share of R.E.M. queries at the local visitors bureau. "Otherwise you'd have groupies or whatever hanging around outside."

Three members - singer Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry - keep homes here. Guitarist Peter Buck settled in Seattle several years ago.

"There's always a new slew of college freshmen every year that really gets a kick out of band members walking around town. But they get over it after a while," said Gordon Lamb, a clerk at Wuxtry, a music store downtown near R.E.M.'s headquarters.

The band's pet community projects include Community Connection, which has launched projects to help battered women and homeless children. CD-release parties for R.E.M.'s last three albums have raised more than $10,000 for the organization.

Stipe has donated art to be auctioned at the city's annual mental health benefit and human rights festival. He's even designed a T-shirt logo to help an elementary school raise money to hire a Spanish teacher.

"As a person who likes them as people, I'm really glad they've kept their people-dom. They haven't lost their core," said Athens Mayor Gwen O'Looney, who says the band's support was key to her 1990 upset victory.

That year, R.E.M., its manager and its lawyer pumped $6,800 into the campaign coffers of Mrs. O'Looney and five other local candidates. The band was also a key contributor to her re-election in 1994.

"It's not that they support me. We share the same goals and interest for this city," Mrs. O'Looney said. "We believe that you can grow and make progress without losing the small-town character of a community."

Aside from their renovated homes in Athens' historic neighborhoods, band members have also invested in local businesses.

Stipe's the landlord for vegetarian mainstay The Grit and owner of Guaranteed, another vegetarian eatery. Buck owns the 40-Watt Club, one of the city's most popular music clubs.

Perhaps the Athens resident who has benefited most is soul-food chef Dexter Weaver, owner of Weaver D's Delicious Fine Foods.

Weaver's tiny restaurant became a tourist magnet in 1992 when R.E.M. chose his slogan, "Automatic for the People," as the title of its eighth album.

Four years later, residents still have a hard time getting a table to sample Weaver's fried chicken, chitlins and corn bread.

Weaver concedes that his dorm-sized dining room is too small, "but it's such an attraction for tourism."

A crush of questions from tourists prompted Ms. Pritchett at the visitor's bureau to brush up on the band's history and hangouts. She guesses as many as a fourth of the visitors come to Athens because of R.E.M.

She's put together a list of 22 R.E.M.-related sites, and has been known to take visiting journalists on tours, though she refuses to point out band members' houses.

"It was the same way when Kenny Rogers lived here - you leave them alone," Ms. Pritchett said. "...This is where they can let their hair down. If Michael Stipe had any hair to let down."