Perfect Circle

On a Thursday night in February at the famous 40 Watt club in Athens, Georgia, REM fans got to witness the closest thing we may ever see to a full-band reunion. As actor Michael Shannon and guitarist Jason Narducy brought their touring celebration of 1984’s Murmur to REM’s hometown, members of the original band began joining the the fray, until Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe were sharing a stage for the first time in 17 years.


“Bill asked us if he could play piano on ‘Perfect Circle,’ which he does on the record,” says Narducy. “And when I saw ‘Pretty Persuasion’ coming up on the setlist, I asked our stage manager to see if he could find Mike Mills and invite him up, since that song has such heavy backing vocals. He jumped up and kept on jumping up.” Buck, meanwhile, had been at the club since soundcheck, giving Narducy a few pointers. “Even when he was on-stage with us, he’s showing me these little things as he was playing on the record. It was very touching for a massive fan like myself. I still don’t think I’ve even grasped it, honestly.”


Finally, at the end of the night, Stipe jumped on-stage to thank the band and the excited crowd, completing the quartet. “It’s an honour to hear the songs so fresh, live in a room again,” Stipe tells Uncut later. “Since I was always singing them, I never got to hear them.”

The reunion was the unexpected culmination of Shannon and Narducy’s tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of REM’s legendary debut, with the acclaimed actor and the veteran sideman covering Murmur in its entirety. “It’s not a tribute band,” says Narducy. “We’re not using the exact same equipment or dressing up like them. It’s a pretty weird thing that seems to be working.” The band is more like a theater troupe using the album as a script; rather than recreate it, they reinterpret it each night, with Shannon bringing a more punk-derived vocal and Narducy turning Buck’s guitar riffs inside out. “I was already in love with this band, but then I went deeper into their catalogue and learned the songs inside out,” says Narducy. “Now I’m an even bigger fan.”

The pair both latched on to REM as teenagers in the 1980s, discovering them via Document and then working backwards as they moved forward with their own creative careers. After playing in the influential bands Verboten and Verbow, Narducy has lately been touring with Bob Mould and Sunny Day Real Estate. And many of Shannon’s roles involve music and musicians, including his recent performance as George Jones in the Showtime series George & Tammy. Their partnership has roots in Chicago’s anything-goes music scene, when they met ten years ago to cover The Velvet Underground & Nico with local singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks. Since then, they’ve done similar sets devoted to The Cars, The Smiths, Neil Young and The Modern Lovers.


Of all the albums they’ve covered together, none has provoked such a strong reaction from fans – or from the original artists – as Murmur. Even before they coaxed their heroes back on-stage, they were playing to some of their biggest and most excited crowds yet. “There’s something about early REM that has really struck a chord,” says Narducy. “They were one of the biggest bands in the world, but they’ve maintained this grace and creativity that is so rare.”

REM are on the cover of Ultimate Record Collection: The 500 Greatest Albums of the 1990s, which is on sale now – order your copy here