R.E.M.’s Bill Berry tells us about The Bad Ends, his ‘Athens supergroup’ with Five Eight frontman Mike Mantione, in our JANUARY 2023 issue of Uncut, available to buy here.
Athens, Georgia, is the kind of town where two local legends can just bump into each other on the street and start a band. In 2017, R.E.M. co-founder and occasional Love Tractor guitarist Bill Berry was minding his own business when he was collared by Five Eight frontman Mike Mantione, who was working on songs for what he thought would be a solo album. “I immediately asked Bill, ‘Would you play on my record?’ I’m sure he thought I was crazy.”
Quite the opposite. “It was actually good fortune for me,” says Berry. “His invitation was alluring. It had been two decades since I was in any way involved with making a record. Of course I wanted to hear the stuff before committing. Frankly, I wouldn’t have signed up if I thought the material was beneath my arrogant standards. But I liked the first song he sent so much that I immediately enlisted into this man’s army.”
Together, they worked these songs out at Mantione’s home in Atlanta. “I’m a total fanboy,” he admits, “and the whole time I kept thinking, ‘Oh my god! Bill Berry’s in my house.’” Berry initially thought he’d been conscripted as a guitarist, but he soon settled into his familiar role as a drummer. The band was cemented with a homemade Italian meal courtesy of Mantione’s mom. “Pasta properly prepared makes any activity afterward a pleasure,” smiles Berry. “Fuelled by meatballs, we had our best rehearsal that night,” confirms Mantione. “As he was leaving, I remember Bill saying, ‘I think I’m in a band again.’”
The duo eventually called themselves The Bad Ends, added a few more local musicians, and recorded a powerful, poignant debut, The Power And The Glory, which captures the frantic jangle of Athens’ heyday but marries it to melancholy observations about music, ageing, friendship, and death. For Berry, it marked a surprising first: “Until this project, I’d never recorded a full album in Athens. It was wonderful to finish at night and be such a short drive to my own bed.”
“The way Bill works is very different from the way I work,” says Mantione. “I’m like, ‘Play the song through once and we’re ready to go out and play it live.’ Bill’s like, ‘Let’s do it again.’ And again. And again. The 20th time through, we’d rush over to Mike Albanese’s Espresso Machine studio and get it down before we forgot anything.”
Mantione calls The Power And The Glory “depressed dad rock. It’s music as a human consolation prize for having to die”. But it’s a fun world-weariness, thanks to his sharp guitar riffs and Berry’s always inventive rhythms. First single “All Your Friends Are Dying” recounts a local Big Star tribute, organised in the wake of Alex Chilton’s death in 2010, with Mantione noticing all the people who weren’t there: “There were some pretty big holes onstage / And more than anything else I wanted to hear them filled”.
“Lyrically, the common thread on this record is death and dealing with it,” says Berry. “Would I have wanted to produce a record like that 40 years ago? Absolutely not. But at my current age, the concept of death occurs to me with greater frequency than when I was in my twenties. Many of my friends have died. Mike just wrote about it so beautifully.”
The Power And The Glory is released by New West Records on January 20.