Written by Dead Letter Office
Not long ago, Scott Ryan, a drummer from Rochester, NY, started looking for musicians for a tribute to alternative legends R.E.M. After a while, “Dead Letter Office – International Tribute to R.E.M.” (“DLO”) was born. Over time, the band progressed from playing near-empty venues, to opening slots for more established tribute acts, to playing to packed houses at home and other cities like New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and even R.E.M.’s hometown of Athens, GA.
But nothing could have prepared DLO for June 2019.
Hardcore fans know of R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME?, a podcast co-hosted by two actors and R.E.M. superfans: Emmy winning writer/actor/comedian Scott Aukerman, whose credits include Mr. Show, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and co-creating Between Two Ferns, and actor Adam Scott, best known for roles in Parks and Recreation and Big Little Lies. Scott and Adam’s podcast profiles one R.E.M. record each episode, with an eye toward creating “a comprehensive and encyclopedic compendium of all things R.E.M.”
A running gag throughout the podcast was that Scott and Adam sought to have R.E.M. reunite for a backyard barbecue. The conditions involved reuniting all four original members to perform two 2-hour sets of music, with the hosts choosing the setlists. They actually pitched this concept to R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills on one episode, but “negotiations” humorously broke down when Mills wanted too many free tickets to the show.
Being superfans ourselves, we enjoyed following the podcast and were disappointed when Scott and Adam finished the Collapse Into Now episode (great ep!). It was the end of the podcast as we knew it. Or so we thought.
One day after listening to an episode, DLO’s drummer/show booker/Twitterist Scott Ryan tweeted at Aukerman with a message to the effect, “If you can’t get the band together for the barbecue, let us know.” Sometime later, Ryan received a DM from Aukerman that said, “Hey, we have an idea for a festival event we’re doing. You guys tour right?”
After a fair amount of Twitter DMs, emails, and phone calls, we were booked to play “Clusterfest,” a multi-day comedy/music festival in San Francisco, at and near the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Details were sketchy, but once arrangements were made to get our flights and to rent equipment, it was determined that we would serve as the “house band” for a live performance of the podcast, where we would play a few songs, banter with the hosts, and see what else happens (regular listeners know the podcast is a freewheeling affair). Also, it had been arranged that Scott Aukerman would, at one point in the show, do a big build up to a very special guest who would perform with the band…and in the end it would be Auckerman himself, grabbing a guitar and knocking out a couple of songs with us.
Upon arrival in SF, DLO is treated like royalty. Provided the all-important artist wristbands that gave us near-total access, members were treated to side-stage performances by The Roots and Craig Robinson and his band, and to stand-up performances by the likes of Chelsea Peretti and John Mullaney.
By late-morning Saturday, we are presented to their stage for the performance: the main stage of the 8,500-capacity Bill Graham Civic Auditorium! Co-hosts Scott and Adam would set up stage left on chairs, and the band would be on its own rolling platform on stage right. We were set to go onstage precisely at 3:45pm.
By early afternoon we proceed to the green room we are sharing with Scott and Adam. Ever gracious and kind, they ask us whether this is the largest crowd we’d ever played to. We replied that it was, and they each agreed that they hadn’t ever played to a crowd anywhere near this size; they expected about 500 people to show up.
Fast forward to 30 minutes before show time, and we are asked to go to the stage, where Scott and Adam would “do a pow-wow” with us and we’d get ready for the show. The final plan has us walking onstage and opening with the R.E.M. classic “Radio Free Europe” and then going immediately into the band’s surf-type instrumental “White Tornado,” which is what Scott and Adam use as the podcast theme music. The co-hosts would walk onstage as we played and start the show. As far as we knew, there wasn’t much else planned beyond that, aside from the aforementioned “special guest” spot, and an idea they had to try to “stump” the band by asking us to play snippets of songs of their choosing.
Now it’s time for the show. “Radio Free Europe” and “White Tornado” go off without a hitch, and so starts the podcast comedy. After a short game of “stump the band,” where we perform a couple of R.E.M.’s songs as well as a song inspired by the hosts and written and submitted to them by R.E.M. fan/songwriter Jordan Cooper called “How Does It Feel (When You’re In R.E.M. – Feels Good),” Scott Aukerman starts his build-up to the special guest appearance – which is supposed to be for himself – by saying, “This person, is actually a founding member of the band R.E.M., Peter Buck!”
We band members think it’s a joke and offer our fake applause accordingly. But a few moments later, we look stage left, and out of the wings walks Peter Buck! Co-hosts Scott and Adam tell the crowd, “They did not know this was happening.” 100% true.
We are thrilled beyond words. We had had brushes with the band before, like in November 2018 when bassist Mike Mills dropped by a show and joined us to sing the choruses of “Man On The Moon.” But this was another thing altogether. After exchanging a few handshakes and nods, Peter plugged in his signature black Rickenbacker, and we tore right into the band’s classic “Sitting Still,” not believing that the songwriter was playing along with us mere steps away.
After Peter leaps up to deliver hugs to all of us, much of the rest of the podcast is a blur. Eventually, the hosts prevail upon Peter to play one final song with us. We perform “So. Central Rain” with dignity and aplomb while each band member side-eyes the left side of the stage to catch a glimpse of Peter Buck strumming alongside us as co-hosts Scott and Adam capture the happenings on their respective cell phones.
Afterwards offstage, Peter couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious. Asked about tribute bands, Peter said, “Look, I think you guys are great, and what you’re doing is great. This music is meant to be played, and for my part, I’m really glad you’re doing it.” He also asked us to let him know if we are ever in the same city, as he’d love to join us again.
Now that you have read our version of the story, we want to leave you with one request: please listen to the whole podcast episode. People really need to appreciate the lengths to which co-hosts Scott and Adam went to ensure that Peter’s appearance would remain a surprise. And they didn’t want it to be a surprise to fans – after all, they thought we’d be playing in front of about 500 people and not the 7000+ that were in the arena at the time – they wanted it to be a surprise to us. To the five guys from Western New York whom they had never met before.
In the days after the performance, DLO received a lot of social media attention, particularly after video of the performance was unearthed and Scott and Adam shared a number pictures. One of our band members tweeted a reply to a fan, and we think this sums the experience up nicely:
As a member of the band…it was beyond magical. It’s amazing how Scott & Adam worked OVERTIME to keep a secret in order to surprise 5 guys they’d never met before. It shows you the connection within the R.E.M. fan community, and what great guys those 2 really are.
And this really is a story of the connectivity of the R.E.M. fan community — how everyone’s love for this very special music helped five guys from Western New York have the experience of a lifetime.
Follow Dead Letter Office – International Tribute To R.E.M.”
To hear the R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? Podcast with Peter Buck:
To follow the hosts on Twitter: @ScottAukerman, @mradamscott
To hear Jordan Cooper’s music: http://www.jordancoopermusic.com/