By Rex Weiner

LOS ANGELES: On September 21, the day that R.E.M. shook the rock world by officially announcing its breakup after 31 years and one last album, guitarist Peter Buck was already gone, beginning the rest of his life south of the border, “with my sombrero and a margarita by the pool,” he told La Stampa in an exclusive interview.

With bassist Mike Mills and frontman Michael Stipe, Buck recorded 15 albums with the Grammy-award winning alternative rock group, starting in 1979 in Athens, Georgia, and toured the world. But with that part of his career over, Buck recently purchased a house in a small Mexican town called Todos Santos on the Baja California coast, about 45 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, where he and his fiancé are busy launching a three-week music festival January 5 through January 21 featuring Buck and some of the most influential players in the independent music scene.

Buck has not taken the farewell spotlight alongside his two more outspoken R.E.M comrades, other than to issue a statement saying, “we walk away as great friends.” But in his first interview since the breakup announcement, he says he is speaking to La Stampa because “Italian fans are the most enthusiastic on earth,” and also because he wants the world to come to Baja for the festival which he hopes will become an annual event.

Singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock and ex-Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn are two of the many musicians flying in to the picturesque colonial town at tip of the Baja peninsula to join Buck at the Todos Santos Music Festival, presented by the Hotel California, the legendary local hostelry. All proceeds from the festival will benefit The Palapa Society, a local non-profit organization that provides educational services and scholarship for young Todos Santos students.

To organize the festival, Buck has partnered with the colorful Hotel California (www.hotelcaliforniabaja.com), originally built in 1948 and renovated in 2001, winning numerous awards for design and décor. The original 16 rooms were transformed into the eclectic 11-suite hotel on the town’s main street that in the past, according to local lore, may (or may not) have inspired the Eagles’ song. Along with several of the town’s boutique hotels, the Hotel California is offering special rates to guests coming for the festival, and several resorts in Cabo San Lucas and nearby Pescadero will run shuttles to the shows.

The music starts at 8PM each evening. “We’ll play two sets each night four nights a week, for three weeks,” said Buck, “a total of twenty-three performances.” That includes a final free concert at the end of the last week in the town plaza. “We will rehearse at my house during the afternoons,” Buck said. He’s doing it because “my social life is playing music people. I’ve been doing this since I was thirteen years old.”

Buck also believes in the charitable cause. “I feel if you’re part of the community, you have to contribute something,” he said, pointing to the many benefit concerts and community support that R.E.M performed during their days in Athens, Georgia. In this case, Buck says he has written a personal check for $10,000 to the Palapa Society in Todos Santos and is paying most of the expenses for the festival. While all of the shows are free, a certain number of reserved seats may be had for a donation. He hopes to raise another $10,000 through sales of posters and t-shirts (you can find the event on Facebook at “Todos Santos Music Festival 2012”).

Buck last toured Italy with R.E.M in 2008. The group was one of the few American alternative rock bands to play in Sicily, doing a concert at Catania Stadium in August, 1995 during their Monster Tour, thanks to their friendship with Francesco Virlinzi, Catania-born music producer, and R.E.M fan. Buck owns an Italian-made bowl-back mandolin—a gift from Virlinzi, who died in 2000—which he plays mostly at home or in his recording studio.

Buck is looking forward to living in Todos Santos, a laid-back spot for surfers and artists. But he admits that the day of the breakup announcement was “a sad day. But it was also a relief.” He said the group had decided on the breakup two years earlier. “We wanted to go out on a high note,” he said. “It was all amicable, and just time to move on.”

But more than that, it’s clear that the business of being R.E.M was going stale for him. “Do I really want to go out on stage and play ‘Losing My Religion” once more time?” he said. “I don’t want to be in an oldies band.” Inducted with the group into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, Rolling Stone counts Buck as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time and their last studio album, Collapse Into Now, one of the top 50 albums of 2011.

Other groups, of course, are continuing on the rock n roll road even longer than R.E.M. “I love seeing the Stones,” said Buck, “and I will go on seeing them play. But what they do is not something I want to do. A lot of bands out there should have shut the door long ago.”

In fact, Buck says, he is not the rock n roll party animal type. “I enjoy playing the music,” he said, “it’s a lot of the other stuff I don’t like. I don’t enjoy having my picture taken, I don’t like being interviewed, and I don’t go out to parties.” When the breakup announcement was being planned by the group and its management, Buck opted out.

From now on, for Peter Buck it’s a sombrero and margarita, playing his guitar with friends down in old Mexico.