R.E.M.: Monster Madness

Michael Stipe and Co. finally deliver the full-tilt rock & roll album they've been promising for years. And they went through hell to do it

R.E.M. at MTV Video Music Awards on September 8th, 1994. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

Everything stopped. Cold," says Michael Stipe as he sits in a lounge at Ocean Way Recording, the Los Angeles studio where R.E.M. are attempting to put the finishing touches on their raucous, unsettling new album, Monster. It's after midnight — nearly everyone else has left for the day. Stipe speaks softly as he tries to convey the degree to which Kurt Cobain's death last April sucked the spirit out of R.E.M. as they worked on their album.

"We all loved and respected and admired him a great deal," he says. "It was not an incredible shock, because I had been in contact with Kurt. Everybody in the band kind of knew. We were speaking to each other daily, a couple of times a day... ." Stipe's voice trails off, and then he chuckles as the zany, flopping sound of someone flexing a cardboard poster wafts through the room. He looks toward the doorway. A visitor has arrived.

"Hey, how's it going," Stipe says, as Anthony Kiedis strides into the room. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been working in a studio down the hall.

"It's going OK," says Kiedis. "How you doin'? You all right?"

"Yep."

"I'm just getting ready to go have a little midnight snack."

"Where you goin?"

"Jones."

"Jones!" Stipe exclaims, acknowledging the restaurant's status as the town's hottest eatery. "Get the tomato leek soup. Do you guys know each other?" Stipe asks and then introduces me to Kiedis.

"Oh, I'm interrupting an interview here, my goodness," Kiedis says, genuinely chagrined.

"No, it'll be good," Stipe says, laughing. "'Michael's dear friend Anthony Kiedis walked in and sat down. They talked about soup.'"

"How blasphemous of me," says Kiedis, slyly. "I'm sorry. I looked into your eyes, and I saw nothing else."

"You're not the first," says Stipe. "I'll come back and get you another time. What stage are you at here?"

Stipe rolls his eyes, thinking about the state of Monster. "We're kind of late. We're on the hind titty. We're supposed to be mixing right now, but I'm still writing," Stipe says. "We're all zoom eyes. Is Flea around?"

"You're sucking the hind titty," Kiedis says absently. "Flea's in a studio about eight blocks away doing bass over-dubs. We're doing the double-studio thing to try to crunch in the time. You're still writing? That's gonna be me on this record. I still have crazy stuff to write."

"Well, I'm going to be around for a while, so we should go to Orso or Jones," Stipe says. "I'll tell Flea to come over, and we'll hang out," Kiedis says on his way out. "I'm terribly sorry to disturb the interview. I'll try that soup. See you, Michael."

Yes, Virginia, there is a rock & roll royalty, and R.E.M. — particularly singer Michael Stipe, whose head is now shaved to a stubble, save for a pair of discreet sideburns and a hint of hair on his chin — are now at the center of it. It has its good and bad aspects. Kurt Cobain calls in his time of most extreme need, and Anthony Kiedis drops by to suggest a midnight snack. And by the way, where's Flea? Shall we go to Orso or Jones? Issues of great seriousness mingle with the standard-issue celeb schmooze. It's heady and fun. But then again, sometimes it's simply harrowing. There are people who die.

Stipe leans back, rolls another of his cigarettes and returns to Cobain. "I had been talking to Kurt, and when he disappeared, I knew it," he says, speaking nearly in a monotone. "We all knew it. For seven days nobody knew where he was. I knew that a phone call was going to come, and I was just hoping that it was going to be a good one And it wasn't. So we were a little prepared. But it was bad. Really bad."

The sonic-guitar windstorm on Monster, "Let Me In," a ravaging plea for contact, was written for and about Cobain. Stipe has also stayed in contact with Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, and accompanied her to the MTV Movie Awards last June. "We've been talking since Kurt's death," Stipe says. "I have a great deal of respect for her. I admire her a whole lot. And I think her record kicks ass."

R.E.M. and Nirvana had discussed the possibility of doing some shows together, and shortly before Cobain's death, Stipe and Cobain had talked about collaborating. "We Fed Exed a few things back and forth, but nothing was ever recorded," Stipe says. "It was in the planning stages. I saw it as a window of being able to get him out of the head that he was in. That was what I threw out to him, like a rope, to try to pull him in -'Let's work on this project together.'

"I knew that he had a great deal of respect for me and for the band. We had spent time together — he came to Athens [Ga.], he and Courtney and Frances, and stayed at the house. We talked a lot. The truth of the matter is, we really didn't know each other that well. It was more of a mutual respect. He was very publicly an R.E.M. fan, which I think is incredibly daring for someone in his position.

"So that's where that thing came out of. I wanted to get him out of Seattle. I knew that he was there, and he was by himself. Everybody had tried everything they could, and that was my attempt to get him enough out of the head that he was in that he wouldn't kill himself or hurt himself. I thought it was going to be an overdose." Stipe hesitates and can't seem to gather his thoughts: "I wish he had... I don't know... you can't... what if?"

He is silent for a moment.

"It was going to be very acoustic — and some organs," Stipe says. "That's the kind of music he wanted to do. He wanted to do something that was really not loud."

Whatever Stipe and Cobain might have done together — yet another set of possibilities wasted by Cobain's suicide — R.E.M. have moved in decidedly the opposite direction. They have followed up the extraordinary acoustic beauty and warm humanism of their previous album, Automatic for the People (1992), with the aptly titled Monster, a noisy, abrasive, postmodern, sexually charged maelstrom. Similar in style to the band's more propulsive live shows in the past, although far less genial, Monster is easily the edgiest music the band has ever recorded.

That edginess, alas, is also reflected in the atmosphere around Ocean Way. R.E.M. have always been obsessive about meeting deadlines. "It's amazing how far you can get in this business just by showing up for your appointments on time," guitarist Peter Buck once remarked to me early in the band's career. But Monster is late, and the band's self-imposed strain is showing. "In terms of the subdued urgency around here, it's always like this toward the end of the process," says bassist Mike Mills. "You always want to make sure that you have time to fine-tune everything as best you can, though we're not going to do as much of that with this record as we have with some But it's definitely getting toward crunch time. We've lost some time."

Circumstances certainly played a large role in the band's falling behind schedule. When R.E.M. was recording last March at Crossover Soundstage, in Atlanta, Mills took sick and underwent an appendectomy. Then drummer Bill Berry got waylaid by the flu and had to return to his home in Athens to recuperate. On the brighter side, Stipe's sister Lynda had a baby, and Buck's girlfriend, Stephanie, with whom he now lives in Seattle, gave birth to twin girls. Breaks were built into the band's schedule to accommodate those events. Later, Stipe developed an abscessed tooth.

"Because of what was going on with everyone, things were changing," Buck explains over beers one afternoon in a deli around the corner from Ocean Way. "We never changed a schedule in all of our years. We'd do the schedule for a record — start on this day, end on this day — and if we went two days long, we'd be really over. This record we changed the schedule 20 times. That's one of the reasons it's so up in the air."

Another factor contributing to the tension in the studio is the way that Monster was recorded. Despite the mishaps that afflicted the band in Atlanta, most of the basic tracks for the songs on Monster were recorded live at Crossover, as if the band were playing onstage. The inevitable rawness of recording like that means, as Buck diplomatically puts it, that you have "a lot more options at the end."

"I thought since they hadn't toured in a while, it would be good for them to get into that mind-set — you know, monitors, PA, standing up," says Scott Litt with a laugh. Described by Berry as "the fifth member of the band, as far as recording is concerned," Litt has shared a co-production credit with the band on every new studio album R.E.M. has done since Document (1987). "That's why it's been taking so long to mix," Litt says of Monster. "We're trying to figure out how raw to leave it and how much to studiofy it."

All that is true, but it also seems as if the members of R.E.M. are having to learn how to be in a band again. Although they've done live shows here and there, R.E.M. have not gone out on the road since their world tour in support of Green ended in November 1989. Without the scheduling demands and corps mentality that organizing a tour inevitably brings, the band was able to record Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People — and to some extent, even Monster — at a leisurely pace adjusted to the specific demands of each member's personal life. In the meantime, R.E.M. became a hugely successful band, with the single and video for the Top 10 hit "Losing My Religion" generating quadruple-platinum sales for Out of Time in the United States alone. Following that, Automatic for the People — with no tour and even with Stipe refusing to do interviews to promote the album — sold more than 2.5 million copies in this country. You could say that since 1989, Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe have become superstars without really having to be R.E.M.

All this was coming to a head at Ocean Way as the band attempted to wrap up Monster. The album had to be finished, but rarely were the four members of the band present in the studio at the same time. They were all staying in different places around town and seemed to be trying to juggle finishing the album with the demands of their individual friends, families and lovers. The last day I stopped by the studio, to say goodbye, all four members of the band were on hand, and the mood was focused, if decidedly grim. "We had a band meeting after the session last night," Mills said. "We have to begin working as a unit again, which we haven't been doing very well lately."

"This would be a lot worse," said Buck with a mixture of hopefulness and exasperation, "if we weren't all such good friends."

Wearing black jeans, green sneakers and a dark-green T-shirt with a black star on the chest (similar to the shirt he wears in the video for Monster's first single, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"), Michael Stipe is standing in a control room at Ocean Way recording the vocal for a track on Monster that will eventually be called "King of Comedy." In the studio it is alternately referred to as "Disco Song" or "Yes, I Am Fucking With You." Gripping the mike with both hands, reading the lyrics from a revision-scarred sheet of paper placed on a stand in front of him, Stipe sings: "Make your money with a pretty face/Make it easy with product placement/Make it charged with controversy/I'm straight, I'm queer, I'm bi." Over a driving dance-club beat, his normally warm voice is heavily distorted, a distancing device that runs throughout Monster. At the end of the track he snarls: "I'm not the king of comedy/I'm not your magazine/"I'm not your television/I'm not your movie screen/I'm not commodity."

The character Stipe evokes on "King of Comedy" is a manipulative, sexually indeterminate power monger who, strangely, is struggling desperately to maintain his sense of humanity. It's like the twin poles of the rock-celeb experience for Stipe — the allure of power over an audience (an idea he has explored since "Turn You Inside-Out" on Green) and the danger of losing yourself in the fun-house mirror world of pop stardom.

More specifically, though, Monster is filled with what Buck describes as "obsessive-creep love songs." "It's funny," he says. "Sometimes Michael will write songs where I'll go, 'Well, I can see how that's part of Michael's perspective,' even though he's not necessarily writing about his experiences. But there's a lot of songs on this record that are not even his perspective. You can say a lot of things about Michael — and journalists do — but he's not creepy. And these songs, a lot of them are kind of creepy."

For his part, Stipe, 34, professes to be unaware of the sources within himself of the darker emotions on Monster, which is dedicated to the late actor River Phoenix, a close friend of Stipe's who died last year of a drug overdose. "I don't know, I just put it out there," he says as we sit on folding chairs in the parking lot outside the studio during a break. He, too, seems a bit surprised by the album's quality of emotional terrorism.

"I wanted to write a record about sex," he continues. "I thought that would be kind of fun, kind of cool. I could come at it from all these different angles. I was thinking about this the other day, because I know that with this record people are going to ask a lot of questions about sex. I've had this pat answer about my idea of sex, that sex is nothing more than friction and ego — and timing. [Laughs.] These songs are meant to be in your face. I kind of wanted something that was brash, fucked up and sexy. Dysfunctional. Kind of a gender-fuck train wreck just thrown out there." He smiles. "Hopefully, there's a humanity in it, too."

Part of the gender-fuck element of Monster would seem to be Stipe's way of confronting — and playing around with — the widespread speculation about his own sexual orientation. Along with the "I'm straight, I'm queer, "I'm bi" nonadmission in "King of Comedy," the tremolo-guitar glam-rock tribute "Crush With Eyeliner" — which Berry terms "that snotty boy-sexy thing" — implies that sexual identity is not determined by nature but can be consciously and constantly created, shifted and re-created.

Singing in a voice that sounds like a combination of the high affectation of Bryan Ferry and Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, Stipe declares: "I'm infatuated/It's all too much passion/She's all that I can take/What position should I wear?/Cop an attitude, fake her/How can I convince her... That I'm invented, too?" In another verse he wonders: "How can I make myself be faker/To make her mine?" In this light, Stipe's repeated insistence in the song that "I'm the real thing" (with an obvious nod to Coca-Cola and the identity politics of advertising culture) is hilarious, the ironic opposite of the assertion "I'm not commodity."

On a more disturbing note, however, rumors about Stipe in recent years have centered not only on his sexual preference but also on his health. When R.E.M. announced that they would not be touring after the release of Automatic for the People — after not touring two years earlier in support of Out of Time, either — and Stipe refused all requests for interviews, people began to wonder if he had AIDS or was HIV positive. A preoccupation on Automatic with mortality and dead pop-culture celebrities like Andy Kaufman, Elvis Presley and Montgomery Clift only fueled the concern.

"I don't know how smart it is to say this," Stipe responds when asked about the rumors, "but I purposely did not come forward and say, 'No, I am not HIV positive,' because I thought that it might be good for a lot of people who did respect me or think highly of me to wonder about that and think about it. And think, "Wow, if it can affect somebody who I really look up to, maybe I should be a little bit more careful myself'. That may be unbelievably naive on my part. I also didn't want to answer to it. It was completely ludicrous. I don't think anybody had anything to base it on.

"On a related issue, in terms of the whole queer-straight-bi thing, my feeling is that labels are for canned food," he says. "People are much too binary in their thinking — I think sexuality is a much more slippery thing than that. I've always liked the idea that I could publicly play with that and not pronounce myself anything and let people ... not wonder ... let people take me for what I am. I am what I am — and I know what I am — but I don't really feel comfortable with the labels.

"Going back to the HIV thing," he continues, "I'm not HIV positive. I've been tested many times for various reasons, whether insurance or personal. I've always been of questionable sexuality or dubious sexuality. I've always been skinny, whether people knew it or not — except I got fat once in 1985, when I went nuts, gained 30 pounds, shaved my head and looked like Marlon Brando for a while. But I've always been skinny, I've always had weird hair, and if you put that together with the romance of a public figure and that I wear a hat that says, WHITE HOUSE STOP AIDS, to the Grammys and that I support various AIDS organizations and that I'm queer friendly, people automatically take all these little things and blow them up into something that they're not."

He pauses. "I guess I'm glad that people are concerned about my health," he concludes with a laugh. "It makes me think that they might want me to stick around. I'm really, really OK."

Needless to say, it's genuinely great news that Michael Stipe is "really, really OK." But given that, at least one question remains unanswered: Why haven't R.E.M., a band whose relentless touring during its early years helped establish its reputation, toured for five years?

"It's '94 now, and we toured right till the end of '89, so really it's four years," says Peter Buck, 37, with uncharacteristic firmness.

Well, the Green world tour ended in November '89. R.E.M.'s proposed world tour in support of Monster isn't slated to start until January '95 in Australia, so it's really a bit more than five years.

"Wait a minute," Buck says, hesitating. "The end of '89 until Jan. 1... right, it will have been five years, yeah. Right now, it's four and a half."

Hmm. Feeling a tad defensive?

"Well, yeah," Buck says a little sheepishly. "Because everybody says, 'God, you don't tour,' but U2 didn't even put a record out for three and a half years at one point, and no one said, 'Why aren't you touring?' We've done three records in that time. I am a bit defensive about it. We decided to concentrate on the recording side of it. We did a big tour in '89, and we'd been on the road for 10 years full time — up to that point we'd squeezed everything we could out of it in a creative sense. We could have toured after Out of Time, and it would have been more of the same.

"I just don't really feel that R.E.M. have to have any rules or boundaries — and not because we've made a lot of money," he continues. "It's more important to do what we feel like. Once you admit that there are rules, then you've lost. And one of those rules is that you tour to promote your record. Well, fuck that — none of us felt we had to. Just coincidentally, we then sold 10 million records, which sends us a really weird message like 'Stay home, please.'

"I'm really looking forward to touring," Buck says. "We're all kind of excited by it. It's going to be really great. It'll be different. It'll be fresh. I haven't done it to death."

And for the opposing view, enter Michael Stipe. I'm dreading it," the singer says bluntly, though with a laugh, about touring. "That's about all the thought I've been able to give it." By this point, Stipe's much-vaunted ambivalence about being a rock & roll frontman onstage, being in the public eye and debating the literal meaning of his lyrics is a source of humor even to him.

"I love performing, and I love traveling," he continues. "But the two combined are pretty poisonous. It's a really hard way to spend a year, moving around a lot. I think Natalie Merchant once said that when you tour, all your friends are jealous because you've been able to travel the world and see all these places, but the fact of the matter is, it's kind of like you're in this bubble floating above everything. At the end of the Green world tour, I knew in my heart that I would never do it again. That tour was incredibly hard. At the end of it, I was just blank, a shell. It was really, really, really intense. I just got sick of myself. I wanted to be a human and not so much of a pop star."

He pauses. "Is this going to sound like "Woe is me, my life is so hard'?" he asks. "All of this has to be couched in my recognizing and completely admitting that I am so unbelievably fucking fortunate. I love my job. I love the position I'm in. I love all the benefits that come with being what I am and doing what I do. I've got everything. Within that, I hate touring. But I'm going to do it. I guess."

But Stipe's reluctance to tour is hardly the only reason R.E.M. retreated from the public eye for a time. All of the band members' lives have changed considerably since the late '80s. Among other factors, the extraordinary degree of success the band has achieved has understandably had its effect.

"I'd be lying if I said it didn't," says Bill Berry, 36, one afternoon at Ocean Way. "It's changed my life. And it's not just the money, although that's a lot of it. I've moved out of Athens, bought some land, built a nice house out of town, and that's the best thing that's ever happened to me. I went from being the Athens party boy to being the Oconee County hay farmer — which is literally what I do. I wear overalls like this, I have a big John Deere tractor that I ride around in, and I take care of my land when I'm there. That's completely changed my perspective on things. I want to have kids now. My life with my wife, my home life, has shot way up in priority now."

Things have changed as well for Buck — historically the most prototypical rock & roller in the band — since the birth of his daughters Zoe and Zelda. "I think people who say that children change your perspective must have really been fascists beforehand," he says jokingly. "But they're a great thing in my life. I never thought about the future at all. It's not as if I live some crazy, decadent life — I have a couple of beers. But they're a lot more important for me, in perspective, now than the band is. I mean, the band are my friends, and I'm going to be there for them. But if two years ago the band had broken up acrimoniously, it probably would have upset me. Whereas if it breaks up now, it's like "Well, I've had a good run.' I mean, it's not going to, but in perspective, there are things now that are a lot more important to me. My important part of the day used to be coming into the studio. Now my important part of the day is going home."

"We're all older people," says Mills, 36. "That calms things down a little bit. You're thrown together in the studio, but it's certainly a different feeling than when you're on the road — so who knows how that's going to be. But everybody's still fairly respectful of everybody's space and needs. It hasn't changed that much. Some. [Laughs.] Make no mistake, there is definitely some change. But it's not real radical. Everybody's become more like whatever they were. That may sound like a cop-out to say, but that's basically what it is. Everyone's personality has sort of solidified."

So what does R.E.M.'s future look like? The release of Monster and the virtual certainty of a tour that will take them through Asia, Europe and, in the spring of '95, North America, will surely make them one of the most successful bands on the planet. The world is definitely ready for R.E.M. Are R.E.M. ready for the world?

"It will be interesting to see how we feel after this tour," Berry says. "If it's like the last one [laughs] ... you might not hear a record out of us for quite a while. We may break up. This is the first record since Green where there's a tour involved, and that's as important as the record itself. When the last two records were released, it was just like "Well, let's see how it does, sit back at home, write songs, see what happens.' Now it's like 'The record's out — now the real work begins.' Now we go out and see if we still have it onstage live. That's going to be the test. Ask me in a year, and I'll tell you. We haven't been out in the public eye to experience what that new stage of celebrity is going to be like, how wacko it's going to be on tour. So the tour is going to be a real eye-opener."

Buck also sees the end of the upcoming R.E.M. tour as a kind of line of demarcation. "We'll work and do stuff, most likely tour, through the end of '95, and after that it's a matter of what do we want to do," he says. "My guess is that we'll take six or eight months off, still be friends and get back to work again. The way we all feel about it is, 'As long as we're enjoying it, why not keep doing it?' I'd be embarrassed to do bad work, but we haven't done any yet.

"I think we've got a few more records in us," he continues. "If I said three records — that sounds kind of reasonable to me right now. Now we could break up before that or we could make 10 more records. At the rate we work, three records is a long time — it's six, seven years. Of course, if we get to the point where we're not popular anymore, then we could do whatever we want to! Some days I think it could last forever, and some days I think it won't last very long."

But Buck's impression is that R.E.M. are in a more comfortable place on the contemporary music scene than they were not so long ago — and that has reinvigorated the band. "If you asked me a few years ago about the future of my musical career," he says, "I probably would have said, It will get more and more folky, and I'll end up playing clubs sitting on a stool when I'm 45.'

"There was a period where I didn't really feel that we fit in," Buck says. "It seemed like in 1990 that there wasn't going to be a lot more rock & roll — at least on major labels. The whole Nirvana-Soundgarden-Mudhoney thing was happening, and I had those records, but it was happening in Seattle, and they were playing to 200 kids a night. I wasn't sure, personally, how you'd even approach rock & roll anymore. I didn't know what I wanted to do with that kind of music.

"But we all talked about it and realized that we are a rock & roll band, and for better or worse, we wanted to reapproach that," Buck continues. "We decided we wanted to make an uptempo electric record but without using any elements of heavy metal, which none of us ever listened to. So much of what's happening now, all those bands liked the Ramones and Black Sabbath. I'm not sure I've ever heard a Black Sabbath record. So we're into a weird, purist, no metal whatsoever, very little blues, white rock roll thing."

Stipe, too, feels energized by the kind of influence R.E.M. have had. Their effect on younger progressive bands has created a musical and social environment he feels at home in. Still, he's not predicting the future, either.

"It's natural to my personality occasionally to think when I go to our office, 'There will be a day when this office will close, because there will be no reason for it to stay open,' and it is deeply sad to have that thought," he says. "At the same time I look at it, and it's this vibrant, incredible place that amazing things are coming out of– and not just music. It's thrilling to me that I'm at the epicenter of that. From whatever notion that me and Peter and Mike and Bill had 15 years ago to start a band and stick with it and not buckle under has led to this. And all the amazing people that I've met through this band, because of this band — it's really heartening. And that will never end, of course.

"I've gotten this far and I've maintained my sanity," Stipe continues. "I feel almost big brotherly toward people in rock & roll whom I admire a lot — like Kurt, Sonic Youth and Eddie Vedder. That these people have such an incredible respect for us has really opened my eyes up about what we have done — that these people would give me the time of day as a person and give us any credit whatsoever as a band.

"I feel so much like a contemporary of those guys, and yet I also feel like I've been there a little bit," he says. "I have great sympathy for anybody who's been thrown into... this as quickly as Kurt and Eddie have been. They got, in a way, the same tag that I did, where I was being positioned as the voice of a generation. It was something that I really, really did not want. It was like 'Wait a minute — I'm a fucking singer in a rock & roll band. I did not ask for this.' It's a lot of pressure. If Murmur or Reckoning had sold 5 million copies, I wouldn't be alive to tell the tale."

Stipe looks up then and brightens a bit. "I'm excited that we're in a position to pretty much do what we want to do," he says. "The only real constraint, creatively, is ourselves — and that's enough. We're four very distinct and very different people. But I think that push me/pull you has always been part of our indefinable chemistry. There's an acceptance there."

And maybe even touring won't be so bad. "I'm kind of looking forward to it a little bit, I guess," Stipe finally allows as he begins getting ready to leave for the night. "It's going to be exciting to travel the world again." Then he pulls himself up short one last time. "I always see the person in the audience who's yawning," he says. "The one out of 20,000."