This is my last day of work," Michael Stipe says cheerfully, strolling through the Rolling Stone offices after giving one of his final interviews as the singer of R.E.M. Theoretically, he is promoting the two-CD compilation Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, a thorough primer on the band's wild ride from the small post-punk scene in Athens, Georgia, to worldwide celebrity. But that ended on September 21st, when Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills announced they were disbanding – drummer Bill Berry quit in 1997 – and Stipe, 51, spends most of our hour looking back in candor and relishing the idea of a new life out of rock. "Who says I have to be a songwriter?" he says, smiling. "I'm in a place right now where I don't know what the future holds for me." There are immediate prospects, including a new documentary film he's producing about Internet celebrity and his current work in sculpture. Stipe also makes it official: no solo album. "It's unfathomable to me right now. What would it sound like? Watered-down R.E.M.?"
How did you feel the day of the announcement? Scared, relieved?
I stayed in New York. Mike was in Athens. Peter was in Mexico – he wanted to be as far away as he could. But I was here in case things went pear-shaped and I had to go on Jimmy Fallon or something to say, "No, this is really OK." I'd texted everybody I felt needed to know from me, called a few people and then went to Madison Avenue and walked. I went into a cafe, took a deep breath – and I completely let go. I had been under contract since I was 22. I'd been in a band since I was 19. I was experiencing something profound for the first time: freedom. Suddenly, I was a free agent. Mike and I met up two nights later, and he said to me, "This feels liberating." [Sighs] I was like, "He feels the same way."
Mike told me the three of you first discussed disbanding in 2008. How hard was it to keep it a secret?
It was very hard. My fear was that it would leak – and it would be my fault [grins]. It's not like we sat down one night and had a somber discussion. But we were at the end of a record contract. We are all in our fifties and have other lives. And R.E.M. has always been about the rule of "no." We always knew what we didn't want to do. The number of times in 31 years when one of us almost packed our bags and left is uncountable. But we stuck with it.
I first saw R.E.M. live in 1982. What was your idea then of a life in music? How long did you think it could go?
I was still emerging into this teenage dream of what it was to be in a band, travel the world and have people love you. I had not worked out how much work it would take. Anyone can make a bozo of themselves – that's easy. To do something valuable for you and others, fall flat on your face and bounce back from that – that's not so easy. I got a handle on it with [1987's] Document. I felt like, "OK, I can take my shirt off in this photograph. People are going to like it more." I had long hair like Robert Plant, and I looked great. But I felt I had a purpose, and it came from the songs. It wasn't just me spouting about my own stuff. It was recognizing that I become furious at injustice.
How did your friendships with Peter and Mike change? Most of your time together was about tours and records.
The work is our life's dream come true. As hard as it was to play somewhere in January where it's bitch-ass cold, there's two feet of snow on the ground, and you have a sore throat because everyone in the crew is sick, all of that stuff doesn't matter when you step onstage. Personal problems between us would disappear. That part didn't change at all. I'm seeing Peter next week. Mike and I had dinner the other night. Those relationships will continue.
So why bother splitting?
It was important for R.E.M. to be finite, not let it become this thing that might or might not happen. We needed this not to be the elephant in the room: "Why has it been three years and you're not talking about a tour or a new album? You haven't signed a new deal." We had to put it behind us.
Is there a particular song you will miss singing onstage with R.E.M.?
"Man on the Moon" – watching the effect of that opening bass line on a sea of people at the end of a show. And that is an easy song to sing. It's hard to sing a bad note in it.
This story is from the December 8, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.