For R.E.M., the past twelve months have been the Year of the Big Music Biz Awards, and there's a small mountain of them piled in a corner of the band's office, in Athens, Georgia. There are gold and platinum sales plaques from around the world for the album Out of Time and a half-dozen MTV Video Music Award statuettes for "Losing My Religion,'' including one for Video of the Year. They're all still wrapped in their cardboard packing, gathering dust, and they're all addressed to R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe, who couldn't care less. "I'm actually going to take the MTV things home and put them on top of my TV – which I never use," Stipe says, glancing at the boxes with a puckish grin. "The gold records go to charity auctions or to my grandmother. I don't need that to tell me what I have achieved. I feel pretty good looking at the record cover and thinking, 'That has that great song on it, and I can still listen to it.' That's achievement."
By that yardstick, Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry can be justly proud of their entire first decade together. From the catalytic jangle of their 1981 independent seven-inch debut, "Radio Free Europe" b/w "Sitting Still," to the urgent pop kick of 1988's Green, R.E.M. created a body of work rich in exploratory songcraft, emotional depth and timeless garage-rock drive, ascending to mainstream popularity without caving in to record-industry dictums or betraying its original college-radio constituency.
The across-the-board success of Green guaranteed a warm reception for Out of Time. But R.E.M. was unprepared for the triple-platinum sales and broad public acclaim – including a dramatic sweep of the Rolling Stone Readers Poll – that followed. The day after Stipe sat down in the R.E.M. office for this rare, in-depth interview, the group received seven Grammy nominations, among them Record of the Year and Song of the Year for the Top Five hit "Losing My Religion."
"I described R.E.M. once as a bunch of minor chords with some nonsense thrown on top," Stipe says, crossing his legs yoga-style on a swivel chair and thoughtfully stroking his week's-plus worth of beard. "'Losing My Religion' has that quality. 'Fall on Me' [on Lifes Rich Pageant] had it, too. You always want to sing along, and you always want to keep singing when it's over. And maybe every couple of years we hit on one of those.
"I hate to make this comparison, but 'Religion' is similar in theme to 'Every Breath You Take,' by the Police. It's just a classic obsession pop song. I've always felt the best kinds of songs are the ones where anybody can listen to it, put themselves in it and say, 'Yeah, that's me.'"
As R.E.M.'s lyricist, Stipe has been writing songs like that all along: "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)," "Fall on Me," "The One I Love." The problem, for hard-core fans and critics anyway, has been trying to distill the "me" that Stipe himself puts into his verse. Yet in striking contrast to his elliptical writing style, Atlanta-born John Michael Stipe, now thirty-two, proves to be warm and open in conversation – guarded in spots, particularly about his personal life, but otherwise frank and unpretentious about music, success, the curse of celebrity, his political activism and his wide range of creative interests outside the band. Like Peter Buck, he moonlights as a record producer and indie-rock guru: He recently produced a second album by Athens singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, and last summer he sponsored a Deep South in N.Y.C. night at the New Music Seminar to showcase four young Dixie underground bands.
His nonprofit film company, C-00 (pronounced "C-hundred"), cofounded with director Jim McKay, continues to produce striking public-service announcements on AIDS, racism and homelessness. Stipe is also the executive producer of C-00's first feature-length film, Desperation Angels, directed by McKay. "It's a road movie," Stipe explains, "a very intense, very smart, very graphic look at the decay of the United States of America in the late Eighties and early Nineties. I've seen dozens of scripts in the last year and a half" – one in ten has a "rock star" in the lead, he groans – "and this one just flew off the desk."
The new year also means a new R.E.M. album, to be recorded in the spring and released in late summer. The night before this interview, R.E.M. held its first practice session of '92, hammering out some of the dozens of song ideas the band has amassed since the Out of Time sessions. "Very midtempo, pretty fucking weird," Stipe says of the music. "More acoustic, more organ-based, less drums." As for the next R.E.M. tour, he adds: "We'll probably trim it down, lose the lights, lose all the shit, put on a white T-shirt and go onstage. If nothing else, the acoustic shows we did on TV and in Europe really showed that I can sing and the songs are not that weird and enigmatic. They're just pretty good songs, and I've got a good set of pipes."
So good, in fact, that Stipe even won Best Male Singer in our Readers Poll, beating out archetypal belters like Axl Rose and Queensryche's Geoff Tate. "I'm blessed, frankly, with really bad sinuses," he explains. "I put up with the snot, because I got a great voice in exchange."
With the huge success of Out of Time, have you taken any time to figure out "Why now, why us?"
I felt really weird that this record is really popular and other records just fell through the cracks. Not just in this country but globally. We were Number One in Israel for nine weeks. Israel! Go figure. It was the first non-Israeli act in five years to go Number One. And that was right after the gulf war.
If I thought a lot higher of myself as a singer and us as a band, then maybe I would be of the mind to think about those kinds of things. But I think we're a good band, sometimes great. A lot of it is just timing and luck. I don't want to sound horribly self-effacing, because we're really proud of what we do and we work real hard at it.
But I just don't think about it in those terms. I don't think I could walk around and purchase toilet paper if I had to think about why people in Bombay and Israel are disco dancing to "Radio Song."
But in the past ten years, you've gone from being an underground rock singer to a major pop celebrity. And compared with your stark stage presence on early tours, you seemed a lot more relaxed in recent appearances, like last year's 'MTV Unplugged' show. How do you account for the new user-friendly Michael Stipe?
I turned into a performer sometime in the last decade. I quit wearing darker clothes. I let the lights be a little brighter. With the Green world tour, ticket prices were so astronomical that I felt guilty that people were paying that much money to sit in the back row and not see a show.
Did you enjoy being a "performer"?
No. It felt real stilted. My haircut on the Green world tour should be enough to attest to my taking that to the extreme. That was by far the ugliest haircut of the Eighties. But I just felt an obligation to the audience and the role that I was supposed to be playing. And talk about power – that's a fucking trip. Put your hand up and 20,000 people scream.
I distinctly remember the first time that it hit me really hard. It was at the Wang Center, in Boston. We did two nights there, and the second night we sang "Flowers of Guatemala." I looked out in the audience, and people were weeping openly. It was like "Oh, my God." You could hear a pin drop. It was the most incredible feeling.
You also seem to have this new TV persona – very chatty and all smiles for the cameras, like you've just taken some "shiny happy people" pills.
I am absolutely mortified out of my mind. That's what it translates to. I have this reputation for being an incredibly serious person. And in interviews, I'm desperately trying to think of really good answers. So I come across as this reverent curmudgeon. But when I get in front of TV cameras, I come across like a chipmunk on speed. Cameras make me really animated.
But it's weird being a media figure, to be recognized everywhere by somebody. It's like you walk into someplace and you're playing a game – it's a matter of time until someone whispers to someone else, they look at you and then whisper to someone else.
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