One reason you're so well known is that in R.E.M.'s videos you have more of a starring role than the other band members, particularly in "Losing My Religion."
I'm the only one who tolerates videos. I love films, and videos are, I think, a great way to get ideas across.
What "Losing My Religion" turned into was a collaboration between my idea and [the director] Tarsem's idea. I wanted to do a very straightforward performance video, much like Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U." Almost a static head shot. But I also wanted to get the other guys into it. And Tarsem had this idea, which was to film it in the style of a particular kind of Indian movie in which everything is melodramatic and very dreamlike. It was a good mix.
"Religion" was very much a testing ground. When the others saw how well it turned out, they got more excited about doing other videos.
R.E.M.'s attitude toward videos has changed drastically since "Radio Free Europe." The band was hardly in that one at all.
I almost wish we weren't. Our big experiment was "Can't Get There From Here." We were all in that one, and it flopped. And that was my fault. It was my first job as a director and editor. But from there, we went to the other extreme in "Fall on Me," in which I felt the band should not be in the video at all.
But it got to the point where we were making these videos, paying a lot of money to have them made, and they were not being played anywhere. It was dumb. The "anti" attitude was not flying.
You found an effective compromise with "Stand." The focus was on the dancers, but the whole band was in it, and there was that closing shot of you with that coy, embarrassed smile.
The smile that broke a thousand hearts. [Laughs] That was not planned. That was a genuine laugh. I don't know what they were doing behind the camera to make me laugh like that, but it worked.
Katherine Dieckmann [the director] had the idea that my public image was a little too staid. She wanted to crack that veneer, and she did. In fact, she sent a copy of the final edit to me and said, "Is that okay with you?" And I said, "Yeah, it's great."
There is a prevailing public image of Michael Stipe as the weird, enigmatic artiste. How much of it is real, and how much is put-on?
The thing is, everybody is like this. But not everybody is projected like this into the homes of millions of people. And that's not to say I'm the most rational-thinking, clearheaded person in the world. I do contradict myself a lot. But I never really believed that to understand or appreciate a good book you have to know who the author is.
There is a degree of projection involved. "This is a projection; this is what I want you to see." But then again, maybe me saying there's a put-on is a put-on in itself. This could go on, like peeling an onion. I don't think so, though. After saying things over and over and seeing them misprinted, you begin to realize that sound bites make sense. You figure out what you feel, you condense it.
But R.E.M.'s success suggests that mainstream-pop fans are quite willing to accept new music and new ideas, that they're much smarter than most bands and record companies take them for.
Yeah. I've always hated the idea that you have to put something on a third-grade level to make most people understand it. I try to rise above it. Early on, I accepted that once a song is pressed and it goes out to people, it's as much theirs as it is mine. Anything anyone wants to see in them is fine.
Like "Fall on Me" is still believed to be about acid rain. Initially, it was. But then I rewrote the song. If you listen to the second verse, there is a countermelody underneath it. That's the original melody to the song; that was the part about acid rain.
In fact, the "Fall on Me" that we all know and love is not about acid rain. It's a general oppression song, about the fact that there are a lot of causes out there that need a song that says, "Don't smash us." And specifically, there are references to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the guy dropping weights and feathers.
One subject you rarely discuss publicly is your personal background. The standard line in most R.E.M. stories is "Michael Stipe was an army brat who went to the University of Georgia."
That's about it. I had an unbelievably happy childhood. I'm still very, very close to my family.
What did your father do in the army?
Nothing heinous. Let's just say he was in the army. We traveled a lot.
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