Artist of the Year: R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe on the Band's First Decade

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What inspired you to enroll as an art student at the University of Georgia?
I was an art student just because it seemed so simple. I didn't want to get bogged down with books, so I didn't pick English. I didn't want to go into philosophy, because I thought it was a pile of dog shit. I was interested in geology; I could just as easily have taken that. I just happened to pick art because the building was walking distance from downtown Athens, just off Jackson Street.

I actually started with communications in my first quarter. And I had an illegitimate minor in English. I did a lot of reading. I never graduated. I'm a dropout.

Did you have any interest in art in high school?
I love photography. I photographed children for a long time. And buildings. I'm beginning to sound like David Byrne [laughs].

Did the big Sixties rock icons like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones mean anything to you when you were growing up?
The Beatles were elevator music in my lifetime. "Yummy Yummy Yummy (I've Got Love in My Tummy)" had more impact on me. I distinctly remember being in a swimming pool and singing along to that song and my father saying, "Don't sing that, it's a nasty song." I was feeling particularly rebellious that day; I continued singing. But I dove into the deep end, so he had to fish me out.

There was a fellow in Texas named Mr. Pemberton, who had a record store. He was really old and looked really mean. But he was really nice, and he used to give me and my sister the singles he didn't need anymore, the ones that wouldn't sell. So we got Tammy Wynette, the Beatles and Elvis. And Roger Miller – he had a song called "Skip a Rope." That song had a profound influence on me.

What did punk, as a movement or just an attitude, mean to you?
It was incredibly liberating. I distinctly remember the November 1975 issue of Creem magazine. Someone had left a copy in study hall under a chair. And I remember it had a picture of Patti Smith, and she was terrifying looking. She looked like Morticia Addams. And I think it was Lester Bangs or Lisa Robinson writing about punk rock in New York and how all the other music was like watching color movies, but this is like watching staticky black-and-white TV. And that made incredible sense to me.

The Patti Smith record Horses came out shortly after that. And then Marquee Moon, by Television, came out. And I bought the first Wire album.

Those were the big influences. Their whole Zeitgeist was that anybody could do it. And I took that very literally. I read that in an interview with Patti Smith, and I thought, "If she can sing, I can sing." No one's ever really tied in how much I've lifted from her as a performer.

Like what?
She was just real guttural. It was like all the body noises you make. Billy Bragg says that when men wake up in the morning, they have to make every possible body noise they can to assure themselves that they're still alive. Patti Smith's voice was like that. It wasn't a strained, perfect crescendo of notes. It was this howling, mad beast – every noise you can make.

I don't think I've told any reporter this, but actually, the first recording I ever made was when I was thirteen. My sister had one of those secretary's type of tape recorders. One day, everyone was gone from the house. I locked myself in the den in the basement, turned the thing on RECORD and screamed for ten minutes. Man, I wish I had that tape now.

Was R.E.M. your first band?
The first band to ever play out in a club or a bar. The first band worth mentioning. I'd played with a band here in town that played cover songs for a while. I also had this noise band called 1066, after the Norman Conquest, my favorite year in history. And I was in a punk-rock cover band in St. Louis when I was seventeen or eighteen.

None of it was anything, really. I never wrote a song until R.E.M. And then we didn't really write a song until "Gardening at Night" [on Chronic Town]. I maintain that the first thirty songs we wrote were dry runs, like going to elementary school to learn how to write a song. And with "Gardening at Night," it was suddenly like "Wow, it kind of makes sense."

When did R.E.M., as a band, make sense for you?
We were such a band in those early years – just driving around in a truck, pulling into town and wreaking havoc. Being shitty adolescent punk rockers. We were nice about it, but we still tore a lot of shit up. It was as close to a Kerouacian adventure as any of us had ever had. We would drive somewhere, and someone would pay us $200 to make noise for an hour and a half. What could be greater?

It wasn't all that romantic, but we had a lot of fun. We had a great time making Murmur, and Reckoning was fun. Fables of the Reconstruction was a very hard record to make and a real turning point. But Lifes Rich Pageant was the reconstruction of the deconstruction that Fables became. [Producer] Don Gehman came in with his really big drum sound, and that opened some doors for us.

He was also the first person to challenge me on my lyrics, just saying, "What the fuck is this about?"

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