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

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How did you react to that?
I crossed my arms and walked out of the room. But I appreciated the challenge a lot. Don just said: "Think about what you're singing. What is this? Why do you want to put that out?"

Did that criticism cause you to rethink your writing style?
No. But with that record, we had a sonic clarity that was technologically miles ahead of anything we'd done before. It made it so you could hear what I was singing.

Actually, I keep trying to get away from that. The vocal on "Belong" [on Out of Time], I sang that directly into a Walkman. I don't like the clarity, because it doesn't allow me as much latitude to just flail, to just be a melody and let the words, the meaning, flow out.

Wouldn't you like to have people understand what you're singing?
No. I don't see any reason for it. I think music is way beyond rational thinking. It doesn't have to make any sense. "Half a World Away" [on Out of Time] doesn't make sense to anybody but me. And even to me, it's a totally fabricated experience; it's drawn from things that I know or saw on TV or that people I know told me. It's a complete fabrication. But there's something there.

What about "The One I Love"? You can't get more plain-spoken than the verse in that ["This one goes out to the one I love/This one goes out to the one I left behind"].
Yeah, but that song has a real twist in it, too: "A simple prop/To occupy my time." That was a little harsh. I didn't want to put that on the record. But I wanted to write a song with the word love in it, because I hadn't done that before.

Also, that was the beginning of those songs that the band was getting into, songs that were so pop that I couldn't just sing gibberish over them. I had to come out with something really succinct, like "Pop Song 89" or "Stand." You can't take a melody like that and howl or moan and throw a few hard consonants in. At that point, I flipped back to the "Yummy Yummy Yummy" swimming-pool experience. My immediate response to a song like "Get Up" [on Green] is "Great bubblegum!" That's something I understand and something that can really be fun. The other guys just gave me this song for the next record that is so beyond "Stand" it makes "Stand" sound like a dirge.

Have you considered doing a solo record?
I was never a big Rolling Stones fan, but I remember thinking when Mick Jagger put out his first solo record in 1985, "God, the guy's been in the band for twenty-two years, he's the most famous singer in the world, and it took him this long to get it together?" Now I know why. R.E.M. consumes almost every waking hour of my life.

I would love to do a solo record, and I guarantee that it would be very different from R.E.M.

What do you want to do on your first solo record?
The first thing I would do is an album of cover songs. I've actually got a list already: "Paralysed," by Gang of Four, "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution," by Tracy Chapman, "Gravity," by Pylon, "Hey Jack Kerouac," by 10,000 Maniacs. There was a song called "Drowning," by the English Beat, that I always thought would make a good single. And there are a bunch of songs I know I could really wail on, like "Magic Carpet Ride," by Steppenwolf.

I'd probably do a record of cover songs and then a record of my own stuff that would just be complete incoherency, because I'd want to get all the stuff I can't do in R.E.M. out of my system in one go. I'm sure it would be a horrible mess, although fun to make.

With your heavy load of activities outside of R.E.M. – videos, films, producing bands, political activism – do you ever worry about the "rock Renaissance man" trap?
I'm not going to let that get in the way of things I want to do. The problem is, you're catapulted into this position where your ego is blown up to the size of a major planet. And you begin to believe that you can do anything. And that might not be a bad thing ultimately, except the poor public has to suffer through a lot of it. But as a normal person, it's not a bad thing to feel that nothing is impossible.

What about the "man for all causes" syndrome, like when you pulled off all those politically correct T-shirts on the MTV Video Music Awards show last year?
If it was misunderstood or if people thought it trivialized any of the causes, then I'm very sorry. But I think more people saw it and said, "Wow, I really agree with that." The feedback I've gotten from that alone was more than for anything else I've ever done. I was getting mail from countries that I couldn't even find on the map.

The recent death of Freddie Mercury has increased attention in the music business to the AIDS epidemic. Do you think the rock community has done enough – if anything at all – to combat the disease?
I don't think anyone's done enough, and I don't know what can be done. I plan on being very involved. I have been in the past, maybe less vocally than I have about the environment. With Green, I came to be known as the recycle singer. People think of me as this mastermind on toxic-waste incinerators.

But I think this presidential election will prove that the AIDS crisis and dedicating money to research are important issues. If we took one percent of our defense budget – which, according to the info on Ben and Jerry's Peace Pops, is $8 million a day – if we put that money towards AIDS research, that's more than the government has put towards AIDS in ten years.

Will R.E.M. become actively involved in the presidential campaign with a public endorsement or a benefit show?
Not a benefit, because we probably won't play this year. But I supported Dukakis in 1988. Not because of Dukakis, but because of Bush. I was scared and am still scared of him.

The Dukakis stuff I did by myself. As a band, I don't really know. That could turn into a difficult situation, where public support by a rock band could be a real negative instead of a positive thing. But we're talking about a president who's never uttered the words "greenhouse effect," whose comment on AIDS was for people to get behavioral psychiatric help.

Out of Time marked the beginning of R.E.M.'s second decade on record. How do you envision the group's future?
Hopefully, we're not going to put out Chicago XIV. That would be my worst fear, that we would turn into one of those dumb bands who go into their second decade and don't know how bad they are and don't know when to give it up.

I don't think we're at that point. I think the stuff we're doing now challenges in energy and emotion and feeling anything we've ever done.

How many good years do you think R.E.M. has left? Peter Buck and Bill Berry reportedly made a pact to keep the band going until the year 2000 and then quit.
They decided they wanted to break up at the millennium. There is something poetic about it. I dig that idea. Hey, I can hang in with these guys for another decade.

This story is from the March 5th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.

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