In the past couple of years, Michael Stipe has fallen back in love with music. “I had to really step away from it for a while, after R.E.M. disbanded,” he says, in the latest edition of our “Rolling Stone Interview: Special Edition” video series. “As kind of a lead singer/control freak, I needed to be all in or not at all.”
Stipe transformed the rock world with R.E.M., one of the all-time great American bands. But 10 years after the group’s amicable split, he’s rediscovering his voice. In this wide-ranging conversation, he journeys all over his life and career, including the weirdness of his lockdown experience — like singing long-distance to Elton John on his birthday.
One of the strangest things about the quarantine for Stipe? He accidentally wrote a song about it: “No Time for Love Like Now,” his gorgeous collaboration with the National’s Aaron Dessner. “What’s so super weird about this song is it mentions ‘lockdown’ and it mentions ‘this in-between place’ — and I wrote it before Covid.” But it took on a new meaning in the middle of a pandemic. “Weirdly prescient, that song. It freaks me out a bit still. The lyric is a little bit of description of what we’ve all been going through now for a year.”
Stipe goes deep into R.E.M.’s 1991 classic Out of Time, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary. “A lot of songs about death,” he says. “But there’s an immense amount of catharsis.” He also clears up the long-running fan argument over “Losing My Religion”: it’s “fool,” not “foal.” “That’s a baby lamb, right? A baby horse? I never liked horses. I like the idea of them, but I don’t want to touch them, and it turns out they don’t want to touch me either.”
He laughs about his formative musical passions, from bubblegum pop to punk rock, recalling how his 15-year-old mind got blown by hearing Patti Smith sing “Birdland.” “That was the song that I just said, what the fuck is this? And I never looked back. I decided I would dedicate myself to art and to music. I was going to be a singer in a band. It didn’t occur to me that I would have to (A) be able to write lyrics, (B) be able to sing, (C) be able to stand onstage and perform in front of people.”
This is the latest installment of Rolling Stone’s latest new video series, RS Interview: Special Edition, featuring in-depth conversations with notable figures in music, entertainment, and politics. Episodes premiere every Thursday afternoon on Rolling Stone’s YouTube channel.