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Michael Stipe: ‘Rolling Stone’ Interview

The lead singer of Readers Poll winner R.E.M. talks about his new user-friendly persona and why he wears his politics on his sleeve

Michael Stipe, REMMichael Stipe, REM

Michael Stipe and REM, March 11th, 1991.

(Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns)

For R.E.M., the past 12 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 32, 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 10 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 mid-tempo, 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 Queensrÿche’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 10 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.

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 Sinéad 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.

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 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 13. 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 10 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 17 or 18.

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 30 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?”

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 22 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 wim 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 10 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.

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