Q&A: Michael Stipe - Rolling Stone
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Q&A: Michael Stipe

R.E.M.’s singer wants to work with U2 and learned to dance from Sinéad O’Connor

Michael Stipe

Michael Stipe of R.E.M. during Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. 'Vote For Change' Concert Tour Kickoff in Philadelphia at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, October 1st, 2004.

Debra L Rothenberg/FilmMagic/Getty

I‘M NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL writer, and I never have been,” says Michael Stipe. That said, on R.E.M.’s new album, Around the Sun, Stipe’s normally cryptic lyrics took a back seat to more personal thoughts. “I wrote this entire record without my thinking brain, letting my unconscious voice do all the work,” he says. Two songs, “Final Straw” and “I Wanted to Be Wrong” (Stipe refers to the latter as the band’s “State of the Union address”), will be featured on the group’s upcoming twenty-one-date U.S. tour, as well as on the Vote for Change Tour, where R.E.M. will eventually share a stage with Bruce Springsteen. “I’d love to play something off The Rising,” says Stipe, 44, about a possible onstage collaboration with Springsteen. “And he sent me a note suggesting that Peter [Buck] might be interested in playing a little guitar song called ‘Born to Run,’ which is pretty awesome.”

What is the first song you remember hearing?

I was seven, living outside Frankfurt, and I remember hearing a German version of “Michelle,” by the Beatles, playing on the radio. I stood there looking at the radio like it was going to do something. I was fascinated. I remember the radio was on a tall shelf, and behind it, through a glass wall, I could see a cabbage garden.

You and Peter Buck met at Wuxtry Records in Athens, Georgia. How did you bond?

We shared a common taste in punk rock. He worked there, and he’d hide the really good stuff, like a two-dollar copy of the New York Dolls’ first album. I’d find all of those records – that’s how we started talking, in 1979. He was always playing guitar behind the counter, and he had a really cool leather jacket. I think I called him Richard for three months – I have no idea why [laughs]. Even stranger, he didn’t correct me.

How’d you get turned on to punk rock?

When I was fifteen, I got an accidental subscription to the Village Voice. Then I started reading Cream and Rock Scene, about what was going on at CBGB with the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and Blondie. I bought Patti Smith’s Horses the day it came out, stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, ate a bowl of cherries and threw up. I decided then that I was going to start a band.

You started a punk cover band in high school. What was it called, and what did you cover?

It was called Bad Habits [laughs]. We did “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Shake Some Action,” by the Flaming Groovies.

When you perform, do you prefer crowds singing along or just listening?

I like it when people sing along, as long as I can hear myself. “Man on the Moon” is always great fun live. Everybody knows the words, and even if you don’t, by the third line you know to sing, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” And “The Great Beyond” — everyone really likes the “pushing an elephant up the stairs” line.

What’s your pre-show ritual?

I ignore the rest of the band. Peter plays furious guitar, which makes me really nervous, so I go into a room by myself, smoke and put on makeup. I just distract myself, and the second I go onstage I’m OK.

What one album have you spun more than any other?

It’s by a duduk player named Djivan Gasparyan: I Will Not Be Sad in This World. It was on Brian Eno’s imprint, Opal Records. It calms me down, which I need from time to time.

Do you carry good-luck charms?

There’s a necklace that I wear onstage. There’s no reason why, other than it made me feel good. I made it with a buffalo nickel I bought for $1.99 and a cuff link from the Concorde that cost forty francs.

What piece of art best represents R.E.M.’s music?

Maybe certain scenes from The Elephant Man [laughs]. There’s a subtitled French film – it’s on DVD – called Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. That film is like an R.E.M. song.

Where do your unique dance moves come from?

I’ve lifted a few moves from Sinéad O’Connor: I’d like to publicly thank her for that. Just from watching her videos. But I was completely unaware that I had a dance style until people pointed it out recently. I mean, come on, I’m practically falling over on every other song.

Who would you most like to collaborate with?

It seems like everybody is always busy. But my wish list is Radiohead, U2, Björk, Grant Lee Phillips, Bright Eyes and PJ Harvey.

There’s a recurring line in the new single, “Leaving New York” where you sing, “Leaving was never my proud.” What does that mean, exactly?

It’s ungrammatical, and I had a discussion with [bassist] Mike Mills about it, but the feeling was that the line said what I wanted it to say, so I stuck with it.

Have you written big hits on coasters and cocktail napkins?

I never write on napkins. That’s one of my pet peeves. There’s something about the texture that makes it impossible for me to write on. And I’m a nice guy about autographs, but I’ll never sign a napkin. I have kept a lot of tiny scraps of paper that I realized later were the genesis of songs like “World Leader Pretend” or “Losing My Religion” or “Country Feedback.”

When, if ever, do you listen to R.E.M.?

Right before we make a new record I’ll go back and listen to all that stuff, because I don’t want to repeat myself. It offers confidence and humility in equal dollops.

When was the last time you smoked a huge joint and cranked the music?

Jesus, I quit smoking pot when I was seventeen. I tried it a few times since, but last time I took a hit I was catatonic for hours.

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