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10 Years of FILTER: Issue #8 Cover Story: Michael Stipe of R.E.M.

By Staff on March 23, 2012

 

10 Years of FILTER: Issue #8 Cover Story: Michael Stipe of R.E.M.

2012 marks FILTER Magazine’s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.

Below you will find Issue #8’s cover story, in full, where we sat down with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. to talk about being an American band, the pressures of the media, and how they never intended to change the world.


“Fables and Reconstructions: R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe on the State of Everything” (Issue 8, Winter 2003)

By Gregg LaGambina

WHAT IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN is very important. It may seem like the least necessary thing in the whole world (especially today). But you’re wrong. Like breathing, sleeping, and eating, what is about to occur may not change your life, but it will sustain it. Guaranteed.

What can be celebrated without a song? Nothing. The ways in which artists (Michael Stipe) and amateurs (singing “Happy Birthday”) have bent the sounds of life to melody makes us want to live. From lullabies to protest songs, the discordant hum of the spinning world is divided into tiny choirs, acting as anti against the ail. Yes, indeed, a song being sung can sometimes be the most important thing.

For 23 years, Michael Stipe and R.E.M. have brought us songs—some good, some not so good, some great, none band. From Athens, Georgia in 1979 to essentially the world in 2003, R.E.M. is that rare band—whether you despise them or adore them—whose noise has permeated the most distant lives. Many of us can pinpoint the memory of things like first kisses and last rites, both triumphs and tragedies, at the mere hint of a melody written and arranged by Bill Berry (drums), Peter Buck (guitar), Mike Mills (bass) and Michael Stipe (vocals). Whether it’s “The One I Love,” “Losing My Religion,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine,” “So. Central Rain,” or even the slightly-annoying-in-retrospect “Stand,” R.E.M. is one of a handful who can truly claim to be of the world, one of the sources of its universal hum. 

They are the mammoth story of triumph writ small enough to fit into the back of a van. The last of a breed—envied by almost anyone else who picked up similar tools and set out to entertain, if not change, the world. At one point during their rise in the mid-’80s, each other their successive recordings outsold the one pervious. An almost scientifically precise achievement created in a lab with the words “How to Become the Biggest Band in the World o Your Own Terms” scrawled in chalk across a rickety blackboard. The beakers bubbled and the test tubes marked “secret ingredients” were carefully hidden away. And for a while there, no one could touch them—biggest band in America, biggest band in Europe, biggest band in the world—Bono and Stipe stretching their necks out to hit the finishing tape first. But when Stipe decided to stop and tie his shoes, he noticed he liked the lawn. He stretched out and grinned and took some time to veer a bit from the straight run. (Bono’s still sprinting: “C’mon guys! This isn’t any fun if you don’t try!”)

R.E.M. is no longer the biggest band, not because they’re not good anymore, but because the idea of “new” is fool’s gold. Dust is no long considered the companion of wisdom—it’s just dirt. The flock seeks what’s shiny. In a sense, R.E.M. is back where they started. Pared down to a three-piece after Bill Berry departed to become a farmer, Buck, Mills and Stipe are once again something to unearth, to dig for, to get at with the keen consideration of a careful music fan.  This is why we liked them in the first place: They were outs. (Where else is America besides Georgia?) We found them. (Where else, but on college radio?) We loved them. (Where were you when you first heard “Radio Free Europe”?)

So, here we have Mr. Michael Stipe. He’s backstage in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s touring the world (again) in support of his band's first greatest hits collection called _In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003_ He’s surrounded by CDs (which we raid; see sidebar), he’s coughing because someone sprayed perfume, he’s beaming because Bill Berry is roaming the hallways just outside the door, and he’s excited—about the show, about the possibilities of his new trio, about music in particular and music in general, and about shutting the door on these “old” songs so he can get on with the never-ending obligation of the pop star as pioneer.

What a follows is a dispatch on the state of things—music, art, politics and mind. What follows is important—truth, lies, observations and conjecture. Michael Stipe has been the singer of R.E.M. from age 19 to 43. What follows is wisdom, which is never wrong. It may not change your life, but it will sustain it. Guarantee still valid. 


PART ONE: THE STATE OF R.E.M.

 

How is R.E.M.? If you were to chart the career of the band, is the line still going up?

[Laughs] We peaked out, and we’re holding solid somewhere near the top of the graph. We’re in a really good way right now.

Was R.E.M. ever supposed to change the world?

No. I think there were early critics who wanted us to change the world because the Sex Pistols failed. They were just throwing these monumental agendas onto this tiny pop band from Athens, Georgia. It was impossible to live up to what they expected. No, I don’t expect anyone can bring about a revolution in the way that Bob Dylan did—and really didn’t—in the late 1960s. And I say that because the guy never—as far as I can tell—had a political agenda whatsoever in one song. I mean, name one song of his that’s really written to be a political anthem. The times called for that and needed that and he fit the role perfectly. He was aloof and noncommittal about what the songs were about and people just applied whatever they wanted. They interpreted them the way they wanted to and brought about a revolution and sorts—a social revolution. Kudos for him. He’s fucking brilliant. Brilliant on so many levels—from a pop star point of view, from an artist point of view, and from a fan point of view.

Which brings me to another point. Let’s for one minute divide the world into people who are music fans and love music and pursue it and go digging for it. And then people who are casual music listeners. Because the casual music listeners are the ones who turn on the radio and they don’t really care what’s playing, they just know that they kinda like it or it’s easy to drive to or it’s easy to sing along to or whatever. Super casual music listeners. That’s the most of the people in the world. And you have to understand, that’s why Top 40 radio exists. It’s not there for people who seek out music and who love music. So, when you divide the world into music lovers, music fans and then those people who are just very casual about their music, it’s wallpaper to them, it’s elevator music, it’s just the thing that’s playing in the background that helps them through their day. It makes it a lot easier to understand the dynamic between popular music, mainstream music, and the stuff that you and I go out and look for and get excited about and then get bummed out when we feel like those artists are getting bigger or more popular or they’re selling out by bringing some element into their music that we didn’t expect. And that’s a great, huge distinction to make. 

There was never a golden era of American radio as far as I can tell. I mean, there was a moment in the 1960s, I’m told—I was a child, you probably weren’t born yet—where bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Who and the Kinks were all over the airwaves. But you have to understand, that was a moment in time. That was nothing. That was a blip on the screen of popular culture compared to what it was always before and what is has been since.

When R.E.M. first started making records, you didn’t really know that anybody was going to care enough to even listen. Now you know whatever you do will be instantly scrutinized and analyzed. Does that complicate things?

No, I quit worrying about that a long time ago. There was a point in time, and it came really late for me, it was probably in the early ‘90s—stuff would come through me: topics or a narrative or an emotion, a feeling, and I’d be like, “I’m really alone in the world. This is not something that’s speaking to an audience. I’m just being really selfish and egotistical and nobody really cares about this except me and nobody understands what it’s about.” There was a point where I realized, like, “wow, if I’m feeling something that strongly that it’s affecting my work and it’s coming through no matter how much I’m trying to beat it down, there’s a good chance that there are other people out there who feel the same way but maybe it hasn’t been voiced yet.”

That’s where a lot of the political songs we wrote in the 1980s, late ‘80s, [came from]. We’re playing them now. You know, we worked up “Disturbance at the Heron House,” which is my take on [George Orwell’s] Animal Farm. We worked that up this afternoon so that we could play it tonight at the show here. And that song is so fucking political [chuckles] and it’s so appropriate to what's going on right now. Like, the kind of arrogance that some of the policy makers and world leaders are carrying with them right now is, I think, reflective of the very worst of the United States. It’s that teenage arrogance, as a young country, the know-it-all-kind of thing. That makes me crazy. 

PART TWO: STATE OF THE UNION

 

I sometimes think people who say America is the greatest country in the world with the most conviction, have never been anyplace else.

Well they’re usually the people that don’t have passports [laughs]. It’s really arrogant of us to refer to ourselves as America. I mean, why is it? We’re really big landwise, and we’re really powerful for all these different reasons—political, cultural, economics—but why is it that we claimed the term “America”? There are all these other countries in South America, Central America and North America that are also American, but we have the sole right to the term “American.” It kind of galls me, but I was feeling very Mr. Politically Correct, blah, blah, blah, you know, suck my dick. And finally, I was in Europe a couple months ago and someone on TV was saying, “Who the fuck do we think we are calling ourselves American?” It was an American who worked outside of the U.S., or another entertainer. I think it was a political pundit. You know, an entertainer like Bill O’Reilly, but someone on the more liberal side of things. And I was like, “Goddamn, finally!”

Especially in the European press, R.E.M. is often referred to as America’s best band. Coming out of a place like Georgia and playing the kind of music that you play, I wanted to get an idea of how you place yourself in the context of being American.

We’re absolutely American and distinctly so, I think. That’s part of what people respond to outside of this country, part of the reason that we're such a huge band outside of the U.S., where we’re not so popular now as we were 10 or 12 years ago. When we first started, we were a band from Athens and that was so off the map. You could never keep up with Los Angeles or New York. At the same time that my band came together, I was 19, it was 1979, Patti Smith, Television, Blondie—the whole New York CBGB’s scene had blown up. You had X and the Weirdos from L.A. and I don’t think Gun Club was around yet, but they were to come pretty shortly after.

There were these nascent, brilliant scenes that were going on in these city centers, but there was no competing with that. So, we just kind of created our own thing and that’s part of the beauty of Athens: is that it’s so off the map and there’s no way you could ever be the East Village or an L.A. scene or a San Francisco scene, that it just became its own thing. So in the beginning we were very much an Athens band. As we traveled, not only did we become super politicized just from seeing the world and our own country from a very different perspective, but we also grew and gathered more and more worldliness to the point where we became a Georgia band. Then we became a Southern band. You know, we played every fucking pizza joint and gay disco and state fair—anybody that would let us play, we would play throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia obviously, we played everywhere. And kind of slowly crept our way toward New York and then into the Midwest and then finally West. As we did that, we were fulfilling our kind of Kerouac-ian dream of being on the road and seeing the country that we came from.

So, we went from being an Athens band to being a Georgia band to being a Southern band to being an American band from the East Coast to being an American band and no we’re kind of an international phenomenon. But we’re very much an American band and that’s that. I think that’s part of the appeal outside of this country and it might be part of the reason people turned away from us within this country, because familiarity breeds contempt. Or we’ve been around for too long. We didn’t stick to the formula of insert-your-favorite-record-here, so you move on. Well, there are a lot of great bands that have picked up that formula and do a real food version of it, so I would encourage people to explore other music and not beat us up about it [laughs].

PART THREE: STATE OF THE ART

 

Thom Yorke recently commented that when he was going through a particularly difficult time that you were instrumental in giving him advice and perspective and that he valued it very deeply. Courtney Love has said that you acted in a similar role with Kurt Cobain. There’s a certain faction of people who get angry when rock stars complain. From a fan’s perspective, you guys seem to have pretty amazing lives. Can you maybe shed some light on what we don’t understand? What is your reaction to the odd person who wants to deny you the right to complain?

The thing that’s upsetting, from my position as a public figure who gets recognized every single day—and often gets complimented, which is a great thing. When people walk up and say, “A song that you did, or that record, really meant a lot to me at that time in my life and I just wanted to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘keep doing what you’re doing.’” That for me is the greatest reward that I get. It boosts my confidence and it’s really a sweet thing for people to want to say that. But, people also have to understand that just because you’re well known, doesn’t mean you don’t have bad moods. I was in a shitty mood last night at this club and people kept trying to sit next to me and I was just like, “Leave me alone. I just want to hear the band. And I want to have a beer with my friend here.” They were excited that I was there or whatever, or they wanted to get snarky with me—I just wasn’t in the mood for it. I hope I didn’t offend anybody, but I have bad moods too and sometimes I’m in public when that happens. Well, it is easy to shoot down people who seem to have everything in the world handed to them on a silver platter, or who have worked really hard and gotten to that place and then are complaining and griping and moaning about what a terrible thing it is—they they’re bothered and artistic, whatever [laughs].

You have to realize there are monumental pressures to being a media figure that people don't really understand. It’s not wise and it's not good to gripe about them publicly, and I kind of find that personally offensive as well. But, you have to understand that we’re just people like everyone else. Does that sound really stupid?

No, it’s just that, well, for better or worse, I really have no opinion about it. If someone makes a good record, they made a good record and I’ll listen to it. But I guess I just find this trend interesting. It seems like only recently where someone like Kurt Cobain, or an Eddie Vedder, or Thom Yorke—all three were at one time at the cusp of something huge. They saw the hordes of people goading them on to make that big leap into mythology and wanted them all at one time to “please be my rockstar.” At the last minute, they kind of put on the brakes, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else in the short history of this kind of music has really started to do that until now. 

There was a point in the ‘80s when I looked out at my audience and I saw people that—were I not on stage—they’d sooner slug me as they walked by me on the sidewalk. And I realized that I was way beyond the choir. These were not my people. These were other people. I was an ugly, horrible person on stage then [laughs]—spewing about Reagan and about this and that. It’s where a song like “Exhuming McCarthy” came from. There was a point where I looked out and I saw these people and I realized: I’m the performing monkey. I’m the dancing clown. And they don’t have the same values that I have, other than maybe they like our music, or they like to fuck to it, or get high to it, or listen to it when they’re driving, or whatever. And it was really offensive to me and so I reacted the way anyone would react in that situation: you get very defensive and very insecure and very angry and you want to shove down people’s throats who you really are and see how much of it they can take. Okay, well, I thankfully kind of grew out of that, but I had to learn the hard way—that you welcome those people into your church, you welcome them and you say, “This is where I want you to be and I’m glad that you’re here.” And you hope that something that you’re doing might seep into them. That’s me—I’m a populist, you know? My job is to subvert from within. I know that Eddie went through the same thing. I know that Kurt went through the same thing. I suspect that Polly Harvey went through the same thing. And there is a grace with which you can kind of approach and attack that kind of a problem. Part of it comes from that D.I.Y. punk mentality that I know every one of those people carry with them, of “This is getting way bigger than I wanted it to.” Or, “Maybe this is what I thought I wanted, but now that it’s here I’m not sure I want it.” And the whole “Corporate Rock Sucks” T-shirt that Kurt wore, the whole baby chasing the money on [the Nevermind record cover], that was a very clear and a very timely statement to make. 

But of course you’re going to react like that, and of course you’re gonna take the defensive, and of course you’re going to be incredibly insecure about it and of course you’re gonna question, “What was I thinking? Why did I really want this?” That's all part of the growth thing. I don’t think that I was really there so much for any of those guys, except as someone who had already been down that road and maybe understood it a little more clearly.

R.E.M. was one of the few bands during the ‘80s that we could be proud of, then the early ‘90s started out with a bang of hope, which kind of waned a bit more quickly than anticipated. Where are we now? How does the current music climate rank in your mind? Is that state of the art healthy?

I think it’s in great shape. Someone said, “When politics go to hell in a gift basket, music gets a real lot better.” That might have something to do with it. It’s like you’ve got something to push against and something to rant about. It stirs everyone’s blood and kind of brings everything to the surface, so maybe that's good for music. I don’t know. But I think it’s a really exciting time for art and for music right now. I would challenge anyone who says that it's not. I don't want to hear about Top 40. We all know what hip-hop was and we all know what its become and I'm excited about what it’s going to become after this, because there is some 13- or 14-year-old kid out there that thinks that 50 Cent and Eminem created the world. They're gonna start their own thing. They might go back and explore and find Boogie Down Productions. They might find N.W.A. and explore that stuff the same way that I found Patti Smith and Television, then I went back and found Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. These guys might go back and find what brought us to 50 Cent and Eminem. Five of six years from now, there's gonna be some weird-ass, like some kid whose mother is Spanish is gonna integrate some kind of Barcelona beat into what we consider to be super-mainstream hip-hop, and it’s gonna be the most astonishing thing we’ve ever heard in our lives.

PART FOUR: STATE OF MIND

 

To write an autobiography you have to split yourself in two, so you can tell your story by looking at yourself. What do you see when you look at yourself?

[Long pause] What is it that Peter once said about our band? Part lies, part heart, part truth, part garbage [laughs]. That's what I see. F


TO VIEW THE PREVIOUS "10 YEARS OF FILTER" FEATURES, CLICK HERE.

This article is from Filter Issue #8