Interview with Michael Stipe of REM
Author(s): Paul English
Copyright holder(s): Derek Stewart-Brown: on behalf of The Scottish Daily Record and Sunday Mail Ltd
MICHAEL STIPE is refreshed. It's 1pm and the jet-lagged REM frontman is picking at a brunch of boiled eggs, melon slices and berries.
'I'm not big on breakfast,' he says. 'I got up late today. 'But I think I'm awake now.' The lead singer of the US stadium rockers, once dubbed the biggest band in the world, looks typically moody as he sits in a Kensington hotel room.
His expression is deadpan, framed with a pair of Woody Allen specs, like an outsized comedy accessory engulfing his small features. A salt-and-pepper carpet of stubble covers his boney face and he speaks in a soft, throaty murmur - nothing like the singing voice the world knows so well.
'I had a day off yesterday which I was so happy with,' he says. 'I needed it.'
But the rest isn't the only reason the 44-year-old is refreshed.
After spending a quarter of a century as the figurehead of a global phenomenon, he has finally been able to put the 'strain' of selling 50 million albums behind him.
'I found it really liberating to release the Best Of album last year,' says the enigmatic singer, referring to In Time: The Best of REM 1988-2003.
'In some ways it summarised the work people know us best for.
'So when I wrote this stuff I didn't feel the new songs were sitting on my shoulder, saying, 'You have to be as good as we are.' 'I love a song like Man On The Moon. I loved writing it and I love performing it. It's an astonishing piece of music. But I don't have to remember that every time I go to write a new song.
'Releasing the Best Of was one of the things that spurred me into a period of prolific writing, the likes of which I'd never experienced before.'
The band's PR arrives and hands him a double espresso.
'Jesus,' he says. 'What are you trying to do, kill me?'
'Do you want some milk?,' she asks. 'No, but there's a heart machine in the lobby.You might want to bring that up.'
Contrary to much of what's written about Stipe, there's nothing evasive, cold or difficult about him today. His sullen expression belies his dry humour.The reluctant interviewee I was expecting has obviously been left in bed.
'I didn't know until we put out the Best Of that I actually had this giant weight on me, that suddenly I felt free of,' he says.
It's strangely reassuring to hear one of the world's most successful songwriters talk about facing the demons of self doubt.
But, then again, this is the man who came up with the three-minute therapy session which is Everybody Hurts.
Despite REM's success, the lyricist behind classics like Losing My Religion and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight needed a pep-talk from the only other man on the planet qualified to give it.
He says: 'My great friend Mr Bono is someone who does the same thing I do and a bit more. He told me, 'Just do it.
Don't think about it, just do it. Every song doesn't have to be great, just write songs. It's what we do.' 'I needed to hear that from somebody who knew what they were talking about - and it really left a mark.'
Bono's words did the trick. Michael Stipe got his mojo back and went ahead with REM's 15th album, Around The Sun, released on October 4.
'That's not to say that every song which flew out of me was good but I wrote 19 songs for this record and it gave us a lot to choose from.There are another six to be finished which I'll be working on as we tour. That has never happened before.'
The rock-god pep talks and Best Of closure have worked.Their haunting new single Leaving New York is instantly identifiable REM - deliciously sombre with a hooky chorus, smooth, layered harmonies and intriguing lyrics hinting at a septic break-up.
Michael smiles at the guesswork. 'I've heard every interpretation of that song, and I love every one of them,' he says.
'None of them is wrong. My reading of the song, and me saying what the song is about, is the least important.
'It's really about what the listener takes from it. As a music fan that's what I turn to music for. I don't really want to hear what Bjork's interpretation of her songs is.
'That's interesting to me years after I've made them mine.
'What I will say about Leaving New York is that it is a pretty literal song. I was sitting on a plane, looking out the window at New York. And I wanted to write a love song to the city.
'But it is something that can be interpreted in many different ways and I welcome that.'
Having been reduced to a trio with the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, the band knew they'd taken things for granted. 'We realised when Bill left that we had taken advantage of it.we hadwe had taken advantage of it.
'It threw me into a really f****d-up dark place. It made me realise how afraid I was about the end of this band and how much the idea of moving on scared me.
'Once he pulled out it took us a long time to find that chemistry again.
'But I've realised how very lucky we've been to do what we do.
'And it's not scary any more. 'I think we're better people for that. We're certainly better friends.'
A better band?
'It feels that way,' he says, quick as a flash. 'I'm not being arrogant but it feels natural, simple and obvious to me.'
The singer will return with Mills and Buck for two Scottish gigs next year - at the SECC in February and a giant outdoor bash at Loch Lomond in June. And he is already relishing the prospect.
'A big Scottish crowd is something that you remember, that's for real.
'They really know how to let go. It feels like there's a direct line between performer and audience, a complete joy. There's none of the usual roadblocks that you have to leap over to touch the audience directly.'
He recalls past Scottish appearances fondly - not just the monster gigs at Stirling Castle, Murrayfield orT In The Park but also when he appeared in Glasgow with Billy Bragg and rumoured squeeze Natalie Merchant at The Big Day in 1990.
'I remember that well,' he says. 'I wore a lime green jacket and matching baseball cap.'
The trio played to a relatively small crowd of 2000 fans, while on the main stage Scottish acts like Hue and Cry, His Latest Flame and Deacon Blue entertained an estimated 200,000 fans. 'It certainly didn't feel like a small gig at the time,' he says.
How times change - in more ways than one. Then, Michael was rumoured to be in a relationship with 10,000 Maniacs singer Merchant. Now, he's come out and is in a relationship with a man.On this, he's surprisingly open - to a point.We still don't know who the other man is.
SMILING, he says: 'Someone once said that I had been outed in the UK more times than Frank Sinatra sang My Way. 'Every time they had a slow news day they thought I'd come out of the closet - again.'
In fact, Michael says he first started talking about his bisexuality in 1994 and couldn't believe it when it became big news in the UK in 2001. 'It's something that I've always considered to be private and not of interest to people. I've always been open about it - to my family, friends and the band.
'Finally it just became ridiculous so I thought f*** it, I'll just say it.'
He admits he 'falls in between' gay and straight. 'I've slept with men and women my whole life but I definitely have a preference for men. I'm too selfish to have children.
'I tried twice and it didn't happen. I'm probably relieved that it didn't. But I have an army of god-daughters - I love seeing them.'
In a room next door sit REM's bass player Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck, discussing how to quantify the success of the band.
Peter says: 'When we sold 10 million copies of Out of Time, my brother sat down and calculated that in terms of distance we'd sold about 10 million feet of albums.
'So when someone tells me we've sold 50 million records, I think about it as 50 million feet. I have no idea how many miles that is. But anything over the thousand that we used to sell is basically a lot.'
The duo's effervescent tone is in stark contrast to that of their singer.
They're kept apart during interviews, presumably so that the less direct Stipe doesn't have to fight to get a word in.
Buck is especially sharp and jovial, even when talking about the infamous air-rage trial during which he was accused of assaulting a member of British Airways staff.
'Relief is an understatement,' he says. 'No-one looks forward to going to jail.
'It was embarrassing and I tried not to look at coverage of it but people would tell mewhat was going on.
'It feels like the only time I've ever really been famous.
'But it's part of my life now and it will be there forever. It has made me rethink myself.'
Next month, the band join forces with other massive US names like Bruce Springsteen and The Dixie Chicks on the Vote For Change tour, encouraging the US electorate to oust president Bush.
Their songs may well be loved by many millions of their countryfolk but their politics aren't always popular.
Mike says: 'We're getting grief in America.
'Some people are telling us to shut up and make music, saying they don't care what rocks stars say.
'But they miss the point of living in a democracy. It's your freedom, it's your right to speak out about things you feel about.
'Why doesn't everyone else? There's no glory in apathy.'
Peter adds: 'I remember at the height of the Vietnam War you had people in Jefferson Airplane calling for the dissolution of the government, and then taking cocaine, getting in a Mercedes and driving back to their mansions.
'Now we're in the same situation - although I don't have a Mercedes and I don't take cocaine.
'But these are certainly interesting times in America.
'It's time to stand up and be counted.'
• Leaving New York is out on Monday. Around The Sun is out on October 4.
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Interview with Michael Stipe of REM. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 3 December 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1620.
"Interview with Michael Stipe of REM." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2023. Web. 3 December 2023. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1620.
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