- 12 Apr 21
38 years ago today, R.E.M. released their debut studio album, Murmur. To celebrate, we're revisiting Peter Murphy's classic interview with Michael Stipe – originally published in Hot Press in 1999.
From one REM-state into another. It's the tremulously tender hour of 11.59 am in the Loews Hotel Vogue, 1425 de la Montagne, downtown Montreal, when Michael Stipe is surprised awake by an Irish journalist seeking an interview. Through the smog of jet-lag, the singer blearily surveys his surroundings (priced upwards of $250 a night, furnished with features like a personal fax machine and whirlpool bath, the "chic" decor suggesting 80's boom-time tack) and checks the time. Noon? He was sure he'd been promised another hour in bed.
As the journalist fidgets, Stipe pieces together the previous night's events: flying into the city, going for a late meal, returning to crash out in this hotel room. The luggage still hasn't made it. He asks the reporter to hold on a minute, and a quick call to his press people confirms the time of the interview. "You were right and I was uninformed," he titters, before ordering tea. "Let's just give it a stab. I'll wake up about halfway through this. I'll be not makin' a lotta sense."
The scribe, on the other hand, is secretly glad he's caught the singer by surprise it might render his subject that much more unguarded. They've never spoken before, but he and REM or at least their music go back a long way, back as far as the first time he heard 'Talk About The Passion' on Dave Fanning's radio show in mid-1983. The writer couldn't put words on it then, but in time the quartet's significance would become clear here was the kind of band America hadn't produced for an age, a bunch of quirky southern weirdos peddling songs that sounded almost ancient, yet were obviously as much informed by the likes of Television and Wire as The Band or The Byrds.
Further heartened by the soulful strains of 'So. Central Rain' and 'Don't Go Back To Rockville' this cautious fan didn't get around to buying an REM album until Fables Of The Reconstruction came out, shortly after their unfriendly, uncomfortable support slot to U2 at Croke Park in 1985. On that occasion, the band were an evasive blot on the landscape; the singer wearing a long raincoat and keeping his back to the crowd, guitarist Peter Buck throwing shapes to beat the rest of the band, the sound strange, muddy and mysterious. But a couple of songs struck a chord, most dramatically the first three atonal notes of the set opener 'Feeling Gravity's Pull', a song so heavy, so bearing down, it seemed to drench the impatient festival crowd in a great deluge of depression. And although Fables received a mixed response at the time, it would later emerge as a key record, not just in terms of the arid 80s, but again 14 years later, with a resurgence of interest in the work of musicologists like Alan Lomax and Harry Smith, and albums by Gillian Welch and Mercury Rev.
"A lot of what I was listening to was like, cassettes, recorded in Tennessee, in the mountains," Stipe said in 1985. "Appalachian folk songs, field recordings, literally someone with their tape recorder, recording an old man with a fiddle, with a woman in the background with her hand on the stove. That sort of image, I think, really infected the way I wanted it to sound. I also had this idea of it being a kind of story-telling record. I was fascinated by the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on these legends and fables to the grandchildren."
Then, a year later, when REM delivered the crisp powerhouse of Life's Rich Pageant, and expanded those oblique myths into new national anthems like 'These Days' and 'Cuyahoga' ("Let's put our heads together/Start a new country up"), there was the excitement of witnessing an underground act becoming stadium fit, capable of rehabilitating the sorry-assed state of rock 'n' roll in that confused decade.
Which, with the next album, Document, is exactly what happened. For the seeming minority who still adhered to possibilities of guitar, bass, drum and voice, the Georgia quartet were the second coming perhaps only The Smiths, The Triffids, The Bad Seeds and The Waterboys offered as valuable an alternative to the perma-frosted synth combos and dullard dinosaurs hogging the charts. At that time, more than any since, rock 'n' roll needed a band to believe in, and REM were it.
After their classic coming of age, Green, the quartet crowned ten years of touring with an exhausting global campaign (documented in the concert movie Tourfilm) which propelled them onto the cover of Rolling Stone and into the record collections of most connoisseurs of post-Velvets rock 'n' roll. After that tour ended in 1989, the band took an indefinite break from live shows, mindful of the fact that incessant road-work had ruined so many great white hopes before them.
Yet even in abdication, they recorded two more critically fawned-over, multi-million selling albums, Out Of Time (yielding the breakthrough single 'Losing My Religion') and the mordant masterpiece Automatic For The People, both of which expanded the sound to include mandolins, horns, string sections and guests like KRS 1 and Kate Pearson from the B52s. The Athenians were now, alongside U2, arguably the biggest rock act on the planet, yet they had somehow managed to preserve their credibility, becoming ethical role models for the next generation of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, who were now bulldozing through the radio and MTV blockades REM had been undermining for ten years.
Then, a sour season marked by the deaths of friends like Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix, the troubled sessions for the Monster album, the jinxed tour of that record, drummer Bill Berry's ruptured aneurysm, a split with long-time manager Jefferson Holt, and the underwhelming box-office performance of 1996's (as ever, acclaimed) New Adventures In Hi Fi, the first fruit of what was reputedly an $80 million deal with Warner Brothers.
And just when it seemed the band were settling back into their role as one of the biggest 'alternative' acts in the industry, Berry left. The remaining three attempted to reconfigure under pressure, and in this climate, Up, their eleventh hour, could've been a downer. It wasn't. Instead, it seemed to offer the band an escape route from themselves, necessitated the first use of drum-machines on an REM album since Murmur, and restored them to their natural habitat, the peripheries rather than the epicentre of pop music.
But still, there are nagging doubts. The unsullied nature of REM's track record (even Monster, widely regarded as their first turkey, could boast songs as strong as 'I Don't Sleep, I Dream', 'Tongue' and 'Strange Currencies') means it's harder to be surprised by each consecutive album. Perhaps the relative commercial belly-flop of the last two long-players is down to this peculiar passion fatigue. REM essentially an amped up avant-folk act marrying truth and distortion, heritage and noise have kept all their oaths, yet no matter how fluently the musicians shift-shape under Stipe on quasi-ambient tracks like 'Airportman', anytime the singer vents those distinctive pipes, it's still unmistakably the band that crawled from the south two decades ago.
All this was weighing heavy on the writer's mind when he clapped ears on Up last October. Had REM become victims of their own high standards? Is it so easy to take a fine band for granted? Curious questions perhaps, and whatever the answers, Up is full of remarkable bolts from the blue; the arch 'Lotus', the achingly pretty Pet Sounds balladry of 'At My Most Beautiful', the electric satori of 'Hope', not to mention more impenetrable folk-noir material like 'The Apologist' (the second REM song in 18 years to feature the chorus "I'm sorry") and 'Sad Professor'. Indeed, after half a year of living ambivalently with the record, a last-minute review on the headphones moments before speaking to Stipe yielded strange new properties to the reporter. It was high time for a reckoning. Or, if you prefer, a reconstruction of the fables.
(II) Dreaming In Colour
As you've no doubt deduced by now, I was that reporter. And as I rolled the tape and Michael Stipe gradually woke up, it got interesting trying to reconcile this friendly character with any of his public faces the mumbling Murmur cherub, the frazzled, dog-sick showman of the Green tour, or the deposed King Of Comedy invoking Andy Kaufman and spastic-dancing his way through 'Man On The Moon'. You get the impression Stipe likes discussing the soul rather than the strategy of REM, unlike your usual rock 'n' roll diplomat on the press roundabout. Or maybe, with one side of his brain still in Nod, he's more comfortable waxing impressionistic than specific.
Anyway, the reason we're talking at all is because of the forthcoming summer shows, specifically the Irish date at Lansdowne Road on July 16th. The announcement of these gigs came as something of a surprise after the band had initially stated that they weren't interested in touring the latest album. However, spurred on by the success of a selection of fan club shows (one of them broadcast by MTV), the three elected to give it a shot. For his part, Stipe hastily deflects any conjecture that the band had doubts about cutting it live after Bill's departure ("That didn't drive anything") or even that the dynamic has changed significantly. Indeed, he describes those MTV shows (featuring Beck sticksman Joey Waronker) as "kind of loose and free. I mean it was really fun, y'know. It was also TV, I had TV cameras up my ass."
Does he respond well to that pressure?
"Uh, no," he reckons. "Well, I dunno, you tell me, do I? (Laughs) I guess I do if I came off as relaxed. It's like, different for TV, just because they're really close, and you gotta be really very much of a different type of entertainer I guess. I dunno, I'm shooting from the hip here, but I suppose it's different."
Does he watch himself on video afterwards?
"Oh yeah, sure. I just watch and I'm incredibly critical."
Time for the $80 million dollar question. Is the scope for finding new ground to cover becoming narrower as the band gets older?
"No, I think it becomes wider," Stipe chuckles. "Every record is difficult for me, but it's always worth it. It's hard to talk about, because it's kind of like our job not to think about it and not to overanalyse it, 'cos to do so diminishes it somewhat. So I think I've always come off in the press as being a little defensive or dumb-headed or holding back about that, and really what it is, is to try to put it in terms that are easily talked about. It kind of steals the fire, which makes it all sound very romantic, and it's kind of not, you're just doing what you do."
After the release of Green, as Stipe found himself on the receiving end of some serious scrutiny from the press, the singer declared, "Rock 'n' roll is a joke, people who take it seriously are the butt of the joke". And true enough, while a piece of music rarely benefits from being written about, music criticism can sometimes be useful as a way of learning about material the reader has never heard.
"I'm okay with that," Stipe decides. "Whatever, I like reading good stuff, and we've certainly gotten our fair share of it, not only from the periodical that you're working for, but also from the country that you're from. A much fairer shake than we have from other quadrants."
At this point there's a knock on the door. At last, this accidental tourist's missing luggage has arrived. A little more at ease now he's located his belongings (particularly a cherished copy of the last Grant Lee Buffalo opus) Stipe settles down to discuss the last time he performed publically in Ireland, with Patti Smith at Liss Ard in September, 1997. The frontman accompanied Smith as companion and photographer on the tour, resulting in a book of photographs, Two Times Intro: On The Road With Patti Smith.
"I never felt like my role was documenter, it was more like I was there as a friend and I was taking pictures," he considers. "I do that anyway, I mean I have about the same photographs of just about anyone and everyone I hang out with. But she's a pretty compelling subject."
So compelling in fact, that her role as both subject matter and guest vocalist transformed 1996's 'E-Bow The Letter' into a ghostly astonishment of a song. Here, the band were melding melancholic soundscapes to free verse more successfully than anyone since Smith herself did on Wave in 1979. But given that it's not often a public figure like Stipe will assume a position of such ardent supplication in song, was he apprehensive about inviting his heroine to sing on what was ostensibly a fan letter?
"No, not at all," he responds. "We needed something melodic that would happen in the verse, and I couldn't really think of anything, and the idea of having a different voice in there was appealing to everyone, and the first person we thought of was Patti." (When I mention that I interviewed Smith over the phone once, the singer betrays an inordinate amount of interest, asking questions like: "Was she in a good mood? So it was amazing, right? And not at all what you would expect?") But despite his playing down of that collaborative process, Stipe admits that he has as many preconceptions as the next fan.
"You really do," he confirms. "I mean, there's something revealed through a person's work, but it doesn't always give a full picture, and certainly and this is not a slam, it's just an observation what's put out through the media is often . . . certain elements are hyperbolised or blown out of proportion, and other elements are completely ignored, so, um, she's really a very different person from her work, and yet both inform the other."
So does being misrepresented in the press still aggravate him?
"I think you take it with a grain of salt," he reasons. "It's not so painful anymore. It used to really get up my butt, but the only thing that really makes it bad is when people presume that something's the case or is the truth, then it becomes something larger than itself. People referring to it years later, and it's like, 'Well, no, that was a very misguided perception'."
(III) I Don't Sleep, I Dream
It's been a good dozen years since Michael Stipe's vocal style evolved to the point where listeners could finally discern one syllable from the next, but not least among the departures on Up was the fact that lyrics appeared on an REM album sleeve for the first time.
"That was Mike's suggestion," Stipe admits. "The funny thing that I realised was that it was one of those rules of REM, and none of us had really challenged that rule in the better part of a decade. I think the liberation that we felt after Bill's departure which is not to diminish or negate his importance in the group - but upon leaving it did dramatically change our dynamic to such a point that anything could happen, and anything did happen, and this is not a great (raises voice dramatically to indicate frustration at inability to satisfactorily express himself) EXAMPLE OF THAT, but Mike just made the suggestion 'cos he likes the words that we print 'em. And Peter and I were like, 'Why the fuck not?
"You can go on the Internet now and get bad versions of my lyrics. In fact, we did print the lyrics of New Adventures In Hi-Fi and Monster on the Internet, because within two days of the records' release, anybody could go to a website and find someone else's idea of what the lyrics were, and they were usually hysterically wrong, or crucially wrong. Y'know, I worked on em really hard, I want the people who are reading them at least to recognise what I put out there, and not someone else's take on it. So . . . not that big a deal."
What is a big deal is the thematic preoccupations in certain of those lyrics, particularly meditations on the disaffected and the infirm in 'The Wrong Child' from Green or 'Try Not To Breathe' and 'Sweetness Follows' from Automatic. Speaking recently about fellow southerner William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying, Stipe admitted, "I was inspired by it, but unconsciously. His stream-of-consciousness style seemed a lot more real and a lot more emotional to me than anything else."
Accordingly, this inclination has reached its most graphic level on Up, in the rivetting 'Hope'. Over six minutes of a relentlessly synthetic pulse, and a vocal melody seemingly borrowed from Leonard Cohen's 'Suzanne', Stipe monitors the decline of a victim of some unspecified malady:
"You want to trust the doctors/Their procedure is the best/But the last try was a failure/And the intern was a mess./And they did the same to Matthew/And he bled 'til Sunday night/They're saying don't be frightened/But you're weakened by the sight of it."
Then, the focus switches from science to faith, with, "You want to trust religion/And you know it's allegory/But the people who are followers/have written their own story."
At which point, the cadences absorbed from Faulkner seem to resurface, and the narrative point of view dissolves into a fevered yearning for a cure, any cure: "And you want to cross your DNA/To cross your DNA with something reptile . . ."
"It was one of the vomit songs," Stipe reflects. "It just poured out of me. What's on the record is pretty much a first take. I tried to re-sing, I tried and tried and tried to better it and I couldn't, so we just pumped up everything around it and floated the vocal over that. Y'know, the song itself, I kind of laid it out so that, at first, it was a little more clear in the lyric what kind of ailment this person was suffering from; if it was one of vanity, if it was one of really grave circumstances, or if it was something that was just kind of surface and fixable and not chronic. And I stripped that stuff away, I wanted it to be a little more broad. What the actual illness or physical condition is didn't matter that much. Y'know, it was blindness for a while, I thought, 'Blind is good: you can have your eyesight back or you can retain your eyesight'.
"But more important to me was sexuality being applied to science and technology which are two things that are thought of as very separate by a lot of people, particularly people who have an extremely religious upbringing or background - and not being able to reckon with the two as being two sides of the same coin, but spoken about from very, very, very different points of view. And I positioned that guy as kind of the Colossus of Morose spanning the bay, with one foot on one side and one foot on the other, looking one way, looking the other, and with the options that are available to him, not certain which way to jump: towards faith, or towards technology and science."
Of course, one can't address the subject of failing health without recalling that, seven years ago, rumours that Stipe was HIV positive put him in the uncomfortable position of not being able to issue a denial for fear of distancing himself from those suffering the virus.
"That would've been the easy thing to do, and I didn't want to dignify the inquiries," he remembers. "I didn't even feel like that was what people were asking, they really just wanted to delve into my sexuality, and I resented that. There are certain periodicals, or certain parts of the world, where they just pretend like I've never said anything.
"But that happened before I was talking about what it's like to be a queer. I kind of realised finally that I'd been struggling against the word 'enigmatic' for years and years, and saying, 'I'm not enigmatic, I'm trying very hard to be clear, and I'm not wilfully obscure' or whatever, vaguely pretentious, like we all are in our 20s, certainly not to the degree that it was laid out. And I finally realised that it was some codified word that meant 'queer' and I tried to clear that up, but nobody wanted to hear it, y'know?
"I was very blunt about my situation," he continues, "and that's even more confusing for parts of the community, because they don't wanna hear that. I and my situation don't easily fit into the categories that have been laid out for us that people don't really question that much, they just kind of assume. And you know, I understand that certain people would have problems with that, it's very challenging, the idea of fluid sexuality, the idea of desire that crosses from one gender to another. I understand that that's extremely difficult for people who identify themselves as gay to deal with, because they had to kind of struggle to gain that identity, and struggle daily to maintain pride.
"And people who are straight or straight-identified have even more of a problem with it. They're very comfortable with the idea of fixed sexuality, particularly men, it doesn't challenge their manhood. And the idea of 'bisexuality' a term which I despise as much as 'homosexuality' and 'heterosexuality' the idea of that really challenges and drives a stake of fear into people's hearts. I mean, I think the terms themselves are just idiotic, it's like separation of mind, body and spirit. Y'know, it's the end of the century, can we please recognise that this is one breathing organism that is a little bit more tied into itself than that?"
(IV) In Dreams Begin Responsibilities
Playwrights the world over have long used the dramatic device of hinging their protagonist's story around one crucial moment by which the rest of their life becomes defined as Before and After. When I quiz him on REM's most vindicating moment, Stipe argues that music is an endlessly regenerative force.
"You know, I feel that every time we write a good song," he muses. "I came here from Los Angeles, and I was out with several friends of mine, including some songwriters, and talking, just pointedly asking, 'Am I wrong in this, or is there a point where after you've finished a record, you go through a fallow period, a kind of an ebb where you feel like you can never again write a song, and just there's nothing left?' And my perception and I talked with Patti Smith about this was that it was really a very important part of the process, that you do feel that empty, and that you do feel that it is an insurmountable task and an impossible task to ever take on again. Which is where I'm at right now. Although I must say, there's stuff I'm trying to write, but it'll probably continue for a little bit longer before I put pen to paper."
Is there any relief in being a civilian for a while?
"No," he says, unequivocally. "'Cos you realise your main means of expression are completely spent. I've done everything that I can do. But as I said, it's a very important part of being able to do it again and push yourself. So the end of the story is, I was out with Grant Phillips and Courtney Love among others those were the songwriters and lyricists at the table and a resounding 'Yes!' was the response. Everybody goes through it, everybody has that period, and it's important."
Speaking of Courtney Love, Stipe seems more than willing to discuss Hole's Celebrity Skin, an uneven but surprisingly subversive record in that it adopts a West-Coast radio-rock sheen without compromising the emotional core of the music. Indeed, given the inscription on the sleeve ("This record is dedicated to the stolen water of Los Angeles and to anyone who ever drowned"), the album's atmosphere evokes nothing so much as Roman Polanski's portrait of Los Angeles in Chinatown.
"I think that's a great analogy or great comparison to make," Stipe considers. It's Eric and Courtney and Melissa: it might be as straightforward as anything you've ever seen or heard or recognised, but there's always gonna be an element of subversion. And here it's writ large, I think. I think the record's a resounding success."
Back in 1988, REM Stipe wrote 'I Remember California' as an apocalyptic hymn to Los Angeles. Does the city fascinate him?
"LA? Are you kidding? There are books written about it, and whether you're interested in or give a shit about LA or not, they're fascinating reads. People were shooting each other in my lifetime over water rights! I mean, look back in our catalogue to how many songs I've written about it. Yeah, it's amazing. I can't say that I've written a 'Malibu', I think that's a great song. Not so wild about the video, but the song is amazing."
By now, we've way over-run and Stipe's phone is lighting up like a Christmas tree. Diplomatically terminating our conversation, he sums up the previous hour's exchange by declaring, "This was a pretty fun and, uh, open interview, so take everything I said and put it on paper, and maybe the rest of the world can read it and say, 'Well, he's a pretty well-rounded and intelligent guy!'"
Revisit Murmur below: