When Michael Stipe phoned last week to promote the Blu-ray release of R.E.M. by MTV — a career-spanning documentary culled from the music channel’s deep archive of R.E.M. footage — it was as if he were speaking about a past life. Once one of the world’s biggest rock stars, Stipe has essentially lived as a private citizen since R.E.M.’s breakup in 2011, stepping out only for the occasional benefit concert or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. But Stipe is a fan of R.E.M. by MTV, which screened in theaters last month and came out originally in 2014 as part of the expansive six-DVD REMTV box set. Stipe likes the movie so much, in fact, that he’s willing to do something he otherwise avoids: Talk about his past.
“I didn’t know that we would be such a compelling kind of watch,” Stipe, 55, says at the start of our conversation. “But the people who worked on [the documentary] did a really terrific job.”
Utilizing a wealth of interviews, news clips, concert performances, and talk show appearances — a zippy rendition of “So. Central Rain” for Nickelodeon’s Live Wire in 1983 is a highlight — R.E.M. by MTV charts the band’s evolution from college-rock upstart to world-conquering arena act, and then back to cult status in R.E.M.’s final years. Along the way, R.E.M. moves through several different musical guises: pastoral post-punk, sloganeering roots rock, richly orchestrated folk, media-obsessed drone metal, Pet Sounds–informed pop. But the most profound changes are to the group members themselves, as they anticipate and absorb massive shifts in the music business over the course of 30 years. The epitome of the hard-working indie band that slowly works its way to stardom, R.E.M. stuck around long enough to witness the dismantling of the very career ladder that they helped build, and could only watch as it was used for firewood in the postapocalyptic wasteland of the 21st-century record industry. Somehow, everyone in R.E.M. survived the journey and came out for the better.
What R.E.M. by MTV doesn’t cover is the unlikely retirement of the band members. Groups of R.E.M.’s stature typically don’t issue a formal breakup announcement, given the financial windfall that normally accompanies a reunion tour. And since we’re talking about a band that moved 85 million records worldwide, the Coachella offers will only grow larger in years to come. But R.E.M. was unusually insistent about the finality of its dissolution, and the members’ actions since then have quietly reiterated their fortitude. Drummer Bill Berry’s 1997 exit to a quiet life as a gentleman farmer foreshadowed the eventual future for the other three guys in R.E.M. — Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills — who swiftly moved on to low-key second acts.
I saw Buck and Mills perform in 2014 — Buck with his own group and as a sideman for Texas singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, and Mills with the Baseball Project. Both were clearly putting fun and personal fulfillment over careerist concerns, playing esoteric music for audiences many times smaller than R.E.M. once drew. Nobody, Stipe included, seems interested in stepping back into the massive corporate machine in which R.E.M. was ultimately ensconced.
Though the band members themselves don’t appear interested in waving the banner, the just-released R.E.M. by MTV serves as a reminder of the band’s storied legacy. And Stipe, in spite of his protestations against nostalgia, was surprisingly game to talk about R.E.M.’s career, warts and all. “I could write a book about it, which I’m probably — maybe — not going to do,” he says.1
Shortly before getting on the line, Stipe learned that a friend of his, the street photographer Mary Ellen Mark, had died, and he resolved to do a good interview in her honor.
One thing the film illustrates really well is how R.E.M. had very distinct periods. How deliberate were you about changing things up with each record, and did those changes always make sense as you were experiencing them?
Can you be more specific?
Just in terms of how each R.E.M. album sounded, and how you guys looked, it could be radically different from year to year.
In terms of making the records, the guys always presented me with music, and where their heads were at would dictate the type of songs that they were writing. I would then take that and often turn it on its head — not on purpose, but it’s just the way I hear music. So I think there was a really magnetic opposition and attraction that worked really well. But I don’t know how much of what we were doing was intentional. I would say that a lot of what we did was more instinctual and not really calculated.
There were periods we went through where obviously we were challenging ourselves and we were tired of our own sound and were trying to write our way out of a creative dip, and that often turned into some really wild shifts. Specifically, I’m thinking, for me, of Fables of the Reconstruction — [that] was a real kind of gargantuan leap forward as a lyricist. It’s hard to say, because we were writing very quickly and recording very quickly and releasing very quickly in those days, but Lifes Rich Pageant was a step forward and then Document galvanized the more political aspects of what we were seeing around us, and then reflecting that in the lyrics and the way we engaged with our audience and with the media. And then obviously Monster was a giant, giant shift.
The other giant shift that people don’t really talk about that much was Reveal. That’s coming from my perspective. I see it from inside and I see the attempts that were made and then I see the results of those attempts, some of which I think are very successful and triumphant and others where we kind of fell on our faces. It didn’t feel courageous at that time, but looking back, some of that stuff was pretty intense.
Looking at the entirety of R.E.M.’s career, what are you most proud of? Or, on the flip side, what would you rather forget?
Of course there are a lot of regrets, and you have to let go of those. It’s a powerful but low emotion. And then there are the triumphs, which you can’t let go to your head, because then you become overly arrogant or present false humility or false modesty, which is also not too good.
One of the things that people always loved about R.E.M. was how grounded the band seemed.
Key word is “seemed” in that sentence. But thank you for that.
How hard was it to maintain that, especially in the ’90s when you started playing stadiums and getting really famous?
We’re all really good friends and so we were watching out for each other. And part of that was not letting it go to your head or falling too far in one direction in terms of stuff that might be illitorious — is that a word?
I don’t know.2
It does not appear to be a word.
If that word doesn’t fit, I’ll leave it to you to do the search and I’ll check it myself but we won’t be talking on the phone at that point.
If there was anything that was super harmful or just seemed like someone was trailing down the wrong way, the other guys would pull you back and snap you back into reality.
We had each other’s backs. That’s what I’m saying.
Was there a period when you felt like you were close to falling off the cliff as far as megalomania goes?
There’s one particular show where I allowed false arrogance to make me feel OK about stepping out on a stage that I was really afraid to step out on. Of course, in the middle of the third song, I literally stepped off the stage and almost broke my leg in front of the entire audience. It could not have been a more obvious, stupid, geek move. I still have the scar from it. I scraped the entire front of my leg off.
That was at the Hollywood Bowl and there were just way too many artists and famous people in the audience, and I whipped up this kind of Patti Smithian false arrogance to pop my chest out and allow myself to walk out and not be intimidated by the audience. The Hollywood Bowl is not an easy place to play because you’re almost face-to-face with the audience, so you don’t have the dynamic of the stage being a lot taller. It’s often daylight when you start the set and evening when you end it, so a lot of the very mechanical or technical aspects of the performance — and being able to control the energy exchange between audience and band — are not available. So combine that with, you know, the most famous faces on earth staring at you. That was not a good time for me. But I’m able to laugh at it, and I have the scar to prove to myself what a basic bitch I am.
What year was that?
I don’t remember. It was in the early aughts, I think. It was probably — the details are horrifying, I have a full body blush even thinking about it. 3
Stipe is referring to this 2008 show.
The other time I thought of when you asked was the really very dark period that I went through in about 1985 — that was just super rough on me. The guys were there for me, but they weren’t quite aware of what was happening. So when I came through that intact and alive, that was, for me, a real seismic shift. I’m a pretty sensitive guy, but it hardened me and at the same time allowed me to recognize my own vulnerability and the power of that.
Now that the band is over and you’ve moved on to a different part of your life, what happens to the rock star inside that wants the attention of 20,000 people? Do you have to just put that part of you in a box?
I don’t put it in a box. I always tell people I have great stories but I’m a terrible storyteller. My poor friends and family have to deal with me over dinner. I have other mediums that I’m channeling my creative energy into and out of, but it’s not the same. It’s a very, very different exchange.
But that craving for the spotlight that every great performer must have — is that something you can just get over once the band ends?
I don’t think you ever get over it, no. You can grow weary of it — if you don’t, then there’s something pretty wrong with you. But no, I’m not over it. I don’t think you ever get over it.
You’ve performed sporadically in recent years. You sang “Losing My Religion” with Chris Martin at the 12/12/12 concert, and you did that surprise opening set for Patti Smith back in December. When you perform now, when it’s not your job and you’re just doing it for fun, is it different?
Well, no. 1, it’s not for fun because that’s not fun for me. But I love the word “sporadic” — there are two examples in the last four years that either of us are able to pull up. The 12/12/12 thing, Chris Martin asked me to do it, and what he didn’t tell me was that it was going to be broadcast live and recorded. I thought that I was going to perform to an audience in New York at Madison Square Garden one time — I didn’t know that it was going to be the thing that it became. I was doing it for the cause and I was doing it for a friend. And so that blew up in my face a little bit, but thank God I didn’t fall down onstage and I didn’t forget the words.
The other thing was opening for Patti on her birthday, and that was really just a gift to a friend. I didn’t know what else I could give her that she would enjoy. It started as a joke, and then it turned into an actual six-song set, which was terrifying for me. But I had a great band playing with me, so I felt OK about that. It was wild to hear, honestly — I had forgotten what it sounds like to have your voice amplified in a room. That’s really shocking.
But it wasn’t fun?
Well, I’m good at what I do. Sometimes great. I did manage to make it through the set again without falling on my face, so that in itself is triumphant. But also, I think I did a pretty good job.
Bono once compared you to Bing Crosby, which he meant as a compliment. Do you take it as a compliment?
[Laughs.] I know what he was saying. We’ve known each other for most of our adult lives and he’s always wanted to be a crooner, and he always considered me to be a crooner. He felt like his inability to croon makes me a slightly more advanced life form. So it was, in fact, a great compliment. And I’m fine with Bing Crosby. He had the audacity to have David Bowie on his Christmas show. So that was kind of cool.
I just saw the first two shows of U2’s new tour.
Has it started?
Yeah, a couple of weeks ago in Vancouver.
Oh, that’s great.
When you see U2 doing another massive tour, are you impressed or confounded that they’re still out there?
It’s super impressive, and I happen to love their music.
R.E.M. by MTV puts the band’s story at the forefront, but in the background is how MTV evolved over the course of 20-something years. When MTV started, a lot of bands from the underground were skeptical, but for you, coming from a visual art background, did you see the potential for music and video?
It’s one of my great regrets that I didn’t key into that. I’ll compare myself to certain artists at the time, people I think really got it, the power of the image: Madonna and Michael Jackson. They were like, “Holy shit, we can do something with this. This is a great tool.” I had a little bit more of a punk rock attitude toward MTV, not realizing the power of it as a marketing tool and as a way to get yourself out there. I think I recognized it slowly. Mine was an adversarial relationship. Theirs was more embracing.
It took me a while to even succumb to the idea of lip-synching, at which point we had the biggest song [“Losing My Religion”] of our entire career. Actually that’s not accurate, but that’s the way it’s perceived. That was the tipping point for us, and that’s when after nine years we succumbed to the idea of lip-synching in a video.
Was your aversion to lip-synching strictly a punk-rock stance?
Yeah, I just thought it was really fake and stupid-looking. I thought it was super cheesy. I already embody enough sentimentality and cheesiness. I don’t need to push those buttons anymore. I’ve always responded to my own cheeseball level and whatever pop attraction … that relationship with MTV in general was adversarial for the ’80s, basically. I was presenting stuff to them and I thought, Well, let’s see what they do with this because they’re not gonna fucking show it. Then there was a point where they had to show it. Then there was a point where it turned around and bit us in the ass later on.
What do you mean?
We were pushing buttons at radio and at MTV, trying to present first singles off of records that they had to play, that they had to show. Eventually that sank one of our better records [1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi] with the release of “E-Bow the Letter” and the accompanying video by Jem Cohen, an amazing, amazing filmmaker who doesn’t make music videos. It’s one of the best songs we ever wrote and recorded, but it’s not a pop single. We were in a position to push radio away from the mainstream and toward something that was more fringe and outside, and we did that with every available chance. In the case of “E-Bow the Letter,” we pushed too far. And it sank the record.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi might be my favorite R.E.M. album.
Stipe performed one of the album’s best songs, “New Test Leper,” at the Patti Smith gig in December.
Why is it your favorite?
It’s just a complete album. I think of albums in a very different way — I think of songs more than pop songs, [and] I would draw the distinction between a song and a pop song. There are great songs and then there are great pop songs. But in terms of an album — having what I think of as a complete, intact, no-wrong-steps, no-missteps, no-backsteps presentation of a body of work — New Adventures in Hi-Fi might be our highest point.
I’ve always loved the documentary aspect of New Adventures. I felt like I was with the band when you made that.
I feel like I reached a zenith there. One of many. [Laughs.] I’m kidding. That was a joke.
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
When R.E.M. broke up in 2011, there was this outpouring of affection for the band. But in the decade prior to that, did you feel taken for granted?
It felt like we were one of those bands that was going to be around forever, and so to be able to say, “No, this is it. You’re never going to see us again,” I feel like we managed to end it in a way that was honorable and maybe presented a way to do these things without all the usual kind of — how do I say this? I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I’ll back up.
I think we did it the right way. It felt good to be able to put a cap on it and say we’re not just going to keep going on and on and on because it’s what we’re used to or because it’s what we think you expect from us. I know that we made the right move.
Why do you think it’s so hard for bands to just walk away? R.E.M. does seem truly unique in that way, at least among groups of your stature.
It’s what you know. I felt like we never even had goals. We never set out to do anything except see the country, actually the world, and then it became really successful. I had this teenage dream that the band realized. Of course the actuality of it is nothing like the dream, but it is in its own way profound and life-altering. To walk away from that, I don’t feel like the most courageous person in my life, [but] that was probably pretty courageous to say we’re done with it, and we’re all gonna go on and do things that interest us, and not drive this thing into the ground.
I’m going to ask an obligatory question that you probably hear in every interview —
What are you wearing? Chanel No. 5.
Are you thinking at all about new music?
I do love music. It is a really powerful medium. It occupies a different part of the brain, and the response to music in all of us is way different. I don’t know what pop music really is now. That’s something that I’m looking at from far away. I did a really good job of not answering that question, didn’t I? [Laughs.]
Does the weight of R.E.M.’s legacy make you reluctant to put out new music?
I don’t know, what do you think?
I think that it’s inevitable that anything you do now will be compared to what you did before.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.