Michael Stipe’s Last Stand – An R.E.M. Exit Interview

Michael Stipe wants to retire. Trouble is, Jude Rogers won't let him until he's been suitably debriefed...

You’re a 51-year-old man. Not much hair. Glasses. You’ve been doing the same job for nearly 30 years. You’ve decided you’ve had enough – you could just go, throw in the towel, do a proper Reggie Perrin. Instead, you’re saying goodbye to every last person, on Newsnight, BBC Radio 2, XFM.

And now you’re saying goodbye to me. It’s a Friday afternoon, the Connaught Hotel, Mayfair. I’m sitting in the lobby with a ten-dollar suitcase, heading home after this to my family home in South Wales. To a bedroom where, as a teenager, I would listen to badly-taped copies of Automatic For The People, Murmur and Green, cassette reissues on I.R.S., bought with two weeks’ paper-round money, overlooked by a strange face, ripped from Vox Magazine, of a man with a hand over one eye. Marked in black, with this list on it: Buck, Mills, Berry, Me.

Berry has long gone. Buck is back home. Mills is here, but down the corridor. Michael Stipe is right in front of me, sitting on a sofa, a golden-brown trilby next to him, ringed with black ribbon. I’ve heard he can be surly, awkward, offish; in his gentlemanly jacket and shirt, he is anything but. He checks my name. He smiles readily. He ticks off his publicist for confirming a schedule, promising me it won’t eat into our time. He is at pains to create comfort – an unusual boon for an interviewer with only a thirty-minute slot, as well as the teenage me, who has thankfully stopped squealing.

Both versions of me, however, are intrigued as to why Stipe is everywhere – and how this once mumbly, mysterious young man from Athens, Georgia, seems to be at his happiest saying farewell to his past. He is here to promote his band’s first-ever entire career best-of, Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011, named after a pithy description of the band once made by guitarist Buck. It starts with ‘Gardening At Night’, written the first summer the group were together; it finishes with a new tailor-made swansong, ‘We All Go Back To Where We Belong’.

R.E.M. are not touring either: their 2008 gigs were their last. So they’re just talking, showing how they, as human beings, have got here. So. If my hero wants to talk, I’m going to show him who’s boss.

Are you familiar with the concept of the exit interview?

Michael Stipe: [shakes head] No…

In a corporate job, you’re allowed the chance to talk to your manager about what went right, what went wrong. Imagine I’m your manager. I want to know why you’re leaving.

MS: Ha! That sounds like fun.

Hopefully… Although I’m sure we’ll veer off-piste fairly quickly. So! First question, Mr Stipe. Did anything trigger you leaving?

MS: [pauses] No. [laughs] Nothing in particular! It happened, as a lot of things happened with R.E.M., very organically. The three of us arrived at the idea kind of at the same time.

What was the first time you talked about it in a properly final way?

MS: On our last tour, 2008. During that we were kind of going, well, where we could go from here? We could tell we were on an upswing. It was important to us that we didn’t whimper out with our tails between our legs. We wanted to feel we were at the peak of our powers, and the tour felt like that… And you know, once I reached my 40s, I thought to myself that if I’m going to play live now, I need to really mean this. I can’t go out and be a little bit, for one moment slovenly in my choices as a performer. I mean, these people have paid a lot of money to be here, they’ve been through the nightmare of getting here, starving themselves waiting for us to get on stage, so I’m going to give them what they came here for.

Did you look at bands like the Rolling Stones and think, Jesus, I don’t want to be like that?

MS: Not the Stones, no – I have immense respect for them live. They give everything. I mean…[hums a little] you know, I don’t talk shit about people in public, that’s that, but I can think of a few shows I’ve gone to. Some of them very young bands who were the new great new hopes of New York, lets say [laughs]. Or London, lets say. And I would go to the show, and think, Jesus, this person would rather be anywhere but here. I bothered to come here, and what I’m getting has no heart in it. [shakes head] I’d rather go get a good curry.

A good move. What was the most satisfying thing about your job. Mr Stipe?

MS: [pauses, and thinks] God, everything.

Are you going to miss it?

MS: No, I’m not going to miss it, because hopefully I’m going to do something that makes me continue as an artist in some medium or other. Or several mediums. Perhaps music. I don’t know. But the most satisfying thing was having a job that allowed me to have an audience that allowed me to be artist, and to create. [shakes his head] God, I can hear the pretension, I can read it off the page, off the screen of the computer – to say you create things sounds awful, but that’s what I do. Whether it’s a moment in music, or a lyric, or something that’s more tangible, and that people have allowed you to do that, it just doesn’t get better.

In recent interviews, you’ve been talking about how much the audience means to you, which is quite an admission for someone so previously guarded. The song that probably means the most to the most people is ‘Everybody Hurts’, and I like the way you talk about it in the liner notes – how as soon as that song was done, it somehow didn’t belong to you any more.

MS: That’s exactly how I feel about that song. The second it went out, it wasn’t ours.

What did you think of the Simon Cowell-endorsed charity cover?

MS: [shrugs] I was fine with it. It raised money. It was about teen suicides, wasn’t it… [thinks] No, it was about Haiti, that’s right. I was flattered that they chose that song, and thought everyone did a good job.

What was the least satisfying part of your job, though? The travel we put you through?

MS: Well, I love forward motion and velocity so, don’t really mind travel. Least satisfying? I can say I’ve been bored maybe once in my life. In a place people love, but this was the dullest place I’d ever been. [raises eyebrows] But I’m not saying where. [Thinks again] Man, I can’t think of single thing unsatisfying thing. Yeah, anything you do as a group is fraught with compromise… But everyone ‘s got to do that, right? It’s part of being a good parent, or a good boyfriend, whatever.

But you’ve had difficult times. I’ve always been fascinated about R.E.M.’s mid-1980s – especially when you recorded Fables of the Reconstruction up in London’s Wood Green.

MS: [shakes head] God, that was really brutal. A really terrible personal time for me.

Have there been any moments when being a band hasn’t helped you?

MS: No way. I always go to those guys – still do. For one thing, I can’t pull any shit over on them. I can fool most people some of the time, but them I can’t! And back then, they were always there for me – if I was in dire straits or needed someone to correct me, as I did then…

This being around Fables, right? Around the time you were shaving a monk’s tonsure into your head.

MS: [nods] I’ll lay it out for you in very sparse terms. I went through my 28th year three years early – you know, that’s the year that if you’re a public figure, and you’re going through shit you can’t get past, then you die. I was questioning whether I could be a public figure, whether wanted to be in a band, then I was bulimic, then I was having a nervous breakdown that I didn’t realise I was having, and then, this is the Reagan/Bush administration, there were rumours about people being HIV positive going into internment camps. They were collecting names, and you couldn’t get tested without getting your name. I was terrified. I’d just reached the point when I could be a sexual adult, and AIDS happened. And as a young man, touring round the world, every time I got a cold, I thought that was that.

Were you grappling with your sexuality at the time?

MS: [smiles] No, no, no – that was locked in early on!

But you didn’t talk about your sexuality until much later.

MS: I did with anyone round me, but not with the press, because I thought it was a privacy issue, even more so then. Two years later was the first time I was able to be tested, and I was negative, of course. Not of course – I was negative, thank God. And that’s still my status now. But people don’t remember how terrifying those rumours were… The idea that they were going to put us off somewhere, lock us away, seemed completely real. But I’m happy I went through all that at that point. In terms of dealing with depression, it gave me the tools to recognise when it was coming years later, so I could deal with it right away. To go, ‘Holy shit, I’m not Superman…’ I came out of that period feeling very empowered, and then we made Document. I got a tough skin through that.

But as a public figure, you’ve completely transformed too. Yes, you’ve always had a playful side and we’ve seen evidence of that in your earlier life, but given how quiet you were during the promotion of Automatic For The People, your biggest album, which you didn’t tour, for example… You’re a completely different creature now.

MS: Yeah, but I still stammer. [shakes head] I still have trouble asking someone to call a cab for me! I’ve never had therapy, but I think I’d be called loud-shy – I try to be not shy. Anyway, I live in New York now, so you can’t be. You have to step up to the plate!

But I can’t imagine the 23-year-old Michael Stipe swanning around at the Venice Biennale, or a film premiere red-carpet.

MS: God no, I would have crumbled. But then again, I would have had hair then, so I would have hidden my face. [laughs]

Back to the exit interview…did you receive enough mentoring to do your job effectively?

MS: Hahaha! I like that one.

Now, obviously you’ve become good friends with one of your teenage mentors, Patti Smith. And there was a time when you used to hang with Morrissey…

MS: [rolls eyes dramatically] Oh God.

Oh come on, tell me more!

MS: [laughs again] No – not as a mentor!

OK, but you make a few criticisms of others in your liner notes too. You refer, in passing, to a Britpop artist who has only written four good songs, and you’d only be interested in them if they wrote their own ‘New Test Leper’. And then there’s the musician who criticised R.E.M in the mid-2000s, who fired you up. [Puzzlers might wish to know that Stipe describes him in the liner notes as —– ——–.]

MS: [deadpan] I’m not going to say either. [laughs] But the clues are there! But the clues were also there in Collapse Into Now – that whole record was a whole big goodbye. Did you notice?

I didn’t, I must admit.

MS: I’m shocked no one noticed. No-one going: ‘Wait! This band have never put themselves cover of album before.’ And I’m waving goodbye on it! My Patti Smith wave. I thought it as most obvious thing on earth. Well – to me it was.

Going back to mentors for a moment…

MS: Some were closer than you might imagine. Like Peter Buck is completely the first person you go to.

Is he Band Dad?

MS: More like a band big brother. He was three years older than me; he knew about music; he knew how to take drugs and not die.

And then you and Patti became friends around 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi

MS: Years and years later, though. I mean, it’s wild to me. Sometimes I look at my life and don’t know how the hell this happened. Now I see some of these people out at art openings, or time to time they come to my house. My house!

What’s the best bit of advice you received from Ms Smith?

MS: Be yourself. Follow your heart. [shrugs] I know it sounds obvious, but it’s the best advice at anyone ever. Take advice from other people, but take from it what feels right for you.

Did you receive sufficient feedback as an employee of R.E.M.?

MS: [nods] The answer’s yes! Too much!

You’ve just launched the R.E.M. Hits site to get more, though – where your fans can post stories about how your songs moved them, or covers on video clips. A few of your liner notes are up there already, I notice. I love how you say that ‘Losing My Religion’ felt like nothing to you.

MS: I genuinely never thought it would be anything. No way. It’s such a weird song.

You also make your peace with ‘Shiny Happy People’ in them – one of your hugest international hits which you hardly ever played live…

MS: I was always at peace with it. It’s just a little bit embarrassing that it became as big a hit as it did!

What did you want it to be?

MS: Exactly what it is. Which is a really fruity, kind of bubblegum song. But to have it on the Best Of is right because it shows a different side of us. Many people’s idea of R.E.M, and me in particular, is very serious, with me being a very serious kind of poet. But I’m also actually quite funny – hey, my bandmates think so, my family thinks so, my boyfriend thinks so, so I must be – but that doesn’t always come through in the music! People have this idea of who I am probably because when I talk on camera, I’m working so hard to articulate my thoughts that I come across as very intense. But I’m in ‘Shiny Happy People’, ‘Stand’, ‘Pop Song 89’, ‘Get Up’, too. Our fruitloop songs!

But in terms of sufficient feedback, Mr Stipe, Part Lies, Part Heart… doesn’t strike me as very fan-friendly. There’s only a few fan favourites – ‘Country Feedback’ from 1991’s Out Of Time, for instance but no ‘Perfect Circle’ [off 1983’s Murmur] . Would your own best-of be different?

MS: Yeah, very different. Way different. ‘Perfect Circle’ would be on there for starters. But for me, the template for a great best of is David Bowie’s Changes One. I got it when I was 16 years old. I liked bands who said they were influenced by him… And then this compilation comes out about this guy I’d only heard about, an introduction to an entire career but condensed. That was what we thought about with this retrospective – that it’s for a teenager out there who only knows R.E.M. as that band who do that song that plays in the elevator, or the grocery store, or the deli, or the cab, or for being that band with the bald guy in it. This is for them.

Last exit interview questions – she says rustling her papers – could you be persuaded to stay?

MS: [laughs out loud and smiles broadly]

Even if Mike and Pete turned round tomorrow…

MS: We’ve had that conversation over and over again, but no, this is it. We will be in each others lives for the rest of our lives, for the rest of time. And each of us upon our death – which I hope is decades and decades and decades away, as God, I want to live to be 120 – in that little parenthesis there’s going to be those three little letters, which is just fine.

I assume you’re going to do more of the art and sculptural paintings you’ve been doing over the last few years.

MS: Yeah, I have a few ongoing projects I’ve been working on. But the truth is, seconds after we’d made the announcement, I just thought, I don’t feel the need to answer my own question, even to myself, about what I’m going to do next. So I’m going to be as honest and upfront everyone else in the world and say the same thing. [laughs again] Which means: I’ve got no fucking idea!

And so it is. Mr Stipe – thank you for your loyal years of service. It’s time for me to let you go.

MS: My pleasure – and thank you.

But tell me honestly before you go. Does it feel liberating?

MS: That was the big surprise. Mike and I got together few days after announcement in New York, and he said exactly that. “This feels liberating.” And I was actually relieved. Because that was exactly the word inside me. And we’ve said bittersweet a lot too. But it is bittersweet. It’s hard to walk away from what we’ve done since we were teenagers… But I’m so proud, too. We’re all so proud of what we did.

R.E.M.’s Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, 1982-2011 is out next Monday on Warner Bros. Thanks to Andrew Harrison

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