The New Cue #93 November 22: Michael Stipe

22 November, 2021

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Welcome to another Monday morning edition of The New Cue, your favourite music newsletter even though this is the free edition so some of you haven’t stumped up the FIVE POUNDS A MONTH to be a paying subscriber, who also receive an edition every Wednesday and Friday. To those of you who have, we hold you in the highest esteem, you are the good guys, our shiny happy people.

Have you got enough R.E.M. in your heads now? Good, because we have a lovely chat with Michael Stipe to get your week going. Here we go!

Enjoy the edition,

Ted, Niall and Chris

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Start The Week With… Michael Stipe

When R.E.M. were in existence as a band, they rarely stopped to glance back. Even when the alternative-rock superstars lost drummer Bill Berry in 1997, it didn’t take them long to clear their heads and gather some forward momentum again. But since their dissolution in 2011, frontman Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck (with the odd input here and there from Berry) have been more talkative about their past than ever. Over a series of reissues, they’ve opened up about their career in a way that was maybe impossible when there were in the thick of it. Earlier this month, they released a 25th anniversary edition of New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the 1996 record that capped off the golden period where R.E.M. became huge. It was written and recorded as they toured 1994’s Monster and was the last record to feature Berry. In that sense, it was very much the end of an era for the quartet from Athens, Georgia. They certainly felt like a different band when they returned with Up in 1998. Recently, Niall jumped on Zoom with Michael Stipe to talk it all over, touching on the fact that R.E.M. at Milton Keynes in 1995 was the first gig Niall went to. The band played a classic set that night, so here it is in playlist form to listen along whilst you read.

After I made that playlist, I remembered the whole gig is actually available to listen to on this compilation, which is mildly annoying but I’ll get over it:

Hello Michael, how are you?
Good. I’m in Athens, Georgia, I’m in the studio right now working on some solo songs. It’s been a really good month for me here.

Excellent. How do you find it when you’re working on solo work, forging a way ahead and then get drawn into having to look back for reissue campaigns?
It’s okay. I mean, particularly today, I didn’t realise when we set up these interviews that it was going to be exactly 10 years since R.E.M. disbanded. This is the 10th anniversary of our calling it a day as a band. So it’s kind of wild.

Ah! How’s it been for you doing these reissue campaigns over the past few years? Are you someone who naturally looks back?
I’m not someone who naturally looks back, thank you for asking. I have to say that being able to listen to and talk about this material 20 or 25 years on has been really eye-opening for me. It feels fresh. I’m able to examine, really from a great distance thanks to time, my own work and look at it not from the perspective of having just done it and having regrets or having just done it and being really proud of it, or excited about what happened, but really looking back and, and going ‘well, that was a bit of a misstep but these aspects were triumphant’. Every record that we made, we did the very best thing that we could possibly create at that moment. I really enjoy observing the work from a great distance.

What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about going back to it?
Honestly, it was like 2008 when I realised that I had a very distinctive voice.

You were pretty slow on the uptake there Michael.
I know! I realised the way that I write and the way that I put words together is very different and the way that I enter into music as a singer, often melodically, is very, very different, so there’s that, but I didn’t realise the sound of my voice itself was really that unique. And so I look back and there are choices that I made, particularly with some of the earlier material where I was responding to what I saw as a lack of recording ability, I guess. The microphones were not treating me well. In fact, it wasn’t the microphones as much as it was mixes to make things clearer, changes you could make now that were not available at the time technically. I’m sorry, I fell asleep in the middle of that, it was so boring.

No it wasn’t, I enjoyed it!
You asked me a really interesting question and I just rambled on about microphones. But I like being objective, I like looking at the work objectively and I’m able to do that. From time to time, I will get a shiver up my spine, or that feeling in the back of your neck, that you get listening to really great work. And, you know, when you then are able to acknowledge, like, ‘wow, that was me that made that’ - well, I don’t feel like me 25 years ago so it’s a little weird to separate myself from the person that I was then, but I’m able to do that creatively and artistically.

That brings up another question – are you surprised at how you’ve been able to detach yourself from it?
Yeah, because I put every ounce of my heart and soul and body into every single one of those songs, I really gave everything that I had. And so I feel like the melodies of the most tiny little part of those songs, the little string hits or the little percussive elements are a part of my DNA, I listened to them 100,000 times in order to write to them, to sing to them, to mix and to then master them and release them and then cover them live. It feels like a part of my DNA now so to be able to objectively look at is pretty great. I’m really looking at the recording, and I’m looking at I’m looking at the craftsmanship, the artistry maybe is a better term, that went into the writing and the arranging of the work.

When you listened to New Adventures In Hi-Fi again for this reissue, what were the first things that came flooding into your head?
I hadn’t listened to it probably since we put it out. I sat down, turned off the lights, lit a candle or whatever the fuck we do these days to listen to an album from beginning to end without checking my phone, without also watching a TV show and reading a news article at the same time. I sat down and listened to it. I was shocked at the sequence and I was also surprised at how much the album references the American West and the couple of years that I called Los Angeles home instead of New York. There’s also historic aspects that pop up in songs like How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us.

A lot of New Adventures… was written on the Monster tour. What was your headspace lyrically at that point?
I was really tagging along. I mean, I was so focused on the tour. I say this with all the love in my heart for every drummer who’s ever sat behind a drum kit but being the frontman requires a different level of psychic energy to really create the mood and the atmosphere that’s required for a successful live performance. And so the whole recording while soundchecking thing was really much more Peter, Mike and Bill and our producer who would come out. That was really more of their thing. I felt like the only thing that I wrote really during that was a part of Leave.

But you also started playing Departure and Undertow on that tour?
Departure did happen on that tour, that’s true. And I think Undertow was maybe written before the tour. I wrote Departure in San Sebastian, Spain. It was written about River Phoenix. I was upset I couldn’t share this thing with him that I knew he would have loved. It’s the same month that I picked up the phone and called Patti Smith for the first time. It was a very auspicious moment. I would have never prior to that felt enough courage to call Patti Smith and say “hello, my name is Michael Stipe, I’m the singer from R.E.M. and I’m a great admirer of your work.” But that was the first time we spoken. Anyway, yeah, I wrote that song for River.

But in the main you weren’t writing much on the road?
No, the real writing happened afterwards. Things came out, like Departure. I mean, that just happened upon me. But most of the writing that I do has nothing to do with me or is not at all autobiographic. That was like E-Bow The Letter, it was just real life inserting itself into my job. And there was this piece of music that happened to fit it and, and boom, suddenly, there’s a pop song. I’m just walking into my kitchen because if I don’t eat something, I’m going to faint before we’re done.

Please don’t faint.
Hang on a second. Sorry for the sound.

The tone of my voice does this to people.
Haha! I was up all night. I’m in the studio currently and I’m wildly adrenalized. I stay up until seven in the morning most nights because I work nights but then I had to be up early to go on the radio. I’m just going to eat some rice but I’ll try and enunciate.

What do you remember about those huge summer UK shows in 1995? Radiohead were supporting at the second Milton Keynes show, was that the first time you met them?
Yeah, I think we met backstage. I went and presented myself to Thom and then he presented me to the rest of the group. I think we were we were sunbathing together outside of the dressing rooms. It was a beautiful summer day.

That’s the first gig I ever went to. I was 14 and stood there at the front for about 11 hours.
Are you kidding? Wow, well that’s auspicious, Jesus Christ. It was R.E.M. and Radiohead and who else?

The Cranberries and Sleeper.
Oh my God, what a bill. God bless Dolores and her spirit.

At those mammoth shows, what was going through your mind at stage-time approached?
You know, those giant outdoor things, they’re really fun but it takes a different type of kind of psychic energy to pull the audience towards you through the entire course of a set. There’s something about being enclosed with a group of people, it creates a different kind of psychic energy and performance energy. The open-air stuff is a bit more dispersed and so you have to really reach the back rows, you have to be at the back of the field, near the toilets and near the T-shirt stands, engaging those people as much as those who are 14 years old and sitting right up front, like yourself.

My favourite song from New Adventures… and one of my favourite R.E.M. songs of all-time is E-Bow The Letter. It still sounds so fresh. How did that come to be?
Thank you. I agree. Yeah, it came from a letter. I mean, I didn’t have to write it, it was written, so it’s a recitation more than a song part. I found one phrase and repeated it and that became the chorus. It happened very organically and very naturally. I remember the moment on stage during the soundcheck when the guys were playing this new piece of music and Peter was exploring this new device that he got called an E-bow, which you hold against a string that creates this never ending tone. I recited this letter I’d written over the top and that became the song.

Fear is a big theme of that song. At that point, what was your biggest fear?
Well, I was born into fear and, and so fanatically and as a person outside of the work that I do, one of the great challenges for me in this lifetime is to overcome fear. I just put out a book of photographs actually which is exactly about that theme. It’s a series of portraits of people who I consider to be fearless and extremely brave and vulnerable at the same time. It’s a theme that I explore over and over and over again. And if you go back through R.E.M. lyrics, you’ll find that fear is there from the very beginning. It’s in the chorus of a song 9-9 off of Murmur, it’s in 7 Chinese Bros. concerning relationships, the sad ending of relationships - that’s too much! Anyway, the theme of fear is one that’s ever present. I am proud to say that as a 61-year-old, I’ve become much better with being courageous and less fearful.

That’s reassuring.
I’m able to place it somewhere and kind of step back from and distance myself from it and acknowledge it as something that’s there, but not something that has to guide my every action or reaction.

Looking at the decision to release E-Bow The Letter as the album’s lead single now, it feels like it set a new blueprint for what rock bands could do with their lead singles, rather than choosing the song with the catchiest chorus.
Oh my God Niall! Well, if we helped spearhead that, then I’m very, very proud of having done that. It was audacious. It was incredibly courageous and I’m really glad that we jumped off the cliff together.

Are there any younger bands out there that you see carrying on the spirit of R.E.M.?
Yes. Over the years, dozens, tens of dozens. You know, we are men of limited talents. The sum of our work was possibly greater than the parts, but within that that we have many, many triumphs, and I’m just very super proud of them. I’m also proud of the times that we fell on our face. It’s all part and parcel.

Thanks for your time Michael.
Yeah, thank you for your comments.

I look forward to hearing your solo record!
We’re finishing it very soon, actually – that’s an exclusive!

ND

R.E.M. are on the cover of the latest edition of Record Collector and this chat was part of a larger interview Niall conducted with Michael Stipe and Mike Mills for an extensive feature. You can order a copy of the magazine here.


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