Michael Stipe speaks to Sean O'Hagan about 30 years of REM, the band's new album and why he's driven to remake his world in plywood.
Michael Stipe wanders into the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan, looking flustered. He is running late for this interview. I introduce myself and he tells me he has had "heating problems" at his apartment. We chat amiably for a moment about the weather, which, even by New York standards, is extreme. "It's Inuit weather," he says.
He is wearing a reefer jacket, jeans, work boots, an ethnic-looking scarf, a snug woolly hat and a full beard. He looks healthy, which he has not always done. On his lapel, a little metal badge says Michael Stipe.
This, of course, is very Michael Stipe: arty, playful, even a little bit pretentious.
A man walks past and shouts "Michael Stipe!" at him. Heads turn. On cue, the press officer materialises and, to Stipe's obvious relief, ushers him into a waiting elevator that whisks him up to where the photographer is waiting. "I just realised I haven't had breakfast yet," I hear him say as the doors close. It is almost 4pm.
Were there not already a Spike Jonze film called Being John Malkovich, (produced, incidentally, by Stipe's company, C00 Films) one could easily imagine one called Being Michael Stipe. Like the elusive, oddball actor, Stipe gives the impression of existing entirely inside his own self-contained universe. He exudes a certain otherness but one is never sure how much of it is natural and how much learned.
"I've been watching the Empire State Building change colour," he says, gazing dreamily out of the window, as I arrive in the room the record company has booked for the afternoon.
He speaks quietly in small, quick flurries of words that often do not cohere into sentences. "I find myself often at a loss for words," he muses at one point. "There are TV shows I don't go on because I do not talk like that, I don't think like that, I don't debate like that. I've realised that to try and slot myself into that world is to diminish what I have to offer.
"And I do have something to offer but it's just in a different dialect, a different language."
Today though, he seems relaxed, reflective, talkative, which is a relief. I have interviewed him three times in the past, never to my satisfaction. It was not for want of trying on my part. The first encounter was way back in 1988, when REM's sixth album, Green, was just about to cross over into the mainstream charts. He was charming but elusive to the point of cryptic - like his songs, in fact.
"That was a long time ago," he says, nodding, when we settle down in a room that looks like a designer take on a Western movie bordello.
"I still hadn't learned how to talk or how to look someone in the eye and finish a thought. I'm much better at that now but I'll carry that with me my whole life, the massive insecurity of not being articulate."
Now 51, Stipe has been lead singer of REM for just over 30 years. The band's new album, Collapse Into Now, is their 15th. In the interim, the group have gone from cultdom to indie sainthood to global superstardom. The tipping point came in 1991, with the release of their seventh album, Out of Time, and its stirring hit single, Losing My Religion. It caused a seismic shift in their fortunes that bass guitarist, Mike Mills, later described, not altogether positively, as "life-changing". Even before then, Stipe seemed troubled by the whirlwind of fame, struggling to make sense of the stadium tours that followed 1987's hit single The One I Love. He has had an uneasy relationship with his own celebrity ever since.
"I had to grapple with a lot of contradictions back in the 80s," he says, frowning. "I would look out from the stage at the Reagan youth. That was when REM went beyond the freaks, the fags, the fat girls, the art students and the indie music fanatics. Suddenly we had an audience that included people who would have sooner kicked me on the street than let me walk by unperturbed. I'm exaggerating to make a point but it was certainly an audience that, in the main, did not share my political leanings or affiliations, and did not like how flamboyant I was as a performer or indeed a sexual creature.
"They probably held lots of my world views in great disregard, and I had to look out on that and think, well, what do I do with this?"
The band, all teenage friends from Athens, Georgia, survived that particular trauma, as well as the departure of an original member, drummer Bill Berry, who quit in 1997, a few years after collapsing from a brain aneurysm onstage in Switzerland.
The new album, like its predecessor, Accelerate, sounds like a group who have rediscovered their mojo after a run of albums that sounded, well, like a big stadium band on cruise control. There are pop songs, and harder rock songs, and odd little in-between songs that could not have been made by anyone else.
As always of late, they walk a tightrope between a signature and a formula. And, as always, it is Stipe's elliptical lyrics that, depending on where you stand, are the most intriguing or the most annoying aspect of the whole.
He has not lost his facility for arresting titles. One song, which could be the first rock song about breaking wind (he's not saying), is suggestively called Mine Smells Like Honey; another, which sounds like an exercise in word association, is called Alligator, Aviator, Autopilot, Antimatter. Even more intriguing is Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I, a kind of meta-pop song that references a Neil Young number called Pocahontas.
In that song, Young imagines himself shooting the breeze around a campfire with Pocahontas and Brando. I ask Stipe what his Marlon Brando song is about. "It's about me going to Neil Young for advice," he replies, as if this was the most natural thing in the world to write a song about.
Has he actually done that? "Oh, no. It's entirely made up, but it's sincere. I hold Neil in high regard, but I have never asked him for advice, though I am sure he would have honoured it if I had."
As has been pointed out before, Stipe is not your regular rock'n'roll star. In his spare time he is also an activist, film producer (he was credited as executive co-producer on Being John Malkovich, Velvet Goldmine and Man on the Moon), photographer (he published a book of photographs, Two Times Intro: On the Road with Patti Smith, in 1998) and, latterly, conceptual artist. His current obsession, he says, is "making replica pieces in bronze or birch plywood" of objects that hold a particular and personal fascination for him. They include a Polaroid camera, a microcassette and a newspaper. "About five years ago I sat bolt upright in bed and said to myself, 'I want to make sculpture'," he says, growing visibly excited now that we've got the album out of the way.
"I don't know where it came from, and I'm not even sure what sculpture is any more, but it just hit me like a truck. I'm making these replicas of things that have a personal fascination for me in order, I guess, to somehow explore that fascination, to remove myself from it in a way."
It often seems, from the outside, that Stipe is entirely consumed by each new creative passion. Does he consider himself an obsessive?
"Oh God, yes, no question," he says, laughing. "I'm working something out for sure. But, you know, that feels like a purely selfish reason for creating, and that's not what it's about. There's an ego and a desire to be loved that is colossal and so peculiar to public figures, the kind of people that do what I do, but I think I have a pretty good handle on that. With the artworks, it's more a need to create, to express myself in another form. It's like something I have to get out of me."
In all of this, Stipe has remade himself in the manner of his greatest idol, and now close friend, Patti Smith. Like her, he has become a polymath of sorts, though his approach to the making of music and art is altogether more, for want of a better word, postmodern than Smith's. Stipe is not rock'n'roll in the way that Smith is, though, lyrically, he shares her facility to tap into the unconscious and let the words and images flow out as if unedited. He has spoken in the past of the impact that Smith's seminal album, Horses, had on him as a confused 15-year-old. "It tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order," he once said, "It was like, 'Sh*t! Yeah! Oh my God!'. Then, I threw up."
With hindsight, one can see that the songs Stipe wrote and sang back in the early 80s when REM were a small independent rock group operating out of their home town of Athens were the first clue to his otherness. Mostly they are cryptic, impressionistic, introverted and often wilfully elusive in their meaning. Back then, his singing style was best evoked by the title of REM's debut album, Murmur, released in 1983. One of those songs was called Radio Free Europe. He later described it as "complete babbling". It often seemed to me that, as a fledgling songwriter, he was perpetually at war with the obvious, a stance that almost flew in the face of his ability to write great pop songs with big hooks.
"There's some truth in that. I've learnt to have fun f**king around with the medium. And the pop song is such a great medium to f**k around with. But it took a while."
Stipe's peripatetic upbringing may hold some clues to his elusiveness. He was born in Decatur, Georgia in 1960, the son of a serviceman whose constant relocations took the family across America, from Alabama to Illinois, as well as to Germany.
His father served as a helicopter pilot in Korea and Vietnam. Stipe Junior once recalled how the family would gather nightly around the television to watch the news from Vietnam in the late 60s, their mother instructing him and his two sisters to look closely at the footage to see if they could spot their father. "We would of course sit there and go, 'I think I saw him' over and over again."
The family remain close. He spends every Christmas with them. In 2004 he said of his father: "I couldn't relate to my father's experiences, or the troops in Iraq who'd been at war, until 9/11. My father was a career army man, having been to Vietnam twice and Korea once. I'm very proud of him for that. But we agree on Iraq. Politically, we are almost down the line".
Back in the mid-1990s, when questioned in interviews about his sexuality, Stipe described himself as "an equal opportunity lech". That was after a period of spiralling rumours that he was HIV positive. In 1999 a writer called Douglas A Martin published his first novel, Outline of My Lover, in which the main character describes a six-year relationship with the singer of a successful Athens-based rock group. Stipe and Martin had previously collaborated on a poetry compilation, The Haiku Year, and the latter later confirmed that the novel was indeed a fictional delineation of their relationship. Then, in 2001, Stipe told Time magazine that he was "a queer artist".
He does seem to be a whole lot more comfortable now with his sexuality. Was he troubled by it while he was growing up?
"Not troubled, no. Not confused either. But I felt there just wasn't a place for me. I hate and refuse to apply the term bisexual to myself. It doesn't seem appropriate. It feels like just another label. For a time I was conflicted by how I was represented, and then Aids came, and that's an era that has still to be spoken about in depth by people of my age. It was a very difficult time to be honest and frank about one's sexuality. I mean, under Reagan, lest we forget, there was a time when they were talking about internment camps for people who were HIV positive. "
Would he still describe himself as "an equal opportunity lech"? He smiles, then turns serious again. "On a sliding scale of sexuality I'd place myself around 80-20, but I definitely prefer men to women. I had sex with, and enjoyed sex with, women until I met someone that I fell in love with, and who is now my boyfriend. That's the only real news in the past 12 years, but when it's a slow news day I get dragged out of some closet again."
Stipe currently lives in a Tribeca apartment with his partner, Thomas Dozol, an art photographer.
As we come to the end of the interview, I tell Stipe he gives off a different kind of energy these days. It seems that, if anything, New York has calmed him down. Does he now consider it his home? "New York can do that to you," he says, smiling. "You come here to change the world but you end up changing yourself."
Who: Michael Stipe of REM
What: New album Collapse Into Now
When: Out now
- TimeOut / Observer