Interview: Michael Stipe

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Michael Stipe 2019 press photo
Michael Stipe (courtesy Grandstand Media)
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Michael Stipe gave himself a birthday present this year — a gift that was shared with legions of fans: two new solo songs, 'Drive to the Ocean' and 'Your Capricious Soul.' The Current's Mac Wilson connected with Michael Stipe to talk about the new music as well as a little bit about R.E.M. and about Michael's other projects.

Listen to the entire conversation using the audio player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

MAC WILSON: This is Mac Wilson from The Current, from Minnesota Public Radio. I am joined by a very special guest — Michael Stipe. Thank you for joining me today.

MICHAEL STIPE: Thanks, Mac. How's it going?

It's going very well. It's cold here, but so far, so good. So, first things first; a belated happy 60th birthday to you, which you celebrated recently.

Thank you. It's super very weird to be 60 years old. I don't feel it. But I have to say 60 was easier than 50. Fifty was a little bit of a bear for me.

Folks say that as these milestone birthdays come along, that they get easier to bear, so I'm happy that that wound up that way on your end. We celebrated your birthday all through the day by playing one R.E.M. song an hour, and we played some of your newest solo material as well. And somebody asked me at the end of the day whether I'd had enough R.E.M. for the day, and I said "No, I feel like I'm barely scratching the surface on what makes this band so great, and there's something really cool about being able to hear all of these songs back-to-back throughout the day, and new things come forth in new ways." So it was a very fun day of programming.

That's super sweet of you to mention that, Mac. Thank you, and thank you for honoring my 60th birthday in such a profound way.

Michael, you've honor your own 60th birthday with the release of a new song that came out a couple of weeks ago — a new one called "Drive To The Ocean," joining "Your Capricious Soul" as well.

Yeah, I wanted to give myself a birthday present, and the thing that I could think of that would give me the most joy would be to release a song, and then to give all my proceeds for the first year to an organization that I really love, Pathway To Paris. And so that was my birthday present to myself.

You've teamed up with two wonderful organizations — Pathway To Paris for the proceeds of "Drive To The Ocean," and Extinction Rebellion as well for "Your Capricious Soul," and these are smaller organizations as opposed to saying, hey, all proceeds are going to a huge group like UNICEF or something. These are smaller organizations with very, very specific, and yet broad goals at the same time. Do you feel that that gives listeners and contributors a more tangible sense of where their contributions are going, that it's a very specific cause?

Absolutely. And the thing that each of these organizations share is a sense of optimism towards what are very dire circumstances we find ourselves in, in terms of global warming, in terms of climate change. These are people who are not allowing that to overwhelm them, but instead to say, "We can and should team together." In the case of Pathway To Paris, we're going to bring together artists and musicians and innovators and writers and great thinkers and policymakers, and try to approach this from a more positive aspect: What can we do? How can we implement changes to try to turn this thing around? And that's what I love about both of those organizations. They're in your face, but in a really optimistic and good way.

I don't think it's that hard. It seems impossible — like myself. I'm an artist and a singer/songwriter, I'm not a scientist, but you do a little bit of digging and you realize it's not that difficult to increase our energy efficiency. It's not that difficult to increase renewable energy versus what we have right now. And it's not that difficult to reduce the amount of CO2 emissions that we're putting into the air. What is difficult is getting governments and large companies to go along with that. But the more of a voice that we have as people, the more breadth that we have in terms of who is representing us, from artists to students to all the people that I just mentioned. With Pathway To Paris, we're talking Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, these incredible writers and activists, and then artists like Tom Yorke and artists like Olafur Eliasson and Chan Marshall from Cat Power; Jimmy Iovine from the music industry. These are people that don't screw around with their time, and they've decided to dedicate their energies to this thing. So I think altogether we can actually effect change.

So, Michael, as you look back, you have not shied away from discussing ecological or environmental catastrophe in your music, both of the present and going back to the R.E.M. days, whether it's a tune like "Fall On Me" or even like "Orange Crush." The ways that you were addressing environmental concerns in the 1980s and the 1990s, as you look back, do you feel, in retrospect, like "Whoa, I should've been focusing even more energy on addressing these topics"? Or was the culture of the time pretty much — was that as progressive as you could get in terms of mainstream pop-song writing, and you basically reached the ceiling for what you could do with that?

Well, I personally don't go to music or art to be lectured or hectored, so that's not what I want to contribute as an artist. I'm an instinctual, and if I wrote a song that had a particular political message, it's not that I sat down and decided I want to write a song about this. It's just that that's what was coming through me as an artist, whether it's conscious or unconscious thought, that's what was percolating inside of me, so it comes out in these songs, and then you have to go like, "OK, how much do I want to tamp this down or throw it in the delete file. Or do I want to run with it?" And in the case of the songs that you just mentioned, and, in fact, in the case of the song "Drive To The Ocean," and it's also mentioned in "Your Capricious Soul," the two solo singles that I've recently released. There are things that come out that are percolating, that are there in my thoughts and in my daily life, that I'm concerned about, and so they work their way into the songs, into the lyric, into the work.

As an instinctual and as someone who's working to not overthink what I'm doing — again, as I said, I don't want to be lectured or hectored by artists or musicians — but I go to these things for enjoyment and to alter the way I think, and to alter the way I look at who we are now and how we can move forward progressively. That's what I think, ultimately, the job of the artist and the arts community is: to help all of us see that. And I my case, to see it in an optimistic way.

So it's not like you sit down and say, "I'm going to write a song about global warming." That's boring, and I think you wind up with a not very good song. I just happened to write this song, and it is very much about the end of something and the beginning of something else; I'm referring to "Drive To The Ocean."

I'm Mac Wilson from The Current, chatting with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and other projects as well, talking about his new solo work. In particular, he's released two songs, as he's been alluding to: "Drive To The Ocean" and "Your Capricious Soul."

Michael, listening to these songs, I have to admit I hadn't really considered your background as a producer. I knew that you had worked on the latest Fisher Spooner album, but your work in producing with R.E.M., it had been divided up sort of like the songwriting abilities, so I hadn't necessarily thought, off the top of my head, "Producer Michael Stipe," even though you've been doing it all this time. So, for somebody who may not think of you as "Producer Michael Stipe," I'd love a little bit of background of what makes it tick in the production booth with you.

That's funny and sweet of you to mention, Mac. Thank you.

Again, I approach it instinctively. When I worked with Vic Chesnutt — a great Athens, Georgia, singer/songwriter — on his first two albums, my job as producer was really to make sure that he turned in the best performance possible, and then to get everything out of the way that wasn't essential to those songs being as powerful as they could be. That's basically my approach as a producer, and as a solo artist, certainly I'm interested in providing a musical backdrop or landscape or vista, which is how I see it, that provides exactly enough to get you from one point to another point, and maybe it drops away, or maybe it returns in a more kind of classic, pop-song way.

But I like minimalistic music. I love the 21st century for that, I love the technology that we find ourselves in, because post-hip hop, there are fascinating, for me, soundscapes and ways of listening to melody and ways of putting together sounds. And that's something that I was able to express with R.E.M. and through the band, but, of course, that was four people, and then three people who were working together to create something that was, in truth, greater than the sum of its parts most of the time.

Working as a solo artist, for me, is a brand new adventure, and composing music is something very, very new to me. I don't play an instrument. I can't play guitar. I don't play anything. So I'm composing on synthesizer mostly, and looping things, and then dropping them out when they're not absolutely essential.

We are chatting with Michael Stipe about his new solo material. Well, you've been assembling a bunch of solo stuff. You've released two songs and you've alluded to the fact that you have more waiting. What is the eventual plan for release? Or is there a plan that you have for further down the road for these solo songs?

I'm proud to say right now there is no plan whatsoever. For the first time in my adult life, I'm not under contract with anyone, and I'm not — again, as much as I loved working with Peter and Mike and Bill, and then Peter and Mike — I'm representing only myself, and so I'm not working towards an album's worth of material. I'm not working towards scintillating or whatever the music industry is now into, coming and knocking on my door to ask me to participate in whatever they have to offer. I'm just doing it because I'm really, really enjoying it, and I'm taking it a song at a time. I'm taking it a day at a time.

Michael, as you look back at the music that R.E.M. released, are there any specific instances where you wish that the model for releasing new music had been a little bit more relaxed, like the way it is now, where basically if you come up with a solo song, you can release it to your website, you can release it to Spotify, basically at a moment's notice, and you're not tied to a specific album release schedule? Are there any cases where you look back at the history of the band, and you go "You know, I wish that we would've been able to act at that point"?

There were a few times when there were songs that were written that were very much about the moment that was happening. I remember rush-releasing a song about the Iraq war when the Iraq war came out, but it was moving mountains to get the record company to agree to allow us to put out a song that we felt needed to be heard right then. This was something that was very critical of the Bush administration and the move towards war with Iraq. And we got it done, but it took an act of Congress, almost literally, to make that happen.

One instance where it jumps to mind of a song that could've been rush-released — I'm thinking about the story behind "What's The Frequency, Kenneth," with Dan Rather. And as I was researching it again, that that incident with him had happened something like seven or eight years prior, and that the lifespan of weird stories like that, in this climate, it's days and weeks, and the fact that that song was able to be rooted out of an incident that had happened years before — I'm not sure that it would've played the same way nowadays.

That's an interesting point that you make there. I mean, in that song, in fact, it's a generational divide, and I'm using mythological, odd occurrence, which was the attack on Dan Rather, and the repeating of that phrase. I'm using it as a kind of wedge between the generational divide that that song addresses.

Michael, if we are working through the chronology, as we're discussing, it would seem that the next record up for a similar treatment to this would be New Adventures In Hi-Fi. What approach would you take to that? Because that's a similar record, that it's recorded in a very, very particular way that is divisive to even some fanatic R.E.M. fans. So I'm curious what the plans are for New Adventures In Hi-Fi.

That's probably my favorite R.E.M. album in terms of my contribution to it and the kind of narrative arc that I took as a songwriter for that record. So, yeah, if we wind up talking about that for a 25th anniversary release, that would be fun.

But I don't know. You look at something that you made a quarter of a century ago, and I have to say, with Monster, I was impressed by who we were and what we managed to pull off with that record. I would have say the same about New Adventures.

So, looking back to your solo material that you've just put out, namely "Your Capricious Soul," you do have a co-writer on the record, and this was a name that I hadn't seen come up in a while: Andy LeMaster of the band Now It's Overhead. They were active during my college-radio days in the mid-2000s, and it seems that you have a friendship that has gone back many, many years. Have you collaborated with him on all of the stuff that you have been working on, or was it just the one-off with that one?

It's not a one-off, and it's not everything. But Andy and I work really well together. We're great friends, and we have a similar love of pop music, but also of a much more experimental approach to how to present sounds and ideas. And so, yeah, we co-wrote both "Your Capricious Soul" and "Drive To The Ocean," the two solo singles that you've heard so far. There are several more coming but I'm also working with other people. So I'm really enjoying those relationships. Andy is an incredible singer/songwriter in his own right, as you mentioned, with Now It's Overhead, but he has a new album's worth of his own material that he's setting up to release quite soon, and I'm excited for him for that. We work really well together in the studio, and he actually was working with me on the Fischerspooner stuff when I was producing that album and helping to co-write it. He was one of the co-writers, and engineered some of those sessions.

Michael, I don't know how far back your relationship with Fischerspooner goes, but they were one of the bands that came onto my radar when they covered Wire, sort of like you did back Document. So at what point did you meet the folks in Fischerspooner, and what has allowed your friendship and your collaboration to continue up until the dissolution of the band recently?

Well, I think I probably introduced Casey Spooner to Wire, the band, so I might've been somewhat responsible for that cover, which is a great cover of a great song. But Casey — I was his first boyfriend when he was 18 and I was 28 years old, and so we go way back, you could say. Musically speaking, I was fascinated and really intrigued by where Fischerspooner went, and at some point a couple years ago they were working on a new album together — he and Warren Fischer, and they got stuck, and he just came to me for advice. And I wound up giving him advice on several tracks, and then I wound up saying, "Let's meet in a studio. I think this needs a little more work." And I wound up actually co-writing and producing the entire album.

So that was, in a way, a reentry into music and music production that was unexpected. I love the result. The album is called Sir, and it's a really great record. But it put me in a position where I realized how easy and how fun it is to write music again, and I had had, at that point, about a six-year hiatus from music as a medium. And so I'm happy now to be a solo artist, and I'm really enjoying working on these songs and putting them out.

Michael Stipe, thank you for joining us today to chat about your new solo material, and chatting about your work with R.E.M. as well, and your various other charity endeavors. It's been a pleasure chatting with you today.

Mac, thanks a lot, and thanks for talking to me, and please send a big hello to everyone in Minnesota there for me.

And please send a big hello to everybody in Georgia. Thank you again, Michael.

Take care.

External Links

Michael Stipe - official site

Pathway to Paris - official site

Extinction Rebellion - official site

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    Singer Michael Stipe of R.E.M. performs during the NBC 'Today' show concert series at Rockefeller Center on April 1, 2008 in New York City. (Scott Gries/Getty Images)
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    R.E.M. in the early days. Left to right: Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Bill Berry, Peter Buck. (Laura Levine)