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Michael Stipe

“Splitting up is bittersweet, hard and liberating”

Michael Stipe
Danielle de Wolfe
14 November 2011

On 21 September, after 31 years and 15 studio albums, REM announced they had decided to “call it a day as band”.

The response was so immediate and widespread that it was as though the band were still at the height of their mid-Nineties popularity. But in an age where even the Stone Roses can reform, will the split stick? Singer Michael Stipe is adamant: “Anyone who’s a real REM fan would know that we wouldn’t jerk our fans around like that.” And, in lieu of a farewell tour, a few select interviews signify the 51-year-old’s final duties for the band.

Have you been surprised at the reaction to the split?

I’m amazed at how positive it was. People were making heartfelt comments about what REM meant to them. It really meant a lot to us. I expected much more of a negative reaction. Splitting up was a difficult decision. But we made it. We’ve disbanded. It’s over. And it’s bittersweet and it’s hard and it’s a little liberating. You go on the blogs and everyone has an opinion on when we should have broken up. But we’re at a high point in our career that’s had a lot of high points and a lot of low points, as any three-decade career would have. It feels like the right time to go out.

Do you feel bitter that there wasn’t the same amount of press for your last album as there was when the break-up was announced?

You’re the first person to ask that, so I’ll answer it honestly. Yeah. It’s a little like that. We’re all really proud of Collapse Into Now. But I also thought that it was obvious what it’s about. When has REM ever put itself on the cover of an album? Never. And I’m waving. It’s goodbye. And All The Best was a big f***ing clue, lyrically. We’re a band with no goals and yet one of our ridiculous teenage dreams was to write and record one of the greatest albums of all time. And I don’t think we did it, but Collapse Into Now was us giving it a final push.

Really? You don’t think the likes of Automatic For The People qualify?

Well it’s not for me to say. People have their favourite records. Someone once said, “You can tell the age of a music lover by which REM record they thought was the last great one.” Basically, it’s the one released the year they left college. I always loved that. I thought that was very shrewd.

What do you think your greatest album is?

Hard to say. New Adventures In Hi-Fi jumps out. And Collapse Into Now jumps out, for the reasons I’ve talked about. Great artists – Picasso is an easy example – at the end of their lives, knowing that they’re at the end of their lives, have a push of work that comes out. There’s this sudden creative push that comes.

It’s interesting that you don’t mention any of the early stuff. Do you have no affection for those years?

It was a different life. It was lifetimes ago for me. It’s hard to look back at anything other than a very young me awkwardly stumbling through. But I certainly have affection for those records.

Looking back on your body of work, even the album you were critical of…

[Interrupting] I was never critical of it.

We’re talking about Around The Sun, right?

There’s a meme that went out – I think that’s the word. Mike uses it more than I do – that that one was the shit record that people love to hate and then it was written in stone. Maybe now people will sit down and look at it with different eyes, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s horrible or embarrassing. I mean, there were some songs that we recorded to death. And that happens, you know. But look at the songs on there. Sometimes you look at the recording of a song and think, “That’s f***ing perfect”. And sometimes you look at a song and go, “Well, it’s a good song, but I would have done this differently.” I’m our worse critic. Well, maybe not [laughs] but I’m my worse critic. I can shoot holes through just about everything we’ve ever done. But I’m really proud our stuff. And another thing, I always say this, and I feel like a broken record, but every choice was ours. Every decision was ours. And we never had anyone else to blame, not only for the triumphs and the very highest points, but also the mistakes and the very lowest points. And that’s something – there’s a great pride in accepting the mistakes and saying those were ours. There’s a great sense of f*** yeah. It feels courageous to do so. I like being courageous.

Are you taken for granted? If Collapse Into Now or Up had been released at the start of your career, would they be held in higher regard?

What happens when you’ve been around for a long time is that you drag what you did before with each new release. It’s hard for people to see you in a different light to who you are in their collective memory. That’s human nature. So you can fault that and say, “It’s not fair and it’s not right,” — and it’s not fair and it’s not right — but it’s what we do. Bummer.

Are you ever surprised by celebrities who have told you they’re fans?

I think REM are a lot of people’s guilty pleasure. I never remember who I am in pop culture. I’m shocked when people recognise me, I really am. I’m such a name-dropper anyway, but Salman Rushdie was kind of surprising. He said, “I really love your band.” I was like, “Wow! Thanks. You’re a great writer.”

What do you think the public’s perception of you is?

I think people think I’m very serious, very poetic and that I’m a little bit full of myself.

And which are true?

I’m deeply serious, but I have such a dry sense of humour that most people don’t get it. And people want a serious poet guy, so I fill that role. But I’m also easy to shoot down because I’m kind of a cheeseball, so there’s that. What was the other thing? Full of myself? I mean, I like who I am. I’m certainly not in love with myself, at all. I like being a famous person. I like being a public figure.

There was an Everybody Hurts charity single produced by Simon Cowell. Are bad cover versions worth it if they’re for charity?

There was a huge amount of money and awareness raised for Haiti with that song, so I can do nothing but applaud.

What do you think of Simon Cowell’s empire of artists and TV shows in general?

My thing about those shows is it’s really obvious to me how manipulated it is. It’s obvious that there are people they choose because they’re really unbelievably talented. And then there are people who are just thrown up there as a joke. I find that incredibly inhumane and cynical. That’s probably the word I would most use — cynical. And I’m tired of cynical. I want my pop culture and my universe and the 21st century to walk away from cynicism in its art. And in its banking practices [laughs].

REM publicly supported Barack Obama — how do you feel about the current backlash against him?

You could have seen it coming three years ago. He got handed the poisoned chalice from George Bush and Dick Cheney. It’s unpresidential to lay blame on the administration before yours, so he hasn’t done that. I think the American public have a very short attention span and do not recall the degree to which Bush decimated our economy. He destroyed what was left of the idea of a democratic America. Obama’s a brave man to have stepped into that.

How can he turn it around?

His constituents are split down the middle — there are people screaming on one side who are actually insane and perhaps sociopathic. And there are people screaming on the other side — and of course in this instance I’m talking about Occupy Wall Street, which I’m 100 per cent behind. And what Obama needs to do is look out of the window and say, “Those people are telling me what they want me to do.” As a leader, as an academic, as an intellectual and as a president I don’t see anyone in the immediate past or on the horizon who matches him.

Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011 is out now

(Image: Rex Features)