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Michael Stipe: All the Right Friends

| January 4, 2011 | 0 Comments

Any band that endures for more than 20 years is bound to encounter its share of travails. For R.E.M., however, drummer Bill Berry’s decision in 1997 to leave the group constituted a crisis of momentous proportions. As Michael Stipe makes clear in the following interview, not only did remaining band members Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Stipe come closer to breaking up than many realized, but, in essence, the band was forced to become a different band. On the surface that may sound hyperbolic, but one need look no further than the Who’s post-Keith Moon work, or try to imagine Led Zeppelin forging on without John Bonham, to understand the creative disruption that can ensue when that elusive factor known as band chemistry is disrupted.

And make no mistake: Band chemistry has been integral to R.E.M.’s success throughout the group’s career. From the newfangled jangle pop that seized the college underground crowd in the ’80s, to the more ambitious reach of such classics as “Man on the Moon,” “Losing My Religion,” and “Everybody Hurts” in the ’90s, R.E.M. has been a finely-tuned unit, with each band member bringing a particular set of strengths to the songwriting process. Stipe has likened the act of bringing a song to fruition to running an idea through a machine—to the point that, in the end, it’s hard to tell whose handprints are where. Remove one cog from that machine, and some serious rebuilding is in order.

To their credit, the decision by Stipe, Buck and Mills to carry on was more than an exercise in perseverance—a lot more, in fact. Much as there was an arc to R.E.M.’s career as a four-piece entity, a new arc is well underway for the band as a three-piece, and the results thus far testify to a renewed vigor and a rekindled spirit. While the group’s first post-Berry album, 1998’s Up, was by Stipe’s admission a patchwork affair hobbled by writer’s block, 2001’s underrated Reveal was a lush, summery, fully-realized work that’s likely to gain in stature with time. And perhaps just as important from a career standpoint, the 2003 “Best of” collection In Time didn’t just encapsulate R.E.M.’s catalog to that point: it had the collateral effect of freeing Stipe from measuring the band’s songwriting going forward against the accomplishments of the past.

All of this goes far toward explaining the spot-on blend of musical adventure and classic songcraft that permeated R.E.M.’s 2004 release, Around the Sun (the release around which this interview took place). Since then R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, released 2008’s Accelerate and their newest, Collapse Into Now, is slated for a March 2011 release.

To celebrate Michael Stipe’s 51st birthday today, here is an interview Russell Hall did for a 2004 issue of Performing Songwriter. Enjoy!

Looking back at the effect of Berry’s leaving the band, did the songwriting change in ways that you might’ve expected it would?

To be perfectly honest, I said right away that this was going to challenge the chemistry that we had, that we had always taken for granted, and that we had never questioned because we never had to. We had a chemistry as a four-piece, and my feeling was, “This changes the dynamic, much like when a family member leaves a family.” Everything shifts. And I said that we needed to communicate about that and address that. That was in the early days of the sort of shock of his leaving, for each of us. It threw each of us into our own kind of crisis. And rather than coming together to deal with it, we kind of went off to our separate corners, and longstanding issues that we had just sort of put up with—with each other—became magnified under the glare of this seismic shift in who we were, as a songwriting team.

How did you get that resolved?

Well, the Up album was pieced together like a patchwork quilt. There were large stretches of that record where I had music and I was trying to write to it, but I had a complete writer’s block, because I wasn’t feeling support from the other guys. We weren’t really talking to each other, and it was incredibly frustrating. That, along with other things, led to my being completely blocked as a writer and not being able to do my job. And that made things more frustrating for the other guys. Whether they communicated that to me or not, I felt it. And that just made my situation worse and worse. We did manage to cobble together a record, but in the process we essentially broke up, as a band. By the end of the record, we were all ready to throw in the towel.

But you didn’t do that, obviously.

The thing that saved us from that was a decision to get together and sit down at a table with someone who could be like an arbitrator, and iron out the details of how this record would be released, and decide whether or not we were going to continue. In my mind, at that point, and I think also in Peter’s mind and Mike’s mind, it was over.

But we sat down at that table, and … the guy that we chose had also done group therapy and he knew a lot about group dynamics,and the entertainment industry, and so forth. For that moment, and actually beyond that, he helped each of us come to the conclusion that we wanted to continue doing what we were doing because we had immense respect for each other, and we had a great love for each other, and the thing that brought us together as a band in the first place was our love of music. We also recognized that what we created as a group was much bigger, and much stronger, than anything we could do individually.

In the midst of all these troubles, did you ever start to contemplate a solo career?

No. But what it did afford me was an ability to see beyond R.E.M., which is something I had never, ever, imagined. Much as Westerners are afraid of death, I was very afraid of the end of the band, to the point that I didn’t want to even think about it. So I just didn’t think about it. I was like, “This will go on forever and ever.”

Let’s talk a bit about songwriting. Back in the early ’90s you decided to get away from overt political writing. Can you elaborate on the reasons behind that?

Well, even my overt political writing wasn’t that overt. “Exhuming McCarthy” [from the 1987 album Document] might be the most overt thing I ever wrote, and people still had a hard time figuring it out. That’s not a case of poetic license or whatever. It’s just the way that I think and the way that I write, and the process of trying to squeeze that into a pop format—a three and a half minute song, with two or three verses and a repeat chorus. It’s a little hard to bring it all together in the bridge, and make a really succinct point. There are writers who have done that. I recently saw Peter Gabriel perform “Biko,” which is a song I loved even before I knew who Biko was. In writing that song, Gabriel opened up a window into the situation in which Biko lived and died, one that I had never seen before. That was a very direct, although somewhat obscure, song. It was through interviews, and outside of the music, that I came to realize what the word Biko meant.

You once said that the producer of Lifes Rich Pageant, Don Gehman, caused you to start examining what you called the “cell structure” of what you do, and that it might have been a bit early for that. Were you talking specifically about lyrics? I believe this was in 1986.

Yes, lyrics. He was the first guy who sat me down and, to his credit, said, “You can’t just sing about nothing. What is this? This doesn’t mean anything to anyone.” He was really challenging me in a way no one had ever done before, about what the songs were about. And I was like (feigns an overly sensitive voice), “I’m a poet, I’m sensitive, I’m shy, leave me alone.” But he made me think about that, and I might have over-thought it. I might have overreached for a couple of records. I think it shut me down, in a way. But I really learned a lot from working with him, and I learned a lot from him sitting me down and not being precious with me, which I think a lot of people were doing.

It finally brought me to a place where I am now, where I can separate thinking about a lyric and really working on a lyric, versus just allowing something to happen and letting it be what it is. That’s the conscious versus the unconscious voice. It’s really easy to write pop lyrics. It’s falling-off-a-log to write a song that everyone can sing along to, with a great melody and with words that are memorable. But there are enough songs like that in the world. And there are a lot of them that I think are incredibly mediocre, and I just don’t want to contribute to that. I would rather write something like “E-Bow the Letter” [from the 1996 album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi], something that makes no rational sense to anyone, but that has a visceral feeling and a mood that’s undeniable. You know what that song is about, even though if you start examining and picking apart the lyric it makes no sense. It’s just a “feeling,” versus an essay. I’m not an essayist.

Does your approach to lyrics and vocals tend to be different for a song Mike brings in, as opposed to a song Peter comes to you with?

Well, by the time they’re run through the machine … (pauses) Peter will bring in an idea, then it goes through Mike, and then it comes out the other end a completely different piece of music. Then it goes through me, and apparently, oftentimes, in the place where someone would naturally sing, I don’t sing. I sing around that. I’ll start a chorus before it’s supposed to start, or I’ll come in three beats late or two beats early, or something like that. The other guys still talk about this, and I’m still not sure what they mean. I guess I’m more of a circular writer, and my melodies are more circular. Even if they present me with something that’s kind of normal, or a standard chord progression, apparently I take that and change it a lot. It’s just the way I hear stuff.

You seem to rise to the occasion, as a lyricist and as a vocalist, in proportion to the greatness of the music you’re working with. It’s like a batter who hits better when he steps up to the plate with the bases loaded.

I always feel like my job is to write a lyric that feels like it’s the only lyric that could possibly go on that set of chord changes and with that piece of music. Those guys will write something that’s so challenging for me, that it might take … (pauses) For example, Mike wrote “At My Most Beautiful” [from Up], and it took a year for me to write the verses. I wrote the chorus in five seconds, but I couldn’t figure out how to write a verse that wasn’t just a series of the same love-song clichés that we’ve all endured for our entire lives. I didn’t want to go there, and I didn’t want to be that guy.

Out of Time, Automatic For the People, and Monster—the band’s early ’90s albums—were pinnacles from a sales point of view. Some bands allow that sort of success to encroach in places it doesn’t belong, but R.E.M. managed not to do that. Was that a case of just being ready for the onslaught of attention?

I think we were ready for it. What it really provided for us, though, was an ability to get even weirder stuff on the radio. And that was really fun, you know? It probably affected our sales. The huge audience that went out and bought Automatic For the People were not expecting Monster as the next R.E.M. album. They all went out and bought it, and I think a lot of them were very disappointed because it wasn’t Automatic For the People Part Two. You could call that a misstep on our part, and you could say Monster was overreaching, and maybe it was. But I’ve got a lot of friends who write music, and they count that record as one of their favorites among the stuff we’ve done. And I’ll never disparage any song in our catalog, simply because if there’s one person in South Carolina who that song means the world to, for whatever reason, I don’t want them to read in an interview that I hate it. Everything we’ve put out, I’m proud of, even if it was an experiment that fell short of my expectations, or our expectations, or if it was something that was overreaching our abilities. It’s there for somebody, maybe.

—By Russell Hall

Excerpted rom Performing Songwriter Issue 81, November 2004. The full article also contains interviews with Peter Buck and Mike Mills as well as stories behind their songs.

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