Interviews: Southern Accents

By Tom Morton

Athens bakes in the Georgia summer sun like a clapboard gingerbread town, soft and sticky and sweet amid the orange groves. The houses range from Waltonesque single-storeys to gigantic Tara-like edifices, all pillars and flagpoles and Old Glory dripping past coitally in the aching heat. This is what proud locals like to term “little London,” hip city U.S.A., home to the B-52s, 10,000 Maniacs, Love Tractor, Guadalcanal Diary (recently located) up-and-comers like the Kilkenny Cats. And, of course, R.E.M.

Mid-afternoon, and I’m in the Uptown Lounge, one of the two main rock venues in town, a quintessentially rawk’n'roooall dive/bar, raffish and romantic with the odor of a hundred lost bands. I’m spilling Budweiser all over the floor, shivering in the air-conditioned iciness, when in rides Michael Stipe.

On a bicycle. With a screech of brakes, he halts next to the diminutive stage, leans his transport against a wall. Hi Michael. He looks normal. Considering that the last time I saw the great man in Glasgow he had peroxided, short hair, wristwatches in unlikely places and the work DOG written in felt pen across his forehead, this is something of a relief. He’s very stubbled, be-hatted (disreputably), with wads of longish brown hair poking down over his ears.

He looks a bit like a less ravaged Tom Waits. He appears to have nothing written on his forehead. He is wearing one wristwatch on his left wrist. We arrange to meet later to conduct an interview, obviously not a task he relishes. I raise my bottle of Bud to him as he cycles out of the door.

Lifes Rich Pageant, the new LP, is a fierce, sprawling testament to R.E.M.’s maturing genius. Compared to the meandering, mysterious indulgences of last year’s Fables of the Reconstruction, Pageant draws on the myriad influences, components, myths, mysteries and magic evident in all three previous albums and sets them in a crisply recorded, vitally aggressive rock’n'roll context. From the opening Stones/Velvets ferocity of “Begin the Begin,” through the soaring, anthemic “Cuyahoga” to the oddly charming psychedelic trash cover “Superman” (spot the Nietzschean overtones), this is easily the most approachable LP yet, as has been proved by its almost immediate playlisting on American FM radio. Producer Don Gehman (John Cougar Mellencamp, the Blasters) and engineer Greg Edwards must take huge dollops of credit for this.

But Stipe remains the enigma at the center of this newly commercial band. His lyrics have never been so clearly discernible as on the new record, nor so obviously addressed to contemporary America and its huge, escalating paradoxes. The plea of “Cuyahoga” to “put our heads together… start a new country up” is a cry from the heard of democracy for a return to mystical, pre-white settler roots. Yet the tortuous, almost Morrissey-like, perverse daftness of “I believe in coyotes… and time as an abstract” almost comes into the bizzare realm of past lines like “I dream of aborigines” from Murmur.
Michael, are you a pretentious bastard, or what?

“I draw from every situation, everything I come across. That’s something I feel I’m really lucky in. I see everything and can apply it to everything else. I make a real easy correlation between things I don’t think your average person can make correlations with. I’m always completely thrilled, wherever I am. Something will intrigue me, like a moth to lightbulb.”

I sit and drink iced coffee in this unlikely bohemian cafe called, uh, True Confections, and ponder. But seriously…

“I find wonder in the most ordinary little everyday things. I really like sweeping. I get great joy out of sweeping – and typing. Typing is a real meditative experience for me. To sit down and type… anything. It doesn’t matter what it is – I’ll copy a book…”

Huh… Sounds pretty damn hippyish to me. However, the problem with this kind of Stipe statement is that his undoubtedly bizzare ideologies are leavened with a mordant and sometimes impenetrable sense of humor. What about his infamous statement that the new album sounds “like two oranges being nailed together,” as printed in Rolling Stone?

“That was a joke. I can’t believe that they printed it – Rolling Stone is the stupidest magazine in the world. Basically there happened to be two oranges and a nail in front of me when I said that. I think a lot of the humor in R.E.M. goes unnoticed, but it’s definitely there, there’s a good amount of comedy. There has to be humor, even in the most dire situations.”

I’m reminded of the Smiths, whose black depressive comedy has to be the most misunderstood extended joke since the Jesus and Mary Chain.

“Yeah, I think Morrissey’s pretty funny. I enjoy reading his interviews. I saw him perform… in Brixton, I think. The first album, I thought it was… meandering. But there’s a real lilting quality… He’s very funny on stage. I really enjoyed it.”

Surely you invite misunderstanding, given the obscurantist approach you adopt to lyric writing?

“I just kind of present it. It’s up to whoever listens to it to take it in. As I see it. I write the words and sing them the way I want to. I don’t cater to anyone but myself and the other three members of the band. Those are the only opinions which matter to me, as far as how a song turns out in the end, how it’s performed and what it means.”

So you don’t want to communicate?

“Well, outside of that, it’s nice if people get it. It’s really nice if people understand what I’m trying to get across especially with something liek the material on the new record. I feel there’s a good amount there – I would hope people would listen to it and draw something from it, maybe. But if they want to listen to it while they wash the dishes or if they just want to dance to it… that’s fine.”

Sounds like Springsteen methodology, that.

“I admire Springsteen. I think the only thing we have in common is a dick and two arms.”

Stipe’s “musical influences” are hard to pin down, counterpointing the more obvious rock historiography of Messrs. Buck, Berry, and Mills. Blues, folk, Appalachian front porch music, something called the Mackintosh Country Shouters, Mahalia Jackson, are all mentioned, but…

“I never really listened to music until oh, Wire and Television, that stuff from ’75 and ’76. I had no idea at all what happened in the Sixties. Most of the covers we do live, I’ve never heard the original. They just say well, here are the words, and I do them.”

What about the effects of working with three other personalities in the band? Doesn’t he ever feel the need to work outside of that? He’s recently been co-fronting, with Natalie of 10,000 Maniacs (supposed girlfriend, rumor freaks), the Golden Palominos, a folkie contrast to the Hindu Love Gods, Peter, Mike and Bill’s collaboration with lost hero Warren Zevon.

“Yeah, maybe. But not using words, but other things. WIth the band, I kind of have to keep myself in check because a lot of weight is put on the words at times. I’m representing four people and not just myself, so if I have a particular viewpoint – political or what have you… religious, colloquial… that the other guys don’t share, it’s really unfair.”

Ever find that frustrating?

“I guess I do in a way. But a song, like ‘I Believe’ on the new album is… it says it all.”

R.E.M. have now quite consciously rooted themselves in Athens, in the South with its plastic Last-Supper tablecloth religion, its social idiosyncrasies. How does this environment affect you?

“There’s this history of Southern politeness. In New York, they’re brash, they shout at each other and it’s a game to see how much you cna offend someone and how they’ll offend you back. Down here it’s politeness. They’re incredibly polite. It probably goes back hundreds of years to when crazy Aunt Beulah May would tear off all her clothes and run around the garden naked. People were too polite to say anything. The point is that eccentricities are a bit more tolerated here than in other parts of the country.”

Given Michael’s proclivities towards driving about Athens in a yellow checker taxicab and garbled tales of a past life which included periods spent naked in the street, this is perhaps just as well. What about the religious atmosphere?

“I’m not religious in that way – I would say I draw a lot from religion – this is the very belt buckle of the Bible Belt. It’s fascinating – in the same way as I find geology is fascinating. It’s easier here to go watch people worship than it is to go look at rocks. It’s fascinating from an outsider’s point of view. But I have a sort of insider’s point of view as well – my grandfather’s a Southern Methodist minister.”

Time to go. Tomorrow I meet Mike Mills, the chirpy bass guitarist who looks like one of the kids from Fame. But there’s two aspects of Michael’s aesthetic tastes which interest me. First movies…

“I like films. I’m more visually orientated than anything else, but I’d rather go and watch the sun set. That sounds really hippy, but… there. It’s different every night and you don’t have to pay three dollars to see it. But I like films a lot – Wim Wenders, Fellini, Peter Weir.”

Wristwatches?

“I have a really good one now. I’m going to try and hang on to it. It has two jewels. Most of them have 17.”

Michael Stipe wanders off into the night with a very beautiful girl and a young guy in full Alice Cooper make-up and clothes. Stipe shakes my hand. “Is that the only bag you’ve got?” He indicates my camera, tape recorder, cigarette container with that hypnotic stare of his. Well, nearly. “I like a man who travels light.” Quite.

Next day. To the R.E.M. offices, all hi-tech, computers and the coolest air conditioning yet. Geoff Trump, amiable and English tour manager, is saying things like “Get me the rider disc” to various members on staff. Manager Jefferson Holt apologies for not showing up, he’s hurt his back. Then wheech! We swoop off in a 1968 Born-to-Run Oldsmobile convertible to pick up Mike, who’s as fizzy as a bottle of Lucozade, and… hungry. So am I. It’s Rocky’s pizzeria and… buffalo chicken wings all round. Heineken beer in iced glasses. Hangover? Vanishing. New Album?

“Really pleased with it.”

Munch. What do you make of Michael’s lyrics and the man’s… approach?

“Well, Michael’s not going to write about love and cars and girls… we all have a veto. If there’s a song or a decision that one person can’t abide, it’s out. The only thing that Michael did this time that I can’t stand – the song on the record which beings ‘Swan, Swan, Hummingbird…’ on the sleeve it’s called ‘Swan, Swan H.’ I didn’t know he was going to do that, I hate it.”

“He does things to be different, that’s great, it makes us different from other bands, and I like that. But that’s just a little too much, too far towards pretension.”

We talk about Don Gehman, and the way his production approach has worked to the band’s advantage (“Who else is there? We wanted someone who would make us sound like a band, really clearly and crisply, and he did that.”winking and then the conversation drifts back to words, and Mr. Stipe…

“He’s being more topical than he has been, though for Michael, being topical is like, so what? Who can tell, you know? Some of the songs are more distinctly about something than others, but he still couches those ideas in such oblique phrases you really have to be lucky enough to stumble on where he’s coming from.”

The point is without Stipe, R.E.M. would be just another Southern punk band with a good record collection and a Rickenbacker 12-string. He’s regarded in Athens as an eccentric among eccentrics, if somewhat… cultivated. The band seem to regard him with affection fused with headshaking perplexity. He may be just a bit of a poseur, but his oddity and absolutely left-field approach infuses the band with much of their charm and power.

Mike, on the other hand, is dead straight, friendly, honest and talkative. There’s a story about how he nearly got into a fight with Iggy Pop at an Athens hotel, and ended up stealing his glasses. “Basically, I like to have a good time,” says Mike. I can believe it.

We’ll skip the bits about him once, long ago, being arrested for “cavorting nude with a young lady on a water tower.” Meanwhile, R.E.M. are preparing for a mega-American tour, which sees them for the first time hitting the 9,000-seater venues in a few places. They’re right on the verge. By the next LP, we could be talking stadiums here. Mike?

“I’m not worried. In lots of ways, it gets easier with a bigger crowd. I never thought we’d make the leap from small clubs.”

Later that afternoon, I’m driving out of Athens, Buffalo Chicken bones still tangled in my teeth. On the way I pass six Baptist Churches and a very large water tower. I wonder. On the radio, they’re playing “Fall on Me,” the single from Lifes Rich Pageant. Out there in America, the stadiums await. Here in the South, well, personally, I believe in coyotes. And Time as an abstract.

Originally published on 6 September 1986 by Melody Maker


2 Responses to “Interviews: Southern Accents”

  1. Kay in KCMO Says:

    Ivana, I LOLed at your well-placed winky face.

  2. Ivana Says:

    Aaah the winky face’s not supposed to be there, it’s the emoticons plugin acting independently again. But you’re right, it IS well placed. happy Mike was actually trying to say: “We needed a producer who would kick Michael’s pretentious ass and make him enunciate properly.”

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