Interviews: Stipe & R.E.M. – Shiny Happy People (Laughing)
By Francesco Pacifico (Italian singer/songwriter)
Translated by Dol
I have so many memories related to R.E.M. that, while walking in the snow, slipping on icy sidewalks to go to listen to “Collapse Into Now” and interview Michael Stipe and Mike Mills at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, I get tears in my eyes.
I practically learned poise from Stipe’s moves on stage and in videos; for years I longed for the same woman associated – sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not – with songs such as “Be Mine,” “Tongue,” “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” “At My Most Beautiful,” “Electrolite.” But, in reality, Mills and Stipe are two gentlemen in their fifties who will keep me at a distance in two entirely different ways in two different rooms in a hotel that looks like a huge mountain chalet in which Montgomery Burns, the villain from The Simpsons, is having an orgy: dark colours, ochre, S/M books on inlaid tables, a chain mail curtain of the great fireplace in the lobby and rooms designed by famous men. Mills, the composer and bass player, receives me like a professor, behind the table, offering me fresh water, tea, coffee, and looking at me with a mixture of curiosity, slight detachment and natural kindness, while I ask some too-specific questions (see below). Stipe, however, is a gay artist in a leather jacket and cravat, who only looks at me once every five minutes, and it seems that he is only concerned that I respect his vocation as an artist (that, I swear, I never for a second intended to question).
He is not unpleasant at all, but he does not exude the same sort of charisma as when he sings and dances; he looks as if he is trying to gain my respect, getting to the point of defining himself as the band’s creative director. It is a very serious personage but also like a caricature: he looks like John Malkovich, even beyond the obvious similarities.
Michael Stipe: Every day of my life I wake up with the desire to create something: it can be music, sculpture or photography. Photography, more than anything, has changed incredibly over the years, with the invention of digital photography: the final result is less interesting, but as a source of materials and ideas to create it offers much more. I filled the entire iPhone’s disk [he shows me the phone] – Here is all music; here in “Notes” there are all lyrics, and here [in "Voice Memos", author's note] I sing the melodies that come to my mind. Peter and Mike pass me the demo recordings of the songs, I walk around and listen to them. I walked for two years with this music. When a melody comes to me I record it.
Francesco Pacifico: With the same app that I’m using to record this interview!
Tell me more about photography as a way to start the creative process.
He is pleased with the question. I must say that it is thanks to Shane, the coordinator of the interviews: he had heard that I was happy to have talked about “songwriting” with Mills and he told me, before I came to Stipe’s suite: “Well, when you talk to Michael, point to a more abstract conversation”. (The interview with Mills is the second, only in respect for the star system and because of pedantic fans).
Stipe: With digital photography, I realized that I began taking pictures in a very different way. In 2007 I opened a website, futurepicenter.com, and for one year, through 2007, uploaded at least one photo every day, like a calendar. I wanted to understand how digital photography had changed the way I see things. With a digital camera I can shoot from very close. But it’s not a great example.
Pacifico: Yes it is! The autofocus. Two hours ago I took 10 pictures of this room. The combination of beige, turquoise and burgundy of this bench.
Stipe: Beautiful colors. This room was designed by Julian Schnabel.
Pacifico: Do you stay at this hotel?
Stipe: No, I have an apartment here in Manhattan. It took me two years to understand digital photography. But I’m more interested in sculpture, to think in three dimensions. Creating something that people can hold in their hands.
[He points to a framed Magnum photo that hangs on the wall behind us, one of the many beautiful Magnum photos in the room.]
Stipe: I don’t want to take a picture like this, enlarge it, print it and frame it. I admire those who do so. A lot. It is my partner’s job. I admire great photographers. Even the guy who photographed me today: very good. But, for me, I want to take photos and make them three-dimensional, something different. As a creative person, as an artist, I’m interested in different expressive tools. Sure, there are things that I do not know how to do well. For example, I know I do not paint well. I’m not really into drawing. I tried. I do not like my movement, my line. But I love graphics. I love the fonts. At the moment I’m working hard on the fonts.
Stipe: Yes, It’s all very exciting. If you go on our site, the official video for the first song on the new disc, Discoverer, it’s all done with a font that I discovered this summer in Berlin. It was a font designed by Josef Albers, one of the first teachers at the Bauhaus. He escaped from Germany during the war and ended up in North Carolina, to teach at Black Mountain College. It is the state that borders the state where I was born, so I know of him well. And it was the college where he was to teach many “beatniks”. He created these beautiful fonts, I found them in Berlin while doing research for my sculptures. And of course I was also writing songs, like “Uberlin”. Well, then I found these fonts made by him. So we made the Discoverer video with the font. We wanted to provide the correct text, so that the fans who do not speak English as their mother tongue, can read it, from my mouth to your ear, the correct text.
Pacifico: So, to give the correct text you must have the appropriate font. It ‘s like Japanese calligraphy … You can clearly show the words only if you write them well.
Stipe: Exactly. And I wanted to find a font that was as adventurous as the song. The song is about adventure, to go beyond yourself, move away from what you are comfortable and easy to what is not.
Pacifico: And Bauhaus is one thing that is always somewhere between comfortable and uncomfortable.
Stipe: Yes, and continues to have an impact on our lives on so many levels.
Pacifico: Anyway … Well, with all the bad websites with ugly fonts where people search for the lyrics, trying to read the text in general is likely to worsen the experience of the song…
We started to talk about places where they recorded the album: New Orleans, Nashville and Berlin. All these three cities, according to Stipe, have a lively cosmopolitan cultural life. It ‘s a topic that I am not prepared for. It is true what Mike Mills told me half an hour before: we, the fans, we do what we want to do with the album and the songs, the band’s opinion does not account for anything. Then I talk about “Mine Smell Like Honey” and the way he sings it: it has a magnificent bridge, the more I listen to it, the more I fall in love with Stipe and his sensual, authoritative voice.
Pacifico: And now what are you working on?
Stipe: I’m working with various artists. Each of them will interpret a song on the disc. Some are filmmakers, others not. The idea is to create a visual component that is different from what you’d expect from a video.
Pacifico: And they will all be released at once?
Stipe: I still do not know how to distribute them. The first video released will be released on Internet in three days. For “Mine Smell Like Honey” we chose Dominic DeJoseph, an artist. We have already worked with him. He is great.
Pacifico: But why did you want the visuals for each song?
Stipe: I wanted to make an album as I guess an album should develop in the twenty-first century. The concept album has evolved with technology. For me as a music fan – and keep in mind that I am 51 years old – an album is something very reliable, solid: it is a collection of songs written during a period, more or less, circumscribed, often linked by a theme, or recurrent echoes. It is a set of tracks, each complete in itself, but at the same time linked to the other. This idea can be expanded to include other media: film, visual arts.
Pacifico: Have you seen the Kanye West’ film?
Stipe: I have not seen it yet, no. And when I say video I do not only refer to the format required by MTV, requires by the television.
Pacifico: Obviously. In fact, this is an age in which we should not be limited to television. People go to look for things elsewhere.
Stipe: Exactly, so I do what I want. At the moment I feel like a sort of a creative director of the band, rather than a singer.
Pacifico: You have been through lots of things together. In retrospect, have you ever had the impression that there were ages when, compared to other, it was more interesting to live? For example: were the early ’80s more interesting than the ’90s?
Stipe: I am very busy with what I do today. I do not want to compare the ages of the past.
Pacifico: Okay, but did you ever think, “Well, this is a really boring period …”.
Stipe: The end of the ’80s seemed uninteresting. It seemed like nothing was happening.
Pacifico: In the late ’80s you were blooming [as a band] …
Stipe: We were pushing beyond our limits. We tried to do things that no one was doing.
Pacifico: Maybe that effort had to do with the boredom you felt at the time.
Stipe: Boredom is not the right word. I’ve never been bored in my life. Maybe it was the feeling that the culture was at an impasse. Stasis. And we wanted to go further.
Pacifico: Can you describe that impasse period? Names of the artists, events of that era: just to help me understand.
Stipe: I do not know, this is the first time I am thinking about it. And then, I would never say bad things about other artists.
Pacifico: What was happening in America?
Stipe: Politically, you know, it was awful. AIDS had devastated us. It had destroyed so many artists’ communities. And many funds had been taken away from art and culture. So if you were an artist, you could see the world falling apart right in front of you. I try to think of other examples. In music there seemed to be nothing very interesting.
Pacifico: Not in the United States. Maybe something in the UK …
Stipe: Like what?
Pacifico: The Stone Roses!
Stipe: Ok, you’re right, that was a good record.
Pacifico: And the Smiths? In the late 90′s, one day I had a vision: Morrissey and Michael Stipe are both Elvis’s sons.
[Here at last he laughs a lot.]
I realized that you both had this subtle connection with Elvis. Even apart from “Man on the Moon” (“Hey Andy, are you goofing on Elvis? Hey baby … are we having fun?”, which was perhaps less subtle than elsewhere …
[He laughs again!]
Stipe: We both got his moves. And the voice. And the humour, I’d say … heh heh. You’re right. I do not know what Elvis would think if he heard you. But I know his daughter. She has a great sense of humour.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
With Mike it was different: I was treated in a relaxed and respectful way, I trusted him, he was an authority. I appreciated that he giggled at my wrong theories about the meaning of R.E.M.’s singles and albums (most of them boring and omitted here). I start by explaining the fateful impact of his songs on my life, and then we got to the new disk.
Francesco Pacifico: I like the “gray” sound that Jacknife Lee gave you. In fact, more like brick red.
Mike Mills: Ah. Well, he’s a great producer, and he has two talented engineers, Tom McFall and Sam Bell. They are great talents and fun people to work with. They are good at positioning the microphones in the room and they know where it’s best to place drums, amps … It’s a fundamental thing. To make the harmonics right. They have lots of experience.
Pacifico: Did you all play together at once, or record one part at a time?
Mills: Most of it is played live, which is what we prefer.
Pacifico: In my opinion it is New Adventures in Hi-Fi that defined the perfect R.E.M. sound. Because all stuff was recorded during the soundcheck and had a sound that somehow held together. The first track, “How The West Was Won”, could not have worked without a lot of echo, a real live sound. Because the song is so transparent.
Mills: Yes, it is quite transparent. Although, you know, I think that that particular song was not recorded during the soundcheck like the rest of the album: as far as I remember we did that one in the studio. And this gives you an idea of how good Scott Litt was as a producer. I think it’s one of the few songs that we didn’t record while on tour. Yes, I remember now: we were in the studio and Bill (Berry) began to play charleston: ts-ts-ts-ts-ts-ts. I was sitting at the piano and I started to play: ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. It just came to us.
Pacifico: Superb. I always it like when a singer goes for a scream of pain as Michael Stipe does in that song. Or as Kim Gordon does in the last song on Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.
Mills: Yes, sometimes shouting releases so much emotion.
Pacifico: And the live version of “Man on the Moon,” when Stipe screams “Cooool!”.
[We both laugh.]
Pacifico: I’ve seen you play in Perugia in 2008.
Mills: Well … we like to rock, you know? When you play live you need certain power. Yes we write songs, but we always think of ourselves as a rock & roll band, especially live.
* * * * * * * * * *
So I tell Mike how saddened I was with the departure of Bill Berry, their drummer, in 1996 [actually 1997], and the more synthetic sound of the three subsequent discs.
Mills: You know, when you’re in the business for so long, you want to try new things. To continue to make it interesting. Even before Bill left the group, we wanted to do an album with lots of keyboards, piano and drums. And not just guitars. We wanted to use the computer too. And when Bill left, we went in that direction. So Bill’s departure has freed us and allowed us to experiment, because we were no longer grounded, we no longer had the same foundation. So we could finally have some fun with keyboards”.
Pacifico: Like “At My Most Beautiful.” It’s beautiful.
Mills: I like it.
Pacifico: Reminds me of those slowed-down pianos at the end of “A Day in the Life.” You know, that feeling that gives you a piano slowed down… And then I really loved Accelerate. I regard them as a pair, Accelerate and Collapse Into Now. Not exactly a flash of brilliance from me, since they have the same producer and are consecutive.
Mills: Yes, there are people who see them in that way. For me the albums are all a bunch of children running around where they want. But there are those who like to group them into periods. But you know, the albums have nothing to do with the phase when we create them; it is the meaning that you, the listener, give to them. Sure, the album can reflect on what was going on in our lives at the time, but with a band such as R.E.M… Once we publish a disc, you take it and it becomes part of your life. And what is happening to you while you are listening to songs will influence decisively the meaning of the lyrics. And the way you will receive them with your heart. This is exactly how we want it to be: the albums are not about us, but about those who listen to them.”
This discussion leads us to talk about the variety of compositions and genres, during which there is a brief freezing moment, because it looks like I said that they write songs that are identical, whereas I wanted to say that they have a precise style.
Mills: We like to go in different directions. To me a fast song can be beautiful and then maybe we will slow it down but it is still beautiful.
Pacifico: You believe especially in the melody, right?
Mills: I believe in melody, yes. I believe very much in melody. If you have the melody, then you can put the song together in any style you like.
Pacifico: How did you improve your compositional style over the years? Who are your teachers?
Mills: Oh, well … certainly Lennon and McCartney. Big Star’s Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. Brian Wilson is one of the biggest. Jimmy Webb.
Pacifico: Yes, Brian Wilson, especially in your countermelodies.
Mills: Jimmy Webb wrote Galveston and Wichita Lineman. Great songs.
Pacifico: And have your sources of inspiration changed over time?
Mills: Inspiration can come from many places. Maybe one night you go to see a good concert and it will give you an idea.
Pacifico: Now you go on tour?
Mills: No, no tour at the moment. We will tour when we are ready. And this does not seem the right time.
Pacifico: And you all agree on that?
Mills: Yes. It would be fun to go on tour, but it is very challenging and if you are not entirely into it, it is better not to do it. It’s not a nice thing to play every night, giving less than the maximum.
Pacifico: How many times have you skipped a tour after the album release?
Mills: After Out of Time. After Automatic for the People. And both albums did well. But you know, I think the tours do not affect the sales that much. If the disc is good, people will listen to it, if it’s not good, they won’t. I do not know. The record company would be happy if we played live.
Pacifico: Ah, so there is someone who thinks it’s a good idea.
Mills: I repeat, it would be fun, but we do not feel it at the moment.
Pacifico: And when we consider the way in which music is sold and enjoyed these days, has it changed your view of things?
Mills: It’s changed a lot. Nobody buys records anymore. Many people get them for free, which I think is wrong, but that’s how it is. One good thing is that, especially if you’re a young band, you have to go on tour. Because it’s the best way to promote yourself. And the only real way to make money is to go on tour, because you cannot sell many records. And that’s fantastic. I like the idea that there are many bands playing around. People don’t buy the albums. Maybe they buy a single on iTunes.
Pacifico: I do that. So I’ve already got it on the phone.
Mills: I do it as well. It is very convenient.
Pacifico: From Shazam, immediately.
Mills: Press the button and you’ve got it.
Pacifico: And now a most sensitive question. When you listen to an album of an “old band”, like yourself, do you fear that they might lose your respect?
Mills: Eh eh eh eh …
Pacifico: It’s like a long-standing relationship. Sometimes you lose your enthusiasm. It is such an important thing that I’m afraid to ask questions about this.
Mills: It is true. As a songwriter you always ask yourself: what if cannot write a good song anymore? But with this record, we felt very good. There are three, four, beautiful pieces that didn’t even make it on the disk.”
Pacifico: Tell me about the fear. As regards the songwriting, not the market concerns. The fear of no longer being able to write good songs .
Mills: I don’t know … maybe I felt it in early to mid-90s … but it does not bother me really. You go through periods when you cannot write a good song, but then maybe after few weeks you find the touch again. I overcome the blockade by continuing to write, or by taking a break, it depends. Maybe free the mind, do something else.
Pacifico: rsation made me realize that what interests you most is composing. Or maybe I have brought you to talk about that.
Mills: No, it is the thing that interests me the most. You know, for me this is what makes a band more interesting: if you have two good songwriters in the band, you will have a longer career than if you only have one.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Italian Rolling Stone
Online version here