Interviews: The Rolling Stone Special (German)
By Brigit Fuss
Translated by Kirsten
Edited by Linda
“We can do everything – or nothing!”
The future of R.E.M. is once again uncertain. There will be no tour to support the new album, but maybe one or another solo work. All options are open, so we talk about what matters now: the music.
A blizzard is raging outside, and the heating in Michael Stipe’s New York apartment isn’t working properly. The singer is late for the interviews. He’s not much in the mood for talking at that. Actually these days he’s only doing it for cover stories, he freely admits right at the beginning, but for us he’s making an exception. However, he doesn’t expect gratitude. R.E.M. are not arrogant, they just know exactly what they want – and particularly: what they don’t want. That was already the case in 1980, when they wrote their first songs in Athens, Georgia, and it always stayed that way. You may or may not admire this stubborn attitude, in any case it stands out from today’s prevalent idea that stars have to be available for everything anytime.
It was only recently that R.E.M. have conformed just a little bit to the zeitgeist: Half of their new 15th studio album “Collapse Into Now” has been available for listening already before the release on the 4th of March; the band have put a number of songs onto the Net in the form of videoclips complete with songtext.
“We prefer to leak single [songs] ourselves rather than suddenly finding the complete album on the internet”, says bassist Mike Mills.
The best case scenario, Stipe thinks, is that the anticipation thereby grows even more:
“It wasn’t a concerted initiative, but these songs are certainly very diverse: a slow one, a sad one, an atmospherically very dense one, a Rock’n’Roll song. In fact, there’s something for everyone, so that everyone can say: That’s the R.E.M. I like! Then, when they listen to the whole album, they will still experience some surprises.”
They recorded in New Orleans and Nashville, but also in Berlin (ROLLING STONE reported in October 2010), again with Jacknife Lee as producer. Curiously enough, the record label bosses in the USA, England and Germany couldn’t agree on a pre-release single, everywhere a different one was released. To the band, this isn’t so important – “as long as we don’t believe they’re making a mistake”, Mills says.
They, themselves, can hardly recognize potential hits, that is what they have realized time and time again.
“We are an album band who only coincidentally had several single hits. We have no idea how to write hits”.
At the time of their biggest hits, in the early 90s, R.E.M. decided to turn down a lot of money and to not go on tour. They simply weren’t in the mood for it. And – fans have to be strong now! – this time they also prefer to stay home. Mike Mills puts on a sad face.
“We won’t tour. It makes me sad, but the last tour was exhausting – 2008 was a very long year. At the moment we don’t want that. I love touring, and of course I would appreciate the money, but at this point in time it would not be the right thing for us [to do].”
Such decisions, he adds, R.E.M. always make in a threesome: guitarist Peter Buck, Mills, Stipe. Of course they also talk with their manager and other confidants about it, but ultimately it comes down to the three. And this time, in particular, one wasn’t willing. Stipe has no problem with outing himself as the culprit:
“We’ve only just toured. I just don’t want to. Of course we discussed it, but you have to listen to your instinct. We had a lot of fun in 2008, but at the moment I am concentrating on other things.”
Stipe has initiated an inventive photo-website – confessionsofamichaelstipe.tumblr.com –on top of this he is planning to have a little art film made for each new song. With this he finds himself to be quite busy for now, he thinks.
“Mind you, movies, not videos! The first one, for “Mine Smell Like Honey”, was shot in Berlin, in the stairwell of Hansa Studios. These are wonderful photographs from Dominic DeJoseph that then were cut together and so were brought to life, with a wonderful sense of humor. I have contacted several artists. People who I trust, who have the right instinct, the right eye [for things], the right heart. I let them do [as they like] and then I will see what comes out. Hopefully something wild and completely different. Exciting!”
How the total work of art will be released, he yet has to discuss with his bandmates.
You don’t have to worry about R.E.M., most probably. There have always been periods in which they kept distance from each other for a while, Mills thinks that this is only natural:
“With us, it’s like in every family or every relationship or in every business: You have to consider where you stand, time after time. Because no matter how long you have known each other: chaos happens, and entropy is part of the game, and things [we] drift apart [from each other]. So you always have to find your way back and find the focus. We are three very different people, and we’re not permanently together. When we’re not working, we’re living very separate lives.”
Thus Buck is already back home again in Seattle, while Mills and Stipe are giving interviews in New York. The guitarist is always working on various projects (The Minus 5, Tired Pony), aside from that he just joined the Decemberists on their new album. And soon we will possibly be hearing a little more from Mills outside of R.E.M. as well, as he tells in passing.
“For me personally it’s always the most fun to record the background [vocal] and to work on it with Michael. I know that I have a great harmony voice, however I also know that it may not be interesting enough for a whole album. But one day we will find that out!”
We will? On an [your] own album then?
„Oh yes, I am quite sure. So far I’ve only worked on R.E.M. songs, but someday I will make a solo album.”
And how does the future for R.E.M. look like? Mills doesn’t even pretend as if he knew. But it doesn’t worry him too much, either – the band has many opportunities.
“We don’t make plans. For now, we have finished this album. Aside from that, our record contract expires. So we don’t know where we go from here. A strange situation. The music business as we knew it has died. We can do everything – or nothing! Found an own record label? That’s an option. Certainly, a labor-intensive one. We will see.”
What remains for the time being, is the here-and-now. And that’s why the album’s title fits so perfectly with R.E.M. that even Stipe is excited about it:
“Patti Smith suggested the line from “Blue” as the title. She crossed her arms and insisted on it. And because album titles are always the hardest part for R.E.M. anyway, we gladly took her advice.”
That the most important time in life is always the present, has always been part of the band’s basic principles – “Collapse Into Now” may therefore also well be understood as a statement. R.E.M. have always told their songs from different perspectives, have never put themselves into the center stage. And yet all of their albums tell much about the band’s working methods and dynamics. A view on the dozen new songs and their history:
Mike Mills: The song might link directly to Accelerate in so far as it has dirty, crashing guitars. We like to start with a rocker. Not always, but often. We knew from very early on that we wanted the album to start with it. This time, determining the song order was surprisingly easy.
Michael Stipe: Up for example was too long, eleven, maybe twelve songs would have been sufficient. Back then, in the final stages of the recordings, we just weren’t on a level of communication on which we would have been able to discuss and change that, so it happened that way, and that was that. But this time we communicated on so many levels, Mike, Peter and me, that it was clear what would end up on the album and what would not. That was good. A couple of good songs didn’t make it, but whatever.
“All the Best”
Mike Mills: Funnily enough, I don’t even know anymore where we recorded what one. Actually almost everything was recorded everywhere – in New Orleans, Berlin and Nashville. After Berlin we felt pretty confident of how we wanted the album to sound. However Michael still had to record quite a few vocals, including this one.
Mike Mills: We couldn’t believe that this pun isn’t used more frequently! The song’s protagonist – at least that’s my interpretation – has had a lot of trouble, many problems and goes to Berlin to get out of it. I can still empathize very well with people that have ordinary jobs and struggle with everyday life and wait for the evening to come. I have cleaned toilets, mucked out horse barns, worked at McDonald’s. I remember the daily grind, just like Peter and Michael do. Those who forget that, they have a problem. Besides, we only really started making money with music quite late in the 1980s – thus I have worked from the age of 15 until almost 30, although already being in the band.
Michael Stipe: I wanted to picture an almost blunt outsider’s perspective – the experience of a guy who is walking through a city that is completely new to him and still very unfamiliar. I have combined these two words to express that. I don’t pretend being a German or a Berliner. Not at all. I just tried to figure out the mind of this outsider. The city could as well be New York. In each of these big, great cities, you can be completely alone. This is the guy up to the last verse, when he finds somebody and says: “Let’s try to make something happen. Tonight. Right now.” I write fictional life stories. It’s about thoughts and emotions and fears people have. Expectations and optimism and desire. That’s not hard [to figure out]. People always project a lot onto public figures and perhaps they think that I only hang out with Eddie Vedder and Patti Smith and Gwyneth Paltrow, but it’s not like that. My life is different. I don’t know many people who set themselves apart from the so-called normal life. And even these people come from ordinary backgrounds and have become famous coincidentally and luckily. But I don’t see myself that way. I ride the U-Bahn like everyone else.
“Oh My Heart”
Mike Mills: This is the sequel to “Houston”. It is our view of New Orleans and how the city dealt with the hurricane catastrophe and how it tried to recover. Collapse Into Now however is not at all a political album – perhaps because there’s less reason to be angry at the moment. We now have a president that we like, which is good. Of course there are some things that we are not happy with, but overall the situation has improved. And what we should not forget: Even our angriest songs always had an optimistic turn, at least at the end. That’s simply us. We always hope that everything will turn out well.
Michael Stipe: Accelerate was released during this absurd, insane moment in American history, when George W. Bush was president. Unfortunately, that period still continues to have an effect, but nevertheless the times now are happier, although many people are having a hard time right now because of the recession. But at least we have a president we can trust, who is smart and who is not afraid of his own intelligence.
“It Happened Today”
Mike Mills: One of my favorite songs! It has such a powerful ending: just voices lifted in the joy of singing. Joel Gibb of the Hidden Cameras sings in the bridge, Eddie Vedder at the end. Eddie is never obtrusive. But at the end you can still hear him through, he sings that chorus so beautifully, together with Michael and me. He dropped by in the studio in Berlin because Pearl Jam were on tour there at the time, and originally he just wanted to listen. He never wants to be the star of the show.
Michael Stipe: Sometimes it’s about pure singing. The language doesn’t have to get in the way there, it’s just pure chant. However, it would have felt strange to bring out Eddie’s voice too much. One should not exploit that. The power of his voice still conveys when it is mixed with other voices. In this song it’s not about Eddie Vedder or Michael Stipe, it’s about the song. Maybe we disappointed some expectations with it, but I think that it’s much stronger like that.
“Every Day Is Yours To Win”
Mike Mills: A wonderful song on which we have worked brutally long. Sometimes I’m just a slow writer. Now it almost became a lullaby, that wasn’t planned at all. We just didn’t want to give up on that song. That happens sometimes, when you busy yourself for too long with a little piece of music. Then you end up like a dog chasing its own tail, and it comes to nothing at all. Here we only just managed to get our act together.
“Mine Smell Like Honey”
Mike Mills: Who would have thought that a song with this kind of title could be a single in the USA? To be honest, I still have no idea what it’s about. I have my own thoughts on it, like every other fan. Musically I would say: That’s how you make a song with cascading chorus voices, just like that. And when a song doesn’t end up sounding like hard work but like pure pleasure, then you’re really good at your job.
Michael’s lyrics always surprise me. That’s one of the most fun with about band: Peter and I write the songs, and then we wait for what comes back from Michael. That’s always exciting. His lyrics have never had the classical pop themes: boy dog car girl love. We have never served the people the meaning on a silver plate, it’s not like reading material for the first grade. You have to make at least a bit of an effort.
“Walk It Back”
Mike Mills: I wrote this one night on a piano in my hotel room in New Orleans as I had just returned from dinner. We are constantly writing songs, even when we already have 15 songs together for an album. As a result, sometimes you have to fight for a song [to make it on the record], though it could as well be a song by Peter, and vice versa. If we would make an album on which there’s none of my songs, that would be a problem, but that has never happened. We don’t count our songs, we just choose the best ones.
“Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter”
Mike Mills: This is just a fun song with the wonderful Peaches. She and Michael hung out together in Berlin, and he asked if he should invite her to the studio. Hell yeah! Bring her here, we’ve liked Peaches for a long time. But you always have to watch out who you invite to do what. You really have to be quite certain that you like what they do. And also [you have to be certain] that you [want to] keep the song, otherwise the recording is wasted. Lenny Kaye by the way plays the solo in the bridge.
Even people who know R.E.M. very well often miss our humour. Actually we’re quite funny guys. However we rarely smile in the photos. We’re also only seldom seen on the cover, except this time. On Around The Sun it was only Michael three times – but so much blurred that everyone thought it was us three. We did that intentionally to fool you all!
“That Someone Is You”
Mike Mills: A little ditty that was initially longer, then it became shorter and shorter, now it’s not even two minutes [long]. But whatever, we have never conformed to the standards of how long a song has to be. If the story is told in less that two minutes, then so be it.
“Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando And I”
Mike Mills: This line – “the heroes and all their fatal flaws” – is spot on. Actually I don’t quite like the word “heroes”, because it has been used too often and has often been misused. At the end of the day, they’re all only human. In the USA we like to pretend that we’re all superheroes. But nobody is perfect, and all those icons also have their dirty dark secrets that just haven’t come to light yet. Do we like to get admired ourselves? As long as it happens for the right reasons! I do believe that we are very worth admiring for our music and the way we shaped our professional career. Our private life is nobody’s business, but as far as the business is concerned, there in my opinion we have always acted in an exemplary manner. If I was a musician, then I would think that R.E.M. have found a good way. [I would think that] if you do as they do, you can live pretty well as a musician.
Michael Stipe: It’s about the mistakes that a person who is regarded as a hero can make. The song is a conversation with Neil Young that I had. It never took place, I made it up. But I wanted to have someone you can imagine to be a wise person, and someone who has mentioned Marlon Brando in his work before. And I hope that I pay tribute to both with the song. However it’s mainly about human mistakes. And [it’s] about people who try to achieve something that is so out of reach. [It’s] about desire and the courage to tackle something unattainable, regardless – that’s so crucial, and maybe there’s indeed something heroic in it.
If you by all means want to apply this theory on us: We have made lots of mistakes, but I’m very proud that we actually made these mistakes ourselves. We can only blame ourselves, no one else. That’s part of the game when you’re a public figure: You triumph in public, and you fail in public. If you’re responsible for it yourself, that’s something special. What we have strived for from the beginning with all our strength – that we want to make all decisions ourselves, and not to listen to anyone – that was virtually unattainable, but fortunately we still achieved it. (laughs)
Mike Mills: In Berlin we still thought that “Blue” would not make it onto the album at all. It wasn’t a song, just a little noise. Then Michael put on this recitation, and Jacknife Lee tinkered a little with it, and a part of “Discoverer” was incorporated, and Patti Smith sang something to it in Nashville – and suddenly it was a great song. The crazy thing about the track is: We only played it once. I hadn’t even heard it before. Peter said: I got something here, here are the chords, go on. And that was that. That has only happened to us before with “Chorus And The Ring” from Reveal. And never before has it occurred with us that the beginning and end [of an album] matched. So you still experience surprises.
Michael Stipe: There has been a kind of infinite loop before on Fables Of The Reconstruction (whose name could also be Reconstruction Of The Fables) [translator’s note: um, in fact there already has been a version of the album with this name!] – something that goes on and on … Musically we have never tried that. But if you take a closer look at pop music, [you see that] it’s just about this infinite loop. (short pause) I don’t even know what an infinite loop is. Maybe I’m talking of something completely different, but it sounds good. (Another pause) That’s like in “I wanna hear the caged bird sing”, this line that I incorporated into a song and didn’t even know that it’s a Maya Angelou poem. Which song was that again? This song that Thom Yorke loves. (He means “Be Mine”.) Oh yeah. Anyway I didn’t even know the poem, but it just happened that way.
After all that is what makes pop music: It’s all about repetition. [It’s] about simple things that are repeated over and over again. Then again that’s also the challenge: that you don’t always repeat yourself. We all have our blind spots, but that shouldn’t be a reason not to carry on. On the contrary: just go right the fuck through it, why not? Let’s just jump in, feet first. It always pays off to venture into something.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of German Rolling Stone