For the past 24 years, Michael Stipe, 44, has been the lead singer of a little rock band called R.E.M. On Around the Sun, the group’s 13th album and the follow-up to last year’s best-of collection, his stirring, iconic voice skates across lulling meditations on love, loss, and high-speed trains. Stipe and Spin rode the rails together from Philadelphia to New York, discussing everything from drummer Bill Berry’s early departure to cranky rock critics to knowing when it’s time to call it a day.
The last time we did a proper interview with you it was 1995, and there were four guys in the band. To me it feels like 50 years, honestly.
How hard was it to watch Bill Berry, who suffered a brain aneurysm on the Monster tour, walk away in 1997? Bill said that if he was going to be the guy who made R.E.M. break up he would stay and be miserable, but it was clear that wasn’t what he wanted. We’ve always said R.E.M. was the four of us; now there’s three, so what the hell do we do? We had this intense chemistry that we had to find as a three-piece. It took us the better part of one and a half records. And we fucked it up a lot. With Up, I couldn’t even sing because my chest was so tight. I was really in a complete freak-out mode.
You still maintain that when R.E.M. starts making crappy records, you’ll call it quits. Do you really think you have enough perspective? I know when I’m not good. I could pick a number of songs from our past that I could just shred, which I would never do publicly. I don’t think anything we’ve done is a piece of shit. We may have dipped into mediocrity from time to time, but that happens over the course of 24 years. You’re going to have dips and peaks, and that’s that.
Do you ever miss the simpler, early days before the band signed with a major label? No. I mean it was great fun and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but it was also a pain in the ass. I used to shave with coffee because it was the only hot liquid in the club. I used to go days without eating-not because of cheap speed, but because we didn’t have money to eat.
Except for U2, not many bands from your era have made it past the 20-year mark. Do you think a person can grow old gracefully as a rock star? I never really thought of myself as a rock star. In fact, Andy Warhol called me a pop star because he asked me what I did and I said, “I’m a singer in a band,” and he said, “You’re a pop star,” and I said, “No, I’m a singer in a band.” Then he took my phone number because he told me I was cute.He never called as far as I know; I didn’t have an answering machine.I had red eyebrows and bleached-blond hair, and I guess I was kind of cute.
Does it feel weird to have “classic-alternative” stations spinning your old singles now? I’m honored that people are playing our music from ten years ago. I’d probably be more honored if they’d listen to what I’m doing now and take it at face value. If there’s a chip on my shoulder about being in a band for 24 years, it might be that you drag your entire back catalog with you with every record that you release. My friend Thom Yorke reminded me that people who are paid to listen to music don’t always recognize what a privilege it is to be in a position like that. You don’t have to take a bitter or ironic stand on every single record. Fucking listen to it.
With so much excitement about reunions this year, do you ever think that R.E.M. should have broken up and gotten back together? I might have enjoyed the interest and excitement that people would have, rather than what I’m faced with now, which is: “Okay, another R.E.M. record. Here we go.” On some level, I feel like we’re somewhat of a guilty pleasure for certain people, that they’ll listen to us from afar, but wouldn’t admit it publicly. That’s okay. We made it through 13 albums and didn’t suck. Amid that, there have been some moments of greatness, I think, as well as things that do touch people, and maybe that’s enough for me. It is.