It's rare that a band gets the opportunity to grow older and wiser together -- rarer still that one does so by sounding younger and snottier than ever. After losing their way with a string of ho-hum albums, here's how R.E.M. found their noisy deliverance.
What follows is an excerpt from the middle of our April cover story on R.E.M. Read more about Stipe, R.E.M., and the genesis of their new album, Accelerate, in our April 2008 issue, on newsstands now.
I’ve agreed to meet Michael Stipe at Otto, once the site of the restaurant One Fifth, where Andy Warhol held court and Saturday Night Live threw coke-fueled afterparties in its early days. A couple dozen floors above, Robert Mapplethorpe shot the cover of one of Stipe’s favorite albums, Patti Smith’s Horses. Now the space belongs to Stipe’s pal, celebrity chef Mario Batali. Stipe steps out of a cab wearing a jacket, sweater, and cracked black sneakers so old and funky he kind of looks down on his luck, yet helplessly stylish at the same time. It’s unclear if the maîtresse d’ knows who he is, but she can tell he’s famous.
Stipe, as one might imagine, is a complicated guy. Though he’s astonishingly personable, he’s sensitive, on red alert for slights, compliments, and everything in between. Most people stifle those frequencies so that they can get on with their lives, but you get the feeling that Stipe stays tuned in for the sake of his art. He receives praise as if you had just put a gold ingot in his hand, and the reverse holds true, as well: At one point, I suggest that while their recent albums were a bit insular, Accelerate sounds as if it were made with the audience in mind, and he almost switches off the recorder. “Well, see, that’s my insecurities, misinterpreting what you’re saying,” he says once we’ve smoothed it over. “Sorry. They’re with us all the time. Sometimes you can’t see them, but they’re there.”
He speaks with a quietly urgent earnestness, as if he were telling you that you’ve just ingested some fatal poison, but that if we act quickly, we can find the antidote. He spends most of his time doing band business, plus wheeling and dealing on behalf of his two film production companies and his charity work. Then there’s his photography-he posted a photo every day of 2007 at futurepicenter.com — and, lately, sculpture (“I’m working in bronze right now”). “Un Bel di Vedremo,” the famous aria from Madame Butterfly, comes swelling out of the restaurant’s sound system; Stipe suddenly stops talking, closes his eyes, and lifts his chin to the music like he’s expecting the fat lady to give him a kiss. “Do you remember Malcolm McLaren’s disco version of that?” he finally says, safely back to earth. “Fucking great.”
The only time Stipe really takes a break is when he head to Europe most summers with his boyfriend. Following a long period of speculation about his sexuality, during which he was stubbornly coy and ambiguous, Stipe has been out for years but has rarely publicly discussed the topic in any depth. “It was supercomplicated for me in the ’80s,” he says. “I was totally open with the band and my family and my friends and certainly the people I was sleeping with. I thought it was pretty obvious.”
Going public was a little easier when he realized it might inspire people to change their views about homosexuality. “I didn’t always see that,” he says. “But I see now, of course that’s the case, of course that’s needed. I’d just never felt strongly enough about a particular relationship to say, ‘Yeah, he’s my boyfriend, that is what it is.’ Now I recognize that to have public figures be very open about their sexuality helps some kid somewhere out there.”
Now Watch This: Interview with R.E.M. at our April cover shoot.