Skinny wee Michael Stipe cocks his head like a bird, flutters his eyelashes, moves gingerly. He's an artsy aesthete dressed as The Littlest Hobo, with his Biro-strewn schoolboy's satchel, tatty T-shirt and shapeless cotton trousers (which probably cost a bomb). He is a gnomic gnome, chewing a boiled egg methodically and carefully. He's 44.
In the gaunt flesh, Stipe talks very softly and deeply, with a catch in his throat. Pauses... for ages... between sentences, then burbles all-of-a-rush . Digs a small bottle of Celtic Salt out of his satchel, for precision sprinkling on aforesaid egg.
Stipe comes on like a big schmoozer - "thank you," he will breathe over a cup of fragrant tea as we discuss his latest set of lyrics, "for giving [our songs] that much time and attention." He is also not above a slightly lecturing tone. Especially if he thinks a question is wrongheaded, or stupid. For example:
Me: "Did coming out in Time magazine three years ago liberate you lyrically? [Pop-cultural lore has it that it was this interview in which Stipe finally confronted long-standing rumours about his sexuality]."
Him [briskly]: "No, I felt free 10 years earlier when I actually talked about it for the first time. I'm so frustrated by the UK press because. Somebody wrote that I've been outed by the UK press more times than Frank Sinatra sang 'My Way'! It just seems that every time there's a slow news day, I get pulled out of the closet again. The fact is, I started talking about my sexuality openly to people beyond my family, my band and my friends in 1994; I was on the cover of Out magazine in 1995. I've been pretty frank about my sexuality for the better part of ten years, publicly, and privately since I was a teenager. Did it provoke some phenomenal change in my writing?"
He pauses, makes a face that says Duh!: "No! The only real news a couple of years ago with Time magazine was, that (a) I was misquoted, and the guy's a great writer so that happens - it's a tape recorder and you can mishear something. And (b), that I have one partner, who's a man, and it's been going on for longer than most of my relationships do, and that's a great thing." Another pause, before summing up. "Has that changed me?" he demands, voice rising. "I don't know. I don't think so. Certainly not for the worst."
It is lunchtime on a colourless autumn day in London. In a discreet hotel in posh Kensington, Michael Stipe is ensconced in one suite, being a Rock Icon. In an adjacent room are REM's guitarist Peter Buck and bass player Mike Mills, being the muso blokes next-door. The band are in the midst of a month-long global PR assault. The 2004 media protocol for these 60 million-selling, 24-year rock veterans is that Buck and Mills are interviewed together, then there's a quick trot next door for an audience with Stipe (or vice versa). These fortysomething gentlemen multi-millionaires are professional, quote-hardened and affable. As, one surmises, you must be to survive your "zillionth" (according to Stipe) promotional tour to tee up the release of your 13th studio album, Around The Sun. Today, it's harder than ever to imagine easy-going Buck as the "air-rage" chap of infamy, arrested for being drunk in charge of a pot of yoghurt on a BA flight in 2001.
At the time of our meeting, the album is a couple of weeks away from hitting the shops. Also looming in the near distance are two other key dates for the REM camp. On their return to the US they will embark on the Vote For Change tour through the key "swing states". The tour is to wind up in Washington DC, three weeks before the Bush/Kerry Presidential election.
What can the Vote For Change tour do? "Hopefully encourage people to vote, and to vote for John Kerry," comes Stipe's bald answer. Then, being Stipe, he goes deeper. "My personal mission is just to remind people what it is to live in a country where people fought and died for the right to vote. How very lucky we are. However disenfranchised by politics and by the Government and the two-party system any of us might feel, in the Presidential vote the local vote can make a difference. And it does make a difference. That's really important to me. I've been places where people can't vote or didn't have the democratic vote for 28 years. I'm talking specifically about Czechoslovakia. I was there with a guy in 1990 in Prague when they had their first democratic vote. There were 16 parties on the ballot." Stipe's face lights up at the memory. "And this guy was my age at the time - he was in this thirties, and he was voting for the first time in his life. And he was in tears."
Stipe's zeal for his Vote-rocking mission is palpable, almost evangelical, and all the more powerful for the low, steady, placid way in which he discusses it. Will he be in happy tears if John Kerry wins? Or, if George W Bush prevails, will the last member of America's liberal rock elite turn the lights out before leaving the country? We agree to speak on the phone in a few weeks' time.
But in the meantime, there's a record to discuss. Around The Sun is a plush, measured album. For a band built on the clang and chime of Peter Buck's riffing and picking, there aren't many electric guitars on this year's model REM. At its best, it's magical: the first single and opening track "Leaving New York" is one of the all-time great REM ballads, a love song directed at Stipe's adopted home town. Still, the album lacks edge, adventure and excitement. The songs are all ballads or mid-paced; REM sound tired.
In these charged times, we might have expected more from this most engaged of bands. That said, there is some sign-o'-the-times stuff on Around The Sun. "The Outsiders" seems to be taking potshots at the American Establishment. "That could be an interpretation, I'll accept that," Stipe says, non-committally. "I Wanted To Be Wrong" might be talking of the values that have been lost as America has rushed to secure its borders ("we can't approach the Allies 'cause they seem a little peeved, and speak a language we don't understand").
"That's good," he replies, schoolteacher-like. "I'd take it further than that. For me it's the strongest political voice I've ever had in an REM song. I've been referring to it as the State Of The Union address."
Then there's "Final Straw", which REM posted online last year in protest at the invasion of Iraq. "As I raise my head to broadcast my objection, as your latest triumph draws the final straw," sings Stipe. "Who died and lifted you up to perfection?" A dig at Bush and his cadre of neo-con zealots?
"Oh, absolutely," says boyish, bespectacled, 45-year-old Mills. "There's a whole group of men around Bush who believe it's America's duty to spread our greater morality to the rest of the world. America is, if not the most decadent country in the world, certainly up there! But yeah, these guys think it's our job to spread our morality around the Middle East."
"I thought the record would be more declamatory, or even just louder," I say to Stipe. "But there isn't even much electric guitar on it. Why?"
"People associate 'political' with 'government', and 'angry' with 'loud'," Stipe says evenly. "And I'm sorry but 'Final Straw' is a very quiet song until you fall into it."
Me: "Yeah, that does have a boiling strum to it, a turbulence. And 'The Outsiders' is loudly quiet, or quietly loud. But maybe I thought you were going to be sounding... roused."
Stipe: "I've learned my lesson: everyone had their expectation of what this record was gonna sound like. And it's neither loud nor political nor chaotic. When I said it was gonna be a political record, that was a year ago. And the record changed course and it became what it was because we wrote so many songs. I'm really proud of what we wrote. It's not simply political in a government way - there's the politics of relationship, of place, of a time that you're living in."
REM began work on Around The Sun in Vancouver at the end of 2002. They would finish the album many months later, after further stints in studios in The Bahamas and Miami, and after breaking off recording midway to tour In Time, last year's "Best Of" collection. For the first time in their career, REM hit the road leaving an album unfinished. But for Stipe, releasing and promoting In Time was liberating. "It was just an immense relief to have our entire catalogue not looking over my shoulder every time I wrote a song." Or, as the bear-like, 47-year-old Buck puts it, "Michael likes to have things in his head one way. That means that door is shut to the past."
In Time covered the 15 years since the band from Athens, Georgia signed to Warner Bros. The record deal that took REM, darlings of the alternative-rock underground, into the mainstream of the music industry was, for the time, whopping: US$10m. But it was peanuts compared to their next deal. In 1996 they would re-sign to the label for US$80m.
This is a brain-bogglingly daft amount of cash, for sure, but you can see the business sense: after breaking into the charts with their first album for Warners, Green (1988), REM just got bigger and bigger. They went from being "the American Smiths" - artsy, underground, evocative - to being a globally powerful stadium band able to stand toe-to-toe with U2. Pre-dating the Pixies and grunge, they became the first alternative outfit to cross over into the mainstream - and, unusually for a rock band, managed to remain cool, big and clever. And silly: this, remember, is the band who made "Shiny Happy People". Their back-to-back masterpieces Out Of Time and Automatic For The People each sold around 13 million copies.
The latter album was marked by the visual reinvention of Michael Stipe. Automatic For The People was REM's full-fathom emotional masterpiece, yet here came the band's frontman and lyricist toting a new, "no hair/no interviews/no gigs" asceticism. Speaking on Channel 4's UK Music Hall Of Fame last month, muscle-bound punk-poet and counter-cultural sage Henry Rollins admiringly described this new Stipe as "a Ghandi lightbulb-headed dude". Stipe had become one of the rock icons of the age, and REM a giant band who had retained the shadows and intrigue despite the glare of the arena spotlights.
Then the wheels began to come off. In 1995 they were touring the world in support of Monster, their scorching, grunge-era album whose making was coloured by the deaths of two of Stipe's friends, River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain. In Lausanne, Switzerland, Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm on-stage. Stipe and Mills also required hospital treatment on the tour.
Remarkably, Berry would be back drumming with the band within two months. He soldiered on for another two years. But in 1997, after the release of the underperforming New Adventures In Hi Fi, he left the band. Now he's a hay farmer back in Athens. Would REM, whose every song was always credited to Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe, continue? They had often hinted that they were all for one and one for all.
But, patently after some serious soul-searching, Buck, Mills and Stipe kept going. There followed the two weakest albums of their career, Up and Reveal. It seemed that, as well as his ear for a melody (much of "Everbody Hurts" was written by the drummer), Berry had taken REM's grit back to the Georgia countryside with him.
You can see why Michael Stipe might have liked to draw a line under all that. Unlike Bono, and like good friend Thom Yorke, he was never that comfortable in the skin of a musical superhero. Sure, on stage he's a charismatic performer with devastating voice and interesting dance moves. But on his own, tap-tapping away at his laptop, he's The Quiet Man of modern rock.
By his standards, then, the lyrics on Around The Sun are bold and emphatic. Making it, he says, was an energising experience.
"I wrote more songs for this record than I've ever written for an REM record," he continues, "and that again speaks of the confidence that I feel. This sounds arrogant, I'm sorry, it's not, but I'd never been so... they'd just never..." Stipe stops and carefully gathers his thoughts. "You know, I've never been that prolific. But they just flew out of me, and then kept coming. I finished 19 songs for this record. That's never happened before. And there are six more songs that I'm still working on - I was working on one yesterday. That's never happened. I've always finished a record and collapsed poetically onto a couch and gone, 'I can't do this again, I am an empty shell.' "
Why was REM's 13th album the one where he suddenly had a rush of ideas, and of confidence? "It's a bunch of things. It's the world we're living in. It's examining what was my motive early on, and then realising how much that had changed as a 44 year old. When I go to music, I go for something that is epiphanal and liberating and moves me emotionally. That's what music is for me, emotion. It's a church to me."
Then, on top of the creative space freed-up by In Time, one of his rock-aristocracy pals had a word. "Bono sat down with me a year and a half ago and said: 'just do what you do. We write songs. Just write songs. They don't all have to be great. Just do it.' And that meant a huge amount to me at the time ... What he was saying to me was, 'quit thinking so hard about what you're doing and just do it'. And," Stipe claps his hand triumphantly, "it worked!"
It's good that Stipe - and Mills and Buck - are so gung-ho about Around The Sun. It suggests that they're still enjoying being REM after all this time. And when they're on their game, in terms of globally important rock bands, only U2 can touch REM.
Yet they find themselves at a strange juncture. Around The Sun is the first REM album to receive a critical mauling. Buck acknowledges that their profile has dipped in the US (although they remain fairly huge in Europe - next summer they're playing British cricket grounds and rugby stadia). Greatest Hits' packages are often viewed as the last throw of the dice for bands. As Mills says, In Time and the accompanying tour served as "a sort of reassertion of our qualities". Buck acknowledges that they "don't fit in with what's on the radio just now," and that "the 'relevant' word is always thrown around. Relevant to whom? Eighteen-year olds? Not most of them I would imagine." They have talked about how they came close to splitting during the making of Up, after Berry's departure. Stipe battled writer's block at the time.
Around the same period, the singer's extra-curricular activities took off: he has two film production companies, Single Cell and C-Hundred, and has co-produced films such as Being John Malkovich and Velvet Goldmine. He has recently executive-produced an HBO film Everyday People, a drama about race relations, and is currently working on the film of The Miracle Life Of Edgar Mint, Brady Udall's 2001 comic novel about the trials of a young boy despatched to a series of institutions after the postman's van runs over his head.
"It's about the politics of family," Stipe says. "Finding something that you never had, and how different that path can be." He pauses and smiles. He's making a point here, and it is: "Everything's political to me," he laughs. "Everything in the world."
Before we part, he wants to talk about "The Outsiders" again. The inspiration for the song came at a Radiohead concert in New York last year. It was a small theatre show, before a select audience. Everyone stood in reverent silence for the duration. Apart from one lyric in "No Surprises": "the Government, they don't speak for us". Everyone bellowed that line. Stipe thought that was "awesome".
"I felt that the tipping point had occurred. For me in New York, with New Yorkers who, having been through 9/11, having felt what I call The Great Quiet, with this administration and the choices that they made, where people couldn't raise their voices - at that moment, that changed for me. I realised it was shifting rapidly. And I see the result of that now. I see the ripple effect is moving through the country..."
As we now know, it didn't move far or deep enough. Eight days after the US Presidential election, I speak to Mike Mills on the phone. He's in Toronto, nearing the end of the North American leg of a world tour that presently runs until next July. Of the Bush victory, he says he feels "sad and disappointed in the American people". He is "angry at the tactics used by the Republicans," mentioning their use of the gay marriage issue and the "terrorist threat" as ways of scaring up support. Was the Vote For Change tour a waste of time?
"Not at all. There's no question it motivated a lot of people to volunteer to give their time to work and get the vote out. And it probably changed a few people's minds into voting for Kerry."
Prior to the tour hitting the UK in February next year, Iraqi elections will have (in theory) taken place and Dubya just been sworn in. It'll be another tense period on the world stage. Will the band's political position have hardened by then? "No, as much as I think the opposition should solidify, I don't want to increase rancour. We want people to leave our shows more happy than angry."
According to contributors to fansite Murmurs.com, on stage over the last week Michael Stipe has been silent on Kerry's defeat. The in-your-face declaration was never the point of REM. That's what made them so magical. "There's very little political talk from the stage," concurs Mills. "At this point. We're letting the music speak for itself for the most part."
Enter, into REM's current setlist, a clutch of pointed old songs such as "Exhuming McCarthy", "Welcome To The Occupation" and "World Leader Pretend". And cue, in New York two days after the election, a show that began with "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", followed up by their rousing, revolutionary, rip-it-up-and-start-again anthem "Begin The Begin".
"While we're all really stunned and disappointed, you can't lie down," notes Mike Mills. "That'd be the worst thing you can do that at this point."
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