Scrawny, serious-looking and almost completely bald, at first sight Michael Stipe is hardly the stuff that superstars are made of. With his hollow cheeks and sad powder-blue eyes, he reminds you of Munch's tortured figure in The Scream. His dress sense, on the other hand, is closer to that of a recalcitrant teenager: his T-shirt looks as old as he is - 43 - while his shoes appear to have been chewed by a hungry Rottweiler. Watch him perform, though, and you'll see what makes him arguably the most important and influential rock icon of his generation. As the enigmatic, endlessly worshipped frontman of REM, Stipe remains as charismatic and wilfully eccentric as when the band started out in Atlanta, Georgia 24 years ago. On stage, he still likes to play the goofball, rattling off anecdotes, flirting outrageously with the crowd and dancing like a goon.
In person, he's a more closed presence, talking quietly and hesitantly, as if fearful of giving too much away. He's twitchy, too, chain-smoking roll-ups throughout our interview and wriggling in his chair. Halfway through a heartfelt description of how he and the band nearly quit for good [in 1998], he suddenly leaps to his feet. "I need to move into the sun," he croaks, dragging his armchair towards a chink of sunlight. "Do you mind? I think I've been indoors too long."
He is, however, extremely charming. The phrase "Southern gentlemen" has often been applied to the members of REM, and it's easy to see why. As I walk into the room he compliments my jacket, offers me a seat and apologises for appearing tired, muttering something about late nights and early mornings.
With a back catalogue that includes songs such as "It's the End of the World as we Know it", "Losing My Religion", "Everybody Hurts" and "Man On The Moon", REM are, along with their contemporaries U2, one of the biggest-selling rock bands of all time; their sales currently hover at around the 50 million mark worldwide. Unlike so many of their stadium-sized counterparts, however, Stipe and his fellow band members, the guitarist Peter Buck and bass player Mike Mills, are still adored by critics and fans, and have managed to keep their integrity and credibility intact. Stipe has remained at a tantalising distance and a ceaseless source of intrigue to his acolytes.
There have, naturally, been peaks and troughs. Over the years, REM have endured accusations of being too rich, too popular, too old. "The elder statesman thing really gets to me," Stipe sighs. "Believe me, I've no problem getting old, but why do people have to go on about it? Movie stars don't get this treatment. Tom Cruise is only two years younger than me. I guess familiarity breeds contempt. For a band as consistent as we are, it's a given that every other year we're going to put out a record. Maybe people are sick of us. I don't know."
For Stipe, too, there has been the endless speculation about his sexuality. In the mid-Nineties, fuelled by his gaunt appearance, malignant rumours spread within the music industry that he was suffering from Aids, a period to which he will only briefly allude as "a seriously low point". He has been romantically linked with the singer Natalie Merchant and the actor Stephen Dorff. For years he chose to say nothing. Then, in 2001, seemingly out of the blue, he decided to come out, openly referring to himself as a "queer artist". "I was made to be a coward about it," he told Time magazine two years ago, "rather than someone who felt like it was a really private thing." Getting him to talk about it now proves an impossible task. Though compellingly articulate, his answers craftily avoid dealing with the issue directly.
When I ask if he was disturbed by the gossip-mongering, he replies: "You know, I wake up every morning and think, 'Wow, I've got the best job in the world.' Really, I do. I'm in a privileged position, just think how many people never get heard in their whole lives. I would guess that many of the best songwriters and musicians never get heard out of their own community."
Mmm, not quite an answer. I try a different tack. Is it worth the constant scrutiny to be able to do what you do? A long pause. A drag on his cigarette.
"Yes, I think it is."
Did you feel liberated coming out?
How about relieved?
"Maybe a little."
Are you single at the moment?
"No, I'm not."
And that's that. And who can blame him for not wanting to divulge the details of his private life? Yet you get the feeling that Stipe's caginess is less about privacy than retaining the mystique. It's not as if he's ever been one to hide from public view. He has houses in Los Angeles, New York and Athens and is known for giving big parties. He clearly enjoys hanging out with his celebrity mates, and counts among his closest friends Courtney Love, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and U2's Bono.
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He is, it seems, a mass of contradictions. He's both extrovert and introvert, confident and horribly insecure. While notionally ill at ease with the whole interview thing ("Sit here talking about yourself all day? I challenge anyone to do it without turning into an asshole"), he talks fervently about his art, and ties himself in knots trying to convey what it is that drives him.
"What I do is very internal," he explains. "I don't know what it is inside of me. Sometimes I understand it, but sometimes I have no idea what it is or where it comes from. I have no idea what a lot of my songs are about. I happen to love them and I'm really proud of them, but I recognise that they're no longer mine. They belong to the world now and I'm just covering them."
Stipe says he's not entirely sure what has kept the band together for so long. "I guess we're much stronger together than we are separate," he reflects. "There are times of tension and difficulty, but that adds to the pathos of what we're trying to create. We accept that. It's an intense relationship that has all the ups and downs that you have within a family. I suppose, like a family, you find a way of maintaining the relations through those problems."
There have been times, however, when they've come close to throwing in the towel, most notably in 1998 when the drummer Bill Berry left the band having suffering a brain aneurysm two years earlier. In the aftermath of his departure, during the making of the album Up, the remaining members began to fall out.
"To me it was like a member of the family had died and the whole dynamic had completely shifted," he recalls. "Although we all recognised that, we weren't able to make it work. That year saw us falling further and further apart to the point where we weren't talking. There was a three-week period where I knew that the band was over, and that was very difficult to deal with."
Crucial to his own longevity, Stipe says, is his continuing love of music, of all art. He still likes to seek out and throw himself behind young and interesting new artists and remains a keen photographer, a throwback to his college days.
In recent years he has also got involved in film-making, though this time he's keen to point out that it's more than a rich man's hobby. He operates two film companies, New York's C-Hundred and the Los Angeles-based Single Cell pictures, the former focusing on "low-budget movies, off the radar, non-Hollywood" films, and the latter on more commercial projects.
"I had a bunch of friends who were incredibly frustrated at the quality of films made available," he explains. "Very naively, I thought: 'I'll start a production company and we'll make great movies.' Obviously, it's not as simple as that. But idealism has been the springboard for almost everything I've ever done."
His first outing as a co-producer was 1997's badly received homage to glam-rock, Velvet Goldmine, though he had considerably more success two years later with Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. Where film-making is concerned, Stipe prefers to stay behind the scenes; despite having had offers, he says he would never branch out into acting.
"I look at actors, particularly at female actors, and see the chutzpah that it takes to do that job," he says. "You don't have pride of ownership which, as a musician who writes my own work, I have. You're generally taking someone else's work and interpreting it, and then you're handing it to another group of people who are going to do whatever the fuck they want with it. To maintain oneself through that takes a lot more nerves than I could ever have."
The son of a US army helicopter pilot, he from moved from place to place from the age of three months. The first 10 years of his life were spent in army bases all over America and for a period in Germany. The resulting sense of dislocation was carried through into his teenage years when, he says, he always felt like he was "on the outside looking in". He found it difficult to make friends, instead relying on his two sisters, Lynda and Cyndy, for companionship. His musical epiphany arrived when he was 15 and bought Patti Smith's Horses.
"It changed everything for me," he says. "The bottom line of punk back in the mid-Seventies was that anyone could do this. I took that very literally, and decided then and there that I was going to be in a band."
In 1978, Stipe's parents moved to Athens, Georgia where Michael enrolled at the local art college to study photography. There he met Buck, a music fanatic who worked as a sales assistant at a local record store. The pair bonded over their love of Smith and art-punk bands such as Wire and Television; in 1980 they got together with fellow students Mills and Berry and formed REM. Stipe admits to being seduced by the lifestyle as much as the music. "There were teenage dreams of superstardom and being photographed walking in and out of restaurants and travelling the world and getting laid left and right and creating something that people admired you for," he says.
"It's all that stuff that you imagine as a teenager that has nothing to do with reality. The reality was us following the path of a mutual hero, Jack Kerouac, going out on the road and discovering the world. Music turned out to be the medium through which we could do it."
Crafting an atmospheric, jangly pop sound reminiscent of the Byrds, the band toured relentlessly before releasing their debut single "Radio Free Europe". It was a massive success on college rock stations and attracted the attention of IRS records who, two years later in 1983, released the band's first full-length album, Murmur. Stipe quickly became a cult hero, famed for his confoundingly opaque lyrics and thrift-store image.
Thirteen albums on, Stipe and his band have enjoyed success on an unprecedented scale. In 1996, with their contract expired, REM signed the biggest deal in rock history, a five-album deal worth £80m. Which makes Stipe what you might call filthy rich.
"Yeah, I've got enough money, more than enough. It's a lovely side-product of what we do. But that isn't the motivating force. This is my love and this is my life's work. It's what challenges me. I look around and I see people my age settling into things and giving up. I don't want that to happen. I know people much older than myself who are great examples of how you can continue changing and challenging your own ideals. Those are the people that I want to be. I don't want to quit learning. Now, looking at young people as a 43-year-old man, I think, 'Sure, you've got great skin but, seriously, I wouldn't be you.'"
Asked what he sees himself doing in 20 years, his reply is elliptical as ever. "Living," he says.
'In Time: the Best of REM 1988-2003' (Warners) is out on 27 October; the single 'Bad Day' is out now
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