Q&A: Michael Stipe On Life After R.E.M. And Revisiting Automatic For The People

Ever since R.E.M. amicably split in 2011, the individual members have remained resolute regarding their disinterest in a reunion, and have kept active otherwise. Most recently guitarist Peter Buck has played in Filthy Friends, his new band with Corin Tucker, and bassist Mike Mills released a concerto with violinist Robert McDuffie. Frontman Michael Stipe has explored all kinds of different avenues, too, becoming active as a visual artist, and trying out the role of co-writer and producer for Fischerspooner’s new LP. Occasionally, he even gets back onstage, reviving that immortal and gravelly voice to pay tribute to David Bowie or act as surprise opener for Patti Smith. Tomorrow, he’ll perform at Carnegie Hall as part of the lineup for a benefit show for Pathway To Paris, a climate initiative aligned with the Paris Agreement.

Though none of them seem to be second-guessing their decision to end R.E.M., they do often take the time to look back on everything that the band achieved, most recently in the form of deluxe 25th anniversary reissues for Out Of Time and now their 1992 masterpiece Automatic For The People. The reissue offers up a remastered version of the album alongside live material and a trove of demos that offer a glimpse into the writing process behind Automatic. So, on that occasion, I recently spoke to Stipe about revisiting Automatic, his life after R.E.M., and what he’s listening to these days.

STEREOGUM: R.E.M. have always been kind of resistant to nostalgia, proud of where you left it, all that kind of stuff. So what’s the origin of the decision to revisit albums like Automatic For The People for these reissues? Does the label approach you or is it a band decision?

MICHAEL STIPE: It was really brought about by us making a very early decision to own our own masters, and then at the end of the last record deal we had the ability to kind of take all of our work and do whatever we want with it. It’s a body of work we worked really hard on and the fact that we’re no longer an active band doesn’t mean that we don’t still work. But the best of what we’ve done, I’d love to see it introduced to new generations of people who might be interested in what we were doing 25 years ago. So, to do something like this is interesting because none of us are really backward-looking people, and I do despise nostalgia and sentimentality. You know, I’m Michael Stipe and I have a modicum of sentimentality built in, which is obvious in my contribution to what R.E.M. did, but of course that’s something that I kick against. All of that said, I’m really proud of the package we put together, and it’s interesting to go back through the contact sheets and find images or portraits or pictures that I chose not to use 25 years ago. I look at them now through fresh eyes or through more of a lens of the 21st century or looking backwards somewhat, and I’m like, “Wow, that’s an amazing image, why did we not use that?” So you know, with someone like Anton Corbijn or Melodie McDaniel, and going through that stuff and deciding to put together a version of what we did 25 years ago graphically is, for me exciting. I’m able to look at that stuff from a new perspective.

STEREOGUM: Are you more interested in reframing the visual history of it all than the musical history?

STIPE: Well, we were never a dance band, per se, and so the idea of remixes, like dance remixes, that’s not really what R.E.M. is, or what people go to R.E.M. for. So the mix that was there is there. That said, we signed on to do this thing with Dolby. It’s something they only ever applied to film, where you’re surrounded by the sound basically. You don’t have to have Dolby in order for it to sound good. Basically it’s a mix for up to 25 speakers in a room, if you have that. The way I listen to music is off my computer, or on a shitty little speaker that I buy at RadioShack, so it works in all those ways. But the music part of it is kind of locked into people’s memories. You can update that somewhat, a little bit, but I don’t think you need to go monkeying around in it. It’s different from a band that, from the beginning, worked with dance remixes as a part of what they do.

STEREOGUM: But you guys did include all these demos in the reissue. I was kind of taken aback — some of them are close to the finished versions of the songs and then some of them are quite raw sketches. It’s a lot to reveal to listeners after 25 years. When you guys were going back through that, did you have any thoughts about what was left off and why? For example, “Photograph,” R.E.M.’s collaboration with Natalie Merchant, was included — was that actually being considered for Automatic or was that just kind of written at the same time?

STIPE: I don’t remember, but for me, listening to that stuff, a lot of what we were doing was trying to not rewrite R.E.M. songs, so anything that sounded too R.E.M. just got kind of sidelined. “Photograph,” as it turns out, is more of a Natalie Merchant song. I can hear in the chord progressions and the way that the song is put together that it was too R.E.M. for us at the time. We were really trying to not repeat ourselves. We spent our entire career trying to not repeat ourselves. Particularly at that period, we were really looking at what we had done for a decade, and with the kind of confidence and success we had with Out Of Time, we knew that we could really step off a cliff together. That’s really what we were trying to do with Automatic, and then again with Monster.

STEREOGUM: When you hear these demos and the finished versions, do you hear a creatively liberating process getting to that point? Or was it sort of a long searching process?

STIPE: Well, you just used the word — it’s a process. For me, and let me be honest with you Ryan, listening to those demos is like being flayed alive. It’s really awful for me to hear my voice on those things and hear myself reaching for something or trying to find a narrative slant, or trying to find a melody, or making choices that are really bad. It’s a process and that’s really it. Just seeing the superfans and people that love that kind of stuff…I listened to it as much as I could and then I was like, “Look, I can name on one hand the parts of our 32 years that I don’t ever want to see the light of day, and we’re a good ways away from that at this point.” [laughs] The demos for something like Automatic, they are what they are, it’s process. For me, it’s really not that interesting. For me it’s actually excruciating to listen to. For other people it might shine a light on one of their favorite songs, or something about R.E.M. that they maybe hadn’t thought of before. So you know, it’s there, it’s fine, I don’t care.

STEREOGUM: When R.E.M. re-issued Out Of Time last year, you talked about “Country Feedback” as being your favorite or an important song for you on that record. Is there one on Automatic that you feel a similar relationship to?

STIPE: It’s funny when I listened back — the Dolby thing I was talking about earlier, they had only ever tried it with one other group, and it was the Beatles and actually they didn’t make their deadline, so I think it’s the first time that we’ve kind of done this. I don’t have any particular alliance to Dolby, but it does sound really cool sitting in the room. The big surprise to me was “Monty Got A Raw Deal,” which I think for me, frankly, lyrically it’s a little lazy. I wish I might’ve worked on it a bit more. I feel the same about “Leave,” off of New Adventures In Hi-Fi. I wish that I had worked on it a little bit more, but it’s a fucking beautiful song, and I got goosebumps. I got shivers up my back when I heard it in that room, remixed for these special speakers. It was like, “Wow, man, that’s really something.” I hadn’t thought about that song in 20 years.

STEREOGUM: My personal favorite has always been “Sweetness Follows,” and now that you’re describing this, I’d be curious to hear it in that sort of all-encompassing kind of listening experience.

STIPE: It’s pretty intense, I’ll tell ya. It’s like having headphones, but they’re the size of your living room. It’s pretty intense. “Sweetness Follows” with that cello, you know — I think I actually am responsible for that. I heard it and then we looped it. I like loops, I like things that repeat on themselves a lot. They provide, for me, an easy way into a trance state, and that’s what I go to music for. That’s why I don’t really listen to music while I drive; it’s not safe. [laughs] If it’s really good, I’ll just kind of disappear into the music.

STEREOGUM: Where did the source of the loop from? Where did you hear it?

STIPE: I don’t know, I mean stuff happens in the studio where they’ll be checking the sound or whatever and they’ll put something in a loop, and it might’ve happened like that, or it might’ve been the cellist we brought in was warming up and I heard something. I would hear stuff like that all the time. That’s how “Nightswimming” happened. That’s how we wound up keeping the terrible ticky-tacky drum machine on “Everybody Hurts.” It’s such a bad Casio drum machine — I mean, it’s horrible, terrible little sounds — but in the context of a song like that, which could really dip into sentimentality…that’s a song that’s for a very specific mood, I have to say. And when you’re in that mood, it’s exactly the right song. When you’re not in that mood, it’s a good one to skip over. But that drum machine allows that song to be more of what it is and doesn’t try to turn it into something it’s not, if that makes sense.

STEREOGUM: I’ve seen you call New Adventures In Hi-Fi your favorite R.E.M. record. Do you hope to revisit Monster and New Adventures in the same way, kind of going back and exhuming these things?

STIPE: I really do, and I don’t like the word “exhuming.” [laughs] That sounds really tragic. But no, I mean, Monster was Courtney Love’s favorite record of R.E.M. ever, and I’m not exactly sure why that record landed on her, but she’s got great musical taste, and she loves R.E.M. so, for someone like her to say, “That’s my favorite record ever” — I wanna go back and look at it, I want to look at all the choices we made. I wanna look at the videos, the songs that we had commissioned for that tour, and possibly present those as a part of a package. You know, look at the graphic and video choices we made and dig back into the archive and see what’s there. I’m kind of excited about it to tell you the truth. And, god knows, I’ve got enough kind of right-now projects going on and things that are moving me into the future that I’m excited about. I’m not just sitting around doing nothing. But it is exciting to go back into these records and kind of explore the things about them that made us put them out in the first place.

STEREOGUM: I think those records are also curious ones to think about doing that with because Out Of Time and Automatic For The People are both massive albums and Automatic For The People is considered one of the classics. Whereas Monster was maybe misunderstood by some people at the time and then New Adventures is still overlooked in the grand scheme of things.

STIPE: Yeah, it sure was. But I think, thematically for me — “Leave” would be lyrically the weak link, that would be the song that, as a writer, I could criticize, but I still think it’s a beautiful song. But going back and putting a spotlight on these records with a 21st century perspective is, to me, really interesting, and so I hope we continue doing this. I’ve had fun with it. It was really interesting for me and revelatory to see Peter Buck being interviewed on camera about the record and the things he had to say about it. I was like, “Wow, man.” You know, he sometimes holds his cards pretty close to his chest, and it’s nice to see him looking back and appreciating and enjoying the work that we did.

STEREOGUM: In terms of looking back and favorites and this and that, what is your personal relationship like with Automatic all these years down the line? Do you feel as much of a tie to that as you might to New Adventures? You know, that’s a big record and those songs are out in the canon to some extent.

STIPE: It is focused a lot on passage and death and transition, and it wasn’t shortly after that record came out that it became prescient for me. There was a lot of death in my life shortly after that record, so it’s almost like my future me was preparing me for what I was about to go through. And so, it’s hard for me to look at it other than — I don’t know what I’m saying. It’s a beautiful record, I’m really proud of most of it and it’s exciting to sit and listen to the whole thing, and I hadn’t done that in 20 years or more. I would’ve listened to one song or another if we were touring to try to figure out what I was doing vocally or how could I alter that or improve or that for a live performance, or just to get the words, because sometimes I’d forget the words and have to write them down again. But I hadn’t really sat and listened to the entire album. I don’t really sit down and listen to music that much. I listen to ambient and trance as background, and some classical, but I don’t really listen to pop music although I like it very much. For me, in my everyday life, I find it incredibly distracting, and it’s hard for me to focus on anything including driving, or eating, if there’s music playing.

STEREOGUM: Last year you started talking about wanting to be involved in music again and you produced and co-wrote the new Fischerspooner record. You’ve done performances here and there and you have this robust life as a visual artist as well. Going forward, what form do you see your musical life going in? Is it more incidental music, or could you imagine doing a solo LP?

STIPE: I don’t know, man. I don’t have a clear directive, which I kind of like. I’m not feeling the pressure to write a solo record or anything like that. I’m just taking things as they come, most of which are — you know, it was complete spontaneous choice to help Casey Spooner out with a couple songs on that record and then to actually, basically throw the whole thing in the trash and rewrite it, and help produce and rewrite the whole thing. I’m so proud of what they’ve done.

STEREOGUM: I know you mentioned you don’t listen to pop music too much, but you did cover Perfume Genius’ “Hood,” and you know you’re a man around town and all that stuff. Are there any younger artists who you kind of see yourself in or feel a connection to? Like the way you covered that Perfume Genius song?

STIPE: Well, I just really like [Perfume Genius’] Mike [Hadreas] a lot, and the first time I heard him I was like, “What the fuck, this is really Vic Chesnutt level, Neil Young level, Patti Smith level genius. I don’t know what I’m seeing.” So from a songwriter perspective and from a fan perspective, I was like what the fuck is this, this is amazing, so I jumped on it. I don’t know, I like the new SOPHIE song, I don’t know if you’ve seen the video.

STEREOGUM: Yeah, we covered it.

STIPE: Oh, maybe I saw it on Stereogum. [laughs] I like that. You know, I’ve kind of gone back. I love Sia, I love Santigold. I love MIA. I think she’s been really overlooked, unfairly overlooked. Every time she does something, five years later is when you see it emerge into pop music through other artists. People mine her a lot. Die Antwoord, I think, are very overlooked. I would say those two, MIA and Die Antwoord, are the most overlooked artists. Let’s see, I’m trying to think of something new, because those are older or established.

STEREOGUM: Well, SOPHIE’s newer. Did you follow the whole PC Music thing? That’s a thing that was also kind of visual and musical, kind of a complete performance art kind of thing going on there.

STIPE: Yeah, you’re right. I tend to listen to music when people that I know who have good taste and know what I like say, “You have to look at this” or “You have to check this out.” I feel like music is really thriving right now, and it’s super exciting. There seems to be a lot going on. I’m really more of an observer at this point. I can’t really call myself a fanboy at the age of 57, but as an observer and someone who has an immense curiosity of how other generations and other people are putting things together and what that’s coming out like and what that says about the times we’re living in, I’m endlessly fascinated by what I see. I think it’s a really good time for music.

The Automatic For The People 25th anniversary reissue is out 11/10 via Craft Recordings.