The Billboard Q&A: R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe
On the eve of the release of R.E.M.'s new album, "Accelerate," frontman Stipe spoke to Billboard.com about the set's "really fast, really raw" take on politics, teenage geekdom and the media, the bandThink fast. R.E.M. has banished the quiet, dream-like mood of their last two records and is about to unleash the hard, sharp-eyed "Accelerate," their first album in four years. As Mssrs. Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills follow the first single's edit-it-yourself video with the album's launch on iLike and a worldwide tour, frontman Stipe spoke to Billboard.com about the set's "really fast, really raw" take on politics, teenage geekdom and the media; and how he and his bandmates "worked really hard to try to upset the things we had gotten bogged down in."
Your decision to premiere "Accelerate" on iLike follows neatly from the decision to pretty much open-source the video for "Supernatural Superserious."
Good term there. I think that was my idea but it was based on stuff that [director] Vincent Moon had done that I really admired. I thought, "Well, we can take this and expand on the idea and offer something that's a little bit of fun," which I think is in keeping not only with the footage that he was able to get of the band kind of stumbling around New York, but with the song itself, which has a little bit of a sense of humor.
A sense of humor, and a fun guitar riff. You've said the song was about teenage humiliation and the kinds of things that follow you through your life. I thought that was interesting because I wondered what inspired you to write that now, long after adolescence?
We all have our geek moments that we kind of carry with that or us have some impact on us throughout our lives [laughs]. I hate to use the term 'geek anthem' but it's a little bit, for me, like that. I have friends -- who are adults -- who move with such grace and poise through life and in fact completely embrace the incredibly stupid aspects of growing up and the humiliating teenage moments. They can totally laugh about and make fun of themselves and allow themselves to be, I think, more of a complete adult because of it. So that was really kind of the inspiration for the song.
I think we have all harbored things like that years and decades later and then we think, "Why am I thinking about this now?"
Yeah, it's like that one horrifying school picture where you either knew or didn't know that that was the day they were taking the school picture. Okay, so now anyone in the world can now pull that up online if they want to look at you when you were in sixth grade and had, whatever, really stupid glasses. But the song inhabits an almost more internal humiliation, something that happens to all of us because we were all kids and we all have insecurities on some level or the other. This one, I kind of particularly wrote it around a seance gone horribly wrong at a summer camp that then manifested itself later in life as kind of a sexual deviance, but a fun one.
Most of the songs on the record, like "Supernatural," sound like the band re-exploring rock and a harder sound. Did you set out to do that?
No, I think more than anything we wanted to stay on point. We wanted to do a record really fast so there was no way for us to overthink it. In terms of the material, we kind of went to the most obvious place. We wrote really fast songs and we tried to keep them really raw and in-your-face and that's what we wound up with.
"Hollow Man" reminds me of a couple of your other songs thematically. Could he be a relative of "Sad Professor" or "The Apologist"?
In what way, I wonder? Because I hadn't thought about that.
In those songs, there's a person who is thinking about what their place in the world is and feeling like they're not successful. They failed in some essential way. "Hollow Man" adds an element of hope. Maybe he's saying, "You can make this not so" to this unseen second person. Is that way off?
That's a very astute observation. Yeah, that might be the difference. "Hollow Man" is more bouncing off of another person whereas "Sad Professor" is a little more scattershot. But yeah, I see what you're saying. The more important part being that you come up short of your own expectations for what you're capable of or what possibilities there are.
A line in there, "I'm overwhelmed / I'm on repeat," goes along with the whole album's idea of dealing with a world that's moving ever more quickly. In the song "Accelerate," you sing "no time to question the choices I make / I've got to find another direction" like it has all turned into a giant game of Tetris and we need to scramble to keep up.
Right, and we're trying to have lives in the middle of it [laughs] and make sense of that. And it's a tough one.
This record is also out in an election year. Is the character in "Mr. Richards" a politician? Are you talking about the state of the country there, like Dylan's "Mr. Jones? Is "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" a call to action?
"Living Well Is the Best Revenge," to me, is more aimed at a figure in the media. "Mr. Richards" is definitely a political figure. It's really about the injustices that we face under a system where somebody can, can ... can disregard ... Let me pull my thoughts together. I always stammer when I get really upset laughs]. It's about injustices and one of those great injustices -- and you'll find plenty of examples of it in the current U.S. administration - is people that get away with something that is almost inhuman. Rather than that being shameful, they wear it like a badge of honor. The fact that they did something so corrupt and actually got away with it, rather than just dropping it into the bottom drawer of their desk, it's like, "I'm even more Teflon than you think I am." Like, "Look at what I can do."
Yeah, exactly. And that's so insulting to me. I don't know if it comes from a Christian upbringing or what, but one of the core foundations of my ideas of morality and ethics is about justice, and when injustice happens and it can be traced back to a person or a group of people, how very upset that makes me.
Did you write the lyrics for the album while Mike and Peter were writing the music?
My promise to them was that I would show up on the first day of recording with finished lyrics. So, the first stint that we did was in Vancouver and the first day I showed up, I had seven songs. We were recording every day, probably eight or nine hours a day. I finished another song while we were there and started another half of a song. By the time we got to Dublin, [where] we did these live shows, these kind of live rehearsals before we went into the studio, I finished the song that I had started in Vancouver and had written another one.
My part of it was not have to have Peter sitting on the couch for four weeks waiting for me to finish lyrics; [to not] have Mike not knowing how to sing a background vocal or where to take the bass part or the keyboard part because he didn't know where the vocal melody was going to go.
It was kind of like there was an agreement between the three of us that we were all going to try to work really hard to try to upset the things that we had gotten bogged down in in the past. And to try to make a record really fast and really in-your-face and really raw and make our decisions quickly and then live with them rather than picking apart every single thing and overworking it, which is what had happened on the last record.
You say "bogged down." I was reading an interview with Peter and he was kind of saying the three of you hadn't been communicating much over the last couple of records. What changed to bring that back?
A lot of things changed. On that last tour in 2005, we were playing material from ["Around the Sun"] and live it just sounded so much better than it did on record. We realized we had no one to blame but the three of us. We had all the opportunity in the world, we had a tremendous producer working with us, Pat McCarthy, and yet the three of us were not able to actually sit down and talk over, "How does the song need to sound?"
Part of that is [our] lack of communication; not really dealing with each other the way we need to, to make potentially great records and be a great band. And then part of it is just that, logistically, we stopped making the record in the middle of it to make a "best of." We poached the two best songs that had been written and completed on that, in "Bad Day" and "Animal." We did the merchandise and all the artwork for that, made the videos, did the press, went on tour and after all that was done, went back into the studio to try to finish "Around the Sun." It can be a trying and a difficult circumstance to try to make a record and try to push yourself, but if you throw all that in the middle of it, you've just got a recipe for disaster.
I don't think that record is a disaster by any stretch. I love the material on it, I love my band and I love Pat McCarthy, but the three of us really allowed ourselves to lose focus and there was nothing that was going to bring it back into clear view.
As you said, that changed with the new record coming together fast, and now the tour is afoot. Who picked the opening bands, the National and Modest Mouse, for the summer leg?
All three of us. I had seen the National and met the guys really briefly at the Oxygen Festival. Peter knew the band and I took Mike to see a show they played in London. Mike was completely blown away by them live. Peter is friends with Johnny [Marr, Modest Mouse's guitarist] and we all like the band a real lot [laughs]. We thought, "Well, this is going to be a really great bill." I've never seen Modest Mouse perform before, [so] for me it's going to be super exciting to have that kind of daily inspiration. That's really what having great opening bands can provide.