UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL: MICHAEL STIPE
UNCUT: Can you tell me a little about how an R.E.M. LP comes to be made?
MICHAEL STIPE: It’s always a bit different for us – over the last 28 years of making records, we’ve kind of built up a set of rules, which we then realise are a little outdated or outmoded, and then we discard them and begin over again. And that was certainly the case for Accelerate.
What did you have to change?
Mostly the way that we communicate with each other. Or rather how we did communicate with each other – it kind of forced our hand. The last record we made (i)Around The Sun(i), I think was a great group of songs, but I think the band kind of lost focus in the studio while we recording them. And the period of time between recording the songs and getting them mixed took way too long. So with this one we decided to turbo-charge the process, and we made a record faster than we probably have done in 20 years.
How did you sort out your communication problems?
It was on tour, after Around the Sun, the three of us looked at each other and said, “That was no fun, and we’re none of us very happy with the record and we have no-one to blame for that but ourselves.” We needed to really pick up the pieces and figure it out again, and that’s what we’ve done.
When you’d done that; what happened next?
The guys write a bunch of songs, put them down on tape and throw them to me, and I try to come up with melodies and words. And the big difference with this time was that I went into the first day of recording with completely written songs – which rarely happens. It’s always taken me a lot longer to do my work than it has Peter and Mike.
What was behind the decision to go with Jacknife Lee as a producer?
I had had several conversations with The Edge as it happens, and he thought Jacknife would be a great compliment to REM. I was super-impressed by what he’d done. He’s very inspired and very inspiring, so I kind of instantly liked him. We had an idea of what kind of record we wanted to make before we even met him, so that decision was a little bit fuelled by that knowledge: here’s what we want to do, let’s find a producer that can help us achieve that. The only minor change along the way has been that, all through making this record I had said “I don’t care how good this record is – I’m not going to tour it. But by the time we’d finished the thing, I thought “This is really good”, and changed my mind. I sat the guys down, and said “Fuck it, I’m gonna do it. Let’s tour…Let’s hit the road with this one”.
And you feel that your communication problems are over, now?
I don’t want to be a fucking bore, but a large part of what we do is that we have to be able to communicate on some level. There are stories in music history of musical partnerships being held together by lawyers. We were nowhere near that, but I was like, “I don’t want to be that”. None of us want to be that. And it’s not like we hated each other or anything, but we had all gone off into our own little worlds and in our own little directions and overlooked the possibility of making ourselves a whole lot better. I’m not saying we achieved that, but I’m thrilled with this record.
For a band like yours a tour that isn’t working must be particularly annoying…
When you’re flogging out around the world for a year and a half, that can get a little tiring. But that’s not the kind of tour that we’re talking about this time. The thing with touring is that you always never want to do it until you’re doing it, and then you never want it to stop. From a distance it seems impossible and exhausting but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s really fun.
In terms of sound, Accelerate seems to be a cousin of records like Life’s Rich Pageant and Document. Was that conscious?
No, not at all. I’m really bad at looking backwards, and I’ve stated that a thousand times before. Even thematically I had no idea where the direction the record would go. I try not to think, or over think what I’m writing about and let it come through me and be in some more unconscious voice. Thematically, I didn’t know ’til halfway through how the record was shaping up, and the different emotions that are touched on and the different scenarios that are played out in the record.
“Mansized Wreath” is a great track. You seem to be engaging with political propaganda in it – is that along the right lines?
Very much so. The germ of the idea which was the inspiration for that song came on Martin Luther King Day, which is a holiday here in the United States. It was basically a photo-op in Atlanta by our current administration, where protestors were held at bay using buses – of all things – with sharp shooters on top of them. A line of buses: that visual was such a slap in the face to civil rights.
You perhaps have high hopes for the end of the Bush administration. Does that account for the energised feel of Accelerate?
I honestly didn’t think of it in that way. I’ll be happy to see a new administration step in for sure, but I’m afraid the ripple effect of the damage that’s been done in the past seven years will be with us for our lifetimes…
INTERVIEW: JOHN ROBINSON