Michael Stipe and co discuss their classic 1991 album in this feature from the archive
Though his songs only touch on faith and spirituality obliquely, Stipe is obviously influenced by the religious heritage of the South. His grandfather, now near 90, was a travelling preacher most of his life. “I think the pilgrim blood and the performing urge probably comes from him.” As a child, he’d attend tent show gospel meetings and soak up the vibrant cartoon art of maverick Georgia artist Reverend Howard Finster.
“That’s just part of living here, religion is so ingrained in life in this part of the world. It’s idealised and romanticised of course, but it is wildly exciting.”
Do you feel an active participant when you go to a gospel show?
“I’m always an outside observer, I think. Even in my own life, probably.”
What do you mean?
“Exactly what I said. Objectivity is important. Considering yourself to be on the inside of something, you tend to tunnel-vision your ability to see what and who you are. I would hope I always have an objectivity about who I am and what circumstances I’m put in.”
I noticed a poster outside with you and the band trying to promote literacy among kids. If you had to persuade a kid to read a book right now, how would you do it?
“If a kid didn’t want to read a book? I’d push him down and sit on him, yeah. No, what would I say? I don’t know, I haven’t read in six years. I think that’s how the legend goes, anyway. I can’t remember if I’ve read or not.”
Do you contrive myths about yourself?
“I don’t contrive them necessarily, it’s just part of being a media figure, the simplest gesture becomes hyperbolised by the myth and nonsense that surrounds celebrity status. I’ve grown accustomed to it; I know a lot of really good and bad things are going to be said around me and about me. I don’t like it, but it’s part of it. You can have a particularly grumpy day and if you are in front of the media that day you are suddenly in a Sinéad O’Connor situation where Frank Sinatra is writing editorials about you and the leading newspapers are after your blood.”
Your songs have become a lot more obvious and direct on the last two records.
“I feel I’ve grown a great deal as a lyricist, I’m less shy about singing and the little verses and quatrains I put together. I think I’m kind of tapping the emotional politic on this record. I wanted very much for the record to not be political, this for me is a record of challenges – I’ve never written upfront love songs, I’ve never lip-synched in videos. It was a big challenge for me to write 22 love songs and say, ‘Let’s see how they go.’ It wasn’t difficult, but it was a chore to keep world and other politics out of it. In a way it’s as political as you can get because it deals with the self, but I just wanted to internalise a little. To take that poetic license, and I use the term with tongue firmly in cheek, and create a character, put myself in their situation and write a song about it, I greatly admire that ability in a lot of my contemporaries.”
That’s funny, the word is that you never listen to any of your contemporaries.
“That’s a lie, I used to tell lies (laughs). The people I’m talking about of course are Billy Bragg, Natalie Merchant, Morrissey, Peter Garrett and Peter Gabriel. They are all, I think, brilliant lyricists and brilliant songwriters who are able to imagine a situation, put themselves into it and write about it. That, to me, is incredible.”
You did that on “The Wrong Child”, what made you want to write that song? Did you know characters like that?
“Oh yeah, I know a lot of people who are physically handicapped. It just sort of came to me. I think everybody at one point or another feels like they are left out of something and I think that song pretty much captures that through the eyes of a child. When you’re in that emotional state, I think you probably see yourself as a child, or as an adult who is being treated like a child.”
He stops suddenly. “Look, I’m going to get some water, do you want anything?” Still feeling the effects of jet lag, I ask for some of the natural activating herbal substances that he supposedly fortifies himself with in the group’s “quiet van” while on the road. But the health food shop is closed and his supply is fresh out, so I settle for water. “I could bless it for you,” he offers with a deadpan smirk.
When Stipe comes back I ask him about the Green/TourFilm live shows. Were they a purgative experience, a time for casting off demons?
“Well, I don’t think I could cast demons for nine months at a time, there’s a lotta demons. But it was a cathartic experience. To perform and to write a song is catharsis. The good thing about a sad song is that not only the songwriter but the listener hopefully attains some kind of catharsis. It’s ultimately uplifting, I think.”
I saw you in Madison Square Garden… it was the craziest rock’n’roll show I ever
saw. I wondered how you could keep it up night after night.
“David Byrne came that night and the circus was on. They stuck all the animals backstage – tigers and elephants, funny people sitting round playing cards. It was right out of The Elephant Man. I never really compare myself to other performers in terms of what I do onstage, but I guess that tour’s part of the reason I’m in such great shape. I only compare myself to the other guys in the band – if we do too much we tend to bash into each other. I move around a lot, but if we tour again I’ve stated that I’m going to stand stock still, not move at all. Which will be very hard because it’s physically impossible to sing without moving.”
Is your life stranger than your dreams?
Do you have a recurring dream?
“Yes, I’ve had it since I was a child.”
And it is…
“I’d rather not say. If you wake up and you don’t know what your own dream means then you think about it, you can probably figure it out yourself – unless you’re dumb. The place where my dreams occur is always the same and always will be. I always have the same depth of view and clarity of vision in my dreams since I was a child. That’s maybe unusual.”
Do you dream in colour?
“Oh yeah, I think dogs dream in colour, too.”