Ask Michael Stipe #1

September 12, 2008

Michael has already answered a bunch of your questions! Here’s the first batch. Just so you know, Michael’s writing will always be in bold. Keep sending in questions! Once again, the address is popsongs08 @

Here we go:

Responding from Riga, Latvia. WE ARE SCIENTISTS are onstage and sound great.

When you were writing “Aftermath”, did you have any specific personal experiences in mind? The domestic imagery – “overfeed the cat”, “plants are dry” – admittedly conjures up a picture of generic mundane day-to-day life, but beyond that appears to lurk something rather more specific and personal than a lot of recent R.E.M. tracks.

it is based on real life, not about me but real life. And I took ‘london bridge is falling down’ and made it just a much more personal story.

Dragonflies are mentioned multiple times on tracks on “Reveal” (”Beat a Drum”, “Summer Turns to High”). Is there any special reason for this? Do they represent anything specific to you?

it was only after that record came out and I read a few reviews where people thought I was using dragonflys as metaphor for something that I realized that most people don’t have dragonflys in their everyday life. Duh. The pool that my family uses has a lot of dragonflys and one summer we realized that they’re really attracted to metallic nail polish. You can get in the pool hold up your hand or foot and they would light on you. That’s all. They were around a lot when I wrote most of that record, and the record is all about summer after all

In the final verse of Driver 8, I have always believed that Michael was singing: “We finally did this song in a plane like that one…” And 23 years later, boy howdy I sure would like to know what he meant by that.

And that’s it. That’s all I’m gonna ask. For a few years there, I used to sing “Driver 8″ at least once a day with my college roommate/world-travel-and-busking partner (who has actually gone on to become a semi-famous musician in her own right), and every time we sang it, we’d sorta be thinking of whatever “plane” we were in or on or experiencing that day. I sure would love to be able to call her up and tell her that I finally figured out precisely which plane we were supposed to be in!

he piloted this song in a plane like that one,
she is selling faith on the ‘go tell’ crusade

Thanks for the opportunity to ask you this: What was the inspiration for Kohoutek? Fever built a bridge, reason tore it down?

honestly I have no idea. I think the idea that relationships are or can be fleeting, of the moment, then gone. Kahoutek is the comet that was supposed to be big as Haley’s comet, and then fizzled out. It was a non event

Hello Mr. Stipe,

First, what a wonderful opportunity for R.E.M. fans and fans of this blog (a tad redundant, I know). Its very generous of you to set aside a few moments in your schedule to answer questions.

As you have a visual arts background along with currently perusing photography and sculpture, do you ever find that in your song writing, you first have a visual image or images that you wish to convey? Or do you focus on themes and lyrics and any inferred visual references come later? If possible, I would love for you to point out any songs as examples.

the best song lyrics I think are the ones where i’m responding to the visual landscape that the music provides. It’s tough, because sometimes the guys don’t want to add all
the layers so that the melodies can be whatever they can be…and i’m left with something barebones or sparce…sometimes they add so much stuff it’s hard to see through it. There’s no single way of doing this thing that we do.

the lyrics do tend to reflect the aural vista or landscape. a great example might be country feedback, which of course wound up keeping its working title, or ebow the letter, same. Both songs however, musically, were sad, down, dark dark wide open vistas like a cartoon desert or moonscape. Ebow of course became the teenage swirl of confusion and endless possibility, country feedback the final sentence at the end of a particularly bad relationship. Departure felt like a storm spinning out of control, and saturn return otherworldly, ethereal, but based in dirt, mundaneness, humanity and a desert convenience store

Hi Michael:

I know The Wrong Child is about the boy in the bubble that made headlines back in the late 80’s. I love the song and so does Mike Mills (according to several interviews he’s given). Why doesn’t R.E.M. play the song more often? I know even Eddie Vedder has included lyrics from it within Pearl Jam songs during live performances.

My question is this: My boyfriend interprets the song as a child that realizes he’s gay very early on in his/her life, and how others react to that person (in a negative and homophobic way). Are you fine with that interpretation?

Thank you, Mike, Peter, Bertis (and Bill). Your music has meant everythin to me since my teen years. (I’m 37 yo)

Steve Miller
Pittsburgh, PA.

i’m fine with any and all interpretations that arent manifested in real life as harmful, hateful or violent. The wrong child was not written about the boy in the bubble or a gay kid, but was instead the influence of HUGO LARGO[who I was working with at the time], particularly mimi goese, and her particular and brilliant flair of singing and writing[the double tracked lead voc was at one point going to be mimi or mike]. I just wrote it about a kid who is physically handicapped, and left it purposely undefined.

In New Test Leper, what is the test? Why is the protagonist under attack, and by whom (various opinions on this were posted in response to Matthew’s review)?

The test is short for testament, the new testament of the bible being the reference. Also of course to be tested. The protagonist as I wrote it was inspired by a transvestite on a tv talk show trying to explain and defend her choices and orientation. It was painful to watch her basically humiliated simply by the decision to be on the show. And with commercial breaks. I couldn’t imagine what was said when they were off camera. Glaring horrible studio lighting.

In Around the Sun, you sing, ‘I wish the followers would lead.’ I’d love to know what you were getting at with that, and how it relates to the lyrics that precede it.

well that’s a pretty broad statement, intentionally written very simply so it could be taken any number of ways. Politically i’m amazed at the difference between the USA and European countries, one of which treats its political leaders as elected employees who are not above reproach or true criticism; and the other who treat their leaders as someone who, by becoming elected, ascend to a position of moral and legal authority. USA being the latter

From Can’t Get There From Here, there is an ambiguous line just before “Brother Ray can sing my song.” It sounds like: “Trish is sure to serve the beer now.” Is this correct?

tris is sure to shir[sp?] the deers out. Its a friend chris’ nickname, and his ability to whistle to attract deer

Hey, These are the questions i would like to ask Mr stipe.
Thank you so much for this
1.In World Leader pretend the studio version why isnt there the ”We live, as we dream, alone. To break the spell we mix with the others. We are not born in isolation. But sometimes it seems that way. We live, as we dream, alone” like there is in the live DVD Tourfilm. was that a just alittle added verse for the preformance at that time?

that’s a great GANG OF FOUR song, and the beating on the chair in that song is something I lifted from them. I’m pretty sure the song is called, ‘we live as we dream, alone’ and may be from a joseph conrad novel.

2. There is a song on Green called “untitled” what was your thoughts on a possible title at the time? Was there a working title for the eleventh untitled song from Green? I heard it was So awake, Volunteer. Any others?

at the time it was really cool to have unlisted, ‘hidden’ tracks for the fans, and that was ours. Its untitled because we just pretended like it didn’t exist. I really wrote it to my Mom and Dad, from the road. We basically toured the entire 1980’s and I didn’t see my family much.

Hi Michael, much love from Memphis & hoping this finds you well.
A general question: you’ve intimated in interviews that the first two R.E.M. albums essentially had no real lyrics (something which you just alluded to in mention of the chorus to”Orange Crush”). Did the lyrics to the songs on those two albums eventually stick or do they continue to evolve for you over time with repeated performances?

those songs were mostly written to be sung live. The pa systems were so crap that no one could ever really hear the singer anyway, including the singer. We just never intended to make records, and then suddenly we were making records and the songs were in my head like that, so we just blurred the vocal and turned it way down. The songs that do have words don’t really make any or much sense, it was about creating a feeling and emotion in the room in the moment. As it turns out the records turned out pretty great too, just inscrutable. I had to learn pretty fast how to write a good or great lyric after that. Please don’t analyze them, there’s nothing but feeling there. Sing along and make it up, that’s what I still do.


19 Responses to “Ask Michael Stipe #1”

  1. Paul Alferink Says:

    Some good questions! Nice job!

  2. redsock Says:

    Simply fantastic!

  3. Ignis Sol Says:

    re: Pop Songs 08

    Just when you think you’re out, Matthew pulls you back in.

  4. Macphisto Says:

    Nice… he answered both my questions about the Eleventh Untitled Song and Can’t Get There From Here!

  5. Wezzo Says:

    Yay, my questions answered. Fascinating to get this insight.

  6. ScottMalobisky Says:

    HI HI HI HI..this is a bit different than I expected, thought that the asker of the question would be clearly indicated, hence my silly competition comment, ie , the competition to be the first one recognized by Monsieur Stipe..(not that it matters and no I’m not complaining)

    You know I never thought it could be so strange
    Should we talk about the government ?

    One of the political pundits on TV just made the stunning prediction that Obama is going to end up changing his mind–is realizing that he made a big miscalculation, and Biden just ain’t cutting it–is going to end up putting Hillary on the ticket, something about having until October 3rd to do so (?!)….You know I never thought about it before….I guess he could change his mind if he wanted to. I’m wondering what the rules are for that.

    (This is my mistake let me make it good.)…….You’re in Europe and I’m so jealous….:)Thanx Michael. Thanx for everything. Uh, how do we know it’s really you ? Just kidding, Man. May you live, may you THRIVE, forever…

  7. Matheus Says:

    I think it is hard to add anything to those awesome anwers! Thanks Michael for answering the questions and thanks to R.E.M. for their music!

  8. Dark Bob Says:

    This is beyond cool

  9. protimoi Says:

    i really really hope Michael answers my questions, but it’s great to hear his takes on all the songs!

  10. Rebekka Says:

    Damn, I wish I had a real intelligent question to ask! 😉 So I just say: Thanks Michael for answering the questions I didn’t ask!

  11. Nika Says:

    Fantastic read. Fair play to Michael for doing this!

  12. […] I am not alone in this view — it appears that Michael Stipe himself has visited the site to take reader questions.  (Yes, I know, given that this is the Internet it is possible that it […]

  13. Macphisto Says:

    Matthew, just curious… did you submit any questions for yourself? I’m sure there are a few questions that you have.

  14. Bruno Says:

    Well done Matthew. Absolute validation of the hard work and all of your repeated insights contained here. A feather for your cap. I’ve often wondered if any of the band has ever wandered around these parts and had a look.

    It was very strange writing my questions. I found it particularly odd to be (indirectly) addressing Michael Stipe. “Dear Michael”! (no, I didn’t say that!) I also found it difficult not putting some kind of mushy “The music has inspired me more than you’ll ever blah, blah, and blah”.

    It must be strange being a pop star (I don’t mean the Britney kind I mean the REM kind). A musician/lyricist conjures up something out of thin air, just using imagination. In this way pop songs are somewhat fragile. It’s just as possible that ‘Fall On Me” never gets written. More than a film star for example, a musician is just kind of acting on instinct. On whim. Something closer to what a painter does I suppose. I’m talking about when it’s art, not writing to produce the next hit.

    And then to have people take these melodies and thoughts into their hearts on a deep and – as can be seen so often on this blog – personal level. It must be very strange. Very strange indeed.

  15. ScottMalobisky Says:

    turn em’ in
    turn em’ in
    turn em’ in to flies…….

  16. db Says:

    I spent hours trying to decipher the lyrics on those first two albums, which I wrote down in my special notebook devoted to REM lyrics. Adolescence is awesome. Actually not, but I do miss that insane intensity.

  17. Kirsten Says:

    Sigh… He’s so perfect.

    >>>I also found it difficult not putting some kind of mushy “The music has inspired me more than you’ll ever blah, blah, and blah”.
    You struggled??? Imagine how hard it was for me! {Though I did thank him profoundly}

    I don’t care if he answers my questions or not. The knowledge that he took the time to read it, to acknowledge me and my existance is thrilling and life-changing enough for me.

  18. Gary Says:

    Michael may or may not recall the inspiration for Kohoutek, but the first live recording (that I’m aware of) of the song goes: Linda built a bridge / Michael tore it down. I don’t know if it’s Stipe or Hopper though!

  19. Gary Says:

    Sorry, I have to correct myself. I just dug out my CD’s of R.E.M. mp3’s and found the version I had in mind. September 25, 1984, Durham. Michael introduces the song by saying “This one’s brand new.” About halfway through, the line was: “MICHAEL built a bridge / LINDA tore it down”, and you can hear it clearly.

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