Ask Michael Stipe: Finale!
September 28, 2008
Here we go: The final batch of questions and answers from Michael Stipe. It all starts off with my own question to Michael.
Thanks again for answering all of these questions. It’s been very
entertaining and illuminating, and I’m endlessly grateful for offering
your time to do this.
It sort of blew my mind when I realized that you’d read the site, or
at least some of it. It had never dawned on me at any point in writing
the site that anyone in the band would *want* to read it, so it kinda
freaked me out, but in a good way. You had mentioned that you didn’t
always agree with my takes on the songs, which is pretty
understandable given that I was pretty harsh with a few of the later
songs, and you know, obvious differences in frame of reference. My
question is this: Aside from a few times when I just outright disliked
a song (like, say, “Make It All OK” or “I’ll Take The Rain,”), where
did you feel I was furthest off the mark in terms of analyzing the
fine to dislike or even hate songs by artists you admire or follow. That’s cool, it means you really care about the work. The critique below is raw, unedited, flat out. I don’t really expect you to print it, I wouldn’t. But it feels right to say it, since you asked. Honestly, don’t print this unless you really feel compelled to, its pretty harsh back[at first only.]… No one but you me and ethan have read it, and frankly I don’t think it needs to go further
so bad news then good.
you became a music critic. You routed out a few off the mark [I think ] plotlines and theories about how I write and think, and then could only see every single song and lyric and character arch through those constraints. You confused and injected me[real Michael] into the work. That’s the biggest mistake, I’m actually a better writer than all that. I do tend towards becoming ‘advise guy’ in real life, which I hate, and sometimes that taints the songs or lyric. But not to the degree that my own character or shortcomings define every note or lyric of up, reveal, ats. You didn’t get lazy, you just bought into your own take on it all, instead of staying open.
ok that’s the brutal and unedited slapback. Heres the toughie: I could easily point the same charge at myself; I think that’s what’s most upsetting about reading it [the advise guy into character arcs that is; along with my own critiques and regrets about those records, my own cornball tendencies, etc; but whats done is done. ] Thanks all the same Matthew, I think obviously, and mostly brilliantly, you really care. Which is what matters the most. You’ve clearly put a lot of thought and listening into this body of work and that’s an incredible charge for me, and you have been right more than most people ever even tried; the experiment of popsongs has been I think a smash success and fun to follow[ your take on The Apologist blew my head, for instance. And Low Desert and Undertow[so.black idiomatic phrasing] are both moment of death songs. That changes the religious part significantly. Anyway] For all that you’ve done here, I’m deeply honored. _Michael
Okay, this is fairly random but here it is: If you were listening to the radio and an R.E.M. song came on, would you listen to it or change the radio station? Thanks for answering so many of everyone else’s great questions, even if you don’t get to my pointless one.
really depends on the song, and the situation. If I was in the car by myself I would probably try to listen objectively, like I didn’t write it; if im in a restaurant its always a little weird. In stores its ok usually because I can keep moving
Being my favorite lyric from an album that’s full of great ones, I would like you to share with us what was your inspiration for The Worst Joke Ever, and if the year of 1954 relates to any particular event (McCarthyism, perhaps?).
inspiration for The Worst Joke Ever was memories of the cat burglar, like the beatnik, the urban fag, the temptress, the bosomy nurse or secretary…those 1960’s cartoons like Richard Prince does paintings of. In the song the guy is of course looking back at his own life and the opinions and mindset that he couldn’t let go of or grow out of[the worst joke ever]. That’s the 50’s reference. And of course the joke itself in the first verse is not funny or clever at all
All The Way To Reno: Reading a David Sedaris piece a few years ago, I
was struck by how much it reminded me of All The Way To Reno. Katrina
washed away my copy of it, but I think it was in his _Barrel Fever_.
It was a fanciful/ridiculous Oscar acceptance speech in which the
narrator related his trip west to seek stardom. As I recall, he hummed
on his bus ride, and several phrases phrases he used suggested the song.
Did a Sedaris piece inspire the song or is this just a coincidence?
coincidence, but a good one. I love Sedaris’ work, and I used to eat his sisters cupcakes at my local takeaway in NYC. She always put a little plastic toy on top like a clown head
one of my favorite REM-songs is HOPE, because I really love the background sound, as well as the energy it transports
and the rate.
The lyrics are great, I especially love the line ” and you want to cross your DNA with something reptile”, so what is the song about
and what was the idea about this special line?
Thanks a lot for answering
felt very futuristic/21st c. to me that someday we will use prehistoric ‘living fossil’ animal dna to bolster our own immunity; the guy in the song is facing some very difficult questions about longevity and survival, and basically grabbing at any possibility to stay alive. I obviously lifted most of the song from Leonard Cohen, along with the imagery ideas from World Leader Pretend
You’ve stated before that at one point when it came to touring and performing onstage that you tried to adapt a different persona or character for each tour. I’m just wondering have you ever taken this approach when sitting down to write lyrics for a particular album – Have you ever intentionally set out with a particular character (or persona in mind) as a focal point for an album, or do you start writing and then see what develops from that point onwards?
I always just start writing and see what develops. I think the ‘different persona for performing or touring’ was either taken out of context or misunderstood/translated; I don’t recall ever thinking or saying that…
I bought Accelerate when it came out and I like it very much! Although I also like around the sun, especially “electron blue” very much. My favorite songs from the recent ones are at the moment “sing for the submarine” and “on the fly” The take away show versions I could watch and listen over and over again. So I would like to know what is “on the fly” about and Why didn’t you put it on the record?
I love Electron Blue also, its one of my all time faves, up there with Country Feedback and Ebow. On The Fly, Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance and Kick the Traces are all songs we worked on and really like but they just didn’t fit our idea of what ACCELERATE should be. They will come out someday I’m sure
First off thank you from the fans for doing this. Of the instrumental only songs REM have done, have you ever written lyrics for a song originally intended as instrumental or even after the song is on the record?
yes New Orleans Instrumental no.1 had a lyric…I don’t recall whether before or after it was recorded but it didn’t really work…
Where did the ideas and events from the lyrics for Star 69 come from? I mean I get the caller ID bit, but seems like there is a first person point of view going on there, I’m assuming it’s not yours. Correct me if I’m wrong.
its all made up and I have no idea where it came from; I just made it all up. Squirrelys I probably lifted from Vic Chesnutt
Two Find the River questions.
1) The line “I have got to Find the River”, what happens if the person doesn’t?
2) Does the line “The ocean is the river’s goal”, not contradict the song? If the song is about enjoying life’s journey, the person must find the river before thinking about the journey to the ocean.
the ‘fortune for the undertow’ is all we gather, memory and experience, on the journey…good point made. I’m not sure the ocean indicates an end
My second question is a bit random; why the Dr Seuss/Cat in the Hat references in ‘Sidewinder’ – are you a fan?
I love Dr. Seuss, always did, but it drives Mike crazy how I pronounce it…its how I grew up pronouncing it [wrong]
My name is I, I am 7years old and I am from England and I love begin the begin It’s wicked.
“… tiger run around the tree
Follow the leader, run and turn into butter…”
Is It from my favrut book “The Story of Little Black Sambo”?.
yes it is exactly from that book.
2. How do You pick favourites from Your own songs? As a listener? The ones You enjoy the most to sing? Or probably the ones you’re most proud of as a lyricist?
favorites to perform, well, hopefully they’re easy and satisfying to sing [Man on the Moon, LMR, Supernatural Superserious]and I love the lyrics too…that’s a slam dunk as a performer. Sometimes I like singing songs because I think they’re better live than recorded, and it feels like it breathes a different take into the song itself to perform it
Ignoreland this tour for instance is I think more powerful than the recorded version
Wendell Gee doesn’t get much attention. Matthew P. even referred to the song as an almost unnecessary ending for the Fables album and I understand Peter is no big fan. I love the song. (Personal memory from the 80’s: I played it on repeat one long drunken night while I sobbed my way through the end of a relationship. Most cathartic.) The tune is beautiful. The lyrics seem to be about a child in a situation he wants to escape. Mike’s harmony vocals are perfect even though I can’t make the exact lyrics. Question 1: What do you remember about writing the lyrics and the story within? Question 2: Can a song you hear become a personal favorite to you without even knowing the lyrics or the meaning to them?
I’ll answer in reverse. My favorite song of the summer’08 is L.E.S. Artistes by Santogold. If I had to accurately sing or describe one lyrical line of that song to save all of mankind, we would be fucked. I’ve listened to it 60,000 times and I have no idea what its about or what the lyrics are. I just know that it moves me and I love it. Voila.
Wendell Gee was a death dream where I was buried in a hollowed out log with this metal mesh kind of lizard skin over the top and I could hear and talk, but all of the alive people could not hear me. Like a ghost. I stole the name from the highway between Athens, Georgia and Jefferson, Georgia, where I would visit with R.A. Miller in the early 80’s. It was one of the few really autobiographic but from dreamworld lyrics that I wrote; shortly after that I barely ever injected real life situations into the songs or lyrics, instead focusing on what I felt was my strong suit as a writer. Weirdly, on a personal note, the song later played a huge role in the death of a friend of mine who’s mother was a Jungian scholar.
Thanks for doing this. It’s great.
I read that you have different characters that re-occur in your songs. I remember reading that The Lifting (I love this song) was a sequel to Daysleeper. Has this character emerged again since? Maybe the protagonist in Hollow Man?
no, but I expect she’ll come back at some point. Her particular arc is a tough one
fyi: originally for the video to daysleeper I had insisted on casting a woman. I was dissuaded and played the part myself
Also from my 6 yr old daughter. Is the set for the Imitation of Life video the same as the set on High School Musical 2??!!
oooh. I don’t know. It is in L.A., and was probably one of those houses that gets rented out a lot to different projects…that would be superfun to investigate
The song Lotus…I have always wondered if it had anything to do with the Lotus eaters in the Greek Mythology or is it only my imagination that got carried away with this interpretation?
yes it does.
Has this Q&A experience with us fans and reading our interpretations that are sometimes totally opposite of the meaning you had have with certain songs at their genesis added a new layer maybe to the songs for you Michael?….I don’t mean in a way that it has changed ur perception and interpretation of the songs, since obviously u aren’t at the receiver’s end like us and u would be the one who’d know the songs inside-out but what I am trying to find out is basically the following: this has been obviously a rather exquisite and invaluable experience for us….Would it have a similar effect on you, do u think u have gained something extra from this apart from the joy of talking to us lovely people:P?
I have enjoyed getting a few things off my chest, or setting a few things straight. I’ve often said, and I still maintain, that my interpretation of the songs is the least important, that the power of music is how we each of us interpret it for ourselves; there are a few songs or lyrics that, even though I think I’m being incredibly open and obvious, are neither easy nor obvious; and it feels good to just say that was about Burroughs, or whatever
1) Anywho, personal anecdotes aside, what I’m most curious about is the process of writing the lyrics to each album. Do you attack the music with a conceptual idea of what you’d like the lyrics to roughly (and as a whole) be about? Do you for instance, “decide” that album X needs to feel more lush and private, and album Y needs to get its teeth into some more abstract political situations (sorry for the weird phrasing of that) – or is it perhaps more a case of you afterwards realizing that overall themes came out of all the thoughts and reflections you had in you at the time of recording an album?
I usually figure it out after about the 5th song is written. Only then do I maybe try for something thematic, like easy example, REVEAL equals druggy hypnotised summer
first, I wonder about the recurring theme through your lyrics of “I am not afraid.” I would imagine that the word “afraid” might appear in more REM songs than any other. is that something you’re conscious of — a message, an empowering goal you’re interested in? at the same time, is it something you ever try to stay away from, as in, “I can’t use the word afraid in this song again!”
I have to mantra in my real life, ‘the only thing to fear is fear itself’. Life is scary. I just think that pops up a lot thematically in my lyrics because, even though it’s a low emotion, I think about it a lot
- I have noticed that at least on three occasions (“Swan Swan H”, “Parakeet” and “Lotus”) you kind of bring discredit on cats! They are described as mean, unpleasant creatures and in general I think you present them as something evil. I still haven’t decided though if I’m supposed to love or hate “Star Me Kitten”. You must prefer dogs than cats, don’t you?
I prefer dogs in my real life it’s true. I’ve never thought about my subconscious as cat hating. I just think they’re mischievous.
We’ve just had our wedding last weekend. I want to let you know that the opening dance was on At My Most Beautiful on our wedding. Thanks for “singing” it for us.
My q-n is: what was the most special occasion for which an r.e.m. song was used/played?
weddings births and funerals. What a stunning first dance! I’m always really flattered when I hear that, thank you
The two songs from the Dublin rehearsals left off of “Accelerate,” “On the Fly” and “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance,” are both exceptional songs, especially “On the Fly.” Do you plan on releasing these in the future? Also, more importantly, did the heartache of “On the Fly” come from any personal experience or was it just the experience of a character you created? And, as you mentioned when you played “Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance” in Philadelphia, the song explores something people will experience if they are very lucky. So, does this mean the song references personal awakening or just deep focus on a goal one wants to achieve.
On The Fly: invented. Like a great Jem Cohen movie but starring Marilyn Monroe and Monty Clift and, I don’t know, Karl Malden
Staring Down…: by that I meant I hope you reach the age where you’re looking back on your youth from a long way gone. I hope you live a long life that’s what that meant
Parakeet has always been one of my favourite REM songs (and I have many that I love).
I have always felt that the lyric refers to a concious entity probably a person who is represented by the Parakeet. The parakeet is in bad shape but is rescued by Buddhas. Is this a very spiritual message you are conveying here? Do the ‘sunspot flares of the early ’90s’ refer to aprticular time of your life?
Thanks for everything
she saved herself, it’s a parable about domestic abuse and liberation, and the Buddhas are just painting a new life background[and someone told me that koala bears are high their entire lives, I don’t even know if it’s true, because supposedly eucalyptus leaves are hallucinogenic; so they’re just plopped right onto the highest buddha ladder rung and yawn their way right through]. The sunspot flares actually happened and apparently severely interrupted radio transmission, do a search on it
Swan Swan H pretty miraculously spins lyrics in swirls and whirlpools, and any central meaning seems nicely elusive. Could you discuss your views/ intentions/ interpretations of the track? Sometimes I think of redemption/ Christianity; other days its the US South/ slavery/ repression; other days its loneliness.
“What’s the price of heroes?” is a line I’ve always enjoyed getting lost in. How does the Swan fit in?
Many many thanks
civil war song. That’s all I know of writing it, I remember the inspiration but it just flowed. What noisy cats are we I lifted from an actual civil war written piece
and Mike and I agreed finally; the title is now Swan Swan Hummingbird. My pretentious 20’s are long gone and we can now all breath a sigh of relief. kindof
Michael, do you find it more fun to write sexy vamp tunes? Specifically I mean a few of the tracks from the mid-90s, such as “Crush With Eyeliner”, “The Wake-Up Bomb” or the more subdued temps of “Tongue” or “Star Me Kitten”.. These are some of my favorite songs lyrically and for some reason it seems like you are having the most fun singing them. But that could just be my nostalgia talking.. HELP
they are fun, and I love every song you mentioned above. They’re cartoonish and wicked and silly and camp I suppose. I mean I feel like Strange Currencies is a real stretch for me, I was just trying to be Michael Hutchence and be intense and in love in the lyric and delivery
Can I just ask how you feel about Up now? I realize it was a difficult time back then, but I personally feel out of it came your lyrical master-piece, would you agree? As far as I am concerned it is a master-piece full stop and Why not smile is the most beautiful song ever recorded.
Thanks for your time.
thank you very much. I decided years ago to never publicly diss a song that we wrote and put out there because maybe there’s a you out there who thinks it is the greatest song ever [for the record, I like Why Not Smile but as an example]; and so. I think UP is about 3 songs too long as an album; I think most of the songs are too slow; and I wish someone brilliant would scour the stuff and re-record or remix some of this-era-of-our-output, and make it their own thing. I do think there’s some great stuff there; maybe it needs distance, a different voice or take, a different arrangement. Then it could breath differently
While you’ve mentioned here that some early songs were, the words of a questioner, “lesser” and thus left off albums, the band has revisited very early tracks like “All the Right Friends” and “Permanent Vacation.” I’ve always hoped for a quickly banged out album of all these early songs — “Narrator,” “Lisa Says,” “Baby I,” “Sheherazade,” etc. — perhaps available through the fan club. Any merit in such an idea? Are those early tunes at least fun to play even if they don’t perhaps carry the same heft as your later, more thought-out songs?
I didn’t even write the lyrics to most of those you mentioned above. And no, we cherry picked the pretty great ones and recorded them[at some point Hole was going to cover All The Right Friends]; that’s that. As far as ‘basement tapes’ type early work compilation goes, I just don’t think theres much there personally
Michael, please do forgive me as I’m a Brit with a limited understanding of US politics but are the lyrics “so hold tight your babies and your guns forgive us our trespasses, father and son” from “Until the day is done” on Accelerate a dig at the Presidents Bush, Senr and Jr? Like you I so want Obama to win in November – yes saw you in Twickenham – fab gig! Also just want to say how much I love “At My Most Beautiful”… especially “I save your messages, Just to hear your voice” – that’s absolutely spot on about being in love….
Best wishes, Tracy
I felt like that lyric addresses the often conservative American pro-death penalty/anti-abortion stance, and oddly describes our countrys odd reality right now; and yes, I think there’s a degree of confusion between father and holy father there. sad
Are there any songs you wish you could go back and re-record in the studio after performing them live?
most of them, yes. Like 95% of them. So it goes
Hey that’s it for now; thank you to everyone for all the questions and especially thanks to Ethan Kaplan and especially especially to Matthew Perpetua for his incredible, ambitious, and I think brilliant site. Thank you Matthew. All the best from Michael Stipe