Michael Stipe

Michael Stipe talked with Janeane Garofalo for Tribeca Festival....
Michael Stipe : Interview
Michael Stipe : Interview

“Some bands I’d like to name check / And one of them is R.E.M.” The boys from Athens, Georgia became the greatest alternative rock band ever, from 1982 debut EP Chronic Town (QRO live tribute review) through their final album, 2011’s Collapse Into Now (QRO review). Over 16 records and countless iconic songs, they were the band for you & everyone you knew. On Thursday, June 13th, all four members were inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. The day before, lead singer Michael Stipe sat down to talk with comedian Janeane Garofalo for Tribeca Festival’s ‘Storytellers Series’ at SVA Theatre in New York.

Patti Smith

Ever since R.E.M.’s 2011 break-up, singer Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills have been relatively elusive – former drummer Bill Berry has been so since retiring from the band back in 1997 – so this was a rare chance to see one relatively up-close & personal. A line ran down 23rd Street before doors opened, with folks angling to get seats – even trying & failing on the clearly reserved seats up front. Indeed, special guest in those reserved seats was none other than Patti Smith, who Stipe has long been a mega-fan of, citing as a major influence in his songwriting.

The whole thing began with a charmingly chaotic start, Stipe embarrassed to be the subject of attention, Garofalo coming in like a bag lady with one of those just-above-disposable NYC shopping bags & reams of notes. That bag included a children’s book of Shiny Happy People inspired by R.E.M.’s classic song, Stipe noting that the song was written for children, and inspired by The Monkees. Garofalo was stunned, as she had a mention of Mike Nesmith of The Monkees on her notes (and has had a crush on him forever). There was a book of Kate Tempest’s poems. She also had a copy of the 33 & 1/3 book on R.E.M.’s Murmur – and one of The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder. And all of these were for Stipe, who collected them at the side of his seat throughout the night.

Garofalo & Stipe

Stipe was naturally asked about his inspirations (“How did you become you?”), citing that virtually every late seventies CBGB’s band influenced him & R.E.M. in some way. That segued into his describing him slowly discovering his sexuality, how & why he was different, finding his path through music. Garofalo noted the dichotomy of Stipe being a shy person but also an incredibly successful singer/frontman, Stipe saying that having the rest of R.E.M. behind him was key – so interviews were tough, ironically. Also of particular note was pointing out that all members were part of the songwriting credits, something that done otherwise can break up any band.

We did get some ‘stories behind the songs’, such for Chronic’s “Laughing” (from a dream about Laocoön) and “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” (from the circus fleeing in the night in The Elephant Man), to him not liking that much “Can’t Get There From Here” – “It’s just not me. If it’s your wedding song, I’m sorry…” “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” was about an Elvis Costello performance where he played furious because nobody was listening at the high-class event – though Stipe couldn’t remember what “Bad Day” was about. When Garofalo noted that R.E.M. had put out record-after-record in the eighties, Stipe whispered ashamedly, “Amphetamines…” – “We were in our twenties…”

Stipe did get to his long-awaited solo debut album, which he is still writing and said is incredibly tough – not just without the rest of R.E.M., but also knowing that it will be compared to R.E.M., “that bar I have to rise to.” One fan during the Q&A noted that none of us are expecting it to be Automatic For the People (QRO 25th anniversary edition review). He also asked if Stipe was going to tour after the album was out, Stipe admitting that touring is very hard for him now, a self-described “control freak,” so probably not, but imagined talking some TV network into paying him to do five or six shows at Beacon Theatre (QRO venue review). The songwriter also talked about making more songs than he needs, the importance of picking the songs to go together on an album, listening to an album in full, something that is increasingly lost in these Spotify days (there was also the requisite criticism of Spotify not paying artists enough). He did say that his already-released “Drive To the Ocean” and “Your Capricious Soul” will be on it.

Garofalo was not a perfect interviewer, as she admitted from the start, “I’m not really great at this,” and saying that she’d be better at a filibuster. “If I had a podcast – and I don’t; it’s not a civic obligation – it’d be called Pardon My Tangent – There’s Been a Murder…” Topics meandered into photography, another passion of Stipe’s, but also into today’s fraught political scene. The audience didn’t disagree with Garofalo & Stipe’s opinions about the likes of Fox News, Iraq War, or Tr*mp, but it wasn’t exactly what you came to the event for (did get to hear Garofalo explain Steve Kornacki to Stipe…). “It’s fatiguing to talk about politics when you care about things. I know that I’m annoying – I know that…”

That all suddenly came to an end when Garofalo remembered that it was time for audience Q&A (again apologizing). Many of the audience questions were less ‘questions’ than people telling about how long they’d been a fan of R.E.M. The first with a woman who said she saw their very first show in Athens at an abandoned church (admitting that she had a huge crush on Peter Buck, the singer agreeing that his guitarist is very handsome), but when Stipe asked her about a café that they had both gone to, Grandma Loew’s Cookies & Company (which he had written a song about), she admitted, “I’m high right now…” There was also a twenty-one year-old who said he’d been listening to R.E.M. his whole life, since his father introduced him back in the day on an iPod. Of course Garofalo had also talked about how she’d been an R.E.M. fan forever (and of The Monkees), back to seeing them at Brown University & hearing on its WBRU radio.

Someone did smartly ask about the whole band watching Michael Shannon & Jason Narducy playing all of Murmur & more at the 40 Watt Club in Athens earlier this year (QRO live review of the NYC stop), songs he’d never heard played before, noting that those two are planning on doing it again with Fables of the Reconstruction (and in the crowd for this talk was that tour’s opener, Dave Hill – QRO photos at NYC stop).

[your correspondent was also just annoyed that he never got to ask Stipe if he’d ever heard Pavement’s tribute song to R.E.M., “The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence”, which was quoted at the start of this piece…]

The next day, all four of R.E.M. would not only be inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, but indeed play a few songs – as well as do their first interview all together in decades with Anthony Mason for CBS This Morning. But for Tribeca Festival, we got to see Stipe at his most interesting.

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