We’re waiting for R.E.M.‘s Michael Stipe and Mike Mills to arrive at NME Towers. Their car is delayed, caught up in the jams caused by Extinction Rebellion occupying much of Central London. I’m all for civil disobedience in the name of Mother Earth, but if these well-meaning protestors stop me from interviewing two of rock’s most influential songwriters then I may go full-on Jeremy Clarkson.
Watch our full video interview with R.E.M. above
Fortunately, Stipe and Mills soon stroll happily into NME HQ – glad, if anything, for the disruption from, as Boris Johnson put it, the “crusties in hemp-smelling bivouacs” that they saw down the road. “It was fantastic!” beams Stipe. “I’m a member [of Extinction Rebellion] so I’m happy to see all the action that’s happening. It feels really optimistic to me, and of course I’m thrilled by the non-violent aspect. I think there’s a larger and larger groundswell of concern that’s manifesting itself in really beautiful ways.”
Being agents for change was always in the DNA of R.E.M. Throughout their time together as a band – and even since – they fought for environmental, feminist and human rights causes. As they went from indie darlings to stadium-filling giants, they maintained a sense of integrity that countless artists in their wake would aspire to.
Their power and reach was peaking in the wake of 1991’s ‘Out Of Time’ and 1992’s follow-up ‘Automatic For The People’. Both sold in millions upon millions, with the likes of ‘Everybody Hurts’, ‘Losing My Religion’, ‘Man On The Moon’ and ‘Shiny Happy People’ hardwiring from radio A lists into public consciousness. But by 1994 the band hadn’t toured in five years. They’d never really been face-to-face with their vast new fanbase en masse. The time had come to get out there, and get rowdy.
The band’s response was the bristling, glam-rock, stage-ready stomp of 1994’s ‘Monster’, which is reissued for its 25th anniversary this week. It’s an album more than worthy of a reappraisal outside of the shadow of its two predecessors; a record written in response to the newfound fame Stipe and the band were dealing with, at a time when the media spotlight had turned on Stipe’s sexuality. Ahead of the album’s release, the band also lost two very dear friends in River Phoenix and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Stipe would honour the latter on the tender ‘Monster’ highlight ‘Let Me In’.
But it wasn’t all darkness. While the tour had a few near-death medical mishaps, it was a period of reinvigoration for R.E.M. On the road with their pals Radiohead and Sonic Youth, the tour sailed alongside the rising wave of grunge and Britpop and proved R.E.M. were in a lane of their own.
We sat down with R.E.M. to retread that path and talk over all the highs, lows and left-turns of the ‘Monster’ era, the band’s legacy, and where they feel culture is heading today.
The year 1994 was really when your fame was at its peak. What can you tell us about your mindset at the time?
Stipe: “A lot had happened to us and in the world since our last world tour in 1989. Culture had shifted, politics had shifted, things had changed dramatically. We were a part of that change, or perhaps inspired part of that in music and culture. Then we put out these two records that were multi-million-selling.“
So you were in a very different place?
Stipe: “We found ourselves in this position of being incredibly more famous than we had ever been before, and decided to head out on the first tour that we had done in five years on two albums that were really popular but filled with medium or slow-tempo songs – so we needed to do something really loud and raw. We turned to our love of glam-rock in the early ‘70s and the influence that it had on us as musicians and as fanboys. That was the beginning of ‘Monster’.”
And it influenced the wardrobe as well, right?
Mills: “Well, that wardrobe goes back a long way but there we put a lot of ironic distance into this record. It was like, ‘How are we going to present ourselves to new fans that didn’t know us on the road at all? How are we going to present these new songs to people that have never heard us about from ‘Losing My Religion’, ‘Man On The Moon’ and ‘Everybody Hurts’?’ It just sort of came about that we created this ironic distance between these people that we’re going on stage as, these people that were on the record, and then these people who go home at night.”
Stipe: “Like the best of glam-rock, it needed swagger, it needed humour and it needed irony. It was meta before the term existed. We were looking around at everything that was happening here [in the UK] for sure. You had Blur, you had Pulp, you had Jarvis Cocker, The Blue Aeroplanes. Plus there was the beauty of glam rock from the early ‘70s and late ‘60s. In New York you had The New York Dolls. In Detroit you had The MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges. Over here you had Bowie, T-Rex and Slade. Maybe the Bay City Rollers a little bit – they weren’t glam but I liked the presentation.”
Mills: “And there was some humour in there which we appreciated.”
Stipe: “There was some humour, yeah. We were looking around, and Peter [Buck, guitarist] had left Athens and moved to Seattle and bought a house. Kurt and Courtney had moved next door because they wanted to be neighbours with Peter Buck and we all became friends. In the meantime, the Seattle scene exploded. There was all this stuff coming from London too. Sonic Youth were signing to their first major record label deal brought on by Nirvana around the same time. Here are all these places that we spent a lot of time in, here are all these people that we’d been hanging out with, and in our most R.E.M. out of time, out of step way, we had to respond to that change. That was the choice we made for ‘Monster’.”
There is a lot said about the darkness that surrounds the record, but at the same time it is a fun album. There is a life to it.
Mills: “Yeah, there are some conflicted characters in those songs – but the music is upbeat, and uplifting, or it should be for the most part. On the other hand, we were ready to have a good time, go hit the stage and leave the place feeling positive. Part of that noise and the fun of the record overlays some darker characters on the album. That’s what we were after.”
Stipe: “We needed a shot in the arm. We knew people wanted to hear ‘Losing My Religion’, we’d never played it live on a tour. We knew everybody wanted to hear ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘Man On The Moon’ and the songs that they loved from those two prior albums. We needed something to counter that with, so we went with something very theatrical – and it worked.”
And how was it playing those ‘Automatic’ and ‘Out Of Time’ songs live for the first time?
Stipe: “So. Much. Fun.”
Mills: “95% of them were super fun. We found one that didn’t work. We started in Australia and it was just a smash, we were having a great time. Then we would try to play ‘King Of Comedy’ and we were like, ‘You know, some songs are best left on the record’. But with everything else, the connection between us and the audience was just fantastic.”
How was it seeing your popularity manifested in stadiums full of people for the first time?
Stipe: “It was great, it was awesome. The adrenaline kicked in and we were up and running.”
‘Monster’ was a record written to be played live. In revisiting the album in such depth for this anniversary, is there a part of you that misses playing these songs live?
Stipe: “These songs? No! I mean I miss performing for sure, I miss R.E.M. for sure, but I’m really glad we did what we did and decided to disband to allow for the legacy of the thing that we really spent most of our adult lives trying to experiment and create something to be proud of. We didn’t just drive it into the ground by continuing. We found the right time to step away. In doing so, we encapsulated the legacy of R.E.M. and hopefully allow it to be what it is.”
The ‘Monster’ tour must have been bittersweet as well. Let me count up the injuries you gathered: a brain aneurysm, intestinal adhesion, a hernia…
Stipe: “It was a hernia for me from singing a high note in a song, and I know exactly the song. And then Peter was watching both ways before he crossed the street because each of the three of the rest of us had fallen ill. Mine was not serious. It was not fun or easy to sing afterwards, but Mike’s was serious. He could have died but they caught his in time. Bill [Berry, drummer] came close to death more than once. We downplayed the severity of his condition at the time, but it was brutal and it was really hard to completely stop the tour and just wait to see: will he make it, will he be OK, and when would he want to start again or did he want to start again? There were fraught moments but overall it was a very successful tour.”
Mills: “That’s not what I think about when I think about the tour, that’s what everyone brings up. When you come that close to losing a friend, of course it’s a big deal. When I think of the tour, I don’t think, ‘Oh my God! We survived it somehow!’ It’s not like that at all. It was a lot of fun. Other than the law of averages catching up with us and three of us falling ill on the same tour, it was a huge success. I enjoyed 95% of it.”
You had Radiohead and Sonic Youth on the road with you. That must have been insane.
Stipe: “It was. I remember with Sonic Youth we had a day off in Kansas, and Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore] said, ‘We’re going to meet William Burroughs at his home, would you like to come?’ I replied, ‘Fuck yes, I’d like to come!’ That was one of the more memorable days of my entire life – seeing William and hanging out with him.”
That’s going to be a really cool scene in the movie of your life.
Stipe: “Are they going to make a movie of my life? Jesus.”
Who would play you guys in the R.E.M. movie?
Mills: “If I was still alive, I would do it! No telling, I’ve never thought about it.”
Stipe: “Maybe Harry Styles could play me…”
Back to Sonic Youth and Radiohead. There’s a point in the venn diagram where you all meet as artists. How would you describe your kinship with those guys?
Stipe: “Sonic Youth are our age so we came up together. With Radiohead, Thom [Yorke] and I are exactly 10 years apart, but we forged a friendship through touring together and a mutual respect for each other’s work. He became a contemporary. He’s one of the people that I go to for advice in the industry of music, outside of Mike and Peter. He’s one of my first texts to say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking of doing, what would you recommend?’ There’s a cross-inspiration that happens there. Historically, you read about it, but it’s so wonderful to find that in your own life: to recognise and acknowledge the people that, through kismet or through choice, have come into your circle are actually quite extraordinary and are doing their own beautiful work.”
A lot had been said over the years about how you mentored Thom through the headfuck that is becoming famous…
Stipe: “That’s probably overstating it a little bit. ‘Mentored’ probably because I was older and had been through a little more than he had, but we’d had a lot of conversations about it and I know that it helped him.”
And then there’s the urban legend that the lyric “I’m not here, this isn’t happening” on Radiohead’s ‘How To Disappear Completely’ is from a piece of advice you gave him about dealing with fame?
Stipe: “Yep. There was also a song on our album ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ that I wrote and I loved. We recorded it and listened back and thought, ‘Holy fuck I stole this from Radiohead! What do I do?’ I called up Thom, really afraid, and said, ‘Holy shit, I don’t know what to do, I think I’ve stolen a song of yours’. I read the lyrics to him over the phone and he was like, ‘It’s yours mate, there’s no correlation whatsoever’.”
Mills: “Just remember: good writers borrow, great writers steal.”
Stipe: “Or as we say in the contemporary art world: it’s not who does it first, it’s who does it second.”
Imagine if you and Thom had fought and you had to get lawyers involved over royalties…
Stipe: “If we ever fought? We’ve never fought in our lives! That’s a funny thought. He would knock me over. He’s a toughie.”
Has he got some moves?
Stipe: “I don’t know what that means, but…”
Just that he’d be good in a fight.
Stipe: “Oh yeah! He’s a toughie. You don’t want to spar with him. Yeah, he’s got moves!”
So on the pitfalls of fame – how did they manifest themselves back in 1994?
Mills: “They aren’t necessarily pitfalls, they’re just changes. They’re things you have to deal with. That’s why we put the ironic distance on it. The suits I was wearing I had always wanted to wear, but that’s my persona on stage. The characters in the songs are not Michael Stipe, but he can put himself in their place and describe who they might be. They’re not us. There are songs about identity, confusion, self-awareness, weird behaviour, all of these things that we can look at with an ironic distance and present to the audience and say, ‘Hey let’s share this and imagine ourselves as being these people – you and I’. Then we’ll go home and be ourselves.”
Stipe: “And part of being myself was me speaking publicly about my sexuality for the first time. For me, that was just a privacy issue. As a public figure I had exposed myself so much, and I wanted to keep something for myself. It reached a point where that was ridiculous and I decided to speak publicly about it – which I’m happy I did of course. And I shaved my head, because my hair was thinning and I was a popstar and that’s just a bad look. I don’t think anyone had ever said that before in the history of fame and shaved heads. Douglas Coupland said that anyone who invents a hair-do will be remembered 100-years-later, and I hope that by doing that I fall into that canon. Think about Warhol, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe…”
Did you feel more need for that distance with the spotlight being on your sexuality and your very public loss of Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix?
Stipe: “Yes, River died before we started making the record and I went through a six month period where I just shut down and couldn’t write anything. That was really frustrating for me and the band, who were also grieving. We all knew him and loved him – but particularly for me, that friendship and relationship was like having a brother. It was the most profound loss that I’d had experienced at that point. We commenced with the record, we were almost at the end of it, and that’s when Kurt died. I can’t say that any of that thematically ties to where we were going with the record – except certainly on the song ‘Let Me In’.”
Mills: “The most direct song on the record is ‘Let Me In’. It’s the one song where there is no ironic distance. It’s exactly what it sounds like it is. It’s personal and real. That’s a song that came about because of what happened. It’s a direct response to losing a friend.”
How much would you say that the record and tour would then go on to inform the follow-up ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’?
Stipe: “Very much. These guys started writing songs right away and practicing them in soundcheck. I think I only came up with one part actually. I’m not very good at multi-tasking, and the act of being on tour precluded and prevented me from being able to read books and watch anything other than Friends. I watched the entirety of Friends because our friend was in it, actually. We first met Courtney Cox when she was the receptionist for our booking agent. She would make vegetarian food for me whenever we came through New York.”
That’s pretty cool.
Stipe: “Then she was discovered by Bruce Springsteen, then she became an actor, and then she became a very famous actor. I got all the tapes of Friends sent through from Hollywood, but all of this is to say that I couldn’t write songs! I couldn’t engage in anything more than focusing on performing, getting to the next place and doing interviews about it. The band wrote the lion’s share of the songs during that tour. It’s possible that if you put the glam-rock stuff aside and this idea of us having the capability in the ‘90s of writing a ‘rock record’, then ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ became the record that ‘Monster’ was meant to be.”
Did ‘Monster’ feel different after that?
Stipe: “’Monster’ became this whole other thing. It became this over-the-top gesture to try and bring ourselves up to speed.”
Mills: ‘Monster’ was a re-entry. We’d just removed ourselves from the public sphere, other than putting out records. It’s like the spaceship comes back in, it comes in with the heat shield first. ‘Monster’ was our heat shield. Everything just bounced off it and we were able to re-enter the public sphere of being popular musicians.”
Stipe: “Nice analogy Mr Mills!”
Mills: “Thank you!”
Were there any songs inspired by watching episodes of Friends?
Stipe: “No, of course not – but I think they went to R.E.M. first for the theme song and they said no.”
Mills: “Apparently they were thinking about using ‘Shiny Happy People’ as the theme song, which I just recently heard about but apparently that’s the case.”
Stipe: “Then they went to another band and said, ‘Can you write an R.E.M. song?’ and they did. That’s what I’ve heard. I don’t want to diss the other band. I don’t remember who they are, but that’s a good song.”
Stipe: “The Rembrandts! Yeah. That’s a good song.”
1994 was a monumental year for music across the board. Did you sense that at the time? Obviously you don’t always feel a moment when you’re in it.
Mills: “There were a lot of guitars happening. We didn’t feel a part of that because we were in our place doing our thing, but it was good for music in general that it was happening. Guitars were great again and making a statement. Synthesizers were great and you can make great fun sounds, but ultimately if you want to make something great then you needed a guitar.”
Stipe: “There was a lot of anti-capitalist and no sell-out kind of messaging too. We were responding to that in a way, but had also just signed this giant record deal. Through the guitars, there was also this feeling of authenticity. That was something that R.E.M. had always embodied and provided. Suddenly, we’re there making what sounded to be our most inauthentic record!”
Mills: “That’s right. If you look back at the ‘90s then selling out was a bad, bad thing. It was all about having integrity and being true. You wore your damn Doc Martens and that’s how it was supposed to be. Of course, that’s all out of the window now but at the time it made a big difference. We were always a part of that. We tried to conduct ourselves with integrity and be true to the things that we believed in. That became popular in the ‘90s so it was nice to see all of that come into fruition and around the world.”
Do you ever hear your influence in other artists?
Mills: “That’s not for us to say. That’s unfair to the bands. The only influence that I would perhaps admit to is perhaps providing a template for bands to show that you can conduct your career in a certain way, with integrity, and still be successful. You can listen to advice from other people but you don’t have to take it and sometimes you’re better if you don’t. That’s the only real legacy.”
You recently released the unheard song ‘Fascinating’ to raise money for Hurricane Dorian relief efforts. Is there much other unheard stuff left in the vault?
Mills: “There are some things. There aren’t that many that are complete like that one, which was complete and mixed but we just couldn’t put it on a record. That was something really important for me because I spent a lot of time in the Bahamas, literally on that island which was totally devastated and destroyed and I know people that have lost families. I came to the band and said I wanted to do something as powerful as possible about this and the best thing we could do was put out a song that no one had heard. I really appreciate the band going along with that. I hope we do our little part to help.”
And there are more unheard songs out there?
Mills: “There are other things floating around but not that much. With most of it, if it was worth putting out then we’d have put it out by now.”
R.E.M. were mentioned in the stories about the Universal fire that destroyed loads of masters. Do you know if you lost a lot?
Mills: “We don’t know yet. They’re still looking. It’s such a disaster in terms of their record-keeping, them hiding things, and what they’re willing to admit was in there.”
That must be pretty heartbreaking?
Stipe: “As a music fan alone, just imagining that something can be so shoddily looked after is sad.”
Mills: “Most people don’t know how important masters are. The average fan is like, ‘Oh you’ve got a copy’, and yes you do – but every time you make a copy, you lose something. As a musician, you know what a loss that is.”
We’re approaching the end of the decade. What if anything do you think this decade has been defined by?
Stipe: “Very nice!”
Mills: “The Occupy movement, Arab Spring, Extinction Rebellion, people realising that they can and must say something if they want change.”
Stipe: “That’s beautiful. My answer was much more tawdry: social media and how much communication is evolving at a pace that puts us all at a disadvantage to actually communicate. The idea of debate is out the window. Media has shifted dramatically in a very bad way towards something that is much more about entertainment. You don’t have to look much further than our very own President to realise that there’s no greater example of entertainment as news. We’re in dire straights, but I feel optimistic that we can turn things around.”
Do you think the next decade will be brighter?
Stipe: “I think that more people are beginning to realise that the social media platforms that I don’t like and have never really participated in are not all that – even the one that I did participate in once then deleted one, twice and three times. I’ll never go back. We have to be very careful that we don’t create more of a schism between generations than already would naturally exist. [To Mike] I like your answer better though, so: activism! Let’s end on that.”
Watch our full video with R.E.M. in the video at the top of the page.
‘Monster25’ is released on Friday November 1. Pre-order it as a deluxe box set, a CD or an LP, here.
Photos by Jenn Five.