MICHAEL STIPE: Your Capricious Soul
Michael Stipe, as you can tell, is not your usual pop star. In fact, he’s not really a pop star at all these days, though he’s working on solo material, occasionally produces other bands, such as Fischerspooner, and is still best known as the singer in REM. Now 59, slight and neat, he has the hard-to-pin-down feel of a much younger person. There’s no weight about him, no sense of him becoming settled in his ways. Instead, he reminds me of a curious faun: skittery, friendly, interested but naturally shy. He’s a talker, but he’s not dominant; he doesn’t swamp you with big ego charisma, though he’s utterly charming. How astonishing that he became so famous, I think. You wouldn’t imagine he’d be able to bear it, despite his ease in a suite. Instead of a lead singer, Stipe has the air of an artist, regarding the world from unusual angles.
And actually, since REM split, in 2011, Stipe has been just this, making installations and video work, sculpture and photography. He filmed his first artistic mentor, Jeremy Ayers, dancing for seven minutes, then set it to house music composed on a Moog. He makes books and experimental sculptures in his studio in New York, where he lives with his long-term partner, Thomas (pronounced Tohma) Dozol, who’s also a photographer. In fact, in the years since REM, Stipe has been quite at ease with exploring his art, with not performing. “It feels like the real me,” he says. “I’m working in all these different mediums and it makes sense.” At one point he grew the most enormous wild man beard, though it’s trimmed short today. He wears a green polo shirt, jeans, green socks and a beautiful large gold ring on his left hand.
Stipe is in London as part of a short promotional tour, with a double set of duties. It’s the 25th anniversary of REM’s Monster, and there’s a special box set coming out, so he’s been chatting about that to journalists, alongside REM musicians Peter Buck and Mike Mills. Separately, he’s also here to discuss his new book of photographs, the second in a series made in collaboration with other people. The first, Volume 1, came out last year: it featured just 35 photographs and was made with artist/curator Jonathan Berger. The second, Our Interference Times: A Visual Record, with writer Douglas Coupland, has just been published. And it’s Interference Times that we’re here to contemplate. We put the book on the table, open it at page one… “A window,” says Stipe. “In black and white. And kind of shitty, like a shitty cellphone picture. Every image after this is colour, like boom, here we are in real life. Or fantasy life. It’s basically the mind of Michael.”
The new book is less densely populated, though there are pictures of people, and those without humans show evidence of our interference with nature’s design. Stipe talks about one, which seems to be there to deliberately annoy neat freaks. It’s a picture of a manhole cover, a pavement and a fence. None of them fit together properly. It’s maddening … though Stipe sees it differently.
“You have these striations from a natural material, made into concrete,” he says. “You have these stones laid out as a mosaic, a manhole cover. And then a tree that’s been cut into slabs. It’s man attempting to create order from chaos. A lot of the book is really about that old waltz between man and nature.”
Stipe has taken thousands of photographs in his time: about 37,000, he thinks, kept in “a house” and in storage facilities. He’s a massive hoarder (when he puts on a jumper later, he mentions that it’s one that he bought in the 1990s, and found the other day when going through a storage container), and he started photography young, taking a course when he was 13, then studying photography and painting at the University of Georgia before leaving to form REM. And he often used his training and art sensibilities while in the band – directing videos, overlooking graphics and stage design. His photographs became LP covers, and he used his camera as a diary when touring. Despite all this, he says that he would have preferred to have been a fine artist, but he doesn’t like his drawing line. In Our Interference Times, there’s some of his drawing near the front – a profile, drawn when he was very young, some school work, a copy of some graphic writing. “I liked how it looked, which is very unusual for me,” he says. There’s also a picture of a smashed lightbulb, representing an incident that happened when Stipe was three years old.
“I bit into a lightbulb because I wanted to be the filament,” he says. “And the only way that I knew to get inside was to bite through. So I did. My father and my uncle got the glass out of my mouth, they got some glue, and they put the lightbulb back together to make sure I hadn’t swallowed any glass. I distinctly remember doing it. The desire to be the filament…”
To become the light? I say. That’s an easy metaphor.
“Well, I was a year out of scarlet fever,” says Stipe. “I had scarlet fever as a two-year-old and it boils your brain. You use your synapses differently. And that’s become part of my mythology of myself, and I go along with it. I do think differently and I know that. I’m neither synesthetic nor on the spectrum, but there are similarities. I talk differently, I know!”
Stipe puts on a beanie hat, and his 90s jumper, and we go down to the lobby. He wants to check on the Extinction Rebellion protest before dinner. Erdem is a bit worried – he doesn’t like crowds, in case they turn nasty – but we all walk to Trafalgar Square, to wander between the tents and the flags, to dart through the crowd around an anarcho-rap band, the people queuing for vegan curry. It’s like the Green Fields at Glastonbury. And Stipe is utterly at home, moving swiftly between everyone, always looking, never stopping. I leave him there, in the dark, completely happy.
*Selected extracts from Our Interference Times in The Guardian, courtesy of Miranda Sawyer.