(Soundbite of song, "1000000")
GUY RAZ, host:
We're listening to "1000000." It's one of R.E.M.'s oldest songs. It was on the band's first EP from 1981.
(SOundbite of song, "1000000")
R.E.M (Rock band): (Singing) Secluded in a marker stone not only deadlier but smarter too.
RAZ: This version is from a performance a quarter-century later. For five nights in the summer of 2007, R.E.M. played a series of intimate rehearsals at the Olympia Theater in Dublin, Ireland. The purpose was to test out new material, but R.E.M. also dug deep into the back catalog and played some of its best and most obscure songs. The result is a new double album called "Live at the Olympia," and it charts the transformation of a small college band in Athens, Georgia into one of the biggest and most influential rock and roll acts of the last three decades.
This past week, I sat down with Michael Stipe, R.E.M.'s lead singer, at his New York apartment, to talk about the band, the meaning behind his music and his perspective as he approaches age 50.
Michael Stipe, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
Mr. MICHAEL STIPE (Lead Singer, R.E.M.): Thank you.
RAZ: This is not a collection of R.E.M.'s greatest hits by any means. It feels almost like an album that you produced for maybe your oldest fans, is it?
Mr. STIPE: You know, what happened was we were trying to rehearse songs that we had never recorded. And we kind of — we went back to a template from the 1980s, when we toured nonstop for the entire decade, of writing a song, kind of trying it out live onstage before actually going into the studio and recording it.
And so with our last record, we tried to do the same thing with this five nights at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. A lot of the songs wound up to be, I think, fan favorites or songs that we had not heard nor even thought of in some cases in 25 years.
RAZ: So the idea was to kind of try out these tracks that you were working on for the new album to see how the audience would respond?
Mr. STIPE: Not to see how they would respond but to see how we would respond. And that's really - that's what made this truly a rehearsal. You know, we recorded everything, not with the idea of putting it out now. But when we heard how great it sounded, we decided, to hell with it. It's really worth making it public, and so we did.
RAZ: On this record, fans looking for the big hits won't find them. "It's The End of the World As We know It," for example, isn't on this record, but there are those secret gems in those early pieces that take fans back to, you know, the recordings you did at Mitch Easter's drive-in in Winston-Salem, the song, "Carnival of Sorts," a song you wrote when you were still in college.
Mr. STIPE: I think I was 21, yeah. That's crazy. Isn't that - that's completely insane.
(Soundbite of song, "Carnival of Sorts")
R.E.M: (Singing) Gentlemen don't get caught. Boxcars are pulling out of town. Boxcars are pulling out of town. Boxcars are pulling out of town.
Mr. STIPE: That song, particularly when I sing it, I go back to the genesis, the inspiration for the lyric. And it's a scene out of the David Lynch film, "The Elephant Man." And it's a nighttime scene where they've picked up a carnival and they're moving it out of a town before they're all killed or something. I don't remember, but that was the inspiration for that song. So - and I love that movie. It's become even greater with each passing decade.
RAZ: A few months ago, I was playing the videogame "Rock Band" with my nephews, and they let me play Michael Stipe on "Orange Crush." And it was exhilarating, you know, singing at the top of my lungs. And I wonder if, in kind of a strange way, for you to go on stage and go back to the R.E.M. catalog and just live that moment, I mean, is it fun for you? Is it exhilarating for you to do that?
Mr. STIPE: The interesting thing about "Live at the Olympia" was for those five nights, I kept waiting for my adrenaline to kick in as a performer because it happens very automatically for me. And when that happens, I become a different animal. And it didn't happen until the fourth night, in fact.
When it did, I suddenly was - found myself gesturing like the lead singer of a very big band, rather than a guy who was trying out a couple new songs in front of a small room of people.
(Soundbite of song, "These Days")
R.E.M: (Singing) Now, I'm not feeding off you, I will rearrange your scales if I can, and I can. March into ocean, march into the sea. I had a hat, I put it down, yanked it up, slapped it on my head. All the people gather, fly to carry each his burden. We are young, despite the years we are concerned. We are hope despite the times…
RAZ: I want to ask you about your lyrics. You didn't include them in the liner notes on your early records, so fans had to kind of piece together what they were listening to by listening closely, this kind of Kremlinology. And a lot of those early lyrics, they're really sort of beautiful fragments. But sometimes when they're put together, they didn't always seem to make sense, and I'm thinking about the song "South Central Rain."
(Soundbite of song, "South Central Rain (I'm Sorry)")
R.E.M: (Singing) Eastern to Mountain, third party call, the lines are down, the wise man built his words upon the rocks, but I'm not bound to follow suit.
RAZ: I think I've got this right.
Mr. STIPE: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: Eastern to Mountain, third party call, the wise man built his words upon the rocks, but I'm not bound to follow suit. And then this really haunting apology, this, I'm sorry, as if you disappointed somebody.
Mr. STIPE: Yeah.
(Soundbite of song, "South Central Rain (I'm Sorry)")
R.E.M: (Singing) I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
RAZ: Where were you in life when you wrote that?
Mr. STIPE: At the end of a relationship, and a pretty rough one, of my own making - rough of my own making. It's when - before cell phones, when people had land lines only, and if there was a big storm somewhere, the lines would be down, and you wouldn't be able to get through, and that would be that. There was no Internet. There was no other way of contacting someone.
At that point, you know, I was trying really hard to kind of grapple with narrative, and I think I reached a point where the nonsense lyric was not really working for me anymore.
RAZ: I mean, you say nonsense lyric, but I mean, you were writing down lyrics, you were actually writing lyrics down that fans actually took the time to really try to figure out what they were.
Mr. STIPE: Well, they didn't make sense. That's the problem. They might not make sense at all. I mean, what happened was, as a band, we never intended to record our music. We just wanted to perform live. We hit a wall with that when clubs refused to book us unless we had a record or a single.
RAZ: There was no sort of mechanism to allow a band like you to perform because it was all - you weren't Top 40, you weren't rock and roll.
Mr. STIPE: Well, no. I mean, alternative didn't exist, and so we were kind of left to our own devices. But we became a recording band, at which point I realized, well, now I have to put my voice on tape, and these are not actual words. Like, what I've been singing live through a crappy PA system really works in the room in the moment, maybe doesn't work coming out of a stereo.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: I want to ask you about turning 50.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STIPE: I remember turning 25 and going, oh, my God, a quarter of a century.
RAZ: Well, in the song, "Little America," you say, I can see myself at 30.
(Soundbite of song, "Little America")
R.E.M: (Singing) I can't see myself at 30, I don't buy a lacquered 30, caught like flies preserved for tomorrow's jewelry. Lighted in the amber yard…
Mr. STIPE: I was kind of comparing myself to a bug stuck in amber, you know, one of those kind of Jurassic Park…
RAZ: At 30.
Mr. STIPE: At the age of 30. But, yeah, that's what it felt like, I mean, at that point.
RAZ: And soon you'll be 50.
Mr. STIPE: Yeah. I'm 49 now, and I'm happy. I'm really happy with where I am. It's a little freakish to find myself turning 50.
RAZ: I want to ask you to talk a little bit about how the process of getting older affects you as a songwriter.
Mr. STIPE: The biggest problem, I think, actually, is that we have this baggage called our collective history. And when I say that, I drag every record that my band has ever made and every lyric that I've ever written, the great along with the not-so-great, along with the actually wretched. And when I say our collective baggage, that includes the listeners and the fans or the people who may have only heard us around the time of "Losing My Religion" and "Everybody Hurts," the people that have been there all along, the people who gave up on us after the third album, whatever, any version of that.
I have to forget all that. I have to put all that somewhere, lock it away somewhere where I can allow the process of writing lyrics, the process of creation, to be fresh and new for me with each song and with each line and with each lyric. That's the difficult part of doing this as someone approaching 50.
RAZ: Do you have to dig deeper into that wellspring that you've always had to…
Mr. STIPE: No, the answer is no. In fact, I think it's become easier for me to tap into because I finally - I've made enough mistakes as a lyricist - my contribution to what R.E.M. is and what we've done and what we've always done, I've made enough mistakes to kind of, I think, see those red flags go up right away and go, ah, don't go there. You're trying to be clever. You're trying to outdo Morrissey or Kim Gordon. No, I have to be who I am within the confines, constraints and context of R.E.M.
RAZ: I think about when you say that, about the song, "I've Been High," and particularly about the performance of that song on this album, it's one of the most beautiful pieces you've written.
Mr. STIPE: Thank you.
RAZ: And it sounds like a song you couldn't have written in your 20s.
(Soundbite of song, "I've Been High")
R.E.M: (Singing) I've been high, I've climbed so high, but life sometimes, it washes over me.
Mr. STIPE: I mean, in my 20s, I did drugs. And I don't do - I haven't done drugs since then, but it is a very obvious double entendre there that's kind of stupid. And of course, when I wrote it, I think I had moved way far beyond that double entendre and was trying to write something that was actually quite pure.
(Soundbite of song, "I've Been High")
R.E.M: (Singing) Was I wrong? I don't know, don't answer. I just needed to believe.
RAZ: Do you feel like R.E.M.'s best work is still ahead of you?
Mr. STIPE: I always - yeah, I have to think that or I would have stopped doing this a long time ago. We kind of famously were a band that never had goals, and the only goal that we did have was to try to make one of the great records of all time. I don't think we've actually succeeded at that, and I'm not sure that it's actually a goal that is attainable, but it's a nice goal to have. So I would like for the - at least for the album - follows "Accelerate" and "Live At the Olympia," to be the greatest R.E.M. record of all time.
RAZ: Michael Stipe is the lead singer of R.E.M. The band's new, live double album is called "Live At the Olympia." And you can hear it at nprmusic.org.
Michael Stipe, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. STIPE: Thank you.
(Soundbite of song, "I've been High")
Mr. STIPE: (Singing) …just to live my life on high. And I know, I know you want the same. I can see it in your eyes.
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