Michael Stipe

Text by Shumon Basar

Tank _vol 7issue 198

He was a “military brat”, thought art school was the best way to get laid and values cheap German toilet paper. Welcome to Michael Stipe’s head! He has been the lead singer of R.E.M. for 30 years, but today Stipe is more likely to be spotted slumming it in Kreuzberg or discussing the aesthetic merits of underrated fonts.

Portrait: Thomas Dozol 

Shumon Basar You’ve been spending a lot of time in Berlin. What drew you to the city?
Michael Stipe The artists, the build- ings, the approach to everyday life. My boyfriend Thomas and I are interested in utopian ideology, its failed attempts and its 21st-century manifestations. It’s all so raw and open in Berlin. People like to discuss these things.

SB Recently, Obama was chided for not trotting out the usual triumphalist, “America is the Best in the World” rhetoric. Do you feel America waning?
MS America’s been on the wane for most of my life. It’s just to what degree you “buy the myth”, as we love to say. The falling down could be the most interesting part.

SB So do you think that Obama gets it?
MS He would be wise to leave that kind of grandstanding to the dumbos and dumbo magnets. He’s a really smart cookie in a fucking tough job. On top of it all, he’s got to be Elvis, the Pope, a comedian, the best dad ever, and not lose his looks, then run again in two years. The anti-progressives had their time, and it’s the fucking 21st century, for fuck’s sake, not 1958. I sound like a crazy person, right?

SB No comment...
MS His administration inherited the biggest pile of shit left behind by the Cheneys, the Bushies and the Roves, all cheerleaded on breathlessly by the Glenn Beck-Limbaugh-Newt Gingrich religious- right abusers. Multimillionaires, all filled with hate.

SB What role does hatred play in the idea of America?
MS Hate has always been there. There’s an intolerant, extremist fringe with a big mouth shouting louder than any of the rest of us. It all picked up just a few years before AIDS, with Jesse Helms employing a somewhat innocent Anita Bryant (slotting into a role we now recognise well in Quitter Palin, former half-governor of Alaska), and realising how easy it was to manipulate the religious right using the old standby weapons of fear and prejudice. 

SB And Americans bought into it?
MS The country bought it all. It caused immense disruption and then, boom, fast forward to the end of my teenage years: Carter’s out, Reagan’s in. The social systems that have been in place to catch the unfortunate and down-on-their-luck, gone in a matter of months. The word homeless is invented. Pow, it’s a new age.

SB You love America and America loves you?
MS America is, I’ve always said, such a teenager of a country. We’re bratty and loud and brash and stupid and immortal. We understand better what’s really going on than all you Old Countries. Of course we’re complete narcissists, so we don’t even get when the joke’s on us. That said, we can be, and have been, when we really try, or don’t try at all, amazing, astonishing, self- aware and revolutionary. 

SB You went to art school in the early 1980s. What was it like?
MS I was an art-school fuck-up. Terrible painter. I mean terrible. Even worse at drawing. I still can’t stand my handwriting, and I learned that bold, important, barrel- chested Hemingway-Picasso-Norman Mailer types always “trusted their line”, never questioned their mark. I never did trust my line. Always hated it.

SB Recently you’ve been taking photographs and making collages.
MS I left art school, went off on tour at the age of 20 and never looked back. That early training manifested itself in many ways through the band (MEA CULPA!!!), and then outside of the band, through photography and film making. I now go to sleep and wake up dreaming about sculpture and wall surfaces and corners and peripheral influence every single day. I’m obsessed with form. So photography, with the advent of digital, weirdly went from being an end to being a source for me.

SB What kind of images interest you today?
MS Right now I’m working a lot with birch plywood and paper – common but stunning materials. I’m examining not direct, but ancillary or peripheral influence. It’s really fascinating to me to try to separate the object from the experience of knowing the object. I’m here to learn.

SB What is it about brutalism that so appeals to you?
MS Where nature and manmade geometry connect, that, to me, is the most divine artistic creation of our existence. It’s when we most become God. We clumsily, but heartbreakingly, tuggingly, crudely, repeat our microscopic innate understanding of our beginnings and our world, our thin grasp on it. Brutalist architecture is the closest and largest of our club-footed attempts. Do I sound like a science-fiction conspiracy hack yet?

SB Only in the best possible way. Tell us, how important is hair in a rock star’s statement?
MS Douglas Coupland said that if you want to be remembered in 100 years, create a hairstyle. He cites Warhol, Marilyn, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Magaret Thatcher. I felt like I was the first guy to shave my head. When asked why, I’d say, “Because my hair was thinning and falling out, that’s why.” In a hundred years I will be remembered for having a perfectly shaped cranium.

SB Who would you like to collaborate with?
MS If I could bring all the transgressive Brancusi, Brassaï, [Charlotte] Perriand, Pierre Chareau, Josef Albers, Buster Keaton – in for a weekend... Cocteau, [Edith] Sitwell, Gertrude Stein and Warhol and Whitman representing the queers; Frederick Douglass and John Brown, Annie Oakley, Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X representing revolutionary America... sit them down in a room with some wine, some coffee and the internet, and block the doors.

SB If you could have the option of never sleeping, would you take it?
MS In a heartbeat. I basically tried that for the first 28 years of my life and it only kind of paid off. I do remember that I was furious when I discovered that, statistically, I would be asleep for a third of my life. It just seemed such a waste. Now I completely love my dream world.It became more understandable again after a long struggle. §