R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe answers fans and critics -- The frontman talks politics, irrelevance, and the future of his band
R.E.M., Michael Stipe
Credit: R.E.M.: Matthias Clamer

In a career spanning 23 years and 12 albums, it’s no surprise that Michael Stipe and his R.E.M. bandmates Mike Mills and Peter Buck — architects of one of rock’s most compelling and, at times, pretentious bodies of work — have taken their knocks from critics and fans alike. The real head-scratcher is why Stipe would agree to endure a barrage of hard-hitting questions from you, the Listen2This reader — questions ranging from the semi-erudite (why the aggressive left-wing politics?) to the flat-out insulting (why are you ”so lame”?). Perhaps as a preemptive strike on charges of irrelevance, the band recently released ”In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003,” a near-perfect set of introspective pop masterpieces that will thrill any fan. And because we’re fans too, we threw in some questions of our own. ”So this is like ‘Defending Your Life,’ and I’m Meryl Streep,” says Stipe, settling into a couch at a Manhattan photo studio. Exactly! Unless that makes us Albert Brooks…

LISTEN2THIS: Why is it time for a hits album? Does it mark the closing of a chapter the way your first collection, 1988’s ”Eponymous,” did?
STIPE There are two reasons. We figured out what we wanted to do post-Bill Berry. Bless his heart, the guy said, ”If I’m going to be the guy that breaks up R.E.M., I won’t leave. I’ll just be miserable.” We were like, ”Don’t be miserable. Go be a farmer. Enjoy yourself.” As a trio it took us a few albums to feel as comfortable as we did at our peak as a four-piece. It seemed like a good time to say, ”This is what we’ve done, close that chapter and move on to the next.” Also, there are a lot of people who might recognize seven R.E.M. songs, two of which they associate with R.E.M.: ”Losing My Religion” and ”Everybody Hurts.” There are all these other songs that I think have become elevator music. We are the music in the background that your parents or your older siblings grew up with or that you hear in department stores. So in another way we’re staking our claim there, saying, ”Wow, this is a pretty well-rounded version of what we’ve done in the past 15 years. Hope you like it.”

My question comes from the heart, albeit a broken one. Does the band think it’s still relevant? I am a longtime fan, but from [1994’s] ”Monster” on, you’ve failed to construct a cohesive whole. The last two albums [1998’s light-rock downer ”Up” and 2001’s tired-sounding ”Reveal”] have been major artistic setbacks. I don’t want to see R.E.M. succeed Celine Dion at Caesars Palace in Vegas. — Brian Smooke, Atlanta
STIPE That sounds like one of those reviews from music critics who are examining their own life and projecting it onto me and my band. Sorry, Brian. A lot of critics are my age, and I think they are going through some version of a midlife crisis. They hate me because I have a six-pack and I’ve been successful. As a music fan, there are bands I thought were brilliant [for] several albums in a row, and then they lost me. Unless it’s a Thom Yorke or a Q-Tip or a PJ Harvey or a Courtney Love or a Patti Smith, I might not follow them for the rest of the time they’re making music. That’s good and fine. Brian, I hope you like the records that you do like, and I hope there’s another band that’s taken the place of R.E.M. — whatever place we held.

L2T: ”Out of Time” (1991), ”Automatic for the People” (1992), and ”Monster” went quadruple platinum, ”New Adventures in Hi-Fi” (1996) platinum, and ”Up” and ”Reveal” gold. What accounts for the sales drop-off?
STIPE The U.S. is a different story from the rest of the world. In the U.S. it has to do with the cycle of pop culture. We’ve come into that orbit a couple of times in our career, the most exemplary being, of course, ”Losing My Religion,” which was a fluke hit. It was a five-minute song with no chorus and a mandolin as the lead instrument. So for us to hold that as the bar we have to jump over every time we write a song would be ridiculous. For the record, [1999’s] ”The Great Beyond” was a bigger hit in Europe than ”Losing My Religion.”

L2T: You were considered one of the world’s biggest and best bands. How do you feel about that having faded over the past few years?
STIPE Well, I don’t like it. But that’s the way it is. A lot of it has to do with the recording industry. People don’t like reading about that stuff in magazines, because it seems like ”thou dost protest too much.” But the course the music industry has taken is not pretty…. But don’t reflect that [decline] onto my music, please. Look at the whole picture, form a well-rounded opinion, and then decide not to buy the next R.E.M. album. That’s fine.