Polymath Pop Star Michael Stipe

Interview and portraits for Whitewall Magazine, Spring 2012



They say it’s better not to meet your teenage heroes if you don’t want to be disappointed. Michael Stipe is a lucky exception from this unfortunate rule. Allen Ginsberg being another one. Just like Ginsberg’s work, R.E.M.’s and Stipe’s music and videos, their message and style played a huge role in my coming out and first attempts at poetry and visual art. Back in the stuffy, conformist Soviet Union, it was a breath of fresh air and freedom… 

Stipe is not your “typical” pop star – humble, accessible and exceptionally curious, open to meeting new people and experiencing new things. About a year ago, he introduced himself at an art opening in Soho and sparked a conversation. Ever since we have become friends, exchanged ideas and art and did a show together at Vacant Gallery in Tokyo, curated by iO Tillett-Wright.

I recently photographed and interviewed Stipe for Whitewall at his sunny Tribeca loft, filled with great books and art and equipped with a tiny mirrored room straight out of Alice in Wonderland. We talked about his life after R.E.M., his creative process and influences, finding inspiration in old cameras and cheap plastic chairs, and his current transition from pop stardom to a new “position” as an emerging artist. Michael had just finished his 6-week cleanse and his piercing blue eyes were even brighter than usual.


Slava Mogutin: Last fall it was announced that R.E.M. was calling it quits after 31 years together. For many people of my generation who grew up on your songs it felt like the end of an era. Yet I remember we were together on the eve of the big announcement and you seemed to be in a very good mood. How does it feel to be free of your contractual obligations?

Michael Stipe: It’s kind of wild! I signed a contract when I was 22. This is first time in 29 years that I’m not under contract with a record company, with a large corporation. There’s a feeling of liberation that I didn’t expect. There’s all the emotional stuff of deciding to disband and to put R.E.M. behind us and that’s been a complex and multilayered experience for each of us. But I think that we all feel really happy with our decision. I think what’s odd for me is finding myself now, at the age 51, and feeling as much energy and excitement about working, but not certainly knowing how this work will manifest itself. But the urge that I had as a young man to create continues. I’ve now just let go of one of the main conduits for that work to manifest itself and I don’t know yet what can and will replace that. Something will have to, because I wake up every morning with solutions and I dream about these things and I have to get them out of me.

SM: One of the things that struck me about you when we first met was how humble and open you were. I remember you saying, “I’m here to learn.”

MS: When I say ‘I’m here to learn,’ I really mean that as someone who has this intense urge to make things, whether it was music or using other medium. I went into music as a naïve. I didn't know what I was doing…

SM: But you come from an art background? How did it influence your music career?

MS: I was kind of a fuckup at art school, an art school dropout. I can’t really fall back on that education because there wasn't much there. I had excellent professors but I wasn't really paying attention, I had other things on my mind. I launched myself into music and had not gotten it together in my head that I was there to learn. I learned a lot and I dedicated 31 years to it. And now I feel like, well, I’m completely starting over, brand new, except that I do have some experience but in a different way.

SM: Is your creative process now much different from what it used to be?

MS: The things that I’ve been creating are not tangible, they are sounds and then there’re all the things that support that. Now I’m pushing it in some other directions and see what happens with that. I like what I’m doing. I like working in bronze. I like working with plywood. I love working with paper, that's really exciting for me. But at this point I don't like or trust my hand or my line. I trust my photographic eye. Composition for me is no problem at all. I sense the world through geometry, the world makes sense to me when I can take organic and geometric and combine them. That’s when the world is most ecstatic for me, when it makes the most sense. My ability to draw is really limited. I don't like the sound of my speaking voice, I don't like my handwriting or my signature, it feels schizophrenic to me. When I wrote songs I would use a typewriter or word processor, a pager and finally a cell phone or computer to write words because the font or type I was using allowed me the objectivity and the distance to be able to see whether it was good or bad. If I wrote with my hand, I might have a great handwriting day but be writing shit, or a terrible handwriting day but be writing great work, but I couldn't tell the difference because it was in my handwriting. I’m now working in different 3-dimensional mediums and I know the things I don't like or trust about myself and so I’m trying to avoid those but ultimately I’m going to end up coming around to them, I’m sure.

SM: What strikes me about your entire music career is the fact that you always had a great eye for amazing artists that you collaborated with on your videos. I think this was a secret to the universal appeal of R.E.M. to kids from around the world who, like me back in Russia, couldn’t quite understand or relate to your lyrics.

MS: The music that moves me is largely cinematic. The way that I come to music is often from this very cinematic perspective as a fan, as someone who listens to and loves music and responds to it. So when I go to music, I go for an ecstatic experience, for epiphany, an emotional experience that I can’t find elsewhere. As a musician I tried to provide the same thing. When I write or hear music, it comes to me as a vista or landscape and my job with R.E.M. was to provide to people that landscape with imagery and with narrative or with a narrative arc or something that made sense. Because of that, I think that R.E.M. attracted people who love cinema, independent or experimental film.

SM: You’ve worked with both established and emerging artists. How did you come across these people?

MS: They were drawn to my band’s music and we became friends and started swapping ideas. I didn’t really work with professional people until Jim Herbert, a professor at my art school and a filmmaker and painter, who was a great inspiration. He was very well versed in art history and there was an immense learning curve in working with him. I think the first really established artist that I worked with was Robert Longo. In 1987 he did the video for the song “The One I Love.” That became our first top 10 hit single in the US and then I continued working with people who were more established in their own field.

SM: For your last album you picked different artists to do videos for each track and yet again it was a combination of well-established artists like Sophie Calle and Sam Taylor-Wood with some newcomers like James Franco…

MS: He works in all these different mediums and that was part of the attraction to James and working with him. He was a wild card, I had no idea what he would come up with, so it was thrilling for me to hand something to him. I’ve known him for a long time, before he was a mega-super movie star. I trust his eye and I trust his instinct, and so I thought this will be fascinating how he takes it and interprets it. And then there were people like Albert Maysles, one of the great documentary filmmakers of our time and we were talking just after I had finished the record and he mentioned he had this film he had shot of Marlon Brando in the 1960s and that he was going to release it on DVD the following year. And I had just finished a song called “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I.” So I just said, “We need to talk” and we had a meeting a week later and he agreed to cut together some footage of this day he followed Marlon Brando around New York and put it to the music… Jem Cohen, Jim Herbert, Jim McKay, Tom Gilroy, Dominic DeJoseph, Lance Bangs – these are all people that I had worked with in the past throughout the band’s career. And then there were wild cards like Sam Taylor-Wood, who is a friend and we were talking about the record and listened to some of the demos of it and she said, “If there’s any way I can be involved in this, I would love to.” So that conversation sparked the idea of going to different artists and asking them, because if I’m going to work with Sam, if I’m going to do it with one song, why not do it with every song? It’s something I’ve wanted to do for over 10 years, but I never had the time to dedicate to it and bring this whole idea to fruition. But I managed to do it with Collapse Into Now, our last record. I really wanted to provide a complete package of what an album could be, using the technology available to us today. It’s easy to shoot a film on an iPhone, that what Sophie Calle did…

SM: I love that piece! To me it seems like the most unlikely and unexpected music video!

MS: I love that piece too. As an artist I thought I’m really stepping out to go to her, that’s not at all what she does, she doesn’t work in pop art or music video. I broached the idea with her, we had met each other and spent some time together. There was an instant spark. I thought, well, this is really almost outrageous and perhaps insulting to ask her to participate in this, but I’m going to do it anyway. And all she can do is say no and we’ll have a good laugh and I’ll buy her a drink. And initially she said “No, no way!” But then she said, “Let me listen to the song” and, as it turns out, she wrote me back and said, “I love the song.” And I said it could be anything, it doesn’t have to be a film or your idea of a music video. It could be whatever’s on your iPhone that day. And she took that first idea of an iPhone and said, “Ok, I will use it” – and this is completely in the world of Sophie Calle – “I will limit myself to one day of ‘what’s on my iPhone’.” And she had shot a dancer doing a pirouette in a parking garage, a fly on a menu and a horse pissing, took those 3 pieces, combined them and created one of the most shockingly beautiful videos of all times… For me it brings things full circle to how the band started working and how we wound up working at the very end. I didn’t want to do pop music videos, it wasn’t interesting to me and it didn’t represent the band, so we went more in the direction of experimental film. And that’s what we came right back to in the end.

SM: You just re-released your book of photographs of Patti Smith. I know you’ve been doing photography for many years and I find it a bit ironic that now you use old film cameras in a completely different way – as cast bronze sculptures.

MS: Well, the idea was to take the object that has become obsolete, which is a film camera... How I use photography or what I use photography for has changed with the advent of digital technology. The way that we are recording this conversation is digital, the photographs that you took of me and my sculptures are all digital. A camera is nothing unless there’s film inside and you’re using it to take photographs, which become the memories, the way you mark your time on this earth. It’s a dog leash. It’s a shoe. It’s a flight of stairs. It’s a blanket that prevents you from freezing to death. It’s something that gets you from one point to another. Now film cameras have become obsolete, but we all have the camera that our grandparents took pictures of us with sitting on a shelf. This item of beauty maybe because it was designed well and it’s attractive to look at, maybe it’s something that reminds you of this moment in time, a moment in design. It becomes this oddly nostalgic object. So I thought to myself, how do I respond to that? I’ve started seriously thinking about these objects, these things we consider quite precious and we imbue them with this emotional attachment and importance, significance in our life...

SM: And same goes for the tape cassettes...

MS: The cassette is a little different for me but I’ve taken it as an object as far as you can take it. By casting it, by doing a replica of it, I‘ve removed it once more from what it actually is. I had to think, do I want to do it in wood or in plastic? Do I want to use some of the new technology that’s available to do a 3-dimensional cast? How do I want to preserve the idea of this object? I decided to use bronze because I thought of the Bronze Age. I thought, well, in a post-apocalyptic world, in this absurd sci-fi idea of the future, when things melt in nuclear explosions, what would be left? Well, there would be a hunk of bronze sitting somewhere that would represent this moment in time of photography in the 20th century.



SM: Bronze also adds some kind of fetishistic, tactile element, something that you want to touch and experience first-hand. And the more you touch it, the better it looks – the patina gives it a whole new coat…

MS: Also the weight of it. They weight a lot and it’s kind of surprising when you pick up one of the cameras or cassettes. Its weight does not correlate to your idea of the object’s weight so it throws you instantly. I like doing work that you can touch and hold and examine up close. I don’t like stuff that’s precious and so the idea of dong this particular project and casting in gold, or having them carved out of Carrera marble or some precious material was not at all interesting to me. I’m more interested in byproduct. I would rather work with plywood than a fine wood. Instead of working in Arches 100% Rag Artist paper, I’d rather work in butcher paper, wallpaper or newsprint. I’m more interested in the down and dirty manifestation of different media rather than those precious ones. If I did the cassette out of marble, or out of sterling silver or gold, it would be a different object of great value, and it’s not really of great value until you pick it up and hold it. The experience of you participating in the piece or having that kind of moment with it as an object is very important. Much more so than its actual value.

SM: Is it still a work in progress? Are you planning on adding more objects and more different ideas to this series?

MS: I’m going to continue working with the cast of the space under my plastic chair. That’s something I’m interested in continuing.

SM: Can you talk about that project? You mentioned that originally it was Bruce Nauman who made a cast of the negative chair space of his wooden office chair back in the 60s, but you decided to go with the cheap plastic one.

MS: I thought I was referencing Bruce Nauman when I did my research, but someone told me recently that Brancusi cast the space under a chair to use as a plinth for one of his pieces. And I’ve looked at it time and time again and I never recognized it as such. So I guess the question might be was Bruce Nauman when he did what I call the Mona Lisa of conceptual art, was he aware of Brancuzi having done the same? So there’s a tradition of looking at something and acknowledging the negative space. Mine is more a comment on how it’s a tip of the hat down the line to other people who have done similar work. They’re everywhere, those cheap plastic chairs. I started studying them trying to figure out why are they everywhere. Come to find out it’s called a monoblock chair. It’s from the 1960s when the technology became available to make a single piece of plastic into a chair that was strong enough to hold human weight.

SM: Kind of a revolutionary idea!

MS: It was absolutely revolutionary and I wanted to acknowledge that. It was right there with the man walking on the moon! This went from being in the 1960s this incredible leap forward in technology, from being an amazing, precious manifestation of what I would almost call one of the giants of the 20th century, to these crappy chairs that are everywhere and you look at and go, ugh, couldn’t this restaurant afford better than those crappy plastic chairs! Fast-forward 40 years, and we no longer regard it as something special, it’s become mundane, more than mundane – it’s basically the trashiest, most fucked-up chair you can sit on! I like that being everywhere that cheap plastic chair has become a visual blight that litters the landscapes, it’s like parking lots, it’s like the thing you don’t want to remember having to look at…

SM: What I find fascinating about your current work in many ways it’s a commentary on popular culture, which you’ve been successfully navigating most of your life. So it’s interesting to see how you interpret these basic objects and ideas and find this new niche for them in your practice. It’s also interesting to see how people react to your work as a visual artist and the skepticism you might hear: ‘Oh, pop star Michael Stipe now wants to become an art star!” What would you answer to this skepticism?

MS: I suppose I’m applying for a new position and doing so with all humility and humbleness intact. I will be the first to say I don’t know about art history, I don’t know about conceptual art, I don’t understand a lot of it. There are things and artists that surprise me because they move me so profoundly and I might not even completely understand why, but it doesn’t matter – they are speaking to me as a layperson. I don’t have that background in art to be able to comment intelligently about what they’ve done or how they arrived at that place, but I look at what they’ve done and I go, “Holy shit, that’s incredibly moving to me!” With the work I did as a musician, I’ve always felt it was important to be able to resonate on all different levels. I like appealing to everyman, I like the idea of not being exclusive with the ideas and the things that I create and so if I can make something that regular people are able to respond to and say, ‘wow that makes me laugh,’ or ‘that makes me think,’ or ‘I’ve never thought about this object in this way,’ it’s successful. If I can do that where people who also have some knowledge of contemporary art are able to look at the same thing and go, ‘This is really interesting in the line of blah blah blah,’ if they can line it with other people who have done the same, great. Then I will feel like I might have really created something successful. Now we’re back to your original point, which is “I’m here to learn.” I arrive at this with my head bowed, with all my humility intact. I understand completely. I’m a pop star. Americans particularly do not like their public figures to do more than one thing. Americans are bad about that. Europeans are a little easier. Patti Smith called me a polymath. And she is herself a polymath, she’s now established herself and been widely successful in several mediums. I find great joy in what I do. Artists, people that create, create not because they choose or want to but because they have to.