There are certain things Michael Stipe recalls about his most visible years as a rock superstar that give a clear indicator of his paradoxical relationship with icon status. He’s alternately cocky about R.E.M.’s heyday (“we were fucking audacious”) and self-effacingly dismissive about their most celebrated ’90s album (“I feel like I’ve been repeating everything I’ve been saying for the last quarter century”). The band’s Automatic for the People, released 25 years ago in October 1992, was a creative triumph at the height of R.E.M.’s most commercial period. The quartet from Athens, Georgia, had famously risen through the ranks of ’80s college rock to become ’90s pop stars, and frontman Stipe was wrestling with newfound superstardom.
And on a balmy day in the East Village, he’s still wrestling with that fame in hindsight.
“I became extremely famous—suddenly,” Stipe recalls. He smirks when thinking back to when he’d suddenly gone from college rock enigma to Bono-level rock star.
“I used to be able to identify the people that would recognize me walking on the sidewalk in New York,” he muses. “That went from those identifiable music fans or punk rock fans or whatever—to everyone. I went from a singer in a band with a few hits and a core audience—a large core audience—but [after] ‘Losing my Religion’ and the popularity of that video… I was hugely famous and that was weird for me. I’m still and always will be shy. I’ve learned how to deal with it and finish my sentences and talk to people in a regular way, but it was intense.”
But R.E.M. was in an enviable place. The success of 1990’s multiplatinum Out of Time and its monster hit singles “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People” put Stipe and his bandmates (guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry) in the position to call some shots.
“The good part about it was, going into Automatic, it gave me the immense confidence to do whatever I wanted,” he says. “And I don’t know where that—well, the confidence came from feeling like we could do anything because we had a song of the summer, we had a No. 1 hit record around the world, we had everything. How we went from that to Automatic, which is this very, very, I mean—we stepped off a cliff together.”
The band’s confidence was justified. And they weren’t going to waste the moment.
“We understood at that point that we could release any single as the first song and radio had to play it,” shares Stipe of their newfound clout. “We were in a position of great power—to change, to shift culture towards what we wanted to hear, what we were responding to. And we took that and ran with it. It bit us in the ass eventually with ‘E-Bow the Letter’ as the first single off of New Adventures in Hi-fi. The world just whatever at that point. But for a moment for a few years there, we had that power to kind of offer anything as a music video or as a single and it would get shown and get played. And that felt really good. That felt like we were bringing popular culture to us—to the outsiders, to the island of broken toys.”
Stipe became a big brother of sorts to artists like Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke; their conversations would inspire their respective bands in far-reaching—and often unexpected—ways. Stipe laughs thinking about his anxiety while working on “Disappear” from R.E.M.’s 2001 album Reveal.
“I wrote it, I loved it, I put it down, we were mixing and one night later I was like, ‘Holy fucking shit. I’ve written a Radiohead song.’ So I reached out to Thom and he didn’t get back to me and I was like, ‘Uh oh, this is bad.’ So I called him and I was like, ‘I’ve written a song that was already kind of done and I think I stole it from you—‘How to Disappear Completely.’ He started laughing. ‘Michael that song is from a conversation we had and it was advice that you gave me. I think we’re even.’ Plagiarizing myself through Thom Yorke.”
Self-deprecating reflections notwithstanding, Stipe doesn’t back away from celebrating R.E.M.’s legacy as pioneers, both for their work on record and visually.
“We introduced filmmaking to MTV,” he says directly. “Madonna did an amazing thing. Michael Jackson did an amazing thing. It took too long, with MTV, for him. But I didn’t like giving people imagery like that. I thought it was silly. I’ve always been really serious about whatever it is that I do. And then I have a sense of humor about it and I’m pretty self-deprecating or whatever. I have a really good balance of ego and insecurity to be who I am or who I was, but having that power to release anything and know that it would get played—it felt really good. Pop music always felt really bad, like awful to me—the mainstream stuff. Every now and then something great would come through, Jeff Lynne, or even ‘My Sharona,’ The Cars,’ ‘Drive.’ But hearing that on pop radio or in the mall, was for me, phenomenal. I was never gonna hear ‘Birdland’ or ‘Marquee Moon’ in the mall—but I wanted to. So when we found ourselves in this position of power, we exploited it.”
But what helped “Shiny Happy People”-era R.E.M. sustain credibility were the props the band consistently got from the new grunge stars taking over the charts. These bands that a decade earlier would’ve been indie misfits not unlike R.E.M. were constantly referencing the band as a touchstone.
“Some of the ‘misfits’ were kind enough—or actually fucking cool enough, truthfully—to say, ‘Hey, this pop band, these big guys over there, they’re fucking cool,’” Stipe remembers. “I can’t tell you how much that meant to us. Behind the scenes, Peter had moved to Seattle. He bought a house to raise his family. Kurt and Courtney [Love] bought the house next door because they wanted to live next door to Peter Buck.”
For Stipe, that love was significant—especially considering the timing. R.E.M. was at its poppiest when Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and their ilk ascended the charts. They could have easily been framed as “The Enemy.”
“There was a camaraderie there and Peter felt a lot of warmth. And I felt vindicated and validated. This is post-‘Shiny Happy People,’ by the way. It would have been very easy for people to go, ‘That guy is an asshole for putting that out in the world.’ I like the song, but it’s a song for kids. I felt vindicated and I felt validated that these cool kids were name-checking us. Eddie Vedder and Kurt and Courtney—it meant a lot to us. Outside of Seattle, there was more… I was jealous of what was happening there. It felt really inspiring to me. There was definitely a swapping of ideas. We’d established ourselves and we were an established act, but we were still, in our own way, we were pretty punk rock. We were punk rock enough to put out ‘Shiny Happy People,’ which is the least punk rock thing you could ever do.”
And after the breakthrough success of “Shiny Happy People” and “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M. delivered these ruminations on death and loss; none of Automatic for the People’s singles had the commercial impact of Out of Time’s monster hits, but the album was an honest depiction of where Stipe was at the time.
AIDS still loomed large. Stipe himself would be hit with rumors of his own status—with wild and widespread speculation that he was dying from the disease. He would later say he didn’t talk much about it then because of the people he had seen suffer; he didn’t want to further stigmatize their struggle. In fact, that pain was part of what inspired his approach to the lyrics when he heard the music Buck, Mills, and Berry were working on.
“I went for the stuff that was super melodic and, in this case, unconsciously really somber and kind of dark,” Stipe explains. “That’s where I was. I’d watched so many people die of AIDS. My grandparents were going—they were on their way out. I had a sick dog that I was taking care of that was not gonna make it. And that sounds very conflating, but I was surrounded by death and by sadness and by darkness. I’m ultimately a really, really optimistic person and hopeful person. My glass is definitely half full. But there’s a darkness as well, and I get that from my father and I honor that from him. My sisters have it as well. It’s just very, very intense. Luckily, there’s the balance of hopefulness and optimism to kind of bring that darkness to a place of light.”
That place of light didn’t include much political subject matter. Stipe had earned a reputation for his stance on issues like environmentalism on Green and anti-Reagan rants on songs like “Exhuming McCarthy,” but Automatic largely eschews topicality.
“As a music lover, I can always tell when someone intended to write a ‘political song,’” he says with an almost offhand eye-roll. “When the intention is there, it almost always falls flat to me. When the intention is not there, when it’s instinctual and you’re like, ‘Ohmigod this is about…’ whatever. When I was in Guatemala, I didn’t mean to write about a poisonous flower that grows in Guatemala [1986’s “Flowers of Guatemala”] and I did and I was like, ‘This is clearly about U.S. intervention in Central America and what was going on behind the scenes that was murderous.’ I don’t go to music for that; I go to music for emotion.”
Stipe and politics have made for controversy in the wake of Trump’s election; the singer has gotten criticized for statements that seemed to emphasize compassion for Trump supporters. A few weeks after the 2016 election, Stipe was blasted on social media for stating that, “Rather than people voting for a racist, xenophobic agenda, an intolerant agenda, I think they were just trying to smash the machine,” during a Q&A session at the London Borderline. He says now that things are getting worse.
“We became George W. Bush’s idea of the good guys and the bad guys. And it fucking sucks. It’s across every spectrum. Race relations in the U.S. is our No. 1 problem. It’s a really weird time to be a woman right now because there’s this incredible schism within the feminist movement—as a male feminist, it’s hard for me to talk about because I’d get shut down right away; but the election last year really fucked it up for a lot of feminists and now there’s no conversation to be had.”
Stipe still believes that a sense of understanding and practical cooperation are the keys to moving forward.
“I tried unsuccessfully to inject a bit of nuance into a few things, and I got shut down really fast. Which is gonna happen. I understand that. I knew that I was putting myself in a firing line—I hate to say that—but in a firing line. But that’s OK, I can take it,” he says. “It’s not a time for nuance, but it’s exactly what we need. What we need is to stop talking about things like we’re living in a fucking action movie with superheroes. These are real people with real problems and real lives. The people who are falling between the cracks are who I’m concerned with. It’s a very fucked up time to be. That said, I’m an optimist. I think maybe things need to get really bad for people to recognize what needs to be done. I’m not sure I know what needs to be done. But we need to start listening to each other. That’s a very hippie thing to say, but… we don’t all need to have opinions on everything. We just need to listen a little more.”
A special 25th anniversary reissue of ‘Automatic for the People’ is out Nov. 10. You can preorder a copy here.