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Alternative America Interview

Alternative America
Publication Date: 

This is really classic early Stipe here.  Slightly arrogant but not too bad. It gets worse as the years go on. 
I enjoy what is said in regards to being in a Pop Band. Stipe throws that around a lot currently and I would like to hear what he has to say now compared to then about Pop Bands.
I also think that his comments about Lyric Sheets as this is something that is included with the albums now. Personally, I think it has to do with being very self-conscious of what he was saying back then and putting his lyrics down on sheets is like taking naked photos of yourself. When you are wearing clothes others can get an idea but nakedness is much different. 
I think it is important to remember that people change their feelings but I would love to do an interview with Stipe referencing quotes of what he said years ago to just see the reaction he would have to his words on paper. I would never think it is fair to hold someone to their statements 20+ years ago.  
Alternative America Interview (1983)
By  Blake Gumprecht
From inglorious beginnings playing a birthday party, R.E.M.'s independent first single "Radio Free Europe", was Robert Palmer's choice as 10th best single of 1981 in the New York Times., and also wound up near the top of the Village Voice Critics year-end poll. IRS signed them last May, and a five-song, 12-ince EP, "Chronic Town", followed . Now the band are working on their debut album. Blake Gumprecht spoke to lead singer Michael Stipe in a Kansas City kitchen on the band's most recent tour.

Blake:  R.E.M. has probably achieved more success, more notoriety, based on one single than most any other American band in recent history. You've been together two years, started at a brithday party I guess. How did it come to now where you're signed to I.R.S,. are major critical raves, and the rest of it?

Michael:  It was a huge mistake on someone's part. I don’t know . . . It seems like one or two of the right critics jumped on the single, and everyone else kind of followed suit. I know that all of them didn't like it. I think they just wanted to.

Blake: But how did it got from this band that had played just one birthday party?

Michael: The party was in a church that Peter and I lived in that was abandoned. It had a natural stage where, of course, the preacher used to stand. We invited a hundred people , and about 700 showed up. Among them was a guy who booked Tyrone's, which was the local club. The Brains, an Atlanta band, were playing there next week, and they didn't have an opening band. So he figured he could get us real cheap.

Blake: Had you ever thought of it as any kind of permanent band?

Michael:  Oh no, not at all. Peter, the guitar player, was working at a record store in town that sells contraband records and promotional stuff, and I'd go in there  and buy records. It turns out that I was buying all the records that he was saving for himself. We just kind of built up a rapport. Cause it was obvious that we liked the same kind of music. He moved into the church and they needed a roomate, so I moved in.

Blake: Had you known any of the other members?

Michael: No, I had never seen them before.

Blake: How did they come into this?

Michael: We met them at a party. AT the time, Peter and I were playing around with this guy on drums, and a guy who played bass and saxaphone at the same time, which is a pretty amazing feat. Then they came over and we played a few things, said let's write a few songs, and we'll see what happens. There was never any grand plan behind any of it.

Blake: Had any of you played much previously?

Michael: No, Peter had never played before.  I had a band in St. Louis, just a bad punk band, Bad Habits. We played like twice in public. Out big claim to fame was opening up for Dave Edmonds and Nick Lowe. Mike and Bill both played in country club trios and marching bands, stuff like that, playing Glenn Miller's greatest hits or something. They've known each other for a long time. They're both from Macon. We were all rank amateurs, and still are to this day.

Blake: Did it help being from Athens?

Michael: Yeah, I'm afraid so, because of that band we all know and love and now live in New York, because they're very, very rich. By the time we had all moved there,  those guys were already signed. They were already on their way out of town. Being from Athens helped because all the critics had this idea that Athens was lined with gold  records, and that everybody down there walked around with funny hairdos. Of course it isn't like that at all. We are a lot different than most of the Athens bands. We don't have anything in common with them musically. We shop at the same supermarket, that’s about it.  We're about the only ones who went to New York on our own. Actually, there is another band, Limbo District, that went to New York on their own. They're very small. As of yet, they're still scaring away audiences everywhere they play.  But they’re probably the greatest band to come out of America singe the Lovin' Spoonful. They’re incredible. ""All Tomorrow's Parties"" by the Velvet Underground -- they’re like that, exactly. Their appearance and their presence on stage is real similar to what you'd expect to find in a Berlin nightclub in 1934.

Blake: What were R.E.M. like in the beginning?

Michael: We were doing a few covers; we had written some songs on our own. I think we had three weeks of practice. We wrote, I guess, 10 or 12 songs in a week. Needless to say, they were pretty awful. We don't play them anymore. Seeing as how none of us had ever written a song before, it was quite an achievement. We were all so scared. Imagine four people who had never been in a band being thrown together.  We were all so scared of what the other one would say, that everyone nodded their head in agreeement to anything that came up. The earlier songs were incredibly fundamental, real simple, songs that you could write in five minutes. Most of them didn't have any words. I just got up and howled and hollered a lot.

Blake: Some of the ones now don't seem to have words.

Michael:  That's true. I've got to write words for ""Radio Free Europe"", because we're going to re-record that one for the album. It still doesn't have a second or third verse. I think there are actually lyrics to every song on the EP.

Blake: A lot of them are mumbled. And with titles like ""Wolves, Lower"", there are some ambiguities.

Michael: The story behind that is that I wanted a song with a comma in it.

Blake: Why is that?

Michael: I like punctuation. Its another way of saying ""Lower Wolves"".

Blake: But what is that all about? I have no idea.

Michael: Keep listening.

Blake: But a lot of the lyrics are hard to understand.

Michael:  We kind of all think of my voice as another instrument. I have trouble pronun . .. pronun. . . pronun. .. (laughter).

Blake: Enunciating?

Michael: Yeah, I don't like listening to a song and being able to pick out every single word. I think it can get real boring.  A lot of bands I really love, half the fun is listening to them aand trying to figure out what the hell they're saying. And if you can figure out what they are saying, if you can figure out what they mean by what they’re saying . . .it's a lot more subjective.

Blake: With R.E.M. are they all words?

Michael: Yeah, but there are a lot of sounds, that probably aren't human.

Blake: You are saying that it's interesting to sit down and try to figure something out, but there are a lot of R.E.M. lyrics that I really doubt I'll never figure out.

Michael: Well you should probably make up your own words then. That's how its intended. I mean, I doubt very few people in the world can tell you all the words to, say, ""Tumbling Dice"", by the Stones. Its probably holds a lot more meaning to be able to make up your own words, and to make up your own meanings about what the words are saying.

Blake:  One friend of mine said it was an ""art school joke"".

Michael: No, I don't think its an art school joke at all. If anything, it might take us out of that pop genre and put us in another one, maybe by ourselves.

Blake: Have you ever thought of a lyric sheet?

Michael: Frankly, I think that lyric sheets are ridiculous. Some horrible thing happened when the Beatles put out their white album. I think that was the first record to ever have a lyric sheet. To take something like lyrics and remove them from a song is like taking someone's liver out of their body, putting it on a table and asking it to work. You take it out of context and it really doesn't make any sense. To contradict that, we're probably going to have a lyric sheet  to the album. But it could very easily be in braille.

Blake: Is R.E.M. trying to achieve more than just being a pop band?

Michael: I don't consider us a pop band. I never have.

Blake: What do you consider it?

Michael: It's not that we’re so original. We're not doing anything new. I mean, everything's been pretty much done. But I can't really find a word that replaces it. The closest than any of us have come is ""folk rock", and that's so undefinable in 1982 that it probably works. We're certainly more of a pop group than Pere Ubu, but in my camp Pere Ubu's an incredible pop band. We've changed musically a whole lot certainly from when we started playing . It seems like every time w go in and write a new song, we're changing, writing differently, and trying new things that we probably wouldn't even have thought of a year ago. It's not a conscious thing. We try real hard to write new material, because we get real tired of playing the same thing over and over. That's something we don't want to get stuck doing. To begin with, I can't think of myself doing this in five or ten years, but I would hate to think of myself five years from now singing a song that I had written six years ago. It wouldn’t apply."