DATE April 9, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: R.E.M. members Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills
on their new album, "Accelerate," and their career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In the early '80s, the jangly guitars and mumbled lyrics of the band R.E.M.
gained a devoted following among the alternative rock crowd. Stories about
the old church where the band lived together and played in Athens, Georgia,
were legend. As the band became more and more popular and eventually signed
to a major label, they continued to be known for maneuvering their way through
the record industry while holding onto their integrity. And they've endured
for nearly three decades.
Last year R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now they
have their first CD in four years, and it's really good. My guests are
R.E.M.'s lead singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bass player Mike
Mills. Let's start with the title track of R.E.M. new CD, "Accelerate."
(Soundbite of "Accelerate")
Mr. MICHAEL STIPE: (Singing) Last thing I remember
Is climbing up the stairs
I threw the window open
I don't know what I need
I needed time
I needed to escape
I saw the future turned
Where is the rip cord, the trapdoor, the key?
Where is the cartoon escape hatch for me?
No time to question the choices I make
I've got to fall in another direction
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's
really great to have you here.
Mr. PETER BUCK: Thank you.
GROSS: I really like that song a lot. It's one of my favorites on the CD.
Would you like to say anything about writing it before we go any further?
Mr. STIPE: It's one of those nightmare songs where you're falling without
being able to stop, and it's one of those falling nightmare songs. That's
kind of where it came from.
GROSS: Now, the new CD has 11 songs, and it's about 34, 35 minutes long,
which is really short for a CD, but it works for me. I mean, I prefer
listening to CDs than listening to just songs, you know, by different artists
collected and scrambled together, but I often don't have enough time to make
it through a whole CD in one sitting. So this is a kind of very nice amount
to handle in one sitting. Why did you want to keep it that short? Because it
is short for a CD.
Mr. MIKE MILLS: You know, when it was vinyl that was the medium, the
physical content, size of the piece of plastic mean that you had to clock in
at 40 minutes or less or you would overload the grooves and you would lose any
sort of sonic quality. And then when they came out with CDs, people went `Oh
my God, I can put an hour and 20 minutes of music on this thing,' and
unfortunately a lot of people did, including us. So we just realized that it
was, you know, it might be a good idea at this point in our career just to
rein it in a little bit and see--it's a lot of fun to say what you have to say
in a really short amount of time, and if you can do that and if you can really
get a message across and pack it with a pretty powerful punch in less than
three minutes or less than three and a half minutes, then it's quite an
GROSS: So it was a good songwriting...
Mr. STIPE: Hey...
GROSS: ...exercise for you?
Mr. MILLS: Yes. Yes.
Mr. STIPE: This is Michael. I think, through the history of recorded
music--or pop music, certainly--either albums or singles have been kind of the
focus, and it felt at one point recently that albums were kind of an
old-fashioned way of approaching recorded music, but it's something that we as
a band, I think, have always kind of strived towards, is thinking more about
an album as a collection of songs, possibly with a thread that kind of carries
through the album. And it kind of feels now, you know, now that vinyl is
back, it kind of feels like the album is--or thinking about the album like
that is something a little bit prescient, that we've moved away now from
singles and people listening to an album by an artist that they admire.
GROSS: Do you see your new CD, "Accelerate," as having a thread or a mood
that holds it together?
Mr. STIPE: I think it does, but then, you know, my contribution to what we
do is writing the lyrics, and Peter and Mike's contribution to that is telling
me when they're really bad and that I need to edit them. But yeah, I think
there's thematic threads...
GROSS: Which would be...
Mr. STIPE: One of the big ones I think is me looking at the 21st century
from 1973 when I was 13 years and I was in an environmental science course
that was a year-long course. It was one of seven classes that I had in, I
think, seventh grade. And the 21st century just felt like a place where, you
know, at the time, it felt like, wow, it's so far away and, you know, we're
going to have renewable energy sources and we're going to take care of the
pollution problem and we're all going to address, you know, the issues that
need to be addressed, and we're going to be a progressive society well on its
way to some--not utopia, but something resembling the 21st century and the
future. And, you know, sadly 35 years later that's not really what's
GROSS: You started playing together like 28 years ago. How have your
motivations for playing and writing changed over the years? I mean, when you
start off, you're like, you know, you're frustrated young people who, like,
you want to make music. You want to be well known. You want money. You've
got all of that. So how have your motivations changed?
Mr. MILLS: Our motivation for writing music when we started was actually
pretty much the same as it is now. We weren't doing it to make money or be
famous or any of those things. We did it because that's pretty much all we
were good at, and it felt good to do it, you know. It's just, it's an itch
that you have to scratch, and I still feel the same way. To me one of the
greatest things about being in this band is the excitement and the discovery
of a new song, coming up with something that actually is still exciting from
whatever well is within us that it comes out, and it's like, wow, this is
really great. We can still do that. And that's pretty much all the
motivation you need.
GROSS: Let me play a song from the new CD that I think is a new song that's
exciting, and it's called "Houston," and it's sung from the point of view of
someone after Hurricane Katrina. And, Mike, I want to ask you about the organ
or synthesizer that you're playing on this. It's so dark and so ominous. I
really like the sound of it. I have no idea what you're doing.
Mr. MILLS: Well, that makes two of us.
Mr. BUCK: Yes, Terry.
Mr. MILLS: Actually, what happened was I wandered into the studio, and Peter
and Scott McCoy were playing that song on guitars and I didn't know it. I'd
never heard it before, so I just sat down and started playing what came to
mind, and that's pretty much what's on the record. I didn't know what Michael
was going to write about lyrically, but I felt the darkness of the song and I
wanted a really angry keyboard sound. I didn't know why, but I did. So it's
basically just a nasty Farfisa run through a big old RAT pedal.
And then on top of that, we've got some more of the darkness and anger of that
song exists in the bass, the idea--Scott McCoy came up with the idea--it's a
bass through a really nasty fuzz pedal doubled with a bowed upright bass, also
through some nasty fuzz. And, you know, we just knew it was a big, ugly kind
of scary sound, and then after Michael put the lyrics on it we realized, `oh
my God, it sounds like a hurricane going by' which, you know, we're never
quite that literal, you know, with the music and the lyrics combining, but it
happened that way and it's just an excellent combination.
Mr. STIPE: I think it's one of those cases where the music, the original
music inspired me to write that lyric, and then you guys, having heard that
lyric, you took that original music and made it even more.
Mr. MILLS: Even more so, mm-hmm.
Mr. STIPE: Even more so. And it is a very ominous musical landscape.
GROSS: Peter, do you want to say anything about it before we hear it?
Mr. BUCK: Yeah, Michael said he wanted a song sort of a minute and a half
long, so when I wrote it, I had a clock, and I just looked at the minute hand
and after a minute and a half I was done. Just trying to throw as much stuff
on there as we could. So it's not always about the forethought, you know.
Sometimes it just occurs, and it just got uglier and weirder. I have noticed
that the more cinematic something is when you give it to Michael, the more
it'll catch his ear. So, you know, I think everyone's trying to bend it and
shape it into some strange way.
Ms. STIPE: Yeah.
GROSS: So why don't we hear "Houston." This is from R.E.M.'s new album,
(Soundbite of "Houston")
Mr. STIPE: (Singing) If the storm doesn't kill me
The government will
I've got to get that out of my head
It's a new day today
And the coffee is strong
I finally got some rest
So a man's put to task and challenges
I was taught to hold my head held high
Collect what is mine
Make the best of what today has
Houston is filled with promise
Laredo's a beautiful place
And Galveston sings like that song that I loved
Its meaning has not been erased
And so there are claims forgiven...
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's "Houston," from R.E.M.'s new CD, "Accelerate," and my guests
are Michael Stipe, the vocalist, Peter Buck, guitarist, Mike Mills, who plays
bass and keyboards.
And Mike, was there any synthesizer on that, too, or was that just pure organ?
Mr. MILLS: No, it's all analog. It's just an old Farfisa with some nasty
GROSS: So, do they still make Farfisas or is that an old organ?
Mr. MILLS: I don't know that they do, but we keep an eye out for them and
we've got one or two lying around because they're, you know, they have a very,
very distinct sound, and when that's what you want, that's what you have to
GROSS: Let's go back to when you all met in Athens, Georgia. And this would
be about what year? About...
Mr. STIPE: 1979.
GROSS: OK. Can you each describe something about how you knew you could play
with the others, that this would work, that you were compatible musically?
Mr. MILLS: Well, when we first got together in the old abandoned church, I
remember, like it was freezing. That's all I remember, it was really, really
cold. Bill Berry and I had played together in bands in Macon, Georgia, and we
had a couple of songs that we'd written back then and we showed them to Peter
and Michael, and I remember just loving what they both did with the songs.
Peter played guitar in a way that I'd never really heard anyone play before,
and even then Michael had a really great grasp on how to sing, and it was very
different from how I would have done it, which is what I was looking for. So
I just remember thinking, you know, I can do stuff with these guys.
GROSS: What was different about Peter's guitar playing than what you'd heard
Mr. MILLS: Peter...
Mr. BUCK: More inept.
Mr. MILLS: The finest ineptitude ever heard by man. Peter plays with an
arpeggiated style. I love saying this phrase: He has the best right hand in
the business. But instead of just thrashing away and strumming chords, which,
you know, what everyone does and it all tends to sound the same, you can
really create melody after melody after melody by arpeggiating with the right
hand, which is what Peter does, and it just opens up all this space for me to
noodle around on the bass, and I just hadn't really heard it that much at that
GROSS: Peter, how did you start playing that way?
Mr. BUCK: You know, I remember really liking The Byrds, the band The Byrds,
when I was learning to play the guitar, and I was so ignorant about music
that, not realizing that Roger was finger picking and using four fingers I
just worked really hard to imitate him using a flat pick, and by the time I
actually figured out that he was doing this kind of folk finger picking thing,
I was kind of flat picking in a way that was a little different and kind of, I
don't know, it wasn't my own style, necessarily, but it was at least a start.
GROSS: And Peter, what made you realize that you wanted to play these other
members of R.E.M., who weren't yet R.E.M.?
Mr. BUCK: Yeah, you know, it really was just the first rehearsal. I mean,
within a day or two we had eight or 10 kind of original songs--I mean, as
original as we were writing at that time, anyway--and they sounded good, you
know. We got better as songwriters, but it seemed to fit together really well
immediately which, you know, from what I heard later from other people,
doesn't usually happen. I mean, you don't usually get that kind of band
experience in the first day or two.
GROSS: And Michael?
Mr. STIPE: I felt like we had to write 20 or 25 songs before we really knew
what we were doing, because none of us were that proficient on our
instruments, Mike and Bill probably more so than Peter and I. When I started
the band it didn't occur to me that I would have to write lyrics. You know, I
just, I kind of had this kind of teenage kind of fantasy idea of what it was
to be in a band and to be able to tour and what have you, and it didn't
include the actual work. So it took me a while to come around to that.
GROSS: The impression I got from the first time we spoke in the '90s is that
when you started singing, you were just a little shy about it. Would that
Mr. STIPE: No, I was a little shy about everything, I think.
Mr. STIPE: I was pathologically so.
GROSS: Michael, you had said that, in 1985, you felt that you started to come
into your own and get more comfortable, you know, as a songwriter and
performer. Two years later, in '87, R.E.M. had its first real hit, "The One
I Love," and I'm wondering if you knew, when you recorded this, that this was
somehow going to be different, if it felt musically like something happened
that hadn't happened before?
Mr. STIPE: I always said, and I think I probably stole this from Peter or
Mike, I always said that I wouldn't know a hit single if it was sitting in my
lap, and I feel like perhaps the producer that we were working with on that
record had an idea that that song could make it onto the radio, or that our
time had come to be a top 40 radio band, but I certainly didn't recognize
Mr. BUCK: It was my, I think, eighth favorite song on that record, so, you
GROSS: Really? Uh-huh?
Mr. BUCK: It wasn't--it was like, yeah, we put it on side two. It was kind
of--but you know, I mean, that's fine. I mean, we didn't write it for any
particular reason other that we just wrote it, it popped up and then it was
kind of a hit, and, you know, I mean, hit singles are kind of meaningless in
their way. I mean, it's just a song that you wrote that day.
Mr. MILLS: I remember talking to--when we were making "Document," there was
something on "Document" that I really thought was a really great song--it
might've been "End of the World"--and I'm sure, thinking, you know, we've had
a hit, maybe this is another one. And I remember asking Scott Litt, `you
know, dude, when people are making these things'--I was like, `for example,
when Petula Clark and her producers were making "Downtown," did they know what
they were doing? Did they know what a great song they had?' He goes, `Yep.'
So sometimes people know, and sometimes you don't.
GROSS: One thing that sounds different to me in this era of the band is I
think, Michael, your voice is more out front as opposed to more in the mix,
and I guess I'm wondering how everybody felt about that.
Mr. BUCK: Well, you know, that was fine. When we did the first record, I
had a kind of picture in my head that, you know, it would be, wow, this weird
kind of, you know, like some record from the '60s that you just can't figure
out what the context was. It's just kind of this beautiful artifact. And,
you know, we weren't really guaranteed that we were going to get to do five
records or 14 or whatever. I mean, I was kind of thinking, `well, we'll get
this record and maybe if we're really lucky, we'll get another one.' And, you
know, "Murmur," that first record, that was kind of what I thought it should
be. It's kind of like a radio beacon from some other planet, you know.
And then it was like, `gee, we sold a few of those, we get to make another and
another after that.' And, you know, that kind of tends to focus you in a
different way. I mean, certainly, if we had thought, you know, radio airplay
was important, "Murmur" wouldn't sound like it does. But I think if we had
thought radio airplay was important, we would have made a not very good
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "The One I Love" from 1987, since we had been
talking about that, and this is R.E.M., and my guests are Michael Stipe, Peter
Buck and Mike Mills.
(Soundbite of "The One I Love")
Mr. STIPE: (Singing) This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I've left behind
A simple prop
To occupy my time
This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I love
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's R.E.M. from 1987, and my guests are Michael Stipe, Peter Buck
and Mike Mills of R.E.M. They have a new CD, which is called "Accelerate."
Now, that song led to a recording contract with Warner Brothers. How did it
change your lives to be with a major label? Let's start with how did it
change your music. Did the label--the label obviously was going to provide
more money than you had before to make an album, which opens up new
opportunities. What opportunities did the recording contract open, and were
there also suggestions of things the label wanted that you didn't necessarily
Mr. BUCK: We always had a great relationship with Warner Brothers. I mean,
they knew what they were getting when they signed us. We made it clear when
we signed with IRS, and Warner Brothers following that, that we had complete
creative control. We did what we want when we wanted how we wanted, which was
just so unbelievably rare in the music business. But nonetheless, that was
our demand, and that's what we got.
GROSS: Now, how did it change your lives on the road, to have like a major
label behind you and the money for a tour? How did it change, like, how you
got around, where you stayed, what your day-to-day life was like?
Mr. MILLS: It was exactly the same.
Mr. STIPE: It wasn't really that different.
Mr. BUCK: Yeah.
Mr. BUCK: You know, it--yeah, I mean, you know, it wasn't as if we got the
golden slipper and everything was great. I mean, we kind of, you know, we
just went out and played some more.
Mr. MILLS: We broke even or made money on every single tour we ever did from
the very beginning.
Mr. STIPE: Which is rare.
Mr. MILLS: Which is rare, but, I mean, you see all these people screaming
that they can't tour without corporate support and record company support,
that's just not true. We broke even or made money every single time without
any help from the record label. It was all--you know, we lived within our
means and took the door from the places we played and we lived in, you know,
one hotel room or one van or whatever it took. So we didn't want it to alter
anything. We didn't want to be in debt to anyone, we didn't want anyone to
have any control over what we did, so we did whatever was necessary to
maintain our freedom, and it worked out really well.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the band
R.E.M. with its lead singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck and bass
player Mike Mills. R.E.M. has its first CD in four years, called
"Accelerate." When we left off, we were talking about the band's early
I want to jump ahead to 1991 to your recording "Losing My Religion," and I
think it's a perfect record. I mean, it's a great song, great singing, and I
love the mandolin on it and the strings. But Peter, let's start with the
mandolin. Like, what made you think of a mandolin for this?
Mr. BUCK: You know, I think I was on the '89 tour and I just bought a
mandolin. I mean, it was just that simple. I had a day off in New York and
found this kind of strange--you know, I'm not sure what--it wasn't an American
mandolin. It was like Greek or something and it just, you know, I mean, it
was just something to do on the bus. You know, plunk around at the thing.
And so I kind of wrote it on mandolin. It wasn't--I didn't have any great
foresight, and I never really played mandolin that much. I mean, I think if
you added up the amount of time I played mandolin in my life, it might be 50
hours, and 49 hours of that would be playing "Losing My Religion" onstage. So
it's not as if I'm, you know--I didn't become an expert at it. It just became
just one of those things I started using. And I guess I was hanging around
with a bunch of folk musicians, and that kind of just entered my life a little
GROSS: And Michael, the phrase, "Losing My Religion," was that what came
first to you, lyrically? And how did it come to you as the title phrase of
Mr. STIPE: I don't remember writing the song at all.
Mr. STIPE: I remember singing it in the studio, but I don't remember writing
it. But the phrase comes from--I actually changed it. The phrase is "lost my
religion," and it's a Southern phrase that indicates something that has pushed
you so far that you question your faith.
Mr. BUCK: It's kind of like the '20s version of "blowing my mind."
GROSS: OK. So I'm going to play it. This is R.E.M., "Losing My Religion."
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. STIPE: (Singing) Oh, life, it's bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh, no, I've said too much
I set it up
That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh, no, I've said too much
I haven't said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's R.E.M., and my guests from R.E.M. are Michael Stipe, Peter
Buck and Mike Mills, and they have a new CD, which is called "Accelerate."
Do you guys still like the song?
Mr. BUCK: Oh yeah. Love it.
Mr. MILLS: Yes. Yes.
Mr. MILLS: It's a beautiful song.
GROSS: Isn't it? Yeah.
Mr. MILLS: It doesn't get old. It's the one song I'd say, we probably
played at basically every single show since we put the record out. And it's
always fun to play. I mean, anything that makes that many people that happy,
too, is, you know, is a fun thing to do.
GROSS: There was a period, skipping ahead just a few more years, in 1995,
when nearly everyone in the band was sick. The drummer then, Bill Berry,
collapsed onstage with a brain aneurysm. Peter, you had surgery for I think
an intestinal adhesion.
Mr. BUCK: That was Mike.
Mr. STIPE: No, that was Mike.
GROSS: That was Mike? Oh, OK.
Mr. BUCK: I've never been sick. I'm still healthy.
GROSS: Good, good, good. Keep it that way.
Mr. STIPE: Peter was looking both ways before he crossed the road.
Mr. BUCK: Yeah, I was definitely just going, well, you know...
GROSS: And Michael, you had emergency surgery for a hernia? A couple of
years after that, Bill left the band and, from what I've read, he said he
wasn't going to leave if it meant that the band would split up, and you
decided to all stay together. Was that the only time you've come close to
Mr. BUCK: You know what? I think being in a band is an ongoing process, and
I think that everyone at one point or another thinks, `you know, I could just
walk away from it.' And it's kind of nice knowing that you can walk away from
it. I can't imagine how resentful it would be if you just felt like, `OK, I
can never leave this band.'
Mr. STIPE: Yeah.
Mr. BUCK: But the freedom to walk away means that you don't have to. You
know, you totally--we're totally able to work and take some time off, you
know. And it's still an option to walk away from it. It isn't something that
I want to do.
Mr. MILLS: We've always given each other the freedom to do whatever we want
outside the band, which is, you know, not a difficult thing to grant, and it's
also helpful. I mean, you go out and you play with other people. You bring
back certain inspirations and ideas that you might not have had within your
little four walls, and, you know, it can be well to your advantage to do that.
GROSS: How do you think your songwriting process changed when the drummer
Bill Berry left the band in '97?
Mr. MILLS: Basically, well, we didn't really know what do, so we decided
that it meant we could do anything we wanted. We took away a lot of the
structure that we were using. We used a lot of drum machines as sort of a
secondary element rather than as a primary element. We wrote a lot on
keyboards--oh, not just myself, all of us. Started just, you know, using any
weirdo keyboard that we could find. We had an arsenal of these little strange
things, most of which aren't made anymore. And we just decided to try to turn
it to our advantage and say that all the rules are gone. There are no
songwriting structure rules. We can do literally anything we want here. You
know, and it just meant that once again, we had no idea what we were doing,
which is, in its own way, kind of liberating, and we just took it as an
opportunity to try and experiment and go in different places that we hadn't
GROSS: Do you feel like with the new CD that it's just kind of clicking for
you this time around, like this one...
Mr. MILLS: I have to say that, you know, I mean, I felt good about the
records that we made, you know, without Bill Berry, to one degree or another.
Some of them were more successful than others, but I'm pleased with all of
them to some degree. At the same time, as has been repeated ad nauseam, you
know, when Bill Berry left the band the dynamic radically changed. Everything
we knew no longer was something we could rely on, so we had to create a whole
new reality. We had to create a whole new dynamic, a whole new way of
working, as a three piece instead of a four piece. And, you know, we weren't
just missing one leg of the chair; we were missing Bill Berry, which was a
huge thing. And it's taken us, you know, I mean, I think we've gotten more
and more comfortable as it's gone along, but I think that probably right now,
you know, we're as comfortable with being a three piece as we've ever been...
Mr. STIPE: Yeah.
Mr. MILLS: ...and feel good about it.
Mr. STIPE: And I'll agree with Mike. I'm really proud of all the songs that
we've written since his departure from the band. I will say that, you know, I
think the album "Up" was a few songs too long. I think that the album
"Reveal" was quite beautiful. It was an idea and a concept and we took is as
far as we possibly could--to write an entire record that felt like a lazy
Mr. MILLS: Beautiful.
Mr. STIPE: And our last record, "Around the Sun," has, I think, beautiful
songs on it. We did lose some focus in the studio there on that record, and I
think that the live versions of those songs are better than the recorded
versions. And we have no one to blame but ourselves--I mean, the three of us
were responsible for losing focus, and we had a tremendous producer working
with us, Pat McCarthy, who had, I think, probably the most difficult job in
the world, which was to try to bring the three of us to some kind of solution,
you know, song by song.
But I'm really happy where the new record, where "Accelerated," has brought
us. We have a fine drummer in Bill Rieflin, who provides, I think, not only
the kind of grounding that you need from a drummer, but also a kind of muscle
to some of the vocals and to some of the ways that Peter plays guitar. And
what we've done is we've kind of, yet again, reinvented ourselves, playing on
our strengths, having gone through this kind of experimental phase where we
did kind of throw out possibly the baby with the bathwater, but we then came
back and kind of salvaged it.
GROSS: My guests are Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills of the band
R.E.M. They have a new CD called "Accelerate." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: I'd like to ask you each about your music background, some of which is
so, like, not the image of like the indie band performer. Like, Mike, you
were in marching band, which must have really been fun. I love marches.
Mr. MILLS: It was great fun. I carried a sousaphone around for a year or
two, and then we switched it over to electric bass for the high school
football games, and I had somebody tote my bass out onto the field, and I
stood there in a leisure suit and played electric bass while the band...
GROSS: Oh, I wish I'd seen that.
Mr. MILLS: You can see my high school yearbook sometime. It's got me in
GROSS: And Peter, I read that your first live concert was seeing "Jesus
Christ Superstar" in 1970. Is that right?
Mr. BUCK: Yeah, with my mom, and the guy next to me handed me a joint. I
GROSS: Did you take a toke?
Mr. BUCK: You know, I just looked at it and I looked at my mom and I just
kind of looked straight ahead. Yeah, no. It wasn't really my thing. Yeah,
you know, it was--actually, the first actual live performance I ever saw of
music was when I was in second grade and we lived in Richmond, California,
which was near San Francisco, and it was like 1964 or '5, and this band came
in and I remember they did "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Help" by The Beatles. They
had a 12-string guitar. They came to our school and played at the lunch hour.
I have no idea why. And I just remember thinking, that's cool, and all those
little girls got, you know, their arms autographed and stuff. It was all over
for me then.
GROSS: Michael, do you remember your first concert or your first, like, "this
is really great" music experience?
Mr. STIPE: Well, my first great music experience, I think, is probably
discovering punk rock when I was 15, and I went and bought the Patti Smith
album "Horses" the day that it was released.
GROSS: Were you...
Mr. STIPE: And decided then and there that that's what I was going to do
with my life was sing in a band.
GROSS: When you'd go to a club and hear punk rock, were you like a quiet,
restrained listener, or did you, you know, like, jump up and down and do the
Mr. STIPE: I jumped up and down and did the whole thing, but I also--my kind
of like incredible geek moment, or one of them, is that I was supposed to be
21 years old so I had a fake ID that said I was 24. I had really curly hair
at the time and chest hair, which was really rare for a 16, 17-year-old. So I
would wear my shirt unbuttoned down to my belly button to show the chest hair,
because I thought that made me look older, and I would pick my hair out so
that it looked like an afro and I'd wear platform shoes. So I was at the punk
rock show in platform shoes with a big afro, and my open shirt. It was a
little bit of a mixed message going on there.
Mr. STIPE: But I did see some--I saw some pretty good--well, I got in the
club. I mean, that's the good news.
Mr. STIPE: But I did see some pretty amazing bands, and I took pictures of
most of them with my camera--with my father's camera, actually--that I would
always carry with me back then.
GROSS: Michael, I don't know if you're interested in talking about this at
all or not, but people were, for so long, interested in knowing, like, what's
his sexual orientation. Is he gay, is he straight, is he bi?
Mr. STIPE: Right.
GROSS: And then in 2001 in an interview with Time magazine you said
that--I'll just quote the article. It said, "In the past, Stipe avoided
questions about his sexuality, but now he's more comfortable discussing it.
Quote, `I was being made to be a coward about it rather than someone who felt
like it was really a very private thing,' unquote. He now readily describes
himself as a quote `queer artist,' unquote."
Mr. STIPE: Right.
GROSS: What changed for you in 2001? Let me back up and say...
Mr. STIPE: What changed is I was misquoted in Time magazine.
GROSS: Oh. Oh.
Mr. STIPE: And I really liked the journalist, so it's not against him. But
when I said I was being made to be a coward, I was referring to the early
'90s, not to 2001. And in fact, with the band, with my friends and family, I
was always very open about my sexuality, but I felt like it was, for me, it
was a privacy issue as a public figure, and I felt like I gave away enough of
myself as a singer and as a public figure. But I did feel in the early '90s,
with ACT UP and with everything that was going on with AIDS, a lot of pressure
to speak openly about my sexuality, and so I did. And I think the first real
interview that I did where I spoke openly was in 1994, and then I was on the
cover of Out magazine and we put out the "Monster" album, which was, you know,
a very kind of overtly sexual record, and I talked about a lot of stuff then.
So I was kind of misquoted in the Time magazine thing. It wasn't quite--they
edited it down a little bit too much there.
GROSS: Uh-huh. Is it the kind of thing that you talk to the band about? I
don't mean your sexuality, I mean about whether to talk about it publicly or
Mr. STIPE: No. It never seemed like that big a deal to me, because it
felt--I don't know. I don't know. I always never know how to talk about
this. I always felt like sexuality was something that was kind of divided
into some very kind of black-and-white camps, and to me and to a lot of people
in my life, in fact, it's more of a fluid thing that that. And so, I would
not describe myself as either homosexual or bisexual because that just--I
think a little bit limiting--certainly not heterosexual. But I do think that,
you know, there's an idea that people are a percentage kind of one way or a
percentage another way, and some people are 100 percent homosexual. Some
people are 100 percent heterosexual. Some people, like myself, might be
70-30, or something like that. And I always never kind of--I thought, well,
that's kind of limiting, too. But the truth is, that's kind of probably what
it is. I'm...
GROSS: What, 70 gay, 30 hetero? Or...
Mr. STIPE: Yeah.
Mr. STIPE: Well, I would say I'm attracted to three women to every seven
men, something like that. I'm now, I'm in a 10-year relationship with a
Mr. STIPE: ...who I'm madly in love with, and it was really--it was trying
to honor the relationships before this one. Because there was love, but I was
not in love, and so there was a way of not talking about those relationships
was somehow honoring them.
GROSS: I want to end with another track from the new CD, and I thought we'd
play "Sing for the Submarine," and I'll ask you to talk about writing it.
Mr. MILLS: You know, I do--actually I remember the music part of it. I was
sitting backstage at some show in Italy and I was playing this kind of
ridiculously convoluted guitar line, and Michael walked by and stuck his head
in and said, `Hm. That's pretty good. Do you have a chorus?' `Yeah, here's
the chorus.' He goes, `Good remember that.' So I said, `OK, I'll remember
that.' And you know, it wasn't--I was actually just doing it to warm up my
fingers because it's kind of complicated. That said, I didn't really see how
there would be anything that Michael would find there to work with.
Mr. STIPE: And I had to dig deep for that one, God knows. But in that song,
it's about a submarine that's fueled by melody, and it takes place in an
imagined future, and it's really about a guy who's figured out a way to escape
from a city that's under siege or collapsing by going to the shore with his
loved one and singing and escaping to safety in the melody-fueled submarine.
Mr. BUCK: Which actually means it's about the power of the subconscious.
Mr. STIPE: Is that what it is?
Mr. BUCK: Yep.
Mr. STIPE: OK. Thank you, Peter, because I didn't know. I mean, God knows
we already have a pretty good submarine song in the pop canon that we didn't
need another one. But the song references a lot of other songs going back
through our 28 years of writing, and each of those songs, including this one,
are songs that come from my dream world, which takes place, since I was a
young--as long as I can remember, my dreams are set in a post-apocalyptic
future where everything's kind of torn down and put back together again and
held up by two-by-fours and kind of Scotch taped together.
Mr. BUCK: Much like the world we live in now.
Mr. STIPE: So I...
GROSS: How old were you when you started having those post-apocalyptic
Mr. STIPE: Well, as long as I've dreamt. I don't know. I had scarlet fever
when I was a kid, so maybe that kicked it off. But as long as I can remember,
my dreams were somewhere between--and I know other people have these dreams
because I look at pop culture, I look at film, I look at literature and
drawings and paintings, and other people live in the same world, I think, in
their dream world. But, you know, it's somewhere between "Children of Men"
and "Blade Runner." But it's a little bit happier.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. OK. Well, it's been great to talk with you all. Thank you
Mr. STIPE: Thank you.
Mr. BUCK: Thanks, Terry.
Mr. MILLS: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: ...for talking with us. And, you know, not that you need it, but good
luck with the new CD.
Mr. STIPE: Terry, thanks so much.
Mr. BUCK: Thanks indeed.
GROSS: Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills of the band R.E.M. Their new
CD is called "Accelerate." You can hear R.E.M.'s complete performance at the
recent South by Southwest music festival by going to our Web site,
freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. Here's
the song we were just talking about, "Sing for the Submarine."
(Soundbite of "Sing for the Submarine")
Mr. STIPE: (Singing) I tried to explain how it all begins
How it's all destroyed and built again
I knew that you could not believe me
But now you're here, and it's different
How the lights shine in your eyes
In every second a century
It's then that I realized
That the world as we know it
The high-speed train
We'll pick it all up and start again
It's all here where I keep it
It's all in the submarine
It's all a lot less frightening
Then we would have had it be
And that's the good news, my darling
It is what it's going to be
So sing, sing for the submarine
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's music from R.E.M.'s new CD "Accelerate."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: John Powers on "Lust, Caution," the new Ang Lee film
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Taiwanese director Ang Lee has made several acclaimed films, from "Sense
and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm" to "Brokeback Mountain," for which he won
the Oscar for Best Director. But his most recent film, "Lust, Caution,"
received a lukewarm response when it came out here last fall. The film has
just come out on DVD, and our critic at large John Powers says it tells a
story about China that could hardly be more timely.
Mr. JOHN POWERS: How you feel about a movie often depends on where you're
coming from, sometimes literally. A good example of this is "Lust, Caution,"
which was treated here as a sex-laced espionage thriller. Most American
critics found the movie dull. Too much caution and not enough lust, one of
them joked. But on a recent trip to Asia, I discovered that nearly everyone
there thought it was great. "Lust, Caution" was a huge hit, making 15 times
as much money abroad as it did in the US.
Now the movie's out on DVD in two versions: the NC-17 original, and a
less-steamy R-rated cut, and if you haven't seen it, I think you'll find that
the Asian audiences were right. But keep one thing in mind. While "Lust,
Caution" does boast racy sex scenes worth of "Last Tango in Paris," this is
not an action-packed spy thriller. Instead, like another Bertolucci movie,
"The Conformist," it unfolds slowly, even dreamily. What it's actually about
is the gradually shifting consciousness of its heroine, an ordinary young
woman caught in the whirlpool of history.
The story takes place in Hong Kong and Shanghai, during the Japanese
occupation of World War II. The heroine is Wong Chia Chi--we'll call her Miss
Wong--played by a newcomer named Tang Wei. Miss Wong is a shy, aspiring
actress who gets recruited into a resistance plot to assassinate a big-shot
collaborator named Mr. Yee. He's played by the great Hong Kong actor Tony
Leung. Miss Wong pretends to be the wife of an out-of-town tycoon, luring Mr.
Yee into an affair that will make this cautious man vulnerable to a hit team.
She follows the plan perfectly. Normally rather plain looking, Miss Wong
flowers into a ravishing creature who not only lets herself be lured into bed,
but throws herself into their lovemaking with utter abandon. In fact, she
performs the role of Mr. Yee's lover with such conviction that she runs the
risk of forgetting who she really is. It's a confusion of identity that
threatens disaster. The question is, disaster for whom?
"Lust, Caution" is based on a story by Eileen Chang, perhaps the most worldly
Chinese fiction writer of the last century. I'd recommend her collection of
stories from the '40s called "Love in the Fallen City." Chang focused on
characters, especially women, whose identities become unmoored because of
their mercurial desires and because of society's rapidly changing values,
modernity's head-on collision with Chinese tradition.
Chang's heroines are forever playing roles that don't fit their real selves
and are often quite illicit. All this role-playing makes Chang's works ideal
for the Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee, a quiet, seemingly square man who is
actually a sneaky radical. He's not a gaudy stylist like Bertolucci or Paul
Thomas Anderson, nor is he an overt troublemaker like Michael Moore, but he
constantly pushes the envelope of what's expected and accepted, whether it's
bringing kung fu into the Western mainstream with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon," or making "Brokeback Mountain," a matter-of-fact love story about two
In "Lust, Caution," Lee pushes against two Chinese taboos. The obvious one is
erotic. Lee clearly wants to open up sexual themes to Chinese audiences. But
he also wants to expand political freedom by telling a story that challenges
party mythology about the national history. All these years later, the
government still wants to bury the fact that some Chinese, like Mr. Yee,
collaborated with the Japanese.
Of course, there's a risk to annoying party commissars, even in this year when
China is using the Olympics to put on its best face. Just as the fictional
Miss Wong gets into trouble by playing someone she isn't, so the real-life
actress Tang Wei has gotten in trouble for playing Miss Wong. Charged with
being lewd and politically incorrect, she's been banned by her government.
The mainland will no longer show Tang's movies or commercials--she's a
cosmetics spokeswoman--and the press has been told not to mention her name.
All this shows yet again that the Chinese government is still often painfully,
even ridiculously repressive.
But it's important to realize that the government isn't the whole story about
China, which is changing even faster today than it was in Eileen Chang's time.
The underlying truth is that people there liked "Lust, Caution." They flocked
to it in theaters and bought it on bootleg DVDs. One young idealist even
tried to sue the government for trimming the sex scenes. While party
apparatchiks may be on top for now, it's the people, including sneaky rebels
like Ang Lee, who are actually leading China into the future.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.
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