REM on Out of Time at 25: ‘Being the voice of a generation is not a pretty place to be’

From the Guardian

Their seventh album made them superstars. But the fame cost REM a band member and, nearly, their friendships. In a rare interview, five years after splitting, they discuss legacy, Trump and why they’re still sorry for Shiny Happy People

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REM in 1991 (from left): Mike Mills, Bill Berry, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck. Photograph: Lawrence Lawry/LFI/Photoshot

Michael Stipe stops in mid-sentence. Something is bothering him. “I’m gonna fix your collar,” he says. “It’s gonna drive me crazy. I wouldn’t think of anything but your collar for the rest of my life.” He stands up, walks around the table from his side to mine, and – as every fibre of my being screams, “Do not touch me. I am British. I am repressed. I do not like complete strangers invading my space” – he stands behind me and carefully rearranges my collar until it is to his satisfaction.

There’s a certain irony. It’s me invading Stipe’s space, for one thing. The former REM singer is, as he puts it, “insanely shy” – he eschews eye contact for much of our conversation, and much of his face is now hidden behind a beard of ZZ Top proportions – and interviews in the latter years of REM often portrayed an antsy man, niggling with his interlocutors, ill at ease with something. He’s here today on a hot October afternoon, back at REM HQ in Athens, Georgia, to talk about the 25th anniversary of the album Out of Time, the one with Losing My Religion on, the one that sold 18m copies and made them famous around the world. And he seems a lot happier than he did in those final REM interviews before they disbanded in 2011. In fact, he’s a delight.

When REM split, he says, he wondered: “‘Well, who am I now?’ But it didn’t knock me over. I thought it would. But I was like, ‘Wow! Now I can read a book! I can listen to other music! I can create a new voice for myself!’ And that’s what I’ve spent the last five years doing. Five years and a few weeks. I love the post-REM me. I actually do. And that’s not a therapist talking. I just like where I’m at. It feels really good.”

The previous evening in the one Athens restaurant that serves until midnight – having polished off a plate of three different kinds of oysters and a bowl of clam chowder, washed down with three glasses of chenin blanc – bassist Mike Mills seemed equally at ease. It had been the Ryder Cup the previous weekend and he had been watching it – “Davis Love is a great friend of mine” – and you rather get the impression that REM’s principal function was to enable Mills to fulfil a lifelong dream of watching professional sport wherever and whenever he likes. Does he miss REM? “Not really. I went to a U2 show earlier this year. For the first two or three songs, I was thinking, ‘I could be doing this.’ And then … ‘BUT I’M NOT! IT’S GREAT! Let those boys carry on. I’m perfectly happy to be a spectator!’”

It’s easy to forget quite how good REM were. They weren’t always good – Stipe reckons they put out “several great records – and a couple of stinkers” – but whatever way you cut it, they were perhaps the most wonderful American band of the 80s and 90s, the founding fathers of what became known as “alt-rock”. Their first album, Murmur, was perfect, a misty and mysterious reverie. They followed that with one miraculously good record after another, and while people might disagree on where things started slipping, one could make a case for every album up to and including their 10th, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, being a classic, and for much of their later work being unduly neglected.

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