“The angriest pacifist in the world”: talking politics with Michael Stipe

Yesterday I wrote an obituary for R.E.M. for the Guardian website and went back to the transcript of an interview I conducted with Michael Stipe to promote the R.E.M. Live DVD in 2007. Given that I hadn’t yet started work on 33 Revolutions Per Minute I was surprised how much we talked about politics, and impressed by how thoughtful his answers were. Only a few quotes made it into the Guardian piece and, subsequently, the book, so I thought now was a good time to post that portion of the interview in full.

DL: On the DVD you actually say that some of the songs are songs of protest. Most people shy away from that term these days.

MS: We released Final Straw on our website in the days before my country invaded Iraq. I’d never as a lyricist shied away from our personal activism or the things that work their way into the lyrics, whether I want them to be there or not. The most important thing in doing what I do as a lyricist is I think is not to be too conscious about where you’re going with material, but allow a more unconscious voice to do that that, to make those choices. And then my job is to edit out the crap, y’know. We live in really disturbing times, and I think anyone in any time in written history could say that. But we’re here right now. And I come from a really fucked up place right now. I love my country so much and I love what it represents. I don’t love where it is right now. And so that finds its way into the material.

DL: You seem personally depressed about the state of America right now

MS: I’m like a cynical optimist and the angriest pacifist in the world. I feel like we will rise above this, but sometimes it seems very bleak and the re-election of the current administration and the kind of whittling away at the one document that really holds us together as a country, that represents what America represents to the rest of the world, is something that just seems to have been forgotten and washed away in what is a huge cloud of media spin.

DL: After the 2004 election result how did you feel about the value of the Vote for Change tour?

MS: Obviously it was incredibly depressing that the current administration were brought back into office by whatever means that happened. The Vote for Change tour and the energy around it went on and mushroomed into a bunch of other… I feel like it was really great thing for the people who were involved with it. I don’t think we were preaching to the converted. I see now with the building up to the next national election, I see the result — basically personal activism, recognizing that the individual does have a voice in a democracy and brought together as a large group you can shift public opinion or spotlight things that you think are important.

DL: is it more potent performing those songs in America rather than Europe? When you played Final Straw at Hyde Park in 2005 there weren’t many Bush backers in the audience.

MS: Making that announcement here versus the US was a very different thing. Basically, by making that announcement here, I’m just calling for massive applause. In the US, I was calling for something to fucking throw something at my head. That’s not to say we have a right-wing audience, but our audience runs the gamut and I’m glad that they do. I want to be inclusive in the work that we do.

DL: Political activism for any artist is a rocky path. There are risks.

MS: I think I’ve gone too far in the past. In the 1980s, I was made to be something that I wasn’t. I became dangerously close to being the poster boy of a generation for various social and political ideologies and I hung away from that. It is who I am and it is who we are. Not a poster boy, but someone who’s concerned and someone who… it’s a very rocky and dangerous path cos you’re easily shot down if you come out too strong, or if you’re too scattershot or if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

DL: Do you compare notes with Thom Yorke or Bono?

MS: Yeah, you figure out the best possible way to present yourself because there is the idea that a pop star has no right to voice their opinion. And y’know I just always kinda blandly announce that I was a person before I was a pop star and I’m due my opinion as much as anyone.

DL: Did you realise in the late 80s that you weren’t the Bono-type personality who could feel comfortable dealing directly with politicians and your activism could not go that route?

MS: It did go that route, in ways that were successful and we did do some kind of amazing thing in a period of about three years. The one that comes to mind is a thing we did in Washington. We brought together the four largest environmental organisations in the US and brought them to one table, at which point we realised that these four organisations had never sat at the same table together, they’d never communicated. That might say more about charitable organisations.

DL: I notice you told one interviewer that they could get your thoughts on Bush and Iraq from listening to I Wanted To Be Wrong from Around the Sun but it struck me as much more ambiguous than Final Straw.

MS: Final Straw is pretty obviously a post 9/11 song. That was as much about being in New York on September 11 2001 and experiencing that first-hand. That song was a part of my healing… I hate that term, it wasn’t really healing, it was dealing with it. Then [I Wanted to Be Wrong] was just complete shock at how that had been turned upside down and turned into two wars. I wanted to be wrong. It’s pretty obvious; it’s all there. It’s a guy — and it’s not necessarily me — but it’s a guy who’s just looking at something that he loves a great deal, and in complete shock at how wrong it could possibly have gone. There’s a reference to Lennon in that song, about rattling your jewelry, that I really love… It’s for me very much about something that my country has never really dealt with, which is that we, by escaping and forming our own thing several hundred years ago, tried to distance ourselves from the class system and in doing so, set up our own class system but without the vocabulary to be able to easily move through it. As is often the case in my country, it falls along racial divides, we’ve all heard this story before, but in times like this, and under an administration like this, you find the very very worst coming out in people. You throw huge lobs of fearmongering in there and you have a pretty dire situation. So I was just looking around and thinking, How can it have come to this? We represent something so much bigger and better than this.

DL: Are you savouring the schadenfreude of seeing the Bush administration unravel since Hurricane Katrina?

MS: It’s a day late and a dollar short, or several billion dollars short, if you ask me.

DL: You can’t help but think, if only it had happened two years earlier.

MS: Try 22 years earlier.