Michael Stipe on the Music That Made Him

The R.E.M. leader chronicles the songs and albums that have meant the most to him—from Patti Smith’s teenage liberation to Madonna’s perfect pop—five years at a time.
Michael Stipe on the Music That Made Him
Photo by David Belisle. Graphic by Maddy Price.

Before he launches into a breathless paean to the many musical heroes that have helped forge his very being over the last 61 years, Michael Stipe needs to get a couple of disclaimers out of the way. Even though he’s done countless interviews over the last four decades—most of them during his tenure as the frontman for R.E.M., perhaps the greatest alt-rock band to ever jangle, riff, and croon—he’s never done one like this, detailing his favorite records at certain ages. By the way, he’s also terrible with time. “Things that happened eight years ago feel like they happened 15 years ago, or yesterday,” he explains over the phone from Athens, Georgia, the city where R.E.M. formed in 1980. And he admits that he’s not great at whittling down the thousands of songs, albums, and artists that have made their mark on his psyche to just a select few. Considering all that, this particular assignment was “really challenging” for him. But, he adds, it was also a lot of fun.

This excitement is palpable as he talks through his choices. His voice is soft and craggy, his cadence quick, his mind racing with memories, people, moments. The list is eclectic, folding in bubblegum pop, unvarnished folk, grunge, electronic music, and more. This feels especially right given that the interview is taking place around the 25th anniversary reissue of R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, their most stylistically diverse album. (Stipe currently counts that record and 2001’s Reveal as his personal favorite R.E.M. LPs.) While New Adventures may not include the band’s biggest hits, it showcases them at the peak of their power: each song conjures its own universe, with Stipe’s poignant lyricism and vocals guiding the way. The record once opened up my brain to the vast, strange possibilities of popular music, just like the following music rearranged Stipe’s own synapses throughout his life.

Various Stipe school portraits throughout his youth. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Beatles: “Komm, gib mir deine Hand

Michael Stipe: I was born in Georgia, but not in Athens. My father was in the Army, so we moved to Germany when I was 6, and we lived there for two years in the mid-’60s. There was this German woman with a cabbage garden who cleaned our apartment and babysat us when my mother and father were off working. I went to her house one afternoon, and she left me in the living room. She had an old-school radio on a tall shelf, and it was playing this song. I just stood there and stared up and wondered what on Earth I was listening to. The song was “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles, but sung in German. They actually recorded that song in German, and it was a big hit there.

I’m not really a Beatles fan, though. I acknowledge their genius, but I’m just not the generation that grew up with them. It’s not something I’m personally drawn to, and that’s gotten me into a lot of trouble in the past.

A 6-year-old Stipe in Germany. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Banana Splits: “I Enjoy Being a Boy (In Love With You)

I was in Texas when I turned 10 in 1970, near Fort Hood, in the middle of the state. My mother and father had just gotten their first stereo. I went to a record store with my mom and my sisters and my maternal grandmother, and Nana said: “You can pick out any records that you want.” We picked out the Elvis Presley album for his film Double Trouble, which I think was in the cutout bin at that point, and The Parent Trap soundtrack—which indicates how little music was in our lives.

The only music that I really had was what was on pop radio in the middle-of-nowhere Texas and what was on TV: the Monkees, the Archies, and particularly the Banana Splits, who were a band of animals that were created for a children’s TV show. The big elephant was my favorite. It was bubblegum pop. We begged my mother to get a certain type of breakfast cereal because you could cut out records that were imprinted on the back of the box. Those records sounded terrible, with a lot of distortion, but it’s all we knew. There was the song “I Enjoy Being a Boy (In Love With You)” by the Banana Splits. I could still sing it to you right now, a cappella—for $7,000.

Anyway, that record store owner also handed us a couple of singles for free as we were leaving because I guess we were charming. One of them was Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” which I wound up covering years later with R.E.M. And another one was “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles, if you can believe it.

Stipe and his accordion at age 10. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Patti Smith: “Birdland

At this point, my father moved to Illinois for his work, and we were living in a small town called Collinsville, outside of East St. Louis. I was in high school detention one day—not for anything bad, I wasn’t a bad kid—and someone had left a Creem magazine under the desk. I read this article about the CBGB scene and I felt like I found my people. I was not a popular kid. I was teased and bullied a great deal. But I started secretly identifying with the people in New York’s punk scene: New York Dolls, Television, Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads. That was my new hang. As an outsider, it provided me with a place where I felt a kinship.

There was a picture of Patti Smith in the article, so I bought her album Horses on the day that it came out and sat all night listening to it. “Birdland” was the one that just completely lifted me. I had this epiphany and realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life: learn how to sing and start a band. All the punk rockers were saying, “We’re not special people,” and “Anyone can do this,” and I took that very literally as a 15-year-old. Of everything on this list, this is the most significant moment for me.

The B-52’s: The B-52’s

My father retired, and he and my mother moved to Athens, Georgia in 1978. I stayed in East St. Louis and was living with a punk band while going to my first quarter of college there. But I soon ran out of money and came to Georgia. Back then, I thought Athens was just this very small college town full of hippies and granola. Everything was beige. It must’ve been the most boring place on Earth for an 18-year-old punk rocker like me.

But as it turns out, Athens was the home of the B-52’s and this whole underground scene. That first B-52’s album still hasn’t gotten the recognition that it deserves as one of the most groundbreaking and influential records of all time—most certainly on me and everyone around the Athens scene. When all the punks in New York were still putting safety pins in their cheeks, the B-52’s were like, “Well, that’s what you do, and this is what we do and this is how we do it.” It was just fucking scorched earth.

Right around that time, I fell into this group of nascent punk rockers in Athens. I met Peter Buck, and we decided to start a band through our roommate Kathleen O’Brien. We met Bill Berry, who Kathleen was dating at the time, and Bill knew Mike Mills from Macon, Georgia. That was the beginning of R.E.M. But we were just learning how to write songs. We were toddlers—not even toddlers, we were still pissing our diapers.

There were all these records that came out around then that were so profoundly important. A lot of it had to do with the B-52’s traveling up to New York and coming back and saying, “You gotta hear this unbelievable record by this band called Joy Division.” Wire put out their third album, 154, which was not punk rock at all. It was more Kraftwerk-y and electronic, very soft music. That was very shocking. And back in Athens, Pylon had this very art-school approach that I was looking at and listening to and taking notes on. I definitely pulled a great deal from them.

Stipe at 20 in 1980. Photo courtesy of the artist.

R.E.M.: “I Believe” and “These Days

We were five years into R.E.M., and I was going through profound depression and a nervous breakdown that took a year and a half to work through. We were still touring and making records and marching forward at this insane velocity, which didn’t help my situation at all.

We played a festival in Belgium where Lou Reed was also performing, and I met him that day. He wasn’t terribly friendly to me, but we had covered a couple of his songs, so he said hello. That same day I lacerated my eyes really badly with these really dirty contact lenses—I had neglected them for three or four months at that point—and accidentally blinded myself. I had to wear bandages over my eyes for 10 days. I’m an extremely visual person, and during that time I had these crazy dreams. “I Believe” and “These Days” were basically written as a way for me to remember what those dreams were.

Meanwhile, the band picked up from Belgium and traveled through Heathrow to New York and onto Seattle, where I was finally able to take the bandages off and see again. I’ll never forget looking out the window onto the street in Seattle and feeling this elation. Something had happened. I had this turning point that was deeply profound and important. I took those bandages off my eyes and came out of the depression. I felt emboldened and strong enough to carry on. I was a different person from that day forward.

R.E.M. circa 1985. Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images.

Nirvana: Nevermind

Peter had moved to Seattle and started a family, and Kurt and Courtney bought the house next door. So suddenly, we were spending a lot more time in Seattle. Kurt and I bonded over a love of music. We felt like contemporaries, although I had 10 years on him. We were doing what we did, and there was a lot of crossover there.

People who are pushed toward the arts are sometimes flying a little too close to the sun. A lot of them are outsiders with a desire to express themselves or their position. And a big part of the job is that you find yourself on tour and performing in this adrenalized state that is sustained for, in my experience, a year and a half or two years at a time. When you’re moving at that velocity, stopping is a mighty, horrid crash. It’s devastating. And immense depression comes from that. Kurt was dealing with that.

Underworld: “Born Slippy.NUXX

When we were in London during the Monster tour, Underworld called me at my hotel and said, “Let’s do something together. Come on in and you can sing.” I thought it would be fun. So I met with them and said, “Do you have a track that I can listen to and base melodies on?” And they’re like, “No.” I said, “Well, that’s not how it works. I need something to bounce off.” They said, “We don’t have anything.” So that particular moment passed me by.

Then they went on to record “Born Slippy,” and [Underworld’s] Karl Hyde stepped in as a singer because they needed a track for Trainspotting, which was a big musical touchpoint for a lot of people back then. I think my refusing to sing kind of pushed Karl to step forward and helped that song become the incredible song that it is.

R.E.M. circa 1995. Photo by Santiago Bueno/Sygma via Getty Images.

Neutral Milk Hotel: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

This Neutral Milk Hotel record was written on the same street where I do a lot of my work here in Athens. [NMH leader] Jeff Mangum and the whole Elephant 6 collective were doing this really incredible live performance stuff everywhere all the time. They really reinvigorated the Athens scene and brought something very unique, and it felt incredibly collaborative. They were thoughtful towards R.E.M. and towards me, saying complimentary things about the work that we did, so I felt included in that particular movement.

Another big album for me around this time was the soundtrack to Velvet Goldmine, a film all about glam rock that I was an executive producer on. I was spending time in London, where we were filming, and working with a lot of different musicians. I recall specifically one breakfast at a hotel that was recommended by Elton John, where [director] Todd Haynes invited Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, and the cast of the film. I think the two Brians had not sat at a table together for over a decade at that point. Through Velvet Goldmine we were bringing together members of Roxy Music again, because they were signing off on a bunch of songs for the movie. That was pretty wild. I think Thom Yorke was also there because he was involved in that soundtrack, too.

Madonna: “Hung Up

This was one of the first times ABBA allowed anyone to sample one of their songs—and it’s Madonna of all people, who I’ve always really admired as a lyricist and artist. It’s just an incredible pop song, and she’s provided us with some great pop music through the years. I think “Ray of Light” might be my favorite song of hers, and I really love that album too. I love pop music. It’s all the same thing: R.E.M. were very earnest and sincere, and Madonna was more surface and pop and bubble gummy. But I love a good pop song. It doesn’t matter where it’s coming from.

Madonna also gave me advice when I was making Reveal, because I was really lost. So thank you for that, Madonna.

Stipe and Madonna in 2007. Photo by Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.

Santogold: Santogold

This album is just filled with incredible songs, and with a presentation the likes of which we haven’t really seen since. It definitely recalled my punk rock days—CBGB and Debbie Harry and female power. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were mind-blowing to me as well. As a 50-year-old, I was seeing this re-energized scene happening out of New York that was pulling from the same references that were incredibly inspiring for me as a teenager.

Fischerspooner: Sir

R.E.M. had disbanded in 2011. I stepped away from music for a long time and stopped doing a lot of things that I was used to doing on a day-to-day basis. I needed to recalibrate who I was as a 55-year-old man.

Around 2015, Casey Spooner asked me for some advice on a song, and I went into the studio in New York. The song needed work. It was not very good, but it had some really great ideas, so I wound up co-writing it. And then he asked me for help with another song, just arrangement ideas, and that one needed some work too. I wound up producing the album, which was released in 2018, and I’m really proud of it. It was fascinating for me to co-write songs and work with someone else’s voice.

Now I’m working on a bunch of solo material of my own. It’s exciting to be a solo artist, and I’m putting out a few singles, and that’s really fun.

Photo by Burak Cingi/Redferns

Robyn live at Madison Square Garden

My boyfriend [photographer Thomas Dozol] loves music, and he comes from a really different place. He’s French and in his mid-40s, so his perspective is quite different from mine in terms of what he grew up with. I went to see Robyn perform at Madison Square Garden in 2019 with my boyfriend and his friends, who are giant Robyn fans. I knew her music, because he plays it around the apartment, but I had never seen her perform live. At Madison Square Garden, I was easily the oldest person there, but I was looking around at this younger generation fucking taking over, and Robyn onstage just nailing it. It was a great show.