THE COMPASS POINTS THE WORKERS HOME »
Here’s something Michael Stipe says you might not know about him: He’s a road warrior. A real road warrior. A sentiment many of you can understand — whether you’re on the road for work or because you’ve elected to have a fluid lifestyle. Stipe picks up and goes every two weeks. R.E.M. isn’t planning to tour for Collapse, and many rock stars elect to use the lull between albums and tours as battery-recharging time. Stipe, on the other hand, uses this time to see even more of the world than his professional career has already allowed.
There’s a method to Stipe’s love of life on the road: He plans trips between his New York home, his home in Athens, his old stomping grounds of Los Angeles and, most recently, his newfound destination of interest: Berlin.
But there’s an impulsive side as well. “My friend is having an art show in London,” he says. “I found out at dinner the other night. My boyfriend and I told her, at the table, that we will be there. ‘We’ll be at the opening of your art show.’ It was very much in the moment.”
His bandmates are no different. Most of them maintain a residence in Athens, where it all began, and split their time between their adoptive hometowns. Bassist Mike Mills can be found part time in Los Angeles. Guitarist Peter Buck spends his days in Seattle; in Portland, Ore.; and throughout Hawaii. Longtime manager Bertis Downs is partial to New Hampshire. Stipe says the band is extremely close — the kind of close that 30 years on the road together fosters. Their schedules just don’t always jibe in their downtime.
“I love to travel: I love what it offers; I love the opportunity and the vista that opens up to me as a very visual person.”
Which leads to the question of home. Where is it? Athens seems like the default answer, but R.E.M. hasn’t been an exclusively college-town, University of Georgia native-son band since the release of Murmur in 1983.
“My sense and my idea of home is as someone who has lived a nomadic or peripatetic lifestyle,” he says. “I think a lot on airplanes, of all places, about: What is home? What does it mean? It’s an abstraction. It’s a feeling. It’s a sense. It’s a decision.” People who spend a lot of time in the sky know this one carnal truth: Home is where you make it. They also, at some point, use the romantic setting — the light drone of jet engines, the view of the land below, the conversation time with the person in the seat next to them — to introspectively analyze who they are and what brought them to that very moment. For Stipe, that realization continues to come in the form of bracing humility. “I never thought I was very good at what I do,” he begins. “That’s why perhaps the most important quality in a person, even beyond curiosity, is humility. Not false humility. Not false modesty, but a real humility. It’s an understanding that you really are no better than anyone else. You’re just fortunate to do something that other people respect or like or can pull something from.”
ALL YOU HEAR IS TIME STAND STILL IN TRAVEL »
This interview is different. It might be because of the low-key setting — just a couple of guys picking at salads and drinking coffee in New York City. It might be because R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe is so eloquent in conversation that the questions and answers come naturally, like you’re speaking with your cousin or a good family friend. It might be because Stipe has an encyclopedic knowledge about fashion and music, yes, but also about the world and the people in it: a general and genuine curiosity and an inherent fondness for how and where they spend their days. Or this interview is different because Michael Stipe — military kid, former art student, admitted dyslexic, humanitarian — never once put himself or his band on a pedestal. Perhaps this interview is different because of my water-in-the-face realization that one of my musical heroes is just one of us.