The alt-rock icon looks back on a quarter century of his band’s classic eighth album Automatic for the People
“Can you hear me okay? I’ve put you on speakerphone as my ear hurts a little.”
R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe is at the headquarters of Dolby Europe in London, sat alone at what he’s been reliably informed is the largest conference table in the world. Although Friday rush hour blares beyond on mute, the 57-year-old is the sound of pure Zen as he prepares to look back at a record he made a quarter of a century ago.
That one record, Automatic for the People, changed a lot of people’s lives. Released on October 5, 1992, it was an insta-classic, proving the widescreen payoff of a vision that R.E.M. had steadily edged towards over 12 years and eight studio albums. From “Everybody Hurts” and “Nightswimming” to “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and Andy Kaufman ode “Man on the Moon”, Automatic’s singles burst forth, each as vital and earworming as the next. Throughout the whole of the 90s, those songs seemed to seep out of stereos and passing cars everywhere you went.
Formed in the southern college town of Athens, Georgia in 1980, R.E.M. rapidly established themselves as indie darlings who combined musical clout with a sociopolitical conscience. A fiercely private individual, Michael Stipe gradually emerged as an artist, frontman and cryptic lyricist with a growing awareness of the world around him, artfully speaking out about the likes of the environment (“Cuyahoga”) politics (“Exhuming McCarthy”) and American foreign policy (“Orange Crush”). Before arriving as a commercial force in the early 90s, and being regarded by bands such as Nirvana and Radiohead as alternative rock’s supreme forerunners, R.E.M. spent the 80s establishing themselves as one of the most informed left-of-mainstream bands of the era.
Automatic For The People has just been given a 25th anniversary deluxe reissue, offering a new vantage point to re-assess its towering legacy. Despite telling me that he “despises” nostalgia, Stipe can’t shirk the shadow that looking back to the time of its recording casts upon his mind. “It’s strange,” he says. “I’m not very good – and R.E.M. were never very good – at looking backwards. But this is such a landmark record in our lives and career, and so iconic for each of the four of us, that looking at it from the perspective of a 57-year-old is quite intense. I was 31 when I started writing these songs and 32 when Automatic was released. It really is quite something to acknowledge to oneself: ‘This is something that I did a lifetime ago.’”
“It was the last decade of the century and the advent of the computer age... The Berlin wall had come down. There was transition and revolution in the air, and I feel this record in a way had its finger on the pulse of that” – Michael Stipe
When R.E.M. exploded in early 1991 following the release of their three-time Grammy-award-winning LP Out of Time – the band’s second album on Warner Bros, following several years on indie imprint I.R.S. – Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry were already plotting something of a U-turn. “With Automatic for the People, we were actively trying not to include songs that we felt sounded too much like R.E.M.,” says Stipe. “We were trying to escape from being pigeonholed into a certain type of box. You know the one: R.E.M., that band with the jangly pop song with the kind of sad but poppy vocal over the top.”
Sure enough, while still packing a familiar punch, Automatic saw R.E.M. dial it down a few notches to produce an album of refined baroque pop that reflected the growing pains of a generation. “There was an undercurrent everywhere of transition; of things changing dramatically,” he says. “It was the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s. It was the last decade of the century and the advent of the computer age. This was the first record that I wrote on a computer; the first time I sung lyrics backlit by a computer screen. In America we had Reagan and Bush for almost 12 years; in Britain there was Thatcher. The Berlin wall had come down. There was transition and revolution in the air, and I feel this record in a way had its finger on the pulse of that.”
In early 1991, R.E.M. were swiftly guided into the mainstream via Out of Time’s two stratospheric singles, “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”. All of a sudden, Stipe found himself thrust into the limelight, a successful, unpigeonholeable star in a predominantly straight, white, male alternative rock scene. Having publically announced his sexuality during the promotion for Automatic’s heavily-anticipated follow-up Monster in 1994, the 57-year-old later said, “Not many public figures had stepped forward at this point to speak their truth. I was happy to stand beside those who had. What I had thought was fairly obvious the entire time I had been a public figure was now on record. It was a great relief.” Just as Prince, Bowie, Morrissey and others helped realign normative perceptions of male artists in pop music before him, Stipe – alternative hero-turned-pop culture icon – advocated the sheer breadth of fluidity with which sexuality and identity presents itself in each and every individual, famous or otherwise.
Mirroring the wider sense of worldly change circa the recording of Automatic for the People was how Stipe’s lyrics wrestled with the most defiant of beasts. On this occasion, mortality – a subject the band had flirted with on-and-off – zoomed into sharp focus. “The transition from Out of Time to Automatic for the People is not just political or cultural change, but also the big transition from life into death,” says Stipe. “It deals with this very difficult topic for most of us – or certainly most Americans or people who come from a Christian background. We don’t have a good relationship with death; talking about it, confronting or dealing with it. When we made this album, an entire community had been decimated by AIDS and, on a personal level, that had a profound impact on me. That was very difficult, but I think Automatic for the People reflected all of that quite beautifully.”
“Certainly most Americans or people who come from a Christian background... don’t have a good relationship with death... When we made this album, an entire community had been decimated by AIDS and, on a personal level, that had a profound impact on me” – Michael Stipe
Since amicably calling it a day during the making of their 2011 swansong Collapse Into Now, R.E.M. have switched their focus to carefully re-presenting their catalog for a new generation via various reissues and compilations. The Automatic for the People reissue comes in a variety of formats, the most intriguing being the original album remixed in Dolby Atmos surround sound – a cutting-edge example of super-defined spatial audio. “They tried it with the Beatles but they didn’t get it in on time,” reveals Stipe. “So Automatic for the People is the first record that has come out like this. I’m not an audiophile or anything, but I was very impressed when I heard it. It’s like sitting in a room with 21 speakers and the music is coming at you from all different sides. You’re exactly in the middle of the song, rather than listening to it coming out of a speaker or a laptop. I can listen to our music and not be impressed by it or whatever, but it was incredible to hear the record back like that.”
Having flown the college rock flag for a number of years, and crystallised their alternative rock credentials on Out of Time, Automatic for the People found R.E.M. at their nuanced and restrained best. Despite the odd contrarian fan jumping ship, the band’s evolution from southern US alternative heroes to major league masters was complete. Stipe’s good friend Kurt Cobain was just one artist who recognised the legitimacy of the band’s metamorphosis. Speaking to Rolling Stone in early 1994, the Nirvana frontman said, “I know we’re gonna put out one more record, at least, and I have a pretty good idea what it’s going to sound like: pretty ethereal, acoustic, like Automatic for the People. If I could write just a couple of songs as good as what they’ve written… I don't know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.” While Nirvana never managed to make that album, Cobain’s affirmation spoke volumes. “I had forgotten that he’d said that,” Stipe says. “I really wished that he had lived. Kurt was a great songwriter and he was also in a steady transition. As an artist, he had reached the end of one thing and was ready to explore the next phase. But he didn’t make it, sadly.”
True to form, Stipe and the rest of R.E.M. have put the will of their fans centre-stage with the Automatic reissue. As well as a concert LP Live at the 40 Watt Club (a much-fabled hometown show that has the double honour of being R.E.M.’s only live appearance of 1992 and a show powered entirely by solar energy) the release also packs 20 previously unheard demos from the album’s sessions onto one disc. But Stipe admits he wasn’t as eager as some fans to hear those back. “I listened to as many of them as I could,” he reveals. “I think I got to the middle of the fourth one and was like, ‘I cannot bear to listen to this.’”
How come? “Well, it’s me at my most vulnerable. The ones that have my voice on it, I’m stretching, I’m reaching, I’m trying, I’m experimenting. You go in and you just put your voice to tape. Often, I’m not even trying to sing; I’m just trying to find a part. So for me it’s a bit horrifying. It’s there for the completists and musicologists, but it’s no good for me.”
“I really wished that he had lived. Kurt was a great songwriter and he was also in a steady transition. As an artist, he had reached the end of one thing and was ready to explore the next phase. But he didn’t make it, sadly” – Michael Stipe on Kurt Cobain
Set to release his own autobiographical photo book in the coming months, Stipe was much more keen to revisit the past in order to curate the reissue’s 60-page book, which features never-before-seen photographs from the likes of Anton Corbijn and Melodie McDaniel. “It was fun to go back and re-examine and look at the shots that never made it to the public eye,” he says. “I went back into the vaults and said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do a special package, let’s make it really special. Let’s find something that fans haven’t seen before.’ It was really fun to do and be kind of, ‘Wow, we did all this amazing work with these amazing artists’. We’re able to look at this project that’s 25 years old from a 21st century perspective. But not in a revisionist way, because I despise that as much as I despise nostalgia and sentimentality. It’s simply a 21st century eye looking at something that’s 25 years old.”
While he clearly has no desire to romanticise past glories, and insists that an R.E.M. comeback is totally off the table (“It won’t happen. I guarantee you that we will continue to not do a reunion tour”), Stipe is perfectly candid when casting his mind back to the personal upheaval – and private triumph – that he associates with Automatic for the People and the times in which it was made. “I think I had arrived at a point where I was prepared for fame,” he reveals. “But it was still so shocking. I’m a massively insecure person, which is not uncommon for an artist to express. When this record became so hugely famous, it was when I first spoke publicly about my sexuality, which was not an easy thing to do for someone as private as I am. I was glad to do it, of course, but that added to that feeling of vulnerability as power. Around the release of Automatic, I was at the height of my fame, so I felt somewhat protected by that. Especially as a male public figure – vulnerability was not something that people showed and I did.”
Does he think that leap guided him? “I do. I allowed my vulnerability to be not only the thing that kept me grounded and not full of myself, but it also became my power and my strength.”