R.E.M. On The Strange Currencies That Drove 'Monster'
If there truly is such a thing as having your cake and eating it, then – in musical terms, at least – that’s exactly what R.E.M. achieved in the early 90s. Taking time out of the road after their backbreaking ’89 tour, the group released two albums – ‘Out Of Time’ and ‘Automatic For The People’ – that would re-define their sound, and help define an era.
Extraordinarily successful, R.E.M. were amongst a handful of groups who could seriously vie for the title ‘Biggest Band On The Planet’ yet for all intents and purposes their lives carried on as usual. Mike Mills smiles when this is put to him, and Clash reminds him of Kurt Cobain’s famous phrase that the group “handled their success like Saints”.
“Personally, I think we handled it about as well as anyone can,” Mike says, chuckling softly as the memories unfold.
He continues: “At least some of the band had a pretty good knowledge of musical history. In the sense of what can go wrong, what breaks bands up, what causes stress and internal tension. We deflected a lot of that from the very beginning, and then we were also really good at keeping an eye out for each other. We had a support system”.
But it couldn’t last, as he sagely points out. “At some point if you’re a band you’ve got to play. You can only make records and sit around for so long.”
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What emerged from this decision was ‘Monster’. Now 25 years old, it’s a snarling piece of meta ‘rock’ that finds R.E.M. toying with gender-fuckery, the pitfalls of celebrity, and carnal lust, all while providing some of their most daring and affecting songwriting moments. In a career marked by an attempt to locate new ground, ‘Monster’ remains a thrillingly new experience, and a remarkably modern one, too.
Seated across from Clash, Michael Stipe’s crystal blue eyes never once lose focus. The beard has gone, he looks trim in a neat blazer – in all honesty, it’s as though the years haven’t touched that face at all.
“We set out to do something that was a comment on a sound, more than a sound itself,” he argues. “We pulled from glam rock to do that. That was the most obvious, the most swaggering, the most gender-fucking thing that we could do. We were all giant fans. And it seemed perfect for the times”.
‘Monster’ is an interface, it’s the inter-change between the pubic persona and the private face. It’s a series of characters that blur into one, a mosaic of cyphers that never quite coalesce into a logical sequence. “I guess we were aware – internally aware – of the fame, and the attention that would be focussed on us,” Mike comments. “So in a way, you put up a bit of a deflector shield and say, this is me, but this is the ‘me’ that I’m giving you. This isn’t necessarily the ‘me’ that sits around at home and has dinner. This is the ‘me’ that goes on tour and the one you get to see.”
It’s this meta quality that makes Michael Stipe’s lyrical prowess on ‘Monster’ such an exuberant, confrontational, disgusting, and intoxicating experience. “I was just responding to instinct,” he says. “I was trying not to over-think it.”
“I don’t write autobiographically to begin with,” he insists. “Basically I’m a fiction writer. And a really good observer, I see everything. So I incorporate that into the narratives and the characters. This was meta. Before that term excited, really! It was very meta. It was intentionally over the top, it was intentionally theatrical and operatic and ridiculous and absolutely extreme, but also a bit silly.”
The over-the-top nature of ‘Monster’ runs through every single chord, with R.E.M. aware of the live challenge that awaited them. “When you’re going out on the biggest tour of your life, that’s exponentially bigger than anything you’ve ever done before, you don’t want to just trot out the same thing,” Mike comments. “You want to elevate yourself to the level at which you’ll be performing.”
“You’ve just got to lift everything up and make everything bigger than life, if you can. So that’s what this record was. It’s inflated in a sort of powerful way – in a lot of the looks, and the stage set that we had, it’s all bigger than life.”
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Produced by Scott Litt, sessions took place in a variety of cities, ranging from New Orleans – which also birthed ‘Automatic For The People’ – to Atlanta, Georgia, and Los Angeles. “Well, that’s for fun,” Stipe smiles. “We would pick three or four cities. That was intentional.”
There’s more than a few myths to bust. Guitarist Peter Buck, for instance, estimated their studio prowess at around 45 songs at the initial demo stage. When told this, the pair begin to laugh, and slightly awkwardly look at the desk. Michael breaks the ice: “Let’s roll it back there!”
“He tells a good story,” Mike smiles. “We did have a tonne of songs. We were continuing something we’d done before which was: if it sounds too much like an R.E.M. song then it’s out.”
‘Monster’ is a departure in every sense. Take ‘Strange Currencies’ with its nod to classic Southern soul, or ‘Tongue’ with its Curtis Mayfield falsetto and Stax organ line. Take ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ and it’s tremolo-laden guitar, or the glam raunch of ‘Crush With Eyeliner’. It’s a record of potent experimentation, one that grabs ‘rock’ and finds renewed space for camp, irony, and carnal fixation.
“I lifted a lot from Michael Hutchence,” explains Stipe. “He was a big influence. Not just on myself but on Bono. I met Michael through Bono. And we both took more than a page from Michael’s book.”
That carnal sense was partially pursued in light of the sheer physical presence of the music, and the audience that lurked just around the corner. “It all ties in,” Michael continues. “The fact that we’re presenting ourselves to a huge number of people, a lot of whom are new fans. You’re going out to these huge places. We’re going to sex it up. And make it as entertaining for us as possible, and entertaining for the fans as well.”
“And I spoke publicly about my sexuality in the run up to release of ‘Monster’. And shaved my head. We were taking a lot of risks.”
It’s worth remembering the context ‘Monster’ was released in – rock, even with quotation marks, was doggedly heterosexual, and the queer statements Michael Stipe was making often fell on deaf, or dismissive, ears. Reclaimed as a queer text by a number of critics, the writer Claire Biddles wrote eloquently in The Wire about the impact ‘Monster’ had on her life.
Michael Stipe remains resolutely proud of his achievements with the record. “The 21st century has certainly provided a much easier place for the idea of nuance within gender, within desire, and within sexuality to exist. And so, I think it would have landed in a much different way, probably a more positive way today than it did then.”
“But I’m so proud that we did that 25 years ago and I stated my case… it wasn’t well received at the time, but I never pretended to be anyone that I wanted. I never had a beard…” he says, before he begins to blush. “That is… yeah. A fake girlfriend. I was always myself. I’m quite proud of that.”
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There’s another myth to bust, though. Fan lore has it that fractious sessions in Los Angeles pushed R.E.M. to the brink, something the band themselves dispute.
“I don’t know where that came from!” exclaims Mike Mills. “This did not happen. With any band of friends or family – which essentially it is – you’re going to have moments of tension, you’re going to have arguments, you’re going to have disagreements.”
Stipe is quick to agree: “Otherwise you’re boring. Otherwise you’re not worth the time of day.”
The singer continues: “None of us are confrontational people by nature, and certainly not with the people we’re most close to in the entire world. Outside of our families!”
“You don’t embrace that, but you anticipate that it’s going to be part of the creative process. The creative process if you’re working with four songwriters involves compromise, and someone has to step back from one choice and step forward with another. And we all knew that. We knew that dance very well.”
What did this involve, though?
“Well, you pick your battles,” says Mills. “We also had the veto rule, which is if someone felt strongly that we couldn’t do something, or we must do that, then we give each other that space.”
A record that is both uncompromising and born of internal cooperation, ‘Monster’ found R.E.M. re-connecting with a landscape they had helped to create. Underground rock had moved overground, and the band returned to help usher in this new era.
Michael Stipe positively beams when his recollections commence: “Peter had moved to Seattle, started a family, bought a house. Kurt and Courtney bought their house next door because they wanted to be neighbours with Peter. We were hanging out with all those guys, and all the incredible stuff that was coming out of Seattle at that point.”
“Then out of New York you had Sonic Youth being signed to Geffen, that was incredible. You had Radiohead. You had Blur. You had Suede. You had the Blue Aeroplanes. All of whom we took on tour with us in ‘95. It was a fucking thrilling time for music.”
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It was a long time coming, it has to be said.
“I remember Sonic Youth from the early 80s,” he recalls. “I remember meeting those guys on a street corner in New York and thinking to myself: that is the coolest group of people I have ever seen! Kim had these flip up sunglasses and they were holding her bangs out of her eyes, and that was their sole purpose. It was night when we met. And I was like: wow, she is cool! I wanted to be that cool.”
It’s a refreshingly ego-free way to view their contemporaries, Clash points out.
Mike Mills just laughs: “Don’t kid yourself!”
But this era isn’t all one of light. ‘Monster’ is marked by two unbearable tragedies, with first River Phoenix and then Kurt Cobain dying at desperately young ages. Mike Mills steps in: “It’s a weird dichotomy on that record in that there is a wall of separation in a way between who we really are and what you see on that record, but on the other hand there’s a huge dose of real life that went into making that record that was with us the entire time we made that record. It’s a foot in two worlds at once.”
After a short spell of silence, Michael Stipe then raises his voice: “To be honest, yeah. I can now talk publicly about River in a way that I don’t feel like I ever could before, because I did also realise with his death… I realised that year, that trying to talk to journalists about something so close was… stealing my own experience away. And I had to be very careful with that.”
His band mate nods in recognition: “In a way it makes it less real if you do share it before you’re ready. Because then you’re just creating something to give to a journalist and that’s not what it’s about at all.”
Stipe opts to continue. “I learned something really difficult,” he says. “About five years after River died, I woke up after a long sleep, and I was 38 years old, and I was like: what happened? Like, that couple of years flew by. Suddenly I’m almost 40… and I’m like: what the fuck…? And I realised I was grieving. It was something grief does, it compresses time or expands time in a way that nothing else does, including adrenalin.”
“I had never grieved to that degree and felt that sense of loss. Nor realised how much I checked out when I was 33 and it was five years before I was like: wait a minute, what happened? And I put that down completely to the one-two punch of River and then Kurt. That was a hard one.”
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But, somehow, they continued. Returning to ‘Monster’ after 25 years has revealed a host of surprises, a tonne of memories. As part of the re-issue, Scott Litt asked the band if he could do an alternate version, and they agreed. A few days before our conversation, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe sit down for a fan Q&A, and are played this new, unbearably raw version of ‘Let Me In’ – a song sparked by the death of Kurt Cobain and soaked in an overpowering sense of loss.
“That’s the second time I’ve heard it,” Stipe grimaces. “I listened to Scott’s remix, and went: OK, this is great… done. It’s in my DNA, I don’t need to listen to it again. And then to listen to it again through a speaker system instead of out of my shitty computer is pretty intense. Still.”
It’s a testament to just how much R.E.M. put into this record, and how much is waiting to be discovered. Michael Stipe took the lead on imagery, sifting through boxes and boxes of contact sheets, bursting with admiration at what these people – his band mates, and himself – achieved during this period.
“Personally, I love process,” he insists. “I love figuring out how someone arrived at a finished piece.”
“It was incredible for me as a 59 year old to look back and realise who we were when we were 33 and what we had accomplished at that point. It was fucking incredible. I know 33 year olds in my life now, and I can’t believe we did all that. We were launching this world tour… literally jumping off a cliff together, with all these outrageous ideas that had nothing to do with the new fans we got through ‘Automatic…’ and ‘Out Of Time’ and presenting ourselves in this completely different way.”
“We have a lot of people to thank for that, really.”
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'Monster' 25th anniversary edition is out now.
Photography: Jem Cohen + Keith Carter
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