NEW YORK — After Michael Stipe opens a gate to the abandoned Manhattan storefront that serves as his studio, you find a man easily traversing his past, present and future creative lives.
He’s promoting a 25th anniversary package of the R.E.M. album “Monster” while excited by the response to the first solo music he’s released since the band’s 2011 retirement. Surrounding him are examples of the photography and visual art that has occupied much of his time since then.
He made the single, “Your Capricious Soul,” available first on his website last month with proceeds going to the environmental group Extinction Rebellion. He held it back from streaming services for a month, a quiet protest against monopolistic behaviour, but it’s there now.
The song’s throbbing electronic pulse and percussion mark a clean musical break from the guitar-based rock of R.E.M.
Stipe would generally write lyrics to R.E.M. songs with music composed by bandmates Peter Buck, Mike Mills and, until he left the band in 1997, Bill Berry. With “Your Capricious Soul,” it was all on him.
“It’s terrifying,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing it.”
Pleased by the reaction, Stipe said he expects more new music soon. He has no record company, so he’s free to release it whenever and however he wants.
“It sounds great,” said Rita Houston, program director at WFUV-FM in New York. “It sounds fantastic to hear Michael’s voice on the radio in this new incarnation. The song sounds nothing like an R.E.M. song, but it sounds completely like Michael Stipe. It’s very 2019.”
Now 59, Stipe easily rewinds the clock to 1994 when R.E.M. was at the height of its popularity. After two relatively quiet and commercial records, “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People,” R.E.M. wanted to crank the volume with songs that would contrast on a concert stage to hits like “Man on the Moon.” They were touring for the first time in five years, with millions of new fans.
On “Monster,” they embraced glam rock, influenced by forebears like T. Rex and the New York Dolls, as well as contemporaries like “Achtung Baby”-era U2. The signature track was “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth,” its title inspired by an odd phrase someone once shouted at newsman Dan Rather.
“I can’t believe looking back … that we had the audacity and the courage to jump off a cliff together, not literally but figuratively, to create something sounding so different from the records before,” he said.
The new “Monster” has the requisite outtakes that illustrate how the songs took shape in the studio. Stipe recognizes that fans like hearing the progression, but he finds it excruciating. He listened to the outtakes once.
“To pull the curtain back that far is a bit humiliating, frankly,” he said. “I want people to think of me as this perfect genius who emerged completely into the world. Of course, that’s not the case.”
Stipe exhibits a vulnerability, a sensitive side that he takes pride in. In R.E.M.’s early years, he’d often sing from the shadows, his back to the audience. His shyness never left, but he developed into a confident rock frontman.
He came out as gay at the time of the album’s release, feeling some pressure because rumours spread that he was HIV-positive when the band didn’t tour for two albums and he didn’t give interviews for a lengthy period.
“I was never closeted,” he said. “That’s the thing that’s beautiful about it and I’m so proud of. You can never find a single picture of me pretending to have a girlfriend or being somebody that I’m not. I was never that guy. Any longstanding R.E.M. fan who had not figured out I was queer before that point wasn’t looking very hard.”
R.E.M.’s retirement in 2011 was a model. There was no farewell tour, and they released a valedictory song — “We All Go Back to Where We Belong” — that is among the most beautiful in the band’s catalogue. Stipe, Buck and Mills haven’t regretted the decision, and Stipe suggests it salvaged their friendship.
Buck and Mills both remain active musically as Stipe, until recently, stuck to visual art. The business of R.E.M. forges on as the band has methodically marked key points in their career with new projects.
“Encapsulating the creative work of the band by disbanding allowed us, and I think the rest of the world, to take a step back and look at it for what it was,” Stipe said. “We were not the guys who were going to always be there, and I think that did us a huge favour, honestly.”