Michael Stipe

Interview and photography by
Wolfgang Tillmans


I first met Michael in 1995 when he, having come across my photographs in different places, called my gallery and said in this modest voice: ‘Hello, my name is Michael and I was wondering if Wolfgang is in town, because my band is playing at eh...Madison Square Garden tonight and I would like him to see the show.’ I wasn’t around but we got together after my return to New York and became friends. We never actually worked together on anything, so this is our ‘work debut.’ We met in a hotel room in London.

Michael: Can you buy me a couple more pairs of…what’s the name…Hanro? Grey. I prefer grey.
Assistant: Boxer briefs? Let me see.
Yeah, the boxer briefs. Really simple, got that on the side?
Assistant: Okay, okay, okay.
Do you want a drink? Do you want a beer or something?
Wolfgang: Yes.
What kind of beer? Does it matter?
Can you order a beer from room service? And I’ll have a Campari and soda.
Assistant: Ok. Do you want a draft beer?
Actually, you know what would be great to have is a proper pint.
Assistant: Okay, yeah. A pint of beer and a Campari and soda.
Thank you sir!
Assistant: OK. See you guys.
(British accent) Hello! Wolfgang!
Hello. (laughs)
Should we talk first?
Yeah. We’ll do that.
So the one thing that I don’t do publicly is say what XXX’s name is or where he’s from or what he does. I’m happy to talk about my relationship in the abstract but I don’t want to expose him to…you know, it’s not fair.
Yes. I know. I was aware of that, I guess.
Did I ever tell you this before?
No, but I’d picked up that whenever I read something where you mentioned the Mister…
The Mister…that’s how I refer to him. I think it’s a good name. “Boyfriend” is so…teenage, it’s so high school you know?
“Lover” is a little bit…diminishing.
So I think the Mister strikes the right balance, for me anyway.
And you never declare yourself gay as such…
I don’t. I think there’s a line drawn between gay and queer, and for me, queer describes something that’s more inclusive of the grey areas. There are people that very strongly identify themselves as gay and then lesbian, and then I think there are a lot of people who are kind of some percentage or some version of that. But it’s really about identity I think. The identity that I’m comfortable with is queer because I just think it’s more inclusive.
It kind of needed an advancement almost. Probably in ’69 it was fine to say “I’m gay” because it included everything other than the mainstream, but nowadays gay has become sort of a different kind
of gay mainstream, maybe. Yes, but it’s also become the opposite of straight, and I think there’s all these gradations and all these shades. I really like women, but I definitely like men more. But I can’t say that I was experimenting or I didn’t know who I was when I dated women in the past. I happened to find someone whom I’m crazy about, and he’s a man… the Mister. (laughs)
Sounds like an S/M story. But that’s not the nature of the relationship, hmm?
(deep voice) The Mister.
The Mister.
When you’re giving interviews, does your mind ever wander off and you start thinking in a sexual way about the interviewer?
Well, it’s a dance. If you interview a lot, or if you’re interviewed a lot, it’s understood that it’s a completely false pretence that you’re there. You’re two people that don’t know each other, but one knows a lot of information about the other, and you’re going to have a conversation that is not really a conversation. The job of a journalist, the job of media is to get as much information and something that’s never been heard before from their subject. It is the job of the subject, in my opinion, to draw that line and say, “That’s enough. This is where I’m comfortable and this is where I’m not comfortable.”
But do you ever just sort of look at them and…
Well yeah, it’s totally a dance. So yeah, I wouldn’t say sexual, but maybe there’s always a flirt element, I think, to being photographed, or photographing. Or to being interviewed or interviewing. Because you’re revealing yourself, but it’s not like you reveal yourself to your lover, or to the person you have sex with…it’s different.
But as a completely non-part of the professional situation, did your mind ever wander off and think about it in a different way?
No. I wouldn’t say that. Not now, maybe in the past.
I guess now your heart is with someone.
Yeah. My heart is with someone…The Mister. (laughs) I mean, I’m a big flirt, and I always have been, and that’s just part of who I am, and I think when people realise that then they’re much more comfortable around me, because if they feel like it’s all towards them, then that’s not good. But that’s just part of the way I communicate. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It has been misinterpreted before.
I’m sure you were really sad to see the Concorde go.
I was really sad. I tried to bring it into a conversation the other day and it seemed like the guy wasn’t interested in talking about it. I didn’t know if people here were kind of over it, or if it was the news of the week and then it was gone.
Richard Branson tried to buy them for a million pounds each, and talked of “industrial vandalism”, which I think it is.
That they’re dismantling them?
Yeah. They were given to British Airways for one pound, and it was paid for by taxpayers’ money. And so Richard Branson argued that it’s not up to BA to decide to take this industrial monument out
of the skies, really. But so often people sort of go with Richard Branson for a while and then they don’t fully back him. He tried to introduce a lottery that was truly beneficial to the people. Is it hot in here?
Uh, well, I took my shirt off.
It’s rare that a symbol almost overcomes the arguments for it and against it, but in the case of the Concorde to me, it was like art and technology and science and vision all come together in one beautiful thing.
And sit down at a table of environmentalists and try to make that argument and they’re going to squash you like a grape.
No, but I also think somebody needed to pay for it. You know? It needed a hundred people a day to actually pay for this art work to carry on flying, because if you had to make a case for this based only on reasonability, then of course,it wouldn’t fly, but it’s this lack of reason that made it fly. That a hundred people a day were willing to pay six thousand pounds for that. It’s always this thing about luxury: if there’s absolutely nobody who is prepared to pay for it, then you wouldn’t have that sort of excellence. I’m usually a bit repulsed by a lot of luxury or super opulence. But then again, if nobody paid for it, then the art of it would disappear. It’s kind of like we don’t want dictators and monarchs, but then again we admire the churches and the castles. It’s a little bit not resolved on that.
Yeah, that’s unresolved. You can’t not marvel at the architecture of the World Trade Center or the train station in Milan, built as fascist architecture to overwhelm and to make you feel as big as an ant when you walk into it. And it had that effect. Phenomenal. In a phenomenal way it had that effect. The World Trade Center, same way, you walked into the lobby and you felt like a bug.
Yes. Since you’re the one of us that actually flew on the Concorde, have you ever joined the Supersonic Mile High Club?
No, in fact I’ve never even joined the Mile High Club. But I have noticed in planes, and especially on long plane flights, there’s something about the amount of air in a plane, and tell me if you’ve noticed the same thing…
You get a hard on.
No, your genitals just get heavier and bigger.
Mine do, which is kinda wild. Cause you go to the bathroom to pee, and you’re in the middle of some bad movie and you’ve had two glasses of champagne and you’re tired, and you’re nowhere, you know, you’re between A and B, you’re just nowhere. Which is what I love about travelling and being in a plane. It’s a place, and you remember being there, but it’s a place that’s only found in time. Which is why I collect all my boarding passes, and I have a huge collection of them.
Really? I do the same.
Hundreds of them.
My friends make fun of me.
Yeah mine do too.
Really! (laugh)
That’s so good! I’m so glad to know that you do too.
It’s a running joke, like “oh and your assistant has to file your boarding passes.”
They totally make fun of me, but I glue them all on a board. And I have…this is a little embarrassing, but I think for BUTT magazine I can reveal that I have a thing called The Book of Me. And it’s just little things that I remember, little things that I collected. A sugar packet with Martin Luther King’s portrait on it, or the same sugar packet with the Concorde on it, or John F. Kennedy. And a bus ticket from Spain that has a particularly beautiful font, or a strange graphic on it. Those all go into The Book of Me. And the pages are quite big and it’s a mess. It looks a little bit like Peter Beard, like those strange books that he does. But mine are not as messy because I’m a Capricorn. And I think I think like a Capricorn. Partly. But anyway, so you don’t go to the bathroom because you have to pee, and you pull out the tackle and it’s like “Holy Shit! Where did that come from?” I think it has to do with the…
…lower air pressure?
Lower air pressure. Because you know how plastic bottles shrink in. I always think my organs are doing the same thing. So I have to drink a lot of water on the plane. And of course you have to pee a lot, so you’re just impressed over and over again.
I can get quite horny just without thinking about it, I just have a nap on a train or on a plane, and you wake up and suddenly have this…
…raging hard-on! Well, a train obviously because of the vibrations. Like brrbrrbrr… I’m not a conspiracy theory person at all, but I used to think… (Knock on door) Bellboy: How are you sir? Good, thanks. Come on in. Bellboy: Good evening sir.
Just here is fine. Bellboy: Do you want a tray sir? Oh no it’s okay. Nothing here is worth anything. Bellboy: I’ll leave these here. Oh sorry sir, could you sign here please? Sure. Bellboy: Thank you very much sir. Have a good evening. You too sir. Thanks. So, I used to think they purposely pulled the oxygen level back in the cabin as they were taking off, so that people would fall asleep. Because if you get less oxygen, you just drift into sleep. And it’s true, a lot of people fall asleep right before the plane takes off.
Oh, me too. Totally. I can’t stop it.
It’s because the oxygen level has been brought down. The reason they’re doing that — I looked into it — is because they need as much power as they can get to get the plane off the ground. And once you’re 5,000 feet up, you’re fine.
Ah. A beer for Wolfgang, a Campari and soda for Michael.
Cheers. To the funniest magazine in the world.
That was a lot of “sirs” the waiter just said.
I know, it makes me nervous. Well, it’s something in the South, you say “sir” as a sign of respect. It’s not so much a service thing, but it’s a sign of respect.
I don’t want to be too direct an interviewer, but what was your first sexual experience?
Oh god, have we talked about this before? Easter Sunday, Germany, a brother and sister, both redheads, in a bathtub.
I was seven.
You told me that you partially grew up in Germany, exactly. For two years or something. Or for how long was it?
For two years, yeah, in Frankfurt. And they were older than me. I think they had a better idea of what they were doing and that they shouldn’t have been doing it, than I did, certainly. I was just like “Wee, this is fun.” But it was pretty wild. And yeah, I think of that as my awakening.
Wow. And did you come?
No, I don’t think so. No.
I don’t think you can come at seven.
At seven, I don’t think so, no. That experience marks itself in my memory. My memory of when I lived in Germany was almost day by day. My memory of those times I could almost write down on a calendar, the two years that I lived there. It was such an enlightening time for me, a developing time, I think. A time of development. Not just sexual. That was intense.
And I still have a thing for redheads. I remember they had a white carpet and their mother wore paper dresses. She was an obsessive compulsive, I think that’s what she would be called now, about cleaning. So you had to take your shoes off before you entered the house, and she wasn’t a Buddhist, I don’t think.
A typically German mum… (laughs)
Yeah. I don’t think they were German, though. I think they were American.
And your father was in the army?
Yeah, he was in the army. I went back there recently to that building. When my band played Frankfurt in ‘99. I got one of the drivers, and I told him where I wanted to go. I knew the address from memory.
Yeah, I told you I remembered everything. The significant part of that story is that my memory is not like that at all. You know me well enough to know that there are huge gaps in my memory, and everyone is like that, and I think it makes for great song writing. So it’s odd that that period of my childhood is so clear to me, when I was there. And it might have just been being lifted out of the norm, which for me at the time was the South. I’d lived mostly in Georgia, and being put somewhere that was really really exotic to me, which was Frankfurt…so I went back and it was exactly the same. There were hurricane fences and that was the only difference. Some of the same trees were still there from my memory.
And you went into the apartment?
I tried. I knocked on the door and no one answered. The shocking thing is that I had my house in Georgia renovated…I once bought the house next door to my house in Georgia, because I wanted the property next to mine, so that my house would be protected by that. I didn’t really have much of an interest in the house itself, I just thought I’ll put $30,000 into painting it and fixing the roof, and make it so that I can rent it out. Well, we started renovating the house, and it was held together with termite spit. There was nothing left, it was a miracle that it hadn’t collapsed on somebody. So we completely renovated the house from the ground up, using the same imprint of the original house, the same roof line, everything is the same except we took out every wall inside and put in a glass roof.
Oh wow.
You’ve never been there, have you, to Georgia? It’s just beautiful and strange. I wanted to put in radiant heat. You can put it under a wood floor but it works really well with concrete. So I wanted concrete, but I didn’t want concrete throughout. I wanted terrazzo, and I wanted a specific type of terrazzo. So we went, and we found it, and we installed terrazzo flooring throughout my new house, which was finished in probably 1996. When I went back to the apartment building that I’d lived in 28 years before that, the most unbelievable thing…as I walked in the door I looked down at the floor and it was the same floor.
It’s as if I had somewhere imprinted in my brain that this floor was a place of calm and peace and home. And I put in the exact same floor in my home in Georgia thirty years later. So that was kind of shocking and wild to go back and see that.
It’s incredible. And did the soldiers leave an impression on you? Did you fancy them?
Uh-uh. No, I didn’t fancy anything, I was seven.
But were you afraid of soldiers?
No, my dad was one. I was used to being around people in uniforms and stuff. I think I was neutral about it in fact, I didn’t think one way or the other about it.

BUTT - 2

By the way, talking about dad, what is this American thing about daddy that’s so specifically American? Like gay American or queer American.
Daddy, like the gay subculture of “daddy?”
Are we going from my father to this? (both laugh) Wolfgang!
I don’t think people mean their daddy. It’s never happened to me in Europe — it’s never come up, it’s never a fantasy. But in America it’s always like, oh daddy, I want a real hot daddy…
You and I, we run in different circles. (laughs) I have some friends who are bears, and I think it’s a similar thing.
Exactly. Sort of the big, overbearing man that protects you.
I think it’s simply about having an older, not necessarily disciplinary, but an older, strong, protective relationship.
Maybe that’s reductive, but that’s what it seems like it’s about to me.
I never could quite make out why that doesn’t seem to be a European thing.
I didn’t know that it wasn’t European. I just never really thought about it I guess.
The bear scene is this huge scene in London now.
Is it?
It’s incredible. Like there’s Bulk and there’s XXL and there’s Growl and there’s Woof.
These better be club names. (laughs)
Yes they are. They’re club names.
Don’t tell me that’s another subculture. I just wouldn’t be shocked at this point by anything, at the age of 43. I just kind of feel like if I haven’t seen it, I’ve imagined it or I know that it’s out there somewhere. If you’re going to tell me that Woof is some gay subculture that I’m not aware of…
No, they’re all names for bear clubs.
Okay, alright…Woof. I’m a woof, are you? And that’s W-O-O-F, like the dog bark, okay?
Yes. (laughs)
Are you woof?
(laughs) Did your band always know of yourself as queer?
Did who?
The band.
Yeah? Like in ’83?
In ’79.
Really. When did you form?
Well, Peter and I came together in ’79. I tried to convince him for three or four months to play guitar with me and that I wanted to start a band. And he said, “Well all guitar players are assholes and I don’t want to be an asshole.” And I’m like, “C’mon.” And he only knew three chords and he didn’t think he was good enough to be in a band. But I’d never written a song before. We both were learning from the very beginning how to do anything. And then we met Mike and he knew Bill. And so we started in ’79 and we had our first show in April of 1980, at a birthday party. But from the very beginning, I remember distinctly Peter and I used to sit up late into the night and write songs, or just play guitar or talk or listen to records or watch TV or whatever. When we were both sitting on his bed I remember turning to him and saying, “Look, if you ever get the idea I’m coming on to you, I’m not. That’s not our relationship. So just know we’re friends, we’re in a band together, and that’s the end.”
He said that?
I said that to him because that was an intimacy that was very important to me at the time. And it’s still very important to me.
Because he knew that you were queer and he would think…
I don’t know if he knew, but that was my way of telling him, to say, “Look, if you ever get the idea that I’m flirting with you, I’m not. That’s how I communicate. We’re friends and we’re in a band together now. So that’s what it is.”
And did you then have boyfriends or partners?
Yeah. I had boyfriends and girlfriends pretty much from pretty early on. I started early. It was tough because there wasn’t really a category for me and I didn’t like the third sex, it didn’t feel comfortable calling myself bisexual…I didn’t like that. I didn’t really figure out until I was eighteen or nineteen, I thought I had more of a preference for men, but there were certain women that I was really attracted to and wanted to have a relationship with, and so I kind of just went with my heart the whole time. And sometimes with my hard-on, I guess. (laughs) I always get really embarrassed when I talk about my own relationships just because that’s who I am.
I’m actually curious myself because you have so phenomenally managed to be…I guess like most gay or queer artists that were not outspokenly out, they still spoke to a gay audience, and somehow send out that vibe, and at the same time probably had to stay closeted for some reason or other, I guess.
No, there’s this idea that record companies and bands have this combative relationship and that’s not been my experience at all.
No, I don’t think it’s the record companies, you just look at the careers, in the ’80s at least, I guess few people have really survived a full-on coming out. But you managed to somehow…but withyou, even to date, it’s not an issue, really. People sort of gradually accepted…
Well, but they always want to talk about it.
They do, yeah?
Yeah, always.
Oh I see.
They never kind of accept what I have to say, which is that it’s not that easy, that desire to me is a very slippery thing. In my experience there’s a lot of people who agree, and there are people that are very very comfortable identifying themselves as one thing and not another, and that’s great, and I’m glad they’re there, and then there are people for whom it’s a state of mind, or it’s a word, or it’s an identity, or it’s more than an identity…for me, I’m really proud that I’ve never talked about a girlfriend without talking about a boyfriend as well. I was never photographed with a woman on my arm, trying to pretend that I was something that I wasn’t. I was always extremely frank and very open with the people around me. But for the public, I just felt like, “If you haven’t figured it out, I’m not going to tell you. It’s not really your business…” To me, it’s more of an issue of privacy.
And how did you meet people, since being in the band…did you go to bars? Because it’s hard to be anonymous for you. So did you always meet people through…
Through friends? No, I’m a pretty social animal. I go out a lot.
Of course, I’ve seen you out. You don’t seem to be bothered that much by people.
No, I’m not that type of celebrity.
Exactly. People treat you really respectfully, no?
People treat me with respect. And so meeting people was never a problem for me so much. I really trust my instincts, and I really instantly like people or not. I think I have a strong barometer for people who are good and have good energy and are good people to be around. The one thing that can skew that is a pretty face. (laughs)
So have you been betrayed? Have there been people actually talking to the media guys? Except for, actually, in BUTT magazine, I read about…
…Casey Spooner! That was a funny one. He has a fantastic sense of reality, Mr. Casey Spooner…
Was that not so real what he said?
…and he has an amazing ass. And a great smile. And one of the best laughs this side of Wolfgang Tillmans. It’s true. (laughs) He is a piece of work. Can I go off record for a minute? (one minute later)
(laughs) When was that?
It was between 1924 and 1929. It was a long time ago…(laughs) only yesterday, just a whisper away. He always had a spark, Mr. Casey Spooner. And it’s only grown brighter and more firework-like.
Talking about fame, have you ever met Andy Warhol?
I always wanted to ask you, I’m intrigued by Warhol stories because it’s almost like, people that have met him and people that haven’t met him…this sort of enigma.
We were photographed together. We met once. And he took pictures of me after the picture was shot. But we were photographed together, just the two of us. And he turned to me and he said, “You’re cute,” and I said, “Thank you.” And he said, “What do you do?” and I said, “I’m a singer in a band,” and he said, “Oh, you’re a pop star,” and I said, “No, I’m a singer in a band,” and he said, “So you’re a pop star,” and I said, “No, I’m a singer in a band.” (laugh) And then he said, “Can I have your phone number?” and I said, “Of course.” So I wrote my phone number down. But I didn’t have an answering machine. I’ll never know if he actually called me or not. This was in 1986.
His last year.
I think it was ’86. I had red eyebrows and bleached blond hair. It’s a funny picture because I look more like Warhol than he does. I had bleached blond hair, but I had red eyebrows. The blank look on my face was one that I think I had mimicked from him for years and years and I didn’t realise until years later, maybe 1993 or 1994, that unconsciously, I had a look for camera. Really out of a distrust of most photographers. And I had, not a low self-image, but I didn’t think that I photographed well. And I wasn’t sure that I would place my trust in just anyone who wanted to take a picture of me for whatever reason. And this was all unconscious, so I developed this look for camera and it was, I think, taken from Warhol. It was just this completely deadpan, straight-to-the-camera, arms-straight-down, nothing look. And I worked that look for about thirteen years. (laughs)
Now it’s become a look?
I’m capable of expanding now beyond that.
Do you want anything from the minibar?
No, I’m fine. I would love to be a bit funnier in this interview. Isn’t it too serious?
Well, I don’t want to be too intrusive.
I wouldn’t answer anything I didn’t want to answer.
Have you ever done outdoor cruising?
Have I what?
Done outdoor cruising.
What is that?
I don’t know, like gone to a park.
Gone to a park in a car…
Or cottaging…
No. No and no. Not at all.
(laughs) Never like in the past and…?
No, not even when I was a teenager.
It just never appealed to you? Anonymous sex?
No. That’s a certain type of anonymous sex. I think anonymous sex is kind of appealing to every one pretty much, on some level. It’s just where you place it in your fantasy world and then whether or not you act on it.
And does it have a place with you?
Anonymous sex? Yeah. It certainly did. It certainly helped make me the person that I am today. (both laugh)
Where was that?
I couldn’t get that specific. I mean, that would be embarrassing. But, no, I’ve never been auto-cruising, is that what you call it?
Outdoor cruising.
Outdoor. Oh, okay. Like going to a park. No. And cottaging is going to a public toilet, right? No. That’s just not my cup of tea, really. Nah.
Do I sound like a prude?
No, I’d sort of like to get an idea of…what sort of colourful things you may have encountered.
Oh god, I couldn’t get too specific. I mean, that would be too embarrassing.
Well, we’ve established that I’ve never fucked on an airplane, I’ve never gone to a park or to a public toilet, and I’m not a prude.
(laugh) But you’re not a prude.
If I say that then they’ll make it the headline. (both laugh) I’m trying to picture the headline now: “Singer named by Warhol as pop star not a prude.” (both laugh)
No, I totally respect that you can’t…
No, personally, I feel like I sweat and breathe sexual energy. Sex is such an important thing to me, and the idea of that kind of energy moving around me all the time, whether I partake in it or not, is for me very interesting. And that’s the weird thing about being a media figure or a celebrity, is that really part of my job is observing. I think yours is the same, you observe and you capture things with photographs, with lyrics or with observation. And when you’re well known and recognised, you walk into a room and it’s difficult to be an observer. You kind of have to be blank enough that people have their moment with you and then they move on through their evening and you get to observe them. I’ve learned how to allow people that moment and then be able to watch.
There’s always this sort of longing in your music. I listened to the album yesterday, again, or for the first time, the greatest hits album. And there are so many songs that edge me just a little
bit towards being moved. Or, not that I want to burst into tears, but sort of in that direction. Right. Thank you.
That’s a nice thing to say.
Even though I’’ve never been a declared R.E.M. fan…
It’s not really your type of music, right?
Not particularly, no, exactly. But I’ve always been sort of touched by the longing. By that sort of sentiment. I don’t want to say it’s melancholic, but there is a passion for it. Like I also have
always been very fond of Neil Young, even though it’s not my sort of music. Part of it is a voice, I think. In both cases. Neil Young’s voice is so tenuous, it sounds like it’s going to crack any moment. Like Conor Oberst’s from Bright Eyes. You hear him sing and he’s got a waver in his voice that makes it sound like it’s taking every bit of power that he has within his body to push his voice out. And a lot of the stuff that I’m drawn to is people that have just a slightly different, or an extremely different, read on what it is that they’re covering as a subject, no matter what medium they choose. And a humour. There’s always gotta be that. I always want thoughtfulness and I always want humour. Interpol. I get that from them.
The band Interpol. Do you know?
Is that…I don’t know.
They’ve been compared a lot to Joy Division, just because of their sound, and the sound of the voice, and the way they dress. But it’s so good, the music is so good. And Conor Oberst, same thing. Conor is like that…if there’s a record I could recommend for the readers of BUTT magazine, it would be Conor’s record.
His band is called Bright Eyes, and then there’s another record that is closely aligned with Bright Eyes, which is by this guy Andy LeMaster from Athens, Georgia. There’s this big musical connection between Athens and Omaha, Nebraska, which is where Conor is from, and there’s a record company there called Saddle Creek, and they have all these really interesting musicians that are doing a lot of very cool stuff. But Andy LeMaster has a group called Now It’s Overhead, and that’s the best record, I think, that came out the year before last. My favourite record. It’s hands down one of the most brilliant albums that I’ve heard in forever.

After hanging out at the Berkeley hotel in London, Michael and Wolfgang took a hired Rolls-Royce to some Red Cross charity event. Here’s Michael getting it on with the hood ornament.

Originally published in BUTT 9