Michael Stipe FLAMBÉS his sneakers
The ex-R.E.M. GOAT comes thru talkin' archive Margiela, PAN-SEARED kicks, the time Andy Warhol macked on him, trading rings with Kurt Cobain, and more
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Michael Stipe — as the frontman for the legendary Athens, Georgia, band R.E.M., this man has been serenading us for decades now, his big beautiful voice ringing out with the clarity & warmth of a MF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL FOGHORN. If we even attempted to list all the Mach 3+ R.E.M. songs here, it would take up mad terabytes and probably CRASH YOUR INBOX !!
R.E.M. formed in 1980 and disbanded on some amicable s**t in 2011, but two things Stipe never stopped doing were 1) making cool art and 2) getting off these tremendous fits. Combine that with our legendary “GOATS ONLY” interview policy, and it was only natural that we hit him up at his home in Athens to talk about hoarding fire designer jawns; fighting the sadness of day’s end with FINE APERITIFS and GOOD COMPANY; maybe owning Kurt Cobain’s old sweater; getting SWERVED ON by Andy Warhol in the ‘80s; owning 3 pairs of the most beautifully thrashed Brooks I’ve ever seen; cooking up new solo chunes — and more “unbeatable topics.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I was just flipping through yr new book of portraits of people who inspire you — some of the portraits are photographs, but others are objects, like vases and clothbound book covers. You’ve described yourself as a hoarder who “thinks in objects,” and this is a newsletter all about “thinking in objects,” so tell me about that side of yourself…
Michael Stipe: “I think my next book might be called Hoarder Collector, because I rest somewhere in between the two. It might be a result of my upbringing, which was nomadic and peripatetic because of my father’s job. He was an army pilot, meaning we moved around a lot, and you held on to what you had. So objects have meant a lot to me my whole life, and my father was the same way.
“It’s funny, because in the job that everyone knows me for, as a singer and songwriter, everything I made was intangible — you can’t hold a song in your hands or put your arms around a melody.”
Blackbird Spyplane: The book covers and vases you made are each different kinds of vessels, in the sense that they have voids at their centers. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a void at my center that I try to fill by amassing objects… Do you feel that way ever?
Michael Stipe: “That’s a beautifully honest and open thing to admit. No, I don’t feel very empty on the inside, but I do get sad at dusk, like every animal does, and it’s nice to have people around during that moment. I was just reflecting the other day on the importance of having an aperitif and a plate of olives, some good cheese, and good company at dusk to talk about where your day took you.”
Blackbird Spyplane: O we are MAJOR COCCHI APERITIVO GANG here! So if you’re a “hoarder collector” I’m assuming the crib is bursting at the seams with all manner of vibey bric a brac…
Michael Stipe: “Yes, it’s become a landfill of my own making. I have stuff in unopened boxes going back to the mid ‘80s, and going through it is like unpacking your past, deciding what’s important and what’s not worthy of keeping.
“I had all this stuff in storage in New York City, and it’s expensive up there, so from time to time I’d drive a truck down, dump stuff into the house here and be done with it. During lockdown I wasn’t buying new clothes, so I went through the boxes and it turns out I had impeccable taste at the turn of the century, into the aughts: All I’ve been wearing for the last year and a half is my old vintage Helmut Lang, my Hedi Slimane Dior Homme stuff, old Margiela, really old Acne —“
Blackbird Spyplane: Abbondanza!
Michael Stipe: “It was all folded up in boxes, because at one point I put on a little weight and couldn’t fit into any of it, and my plan was to distribute it to skinnier friends. But then I got skinny again, so I’ve been wearing these clothes I got from, like, age 37 to 45.”
Blackbird Spyplane: On the subject of impeccable taste in jawns, you and I own the same “Bernie 2016” cap. It’s the only garment I’ve ever worn with a politician’s name on it, & I still rock it. The last time I had it on, I went into this natty-wine spot here in Oakland and they recognized game and gave me a discount, which was tight. Do you still wear yours?
Michael Stipe: “You’re god d*mn right I do! The 2016 election was a clear sign that people wanted someone who was not involved with Beltway politics, and even though he’s a longstanding Senator, Sanders represented an outsider for the left. And the person the DNC threw at us instead was the person who most represented insider-Beltway politics. They chose the wrong candidate, totally f*cked it up, and we’re still picking up the pieces.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I wanted to ask you about Andy Warhol’s Big Shot Polaroid camera, which you own — but first, there’s a photo of the two of you back in the ‘80s: Do you remember what you talked about?
Michael Stipe: “My friend Todd Eberle took that photo. It was at some awards show where Warhol and I were both being honored. Todd was taking pictures and he threw me in an elevator, saying, ‘Let’s go to the 4th floor, Andy’s there and I want to photograph you together.’
“Andy was very sweet. He tried to pick me up. I gave him my number and he wrote it down, but I don’t know if he ever called me — he might have, but I didn’t have an answering machine. If I did, who knows, my life might have gone in a very different direction!”
Blackbird Spyplane: That’s amazing. And how did you get his camera?
Michael Stipe: “I went to a show at a gallery on the Upper East Side a few years ago and it was there for really cheap. And Jonah, get this: When I got home I realized there was a piece of film in it, exposed but still unprocessed. So I might own Warhol’s last-ever work.”
Blackbird Spyplane: What!! Did you leave it in there??
Michael Stipe: “Hell no. I pulled it out and opened it up — and it’s what you would refer to as an incredibly sh*tty Polaroid, with that brown-and-gray thing that happens when a Polaroid doesn’t work. I put it in a box and haven’t looked at it since, which feels like a very Warhol thing to do with it.”
Blackbird Spyplane: There’s a great story about how you wrote “Man on the Moon” as a challenge with yr friend Kurt Cobain to see which of you could write a song with the most “yeahs” in it. You listened to the instrumental on a Walkman, walking around Seattle for hours until you had the lyric. Do you still own that Walkman?
Michael Stipe: “I actually just pulled it out the other day, because I’m writing music and need things to record on, and a voice memo on my phone just doesn’t do it for me. So I’m looking at that exact Walkman right now.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Do you have other artifacts from your friendship with Kurt?
Michael Stipe: “We traded rings when he was in Athens once, visiting with his daughter — I still have the ring he gave me. The other thing is that he stayed in my guest cabin, and after he left I found this green sweater in there, with the buttons missing. My plan was to give it to Frances when she was older, but a while later I saw my friend Kai wearing it and said, ‘Did you find that in my guest cabin?’ He said, ‘No, I bought it at a thrift store.’ So my Kurt sweater didn’t actually belong to Kurt. But I love that story because it’s about the importance of the stories we tell about objects — the meaning we imbue into these reliquaries.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Speaking of reliquaries, you told me you have a “shoe problem” and sent over some examples. The first is this photo of ROASTED white sneakers. What’s the deal?
Michael Stipe: “These are Dior Homme, from around 2004. I was a fan of Hedi, and we’re friends, and I bought basically everything he made. And 17 years later, I still wear them. If you’re gonna buy expensive leather shoes, how cool is it that you get 17 years of wear from them?
“It’s the perfect white sneaker, hands down. I’ll go online every now and then to see if I can find more shoes from that era of Dior, and they’re available, but they’re all used — I don’t have a problem with that, but my back doctor made me throw away all my shoes and told me I need new shoes only.”
Blackbird Spyplane: D*mn, the jawns are strong but the flesh is weak…
Michael Stipe: “That reminds me, I sat next to Karl Lagerfeld at a dinner once, and he was trying to convince me that his doctor told him to wear high-heels. For his back. These, like, four-inch cha cha heels! He was a very funny and audacious guy.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Yooo my personal favorite of the shoes you sent are these FULLY FLAMBÉED Brooks with the laces yanked the f**k out swaggily — I’m not sure but I think they’re Ghost 8s… Spy Nation is gonna flip out over these.
Michael Stipe: “Ha ha, really? You think so? These are my destroyed running shoes that I pad around the house in — I have this pair here, another pair at my place in New York, and a third pair in Berlin. I took the laces out because I use them as a slip-on, for running down to the deli to get toilet paper or whatever.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You don’t seem precious about rocking the s**t out of things you love - even these BIG GAS Hermès sandals…
Michael Stipe: “Yeah, I’m pretty hard on things, which is why something lasting me 17 years is pretty remarkable. With the Hermès sandals, my boyfriend’s from the south of France, so we go there every summer, and, look, Hermès sandals are obviously a ridiculous purchase but there is a place for them, and it’s the south of France. Ideally paired with some shredded shorts.“
Blackbird Spyplane: C’est vrai. By the way, I love these photos you sent me — they’re not very descriptive of what the shoes look like, but the backgrounds and colors and compositions are great.
Michael Stipe: “Thank you! I just took them where the shoes were lying — most of them are sitting inside a doorway, and the house was built by a Italian tilemaker so there are all these beautiful tiles throughout.
“I bought those desert boots (above right) at Barneys the day I quit smoking. I went to a hypnotist and was really angry afterwards, because I thought I’d wasted my time. So I was stomping downtown and bought these as gift to myself for having at least attempted to stop smoking — but it turns out I never touched a cigarette again, and I’ve held on to these because they’re this memento of that day.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Wow, peace to hypnotists. One last thing — you mentioned using yr old Walkman to work on new songs. What’s up with the solo album, Big Stipe??
Michael Stipe: “I was writing a lot before the pandemic, which kind of put things on hold, but now I’m back at it. It’s different, writing the music myself, rather than having Peter, Mike and Bill write it for me. But I’ve been working with a great singer-songwriter named Andy LeMaster, and having a really fun time. There’ll be a new single out soon, actually. Very soon.”
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