Bent By Nature - Ep. 8: Half A World Away (with Michael Stipe)

It’s September of 1984. And Deirdre is head over heels for a fast-rising quartet from Athens, Georgia called R.E.M. In just a few years, the band’s music will be inescapable on commercial and college radio alike — and their massive success will mark a turning point for the American musical underground.

“There were moments when R.E.M., my former band, were hugely popular,” says ex-singer Michael Stipe. “And we were able to really push the boundaries of what's acceptable within mainstream culture. KCRW and Deirdre and ‘SNAP!’ were doing the same thing.”

Stipe was a close friend of Deirdre’s, and of the countless bands who passed through their orbit. He gave Concrete Blonde their name; produced Vic Chesnutt’s first two albums; and introduced Deirdre to Hugo Largo, which led to their signing with Brian Eno’s record label. In this episode, Stipe reflects on his life in LA in the mid-’80s, at a time when he and Deirdre were kindred spirits.

Bent By Nature - Ep. 8: Half A World Away (with Michael Stipe)
R.E.M. in 1984. L-R: Mike Mills, Michael Stipe (back), Bill Berry (lying in front), and Peter Buck backstage in their dressing room at the Palladium. Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns.

Michael Stipe: Los Angeles became a fascinating place to me sometime in the '80s. New York was my second home, and New York was feeling very sad and very tired at the time. LA, and the American West in general, felt a little fresher. And so, at the same time, my best friend Tom Gilroy, had moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. I spent a lot of time there with him. And at the same time, Michael Meister is someone who I met through Natalie Merchant. And we started hanging out together, and then we started really hanging out together. And he introduced me to Deirdre.

Michael liked her and trusted her, and so she was instantly in the family. She was inner-circle instantly for me, because, through him, I would trust his take or his instinct about anyone. And so there was an automatic kind of trust and intimacy there. So we spent a lot of time together. Michael [Meister] lived in Santa Monica. Tom lived somewhere on Lincoln and had this banged-up old car. And Michael offered to Tom that there was an old 1930s beach house — one of the last ones remaining — in Santa Monica that was available for rent. And Tom moved in. 

Michael Stipe (left) with Natalie Merchant and Billie Bragg in 1990. Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns.

So then I was tired of New York. I had to get out of Athens from time to time ... a lot. And I spent all my time in Los Angeles. And I established this whole family of people there. And we would all just hang out on the porch and drink tons of coffee and talk about music and art and ... You know, it really was that salon environment that Deirdre created that really was my life then. It all felt very bohemian and kind of ragtag, but it worked, and it worked beautifully for that time. It was exactly what I needed as an artist, and it really impacted the work that I did for several years.

Deirdre O’Donoghue: Michael Meister and Deirdre O'Donoghue here doing "SNAP!" 621 together.
Engineer: Want to talk to him?
O’Donoghue: Yeah. Hellllooo…
Michael Stipe: Hey.
O’Donoghue: Michael!
Stipe: Hey, butthead.
O’Donoghue: Hey, how are you?
Stipe: I'm good.
O’Donoghue: Where you calling from?
Stipe: I'm in Athens.
O’Donoghue: You're in Athens?

More: Listen to Michael Stipe & Michael Meister on "SNAP!" #621 (2/12/88)

...I mean, I would like to remind our listeners that this is before "Beavis and Butthead." That was a term of endearment. I called everyone that… everyone that I liked. College radio were big supporters of my former band, R.E.M. And so I had experience with independent radio. And I guess I felt free to use a term like "butthead" with someone who was, of course, a revered and storied public radio personality.

O’Donoghue: You want to tell people why you're calling tonight during the KCRW fund drive, Michael?
Stipe: Uh... why I'm calling?
O’Donoghue: Yeah. 
Stipe: Well, I wanted to drop some names.
O’Donoghue: Yeah? Okay, drop some names.
Stipe: Yeah. We're on a wood floor here.
O’Donoghue: OK. 
Stipe: There's about 150 people and nobody's talking.
O’Donoghue: Michael, you've been here on "SNAP!" You were a great guest DJ one time.
Stipe: Yeah, it was great. Well, you know, four turntables is something you don't run across very often.
O’Donoghue: Well, you know how we got those too, Michael? It's because our listeners support this station. And what we're trying to do is …
Stipe: Deirdre, you've been doing this too long. You sound like a commercial.
O’Donoghue: You're right, Michael, help me.
Stipe: You need to get off the air, baby. You need a bagel or something.
Michael Meister: Let's play "Hurry Up" for him!
O’Donoghue: This is one time of the year, Michael, that unfortunately we're forced to approximate commercial radio. But I'll tell you, the whole rest of the year, Michael, we get to play things like R.E.M., years ago. Like Hugo Largo, that Brian Eno was saying last night that he's real fond of at the lecture he gave here. And you were the one who introduced me. You produced the Hugo Largo…
Stipe: Yeah, they came through town last week. We had the three greatest female voices in America right here.

With Deirdre, there was this love of music and art. And so you would sit down and just say, "What are you listening to? What are you looking at? Who's exciting you right now? What's happening over there, what's happening in New York, what's happening in Georgia?" And that's how we created this friendship. She pulled creative people towards her, I think, and created this environment where there was a relaxed atmosphere, whether on-air or in person. And she had this deep and beautiful love of everything, and an enthusiasm about it.

O’Donoghue: That beautiful, beautiful piece is a new-to-me, at least, group called Hugo Largo, who are apparently from New York City. Although this tape was recorded at John Keane’s studio in Athens, Georgia, produced by Michael Stipe. Hugo Largo ... and we shall be hearing a great deal more of that. 

 I don't remember how I met Hugo Largo, but I think I saw them perform and introduced myself. It might have been through Tim Sommer, who was a member of the band and a huge R.E.M. fan. And they came to Athens, Georgia sometime in the mid '80s. I want to say it was around '86. I think I offered to produce and help them record their first recording. 

They came here and stayed in my home, which I had just bought with every penny I had. And I was paying a mortgage every month, but I couldn't afford toilet paper. We didn't have any furniture. I remember Mimi pulled up the carpet one day. I was gone, for some reason, for a day or two to do something, and she and the band decided that they were going to help renovate my home for me. So they borrowed a hammer and pulled up all this wall-to-wall carpeting and exposed these beautiful pine floors that are there to this day.

O’Donoghue: Michael, I won't keep you from your dinner. but I want to say thanks to you for calling, and we're looking forward to seeing you back out here. And as long as I got a show, you're always welcome on it.
Stipe: Do you still have a Volkswagen, Deirdre?
O’Donoghue: Yes, I do.
Stipe: I love you, Deirdre. I really do.
O’Donoghue: I love you, Michael. Thanks very much for calling.
Stipe: OK.
O’Donoghue: I appreciate that.
Stipe: All right.
O’Donoghue: You take care too. I'm gonna turn you back over to Mr. Meister here. You guys can chat.
Stipe: OK, Deirdre. I love you. I'll see you later.