Durham County

Moogfest: Michael Stipe moves on from pop music

Former R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe takes part in a Moogfest 2017 conversation in the Carolina Theatre’s Fletcher Hall.
Former R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe takes part in a Moogfest 2017 conversation in the Carolina Theatre’s Fletcher Hall. The Herald-Sun

Michael Stipe, known best for leading the pop band R.E.M. from 1980 to 2011, has taken his creative side in a new direction. He created an installation, “Jeremy Dance,” which premiered during Moogfest 2017, the music, art and technology festival happening this weekend in downtown Durham.

“Jeremy Dance” is a video portrait of the late artist and friend of Stipe, Jeremy Ayers, with music composed by Stipe. It’s on display in front of American Underground on Main Street during Moogfest.

On Friday afternoon, Stipe was the subject of one of the festival’s “Conversations” with artists, and talked with Andy Battaglia of ARTnews magazine. Stipe talked about his work with R.E.M., what he thinks about art, about his friend Ayers, about the installation project and changing artistic direction post-R.E.M.

“I am in most people’s minds, a pop star who started making sculpture,” Stipe said. He has some connections to North Carolina. His grandmother was born here. The Triangle was important to R.E.M., he said, as the first place they performed outside Georgia and “people were excited about what we were doing.” He also has a friend who lives in Durham. Stipe said he can recognize really distinctly muddled North Carolina accents, placing the areas of North Carolina where they lived and picked up accents.

“For me, I always associate people from North Carolina with accents,” he said.

Even after living in Athens, Georgia, where R.E.M. started, for a long time, and now in New York with his boyfriend, Stipe said he has never felt like he had a home.

“New York felt like the home of my rebirth. What do Southern Baptists call it? Born again,” Stipe said. He said in New York, he felt like he belonged. “I’ve lived there since 1987 as my second home, and now my primary home.”

Stipe met Ayers, the subject of “Jeremy Dance” in 1978 or 1979 in Athens, when he and restaurant co-workers went to a Dunkin Donuts for coffee after work. Ayers died last year.

Stipe also talked about others he knew in Athens — the B-52s, who left for New York at a time “punk rock wound down to no wave.”

In New York, Stipe met the late pop artist Andy Warhol, who tried to pick him up.

“I gave him my phone number; he was very charismatic,” Stipe said. He and Warhol were photographed together in the mid-80s. Warhol asked Stipe what he did, and Stipe told him, “I’m a singer in a band.”

“Warhol said, ‘You’re a pop star.’ I said, ‘No, I’m a singer in a band,’” Stipe said. “Turns out he was right.”

The “Jeremy Dance” installation at Moogfest was in the works before Ayers died. Stipe decided to make him the first subject of what will be a series of video portraits. He composed a stripped down track — later replaced with newer composed music — and asked Ayers to dance, not directing anything.

Stipe said he’s thrilled and terrified at the prospect of composing music in a new way.

Stipe said he can’t differentiate genres like techno and EDM, and doesn’t really like pop music that much.

“When I listen to music, it’s ambient, experimental, music that is minimal and very in the background,” he said. “I can’t really drive a car if pop music is playing.” Stipe said he’ll critique the lyrics and get melodies stuck in his head for days.

“I have a difficult relationship with music,” he said.

Stipe has a book coming out this October. His installation is at Moogfest through Sunday.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan