Nonetheless, here are the boys of R.E.M. Buck, Stipe and Mills all lined up like talk-show guests in the offices of Warner Bros. Records. Stipe's bald, Buck's a little paunchy, and Mills has that unsettling Bob Costas thing going on where he appears both boyish and middle-aged. Great rock groups don't usually stick around for the gray hairs to come in; they're supposed to burn out, fade away, hey hey, my my, well whatever, never mind. In fact in 1998, when R.E.M. was finishing its last album, "Up" (its first without original drummer Bill Berry, who retired after recovering from a brain aneurysm and lives on a farm outside Athens, Ga.), the guys did disband but only briefly. "When we mixed that record, I thought it was our last will and testament," says Stipe. "Then we talked, and we realized that each of us wanted to continue making music somehow and that the people we wanted to continue making music with were in the room." Says Buck: "We just had to get past the weird stuff."
There's still plenty of weird stuff going on with R.E.M. Buck is facing charges in London over an April 21 "air rage" incident in which he allegedly got drunk and assaulted crew members on a British Airways flight. (Buck issued an apology and faces a court date on June 18). Yet despite aborted breakups and possible breakdowns, R.E.M. arguably the most influential rock band of the '80s and '90s is poised for fresh success. The trio's new album, "Reveal" (Warner Bros.), is its best since its 1992 megahit, Automatic for the People. "With the exception of U2, there's no one who has stayed together and stayed relevant for as long as we have," says Stipe. "We can't possibly compete with Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears, and I have no real desire to. But as long as people are excited about our work, we're going to expend the energy to do it." Stipe later adds, for good measure, "I'm only two years older than Tom Cruise and three years older than Brad Pitt."
Pitt and Cruise aren't just points of comparison for Stipe; they're also colleagues. In recent years Stipe has become increasingly involved in the filmmaking scene. Rockers who go Hollywood often find that when they stop singing and start speaking, their words lose their magic: the great Bob Dylan in the megabomb movie "Hearts of Fire," Mick Jagger in every flick he ever made. Stipe has slipped into films not as an actor but as a producer. In 1999 he had his greatest celluloid success as a co-producer of the Oscar-nominated movie "Being John Malkovich." Stipe is currently producing a wide range of films, including the high school coming-of-age feature "Our Song" (opening in New York City on May 23 and wider in June), the women's prison drama "Stranger Inside" (airing on HBO June 23) and "13 Conversations About One Thing," a drama about karma, which should hit the festival circuit later this year. "Onstage it's all about me, whether it should be or not," says Stipe. "But Peter's frankly much smarter and more articulate than I am, and so's Mike. So there's an interest from me in being behind the scenes in movies. I get a lot of satisfaction from that."
Stipe operates two film companies, the New York City-based C-Hundred (which he started with producer-director Jim McKay in 1987) and the Los Angeles-based Single Cell Pictures (launched in 1995). Both are now run under Self Timer, a parent company that Stipe heads, and both focus on low-budget films. "I refer to what we do as 'under the radar,'" says McKay, who directed "Our Song," a C-Hundred film with a budget of under $500,000. Single Cell's films tend to have bigger stars; "13 Conversations" features Matthew McConaughey and Amy Irving.
You won't find Stipe in the office pushing papers. "I'm not a numbers guy," says Stipe, "even though I'm a Capricorn." Stipe splits his time between homes in Athens, Los Angeles and New York City and is often on the road. "He's like Bosley in "Charlie's Angels" he's always traveling," says Single Cell co-head Sandy Stern. But Stipe is a hands-on producer. Jill Sprecher, director of 13 Conversations, says that while Stipe was making Reveal in a studio in Dublin, Ireland, last year, he would regularly call top actors, pushing them to take a role. "I think the reason we got the cast we did was because of him," says Sprecher.
The singer's divided career hasn't hurt his music. "Reveal" is a smooth combination of lush, mysterious melodies and high-tech production. It's like a trip through a rain forest on a hovercraft. On "Up," the band overemphasized the electronica; on "Reveal," the judicious techno touches contribute to a sense of drama and experimentation. Stipe's lyrics remain characteristically erudite and elusive. On Imitation of Life he croons, "Charades, pop skill/ water hyacinth, named by a poet." On "Chorus and the Ring," he sings, "It's the poison that in measures brings illuminating vision/ It's the knowing with a wink that we expect in Southern women." His lyrics may appear random, but they can aim for Proustian resonance. A line on "Imitation" "That's cinnamon that's Hollywood" is meant to conjure memories of eating cinnamon toast in childhood and feelings of innocence lost.
Stipe says he's "phenomenally overworked" but happy. He says he's been "in a relationship with an amazing man" for about three years (he says his partner isn't a celebrity). In the past Stipe avoided questions about his sexuality, but he's now more comfortable discussing it. "I was being made to be a coward about it," he says, "rather than someone who felt like it really was a very private thing." He now readily describes himself as a "queer artist." But not everything about Stipe is open for explanation. When he is asked why he seems to have a blue brick tattooed on his right hand, he just smiles. "Reason?" he says. "This is Michael Stipe you're talking to, young man."