The Lowdown on 'Hi-Fi'

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

A song called "Electrolite" on R.E.M.'s new album, "New Adventures in Hi-Fi," describes the exhilaration of riding along Mulholland Drive and gazing at the beauty of the stars above and, especially, the lights below.

The Los Angeles hillside setting makes the narrator feel so special that he identifies with actors who represent to him the essence of glamour and cool: "I'm Steve McQueen . . . I'm Jimmy Dean."

It's a telling moment because there is something tragic about both of those actors, and you sense that the character in the song is in some type of trouble--and that Mulholland is simply a momentary refuge from his real and complicated world.

In a way, R.E.M. experienced the emotional ups and downs hinted at in "Electrolite" during the year or so that the group spent recording the new collection, which arrives in stores Tuesday.

The band members' trials began with a series of illnesses during their 1995 world tour. First, and most seriously, drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain aneurysm in Switzerland. It was followed by bassist Mike Mills' abdominal surgery and singer Michael Stipe's hernia surgery.

The tension continued after the tour as the band went through what guitarist Peter Buck describes as the most "soul-destroying" period in the quartet's 16-year history. Buck, 39, said he is prohibited legally from talking about the matter, but he is apparently referring to the group's break in May with longtime manager Jefferson Holt.

Sources said Holt, who resigned, was asked to leave after the band investigated allegations that he sexually harassed a female employee at the band's Athens, Ga., office.

R.E.M.'s refuge during these periods was music--first the concerts and the sound checks, where the members recorded the bulk of the songs for the new album, and then the studio, where they put the final touches on "New Adventures." The result is a stirring collection that mixes some of the pure rock fury of 1994's "Monster" with the lighter, more graceful elements of the band's earlier work (see review, Page 93).

On the eve of the album release, an upbeat Buck, the father of 2-year-old twin girls, spoke from his home in Seattle about the highs and lows of making "New Adventures" and the future of the band, which last month signed what is believed to be the largest record contract in history: a five-album deal with Warner Bros. Records worth an estimated $80 million.

Question: Weren't you originally planning to play all the new songs in the show and then record them for a live album?

Answer: That thought came up when Bill and I were doing interviews together for "Monster." We said we might write a bunch of songs and then record them on the road, so that by the end of the tour we'd have a finished album. But it didn't quite work out. For one thing, some of the stuff we were writing was just too delicate to stand up to being played in front of 20,000 people who were screaming for "The One I Love" or whatever.

Q: How many songs did you end up recording during the show?

A: We played five new songs in the tour--four of which ended up on the album: "Undertow," "The Wake-Up Bomb," "Departure" and "Blinky the Doormat." We also played a song called "Revolution" on almost the entire tour, but it didn't make the record because by the time we got into the studio the song seemed a little old and didn't fit in. But it will definitely show up in the long-form version of "Road Movie" [the concert video that will be released in conjunction with the album]. We recorded another eight songs or so at the sound checks.

Q: How was it playing in an empty arena?

A: Usually sound checks are boring because you do like four songs that you play every night anyway. Instead, we were coming in with all this new stuff. Even the road crew, who usually never watch sound checks, ended up bringing their dinners and watching us play, and it was a nice feeling.

We took this eight-track machine on the road and it proved to be much more relaxed than sitting in the studio where you always have the red light reminding you that the studio is costing you $2,000 a day or whatever, so you'd better get to work. It was a real liberating experience.

Q: When you are making a record, do you think about the large audience waiting to hear what you've done? You guys have sold more than 12 million albums in the U.S. alone since SoundScan began in 1991. Does that inspire you or intimidate you?

A: The writing is pretty much done before we think about what the audience is going to expect, but there is a point where you start thinking about all the people who are going to be hearing the record--and I like that feeling. I realize we are going to be held to a higher standard than someone on an indie label or something, and I think that's fair because we have a lot of advantages over someone who is making an $8,000 album on a tiny label. For one thing, we don't have any day jobs. We can do things twice if we need to in order to get just the right sound on the record.

Q: But isn't there a temptation at some point to take things easy and maybe lean on what has worked before for you?

A: I think the idea of certain formulas that lead to success are more a preoccupation with record companies than with bands. I just read somewhere an article that said only 7% of the records released in America sell more than 10,000 copies. When you hear that, you realize that most people don't know what it is that makes a record successful. I always felt the only test we apply to a record is to try to make it challenging and interesting and forward-looking.

Q: What about the song "Electrolite"? How did that come about?

A: A lot of the songs on the album speak about restlessness and other feelings that you get being on tour. A lot of them, in fact, are literally about going from place to place. The character in that song is driving through the hills of Mulholland, looking at the beauty of Los Angeles at night. Everyone really does feel like Steve McQueen or someone when they are on top of the hill. I don't know what really happens to the guy at the end of the song . . . when he comes down to reality.

Q: Do you see any parallel to being on stage and then coming back to reality?

A: I doubt very often or ever Michael writes specifically about being in the band, but I think it would be natural to include some of the feelings you get on tour in songs. On tour, you just get into such a weird mental state and I think a lot of the characters that are written about in the record are in that state . . . a dislocated kind of feeling. It's just they are placed in other situations.

Q: Do you ever have periods where you think the band seems to be getting stale?

A: Oh sure, I think every band goes through cycles. I think we felt a bit like we were at the end of our ropes around 1985. We were on the road 360 days a year . . . just home for the week around Christmas. We eventually decided we didn't have to be on the road like this all the time. We had other things we wanted to do in our lives. For instance, we won't tour with this record. Instead, we'll probably go back into the studio and make another record. Then we'll put it out in about a year and go on the road and play them.

Q: Did you have any fear when you had children that you'd lose some of your focus and drive in rock 'n' roll?

A: You mean the old idea of the tortured artist? I'm not going to deny that turmoil and unhappiness fuels a lot of creativity, but I think everyone growing up has enough of that to last them the rest of their lives. Everyone I know has enough bad times and struggles in their lives to draw upon for a lifetime.

Q: What happened following Bill's aneurysm? Was there a point where you feared that might be the end of R.E.M.?

A: First we just worried about Bill. But there was eventually a point where I assumed the tour was over and that we might never tour again. None of us had an interest in hiring a session drummer and going on the road. But, thankfully, it never got to that point.

Q: The new Warner Bros. contract calls for five more albums. How long do you see R.E.M. going?

A: That's something we've talked about since our second gig ever and we've always said we'll just play it by ear. When we did the "Monster" record, however, the last few weeks were really hard for some reason. If we had faced signing a new contract then, I might have doubted how long things would go. But this record and the traumatic experiences pulled us together in a way that makes me feel confident about the future again.

Q: What do you think about all the reunion tours going on these days? Can you ever picture R.E.M. going out and just doing the old favorites?

A: I've long been terrified of letting the past overtake us. I still don't want to be one of those bands that has to go on the road and play all old stuff and only one song from the new record. I am going to fight that as long as I can.

But you know what? There may be a time when I might go, "Let's go out and celebrate. Let's do some of the songs that we haven't done in 15 years."

I saw Neil Diamond the other night and it was great. He got out there and played some of the old songs with a lot of commitment. It looked like he was having a great time and the audience loved it. There are a lot of memories in our old songs and it might be good to share them again some day.

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