Michael Stipe Looks Back On R.E.M.’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi 25 Years Later

Chris Bilheimer

Michael Stipe Looks Back On R.E.M.’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi 25 Years Later

Chris Bilheimer

Ahead of a new 25th anniversary reissue, the R.E.M. singer digs deep into the songs on the band's final album with drummer Bill Berry.

I have a theory about R.E.M.’s tenth album, New Adventures In Hi-Fi, but who doesn’t? In the final seconds of the final song, “Electrolite,” the music falls away and leaves Michael Stipe to sing the final line a cappella: “I’m outta here.” But what if he’s actually saying, “I’m out to here”? What if the man known for mumble-singing on the band’s earliest albums was picking that technique back up and pointedly slurring his words to leave the song and the album open-ended? Rather than bowing out of something, that line becomes a way of measuring how far he and the band have come. It’s R.E.M. marking their place in the world, which at that very moment is high up Mulholland Drive overlooking Los Angeles. It’s not a farewell; it’s a greeting, an arrival.

I know it’s a stretch, purposefully muddying one of the clearest moments on this keystone album in their catalog, but New Adventures In Hi-Fi is an album that welcomes odd interpretations, leftfield readings, and harebrained theories. It’s just specific enough to give you a story, even a setting — a band adrift in the American West — but it’s open-ended enough to accommodate anything that fans might bring to the music. Mark Blackwell notes as much in his liners for the new 25th anniversary of the album: “Actually, if you want my opinion, I think New Adventures is primarily about escape. On the first track, the canary dying in the mine is a warning to get out. Almost every song presents a character that needs to escape from some predicament.”

Blackwell’s theory makes more sense than mine. After all, these 14 songs were primarily recorded during their world tour for 1994’s Monster. They found time to work out parts and lay down tracks at soundchecks in Phoenix, Boston, Atlanta, or maybe in a dressing room or in a tour bus, with Stipe later adding vocals at Bad Animals studio in Seattle. It’s a new approach, one born of the circumstances of being one of the biggest rock bands in the world, and the songs capture a blur of momentum, the stomach drop of sudden motion.

After spending the ’80s as a self-consciously Southern band, their perspective fixed to Athens, Georgia, R.E.M. in the ’90s were expanding their scope, claiming new territory. New Adventures announces them as a global band, hopping flights from Spain and watching storms brewing over the Atlantic. It captures the hectic pace of life at that level, the busyness and the transience, touring the world without really seeing it, but they’re not complaining. What separates them from bands lamenting life on the road is R.E.M.’s curiosity about this state of constant travel, its effect on the body and the mind.

Perhaps because they were conceiving this album while on tour, New Adventures has an oddly retrospective feel, as though R.E.M. are taking stock of their catalog and career. Every night they re-created the glittery glam stomp of Monster, but they’re also drawing from much deeper in their catalog to fill out their sets. By extension or just by coincidence, the album revisits older sounds and settings, older chapters in the band’s story, which makes these new songs sound unexpectedly familiar. There are moments of contemplation that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Automatic For The People, darker dirges like the second side of Document, pop hooks from Green, even some updates on their early post-punk jangle. It’s a way of measuring how far they’ve come — a greatest hits with all new songs.

Not that you need to pick out every reference, but New Adventures perhaps makes more sense if you’ve been following the band for years, especially if you’ve invested some of yourself in the music. There’s a reason the album’s been a fan favorite since its release a quarter-century ago. When R.E.M. transform a letter Stipe wrote to Patti Smith into “E-Bow The Letter,” it’s almost as though he wrote that note specifically to you, or maybe to us collectively. “Look up, what do you see?” Stipe asks, cryptically. “All of you and all of me.” Smith herself chimes in with the promise: “I’ll take you over.”

The album looms large and weird in the band’s catalog, partly because of what it has come to represent. It’s the final R.E.M. album with the original line-up of Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe, who since 1979 had comprised one of the most famous rock-and-roll democracies. After feeling ill for several days, Berry collapsed onstage at Laussanne, Switzerland, and doctors detected a ruptured brain aneurysm. He announced his departure from the band in October 1997. They had once proclaimed that the band would cease to exist if anyone left the group, yet they soldiered on without their original drummer for nearly 15 years. New Adventures was their last hurrah together, but the album wears that distinction lightly, and maybe — I’m just theorizing here — that’s because making this album on the road was a respite from all the pressures of fame, the frenzy of a world tour, and that crushing reminder of their own mortality.

Still sleepy from an all-night recording session, Stipe spoke to Stereogum from his home in Athens and entertained a few theories about non-lyric lyrics, dream songs, and his best friend’s least favorite R.E.M. track.

How did recording on the road change your role in the band?

MICHAEL STIPE: If anything, it was advantageous. They were doing soundchecks, which we had chosen to do at every stop to make sure to make sure it was the best show possible. They would work on these new songs, and I was always in the background, you know, just listening. What happened was a kind of extension of what I would normally do with a record. I just listened and let the melodies — or my potential melodies — become part of my DNA, so that when the tour was over, I was able to sit down and really focusing on writing. And there were a few songs that popped out.

When we’re on tour, I can’t write. I’m completely focused on the performance and being the frontman — being the singer. It’s just a different energy, and it’s exhausting, as you can imagine. It’s a different focus. That’s not to diminish what everyone else does, but I had to really focus on keeping my poor body in shape and being able to sing. So those melodies were turning around in my head for the year, year and a half that we were on tour. So when it came time to record, I was able to sit down and get them out. I could focus on writing the words and the narrative arc and all the different characters that I people these songs with.

So you weren’t recording your vocals on the road, but you had started that writing process, in a way.

STIPE: There were songs that did come out, and they were… I’m not an autobiographical writer, but I do pull from real life. I’m just an observer, really. So I pulled from real life. I pulled from what I was observing. There were two songs that did happen while we were on tour, and they just fell into my lap. I recognized it a lightning in a bottle. One of those two was “Departure,” which was based on a real experience. The other was “E-Bow The Letter,” which is based on a letter that I wrote. I remember writing parts of them, but the whole experience was like a tornado. It was madness.

I also remember part of “The Wake-Up Bomb” writing itself. I’m not sure if it’s something we were working on before, because it’s a very Monster kind of track that’s playing off glam rock and that kind of ironic distance that we were playing with on that album. New Adventures turned out to have a much more heartfelt presentation. That’s true with the production, of course, but it’s also coming in and infusing itself into the lyric and the narrative arc and the characters.

There are a lot of moments that remind me of Monster, but I also hear a lot of moments that remind me of earlier albums, like the band is looking back or engaging with previous versions of itself.

STIPE: Is that more in the music or the lyrics?

A little bit of both. For example, you mentioned “E-Bow The Letter,” which I’ve always grouped with “Voice Of Harold” from Dead Letter Office. It’s a similar technique where you’re making lyrics out of something that wasn’t written to be lyrics.

STIPE: That’s interesting. It was unconscious, if that’s what was happening. We always were trying to forge ahead and go forward and never look back. That served us well for the most part. If we were pulling from past successes — and I wouldn’t necessarily call “Voice Of Harold” a success — it wasn’t intentional. But your observation is accurate. “Swan Swan H” is another song like that. It was pulled from written texts. What record is that on? Oh yeah, Lifes Rich Pageant. I went to the American Folk Museum and there was an exhibit there with a needlepoint or a piece of embroidery from the Civil War. The language sewn into the piece parked the arc of that particular song. A lot of that song — “What noisy cats are we!” — was taken directly from something someone wrote in 1860.

That technique certainly play into what you mentioned earlier, about being an observer.

STIPE: I’m also thinking about the song “Belong,” which is on… Out Of Time? That was written in ’89. I remember lifting that from the headline of a newspaper article I read while I was in Munich. It was referencing something about Tiananmen Square.

That makes me wonder if that’s why this record resonates with so many fans. It does seem to allow for these crazy theories or rabbit holes. It allows people to make these odd connections.

STIPE: I don’t know if it’s people who rediscovered it or didn’t really pay much attention at the time, or if it’s new fans that came in from a different generation. But that would be for the uberfans. That’s some pretty deep-cut stuff we’re talking about. I don’t want to diminish our work, but it might reference our limited abilities or maybe how we were just working with what we had.

Well, I wanted to ask something that goes even deeper. You’ve mentioned that some of your songs inhabit the same post-apocalyptic dreamworld, and I wondered if there were any of those songs on New Adventures. Did this album enlarge that world or reveal new corners of it?

STIPE: I call them dream songs. I could write an album around those. That’s sorta what Accelerate was, especially the song “Accelerate” and “Sing For The Submarine.” And “Electron Blue” on Around The Sun. There’s a boatload of songs set in that kind of post-apocalyptic dreamscape. Let me check the tracklist and see if there were any dream songs on New Adventures. Our good friend Wikipedia suggests to me — and I’m going from the top — no, no, no no, “Undertow” maybe. “E-Bow The Letter” no. “Leave” yes. “Departure” no. There’s always a lot of water in the dream songs, and “Undertow” and “Leave” are both very suggestive of water. Where was I? “Bittersweet Me” no. “Be Mine” no. “Binky” no. The instrumental no. No, no, no.

So the only two songs that might connect the album to that world are “Undertow” and “Leave.” Someone pointed something out to me — and actually it might have been Mark Blackwell, who wrote the essay for the liner notes. We were able to have some really deep conversations about the intention behind a lot of the songs, which… I mean, it’s been 25 years. But it never occurred to me that in “Leave,” the guy actually walks into the sea at the end. It might have occurred to me when I wrote it, but I didn’t remember that. The drowning in “Undertow” is accidental. But this one is a more intentional drowning.

There are a lot of LA songs. “How The West Was Won” and “Low Desert” and “Electrolite.” “Wake-Up Bomb” is very distinctly New York, at least from my perspective. Although you could argue there’s a little Rodney Bingenheimer in there. “Binky The Doormat” is my best friend’s least favorite R.E.M. song! I don’t think it’s that bad. It’s also pulling from that glam-rock swagger of Monster.

“Departure” was inspired by River Phoenix, right? That’s another connection to Monster.

STIPE: Well, it was inspired by a storm that I’d seen from an airplane. I can still picture it, and I can tell you what seat I was in. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And I was really upset when I landed. I was also insanely jetlagged, but I was really upset that I couldn’t reach out to River and just tell him about it. That’s the kind of thing that he would have really dug. So the lyrics just fell out of me, from all that regret.

With that and the cover image, there’s a lot of beauty on this record. Even on “Electrolite” and the lights of Los Angeles viewed from up on Mulholland Drive.

STIPE: I’d throw “Low Desert” in there. It’s nature looking down on this poor guy who’s died in a car wreck. It’s a tragedy, but it’s also just nature. It’s the cloud and the mountains looking down and saying, “Well, that wasn’t us. We didn’t make that one happen.” Nature, I guess, enters into a lot of the imagery I use, and a lot of the images we used with the record. But it’s kind of got humankind’s footprint on it. The back of the record is the actual electrolyte image of Los Angeles looking like an electric blanket.

And then you’ve got “How The West Was Won,” about California trying to corral water and not doing a very good job of it.

STIPE: Not doing a good job at all. LA was where I went when I had grown weary of New York in the early ’90s. I followed my best friend, who I mentioned earlier as not liking “Binky The Doormat,” to Los Angeles and settled there for a while. It presented me with this whole new perspective on the American West — this whole mythology of how the West was won and where it got us. It’s pretty ripe material for sure, especially with those gumshoe detective novels of the 1940s. I was just following through from a writing perspective, but historically there’s a lot to reflect on and a lot to pull from.

Is “New Test Leper” related to that? Those lyrics are so embedded in those awful TV shows of the ’90s.

STIPE: The song was written in Seattle, but it was based in New York. But it could be anywhere. I wrote that character, who I’ll call Guy, at a very different time, and I’ll use a today term to describe them and how he or she might identify if we were talking about them 25 years on — but what a beautiful place we find ourselves in in the 21st century, when we have a greater understanding of gender fluidity and identity fluidity in terms of sexuality and desire. When “New Test Leper” was written, that wasn’t regarded as much as it is now — or at least not in the ways that it is now. In that lyric you find yourself inside their head acknowledging that they’re trapped in this moment of complete misunderstanding. It’s really sad.

When I wrote the lyric at the end, I wrote that line “What a sad parade” and repeated it. And I realized I had stolen it from Vic Chesnutt. So I called Vic up on the phone and said, I think I lifted a lyric of yours. And he’s like, “Well, tell me what it is.” I read it to him and he exclaims, “That’s not mine! That’s yours!” But it sounds like such a Vic line. I mean, it’s very clearly influenced by the vernacular that he was pulling from in his own work. So I guess I absorbed some of that into my own work.

Do you think about those characters much anymore? Do you ever wonder what they might be doing 25 years later?

STIPE: If that person in “New Test Leper” is alive today, they might feel justified for their actions on that talk show that day. Everyone else just looks clueless, staring at the floor. But there was such a pure beauty to what they were attempting to offer a bunch of people who didn’t understand. They needed some clarity and some guidance. There’s a camera move that a lot of directors use to indicate a moment of clarity, where they rack in: The camera pulls back as the lens racks forward. So you get this feeling of being sucked backwards while also recognizing what’s in front of you. If I close my eyes, that’s what a lot of these songs are doing — they’re wanting move forward and they’re wanting to leave these cathartic moments of realization. There are 14 little movies on this record, is how I see it. Great music for me has always been incredibly cinematic. I close my eyes and I see things more than I hear them. That’s very moving to me. I interpret everything through my emotions, which is a nice way to move through the world, I have to say.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi (25th Anniversary Edition) is out 10/29 on Craft.

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