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The Lowdown on 'Hi-Fi'

Guitarist Peter Buck reflects on the roller-coaster tour that spawned R.E.M.'s latest record--a road album that's not exactly about the road--and what lies ahead for the $80-million band.

September 08, 1996|Robert Hilburn | 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.

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