It’s August 1995, and R.E.M. is in a state of collapse. Drummer Bill Berry is in the hospital undergoing brain surgery to treat two aneurysms on the right side of his brain (one of which ruptured while he was performing on stage), bassist Mike Mills is undergoing emergency abdominal surgery, and singer Michael Stipe was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia. In recovery mode, the band was back on the road two months later. This was a bittersweet moment in time. As the band toured around their ninth album Monster, they were writing and recording their forthcoming tenth record entirely on the road. If there was something life was throwing, it was catapulted at R.E.M. in ’95. “It was a super tough year for all of us,” says guitarist Peter Buck. “I had my kids with me, and they were eight months old and within the year, they went from crawling around to walking and talking on the tour.”
Once back on tour, the band resumed their regular activity. This included making the music which culminated in the storybook of songs documenting the real-time madness of the past year with New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
“For years, Michael and I would say this was our favorite R.E.M. record,” says Buck. “It was a weird, chaotic year, and we all sat down and wrote songs all year long, and made a record that kind of encapsulated what was going on with us, and the tour, and everything else.”
Born out of a stressful and chaotic year of touring, New Adventures in Hi-Fi was a road album at its core, and R.E.M. was a road-writing band. The band even recorded the track, “Zither,” in a giant locker room bathroom at one of the arenas they were playing. “We were all just sitting around with very little to do, so it was kind of spontaneous in that sense,” says bassist and keyboardist Mike Mills. His favorite Hi-Fi track, “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” was another capture of the band’s musical impulses on the road. “We all remember it a little differently, but I’m pretty sure that Bill and I were sitting out in the studio, and he started playing that drum rhythm. I heard him and was on the piano, so the first thing I literally started playing was that song.”
The track just came out, remembers Mills. “I’m not an improvisational piano player, so I just pretended to be Thelonious Monk for a second in the sense that as he said, ‘there are no wrong notes,’’’ jokes Mills. “I was just going to pretend like I’m some guy who stumbled into the studio and had never heard the song before and decided to bang on the piano, and that was all in one take. The chaos, I think, adds to the mystery of the song.”
The band mostly made songs on the fly, though some were more premeditated like Stipe’s swaggering “E-Bow The Letter.” This song was initially written as a letter he never intended to send, featuring Patti Smith, who also closed out the band’s final album Collapse Into Now in 2011. “We didn’t bring in songs,” says Buck, who hadn’t listened to the album since its first pressing in 1996 until recently, before the reissue, which features b-sides, rare demos, and footage from the tour. “We came together and banged them out. Somehow at the end, it all seemed to make sense. I think ‘Low Desert’ was one song we were playing in the first soundcheck, but everything else was written while we were traveling with Michael scribbling in his book.”
The album reflects the band living, and recording, on the road. “The record really captures that tracks were either recorded live or during soundcheck or two or three in a recording studio,” says Buck. “It was so hectic and there was so much stuff going on during that tour that when I listened to the test pressing for the new reissue, it completely brought me back.”
Now, 25 years after the release of New Adventures in Hi-Fi and more than four decades since the band formed, it’s easier to look back on the musical legacy of R.E.M. In all its twists and turns, one thing always remained constant: the songwriting. And R.E.M. always tried to make timeless records. “When you heard them, you couldn’t say, ‘that was clearly made in 1984,’” says Mills. “On the other hand, New Adventures is very much of its time, which infuses it with exactly what was happening during that year we made it, so I think there’s something that adds to its timeless quality.”