"Lyric writing is not easy": Michael Stipe looks back on creating REM's "New Adventures of Hi-Fi"

The singer recalls collaborating with Patti Smith & the challenges of making his favorite album 25 years ago

Published November 27, 2021 11:00AM (EST)

R.E.M. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Chris Bilhiemer)
R.E.M. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Chris Bilhiemer)

When R.E.M. was still an ongoing concern, the division of musical labor looked something like this: The instrumentalists—  bassist Mike Mills, guitarist Peter Buck and, prior to 1997, drummer Bill Berry — worked up music. Then they'd hand these demos over to vocalist Michael Stipe, who would then respond to what he heard and write lyrics.

On 1996's "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" (which was recently reissued as a deluxe package) Stipe looked outward. His lyrics drew on varied inspirations — the American west, mean-spirited talk shows, grief, gender, and people prone to self-destruction — and capture the whiplash of trying to process big feelings and big emotions while your life is a nonstop whirlwind. However, it's also a deeply empathetic album, and the themes and ideas he explores feel very contemporary and forward-thinking.

Calling from Athens, Georgia, in October 2021, Stipe is busier than ever. He recently released a book of photographs, "Michael Stipe: Portraits Still Life," and contributed the foreword to "Familiar" by his long-time friend, the artist and photographer Christy Bush. Stipe is also currently working on solo music with musician Andy LeMaster, who fronted the band Now It's Overhead. (The group opened for R.E.M. in 2004.) In fact, he says he was up until 7 a.m. the morning of our conversation. 

RELATED: Mike Mills on R.E.M.'s "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" at 25: A "record infused by being on the road"

"Andy and I are working diligently on new material, solo material of mine, and it's great to be able to work with him and compose with him and work on music," he says. "I've worked with R.E.M. as an arranger a lot, but I didn't actually write or have much to do with the writing of the music, so that's really a new way to approach music for me. And one that I needed, I think, as a solo artist. It was necessary for me to approach it from a very different perspective than what I was accustomed to."

I've been reading many of the recent interviews you've done about your photo book, and I find it fitting that we're talking about "New Adventures in Hi-Fi." To me, that album has always felt so informed by photography, starting with your album cover photo and then just how the songs themselves are like snapshots. 

It was Peter Buck [who] wanted me to use my photographs for all the imagery for "New Adventures." I think he just saw what I was doing on the road the year before and thought that it was fitting [for] some of the themes and some of the musical nuances and landscapes that those guys were creating in 1995 when we were on tour and recording. And so, yeah, I was very flattered by that and thrilled to come up with something that works for the project. 

At the time, we were really exploring the idea of doing... [Back in 1982] Springsteen had put out "Nebraska," and it was this very, very different type of sidestep for him as an artist several years into a career and legacy. And so with "New Adventures," that was a bit of where it looked like we could push the project in that direction. And so we did. With the use of black and white photography, it was a pretty direct lift. But it worked. 

I'm very, very proud of the visuals that go along with [the album], from the music videos to packaging itself. And when we go back and re-explore [with] these 25th anniversary re-releases, I'm able to go in and find contact sheets with images of us. I was 36 at the time. We were hot. And [we] took pictures that no one's ever seen before and [can] present those to, not only our old fans, but possibly to another generation of listeners, so that's thrilling for me.

R.E.M.'s "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" cover art (Craft Recordings)

When you went back and looked and re-listened to the music, what were your thoughts 25 years later? What came to your mind?

"New Adventures" has been historically my favorite R.E.M. album, and it hasn't been bumped out of [my] No. 1 spot, but it's been joined with "Reveal," which is the album that we put out two after "New Adventures."

I mean, it's a bit selfish, but [with] my contribution to what we were doing, I had reached a real peak, I think, lyrically and thematically. I'm really proud of the songwriting. I've never once thought of myself as a poet, but there's some actual poetry within some of the lyric writing that I did for those two albums. 

I find that interesting, because both of those records are very distinctive within R.E.M.'s catalog, both for very different reasons. "Reveal" to me has always felt like this otherworldly, beautiful [album], almost like an orbiting-in-outer-space, dreamscape-type thing. 

Yeah. I think of "Reveal" as kind of a fever dream about summer, about my favorite season, but yeah, it feels like it's in this really almost quasi-somnambulant, fever dream state. Everything's a little hazy, like Lana Del Rey [Laughs].

Absolutely — you predicted her!

[Laughs] I would love to have that honor, but I'm afraid I had nothing to do with it. Thank you for that, though.

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As a lyricist, because the songs on "New Adventures" were coming together on the road, did that have any particular different or distinctive influence on what you were coming up with?

Melodically, I was listening from my dressing room while those guys were working at these songs and the arrangements on the road and recording them. And so the melodies are really strong for that reason. I had a year of listening before I even sat down and started working on lyrics for most of the material. 

For me, that created this profound difference [from] the usual techniques that I would employ to try to bring my very best contribution to the work. That amount of time was something that we never, ever had. And that I certainly never had. I was always the last one to hand in my homework, as it were, and actually completely finish the songs.

Lyric writing is not easy, and I don't need a pat on the back for it, but it's just a really different thing to work with words and ideas and narratives, than putting chords together and creating and arranging music. The music speaks to a very different part of our brain and our heart than other mediums. And lyric is like "The Colossus of Maroussi" over the bay of these different mediums. . . . Wow, that was quite an analogy I just [made]. Sorry about that.

It's spanning these two great mediums. One is writing and perhaps literary-based the other is music, and they touch very different parts of our soul and our heart and our brain. 

When it works, it really works. If it doesn't work, it's the thing you don't ever want to be in your work, or in what you present to people outside of your immediate circle of intimates is, "His work is mediocre."  . . . As I grew more confident as an adult, I became okay with the failures, as well as the triumphs. Hopefully. R.E.M. was never a band that presented mediocre material.

As a fan, I would agree with that. Being on the road, you do get into a groove, and you are running on a different level of cylinders rather than being at home. Do you think that contributed to why everyone was at their peak?

Well, you're in a profoundly adrenalized state. And if you're a touring act, that continues for the better part of a year, or a year-and-a-half in our case, that adrenalized state is fight-or-flight-level hypersensitivity. And what's coming out of you as a creative artist or as a creative person is going to be entirely heightened by that. 

It more, really, resonated with the guys who were writing the music and arranging those songs. By then, with me, I was really focused during the tour on the performance that night and not on writing lyrics. 

But "E-Bow the Letter" was something that happened during a soundcheck. I just remembered this letter that I had written, and I ran back to my dressing room and pulled it out of my bag and walked up on stage and just recited. And it's a recitation, that song. 

Part of its beauty is that I'm using my voice in a very different way than we're used to hearing it. And it's really this avalanche of ideas and thoughts that separately don't really mean a whole lot but, in combination with each other and as a single thought, present a very, very different and a very profoundly good, beautiful image.

[Plus] I had relocated to the West Coast, and so being in Los Angeles, I had a whole other set of histories and narratives to play off of as a lyricist and to explore. And that's certainly a very different vista than the American east and New York City.

R.E.M. New Adventures in Hi-FiR.E.M. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Chris Bilheimer)

What made the west so distinctive from the south or the east, just in terms of as a writer? What riches does it give for you?

That's such a giant question. Peter's grandfather was the sheriff of L.A. County for a long time. And Peter would tell stories of being young and his grandfather would find headless bodies in the desert, and it was connected to water rights. This was in the 1970s. 

From the gumshoe detective novels in the 1940s and '50s to this idea of what we would now call colonization — but at the time anyway, it felt like this new world that we were exploring and a new way of thinking about who we are and how we populate the places that we decide to settle and the difficulties that come with that. It just was, topically and emotionally, a very rich place to tap. 

I arrived at a place where I had my stay in Los Angeles. And now I'm just repelled by the city, as one of the most isolating places on earth. And I'm actually somewhat allergic to L.A. now. I apologize all the time to my friends who live there because they're really good people, all of them, but I can't spend more than three or four days there without wanting to just jump in a car and leave.

At the same time, you know, my adopted city and home, New York City, just at the time for me, felt really sad and dark, and I had to leave there and going west was a good place for me to go.

I also want to talk about "New Test Leper," because reading the liner notes for the reissue, it was really striking to me how that was a song everyone really gravitated toward. And I really saw the song through new eyes and a new light in reading what you all said about the song.

The character in "New Test Leper" is suggesting that he/she is not a fan of Jesus, but a fan of Jesus' idea. So, I'm not a follower, but a fan, I guess is how you would say. For me, that song was really important, because I threw away seven drafts of different lyrics. And I when I say draft, we're talking a notebook of ideas, seven times. And I arrived at this by watching a daytime TV show where this person came on in what we would have at the time called transvestite drag and tried to present themselves and explain why their desire to dress as a woman was important to them. [This] was met with ridicule and a lot of shrugging and raised eyebrows and pearl clutching.

And so the song is about this realization on camera and in real time that this person had — and I'm referring to them as they. I'm just using the vernacular of today to do so. But it really precedes this revolution of ideas in Western culture about what gender is and what it means to us, and that it goes beyond the body that we're born into. And identity is deeper and much more profound than this very 18th, 19th, and 20th century idea of simplistic, black-and-white division, abstracted, binary ideas. 

Anyway, from the title, which of course references the New Testament to the idea of being a leper, as placed in scripture, bringing that up to the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century. This character suddenly looking back becomes quite prescient and quite lovable in their attempts to suggest that there's more than this binary way of thinking about gender and thinking about identity.

And I love that, because you're right. Every '80s and '90s talk show, that's exactly what it was. It was, "Let's put these people who we think are freaks on display." And I use that term loosely; that's what they were perceived as. It's so mean, and mean-spirited, when you look back on it now. It's very upsetting. 

At the very beginning [season] of those [music audition] shows [like "American Idol"], those were just as brutal and mean-spirited and freak on parade as you could get. And whether it was the producers or Simon Cowell doing it, it's shocking to me that it didn't end in violence, the way that they would pull people up who were clearly not going to become the next Adele or the next Sia. The people were put on display on TV, really, for laughs. It was ethically brutal and horrible. 

I was mortified by it, frankly. And I think he softened as the shows moved on, and they don't do that as much now, but they certainly did play it for laughs in the early days.

I think that's right — and it's such a welcome change. It's a little bit kinder and gentler. 

Yeah. There's one example. She's a British singer, Susan Boyle. Oh my God. The most astonishing voice. And what a beautiful energy she has. But clearly, when she walked on stage, it was played for laughs. The producers knew that she had that voice and that she would knock the show sideways, and in fact, she did. Took her time, but anyway, it was done.

In the boxed set, there is a prominent image with the band and Patti Smith. Where was that photo from and why that was so important to center that in the box set imagery this time?

Well, obviously, Patti Smith means so much to us as a band. We all credit her with bringing us together as a band through our mutual love of her work. To be able to work with her side-by-side was really a huge draw. She flew to Seattle to record her vocal part for "E-Bow the Letter," and the photograph was taken there. I think it was Chris Bilheimer who took it. He's [R.E.M.'s] graphic designer, who I worked with very closely on all the packaging from "Monster" forward up to now, up to this package.

For me, the thrill looking back 25 years, is to be able to see with a great deal of distance. When I was 23, I wrote songs about not being able to imagine myself as a 30-year-old. I'm now twice that age plus, and looking back, it's fascinating to see who we were as people, who we were as a unit, as a writing band and a touring band, and being able to pull those influences.

But looking at the videos, looking at the artwork that we chose, looking at the B-sides, looking at the alternative tapes, and then, as I mentioned earlier, going into the archives to pull contact sheets of images by people as profoundly talented as Anton Corbijn, and looking at these pictures that had never published before, putting that together as a package for not only our old fans, but also a new generation of potential listeners, for me, it's thrilling. It makes me bristle with excitement that we did that well back then. We did something, really, quite extraordinary. 

And as I jokingly mentioned earlier, and I've said this a few times, We were really hot! And it's kind of nice to look back and be like, "Wow, we knew how to take a picture. So let's put these pictures out into the world."

You and Patti are still connected, and in the liner notes, you mentioned that she helped influence your writing. As a lyricist, where did you find yourself going after that, after having that experience recording with her?

I watched . . . I had no idea how she did what she did. At that point, she had just come back to touring, but I watched her in the studio. We all were just unbelievably fascinated by her process. She listened to the song. She found something that she liked, and she hung onto it and she just started riffing on it. And we were able to pull from that and put together the vocal part that she built for that song. 

And it's an odd song. It's an actual . . .  in a lifetime of writing lyrics, I am not [an] autobiographic writer at all, but from time to time, something lands, and it just connects, in a way. And so this was somewhat autobiographic. It is actually a letter that I wrote, and we found a line to repeat to create the chorus, and Patti just riffed on that and built this beautiful part out of it.

And that's such a skill. I mean, you talked about how that can take so long to write lyrics sometimes and to riff on something. For that to come out like that almost instinctually is an amazing gift. It's like people who can sight read music or improvise. 

Well, it's a confidence and a lack of fear of one's abilities that I deeply admire. And you know, she's presented it in her work over and over and over and over again. I'm doing something for another media outlet and talking about the song, "My Blakean Year." Obviously, I'm a fan, and she's family now and we're great friends, but standing back from that objectively, it's one of the best written lyrics of all time. I mean, it's absolutely brilliant. 

With the gift of retirement and hindsight, do you think that "New Adventures" was a turning point for the band or an ending of sorts, a closing of a chapter?

Well, it was a closing of a chapter for sure, of us as a four-piece, but we didn't know it at the time. I don't think Bill even recognized while we were making that record that he was ready to retire. And we became a three-piece shortly after that record was released. It was a real turning point. 

But part of what I appreciate about it . . . you know, I've never really aligned myself with rock and roll. I've never felt like a "rock star," and I'm putting giant parentheses around that. I am just much more like a punk rocker hippie who used pop music . . . and alternative, you know. We helped spearhead this idea of an alternative to the mainstream, but to push our very specific ideas of what we had to offer through the mainstream.

And yet "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" presents us as a four-piece working band that were really as a four-piece we were at a peak during the writing and recording of that record. And I'm very proud of the results.

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By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Interview Michael Stipe Music New Adventures In Hi-fi Patti Smith Rem