Ten years to the day since REM announced they were splitting up, it seems fitting that Mike Mills and Michael Stipe are on the line from Athens, Georgia to discuss a song about endings. The elegiac closing track on their 1996 album New Adventures In Hi-Fi, Electrolite is suffused with the kind of fin-de-siècle wistfulness which defined earlier
REM classics Perfect Circle and Nightswimming.
Based around a lilting piano motif which Mills composed in his girlfriend’s apartment while “goofing around”, Electrolite viewed the coming millennium through the lens of Los Angeles, the quintessential 20th-century city. A happy-sad hymn to the notion of LA as an avatar of surface brilliance and inner emptiness, Stipe’s lyrics reference Mulholland Drive and three shining lights of Hollywood: James Dean, Steve McQueen and Martin Sheen.
“The title of the song references what I’d refer to as the electrolyte blanket, looking out at Los Angeles at night from the hills, or looking down from an airplane,” says the singer. “The idea that, particularly in the American west, if you took a giant, universe-sized steam shovel and just scraped away the surface of the place, all that would be left is earth. Our impact is actually quite shallow. LA represents that very well as a relatively new place, as the last place to be colonised in America, but also as somewhere that represents hope.”
The last REM record made with drummer Bill Berry, New Adventures In Hi-Fi was a return to rootsy, rocky spontaneity, the songs written and recorded during the 1995 US tour for Monster. “When you go on a long tour, soundchecks are this perfunctory thing,” says Mills. “Peter [Buck] decided it would be interesting to make the afternoons creative and fun, instead of playing songs we already knew.” The bones of Electrolite were taped during a soundcheck in Phoenix, the rhythmic rasp of the guiro ushering in Mills’ hyper-melodic piano, Buck’s plangent banjo and one of Stipe’s loveliest vocals.
The result is Thom Yorke’s favourite REM track, although it transpires that he, and we, were lucky to hear Electrolite at all. “I didn’t think that it was worthy of being on an album,” says Stipe. “The guys convinced me. I capitulated and said, ‘We’ll just bury it somewhere near the end’ – and it turned out to be one of our best songs ever. It just goes to show: sometimes you don’t or can’t see what you are doing when you’re in the thick of it. I love the song now.”