Recorded in a spirit of independence, experimentalism and a touch of music concrete, and produced by fellow Athens musician Mitch Easter, Chronic Town was recorded at Easter's Drive-in studio in October 1981. Already the familiar R.E.M calling cards are present: Michael Stipe's often mumbled vocals, the words drifting in and out of sense; Peter Buck's distinctive ringing guitar sound; Stipe recording his vocal parts in unfamiliar places. There are tape loops, backwards sections, Stipe
Of the EP's opening track "Wolves, Lower", Easter said:
There was an assumption that, of course, we all knew what it was about. It didn't take long before you realised that this official mystery thing was what everybody was going for, so I couldn't act as if I was mystified.
What's remarkable to me about Chronic Town is how fresh and exciting it sounds today ("today" here can be taken literally or as code for "generally, 30 years on"). It may only amount to five tracks, but from the opening bars of "Wolves, Lower", through "Gardening at Night" (a song about pissing on lawns, I'm told), to the frantic energy of 'Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)", it kicks off with a trio of tracks that any band should envy. The pace, and the fun, lets up slightly with the punchy, post-punky, '1,000,000"; "Stumble" gets it back on track, closing the EP driven along by some signature Peter Buck sounds.
Chronic Town was released on I.R.S. Records, the label that would take them all the way into the big leagues and a lucrative deal with Warner Bros in 1988. At the time I.R.S. was not a rich label, and not a label given to handing out large advances. In signing, R.E.M. would join acts like The Go Gos, and the Danny Elfman-headed Oingo Boingo, signing to I.R.S. because of the assurances that they would be left to their own devices creatively.
Having signed for I.R.S, it was time for R.E.M. to record their first full album...