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INXS without Michael Hutchence, the group's lead singer? That's like the Stones without Mick Jagger or U2 without Bono.

But that is what fans of this hugely popular Australian band feared with the speculation that Hutchence _ tired of the long tours and mounting pressures following the international success of the group's 1987 album Kick _ wanted out. The rumors were heightened last year when the singer joined some Australian friends to record an album Max Q.

Unlike INXS' seductive, funky dance-rock, a marriage of thunderous power chords and dance rhythms, the Max Q brand of rock has a quirky, underground, experimental feel _ clearly a detour from INXS' mainstream approach. Max Q did get some critical acclaim, but, according to an Atlantic Records source, it was not a commercial success.

Hutchence admirers were not the only ones puzzled by the rock star's career sidestep. The other members of INXS were in the dark too.

"I was at a friend's house one night watching television and Mike came on singing with another group," INXS' keyboardist Andrew Farriss volunteered, sitting across the room from Hutchence during an interview here. "I said, "What the hell is this?' That was the first I'd heard of it."

But the Max Q project may have helped keep the group together _ at least for one more album.

After 16 months of touring to promote the Kick album (which sold 4-million copies in the United States alone) all six members of INXS thought they needed a break early last year. They had been together, touring or recording, for 13 years.

"If we hadn't taken a break, the band might have broken up," said Farriss, who also plays guitar and wrote, with Hutchence, most of INXS' new Atlantic Records album, X, which is off to a fast start commercially.

During the time off, all six members of the group plunged into assorted side projects, none of which resembled the work they had done in INXS. The plan was for them all to come back as INXS after the break, but the key to the band's future rested with Hutchence. Would he find life away from INXS more appealing?

Hutchence, 30, plays down the suggestion that he ever seriously thought about leaving the group, but it is a question he still seems to be debating. There is a side of him that rebels against the pressures of being the sexy, high-visibility lead singer of a successful group.

"It's like being in the Twilight Zone," said Hutchence in a dramatic whisper, emphasizing the otherworldly quality of his experience. "I can step outside myself and look at all this and see it's sheer madness. Sometimes I wonder why I'm doing it. The pace, the pressure, the people grabbing at you _ it's lunacy. On one level, your ego feeds on all this. But on another level, it's all very shallow."

Normally, Hutchence would be doing the interview alone _ and Farriss seemed awkward being along for what was clearly the ride.

But the band has decided that they want someone to sit in on interviews with Hutchence now _ perhaps to take some of the pressure off the singer and steer the conversation away from his personal life, including his much publicized relationship with Australian singer Kylie Minogue.

Or, the added-man-in-the-room plan may be designed to give the rest of the band more visibility in case Hutchence takes off.

This seems to be a time of re-evaluation for a lot of pop stars. George Michael recently announced he was going to try to play down his celebrity by not doing videos for his new album and not touring. John Cougar Mellencamp also announced he is taking at least a year break from the road.

Looking across the room at Farriss, Hutchence said with obvious feeling, "I love music and I love working with these guys. .


. I just have a problem with fame. I hate obnoxious, egotistical rock stars. I don't want to turn into something like that."

But a lower profile might not have been the only reason Hutchence was attracted to Max Q. He also may have been searching for deeper artistic satisfaction.

Back in the early 1980s, when INXS was just beginning to attract attention in the United States with the albums Underneath the Colours and Shabooh Shoobah, it seemed that the band could evolve into an outfit noted for literate, intelligent lyrics and substantial themes.

But their arrival coincided with the rise of MTV and it was inevitable that the two would connect, given Hutchence's presence. Not only did MTV turn Hutchence into a rock pin-up, but the sting left their music. The group's approach became slicker, simpler and more danceable on the albums Listen Like Thieves and Kick.

Hutchence appears frustrated by the accusations in recent years that INXS' music is no deeper than the average disco hit.

"Sure it bothers us," Hutchence said. "We deal with people and issues in an insightful way. There's more to INXS than danceable music and that damned sex symbol thing."

Working on Max Q, Hutchence said, "gave me a different perspective on things. I got something out of it. I learned how to sing. I did some vocal explorations. My singing on the new INXS album is much better because of the Max Q project.

"In INXS, for me, there's always this yearning to do something else, to sample what's over the horizon. This time I was over the horizon. But I'm back. What does that tell you?"

The true answer to whether Hutchence is going to stick with the band may be tied to the reaction to the new album. Will X bring critics back into the fold _ and sell more millions?

Rolling Stone magazine seems pleased. In the lead review in the Nov. 1 issue, the album is given 3{ stars (very good) and described as the group's "best and most cohesive. . . . They focus their strengths, coming up not only with tough, state-of-the-art pop but with the casual confidence of a mature collective personality."

Whatever the critics decide, sales are impressive. After just three weeks, the album is already in the pop Top 5 in the United States.

Noticing the tension in the room during the recent interview, Farriss _ who is laid-back and low-key, in contrast to anxious, high-strung Hutchence _ could not resist taking a playful jab at his musical partner.

Shaking his head back and forth in mock disbelief, Farriss, 31, said, "Who ever knows what Michael Hutchence is going to do?"

Hutchence shrugged: "Hell, even Michael doesn't often know what Michael is going to do."