Hum - Valentine's Day
by Steven P. Ford
Matt Talbott seems like a pretty normal guy. He's a small town boy, hailing from Champaign, Ill. His dress is casual: a gray sweatshirt, jeans and glasses that are almost too big for his face. He sits forward on a plush couch in the RKCNDY greenroom, munching on tortilla chips dipped in salsa. He smiles and chats with his girlfriend, who sits next to him. He's relaxed, even though he will be singing to a pack of wild kids in a couple hours. He will be moved from this comfortable position and be fending off maniacs that will grope for his guitar, dance right next to him and then stage dive onto a sea of hands. But today is Valentine's Day, and his girlfriend, a kindergarten teacher named Sue, has flown out from Illinois to spend time with Talbott and the rest of his band, Hum, during their stop in Seattle. Both of them complain how cold the room is. A small space heater in the corner is working overtime, but people keep opening the door and letting in the cold. Talbott jokingly yells at a couple of them, but rubs his hands together just the same. "I don't remember it being this cold," Talbott muses.
It's been nearly three years since Hum last toured Seattle. Their previous stop in 1995 was at Moe's. But that was a small show. This time, there is a line of teenagers gathering outside the club hours before showtime, many of them drawn by increasing air play of Hum's new single "Coming Home." These past few years have been long for Hum fans. The group hasn't made many West Coast appearances since the tour for "You'd Prefer an Astronaut." Many then came to hear the only single from that album, "Stars." Fueled by some college airplay and a video for the single, "You'd Prefer an Astronaut" was a moderate success for the band, selling about 250,000 copies. Maybe their sound was a bit early, but as the line out front attests, people are ready for their new release "Downward is Heavenward."
"I think this album isn't as immediate as the last record," Talbott said. "A lot of people tell me they think it is our best record so far. It just takes a while to sink into it." But Talbott maintains that the group was not seeking a more commercial success while writing the album. Their label, RCA, has promoted the album like crazy among the college and commercial markets. "Coming Home" has been a mainstay on Seattle's 107.7 KNDD's People's Choice Countdown. It is a bizarre standout among the likes of Pearl Jam and Fatboy Slim. KNDD has taken such a liking to Hum that they volunteered to announce the RKCNDY show. "Sometimes you have to do weird things with the radio... ID's and stuff like that," Talbott said. "There are a lot of politics involved." Talbott was apathetic to the whole deal. There were several instances last tour when the band turned down such deals with radio stations. This time around, he's a lot more willing to give in. "I'm happy to sell records to anyone who wants to buy them," Talbott said. "Even to people who aren't big music fans, that's okay."
Girls from the RKCNDY staff walk into the room carrying food plates and drinks. One walks in with a bag of ice and pours it over some drinks in a plastic tub. A few minutes later, another girl walks in with more ice. Talbott laughs, "They sure do have a lot of ice in Seattle." Different members from other groups filter in and out of the room. Local favorites Harvey Danger and the Kansas City power trio Shiner will open for Hum tonight. Shiner has been on tour with them for the past couple of weeks, and Harvey Danger was a late add-on. Contrary to many reviews and assorted other bands on this tour, Talbott doesn't really identify with the "emo" classification that has haunted them. "Emo" is short for the emotional type of rock most often associated with bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and 764-HERO. As to whether or not this label has influenced who they have played with, Talbott just shrugs. "I don't really fucking know much about (emo). I just like what I like," Talbott confesses. "To me, Shiner and The Promise Ring are worlds apart. I think our band works well with either one of them." Talbott insists that the classification is regional. "Mostly it's just a Midwest thing. We get compared to Smashing Pumpkins a lot. I really don't think we sound like Smashing Pumpkins that much," Talbott fumed. "But we get that shit a lot... that we're like Smashing Pumpkins but not as good. I think the Midwest sound is still stuck in that kind of ballsy guitar thing," he continued. "I'm happy with that 'cause I like that... that is what I listen to. I don't pay much attention to labels. We just try to make the songs pretty." But the band has a hard time deciding among themselves which songs are prettier.
Each show still features a few songs from "Downward," a few from "Astronaut," and a mix from their first two albums. When they throw in a couple of B-sides, it becomes evident that Hum has amassed quite a repertoire. But even among band members there is disagreement on which songs make for a better concert. On "Downward," Talbott has grown a liking for the longer songs that sway in melodic waves of guitar like "The Scientist" and "Afternoon of the Axolotls." "To me, I thought downward is heavenward (from "Axolotls") was a nice line that captured the melancholy feel of the record," Talbott said. "Things can continue to go badly; down and down, worse and worse, but you're there and you still have to deal with it." More than just a catchy line, "Downward is Heavenward" is not only a fitting title for the CD, but also aptly describes the musicians as they tried to put the album together. "Yeah, we had a bitch of a time making this album. We're never eye-to-eye on anything," Talbott admits. "It's like four diverging paths and the farther and farther we get, it just makes it harder to come together." Despite rumors that the band may not stick it out, they all seem to get along okay. Talbott jokes casually with bassist Jeff Dimpsey.
They pick through the food, and Sue makes a move toward the plate of vegetables. "Don't let Bryan see you eating that," Dimpsey jokes, and on cue, guitarist Bryan St. Pere enters. His bandmates liken St. Pere to the Tasmanian Devil, and Sue dramatically jumps out of harm's way so he can dive into a plate of hummus. He talks with his mouth full, and everybody laughs at the private joke. "What?" St. Pere asks innocently. The crowd at RKCNDY was packed. Combine that with the hot stage lights and the place really starts to warm up. Harvey Danger takes the stage and plays an incredible set. Although the band has also had a success on KNDD, no one dances. A few kids nod their heads to the rhythm, but everyone seems content just to listen. By the end of the set, however, the crowd loosens up and sings along with the band's current radio single. Then, Shiner climbs on board. It was clear that not many people were familiar with the band. It took a couple of songs for people to get used to the band's "thick" sound. The precise rhythm and occasional trips into three-quarter time have categorized them as a "math-rock" band. Yet rock it is. The trio gets the crowd going. A couple of the stockier lads in the audience bump into one another, and moshing ensues. A girl climbs onto the stage and starts dancing next to singer/guitarist Allen Epley. He seems at first taken aback, but then he gets into it. He rocks back in to the classic glam metal stance. He sticks his tongue out. At the end of the song, Epley goes back to the mic. "That doesn't happen very often," he says, which sends the crowd into fits of laughter. Shiner closes with their latest release, which appears on a new "Sleep It Off/Half Empty" 7-inch on Sub Pop Records. Look for this band to do good things in Seattle.
Kim Monroe, a DJ from KNDD, gets up on stage, tosses out some toys, and finally announces the band most everyone has been waiting for. Talbott, St. Pere and Dimpsey take the stage, and the quartet is rounded out with guitarist, Tim Lash. Talbott has changed into a yellow soccer jersey he acquired from some secondhand store. Hum starts the show with the slower soundscape "Afternoon with the Axolotls." It only takes a couple of songs for the band and the crowd to kick in to the experience. The band doesn't move around quite as much as Shiner. Talbott concentrates on finding the perfect level between his distinct voice and the level on his amp, Dimpsey settles into a groove and Lash keeps his eyes on the fret board. Despite the slow start, a mood is struck when the smoke machine sends a mist over the crowd and the band is bathed in red and blue light. Even when Talbott is hit with the staccato flashes of a strobe light he stays focused on content and not form. The crowd moshes and there are the usual crowd surfers, but by the end of Hum's set, more and more people are climbing up on the stage. Talbott tries to seem uninterested when the kids reach for his guitar and climb up on stage to dance. The same girl that danced with Epley tries to interest Talbott, but he ignores her, so she jumps off the stage. The room continues to increase in temperature as as the night proceeds and more people crowd the stage. A girl standing next to the door to the greenroom suddenly collapses. Roadies quickly pick her up and take her into the back.
Talbott is sweating like mad. The last few songs are loud and raucous, and at times Talbott's singing becomes screaming. His face is red and the veins stand out on his neck. After the last song, Talbott tries to set his guitar down and leave the stage. Unfortunately, it falls to floor and the headstock snaps off. Despite this snafu the crowd begins chanting "We Want Hum...We Want Hum!" The door to the greenroom opens, they hesitate just a moment and finally came out to play the encore. The crowd cheers endlessly. After the show, several fans linger to get autographs. RKCNDY staff tries to get them to leave. The band signs a few and tries to put their equipment away. Lash is talking with a friend and his family about going out to a bar, St. Pere and Dimpsey put together plans to go out with Shiner for their last night while Talbott stays in the greenroom. A couple of fans brave the security and seek Talbott out to talk to him about the show. He appears sincerely happy that they enjoyed themselves. The back door of RKCNDY flies open, and a refreshing blast of cold air comes in. Despite the staggering heat remaining in the room, Talbott puts back on the gray sweatshirt, and whatever elements of rock stardom disappear. One fan digs through the tub of drinks. Where there once was mounds of ice, now only a pool of water remains. The staff finally clears out the last of the stragglers. Talbott is smiling again. He and Sue go out the back door to spend their Valentine's evening, or what's left of it, together.
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