Champaign County in central Illinois is home to some 175,000 people and 1,500 farms. Glaciers, like massive bulldozers, moved through this land during the last Ice Age, producing a topography so monotonous, so level, it approaches the Platonic ideal of flat.
Corn is a big deal here. Detassling that corn come summer is almost a Big 10 sport for the dope-smoking kids who bust their asses doing it so they'll have money enough to kick back during the semester at the University of Illinois.
There are cows here, too, and you can really smell them anytime the wind rushes in from the South Farms on UofI's Champaign-Urbana campus. December is as soul-crushingly cold as August is humid, when heat radiates out of the lush green landscape. Still, it's a fine place to ingest mushrooms and watch the leaves change color along cobblestone streets.
It's from this extreme, latently hallucinogenic place that Hum comes bearing fuzz-toned guitars and gut-punching bass that can change--as quickly as Champaign's weather--into scruffy pop with melodic hooks. The band's not sloppy, but its songs spill over the edges, pushed by an arsenal of phasers, flangers, distortion boxes, wah-wah pedals and digital delays that proves passionate noise can meet dreamscape.
Thanks to Hum's 1995 major-label debut, You'd Prefer an Astronaut, which sold more than 250,000 copies, and its new release, Downward Is Heavenward, none of Hum's members--bassist Jeff Dimpsey, singer/guitarist Matt Talbott, drummer Bryan St. Pere and lead guitarist Tim Lash--has needed a day job in a while. Standouts like "Ms. Lazarus" and "The Inuit Promise" from Downward should continue to keep Hum out of the unemployment office.
Since 1989, the band's played a brand of metallic rock studded with surreal, starkly romantic lyrics celebrating intergalactic travel, time machines, stars and empty spaces. But Hum's not interested in recycling cyberpunk themes divorced from human emotion. "Stars," the single from Astronaut, shows how the group lends psychological heft to outer-spacey imagery: "She thinks she missed the train to Mars, she's out back counting stars/I found her out back sitting naked looking up and looking dead."
The "space rock" label that's attached itself to Hum is something Dimpsey claims the band would rather lose. "I think [critics] just got 'space rock' because the guitars are kinda psychedelic," says the bassist. "Everyone wants to categorize as quickly as possible. I'm a big fan of space rock, like Spaceman 3 and Spiritualized. Those are really cool, groovy bands. But I think what sets us apart is a pretty massive rhythm section. We approach metal more than we approach space rock."
The dynamics charging the music of fellow flatlanders Poster Children and Smashing Pumpkins appear in Hum's work, too. If listeners hear hints of Billy Corgan's squawk-and-squeal riffing on Downward, well, you might just as easily note the foundational importance of Jesus and Mary Chain's school of buzz-saw fretwork. No one owns a guitar tone. How that sound gets layered into the overall mix determines a band's identity. Influences as varied as Neil Young, R.E.M., and Foo Fighters swirl through Hum's four full-length efforts.
The band's RCA debut was produced by Keith Cleversly, soundboard jockey for another Hum favorite, Flaming Lips. Though Dimpsey personally cringes at the suggestion, Talbott and St. Pere even admit a musical debt to their adolescent idol Rush.
Independent-minded rockers who make the leap to the majors often discover the biggest influence on them isn't their record collection, but a record company that starts doing all the artists' thinking. Dimpsey says this isn't the case with RCA. In fact, the bassist sounds like a Taoist as he outlines the events leading Hum to the label. "It just sorta happened," he says. "We were working hard, but we weren't working hard to get signed."
After the band recorded Electra 2000 (released in 1993 on the Poster Children's 12-Inch label; rereleased with bonus tracks last year on Hum's Martians Go Home label), "the A&R guy who signed us went into a Chicago record store and asked the clerk, 'What two albums do you really like that just came out?' One of them was ours. The rep listened to the album, liked it, called us up, said he wanted to see us play, came out and saw us, liked us, we signed. We didn't send out any press kits, or any of that."
The members of Hum concur that major-label life affords them luxuries they could previously only imagine (health insurance, meals with protein). But there are a few things they miss from their indie days. "I miss the part where the van blows up," says Matt Talbott, "and there's no money to fix it and no one comes to your shows."
Concert attendance hasn't been a recent problem for Hum--nor has the van erupted into flames lately--but there are times the group members themselves don't feel like being in the same room with one another. Because Hum's members all have an equal creative role, Dimpsey describes the band's songwriting process as "democratic to a fault." It's a political arrangement with some tough consequences.
"I think a lot of bands have one guy who comes in with a song and then everyone adds around it," Dimpsey contends. "We don't do that at all. The writing's not done by any one person. We all have to be plugged in at maximum volume, then we bounce ideas off one another. There's a lot of arguing, but no matter how much we hate each other while producing or recording the music, we're all happy with it once it's done. The process takes forever because it's really hard to have four people with completely different ideas about what sounds good."
What sounds good to Hum is dreamy texture with barbs. Perhaps reflecting a childhood spent trapped in a town of 2,000, Talbott's lyrics often seem escapist. "Most of Matt's imagery has to do with wide-open spaces," agrees Dimpsey. "Even on the new album, there's all these big open outdoor places, be it in space or underwater or the Arctic. He grew up in a place called 'the Hog Capital of the World,' so maybe that has something to do with it."
Reflecting on the sort of film that might be made using the collective works of Hum, Dimpsey points to the plotless Koyaanisqatsi, which juxtaposed natural and urban vistas accompanied by instrumental music and Hopi speech-singing. "I always have considered our music very visual," Dimpsey says. "Wide open with a lot of depth and space. No small, tight rooms. I might be overestimating my work by putting it on the level of Philip Glass."
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One thing he insists the music isn't is political. "We don't deal in paranoia or alienation or anything like that," says the Hum bassist. "Thematically and philosophically, we just sit out there and say everything's all right. There's lots of cool stuff to look at and listen to and we try to make some of it."
This "don't worry, be happy" assertion may appear naive to anyone believing ideological perspectives inform everything from automotive design to architecture to, yes, music that claims to be ear candy and nothing more. Some members of Hum should be familiar with this point, since the idea shows up in Rush's "Freewill." To quote Geddy Lee: "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."
But Dimpsey's ready with his retort: "Hey, I hate Rush."
Hum is scheduled to perform on Thursday, February 5, at the Mason Jar, with Shiner, Inch, and Damage Control. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.