Spring was finally coming to Brooklyn, but on the Coast of South Carolina, where I reside, winter was still clinging to life. Despite its persistence, however, I knew spring would arrive for us, eventually.
There’s a belabored metaphor in spring’s arrival that can easily be drawn to Hem’s reemergence and subsequent rebirth as a band—even if it is with an ominously titled album, Departure and Farewell. But there’s no need for metaphors with Hem. Rather, Gary Maurer and Dan Messe would rather be upfront and candid at explaining the time between Hem records, how the band almost didn’t make it, and why they’re eager to make a new record.
Stereo Subversion: You guys had me concerned when I found out the title of your new record was Departure and Farewell.
Dan Messe: We were concerned making it.
Gary Maurer: Yeah, when we got started we were worried, too.
When we originally started it was going to be the last Hem record, but I don’t believe any of us believe it will be now.
SSv: Is it the last Hem record or not?
Dan: We certainly hope not.
Gary: When we originally started it was going to be the last Hem record, but I don’t believe any of us believe it will be now.
Dan: I would agree.
SSv: It’s been a long time between records, what has happened in that time?
Dan: Well, I think what happened was, we were thinking Hem had run its course after Twelfth Night (2009’s record of instrumental accompaniment to a Shakespearean production) and were just interested in wrapping things up in a big bow. And so we decided to call the record Departure and Farewell. Really making something that was a good summation of our career. And in the course of making this “ending,” I actually started using pills, I actually got addicted to them. And the band completely exploded. I basically poisoned the entire well where we couldn’t even finish the final record. We were just going to walk away at one point. That’s true right Gary?
Gary: Yes, clearly for several months [the record] was not going to get done.
Dan: And it languished like that until I hit bottom and asked for help, then the band started to heal. And all of the sudden there was a rebirth, not just in terms of my own health but also in terms of the love we have for each other and the love we have for the music we make together and how grateful we are. It started out as a swan song and became a rebirth.
SSv: Is it strange or painful to make this a part of the new record’s story, or are you comfortable talking about it?
Dan: I’m not comfortable talking about it at all, but it’s such a part of the album. We write songs that are not confessional but they are autobiographical. So we tend to write in metaphor about experiences that we go through in our life. We could have taken this part out and just been vague about it: ‘We had troubles and we got over it.'[Laughs]
Gary: It would have been easy to make up a whole other story because there actually have been a lot of other changes since (2006’s) Funnel Cloud. We could have just pretended, like Dan said.
Dan: I think in the spirit of this second chance, it really is a miracle, and I wanted to honor that. And also, you are able to recover—or find recovery at all—when you are at a point when you’re completely hopeless and lost everything. And you want to share the story so that someone else might hear it and find their own way back. You feel responsible for other people going through it. So we just decided, as a band, it would be ok to talk about.
SSv: It’s strange because, listening to Hem’s music, it’s so pastoral and gentle in a way that it doesn’t seem like turmoil on this level would be associated with the band.
Gary: I think everyone thinks that. [Laughs] We’re kind of like any other rock band except we don’t play rock music.
Dan: I think that one of the reasons that Hem’s music is the way that it is is because we use music as a source of comfort so much in our life. And we need that comfort because life is hard. A lot of songs are written because really hard stuff happens and if you can transform that into something that’s comforting, or just something that is beautiful that makes it worthwhile… Especially when Sally [Ellyson] sings these songs. She could sing about the most traumatic loss in the world and her voice still conveys the sense of hope. And I think that’s what you’re picking up on. That may be because you’re hearing it through Sally’s voice, which is like honey from heaven, but it wouldn’t exist without the need for comfort.
SSv: Gary, did you want to add anything to that?
Gary: I think Hem’s music, like Dan’s lyrics are about emotional survival in a way. When Dan says “comfort,” I think it’s true that musicians and artists are sensitive people. When I listen to a Hem record, it sounds to me like there was this mission for comfort or emotional survival. That’s how I hear the records and that’s sort of the experiences I have when I play Hem’s music onstage, in front of an audience. You’re having this sort of—I don’t know if transcendent is too big of a word—but you’re having this experience. And it’s a salve or a balm that is making me feel better about really painful things. I think we all experience that.
Dan: We just had a live show, the first one in like five years, all playing music onstage together. I remember looking over at Gary at one point and feeling the connection there between this person that had stuck with me when many other people would have abandoned ship. And you feel love and brotherhood—I don’t think “ transcendent” is too strong of a word.
Gary: Yeah, maybe that is what it is. And I think when you have that kind of connection… I mean, [Dan] and I don’t sit around and talk about how brotherly we are…
Dan: No, not at all…
Gary: And it happens with other band members, too. It happens with all of us onstage. When we were up onstage that night—what, were there like 12 or 13 or us, Dan?
Dan: Thirteen, I think.
Gary: And I have to say it wasn’t the great show we ever played but the audience reaction was so strong. They were so happy to have us back that it really was a special night. And what I remember more than anything about that show is walking out onstage and the crowd applauded and cheered so loudly that we actually had to wait about three or four minutes to start the show. Talk about connection—it was a big night for us. And then we didn’t talk to each other for a week. [Laughs] We had this big emotional experience and then it was just, “Ok, good show.” [Laughs]
SSv: I was going to say that I don’t think transcendent is too big of a word at all because that’s what music has to do for us. It has to speak for us. The first time I heard Rabbit Songs, it was transcendent for me. It opened a new realm of emotions and honesty in music. Are you aware of that honesty in your music?
Dan: Absolutely. One of the first principles of Hem, especially with Rabbit Songs, was we didn’t want to do anything that was “cool.”
Gary: Yeah, nothing cool and no irony.
Dan: We just wanted to make genuine songs; songs that we needed to write and play. And we needed to approach it like children because there’s a lot of childlike wonder on the albums. Even though the themes that we deal with can be pretty dark.
Gary: There was a concerted effort and I remember those conversations well. If anything sounded cool then we shouldn’t be doing it. We should not have the artifice of the adult professional musician or any of the subculture of the anti-music scene. It should just be purely honest. Child-like is a good description.
Dan: One of the beginnings of Hem was that I was in some other band previous to Hem that was signed to Sony on some development deal. And we were doing some four-song EP when I wrote the song “Horsey.” And I wanted to try the song and the A & R guy laughed at me and said, ‘That is the stupidest name for a song I’ve heard. You cannot name a song “Horsey.”’
Gary: Changing clever lyrics into un-clever, clumsy lyrics; that was the producer’s job on that gig, I think. [Laughs]
Dan: So, for me “Horsey,” that word, for whatever reason, really encompassed my feelings towards my younger brother [a subject in the song]. And I didn’t care that it didn’t sound cool, it was moving to me. And I remember calling Gary up and I said, “Gary, can we please do an album where I can include the song ‘Horsey’ on it.” And he said, “Hell, yeah.”
Gary: And then I wrote that simple guitar riff and it all came together: “Horsey.” I mean, of course we can have a song called “Horsey” on a record and you can spell it however you want.
SSv: I mean, it’s your record, right?
Gary: I got to say, you just made me think of several other A & R people. We had people stopping by the studio, actually, when Rabbit Songs was in the works. Even after we finished and released it in the UK and Europe, they would still tell us, “Yeah, it’s cute, it’s pretty, but people aren’t going to buy it.” And, I don’t mean just “buy it,” purchase it, I mean believe it. We thought, “You guys are just nuts! Of course, people are going to buy it.”
SSv: So A&R men actually told you no one was going to “buy” Rabbit Songs?
Gary: Someone stood in the control room and said, “It’s pretty, but no one’s going to buy it.”
Dan: We couldn’t get a label to release it.
Gary: And the person we found in the UK to put it out was a good friend of our manager. And there wasn’t much money involved, we just wanted the record to come out. In fact, did we get an advance at all for that, Dan?
Dan: No, no.
Gary: They just agreed to put it out and we just said, “Ok, put it out.” And then it was through that that the guys at Bar None heard it and that was the first American release. But that was like nine months after it came out in the UK. The first official show Hem ever played on tour was in Amsterdam, if I’m not mistaken. So that was in Fall of 2001. We had done two New York shows, but the first place we ever played on tour was Amsterdam. At that time the record wasn’t even out in the US, yet.
SSv: I’m guessing you guys didn’t have that problem with this record.
Gary: No. We’ve self-financed for a long time, but we did actually go with Red Eye for a distribution deal this time. It makes much more sense to self-finance at our economic level that to take some advance that we can’t pay back.
Dan: We signed with a couple labels for other releases, like with Dreamworks (2004’s Eveningland). Lenny Waronker signed us and almost six months after he signed us, the label was sold to Interscope or Universal to cover some debt, I think?
Gary: It was given away to Universal.
Dan: In any case we got our master [tapes] back when Lenny left—because they had bought Rabbit Songs, too. And Lenny got them back for us.
Gary: If we hadn’t got our master [tapes] back, I don’t know what we would have done.
Dan: So, it was really a heroic thing that he did for us.
Gary: I think it was built into his contract that if he wasn’t there, then we could leave, too. So he resigned and we left and we got everything back. It was miraculous, actually. Given what we know about the music business. And this was ten years ago.
SSv: Obviously that was frustrating for you then; do you still run into situations like that now, ten years later?
Dan: Now, it’s an unknown. We’re very, very eager to keep making music and we just don’t know how the music model works any more. This is an experiment—to see how Departure and Farewell does.
Gary: We’re not alone. I think a lot of bands are in the same boat, figuring out. And we’ve sort of been out of the music business world for about four or five years and things have changed a lot. Since Hem’s first record came out, our CD sales have followed the industry standard; they decrease in sales of CDs overall. But management and a lot of people I know are encouraged by the Spotify idea.
SSv: The Spotify model?
Gary: Yeah, as a revenue stream for artists.
Dan: Really? I thought we don’t make any money off Spotify.
Gary: Well, we don’t now. But that’s what I’ve heard. That’s what I’ve read. That’s what people are telling me. [Laughs] I just want to make a record.
Dan: Every time we want to make a record, there seems to be money in the account so we’re going to pray that that happens again.
Gary: There’s always Kickstarter, although I’m sure our Kickstarter goal would make most people blush. For us to say, “Yes, it really does cost this much for us to make a record.”
SSv: I’m sure. Even though Hem records sound simplistic, there’s a lot going on in every song.
Gary: A lot of people, too, a lot of people. Those people in the orchestra—that doesn’t come cheap.
SSv: You mentioned that you want Hem’s work to be irony-free. Is that difficult to pull that off being based in Brooklyn? Because Brooklyn is kind of ground zero for irony—at one point it was, at least.
Gary: I think Dan’s natural songwriting style just lends itself to that. Dan is not an ironic person, artistically speaking. Definitely not.
Dan: I know that there is this hipster culture of ironic disdain. But that’s a stereotype. People in Brooklyn are here doing something they love very much and they’ve all been really supportive of us.
Gary: Yes, that’s very true.
SSv: So, with Brooklyn as a locale, I think “Tourniquet”—one of the best songs on the new album—is placed in and around Brooklyn. Dan, that was one of your cathartic moments, that song. Correct?
Dan: Yeah, when I wrote that I had totally poisoned every relationship in the band. Gary, who’s been my best friend for 15 years, I hadn’t talked to him in like nine months. And it literally felt like the Brooklyn that I loved had become dangerous. Every neighborhood that I loved had become toxic. I remember just walking around in this fog and writing down these lyrics of every neighborhood, a play on their names. How many verses were there at one point, Gary? Like 15 verses at one point?
Gary: A lot. It would have been a 47-minute song if we recorded it.
Dan: So after I got clean, I was able to craft it into the song it became. Yeah, I love that song.
SSv: It’s disarming to hear Sally sing it, too. You can tell it’s a painful song but she elevates it to catharsis. That’s what makes Hem unique, the way all the pieces work together. So what’s next for Hem?
Gary: We’re going to release some more new material this year, some stuff that never got released from a couple of different eras. It’s going to come out this summer, probably. It will be maybe two EPs and a free download, does that sound right, Dan?
Dan: Yeah, and in the meantime, every time we meet for rehearsal we wind up playing through some new songs, which is exciting, as well. And, as excited as I am about Departure and Farewell seeing the light of day, I’m also equally excited about the next album.
SSv: Maybe it won’t take another five years this time.
Gary: We might commit to doing it in like six weeks or something. And if it’s not done then…I don’t know what. [Laughs] We’re going to commit to doing it in six weeks, and that’s it. [Laughs]
SSv: If there’s money in the bank.
Gary: Or even if there’s not, it probably won’t matter. We’ll make another record.