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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
The Hang Ups: As Time Goes By
Wednesday 19 November @ 14:31:42
by Rob van Alstyne
Catchy pop music has a way of tricking listeners. When most non-musicians hear a three-minute pop song with readily accessible melodies and sing-a-long choruses, the assumption is that instant aural gratification has come at the expense of more intricate musicianship and songwriting. It’s an easy enough mistake to make, and one that Minneapolis outfit the Hang Ups have undoubtedly fallen victim to innumerable times over their dozen-plus years of existence.
The Hang-Ups today: (l-r) Newman, Lundholm, Nelson, Galang, Kearns, Tighe
Arguably the artiest of Twin Cities art-pop bands (the original lineup met up at Minnesota College of Art and Design, of all places), the Hang Ups’ chimey guitars, pleasing vocal harmonies and generally easygoing vibe has long made it easy to forget the craft and skill at work in their miniature-pop epics. Formed around the core of singer/guitarist Brian Tighe and guitarist Jeff Kearns, the original Hang Ups first began banging out tunes in various basements at the close of the ‘80s, with a lineup consisting of Tighe, Kearns (who was then on bass), drummer Stephen Ittner (who still manages to contribute vocal harmonies on current Hang Ups records despite formally exiting the band a decade ago) and, a little bit later, guitar-slinger extraordinaire John Crozier. The group earned its early following based on a brand of crisp electric pop that perfectly synthesized its influences (an obvious affinity for Paul McCartney, early Big Star, and other unabashedly melodic-power poppers with a case of record-collection anglophilia). Crozier’s slightly distorted guitar licks and occasional heavy riffage proved the perfect counterpoint to Tighe’s gentle high-pitched voice as tracks like early staple “Comin’ Through” contained equal parts Bob Mould smolder and Byrdsian jangle.
The group continued to refine its talents over the first half of the ’90s, and, thanks to high-profile fan and friend Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, found their song “Jumpstart” occupying prime screen time in Kevin Smith’s famous Ben Affleck as master-of-converting-lesbians flick “Chasing Amy” (it’s played during the montage of Ben laying the mac down at a neighborhood park). These were heady times for the group on more than one front. They inked a deal with Los Angeles based Restless Records (a semi-major label with a massive distribution arm) for the release of 1997’s So We Go, a light-pop masterpiece that received major critical kudos (if little commercial notice), and in general the Hang Ups seemed slated to be the next Twin Cities band to make it on the national level.
Then, in a VH1 Behind-the-Music-style twist, the bottom nearly fell out. Three-fifths of the original line up left shortly before the band was slated to begin recording its second album for Restless, and, as if that weren’t enough, the record the band soldiered on to make, 1999’s Second Story, was then endlessly delayed by the band’s increasingly disinterested label hosts (who were primarily concerned with furthering the career of one-hit rap wonder Warren G). Recorded with the aid of famed early R.E.M. production team Don Dixon and Mitch Easter (who hadn’t worked together since 1984), Second Story presented an entirely different kind of Hang Ups: leaner and meaner, and just as likely to sucker-punch the listener in the gut with a crunchy power-chord as tickle their tummies with gooey pop confections. Not all aspects of the Hang Ups’ extreme makeover worked (Tighe’s pleasing voice and general nice guy demeanor worked against some of the album’s gruffer rock moments), but in general the Hang Ups music survived the line up sea change remarkably well.
Jeff Kearns (l) and Stephen Ittner back in the basement days
Of course, plain old survival provided little consolation to the band members (now consisting of Kearns, Tighe, drummer Chadwick Nelson, bassist Aaron Lundholm and keyboardist Marcel Galang) who had spent one-third of 1999 on the road playing “about 100 shows … unfortunately almost all of them before the record came out,” according to Tighe. After vigorously promoting a record that wasn’t available, things stalled after the project’s release. The band was in limbo with Restless and all was quiet for more than a few years (barring the occasional one-off local gig).
It seemed as though the Hang Ups were perhaps destined to ride off into the sunset and take up residence in obsessive record collector cabinets, to be brought out periodically and shown to fellow music dorks as “the great overlooked Midwestern guitar pop band of the 90s” or some other further convoluted tag-line meant to incite interest in a long-dead enterprise.
The Hang Ups, however, weren’t interested in becoming a cult music history lesson just yet. Returning to the studio without the aid of any label support, the band began slowly fashioning record No. 4. Months would pass between sessions, band members taking time off to get married and focus on their day jobs, but ideas continued to percolate and, as Kearn’s puts it in perfect musician-dude-speak, “You could kind of just feel the vibe getting groovier in the studio each time out.” When the dust was all settled, approximately 20 tracks had been put to tape in Minneapolis’ Seedy Underbelly studios with the aid of producer Brad Kern (longtime Semisonic sound engineer). The only question remaining: Who was going to put the damn thing out?
The answer came in the unlikeliest of forms: Columbia Records pop-star and adult album alternative radio station staple Pete Yorn. Flush with the riches from his breakthrough debut, Yorn had recently established the artist-run Trampoline Records imprint with close friend (and Wallflowers keyboardist) Rami Jafee. Turns out that in addition to sporting an overly handsome facial structure and some deep pockets, Yorn had a full-on crush on the Hang Ups (ever since performing on a bill with them a decade ago while he was still an undergrad at Syracuse). When Tighe first encountered Yorn backstage at one of his sold-out concerts in town, “It was really strange, he just came up to me singing the lyrics to all of these old Hang Ups songs.” The ultimate fan boy, Yorn brought the band out to L.A. for sold-out Trampoline Records showcases at the House of Blues, sitting in on the drums for lengthy sets in front of star-studded crowds. Things couldn’t have gotten more surreal for the down-home Midwestern likes of Kearns and Tighe. “I just remember Yorn flipping through this rolodex of all of these different famous women that he knew and thinking, ‘There’s a lot more to the world than Minneapolis,’” jokes Kearns.
Having fun as chess pieces (l-r) Kearns, Lundholm, Tighe, Ittner
It’s easy to see why Yorn would have quickly warmed to the prospect of releasing the Hang Ups’ latest eponymous offering. At just under 40 minutes in length, The Hang Ups is short on running time but long on charming melodies and love-struck odes. Starting with the Strokes-ish rock kick of “It’s All True” and ending with the so-airy-it-might-float-away folk jaunt “Light Green Sails,” The Hang Ups is a record that manages to effectively encapsulate all of the band’s past while simultaneously breaking new ground.
The art-scarred, studio-heavy psychedelia of “Annie Walks” is far more akin to Wilco’s “Misunderstood” than any of the group’s usual classic pop influences, and it’s clear that a wide-lens cinematic vision was at work in the production booth. Layers of piano, lapsteel, guitar, Hammond organ and vocals are at work on nearly every track. The latest incarnation of the Hang Ups (now six members strong with the addition of third guitarist Todd Newman) boast a truly full sound, bursting with countermelodies and stealthy bridges, rich with tiny hidden musical phrases lurking in the shadows for the attentive headphone listener ready to make the journey.
Tighe and Kearns, both 35, recently met up with me to discuss the long road to album No. 4, finding musical inspiration in the work-a-day world, and why street gangs won’t be blasting Hang Ups tunes anytime soon, among other topics.
Pulse: Why did it take so long between Second Story and The Hang Ups?
Tighe: You know, I think we were probably expecting it would take a long time, maybe not this long but…
Kearns: We were on the tail end of supporting Second Story when changes happened at our label and we ended up kind of high and dry a little bit. And then this recording opportunity came up…
Tighe: I mean we didn’t even know if we were necessarily going to make another record.
Kearns: With Second Story we had all just got our instruments and started playing. I had just switched over to the guitar. It was strange, because we all just went out on the road [with the new lineup] right after making that record and played a lot of shows, we never took the time to sort of sit back and hear ourselves, to know how we sounded. We were just in the van. Things got to the point where there were a lot of tensions in the band, but the second we got back in the studio to make the record it was just like, “Fuck, this is fun!” And we’re better, we’re a better band now. Then it just began and we had the enthusiasm of Brad [Kern, producer], who was really just doing a labor of love, without him it couldn’t have gone down. We took a lot of time, which was good. Sometimes what seems really bad-ass at the time later on ends up being like, “What? That wasn’t any good.” We didn’t quite feel like we had a record until we got the last two songs done, which actually ended up being the first two songs on the record. Once those got put down it was like, “Bing! Records done” ... we knew we had finally finished it.
Tighe: Yeah, we knew right away. We went down to Pachyderm—we had been doing all the other basics at Seedy Underbelly. And it was a very time-intensive process, overdubs at home, overdubs on vacation. I did some recording while I was in Keystone, Colorado.
Kearns: And like, “You’ve Come Home” was written right before your wedding.
Tighe: Yeah, that was another thing, I got married during the four years between the records, and I think that’s reflected in that a lot of the songs are love songs.
Kearns: The vocal and guitar take for that song was done at home, in your own room, right before you were going to walk down the aisle. I mean, you can’t fake that vibe (laughs).
Hell on wheels (l-r) Tighe, Kearns, Ittner
Pulse: Brian, I was reading an interview with you elsewhere where you said that the creative process is what really excites you and not really pushing the album afterward as a product. Is the release end of things exciting for you at all at this point?
Tighe: It’s still really exciting whenever we put out a record—it’s just a little more daunting and a little more out of my realm.
Kearns: That’s why you want to go through the whole process in the right way and feel like it’s finished when you’re putting it out there—because it’s the last word. Once it goes out into the world people are just going to eat and do whatever they do with it—trash it or whatever. The important thing is to feel like you’ve made this record that is ready to go through that whole gauntlet. And who knows (curls eyebrow coyly)—maybe it rocks? Who knows?
Pulse: So there’s always a degree of nervous energy in the time right before the record reaches the stores?
Kearns: Oh fuck yeah!
Tighe: Oh totally! It’s fascinating, I’ve been telling Jeff like for the past month or so I’ve just had a fire within me. I’ve been busier than I can remember being in a long time. Just setting up stuff like this. And you start seeing results once it gets closer to release. It’s not my natural inclination to be pursuing things like press and radio, but it’s something you have to do if you want the record to be received by the world. It does end up being a part of the character of the record, too, so you might as well just put the best energy you can into it.
Pulse: Musicians seem to have really different attitudes about exposure, particularly when it comes to the indie-set. A lot of times the dominant mentality seems to be “we don’t want to look like we’re having fun on stage,” or, “we only want certain cool people to come to our shows.” You guys seem to have a pretty open-minded attitude when it comes to your music and audience though.
Tighe: I’ve never been the kind of guy who’s like, “I’m going to be a star, and therefore this is what’s going to happen,” I’ve never had that kind of ambition. But I deeply want to connect with people through my music, and it’s the best feeling in the world when a song means something to somebody. I long for that, it’s a huge part of music for me. What happens too is that after awhile it becomes really hard for me to write more songs until I’ve put them out there in the public. That happened to me around the time of So We Go, those songs had been around for so long before we finally got the record out and it got to where I was only writing two songs a year and it was really freaking me out. And then once the record was finally done it was like suddenly, “wow, clean slate” and I could start writing again.
Pulse: How important was it for you to look beyond the Twin Cities in terms of getting your music out there? Signing with a somewhat connected label in Los Angeles like Trampoline Records would seem to indicate you guys aren’t content to let your music get noticed solely in the Midwest.
Kearns: The Midwest is a double-edged sword, because it’s comfortable and not hard to get by.
Tighe: Yeah, that’s true. I think fighting inertia was sort of what [signing with] Trampoline was about for us.
Kearns: They really are out there in the world with Yorn and Rami.
Tighe: Hooking up with Trampoline was huge. When we went out there to L.A. the last time and were finally free of Restless it was just incredible. They’re busy with their own careers so it’s a little bit of a wild-card as to how the whole thing is going to work out for us. But at the same time they’re not taking that much away from us. They’re giving us a lot of freedom.
Pulse: Is it frustrating when people don’t see the craft in your work?
Kearns: People are going to get into it on whatever level works for them. That’s what’s so fun about music. It should be engaging to whatever your fancy is at the time.
Tighe: I would like our music to appeal to people who have really sophisticated tastes, but also to people who just want a fun song.
Kearns: That’s part of the whole deal, you want to have the whole spectrum of people enjoy it, the idea being that there is something in there to “get,” or at least to groove to. There was for us when we were making it anyway. For whatever reason, we put it out, so there’s something to be had there. There’s a journey to be had.
Tighe: It’s not for everybody. There are certain experiences that we relate to that are being communicated through the music that other people won’t connect to. I’d like to think that there’s a lot here that won’t be the immediate hook, but that there’ll be a lot more to get after that. Some of the more intricate things like some of the counter-melodies that you won’t really notice at first but later might. The lyrics maybe sink in more, or the bass might.
Kearns: If you like this type of music and want it as a soundtrack to your life for two months I hope it can be that.
Tighe: I hope it’s open enough that people can plug in their own experience to it.
Kearns: I think it’s an emotional experience, not necessarily a dance experience. I think it could make for a nice psychedelic experience. I think you could hit the deal (mimes smoking a joint) and have a pretty good time (laughs). Or you could be on the tail end of a relationship and have the album connect with you too. You’re not going to want to go pound somebody after listening to this record, but there’s another type of music that does that. I think the album just reflects our own internal Midwestern world.
Tighe: The gangs aren’t going to be big Hang Ups fans (laughs).
Kearns: Or maybe they are and have to keep it in the closet (laughs). Junkies love us, I know that.
The original trio: Kearns pops a wheelie with a little help from Ittner as Tighe looks on.
Pulse: Brian, how do you approach lyric writing? It seems like you manage to be pretty straightforward without being so literal that you rob the listener of interpretational wiggle-room.
Tighe: I think I definitely come from the Paul McCartney school (gestures towards “Band on the Run” playing in background of the bar) of songwriting where melody is king, and that’s my joy, finding chord progressions that fit with melodies. Then the construction has to be inspiring enough for me to bring my life into it, or some other source. Sometimes [the lyrics are] just words that feel good to sing and I don’t know what they mean initially. I want the lyrics to be personal and sincere but not so specific that it’s autobiographical and only applicable to my life. It’s a fine line because you can easily fall into being too vague and that’s a challenge that I’m still balancing and feeling out I think.
Pulse: How much of the inspiration do you draw from work-a-day life? One of my favorite songs by you guys, “Parkway,” is all about people with boring temp jobs and mundane lives unexpectedly finding love on their lunch-break. I really like the fact that your songs acknowledge that normal people are worth singing about.
Tighe: I think especially as I get older that seems more and more important. I remember back to when I had just gotten out of college and sort of had this feeling hanging over me like, “I need to be writing songs,” and just going and barricading myself in my room. And, you know, writing in a vacuum—it seems destined for failure most of the time. I’ve realized more and more that living your life and experiencing things is just as important a part of writing the songs as actually sitting down with a guitar and finding melodies. [That realization] has actually made it easier to reconcile being in a position where I don’t have all the time in the world to spend writing songs. I think that you can write about fairly simple things and keep people interested.
Pulse: It’s an interesting challenge though. I think that’s why you see a lot of famous artists lose touch with their audience or start writing songs that people feel aren’t genuine. People tend to write what they know, if you’re suddenly swallowed up in celebrity it seems like it would be really hard to write songs that normal people could still relate to, songs that wouldn’t be impacted to some degree by one’s fame.
Tighe: I think a lot of artists and a lot of musicians struggle with that, I mean look at some of the famous musicians in our time that have killed themselves, this whole Elliott Smith situation. I can see how you would so easily get to the point where you just feel so isolated and realize that there’s a certain hollowness to your-day-to-day life. If you don’t have a good head on your shoulders to handle that, then mix drug problems into that and not knowing whom to trust and I can really see how it would just mess with you.
Pulse: The Hang Ups are one of pretty much countless bands that used to be on a major of some sort during the ’90s and are now back in the indie-world. How do you view the great divide between majors and indies? Some artists find the current record industry situation empowering, others find it depressing, what side of the fence are you on?
Kearns: Part of me is happy that we didn’t get a higher level of success when we were with Restless, people still don’t know who the fuck we are, which is kind of cool. If we did have a higher level of success the people in the industry might already be over us. Because we’ve never had the big exposure it’s kind of nice—we still get to be the underdog. As far as the indie versus major thing goes, I think Triumph the Insult Comic Dog had a good comment on that. He said something like, “the worms in my stools are on indie labels.”
Tighe: The record industry is in such a state of change that next year at this time things could be completely different.
Kearns: One thing that never changes is good music. Like the Shins, that’s a great record. There’s a lot of neat records still coming out.
Pulse: You guys have been in the game longer than most at this point. Are you still as excited about writing the songs and getting together to play as when you were 20, does it ever feel like a job?
Kearns: It’s pure joy for me right now. I’m not bored at all. I just feel like we have a whole new vibe that I’m really excited about.
Tighe: I think we’re realizing more and more that getting to do this is a privilege.
Kearns: We’re making these records because it means something and we’re moved to make them. So hopefully it can mean half as much to other people.
Tighe: I would be happy with that.
The Hang Ups
The Hang Ups play a special CD release show for their new album on Fri., Nov. 21, at First Avenue with special guests The Chris Danforths, Rob Skoro and Faux Jean. 5 p.m. $6 in advance, $8 at the door. 21+. 701 First Ave. N., Mpls. 612-338-8388.
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