Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The strain of birthing “Smile” drove Beach Boys sound architect Brian Wilson to a nervous breakdown.

Brooklyn band Hem simply went bankrupt.

“It’s not like making a record is a great career move anyway, so why not be stupidly ambitious?” says Hem mastermind Dan Messe, 36, a native of East Lansing, Mich. “We can’t save money for the life of us. We just wind up selling equipment and driving our spouses crazy.”

Sample stubbornness: Its record company (DreamWorks) imploded midway through the recording of its sophomore album, “Eveningland,” which came out last fall. The smart thing would’ve been to quickly wrap up the project. Instead, Hem, which had flown to Eastern Europe to make use of the Slovak Radio Orchestra, spent six more months in the studio, writing new songs and hemorrhaging cash.

Formed in 1999, the eight-piece Hem collective — it’s to appear at 10 tonight at the Birchmere Music Hall — has been the unlikely vehicle for an unrelenting purist’s pipe dream.

As singer and icing-on-the-cake addition Sally Ellyson sees it, “It wasn’t supposed to be a band; it was just supposed to be a collection of songs to scratch an itch.”

And yet here she is, at this moment freelancing for “Court TV’s” documentary unit to replenish the coffers. It’s Mr. Messe’s fault, she insists. “He gave us the fever. We all have it. We sort of forget that it was nice to have money.”

After Mr. Messe, a pianist, graduated from Minnesota’s Carleton College, he allotted himself five years to get established in the creative milieu of New York. A project called Big Iron Skillet got as far as a development deal with Sony Music, then fizzled. (Scoffed Sony execs: “Yeah, it’s pretty, but no one’s gonna listen to it.” )

Next, he linked up with producer-engineer Gary Maurer (Fountains of Wayne, Jon Spencer) and a guitarist friend from Carleton, Steve Curtis, who’d relocated to New York, too.

Their vision was to revive the traditional American songbook — everything from composer Aaron Copland to Tin Pan Alley writers like George Gershwin to seminal country legends the Carter Family — in a contemporary pop setting that mingled orchestral instruments with pedal-steel guitar, banjo, accordion and mandolin. While they were at it, they would zealously avoid using tape samples and digital mixing programs such as Pro-Tools.

Not unlike “Smile,” Hem’s sound would be grand, and yet twinkle with innocence. “I wanted the songs to sound like children’s songs for adults,” Mr. Messe, the band’s chief songwriter, says.

Even more, it would be an uncompromising reaction against bands that trade on bad-boy poses and ironic detachment.

“There’s all this pressure to write cool and ironic songs. I’m just not a cool guy,” he reckons.

One hurdle: Mr. Messe’s (self-described) “whiny” voice wasn’t doing the tunes justice. Hem needed a proper singer.

Would it surprise you to learn that Mr. Messe chose from more than 200 prospective vocalists an untrained singer (that would be Miss Ellyson) whose demo tape was a recording of children’s lullabies she’d made for friends with newborns? (One such lullaby, “Lord, Blow the Moon Out Please,” fittingly opens Hem’s acclaimed 2001 debut “Rabbit Songs.”)

“As soon as I heard her voice, I knew it was the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard,” Mr. Messe recalls.

She tried the ethereal, Celtic-inflected “Half Acre” first. “It was akin to a painter seeing a color he’d never seen before,” Mr. Messe explains. “As a songwriter, my head just exploded with songs.”

Once “Rabbit Songs” was finished, Miss Ellyson, whose dreamy, Karen Carpenter-like pipes have just a hint of Ella Fitzgerald’s blue-note gravel, thought her job was done. Not quite: Mr. Messe wanted to put Hem in front of an audience.

“It wasn’t like he asked me; he just told me,” Miss Ellyson says, chuckling.

With no advance press, the band made its public debut at the (now defunct) Greenwich Village jazz club Fez. A line had formed around the block. “All the sudden, we realized we weren’t the only four people in the world who loved this music,” Mr. Messe says. “So we decided to keep going.”

For the last six years, Hem has been with and without label support. Consequently, its bottom line waxes and wanes, even as its creative ambitions remain large.

That trip to Slovakia was more a search for great acoustics than great musicians. Aiming for “this really epic, orchestra sound” like that heard on prime Ray Charles and Glen Campbell records, “we realized [none of] the rooms they recorded in exist anymore,” Mr. Messe says. “CBS Studios, Muscle Shoals…they’re all shutting down.”

“Our choices were Eastern Europe or India,” he continues.

Mr. Messe figures his music and his children will be the only things he leaves behind — so why settle for a laptop and a broom-closet studio?

“Maybe next time we’ll go to Bombay.”


WHERE: Birchmere Music Hall, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria

WHEN: Tonight at 10. Doors open at 9.

TICKETS: $16.50

PHONE: 703/549-7500

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