Hem Aims High

Article excerpt

Byline: Scott Galupo, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …