Hem spins tales in "Funnel Cloud"

Jason MacNeil, November 2006

Although there are groups that discuss the sacrifices they have made to get to that next level, you have a hard time believing or empathizing with a few of them. Sacrifices might be as superficial as not having your own tour bus or only getting a six pack of Red Bull instead of the dozen your concert rider asked for. But when a person starts selling off personal possessions in order to further their art, it's hard to not root for them on some creative or personal level.

Dan Messe, one of the main songwriters of New York orchestral-folk-pop-rootsy band Hem, did exactly that in making the band's 2001 debut "Rabbit Songs."

Money from that album went directly into fuelling the 2004 follow-up "Eveningland."

Now, following a compilation of b-sides and rarities entitled "No Word From Tom," Hem seem to have made the studio sound on their latest "Funnel Cloud" album come to life.

"I think it's the pinnacle of our vision as a band," Messe says from his New York home. "I think it combines the lushness of 'Eveningland' and the intimacy of 'Rabbit Songs.' It definitely feels the most integrated of all records."

"Funnel Cloud," which features a rich mix of orchestral layers alongside strongly crafted folk and folk-pop gems, was also the first album the group didn't take a lot of time to record.

"We envisioned a certain sound, and I think we captured it," Messe says. "With albums like 'Rabbit Songs' and 'Eveningland,' we sweated over every syllable. As a result, there's a deliberateness there that, while I love it, I feel like there's something a little more organic in an album like 'Funnel Cloud,' which really felt like a band album in some way. We put everyone in the same room together, and I think we had no rehearsal on most songs."

The band, which could be compared as a somewhat urbane cousin to Lambchop or The October Project, features Messe along with guitarists Gary Maurer, Steve Curtis and Bob Hoffnar, drummer Mark Brotter and singer Sally Ellyson. Messe says it was the first time the band felt like it had made a "band" record.

"We've been playing together for long enough that we knew and trusted each other to create these textures with very little pre-production," he says. "I would be able to say something almost metaphorically, like I want this to sound like a perfect summer day, and I could count on the core of the band to really capture that in music."

"With 'Rabbit Songs' for example, it was really convincing people who had no idea what we wanted to do what the vision was," he adds. "Our drummer started out as a rock drummer. We really had to walk him through this idea that we wanted it to be symphonic, yet folk. At this point, after playing together for six or seven years, he totally understood where I was coming from as a songwriter and what was the best textures to really have Sally's vocals in an effective way. In a way I feel like the band came into its own on this record."

Another aspect that seems to benefit "Funnel Cloud" is how the songs feel. You won't find any ProTools or slick production values here, resulting in a ' rare but memorable authenticity that is now sadly the exception to a rather bland norm. Messe says it's that rawness that brings out the best in Hem.

"'Eveningland' is almost like this Chinese jewel box. There are no seams at all. It's all perfect," he says. "I actually appreciate in 'Funnel Cloud' that you could hear the process almost in the way we created it. We didn't sand over all the joints. We really let people hear the process that the songs were recorded in. If there's a mistake here or there, it lent a certain poignancy to it."

"Do you know Gillian Welch's album '(Time) The Revelator'?" he inquires. "There are moments in that (record) where you can hear her swallowing, you can hear a couple of odd guitar notes in the solo, and they just left them in there. To me, those are the moments that when they happen, they are the most human. It allows the listener to come in and say, 'There are people just like me who have created something wonderful.'"

As for the album itself, which took 2 months to record, Messe says 18 songs were recorded for "Funnel Cloud" with 14 making the final cut. Another bonus track is part of the album if purchased off iTunes. But primarily, songs such as the tender opener "We'll Meet Along The Way" or the warm, folksy "He Came To Meet Me," tend to speak for themselves.

Perhaps one of the oddest inspirations for a song comes from "Not California," a lovely, wistful number Messe says he got from watching television.

"It came together from watching a lot of 'The O.C.' and 'Laguna Beach,'" Messe says with a laugh. "My wife is a fan of those shows, and I would watch them with her. Every time I would watch those shows, I would feel like I was being teased. I felt like after the show was over, I would feel a little less satisfied with my life. I would feel my world was more black and white, and I would feel poor and fat."

"I wanted to reject that," he continues. "I feel we're incredibly lucky both as a band and as people, and yet we're still able to fall prey to the way the media romanticizes certain wealth and privilege. For me, it had a way of making me feel bad about my life. The line 'And I'm the one who wants to be with you tonight...,' I'm talking about my wife and my life. That soft-focused consumerism shown on those shows maybe isn't the most healthy thing to aspire to when real life can be pretty sweet and magical."

The song also features a guest appearance by James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins fame. Messe says having Iha on the album was a feather in his cap.

"James has been a friend of ours for a while," he says. "I've known him for years, and he's been a huge supporter. With 'Rabbit Songs, there were A&R people constantly hanging around, and they hated it. They were like, 'This is too pretty. This will never sell.' James would say, 'I don't know what you're talking about! There's an audience for this.' It just meant the world to me. Even if it's just him going 'Na na na na na na' on 'Not California,' it means a lot to me to hear his voice there."

Another song that has a silver lining off of "Funnel Cloud" is the warm, nostalgic and yet melancholic "Great Houses Of New York," a song Messe had as a title for a long time.

"I tend to get inspired by titles, and I feel that they're really evocative," he says. "That's the title that has been around for a couple of years. Every time I thought about it I was like, 'There's a great song there. I don't know what it is, but I know there's a great song there that I want to write.'"

"I was driving north of here," he adds. "There are neighborhoods like Tuxedo Park where there are all these great houses that the Roosevelts, Astors and Rockefellers lived in, and yet, that world doesn't exist anymore. There was something incredibly poignant to me about this world that was once the center of the world in terms of power, art and culture, and now it's a museum. I guess for me, I've always been much more attractive to after the party's over than the party itself. You can tell at one point it was a glorious world, and I wanted to capture that idea. It's worth being reduced to ruins as long as you have that moment where you were truly great."

Although Messe and Maurer often co-write, Messe says that the songwriting process isn't as simple as sitting down and putting pen to paper.

"I feel like the craft is easier in that I know what my songwriting voice is now and in terms of the collaboration I have with Gary," he says. "It's a pretty efficient thing at this point. Is it easier? I don't know. I feel like I'm sallow maybe nine months out of the year, and I'm convinced I'll never write another song as long as I live. Then in those last three months, somehow those songs come out again. For me, every song I write, it feels like it's going to be the last song I ever write. I've got nothing left."

Hem spent a good part of 2006 on the road behind "Funnel Cloud," but is currently on a break from the road. Lead singer Sally Ellyson is expected to give birth sometime in November so no shows are on the near horizon. The group finished up its touring schedule in late October by opening for Beck at a small intimate gig.

But despite the lack of shows, Messe says touring in support of the new album was a revelation of sorts. Only once previously (a New York concert as part of Lincoln Center's Songbook Series) had the large studio ensemble been realized on stage.

"We went out with a little chamber orchestra, which is the first time we've ever done that," he says, his voice almost beaming. "We were able to do all of the arrangement ideas that we had worked on for the record in a live setting. Up until that time, we had always almost considered ourselves this studio project. We would always have to think hard about how to translate that vision into a live setting. I think we did a great job, and I think it's always interesting for the audience to hear how we create the arrangements that are still orchestral even as a folk ensemble."

Hem will stay off the road in early 2007 while Messe and Maurer work on some side projects. A Christmas song is also in the works and is being recorded. Messe says that Hem is expected to get back to the drawing board for album number 5 in mid-2007 by writing new material.

Overall though, Messe seems to have found the perfect home for his music as well as his personal life. And he's taking neither for granted.

"I know there's going to come a time when the kids are gone, and the house isn't as in good shape as it is now," he says. "It will be kind of sad, but at the same time those memories of those glory days cast a powerful spell."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com