Amidst the splendor and darkness of the House of Blues in Dallas,
before the whispering, elegant twists of painted blue flower-covered
vines adorning the walls, in the middle of a concert and the middle
of a song, Brian Harding looked at his audience, walked away
from his microphone, and sat down on the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe amplifier
to sip a dripping can of Miller Lite.
The Sunday evening crowd waited in uneasy expectation as silence
spread while Harding swallowed and casually contemplated his fingernails.
Seconds earlier, he had been lovingly connected to his microphone,
singing blindly to the stars above with a wail and twang of heartsickness,
"Feels like it's been so long, been so long, since you left me
all alone, oh no. And I had some trouble shakin' it
it was at this point that the song's tempo began to dwindle, tripping
and crashing, away from the fast-paced catchiness to a slow, lethargic
plod, finally quieting with a final unfinished chord change, leaving
the audience poised and tense with expectation.
After nursing the beer, Harding sighed, got up, and meandered slowly
back to the front of the stage, where a decisive metallic clang on
his guitar and the lamenting voice of his lyrical melodies brought
the rest of the Brooklyn-based quartet Hymns back into the
song. "But now it's easy to forget," he intoned melancholically.
Harding is the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Hymns, a clattering
Brooklyn-based contraption of a band comprised also of Jason Roberts
on lead guitar, Matt Shaw on bass, and Tony Kent on
drums - three men who, like Harding, toured with fellow New York City
rockers Locksley during October and November on MTV's first
Choose or Lose tour. "As far as the relationships (within the
band) go, we're like two sets of best friends," said 21-year-old
bassist Shaw, describing the closeness of Hymns' members.
Roberts and Harding, best friends since the fifth grade, originally
formed the band during their time at Appalachian State University
in North Carolina, their home state, and later added lifelong friends
Kent and Shaw from Celeste, Texas. While touring with Ben Kweller
as his lead guitarist after graduating from college, Roberts met John
Kent, Kweller's drummer and owner of Blackland Records, a small indie
record label and recording studio run out of Celeste. Roberts played
John the Hymns songs he and Harding had recorded by themselves, and
John quickly became a Hymns enthusiast - when the tour ended, he asked
Roberts if he wanted to join the label, and Roberts earnestly agreed.
So in 2005 Harding and Roberts left the cacophony and modernity of
New York City to come to the dusty streets and pale-faced, worn down
buildings of Celeste, population 817, and record their first album
in the contemplative, slow motion silence of East Texas. It was there
that they met Tony Kent, John's younger brother and also a drummer,
then a junior studying journalism at Baylor University. And Kent brought
his long time best friend and bassist Matt Shaw, also a student at
Baylor, to round out the quartet. When the foursome was complete,
they decided to base themselves out of Brooklyn, though none of them
were originally from New York - the result is the matchless sound
that is Hymns, a concoction of gentle, cricket-chirping, baking Texas
melodies and rough, metallic, driving New York rhythms. It's a combination
of auditory inspirations so different one might think the product
is bound to fail, but the cohesion of the musicians on stage - now
the cohesion of four best friends playing together - provides a welcome
surprise for music lovers.
Talking to Hymns, it's easy to see how they manage to pull something
like this off - their musical souls are the same, and though the two
halves of the ensemble may have been brought up in different parts
of the country, their ears were raised on the same sonic nourishment.
"I liked it from the time I can remember anything," said
Shaw, referring to the memories he has of growing up listening to
old vinyl records of The Beatles and Neil Young in his
older brother's room.
"Music was always playing in (my) house (when I was growing
up)," agreed Harding, the son of a professional trumpet player.
"I grew up hearing music
all the time."
Kent, a steadfast student of his older brother John, grew up surrounded
by musical talent as well, while Roberts, after seeing a program on
TV, began playing guitar at age seven. "I taught him his first
song at my bar mitzvah," said Roberts, grinning and pointing
to Harding. "'About a Girl' by Nirvana."
But the band has come a long way from Roberts' bar mitzvah, and during
the release of their debut album Brother/Sister in 2006 and
sophomore album Travel in Herds in 2008, which garnered attention
from major publications like Spin Magazine and The New Yorker, the
band played with such prominent musicians as Beck, Ben Kweller,
Hot Hot Heat, The Redwalls, and The Lemonheads,
to name a few. On Nov. 3, they will finish their national MTV Choose
or Lose Tour with Locksley, another Brooklyn band they have been touring
with since October.
"This is the most tired I've ever been, but I love it,"
Shaw said, regarding the tour. "Not many people my age get the
chance to see a different state every day, so I like to take advantage
of it, and take a look around." Shaw often offers to drive during
the grueling, 10-12 hour treks the band has had to make nearly every
night after shows to stay on track on the tour. But all the musicians,
though exhausted, agree that traveling through the beautiful plains
of Utah in the delirious magic and insanity of the middle of the night,
or the hilarious misadventures of stopping at the world's largest
truck stop in backwoods Iowa at 3 a.m., where they found a life-size
Michael Jackson doll, make touring a great adventure.
As lovers of the creative experience associated with recording, Hymns
are anxious to lay down tracks for another album, but hesitant to
get back to the studio at the same time. "I like (Travel in
Herds) so much, I don't want to push it aside right now,"
said Harding. "But at the same time, I want to record new songs
"(Recording) is the most fun thing in the entire world,"
But Roberts has plenty of fun on stage as well, and Hymns' concert-goers
must be quick to pick up the quips dropped between tunes. As the melancholic
twang of Harding's voice finished the final riff of "Off My Mind,"
Roberts stepped up to his microphone at stage left to address the
audience. "So, you guys know we're on tour right now, but we
got to sleep at our studio last night since it's nearby, in Celeste,"
Roberts said. "So this morning we got up and our drummer wrote
this new song that we're about to play for you guys! "He's actually
turning 21 today, why don't you guys give him a hand?" Roberts
yelled to the audience, pointing at 22-year-old Kent, who smiled and
nodded appreciatively at the applause which erupted from the floor.
"Yeah, so here's our new song, I hope it sounds OK. I hope you
guys like it," Roberts said with a grin, as the band began strumming
the first few chords of Tom Petty's "American Girl."
"Oh and by the way," he said, drifting away from the microphone
and grinning wider still, his voice fading into the opening bars of
the tune, "we're also full of shit
" And Roberts allowed
himself a short mischievous smirk before the band started playing,
concentration and focus apparent in their cabaret.
With ferocity unmatched, Roberts owns the stage during performances
as he whirls, teeth-clenched and body pulsing, through his own tumbling
art, while melodies, shooting like jets of water from his clean electric
sound, twist in and around the vocals of Harding, his perfect musical
complement. The throaty, thick, crooning notes of Harding's lyrics
sit well amidst the spectacle of Hymns' music, a unique collection
of instruments, melodies and rhythms that tie together at the seams
like some fraying blue jean invention, held together drunkenly with
scotch tape and bubble gum, but nonetheless perfect in its unfailing
fit and elegance. It's a juxtaposed recording of city and country
sounds, a cassette tape of classic rock done in modern style. The
ingredients of a Hymns song mix seamlessly in their performance, and
the listener can easily hear the influences of the iconic Tom Petty
melt into the bluesy, organic sounds of The Band, which in
turn fade to the timeless, folk-saturated dirtiness of Bob Dylan,
complemented by a dash of cool 70's funk and classic country twang.
But the musicality and showmanship are all their own.
Always stylish and never unattractive, Hymns appear on stage as a
visual representation of their distinctive music - in dusty, dirty
cowboy boots, with grungy, unwashed hair and scruffy, unshaven faces,
the four men command all the eccentricities of confidence and rock-star-cool
in their tight, city-slicker jeans, leather jackets, and chic Ray
Ban sunglasses. Shaw, Roberts and Harding stroll around the stage
in zigzag beelines, running into each other in rhythm to Kent's driving
beats, pounded in with fierce concentration while he blows enormous
pink bubble gum bubbles around his flying drumsticks. From the sultry,
smooth sound of hazy, hot country afternoons reflected in tunes like
"Time Told Me" to the eerie, haunting electric piano solos
and barely spoken, staccato libretto of "Stop Talking,"
Hymns' set list proves to be a myriad of melodic individuality. And
it comes from a band of individuals - a band who came together more
from fate than from its members' aspirations to become musicians.
Originally, Harding, like most of his fellow band members, didn't
plan on pursuing music as a career, and considered film school after
high school before deciding to major in creative writing at Appalachian
State. "(But) I fell for music more," he said, shrugging
in contentment at the direction of his artistic career.
It is an attitude shared by Kent and Shaw, two musicians who, though
they have played for years and always loved music, never consciously
intended to become musicians. But Roberts always knew music was his
calling. "I literally plan on playing guitar for the rest of
my life," he said, his intense gaze expressing the pure artistic
passion coursing through the band's members. "I'm not saying
I'm going to be rich doing it, but there's nothing else I want to
do in the whole world."
More Music Features
e-mail the chief
Like this article?
it to a friend!