The Curator of Pet Sounds
Jim McIntyre, the brain behind Von Hemmling, lives among amps and mikes and dogs and cats at Pet Sounds, the shabby yet illustrious recording haven of the Apples and other acts affiliated with the Elephant Six imprint. In doing so, he's grown accustomed to having indie-pop royalty traipsing through his living room. "People come to do their records here, like Jeff [Mangum] from Neutral Milk Hotel," he says. "He did his record here a few years ago, and when he came back to do his next record, it was a lot better than his first. Miles [Kurosky] from Beulah will come here, too, and Olivia Tremor Control or whoever--and I know they're out there doing their thing, wherever they are. They're doing this magical thing, and they're going to come back here with these great songs that are a step up for them because they've worked hard. Being around all that, I have no choice but to try to keep up."
That's no easy task. While varying lumens of limelight have fallen upon numerous Elephant Six groups, Von Hemmling is only now emerging from the shadows. What at first was a McIntyre solo project is now a bona fide band that features contributions from several familiar Denver players: Dressy Bessy bassist Rob Greene, Perry Weissman 3/Tunas Mekar Gamelan drummer Dane Terry, and guitarist Rich Sandoval, who plays with Koala. "That's why I picked everybody to play in my band--because they all play in other bands and they're all people who are into playing music," McIntyre explains. "That's all they do--all day, every day. And that's all I do--all day, every day."
This may be a slight exaggeration: McIntyre has a part-time gig as a chemist for Public Service Company of Colorado. But the majority of his hours are spent contributing to Elephant Six's growing oeuvre (he's currently crafting a compilation for Japan's Traittoria Records that will feature familiar acts and new recruits like Admiral and Essex Green) or pumping life into Von Hemmling, an act that upholds the musical ethic he and friends like the Apples' Robert Schneider established nearly a decade ago. A Von Hemmling tape was among the first Elephant Six releases of the early Nineties, and McIntyre played a series of shows under that name backed by Apples drummer Hilarie Sidney. (The dates were headlined by local eccentric Little Fyodor, who is responsible for the Germanic handle McIntyre reluctantly embraces.) But McIntyre also loaned his skills to numerous Elephant Six endeavors, including the Apples; he served as a member of the band until its grueling touring schedule and issues of creative independence induced him to step out on his own. However, he continued to see the musicians regularly even after his departure thanks to Pet Sounds, which slowly but surely took over a substantial part of his Golden Triangle-area pad.
The arrangement began innocently enough: The Elephant Six musicians occasionally received money to make albums, but instead of spending it on studio time, they poured it into gear they stored in a spare room that opened up when McIntyre's roomie moved out. "It was just going to be a temporary thing," McIntyre remembers, "but it's been a lot of fun. We're real poor, but we'll have a lot nicer studio at some point. It's like having a roommate that's not here, and I can use the studio for practice." Gesturing around the ramshackle pad, which doubles as a gallery for wall-sized Steve Keene paintings, he says, "If I need amps, there's amps around everywhere."
Using this equipment while his friends were on the road, McIntyre scratched out the six tunes that make up J.W. Kellogg, an oddly dynamic EP recently put out by Shrat Field Recordings, owned by Apples guitarist Eric Allen. The result is elaborate and demanding, often requiring a listener to cross the floor and adjust the volume, usually in an upward direction. "I got really addicted to the mute buttons, and I mixed it all down like seven times to get it like that," McIntyre confirms.
The delicate quietude of certain passages may have been intentional, but other effects were less so. On "Heads Up, Tin Man," McIntyre's blithe and crinkly voice stutters as if he were singing through spinning fan blades because, he says, "the battery went out in the microphone" when he was recording it. He adds, "We took the mike off and got it fixed, so you'd have to break it to get that sound again."
Another low-tech high point of Kellogg is the intro to "For the 5th Time in 4 Years"--a montage of recorded personal ads from the back pages of Westword. Sexual themes also surface in the hilariously profane samples that are sandwiched between songs, most of which seemingly have little to do with the ditties themselves. By way of explanation, McIntyre asks, "Everyone is so obsessed with sex, and everything's always sex, so why not have a little bit more?" Hence the presence of an excerpt from a 2 Live Crew song (McIntyre lived in the Crew's hometown of Miami during its Eighties heyday but was too shy to go see them) and a brief appearance by The Sensuous Woman. "Anyone over the age of 35 knows immediately what that is, because it was huge in the Seventies," McIntyre says. "Basically, it was a...tender...uh... help manual...to help women to...throw off their inhibitions and leave the Fifties behind and join the sexual revolution." For good measure, McIntyre also tosses in a recording of Dylan Thomas reading a poem ("so there's a little culture in there, too"), albeit one slowed to an incomprehensible warp.
Such intermissions charm, but Von Hemmling's heart can be found in its endearing, folksy melodies, which glow like beams of sunshine baking a drug-green quadrangle crossed by driving and distorted instrumental stampedes. Live, the band is known to lapse into jams that contain more than a passing whiff of patchouli, prompting hippie charges that leave McIntyre feeling befuddled. "Everybody says that, but no," he insists. "I like Donavan, I guess, but Miles Davis is what I sit around listening to. I like nice melodies, and I don't think it's hippie if you're just mellow." He concedes that "we have a new song that's kind of hippie, but it's got a weird time change. It's however things come out."
Indeed, the Dead flavor remains vague by virtue of the slanted-and-enchanted tempo shifts and mismatched tones the band employs. At times, Greene, Sandoval and McIntyre sound as if they're playing the same song in different keys. "That's not what's going on if you really listen to it," McIntyre insists. "There are intervals that are happening. But the thing you have to realize is that there is a lot of time that goes into it. When Rich and I are working on new guitar parts, we can spend literally hours on two chords."
For Sandoval, McIntyre's concentrated tinkering is one of the band's most intriguing aspects. "Von Hemmling is great because it's another side to what I like to do," he says. "I've spent the majority of my music life playing with other people and just kind of making up stuff--textures and melodies--on the spot and not really much time songwriting. So it's been fun to actually get into something where I could specifically make up a lot of interesting guitar parts."
This breadth of possibilities also comes as a welcome change of pace for Greene, who strives for pop precision in Dressy Bessy. "Jim helps me out a lot," he maintains. "I play things I'd normally never think of. With Jim, it doesn't have to be perfectly the right note, and sometimes it sounds good. I'm a lot more free to learn and experiment. In Dressy Bessy, I know what sounds good because of theory. I know exactly what notes to play because I can map it out. In Von Hemmling, I'm trying to get away from that."
Sandoval agrees. "For me, theory was always a little too mathematic. I was a physics major at one time, and music was a getaway. Whatever I was doing in life, it was always nice to sit there, usually under the influence, and play without thinking about what I was doing."
That's not to imply that Von Hemmling's music is highly improvisational: It isn't. Rather, the outfit entertains a conceptual aim that goes beyond rug-cutting sport. McIntyre says, "What we're working toward is having the center of gravity in each song, where it's not in any of the instruments or the vocals--it's out there in the middle of what's happening."
So far, McIntyre feels that Von Hemmling falls short of this goal: "It's hard, because we haven't been playing together for that long, and it might be a bit of a shambles," he admits. Yet a glorious mess is often what Elephant Sixers are best at making--and the unique bond that has held the originators of the label together goes far beyond shared musical leanings. According to McIntyre, "There's a strength between us. When people are here for weeks at a time, sometimes you don't get along as well as maybe you should. I was talking to Jeff about that one time, and he was like, 'Well, we're all married'--and it's true. We're all married to each other, and it's not like we don't have a choice. It's just what we want to do. We've known each other for so long, and we've been through a lot."
Rivalries would seem to be a natural concern in such an environment, but McIntyre swears that these emotions don't cross the Pet Sounds threshold--and when the Apples' Schneider takes a break from singing la-la-las in the back room to deliver him a slightly burnt vegetarian TV dinner, his claim seems plausible. Seeing how hard everyone else is working only spurs him on, McIntyre says. In his view, "It's being competitive against yourself.
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