Trial Basses – HUGO LARGO’S Ongoing Experiment
BY JOHN NEILSON
Given enough loud voices clamouring for your attention, you will eventually hear none of them. The voices become a dull roar, and the roar becomes a blur, and sooner or later the blur becomes an unheard tension just below the threshold of awareness, like the rumble of the subway under my apartment, which I never hear anymore, though it’s constant enough to keep the place cockroach-free. Or more to the point, like Noise Rock, which can be exhilarating one band at a time, but when taken en masse becomes as toothless and boring as the music it is supposedly blasting out against.
Now imagine a quiet voice, a voice that insinuates itself into your head not with bluster and volume but with an edgy nervousness - all velvet and razorblades. While the other voices can shout and spit until the veins on the necks bulge, this worried little voice can drown them out with a whisper. If you were to meet this voice, you might find that it called itself Hugo Largo.
- the country’s self-appointed noise capital -Hugo have built a following by refusing to rage and roar like everyone else. Instead, they have developed a unique two bass and electric violin sound that serves as a constantly shifting setting for the slippery, slithering voice of Mimi Goese. If they’re “in yo’ face," it’s because you’re only halfway to where they want to be. New York
Hugo Largo began in early 1984 as the brainchild of punk bassist and Glenn Branca alumnus Tim Sommer who was also well-known locally as a journalist. Bored with playing bass for Even Worse, which he calls "real primitive punk rock of no distinguished quality, (tough all you Thurston Moore completists out there may want to track down their single), Tim began putting together embryonic instrumental tracks with his bass and a boombox cassette deck, which soon evolved into working with fellow Branca alumnus Greg Lutz, who just happened to have a four track machine.”l had told him some ideas I had," Sommer explains, “and I told him I wanted to form a band with two basses and a woman singer. He had a four-track machine, and my original idea was to do a tape of some stuff to give to Mimi."
Mimi Goese, a veteran of the “Down-Town" performance art and dance scene, was originally enlisted to put wordless melodic lines over the twin bass parts -a "very arty" premise that appealed to her performance instincts without demanding that she be a Female Rock Singer. "Singing wasn’t something I was excited about at all. . . " Mimi is quick to point out. "I was doing a hundred other things · it wasn’t anywhere near like ‘This is the next big thing!’ It was just something else I was going to try. Actu- ally, originally it was another woman speaking and maybe I’d do little melodic lines behind her, but she was going to be the speaker and I wasn’t going to use words. So the very beginning of it was pretty mushy idea"
No sooner had the three of them begun, they received an offer to open a club Rick Rubin’s sludge-metal outfit, Hose who Tim knew from his DJ days. Though the gig was only 10 days away, and they had very little material, Tim jumped at the chance "We only did four songs," Tim "Mimi had never sung into a mike before soundchecking for that very first show and there weren’t words for the songs yet - she just kind of hummed them, or sang melody lines without singing words."
Needless to say, the gig was a real Beauty- and-the-Beast pairing, and a lot of the fans there to see Hose, "haven’t seen us since" (as Sommer diplomatically puts it). Among the small percentage who liked what they heard, though, was Adam Peacock, a London-born journalist/ photographer who had also played in a few bands himself.
"I was a fan," he states with a note of pride. "I saw the first gig, I saw four out of the first five, something like that, and I wanted to be the THIRD bass player! That was my big offer. And then when Greg quit I think there was a gig in about two weeks after he quit, there was a whole string of gigs — and they didn’t have someone, and I finally succeeded in persuading them to let me show them that I knew all the songs pretty good!" "He learned them in one 45 minute rehearsal," Sommer admits. "Adam had all the songs down! He really did. I was incredibly impressed.”
The last member to join was Hahn Rowe, whose searing violin lines elevate the band’s sound out of the realm of potential preciousness and into a whole new dimension. Yet another Branca graduate (”Branca is like the John Mayall of the New York Scene,” observes Sommer), Hahn had been working mainly as a recording engineer (his credits to date include projects for the Golden Palominos, Live Skull, Wiseblood, John Zorn, Deep Six, and more), and actually started as Hugo Largo’s soundman. In fact, his first contributions on violin were made from behind the mixing board, a la Roxy Music/ Eno.
"It turned out that I was playing on too many songs, and l couldn’t mix the sound at the same time. Uh, ‘and the rest is history. . ." is Hahn’s explanation of his move to full-time musician status. "Actually, I had recorded the EP, and I still wasn’t officially in the band. I still hadn’t played on stage until after we more or less finished the EP."
If there’s one thing people seem to know about Hugo Largo, it’s that they’re the ‘band without a drummer,’ which has led to various new age references and charges that they’re just a novelty of sorts. But Tim points out that as far as he was concerned; drums were just never part of the picture from the very first. “In 1982 and I983 I was listening to a lot of things that were really driven by the bass, whether that be New Order, or Jah Wobble, or Oh Ok, who were a real bass-driven band, and Ruts DC, their Rhythm Collision album, which was all bass."
If one bass can propel a band, then two basses — weaving, harmonizing, intertwining and creating a skeletal architecture of sound — can be almost a band in them- selves. And yet, contrary to what you might expect, Hugo Largo is far from bottom- heavy. "I always thought of the way we’d use bass as more like the way a viola and a violin play together in a chamber group," remarks Sommer, "rather than if you had Busta Jones and Adam Clayton up there thudding away."
The air of mystery and grace the new group could conjure up was unique enough to attract the attention of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who was quick to offer his services as their producer on their ironically titled EP, Drum (Relativity). It was an arrangement the band claims to be very happy with, although they’ve since found that the Stipe stigma has had its drawbacks as well as good points.
“It’s a lot stronger than I had any idea it would be,” muses Mimi. “There’s a lot of people out there that are crazy about Michael Stipe, and who are interested in this band because of him," Sommer is quick to agree, noting that “sometimes we forget that Michael is. . . Bono, or whatever he is. . . He’s created that mystery about himself, he really has, and I suppose we’ve become part of that myth, that mystery. But I trust the people who he’s turned on to us. He wanted to turn people on to us”.
"It’s sort of reassuring to know we’ll never be as big as R.E.M.," Hahn chimes in. "I mean, I’d never even listened to R.E.M. before we worked with Michael. . . " "I know!" Mimi exclaims. "There are people who say. ‘Did you learn how to sing by listening to Michael Stipe?’ I mean, come on! I don’t have a hero, and if I did it wouldn’t be Michael Stipe. He’s great — but so are a lot of other people.”
For the record, Sommer points out that as an experienced engineer and soundman, Hahn Rowe was responsible for most of the hands-on recording decisions, and that Stipe’s role was more ephemeral -something of a spiritual cheerleader, from the sound of it. "He just put us in a room and got a really good performance out of us — got us to play well on tape -which is, I think, an underrated thing that a producer does. And in doing so, in making a really extraordinary performance possible, he definitely earned his production credit. Not to say that he was completely out of the picture in terms of terms of arranging sounds and in terms of arranging instruments because he did contribute really wise little things which I hear when I listen to the record. I hear them."
"I think he’s especially good at sitting on the couch and waiting for the moments to happen," is Hahn’s typically candid analysis, "and then he’ll jump up and say ‘Yeah! Keep that, I like that!’ I think that’s probably one of his strengths. You see him ready to jump up and say, ‘Oh, wow!’ — and he does."
The EP was recorded over a span of a year-and-a—half, and its earliest tracks are by now two-and-a-half years old, so the band is understandably anxious to get to work on the forthcoming LP — if only to show how far they’ve come. "I think our own criticism of the first record," Sommer says, "would be that it doesn’t show our sense of humour, and it doesn’t show the power that we can get live, that has very little to do with the ambient music, say, that we some- times get compared to. I think on the full- length album there will be stuff that’s stranger, and stuff that’s funnier, and stuff that’s louder, and stuff that’s quieter."
All of these dimensions are more readily apparent live, where a typical set might include Hugo-ized covers of anything from Bon Jovi to Syd Barrett, Led Zeppelin, or Elvis. One thing that will be hard to transfer to vinyl, though, will be Mimi’s unique and captivating stage presence.
Mimi’s been our secret weapon for a long time." Adam states though this is no secret to anyone who’s seen the band recently on one of their cross country tours with The Feelies. Her remarkable voice matches Hahn Rowe’s liquid violin glide-for-glide and swoop-for-swoop, inviting the inevitable comparisons to a couple of arty chanteuses named Liz and Kate. She’s a mesmerizing performer – one who sings with her hands as well as her voice and who possesses a gaze that can veer from the wide eyed wonder of a little girl with the wild eyed terror of a cornered animal in mid song - though there’s also been more than a few accusations that she’s, well you know…weird.
‘Actually’, she laughs, "what’s especially great is I have to have to be more like that” Before they jelled as a band, she explains ‘the music didn’t feel like music to me, so I felt like I had to hold everybody’s attention the whole time. We were playing in rock ‘n’ roll clubs and they’re used to having this real HEAVY band up there, so I had to make them pay attention to this little band"
“...with their plinky little basses and the high woman’s voice,” Sommer interjects.
Continues Mimi "The ‘weirdness’ is something I don’t understand, ‘cause I’ll go up on stage and I think ‘OK, I’m going to play that really straight - I’m going to do this as a normal singer and people still say, “Ohh, you’re so weeeiird!" You’ll have to wear sunglasses to be not construed as weird” Adam suggests. "Your eyes give you away- people think you’re insane!"
“It’s a true in
, though," Mimi offers- “there’s a word for it, when you can get white all around your eyes . . . you’re insane if you can do that" Japan
“Sampaku` Hahn exclaims. “You’re sampaku!`
Joking aside, Hahn is soon tackling the weirdness question again from a more serious angle. ‘I think were always surprised that people can think that we’re strange, be- cause we’ve been doing it so much that it’s definitely natural for us -we’re doing some- thing that we enjoy doing and that we believe in and do naturally?
"There’s a conception that maybe this is a gimmick.' Tim adds. "and maybe a long, long time ago at the birth of this thing maybe there was an element of that in it, but a long time ago it stopped being a gimmick and it started being a band that the four of us wanted to be in — not just a novelty. I mean, people say. ‘Where do you go from here?’ The misconception to me is that people think that’s a question, because we are four musicians who can write songs and produce them, and who are not limited by other people’s conceptions of what a rock band should be!"
"It’s much more interesting," Adam quips, "to ask a band with two guitars, a bass, and a drummer, ‘Where can you go from here?"