February 10, 2009

Back To Now: The Hush Now Interview With Noel Kelly

The Hush Now
For a band whose history notably features a major car accident and a flood, guitarist and singer Noel Kelly's The Hush Now certainly seems to operate as agent of Fate's whimsy. Which is why we were surprised when we checked in with Mr. Kelly recently ahead of Thursday's record release party for the Boston-based quintet's well-received, self-titled 2008 debut. Surprised because Kelly talks of a five-year plan and of having songs ready for a third record, despite the fact that as of this writing he had not finished a second that was begun last summer prior to the release of The Hush Now. Kelly -- whose music recalls '90s indie pop stars Poole and Sire-signed stand-outs The Ocean Blue -- plans to complete tracking for album 2 this weekend, and speaks with striking confidence about making things work on his own terms with a new band content to ignore the music industry ladder historically seen as the best way up.
CC: We met last summer and you come across as a mellow but passionate guy. That said, there are a lot of things about The Hush Now that are kind of topsy-turvy. You began recording your second record last summer months before you formally released your first. Before finishing your second record, you put together a different line-up of the band. Has anything about The Hush Now gone the way you planned?

NK: Actually, everything is going much better than planned, if you can believe that. I know it probably doesn’t look that way from the outside, but there is a pretty methodical approach behind what probably looks like relative chaos. Other than the scramble with line-up changes (BTW, the new line-up is super -- great people, great songwriters, great musicians – it's always good to know you're the weakest in the room), I think things are really flowing well. I'll attempt to explain though why things seem a bit out of order compared to the usual "band forms, band plays, band records, band tours" paradigm.

I wrote some tunes while living in Portland, OR but I wasn't sure how my sound might translate. I wanted to put together an album and see if there was any real promise there. Although it's not exactly cheap to record these days, it's not entirely impossible. There I was 2 years ago living in a basement (I'm a bit of a recluse), with no money left and I thought, "I don’t think anybody else is going to pay to make this album." So off I went to Boston to find a job that could pay for the album.

The first line-up was a miracle. Moving to a new city and finding musicians who are interested in playing somebody else's music is a really difficult task, especially if you're not quite the social butterfly. Barry, Mike and Kurt just got it. And having Dave Newton, who I was already comfortable with, produce the album just brought everything together. So we knocked out the first album in LA and Joshua Tree. It was like a vacation for me. Good times.

It was at this point (and with Dave's encouragement) I decided to push the album out to the world. I wanted to make sure the effort was more than a vanity project though. After years in [my old band] Cerulean and scratching my head over why we were never able to sustain a higher level of interest, I really backed up and tried to deconstruct not only the efforts of a band trying to gain exposure, but also what I really wanted as a musician and as an artist. In the end, I decided I really just want people to hear the music and if so inspired, maybe come to a show. I had/have no delusions of grandeur with expectations of signing a label deal.

I figured the best alternative was to just invest in myself and the band. So I drew up a 3-5 year plan and pretty much started dumping all my energy and income into The Hush Now. Understanding some of the shortcomings of Cerulean, I decided it was best to always have an album ready to be released. I never planned for The Hush Now's success to be tied to one single album, but rather a succession of albums that gained more and more momentum. So, six months after we finished the first album, I had a new batch of songs ready and we jumped back in the studio. I'm finishing tracking on album 2 this weekend and planning to record album 3 this summer. If all I ever accomplish with any of this is to create some pretty cool music that some folks dig, then I'll consider that success. Anything else is just icing on the cupcake, as they say.

CC: Let's talk about the new line-up. Who do you have doing what in this iteration of the band? Where did you dig them up? Which was the hardest slot to fill?

NK: First, let me say that both Kurt Schneider [who plays keys with Boston indie geniuses This Car Up. -- Ed.] and Mike DiMinno were invaluable in creating the sound on the first two records. Unfortunately, things didn't work out for different reasons –- nothing personal. We're still great friends. That being said, the new line-up is soooo good. I'm really lucky. Everybody has a unique ear and all are stellar musicians. We have a soft spot for similar bands and understand the idea of making music that gets people moving.

John Charpentier I found on Craig's List. He’s a huge Elliot Smith fan and a great guitarist/songwriter. Mike Wittrien responded to an ad as well. Usually finding a bass player is always the most difficult thing in the world. Not only did I find one, but Mike is out of this world. He is a musician’s musician. Barry brought John Millar into the fold on keys. John just fits in really nicely. He's also the youngin' in the band at 22 years old. There were no tryouts or auditions. I just met the guys for drinks and if we hit it off, they were in. I just got lucky that they all turned out to be phenomenal. The spot that worried me the most though, was filling the drummer slot. Barry had originally just come on board for the albums only, but when he decided to join the band full time, it was a huge weight lifted. He really is that fucking good. You can build something around a good drummer. Otherwise, you’re fucked. Now, I just don't want to let these guys down.

Would you say the new line-up has made the material on the self-titled record its own, or is the new Hush Now such a fresh commodity that it is just hoping to just nail the material as it is on the record at the record release show?

With new players, there's always going to be interpretations of the music. It's a fine line. On one hand you want them to recreate the album, but not to an extent where their playing becomes stale. It's always better if a musician makes the music their own in some way so they are playing rather than executing. It's been so long since I've looked at the songs from the first album that I even had to learn the music myself with the band. But I think we're getting there. We're going to be good.

CC: The self-titled record made a respectable showing on the CMJ Top 200, which was quite a feat for a band that at that point, well, kind of didn't exist, am I right? What can you tell us about any plans to get out and tour the record to try to capitalize on the good showing at radio?

NK: Yeah, I was really happy with how well the debut did. We charted in the top 100 for weeks and even started getting spins from commercial radio. The coolest is that Steve Lamacq from BBC 6 is playing us. What an honor, ya know? And you're right, we didn't exist. But that's what's so great about the new media outlets today. If you put together a quality product and get it out there, there's always the chance somebody will pick up on it. The key I'm finding is patience followed quickly by persistence... and getting a great team of folks involved that believe in the music and are self-starters. I think some folks get worried about fucking up or saying or doing the wrong thing. Who gives a shit, really? I always look at problems as something to solve. I work with engineers during the day and they approach problems the complete opposite way. They point out every reason why you can’t do something. That mindset is fucking paralyzing and it drives me insane. Really, what's the worst thing that's going to happen... all lessons learned. Personally, I thrive on scars, because I tend to fuck up quite a bit, but it keeps me energized. As long as you're honest, people will forgive mistakes.

Anyway, off the soapbox... We’re planning shows on the east coast for the spring as well as a couple of tours of England and Scotland (anybody know of cheap fares out there?). Because we all have day gigs, it makes it difficult to take off for months on end right now... but I'm positive that day will come. I'd love to get the guys over to play some west coast shows as well. And of course, we'd love to play the CMJ festival and SXSW next year. Hopefully the new album will create enough buzz to make those a reality.

CC: Can we expect to hear any songs from the second album Thursday night? And what can you tell us about a release date or label for that set?

NK: Actually, you'll get to hear a song from the third album. How's that for being fucked up and out of order? It's a great song though that the new line-up had a hand in creating, so we're all really excited about it. It's an exciting indicator of where the music will grow. The new album will be released to radio this coming October with a single dropping in June/July. I have my brother singing opera, my sister on flute and clarinet and brother-in-law on trumpet. I'm pretty excited how the album is coming together. We're going to offer the album for free download again. I think musicians/bands have to start thinking of approaching the "music business" (whatever that is) differently these days. People are going to get the album free anyway, why fight it? And fuck it, I'm not making the music for me to listen to alone. My father made a living supporting a family of six playing gigs. It wasn't a lavish lifestyle, but he did what he loved and we turned out OK. Sure, it wasn't always glamorous for him, but let me tell you, there's nothing like watching your father's Irish band play Michael Jackson's "Beat It." I wish I had that on tape.
The Hush Now plays T.T. The Bear's in Cambridge, Mass. Thursday night. Tonight the quintet plays a live radio session for Pipeline! on MIT's 88.1 WMBR-FM.

The Hush Now -- "Bedtime Stories" -- The Hush Now
The Hush Now -- "Ashes" -- The Hush Now
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