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westword.com | Music | The Curator of Pet Sounds | 1999-04-29 WEEK IN music

                        Thursday, April 29, 1999

            MUSIC

            The Curator of Pet Sounds

            Von Hemmling's Jim McIntyre is at home with the Elephant Six family.

            Literally.

            By Amy Kiser (feedback@westword.com)

            Published: Thursday, April 29, 1999

            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."

                                                                                          Pet Sounds Studio site on Google Earth