Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Outside of niche circles, Hum is probably best known as “that one band from the car commercial.” In 1995, the band released You’d Prefer An Astronaut, its third full-length offering and major label debut. It was—and still is—an impeccably dense record, at least as far as a nine-track, traditionally packed LP is concerned. Among these hypnotic and soaring songs that pay homage to the mystery of outer space, Hum cracked the mainstream surface with “Stars,” a rollicking and emotive ballad that was used by Cadillac in 2008 to market a sedan. Mathematically speaking—and for any label executive concerned with a return on investments—the Cadillac commercial could be viewed foremost among Hum’s major coups. But Hum’s fans—who are as devoted and blindly unwavering as any—see things differently: Hum should have been a much bigger band.
Matt Talbott, Tim Lash, Jeff Dimpsey, and Bryan St. Pere were a guitar-rock foursome that formed and released four records in the ’90s, an era when guitar-rock was ubiquitous. Just as Talbott’s flat, brooding voice was often lost in a sea of washy static on all of Hum’s records, the band itself came to embody a footnote in a time defined by Billy Corgans, Kurt Cobains, and Billie Joe Armstrongs. Hum’s contribution to the ’90s alt-rock canon has only ballooned in its isolated realm, though. Since Hum’s first reunion in 2003, legions of newer bands have capitalized on the shoegaze-inspired riffage and big, resounding soundscapes that gave You’d Prefer An Astronaut an other-worldly quality. The overarching theme of Hum’s life as a band is a story of subtle impact: Just like the band’s music, which always offered a slow-crawling march toward auditory bliss, Hum’s ascent to notoriety was markedly quiet, and happened largely after it was dropped by its label, RCA, and called it quits.
Talbott says he can’t really recall when Hum first got together. “I don’t really know,” he said in a 2011 interview with BalconyTV. His band could have formed in “’90 or ’89, or ’91” he stumbles, adding that “Our first record came out in ’93, or something like that.” As a matter of historical record, however, Hum’s debut album, Fillet Show, was released in 1991 on Twelve Inch Records, a small-town label based in Champaign, Illinois, the band’s hometown. Hum’s sound had a hardened edge at first, which can probably be chalked up to the members’ youth, or the way in which young men in bands often favor distortion over thoughtfulness. But glimmers of Hum’s later milieu often peaked through the din of punk-charged songs, especially on standouts like “Detassler” and “I Like It.”
After the release of the Sundress and Hello Kitty/Roar I’m A Tiger EPs, which deliver a dose of rowdy college rock, Hum gradually inched away from a threadbare rock ’n’ roll style. It parted ways with guitarist Andy Switzky, the band’s original creative force and lead vocalist. Hum then recruited Lash, a regular in Champaign’s college alt-rock scene, to replace Switzky on guitar. Soon after, Talbott became the band’s singer, and Hum began to write songs that were a bit slower and more introspective. Electra 2000, released in 1993, homes in on the style for which Hum is ultimately revered. This record is full of deeply textured songs that brim with emotive heaviness: One can cite “Shovel” and “Pewter,” among Electra 2000’s standouts, but there’s also the ultra-downtrodden “Diffuse,” which uses drudgery and powerful drums to create a pummeling wave of sound. There’s still some semblance of playfulness on Electra, however: On the track “Pinch & Roll,” Talbott’s screams are full of disaffected angst as he calls himself a “dirty old man” who pees on himself. Moreover, the masterful chords of the record’s opener, “Iron Clad Lou,” are about as raucous and catchy as anything released in the ’90s.
While the lyrics on Electra 2000 still largely reflect a nerdy, self-effacing vibe, the record also introduced much of the scientific imagery and subject matter that prevailed on the band’s later releases. And by the time You’d Prefer An Astronaut released in 1995, Hum had become a fully realized entity, a band completely set apart from the trappings of traditional alt-rock. This is immediately clear on the album’s first track, “Little Dipper”: The song is a study in deep, atmospheric droning and rumbling bass, but most importantly—and above all else—it’s a study in feeling. The tune not only sets a precedent for the rest of You’d Prefer An Astronaut, but also for everything Hum released after 1995. With its weird, lyrical musings on a “blue protective eye” and the concept of sleeping “under glass,” “Little Dipper” represents something of an ethos or mission statement for the band itself: It seems to convey, quite simply, that Hum’s dense, floating guitar-work beckons one to sit in a trance. Rather than sing the lyrics aloud, listeners are probably best suited to stand quietly and listen, letting their brains teem with activity and their skin tighten with goosebumps.
In a way, You’d Prefer An Astronaut hits all the benchmarks of quintessential ’90s alt-rock, but it also defies them: “The Pod,” the album’s second track and largely forgotten second single, brims with fiery distortion. Its guitar solo draws more influence from a buzzsaw than any instrument with strings. But perhaps what’s most crucial to the record’s staying power are its salient lyrics, which somehow blend themes of lovelorn romance with weird, fantastical concepts about nature and the cosmos.
Take the lyrics of “Why I Like The Robins,” which is ostensibly a love song drowned in rich, fantastical imagery:
“The distance outside of you comes into focus, collapses away / Loving me / And hands to the glass and eyes to sky and glued to the south / She waits to see / She’s looking for birds she met last fall / Who said they would come back different than all / She’s waiting for six who know about sound / Who’d promised to come back upside down”
Talbott acknowledges that Hum’s lyrics are nebulous and hard to interpret, but admits on the now defunct fan site h-u-m.net, “They’re mostly just love songs when you break them down.” One of these love songs is “Stars,” which more or less became a boilerplate single for the band. Scraping the charts somewhat modestly—it peaked at No. 11 on Billboard’s Alternative Rock Songs in July of ’95—“Stars” afforded the band a meager taste of mainstream rock stardom: Hum played the song on Late Night With Conan O’Brien while on the Lollapalooza Tour, and was invited by Howard Stern to do the same on his radio program. Videos of each performance speak truth to the band’s honest appearance: They were an assortment of scruffy young guys with shaggy haircuts who played loud, cerebral music. They wore ripped shorts and ragged T-shirts, but not because it was cool or fashionable. It was obvious that they were anything but rock stars.
Even though You’d Prefer An Astronaut was released on RCA, Hum’s members still had no intention of portraying a marketable image of themselves, or branching out into the larger sphere of mainstream music. This was embodied in the limited amount of press the band received, even after signing with a major label and opening for the Smashing Pumpkins. What sparse attention it did enjoy was fawning, though, especially when it came from outlets in Champaign. Some of these local publications have even heaped plaudits on the band very recently, during its sporadic reunion gigs over the last decade: Last year, the Champaign News-Gazette had a reporter cover Hum’s set at South By Southwest, though it was apparently interrupted by Austin authorities due to overcrowding at the venue.
Hum has a legacy—even though its members would probably shudder at such a notion—and You’d Prefer An Astronaut is specifically paramount to its enduring image. This is evident in a growing swath of bands who both purposefully and indirectly draw influence from the record. You can hear it on the song “Dig” by Philadelphia band Nothing, or Cloakroom’s Lossed Over EP, which features Talbott as both producer and guest vocalist on the track “Dream Warden.” There’s more too, especially when considering newer records from Title Fight and Beach Slang. The Deftones are also major fans.
Hum’s sound was, and remains to this day, an adventure in exploring musical opposites. It could be thunderous and unrelenting, but restrained, measured, and mopey at the same time. The music could be melancholic and boisterous, but still downtrodden and catchy. Combining all of these disparate moods made the band purveyors of something bold and even genius. It took a long time to catch on, especially after the release of Downward Is Heavenward, the band’s final LP in 1998. But in recent years, Hum’s musical craftsmanship has paid dividends. There’s been talks of a new album, which is something that Talbott previously said the band has been hesitant to pursue; Just last year, Hum enjoyed the comfort of big, gushing crowds in places far away from Champaign.
In its immediate wake, You’d Prefer An Astronaut moved about a quarter million units. But the strength of the band and its depth surpass any number or monetary value. The record, with its well-honed production and mysterious album art—the cover features an illustration of a zebra standing idly before a green backdrop—is a piece of ’90s history that’s probably more coveted now than it ever was in its heyday. A car commercial can’t be attributed to Hum’s resurgence; only organic, word-of-mouth appreciation for the band and its music can make something overlooked become meaningful.