Take a look inside the Humming House

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by Kim Ruehl, folkalley.com

Nashville, you know, is a music town.

We’ve heard for decades from artists who have poured out of its ranks, from fancy publishing houses and expensive recording studios. Artists who have been marketed to our demographic as directly and with as much precision as if they were pair of clothes or an all-terrain station wagon.

But, beyond music row, there’s an actual songwriter’s scene – one which defies the sequins of commercial country and pulls together various American music traditions (soul, ragtime, blues, folk) to create music which is as authentic as Music Row is premeditated. One of the latest collectives to burst out of that Nashville is a band adeptly called Humming House, borne of the initial vision of frontman Justin Wade Tam.

With nearly a decade in Nashville under his belt, Tam had tried his hand at other musical pursuits – most recently in a singer-songwriter duo similar to Milk Carton Kids or Gillian and Dave. Bent on pursuing something a little more lush, he scored some studio time with Grammy-winning producer Mitch Dane (Jars of Clay) and pulled some players together to back him on a demo. In one eight-hour day, the newly formed band recorded a single titled “Gypsy Django”, then signed Dane up to produce their debut record.

You can read more about that story below, but rest assured Humming House is likely to prove one of the best debut efforts from the folk and Americana world in 2012.

Though the band attests they didn’t really feel like a band until after they started making the disc, the music therein comes across as the product of a remarkably intuitive and cohesive unit.

As for the band’s name, it calls to mind a house on a quiet street, inside which a righteous party is going down. Even from the sidewalk, you can tell that house is humming. On first look (or listen) you may not know exactly what’s going on in there, you just know you want in.

Speaking of which, here’s a quick look inside . . . an excerpt of my recent interview with Humming House.

What was your first big Nashville moment?

Justin: Probably recording our record was the first thing. Getting to work with two Grammy-winning producers. I’ve never done that before. . .

We started working with Mitch Dane. He’s the guy who recorded that song “Gypsy Django.” We did that as a one-off with him, just to test out working with him. We recorded it all in one day – eight hours. At the end we thought that was really cool . . . we were like, ok we need to figure out how to do a record with him, because this definitely sounds better than anything I’ve ever done before.

He has a bunch of ridiculous gear like an old console and E-47 mics. When your signal train is worth 25 grand things are going to sound better. Not to mention the Grammys…I mean, he’s probably done this 600 times.

Working with Vance was kind of an accident. Literally the day before we went into record the record, Mitch’s father fell and broke his hip. He was 91. They said, “We’re going to have to go into surgery because he’s going to be miserable otherwise.” They didn’t know if he was going to make it out. Mitch decided he had to go – it was his dad.

So we had the studio booked for a week with two interns. We were just going to do it ourselves, but then he made a phone call. His partner is Vance Powell. Vance is Jack White’s house engineer. Buddy Guy, Chris Thile – he built Black Bird with John McBride, Martina McBride.

Ben Jones: I was terrified.

Justin: So we came in that morning having done pre-production and having a plan with Mitch. That all went out the window. Three hours later, Vance Powell walks in – larger than life Vance Powell – and he was like “Alright so we’re making a record. How about I set this up and you guys play a song.”

He’d never heard [us play] anything. We changed the whole way we’d planned on tracking. We ended up doing my vocals, guitar, upright, and mandolin all live at the same time, then coming back and producing it from there. Mitch came in mid-week the next week after being with his family and helped fill it out and finesse it, in the way only Mitch can. Vance is great with working with a live band and capturing things – he’s a killer mixing engineer. We got along so well with him that he wound up wanting to mix the record as well, which is a huge compliment.

Josh Wolak: We really got the best of both worlds there – one, getting to work with both of them; but then we got the live sound to build on with all the toys and stuff. It was really fun.

Justin: They track all their rhythm sections and everything to tape, and I think that’s mostly Vance’s influence. He works at Third Man. They don’t own a computer in that studio. Everything’s to tape and analog. That’s the way our record was mixed too. It’s all outboard analong mixing too. It’s not like you can recall all the mixes on a computer.

What does that do to your live show after two weeks with Vance Powell?

Justin: He’s like, Well you guys are either gonna be playing bluegrass festivals or you’re gonna get yourselves a damn drummer. We haven’t gotten a drummer yet, so I’m not really sure. . .

Josh: We have all the elements of a drummer. Ben plays a hi-hat with his foot. Kristin hits a tom, and I’m the mandolin so I’m like a snare. It’s like having a drum without the drummer.

Justin: We just need a big gong on the stage for big crashes . . . The thing is, we literally only played two shows together before recording the record.

Josh: It was an anchor on which to learn the songs. I think a lot of us didn’t even know the songs when we went to record. We kind of knew the songs but after doing the record it was like, well, now we have something.

Ben: We all came from different musical backgrounds, so the fact that we all had to jump in and spit out whatever we had, building up in our minds . . . it really gave the record an eclectic feel. It came from a lot of different tastes. For the better, of course.

Is it still very much your vision, Justin, or do you all have buy-in now?

Justin: It’s definitely become more of a collaborative thing. Nine out of 10 songs are by me and the other one is a co-write with the guy I was playing with before. All but one of our new songs are co-written within the band . . . it’s been a learning process of how we co-write. What’s a Humming House song? What’s not a HH song? How do you define that? I think it might be becoming more eclectic because of that. When it was just me and my songs, we weren’t sure who was going to be in the band. It’s much more defined now.

Kristin Rogers: It’s funny to listen back to it now that we’ve been playing so much more, evolving. Now that we’re all encouraged to have an individual presence in the band, we go back to listen to the record – we love it, we’re so happy with it – but it’s just funny because the songs on there have changed because of us playing on it, adding to it, working with it. I don’t want to say we’re boundless but we have a lot of directions we can go. In my other gig, I sing soul.

Josh: I came from bluegrass.

Ben: I was a music major, so I did composition.

Justin: Four out of five of us play piano and there’s no songs written on piano yet. Josh plays horns and Mike [Butera] plays banjo. None of that’s on that record because we hadn’t had time to tap those resources in the band. Now we can feature Kristin more on vocals, we can do piano-driven stuff . . . there’s a lot of colors in the palette that we haven’t even touched yet.

Josh: But it all weirdly has the same feel. That’s the most astounding thing I personally like about playing with all of you. No matter who brings the ideas to the table, once we all get a hold of it, it becomes identifiable as Humming House.

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