HED:Southern pop rockers Ho-Hum headed back to the Magnolia State
By Christopher R.C. Bosen
Arkansas-based band Ho-Hum has survived a life in the music industry that has been anything but dull and ho-hum.
The Little Rock trio has been through signing and recording with a major label, working with well-known producers, hearing their music played on television and in films and touring the country all while growing disgruntled and disillusioned with the business.
“We kind of became this anti-music machine,” said bassist Rod Bryan, 30, of the group’s relationship with the industry establishment. “We didn’t cater to any crowds. We just did exactly what we wanted to do.”
What the band did was live to regret signing with Universal Records in the mid-1990s after laboring for several years in the club and university circuit throughout Arkansas and around the South.
“When we went with Universal we were starting to head in the direction we wanted to go. We didn’t really want a major label. It was kind of like our manager did a Jedi mind trick,” Bryan said. “There’s nobody to blame but us. We were just kind of shooting for a mid-level type label and then this trojan horse called Universal Records comes along and we jumped at the chance to do it because everything sounded good.”
Universal assigned producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the duo behind Bush’s successful debut album, to work with what was then a quartet two members later left the group during early 1996.
“It turns out we get up there and (Universal) doesn’t even have a marketing department and they’re trying to make us into Hootie and the Blowfish or something and we just weren’t that type of band,” Bryan said.
Universal released “Local” in the summer of 1996 but Ho-Hum had already soured on the experience.
“It was such a long, drawn-out process we pretty much gave up on it. We didn’t even stick around until the end of the mixes,” Bryan said of the post-production work on the album. “Mainly we toured the country and played 300 shows to nobody as the record label tried to buy radio (airplay) for a record that we weren’t even that excited about.”
The label succeeded in placing snippets of the group’s work on broadcast and cable television and in the Sylvester Stallone film “Daylight” but the album quickly faded.
Rebirth of a star
When “Local” didn’t take off, drummer ?? left the group and the remaining three members, Bryan, his younger brother, Lenny, and guitar player Kevin Kerby brought in Colin Brooks to handle percussion for their second album, the independently-produced “Sanduleak,” released on HTS Recordings in 1997.
“The interesting thing about ‘Sanduleak’ was it was named for a star that disappeared,” Bryan said. “Then we put the record out and the star reappeared which was kind of tripped out.”
“Sanduleak” earned the band critical praise for Lenny Bryan’s lyrical writing and was nominated for Best Modern Rock Album in the Memphis Area Music Awards. Kudos poured in from Little Rock, Memphis, Jackson, Nashville and New York.
“We had offers by major (labels) to pick that record up,” Bryan said. “It was these little, off-shoot, boutique labels but pretty much what they say is if you want to get distribution you sign with us and you get nothing. It’s so geared to keep the artist from making money. So, we opted not to do it.”
Bryan added that critical praise is nice but making a living performing for appreciative crowds interested in something other than mainstream, mass-produced pop is the band’s goal and it is easier said than done.
“We’re not cool enough for the fake punkers and we’re not mainstream enough for the kids,” he said. “Smart people with no money are our fan base. I really wish that people would give us a chance. Come out and see us and don’t expect to hear your normal bill of fare. Every song doesn’t have a hip-hop beat which has kind of become the standard on radio these days. Every band you see a picture of you know exactly what they sound like. We like to keep people guessing.”
Refocusing their energy on writing to please themselves, the Bryan brothers brought in drummer Brad Brown to replace a disinterested Brooks and decided to remain a trio after Kerby left the band and a brief stint with guitarist David Jukes of the GunBunnies and Magic Cropdusters failed.
What the trio produced during the second half of 1998 was “Massacre.” The record was released on Feb. 14 coincidentally the same day as the infamous Chicago, Ill., St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Strong reviews met the album which offers the whimsical edge and sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes deeply profound lyrics of XTC, the straight-ahead power of Evan Dando and The Lemonheads combined with Lenny Bryan’s voice that has a slight but noticeable resemblance to Sting’s smoky delivery.
Songs such as “He Married a Girl From Mississippi” showcase that combination.
“I think Lenny’s writing about himself being from a small town in Arkansas but when the song came to him we were playing in Mississippi a lot,” Rod Bryan said of the song which tells the tale of a Magnolia State casino cigarette girl and her New York suitor. “We come into contact with a lot of people from New York and L.A. that think highly of themselves so (the song) is a little tongue-in-cheek.”
Bryan said the group is looking forward to returning to Oxford and perhaps, in the future, to another major label.
“We would still love to do that if it were done right,” Bryan said of signing another contract. “But I don’t know if there’s anybody with a brain in the industry right now. I’m looking for them. I think good music is very underground right now and if good music makes its way back into public favor then I guess maybe we will.”
In the meantime, Ho-Hum is focused on performing live and working on another album for a possible fall release. Prior to Saturday night’s concert, the trio plans to record in the studio of Oxford group Fappy Tweed.
“We’re going to do a song and try to put it on our next album,” Bryan said of the session. “We’re making an attempt at recording an album as cheap as possible here and there with friends and see what we can do.”
After the session, Bryan said he anticipates a receptive Saturday night crowd.
“We’ve been playing Oxford probably since 1992 in several different places,” he said. “It’s been a slow build but we’ve always played Mississippi. It never really burned-out there.”
What: Ho-Hum in concert
When: 10 p.m. Sat., July 10
Where: Proud Larry’s, Oxford
Admission: $5 (Must be 21)
For more info: Call 236-0050