There’s much to be said about bands without drummers who call their debut record, ‘Drum.’ Why draw attention to what you don’t have rather than what you do? But then again, Hugo Largo were a contrary proposition. Whilst most were throwing everything but the kitchen sink into their records during the late 80’s, there’s a spaciousness and subtlety here that has as much in common with ambient music as it does with rock.
“Hugo Largo are as familiar as they are foreign.” – opening line of Relativity Records press release
Hugo Largo’s tools, two bass guitars, electric violin and voice. Those basses, ever-entwined and given that absence of a drumkit to bounce off, are played more like guitars than a rhythm section per se. All three musicians here, Adam Peacock, Tim Sommer and violinist, Hahn Rowe did their time with the Glenn Branca (experimental guitar) Ensemble and it shows. In fact, this whole idea of a guitar being something it should perhaps not be (see Branca’s other affiliates, Sonic Youth) invariably offers a fresher take on the music a band produces. Rowe, originally the band’s recording engineer (he’d also worked with The Golden Palominos, John Zorn, Live Skull, Wiseblood), weaves his 5-string (!) violin between the basses, like a thread, a texture, as opposed to a lead instrument.
Though it takes centre stage throughout (and what a performance!), Mimi Goese’s voice also has a serpentine quality – I can only think of Björk who does something similar – not so much singing flat to microphone but around the room, like a wandering ghost. Goese, a dancer (Largo was her first band), drew on her background in performance art to inhabit the bodies of the characters she was singing about; even changing costumes between songs during early shows. This theatricality would normally have me running for the hills but the combination of elements here really is extraordinary. During their David Byrne-curated benefit gig for London’s Institute Of Contemporary Art at the Cambridge theatre in 1988, Goese is wide-eyed with childlike wonderment, shedding dresses, as if peeling skins.
‘Drum‘ was co-produced by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe but his presence is unobtrusive. On a couple of songs he adds the shadow of a backing vocal, a slight of organ on ‘Eskimo Song.’ Otherwise, he is most apparent on the bright yellow sticker that shouts “DEBUT RECORD PRODUCED BY MICHAEL STIPE AND HUGO LARGO” on my Relativity copy. The story goes that Stipe met Tim Sommer on one of R.EM.’s early promo trips to New York where Sommer was working as a radio journalist. The two became good friends and after listening to Largo’s demo songs during the ‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’ tour, invited them to come and record in R.EM.’s hometown, Athens, Georgia. It’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that the collaboration did little more than get the band noticed but personally, I think it was more of a two way street. ‘Harpers,’ co-written with the band for ‘Drum,’ was often performed by Stipe, a cappella, during encores at the majority of R.E.M. concerts between 1986 and 1990. The tune normally popped up at some point in the encores. Furthermore, do I detect Largo’s influence on ‘Hairshirt,’ from R.E.M.’s 1988 ‘Green’ album?
We want to be perceived as a band that plays wild rock and roll, maybe even punk music but that happens to play it quietly.” – Tim Sommer (The Collegian, 1987)
Hugo Largo’s songs tend to unfurl, like a sail or a magic carpet; there’s a mystical dreaminess to them that suggests an ethereal folk music, albeit without the stigma of tradition. A sort of modern, urban folk if you will. Their lyrics, sketches for haikus, are fanciful and image rich. From ‘Eureka’ :
Lurch to a halt
Fifty to sixty thousand clouds
Easily seen from the ground
Capturing six sets of eyes
That squint from the bright white light
So heads swivel from side to side
But were they really that odd? This video for ‘Turtle Song,’ from their subsequent album, ‘Mettle,’ plugs nicely into the MTV criterion at the time. When slotted into the frames of an over-saturated, faux world cinema promo clip, are they so removed from, say, Suzanne Vega or even R.E.M. ? If only they’d held it together for another album, they coulda been contenders. Perhaps.
In late 1990, Goese, Peacock and Rowe reformed the band without Sommer (who’d become an MTV veejay), recruiting Bill Stair (ex-Art Objects) as his replacement on bass. The new line-up spent months writing and rehearsing new material before making their debut at a sold-out gig at the Knitting Factory in New York City on April 12, 1991, with Stipe and Mike Mills of R.E.M. in attendance. The reformed Largo played several more shows in New York but that third album never did make it to tape. Hugo Largo played their last gig at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage on September 5, 1991.
It should come as no surprise that I am not particularly fond of the unreleased third album; it sounds a little diffuse to me, the songs seem to lack a certain structure and push that my sensibility probably brought to the band. Also, since I founded and cast the band (and I can discuss my use of the word ‘cast’ on a different occasion, if you want!), it was very difficult for me to consider the post-Tim band a legitimate Hugo Largo but that’s probably understandable childishness possessiveness. I was so proud of Hugo Largo and that sound… – Tim Sommer
Footnotes : The Guardian included ‘Drum’ in a list of ‘1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die’ in 2007. It was released in the United Kingdom by Brian Eno’s Land Records in 1988 and reissued by All Saints Records, with completely different artwork (by Martin Andersen), in 2005.
“They are definitely a performance art band, in that their stage presence is mainly Mimi. She’s a theatrical person and very threatening. We have a friend who runs a radio station in Los Angeles, KLRW, which is one of the best American stations. Her name is Deirdre O’Donoghue and she’s got this great programme that always features very unusual bands. Anyway, she sends us tapes of her programmes, and on one occasion a tape included a Hugo Largo session. Brian thought they were great, mainly because they don’t use any percussion. He said: ‘It’s amazing that there is a rhythm in it without any drums.’ He also thought that Mimi’s voice was hauntingly beautiful. It was primarily Brian hearing a tape that wasn’t sent to us with a view to getting signed up. It was a nice chance occurrence, in that they were at the time looking for a deal.” – Anthea Norman-Taylor (Brian Eno’s manager; from Sound On Sound magazine, Vol 4 Issue 4, February 1989, conducted by Mark Prendergast.)
Tim Sommer quote from the Big Plans For Everybody blog comments section (2011), though Hahn Rowe of the band maintains, in the same comments section, that there was no unreleased third album; that it is, in fact, most likely a live performance board tape from one of the last Hugo Largo shows at the original Knitting Factory in NYC.
On the Relativity Records original release, the track, ‘My Favourite People,’ is mentioned on the disc labels but not on the album sleeve itself.
‘Fancy’ is a Kinks cover (from their 1966 album, ‘Face To Face’).