I can say without any reservations that this was a moment I had thought about for nearly 15 years. HUM was a band that I worshiped from my mid teenage years until well into my twenties. Their two major label records, You’d Prefer An Astronaut and Downward is Heavenward, I clutched tightly against my chest and listened to on repeat in the closed world of my angst-fueled bedroom. Next to ninja turtles bed sheets, posters of Nirvana and Issac Asimov novels, were cassette and CD copies of both albums. I can still remember hearing when I was 13 or 14 that HUM would be playing a small festival show at Worlds of Fun with my other favorite band of the time, Kill Creek. I’ve been beating myself up for missing that show for over a decade.
You’d Prefer an Astronaut was my soundtrack at the age of 17; anytime I took a trip in the ’91 Ford Tempo my grandparents had gifted me it blared loudly through the cheap speakers as I cruised through the deserted streets of the suburbs. It was tape only in that beast. Consequently, I listened to the only three cassettes I had readily available: They Might Be Giants, Husker Du’s “Zen Arcade” and HUM.
Amongst all these memories is the show itself (and a review, don’t worry), which I was lucky enough to finally witness on Friday at the Record Bar. This was a one-off (well, two-off technically) HUM reunion show that the band made clear would probably be a rarity. They also made evident their love for Kansas City, the local scene here and the people who had brought them back for one more show. In between blistering numbers from their two most popular albums and a couple of even earlier tracks, singer/guitarist Matt Talbot related stories of his fondness for Kansas City and local bands like Season To Risk and Shiner. (Coincidentally, Shiner’s former front man Allen Epley opened up the show with his new drone/noise outfit The Life and Times, while former Season To Risk member Steven Tulipana is now one of the principal owners of the Record Bar itself.)
It’s odd to finally see your heroes after so long. They looked older, yes but their sound was spot on. Maybe even better than I had imagined it in my head for all those years after missing every previous trip they’d made through the area. There’s something special about HUM and personal to me. I’m guessing the others in attendance felt the same way, judging by the travel tales I was regaled with. People traveled from all over the country for these shows, but walking down the street from my apartment in Westport, I felt I had come a long way too. From the first time I heard “Stars” on 105.9 The Lazer in the mid 90s, then seeing them on the old Jon Stewart show late one night. When they trashed their instruments on national TV, I was sold. I went and bought the cassette tape at Sam Goody that week.
Looking back, the alternative explosion of the 90s was something pure and seminal for many of us. At its core, it exposed great and important music to the masses. Before 2nd and 3rd generation run off like Creed and Nickelback cluttered the airwaves, alternative rock was an exciting and generation-defining realization. After Nirvana’s success, there were a few years when it seemed like any talented group with a distortion pedal and a knack for melody could break through. HUM was one of these bands. They were average, middle class joes who happened to have a talent for music in bands that came along at an appropriate time. When they started they had no pretense of becoming famous or probably even touring nationally. They were people making music in the basement because that’s what they loved. Faced with dead end jobs and no hope of succeeding in a world that they perhaps didn’t fit in with, they turned inward. They were normal people who just happened to have a song on the radio, they weren’t rock stars and they didn’t really pretend to be. Once the era was over, they packed up their gear and went back to their “real” jobs. It’s hard to imagine Kurt Cobain doing this, but ultimately you have to guess that this may have been what he had in mind when Nirvana shot to popularity. In an alternate universe, Matt Talbot is probably their Kurt Cobain. That’s not to say he shares any real qualities or similarities with Nirvana’s frontman, only that they could have easily been cast in the same position if the stars aligned in the right way.
Sometimes our heroes don’t make it to the top. To most people, HUM are just one of a bevy of one-hit wonders from the 90s. “Stars” still gets regular airplay and was recently licensed for use in a Cadillac commercial. Matt Talbot and the rest of the band probably don’t see a sizable income from this, nor do they probably feel like rock stars. This was the epitome of 90s rock; it celebrated the DIY ethos of punk (anybody could make music), while mixing in the style and song craft of older styles of rock. Alternative rock broke through and so did HUM, but then it was time to get back to normal life. The band ended and alternative rock became corporatised, a shell of its former self. The guys in HUM went back to their day jobs.
Friday night they were on the stage again, touring again as if they’d been reborn. Half way through the show, an audience member shouted at the band, “Thank you for my childhood. I smoked so much weed because of you guys.” Talbot and the rest snickered and shook it off, but after another song the man repeated what he’d said again, louder. This time Talbot smirked and stepped up to the microphone for one of only a handful of candid moments from the first show of the evening. “Thank you for my mid-forties,” he responded. “…It beats the fuck out of work.”
Sometimes our heroes are just regular people and they’re just as likely to live down the street from us in a bland, cream-colored house as they are to be on MTV. Sometimes this is the way it should be.
Here is some video of the first HUM set courtesy of hackflipfables (in which you can see the side of my head on the left side of the screen):