The Princes Of 'Sota Pop- THE HANG UPS
THE STORY OF THE HANG UPS IS the nine-year story of a sound: a mood-elevating pop sound that made winters outside the Uptown Bar seem to disappear, that revived a respect for melody and composition in a jaded rock scene, and that resonated with lonely Uptown slackers like little else. The Hang Ups aren't the biggest band in town, but that sound--the chiming guitar magic, girlish harmonies, and perfectly balanced song structures--has as much a right to the mantle of the Minneapolis Sound as anyone else's.
The group's time may finally be here: So We Go, the Hang Ups' second album, is finally out after a lengthy delay, and it's a supreme summer-pop moment. The band has more label/distributor support than ever, and will soon be able to tour seriously for the first time. Their latest accomplishment is something of a boomerang: "Jump Start," a song from a previous record, plays a central role in the soundtrack of Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy--a feat pulled off thanks to longtime fan Dave Pirner, who scored the film. The song will be the bonus track on future pressings of So We Go; a video may follow.
"We've got a pretty unique opportunity right now," says Hang Ups singer/guitarist Brian Tighe. Sitting in a Lyndale Avenue pub, Tighe (pronounced "Tie") exhibits his Virgo traits, qualities that come through in many of his songs: an exceedingly polite and agreeable disposition, an immaculate modesty and attention to detail, a deep creative streak and a slight darkness. "It's really here; I hope we can make something of it."
All told, Tighe is among the more reserved figures on the local pop scene. But one can understand his relative enthusiasm. So We Go is the Hang Ups' masterwork. Their trademark sound is there, and more refined than ever: the shimmery guitar downstrokes, Tighe's swooning hooks, Stephen Ittner's reverbed snare expanding the color. The group has an ingenious way of retooling eclectic influences and making them their own. If you listen hard, you can tell those trademark downstrokes (say, in "Cornerstore") are partly adapted from My Bloody Valentine; the enchanting riff of "Sweet Tooth" is copped from Stereolab's faux-metal moments. The older song "Runway," perhaps their best-loved song to date, is Tighe's backdoor tribute to the guitar style of English song-poet Nick Drake, and the group's 1993 cover of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" found the odd middle ground between the original version and the jet-engine punk update by Hüsker Dü. This is an indie-pop band's indie-pop band, who are bound to be seen front-row-center at any kindred show that comes to town, from the Cardigans to Olivia Tremor Control.
Lyrically, it's easy to hear So We Go (bizarrely, the album sessions started and ended on the exact same days as the O.J. trial) as a personal trip through the highs and lows of a life in South Minneapolis. "The Entry" tells of a haunted confrontation with someone from the past in the rock club of the same name. The mini-epic title track finds Tighe fantasizing from the train tracks below 29th and Blaisdell. "Sign the Letter" takes in and around what one imagines to be any worn-out ex-party house between Pillsbury and Dupont. "Sittin' in My Room" poses the timeless artist/slacker question, "Should I take this job and work too much?" while the dreamlike "Clouds" verges on existential despair. When it's all over, Tighe takes a long trip home, remembering boyhood in suburban Wisconsin on "Greyhound Bus." Like all of the group's music, it's a touching and familiar journey.
Tighe came together with drummer Stephen Ittner and bassist Jeff Kearns in 1988 when the three were attending the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Tighe soon concluded the band was his prime creative process, and somehow convinced his teachers to let him fulfill his senior year by producing the Hang Ups' first demo (with future faves such as "Waiting" and "Top of Morning") on campus. "I was ready to leave if I couldn't," says Tighe, "so I was lucky that the school was liberal enough for me to do that."
Only the sheltered halls of art school could have sustained a gentle, somewhat Anglophile pop trio in grunge-heavy 1990-era Minneapolis, and when the band first broke out into the bars, they seemed insecure onstage. Tighe had a nervous habit of staring at the ceiling while singing, and the band's privileged innocence was plainly, even painfully apparent. But after they signed to Jill McLean's Clean Records (later a subsidiary of Restless) in 1992, the band began to subtly transform. The trio was augmented on "spare guitar" by elder guitar wizard John Crozier, an audiophile who introduced chordal complexity and effects trickery into the group's virginal mix. On songs from "New Ooh" to "Sweet Tooth," Crozier's ghostly low-noise washes and displaced chords transform the tunes. The thoroughly pleasant 1993 full-length He's After Me was recorded during this period. It represents a concept in progress, but the superior Comin' Through EP--recorded later but released first--was more representative of the Hang Ups' confident new stance.
Their audiences soon grew, and the Hang Ups became one of the first bands to herald the so-called 'Sota pop paradigm shift of the '90s rock scene. "I remember when we'd be playing at the Uptown to an audience that I basically thought was a total grunge audience," says Tighe, "but I realized that they were accepting us. There was something about our music that we were able to cross over [to] this tougher crowd." Soon, noise-pop melodicism became the new local rock consensus, with the Hang Ups' success laying the groundwork for bands like the Blue Up?, Shatterproof, Crozier's other band Muskellunge, Lily Liver, February, and Polara.
Only one problem remained for the Hang Ups--touring. From the start, the reclusive Crozier had voiced his aversion to travel, and by the time So We Go was finished, drummer Ittner chose homebody status, too. With the lineup in question and the album release delayed because of label restructuring, rumors abounded that the Hang Ups were falling apart. "Yeah, there were some scary points," says Tighe. "I feel really lucky that Aaron (Lundholm) and Bryan (Hanna) came along when they did."
When Crozier finally retired from the group last year to focus on studio projects (notably Ninotchka, with February's Amy Turany), the group was saved when Kearns decided to quit the bass and fill Crozier's spot. "Crozier was nice enough to teach him his parts, which must have been kind of a bummer, to give up your magic and show the secrets," says Tighe. "But since then, Jeff has really made the parts his own." Aaron Lundholm of pop band Dearly was enlisted to play the bass. Ittner, on the other hand, will remain a creative member of the group without touring; Bryan Hanna, an experienced drummer who did the engineering on So We Go, signed on as his tour replacement.
At their record-release concerts last month at 7th Street Entry, it's clear that the Hang Ups have evolved into a road-ready outfit (they even add their first-ever rock & roll ending to "The Entry"). The room seems like it's a reunion of all the people who were ever moved by that sound in the past several years. And while one better-known local drummer and longtime fan is overheard commenting that the Hang Ups' change is "like replacing Ringo with Bonham," the truth is that the Hang Ups have become sturdier while honoring their music's poignancy. "I think we are intentionally trying to get a bit more of a rock set going," Tighe admits coyly. "To get people's attention at all you have to make a strong impression."
As they prepare to hit the road for their first major tour, Tighe's optimism is palpable. It's not surprising. The songwriter has always been fixated on themes of motion and discovery, travel and revelation. If the titles of some of the best Hang Ups songs--"Comin' Through," "Greyhound Bus," "Runway," "So We Go"--are any indication, Tighe has always expressed a drive to go, to escape, or as one song goes, "ride free down the runway."
"It's always been a source of inspiration for me," Tighe agrees. "I remember writing 'Waltz' on a train. Traveling has the feeling of an open expanse around you, and that can make you feel more free. It's like when we were doing that first record... just the sudden feeling that anything could happen."
The Hang Ups perform Friday, June 27 at Lee's Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis; call 338-9491.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.