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The Herms: something borrowed, something new

Wednesday, Jul 20 2005
Under the feathers and ferns and maudlin Euro-kitsch of Oakland's Café Van Kleef, Herms frontman Matt Lutz draws his Yamaha acoustic dreadnought from its case, perches himself on a high stool in the middle of a high stage, and, just before beginning to play, pauses to take in the scene. Here's what he sees: a woman in a darkened hallway groping below the belt of her male admirer as they athletically suck face; a handful of bookish types looking expectantly though their glasses; a gang of drunks at the bar slapping one another on the back. Lutz is performing at a thinly attended benefit for Westword Press. As an old friend of one of the journal's editors, he's agreed to play an acoustic set for the event, and on the evening's bill, his act happens to fall between a sweaty, goateed mountain of a performance poet and a belly dancer. It ain't Top of the Pops.

Lutz, a rail-thin 26-year-old with short-cropped jet-black hair, begins with a fistful of southpaw power chords, blasting through his band's odd pop songs with all the requisite gusto, albeit without the bells and whistles found on the Herms' soon-to-be-released full-length debut. In some ways the skeletal treatment and peculiar surroundings are almost better: They bring out the twists, the smartass sentiments, and the off-kilter melodies of the songs.

Maybe all you really need to know about the Herms can be gleaned from a careful listen to about 30 seconds of "Volleyball Song," a tune Lutz plays second in tonight's miniset. By the song's second verse, the saccharine drip of major-chord cheer and a bouncing backbeat has lulled us into a calm just short of a diabetic coma. It's familiar and comfortable. But then, out of nowhere, there's a sucker punch of unexpected melody and tonal oddities. Lutz bats the song about like a coy kitten before letting it scurry away on that backbeat. To the drunks and the bookish types alike, it's clear that he's not merely a clever slacker with a guitar; he is a musician who can raise the hair on the back of your neck.

So it goes with the Herms. They make the familiar sound foreign, they spot out that reflex mechanism of ours that yearns for nostalgia and they tap it with a ball-peen hammer, and the sensation feels funny and natural. The musicians' record collections include the Velvet Underground, the Wedding Present, the usual suspects, but it's their talent to draw on these influences without aping anyone in particular: That's what separates the Herms from nearly every other band digging for gold in the same long-barren hills of classic influences. Here's a band that can remind you of great bands, and still be great in its own right. And that's what you hear in those 30-odd seconds of "Volleyball Song."

"That song?" Lutz asks later, a little surprised and a little dismissive. "I wrote that song when I was 18."

"It's a little strange how old they are," he says of the songs in the band's repertoire, shortly to be released by local indie Jackpine Social Club. "But when I would play them back then, I would hear them, you know," and this is where, as he does fairly often, the 26-year-old singer stops explaining with words and sings the "dut-da, dut-da" of the drum part he envisioned eight years ago. "Right now, when I hear them with the whole band, it's really the first time they've sounded like how I imagined them."

The two main collaborators in the Herms, Lutz and bass player Alex Tuzin, met around a foosball table at a stinky co-op in Berkeley, where Lutz studied English and Tuzin studied cognitive science and economics. After some time out of school, Lutz worked a few odd jobs and spent a summer housesitting in France and writing Hollywoody, a 779-page novel telling the meta-story of Romeo and Juliet through the love affair of a porn star, Holly, and a Muppet, Woody (seriously; he's currently shopping it to publishers). When he moved back to town he and Tuzin picked up where they had left off, landing their first proper gig after practicing with drummer Ryan Mulroney for only two days. It was last October at the Bottom of the Hill, where they opened for Kill Hannah, a band Tuzin accurately describes as "six guys playing one note at a time, with makeup and shit."

Today the Herms are four guys -- Lutz, Tuzin, Mulroney, and new keyboardist Matt Gereghty. When you see them play, it's Lutz who's the most magnetic. Onstage, he shrugs his shoulders in time the way the puppet in his book might, and he innately knows to back off the mike before launching into his thick howl. It may be an overstatement to say he's a natural, but the fact is in the past handful of months the Herms have played about every smallish venue in San Francisco and have nearly become the house band at Café Du Nord. "We actually have to turn gigs down," Tuzin says. "After trying to get any gig we could for a long time, it's weird to have to think like that."

Although it's hardly surprising, especially if you've ever seen the Herms play, seen them wrestle against the expectations of the kind of crowd that turns out for Ted Leo, say, or darling pop near-star Kelley Stoltz -- unrelentingly apathetic and bespectacled people who cross their arms and stare at their shoes and wouldn't be impressed if Christ's second coming was recorded on 180-gram virgin vinyl. Under the lights of a gig that will be poorly paid and lazily received, the band's shyness fades, and the Herms come alive, powered by the promise of post-teen rock 'n' roll transformation. Infectious and rough around the edges, the band channels the punk spirit of basement shows it's never played and records it's never listened to. The kind of sweat and guts put into its performances -- a snarling lyric here, a self-aware flourish there -- has the power to convert the despondent. "After we opened for Ted Leo," Tuzin says, "we got all these e-mails from people who liked us better."

On tape, the same spirit comes through. The songs turn sharp corners to avoid the standard pop conventions, but somehow, even the strangest tunes -- the punch-drunk organ grinding of "Now Everyone," the preaching drone of "The Organization," or the spry, bubbly bass lines of "Volleyball Song" -- never overreach. Armed with the mid-fi glow of a trusty home-studio Tascam 388, the musicians take the arrangements and chord changes we've heard a million times before and apply their signature wide-eyed gloss.

When you pull apart the stuff that makes up the songs -- keyboard flash, squally guitar, uptempo pop backbeats -- it calls up anything from the early B-52's to the goddamn Doors. But when it jells, the Herms' sound is singularly their own. "People mimic bands and sounds because they idolize a band or sound," Tuzin says, "and basically just play it again and again, but less sincerely."

Which brings us back to "Volleyball Song," a tune that, looped through headphones all afternoon, reveals its most rewarding surprise: Somehow, with every listen, it sounds less and less self-consciously quirky and more and more sincere. After Lutz plays the song at Café Van Kleef, the golf clap from the crowd doesn't seem to indicate that anyone was listening closely to that 30-second return trip to an unfamiliar place. But they will be soon enough.

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri


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