A cold autumn evening: October 1988. Glasgow Barrowland provides a familiar refuge from the wind and rain. A sizeable crowd has gathered to see That Petrol Emotion. The bar is busy, the atmosphere cheerful. As the support act take to the stage, there is minimal migration to the front. The musicians take up their positions, and at first glance something is not quite right. First of all, the band doesn’t appear to have a drummer. Even more worryingly, on closer inspection, much to the chagrin of the tousled assemblage of noiseniks increasingly impatient to get their rocks off, there’s no guitar. Suddenly, two bass guitars map out a crisscrossing rhythm one on top of the other, then an electric violin fills the expanse of the venue as exquisitely as if it were painting frescos on the walls of a yawning cave. There’s something strange about the singer too. She smiles. Then she begins to sing. Her voice is piercing. Elastic. Ecstatic. Then, rather disturbingly, she drags a steak knife across her neck. Few in the audience take any notice. Conversations continue over the music. Some bodies trudge away disconsolately looking for the bar. Furrowed brows are everywhere in evidence. But, randomly dotted around the ballroom, there is the odd silent soul, rooted to the spot. Transfixed. For those rapt few, it was as if the people on the stage had dropped out of the sky from another planet.
“I thought we were the greatest fucking band in the world”, says Tim Sommer, founder of Hugo Largo, the remarkable 1980s NYC four piece. For those fortunate – or old – enough to have been around at the time, Hugo Largo were precisely that: incontrovertibly unique, out on a limb. As evidenced by that Barrowland performance, not everyone felt the same, but for those enraptured by their gently ravishing mysteries, they became something of an obsession. There was no-one remotely like them.
Hugo Largo made only two records, both of which have been long unavailable. It is now thirty years since the first, Drum, was released, but there exists renewed optimism that the pair might be reissued later this year. The band’s line up of two bass guitars (Sommer and Adam Peacock), electric violin (Hahn Rowe) and singer (Mimi Goese) raised eyebrows at the time. Unsurprisingly so, for they had set out to be different and had been refining their unorthodox approach to making music for some considerable time before 1987.
A dyed in the wool music freak, Sommer was a former punk fanzine writer, a highly regarded journalist for NY’s Trouser Press and for a period in the early ’80s, Sounds’ New York correspondent. He was also a veteran of the NY hardcore scene, having worked with Thurston Moore, Swans and the Glenn Branca Ensemble. His philosophy paralleled Howard Devoto‘s, whose characteristically sardonic remark that he had formulated “the revolutionary idea that one could play slow songs”, was similarly instructive. For Sommer, during one of the most fertile eras of rambunctious guitar noise, believed that ‘quiet’ could be punk, or more precisely, that ‘punk’ could be quiet.
There’s little doubt that working for Trouser Press and Sounds helped shape Sommer’s musical sensibilities – he always expressed a preference for the UK post-punk sounds of PiL and more particularly Young Marble Giants, who would become a crucial influence on Hugo Largo‘s sound. “I saw them in the fall of 1980 – they announced onstage it would be their last ever show – and that changed everything for me. They didn’t jump around, they were quiet, joyful, but soooo punk rock to me. I thought: I see the future now.” For Tim it seems, punk was more to do with attitude and inventiveness than simply fiddling around with the volume level.
“In 1982 I first had the idea of a quiet noise band. Occasionally, in the NY noise scene, some bands were playing beautiful stuff, but none were quiet, none were experimenting with low volume. I wanted to keep it quiet and contained, mixing the energy of Stiff Little Fingers with the minimalism of PiL and Young Marble Giants. Rock & roll had always been: block one – guitar; block two – bass; block three – drums; block four – vocals. It was the way The Beatles did it, The Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols – that’s what you call rock’n’roll right?”
Sommer was aware of his own limitations as a musician, admitting: “I wasn’t a very good guitar player. I was an OK bass player. So I felt I could make these basses work in an ensemble way, playing off one another – it seemed natural to me. There was an English band I’d seen in NYC (Delta 5) who had two basses but didn’t really use them in that ensemble way. Then there was one song by The Cure (‘Primary’) which was all bass – that was really interesting.”
“I had an apartment on Thomson St. in Greenwich Village. I’d play one bass line into a boom box and then play it back and play along with it. I wrote four or five songs that way. I played some of the songs to my then girlfriend [Lucy Sexton] who had a big loft apartment in the West Village in Manhattan. She and her roommates would dance around and recite things.” The flatmates gave Sommer the confidence he needed. “[They] thought this was something we could do. I think it was Lucy – although it could have been Mimi – who came up with the name. She used the phrase to describe those giant sweaters in thrift stores: Hugo Largo sweaters!”
It wasn’t long before Anne and Lucy decided they wanted to do their own thing, but Mimi stayed on. Fellow bassist Greg Letson, whom Tim had known from the Glenn Branca Ensemble was there at the inception, and it wasn’t too long before they were performing live. Tim recalls: “We got our first gig at Maxwells in April ’84. We put together a few songs and we played. People loved it. We instantly began getting more gigs.” However, they weren’t always made to feel welcome. “In the mid-80s if you showed up at a club without drums, they assumed you were playing folk music! We would have to explain: ‘No, this is an alternative rock band!’
They were soon joined by Hahn Rowe, another GBE veteran, who began engineering their live sound (“like Brian Eno had done during the early Roxy Music shows” says Hahn). “Two bass and vocals is pretty complicated for the average soundman – most of them fuck it up” says Tim, “so Hahn started being our soundman, and then playing a little violin. He did that until mid-1986, when he finally came on stage with us.”
Before then, in January 1985 Letson, without warning, suddenly quit. “I was sitting around at home in Hoboken and he called me.” The message was abrupt: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ “Mimi invited me over and suggested Adam Peacock – her then boyfriend – could fill in. He’d been to all the shows and knew how to play bass. We rehearsed once, and then played a gig opening for Billy Bragg at Danceteria, which went really well. Adam was a much better fit than Greg. Greg was technically a better musician than any of us, but he didn’t add anything creatively. Once Adam came into the band, he and I started writing together. Until then it had just been Mimi and I.” Peacock was self-taught and had no problem stepping in. “I had a brief gig with Cool It Reba within a week of moving to NY, finding myself on stage at CBGB’s on a Saturday night and then touring up and down the East Coast on the back of their debut LP, on one occasion even opening for REM.”
Musically, there was a meeting of minds right away. “On so many levels we didn’t get on” adds Tim, “but we never disagreed about music. It was an incredibly harmonious musical environment. We would hand Mimi pure instrumental tracks and she would come up with a melody and lyrics over them. She never changed anything we did and we never changed anything she did.”
Peacock remembers how he and Sommer collaborated together. “We would get together in my bedroom with our little amps and just play – sometimes one of us starting something off with a little fragment of something.” The bass parts were like “left and right hands of the piano, one of us acting sort of as a metronome, one of us taking a melody or progression on top. That subsequently branched into pieces written specifically for guitar and bass – the Mettle LP being quite full of that.”
Tim recalls making a demo in late ’85/early ’86. “I gave a copy to Michael Stipe who was a friend of mine. I wasn’t expecting a response. He liked it and said ‘let’s go down to Athens and make a record’, so in June ’86 we went down to Athens for two days and made the Drum EP with Michael and John Keane. It was really magical. I can’t think of a single negative energy or memory associated with that period. There was a big local NY indie label – Relativity – who offered to put it out. They were very excited and supportive. By early ’87, we were playing live a lot around New York and once the EP came out we started flying. We went on a long tour of the States with The Feelies, then a couple of our own tours, but at the same time we started having the personal problems that led to us breaking up so prematurely. But musically, it was amazing.”
Drum showcases both Goese’s unshackled vocal performances, best exemplified on ‘Scream Tall’, ‘Harpers’ and ‘My Favourite People’, alongside the jaw-clenching tension of ‘Grow Wild’ and the subtly menacing urgency of the startling ‘Second Skin’. A beautifully unsettling hysteria pervades the record. Theres a wizard cover of The Kinks‘ ‘Fancy’ and Stipe himself makes a number of interventions, most remarkably on the gorgeous ‘Eureka’.
Drum was released in two formats, initially as a seven track EP, then later extended to a nine track album. While reviews were generally positive, the band were not the type to be easily pigeonholed, meaning that outside of New York, media coverage was slender, and musical comparisons often predictably lazy. “From the beginning, Tim always posited that Hugo Largo was a punk band”, recalls Hahn. “Of course, that was an outrageous notion, but Tim was very savvy about labels and how the band would be portrayed in the music press.” Naturally so, after all he had started out as a music journalist, but frustratingly for Sommer “The Cocteau Twins were the only band that we were compared with. I always felt we had more in common with The Durutti Column, whom we played with both in London and New York.” In the U.K. at least, the band were often compared to AR Kane, another band who, for the time being at least, had the British music press tripping over themselves in a rush to invent new genres upon which they could shower their loquacious approval. ‘Oceanic rock’, ‘dreampop’ – in many ways both slightly unsatisfactory labels – had their roots here.
In the meantime, live shows were leaving audiences spellbound. Mimi is unequivocal in her conviction that the superior HL experience was the live performance. “I think it’s hard to capture the feeling of two basses recorded. I’m glad for the recordings but the live show had the palpable power.”
Tim recalls: “I’ve always had the attitude that whether we played to 20 or 200, I always knew that there would be a percentage of the audience that would be blown away – like ‘What the fuck is this? I fucking love this!’ – and that gives you a lot of confidence. Mimi came up with things that were just out of this world. I never asked her what anything meant. She loved the sound of words, the tone and shape of words: the meaning wasn’t that important. She taught me that music that didn’t have descriptive or intelligible lyrics could still achieve an extraordinary emotional power.”
“I trained as a dancer not a singer”, explains Mimi. “I think that informed my gymnastic vocal style. In fact, I didn’t know how to read music so I would draw a graph of the vocal melodic line to remember it. Because I wasn’t trained, I didn’t have a lot of rules in place. My main rule for writing lyrics was to stay descriptive and no love songs.”
The band were making waves and some illustrious names were beginning to take note, amongst them David Byrne and Brian Eno, who duly signed them to his Opal Records label – which had a distribution deal with Warner Bros – in ’88. From the outside the future may have looked rosy, but the resultant album was the last long player they would release. Long before the rippling subaquatic expanse of sound that was Mettle had hit the shop shelves in early ’89, relationships within the band had begun to disintegrate. As Tim explains: “By late ’88, it was clear we couldn’t really coexist as personalities in the group. I was difficult. Mimi was difficult. In different ways. We were very strong personalities. Mimi was a deeply brilliant artist but very modest, very polite, whereas I was positive we were the greatest band in the world. Mimi would never have said anything like that. More likely she would have seen Hugo Largo as one expression of the many different types of art she was making. Adam and Hahn were somewhere in between. Despite that, we never stopped being creative when we worked together – from the first day to the last. When we kept getting better offers through ’88, that was alien to Mimi. She did not at that point have the same cognisance of the music business as I did. She had modest expectations and I had enormous ones.” Meanwhile, Peacock points to the lack of objective advice from the band’s management and notes: “When things really started happening – a residential recording studio, our big Warners contract, European tours – it was all happening so fast that we kind of got swept along without managing to touch base with each other.” The band’s last recording was the Christmas song ‘Gloria’ (aka ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’). “By then we had a more vibey sound as opposed to the more choppy metronomic sound that was on Drum“, explains Sommer.
Before long, Hugo Largo was no more. Six months or so afterwards, the band, minus Tim, regrouped, but it wasn’t the same. “Even when I was being a dysfunctional person, I still understood what that band was about. I wasn’t surprised or upset about it, because I have so much respect for the talent of Mimi, Adam and Hahn, but neither was I surprised that it didn’t work.”
Looking back now, how does Sommer reflect upon the band’s recorded output?
“Drum feels much more taut – but it’s a collection of songs. Mettle felt more like a sound – a whole sound. If people ask about our music, I play them ‘Country’ or ‘Eskimo Song’ from Drum or ‘Martha’ and ‘Halfway Knowing’ from the second record. I was involved in the composition of every song on the first record, but in the second there is a whole lot I had nothing to do with. Despite that, I prefer Mettle.”
For Peacock it is Drum which represents the band’s sound at its most powerful. “Drum is still very much from our basement phase – all spare and minimal – whereas Mettlehas us following our spirits into (for me) slightly self-indulgent anything-goes experimentation. Drum is pure, whilst Mettle is us after we’d been given carte blanche and a huge amount of money to record the record we were basically playing live – and that’s perhaps it’s failing.”
As so often happens in rock history, Hugo Largo‘s implosion appeared to come at the height of their popularity and the peak of their creative powers, but they had made a lasting impression. For Hahn, “the fact that our music was diametrically opposed to the noisy and raw aesthetic of the NY noise scene was sometimes taken as a type of sly defiance of the norm. Personally, I thought we never really fit into any one arena. We were misfits and that became part of the appeal of group in my estimation.”
If for some Hugo Largo was a visionary concept, Goese would argue that providence played its part. “To say it was a fully formed concept negates the influence of NYC’s underbelly community, the atmosphere of the time, luck, chance, magic and the input from people involved. It’s important to acknowledge the confluence of factors and the unknown. It evolved organically. For how little music we recorded, it’s shocking we are remembered at all.” When Sommer talks about Hugo Largo his passion remains unambiguous. “I don’t know why I was so sure that a band could work without drums, but from day one it seemed they weren’t necessary, and – without sounding like too much of a dick – I take 100% credit for being the architect of the idea. I’m not the person who made it work, I’m not the person who realised the idea – that was very much the work of Hahn and Adam and Mimi and myself. I didn’t make another record til 2005. I know why that is. When I hear music in my head the vocabulary is Hugo Largo’s vocabulary. I’m still thinking in Hugo Largo colours. I’m using different musicians and performers, but those are still the colours I think in. Who else would you want to work with but Mimi and Adam and Hahn? They were the best.”
A new generation of Huguenots await the discovery of one of the ’80s best kept secrets, who sound as remarkably fresh today as they ever did. Go on, enter the silence…
[With thanks to Tim, Adam, Mimi and Hahn, each of whom is still making music, although sadly not with one another. Tim’s career has come full circle and he is music columnist for the New York Observer]