What is a band but a relationship that has songs and sound equipment in tow? Prone to the same communication breakdowns and moodswings that affect a couple, a band, once the honeymoon phase is over, is in almost constant peril of breaking up. Just ask Venus Hum, who’ve recently trekked over a long, rocky road to deliver their stellar third album, The Colors In The Wheel.
Upon the recording of their critically acclaimed 2002 major label debut, Big Beautiful Sky, the planets aligned for Tony Miracle, Kip Kubin and Annette Strean. They signed not one, but two major label deals. They toured the world, playing to hundreds of thousands of fans. They rubbed shoulders with everyone from JJ Abrams to the Blue Man Group. The whole momentum was, admits Kubin, “magical.” Then, a year into the Hum’s great adventure, things started to unravel. Mergers and misunderstandings deep-sixed their record deals. Life on the road took its toll. Worst of all, Strean found herself living in almost constant pain, with vocal nodes that threatened to end her career.
“It made us almost have to quit, then start over,” says Strean. “To see what we were wanting to do with the band.”
Miracle agrees. “It felt like we did have to stop for a while, and not on purpose, necessarily. But like nothing would happen. Even if we tried, we just could not get it to happen, and almost a certain amount of time had to pass. Several times during the process, I thought, “I guess this is over.” But we just had to slow down and take a break.”
Kubin adds, “You have to come to grips with the larger issues of, ‘Do I want to lose my voice? Do I want to be away from my wife?’ All the harder things that you don’t really think about because this momentum is going. Once the momentum stops, you sit back and go, ‘How do we have a situation where we can protect those things we hold dear and move forward in a better way?’”
In the two-year interim before they were able to answer that question, the three separated to pursue their own paths. Kubin caught the filmmaking bug, establishing himself as a director of music videos, EPK’s and special features. Miracle moved to LA, then Cincinnati, made an experimental solo disc under the name Satellite City, wrote music for Harley Davidson, spent time with his young son and restored an old mid-century modern house. Strean spent the time recovering while learning to sing and talk again through therapy and the silence of cooking. She proceeded to create new music with her husband Kirk Cornelius of The Suns of Norway.
The initial conversations that led to The Colors In The Wheel were tentative but full of hope. Miracle says, “We had a desire to keep it going. When it works, it works so easily, and it’s so creative and fun. I didn’t want that to go away. But the separation made it tough. We had to learn to make a record while being separated, emotionally and physically.”
Working together and apart, the group began to approach their new material with an Eno-esque oblique strategy that deliberately pushed against their identity as a premiere electronic pop band.
“Tony had the idea that we weren’t going to use synthesizers,” says Kubin, “but it was also going to be one of the most terribly electronic records we could possibly make. For me, that meant putting aside years of oscillator twiddling and patch cords, then pulling out Wurlitzers and vibraphones - things that scare me. I’m a bad player with a computer, so taking that away is even worse. Having to come up with ideas and manipulate those ideas based on things that I’m totally uncomfortable with was exciting for me.”
“We had the idea of doing a complete song with only one instrument,” Miracle continues. “On the song ‘Turn Me Around,’ the entire track is acoustic guitar. You wouldn’t necessarily know it if you heard it, but it’s basically computer manipulated guitar. The drum sounds and the sweeps of the strings are guitar. It’s almost like you take an acoustic guitar and you dissect it and look at it through a microscope. We built the track out of that.”
The lyricist of the band, Strean admits that her tribulations brought more perspective to her writing. “This time, I was able to speak of something without putting an automatic silver lining around it. It used to be, ‘Finished, hopeful, done.’ There’s a little less resolve in some of the things I’m writing about now. Also, on this album, I let myself describe things in a simpler manner, and writing about lighter things, along with the darker things.”
The resulting musical brew is unconventional, three-dimensional and completely five-sensual. The ride begins with the crackling lift-off of “Turn Me Around” and the Teutonic electro-stomp of “Yes And No,” continues through the lost superhero theme “Do You Want To Fight Me?” and the moving, daydreamy centerpiece, “Genevieve’s Wheel,” then dances off with the T.Rex-goes-to-the-moon pop of “Pink Champagne” and the affecting lullaby, “Go To Sleep.” What’s clear as the last note fades is that Venus Hum have transformed their questions and uncertainty into a statement of resolve - a record that is intelligent, tuneful, and able to provoke and caress with equal efficacy.
Keeping the DIY spirit that they’ve had since forming in 1999, Venus Hum plan on developing their cottage industry with an indie bonanza designed to promote community. There’ll be podcasts, web forums, gigs in unconventional spaces, a series of single releases that have pre-mixes and building blocks of the songs (“It’ll be almost like a kit that will allow fans to assemble their own version,” says Miracle), videos by Kubin and perhaps even more touring.
Proving the old adage that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, Venus Hum has come out the other side of their three-year separation with a new commitment. As the poet Kahlil Gibran once observed, “Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” For Venus Hum, being separated has resulted in a deeper love that is reflected in every note of The Colors In The Wheel.