In 2010, The Humms released their stunning debut, the instantly immortal Lemonland. For filing purposes, you can label it “garage”, but the band and the record were so much more than similarly billed contemporaries. Yeah, it had Back from the Grave’s fuzzed-out, proto-punk fury, but there’s also something more intelligent, more premeditated. You have my word; I was there. My band, Thee Crucials, were fortunate enough to share bills with The Humms on several occasions, and in comparison, everything else in that scene– Thee Crucials included– felt stock, standard issue. Nothing about the band was requisite. They didn’t care about who-you-know scene politics or 1960s fashion show pretensions. Instead, they delivered songcraft, proficiency, attitude, and audacity with hit-and-run precision.
From Lavonia, Georgia, The Humms, led by Southern-crackerjack/frontman Zeke Sayer, might as well have been from Parts Unknown as far as Atlanta audiences were concerned. Make no mistake– these guys were affable gentlemen, but that anonymity, combined with their penchant for horror show imagery, played to the band’s advantage, and it afforded them a reputation of insularity normally reserved for cults, not rock ‘n’ roll bands. Yet most unsettling was the band’s quixotic catalog, the moods too mercurial to be trusted: heady blasts beget lo-fi jangle begets country-tinged sludge begets fucked-up gospel begets I-IV-V stomp begets Paul McCartney-esque ballads begets nursey rhyme psychedelia, which finally begets silence. By the summer of 2013, the band had vanished for no good reason and without warning, another too much, too soon casualty.
Around March of 2020, in the flux of lockdown anxiety, my neighborhood mail carrier dropped off an unsolicited package. Inside, a copy of the new Humms record, Vampire Hours, a wholly unsuspected and appropriate soundtrack for the pandemic zeitgeist. If Lemonland sounds like souvenirs from a hallucination, Vampire Hours sounds like a calling card from the end times.
At their core, The Humms are still rock ‘n’ roll, but they’re now a band comfortable and capable of exploring whatever sonic pursuits interest them. VH is dense with layers and orchestration, a heft that relegates the studio to what Brian Eno calls a “compositional tool.” Moreover, Sayer’s vocals seldom find a comfortable middle ground; there are moments of roar and abandon, but hushed tones and whispers dominate, sometimes with whimsy, sometimes with menace. Album opener “Lady Low” recalls the garage intentions of Lemonland’s more straightforward numbers but from there, Vampire Hours oscillates in a running fever dream. The cocky, confrontational funk of “Howl” gives way to the title cut’s delicate fingerpicking and fluctuations, which drifts to the backwoods’ strangeness of “Sin Wash”. The floating “Merry Days” echoes T-Rex’s pastoral sides, and the gorgeous “Sun Tunnel” transcends the role of interlude. But VH is best when it’s dangerous, and “P.G.P” is a relentless blitzkrieg propelled by the threat-turned-promise, “I gotta problem/Overdue/We’re gonna solve it/Starting with you.” The instrumental “Level with the Devil”transplants CCR’s swampy, bayou guitar somewhere arid and forbidding. However, most striking are The Humms’ most experimental songs to date, the back-to-back “Blue Bite” and “Miss No One”, each pulsing with a synth rhythm that evokes the detached, icy mechanics of krautrock groups like NEU! and Cluster or the scores of John Carpenter.
Many bands with a similar pedigree and initial mission statement might be happy to continue revisiting the same safe stomping grounds, but for The Humms, evolution was inevitable. Vampire Hours howls, but it also enchants, and like a genuine masterstroke, it raises expectations and questions. Where do The Humms go from here? And how long until we run out of words to describe them?
I spoke with The Humms’ ringleader, Zeke Sayer, who also runs his own label and studio, Gypsy Farm, located in the auditorium of Clem’s Shoal Creek Music Park in Lavonia. Since 2008, Gypsy Farm has provided an opportunity for artists seeking a more authentic recording experience. Its clients and the label’s roster are an eclectic confirmation of all that’s good in music.
CF- Zeke, it’s been almost 10 years since we’ve heard from The Humms, so the obvious question: Where have you been?
ZS-Well, I wish I could tell you. It’s kind of hard to remember! It’s one of those things, how when two people are fussing and then by the end of it, you can’t even remember what you were fussing over (laughs)! But one way or another, we all remained friends. And it was also one of those things where you don’t really realize time passes on that fast and it seems to just get quicker and quicker, and then before you know, it is 10 years! And then it’s like, “Well, let’s see if there’s anything left.” That was the premise behind the second record.
Well, I know in the meantime, you’re doing your Gypsy Farm label and studio. I love checking in on your Bandcamp page because the roster is insanely diverse. Gypsy Farm has it all– garage, punk, bluegrass, country, hip hop, ambient, and some other bands that defy genres. Is having that diversity something that’s important to you?
Oh, it’s very important, and I feel it naturally happens when you’re just putting out stuff that you like. Of course, I’d love to put out everything that I like, but one way or another, we try to put out stuff we like. Just like with listening to a record, no matter how much you love something, you don’t always want to hear ten tracks or ten albums of that same song or same sound.
What’s the difference between the label and the recording studio?
I guess the label happened as sort of a by-product, or a toxic spin-off (laughs) if you will, from always recording and having a growing archive of recordings, and just with having folks come in to record with different projects and stuff. I’m still trying to separate the difference, myself! I guess the most clear would be that the label is as diverse as the roster may be at times. Not every artist that is recorded here is automatically released through the label. I guess that’s the most obvious difference that I can come up with.
Tell me about your setup. You’re in Lavonia. A lot of people with your ambitions might have headed to Atlanta or Athens-proper. I was in a similar position living in Milledgeville. I was convinced that I could make that town a scene, a legit destination for touring bands, but that was impossible. Yet you’ve held court, which is one reason I admire you. What about this area is so special to you that you’ve hunkered down and called it home?
Well, you just said it there– it’s just home. It’s always been, and maybe someone may look down on not stepping out of your comfort zone once in a while, but at the same time, from this location, you can get to a lot of different places within a few hours. Besides that, I grew up here, and I’ve always enjoyed the woods and nature more. Regarding this property out here, some said it said it was Georgia’s first, outdoor venue. I don’t really believe that speculation, but in the ’60s, I guess there weren’t that many bluegrass outdoor venues holding festivals around here. A man and his wife by the name of Alton Walters and Bertha Mae Walters opened Shoal Creek Music Park and booked about every country act in the ’60s and ’70s that you could name, and even looking back at some of the newspaper articles and the schedules and stuff for the people that were coming through here, it still seems wild that just the little old town of Lavonia had those kinds of acts just right down here off Shoal Creek, which is where the name comes from. The creeks still running. I can hear it now, and that’s just music to my ears.
What are your roots as a creator?
I might have been 10 years old when I started. I remember looking at that notebook and thinking, “How do I make a song? How do I make words and lyrics?” And realizing how hard it was! It’s gotten easier. Or… I don’t know if it’s gotten easier! That came from listening to the music. The first music I can remember hearing was a Little Richard tape that my folks gave to me, and I just remember thinking, “Who is this dude screaming? Wow, this sounds crazy and awesome!” Eventually, about 10 years old, I wanted to try it for myself. And I’m still trying!
I had the same Little Richard experience. I think it was a cassingle from the movie Cocktail. I believe it was “Tutti Fruitti” on one side and “Kokomo” on the other side. That was a formative experience for a few reasons.
Yeah, man! You say cassette single? I remember… I don’t know who gave it to me, but it was from Batman. It was Prince’s “Batdance”.
You’re kidding? I had the same cassette! I’m not sure if “Batdance” and “Kokomo” were the best entry points to Prince and The Beach Boys, but we survived and found our way… What was your first favorite song or a formative experience? An arm-hair-on-end moment?
Thinking back to those Little Richard tapes, I had an Elvis tape that someone gave me too. And I remember “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”. I remember that being the first song I would sing to myself. There was when I got the soundtrack to Batman, not the cassette single, but the Danny Elfman score. That was cool! And then I got my first record. It sounds so cliche nowadays in 2021, but my first record that I remember getting was [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band]. I can’t remember how young I was, but I didn’t appreciate it. It had the inserts, like the cut out of the paper stuff that you just don’t find anymore. I remember listening to that record on the Curtis Mathes turntable. I’d gotten into the Beatles a little bit, but it was A Hard Day’s Night, very British Invasion stuff. And then when Sgt. Pepper came, I guess like with everyone fucking fifty years ago, [I thought,] “Wow, what is this?” But now I listen to it, and it is what it is. But at the time, as a kid, there were songs that were chilling. You know, like “She’s Leaving Home”! That song creeped me out!
What makes a great song?
Well, I would say something that sticks with you, but we all know that’s not true.
But there’s something aside from that, something that you can just listen to again and again and you think, “Wow! It does something for me,” or, “This reminds me of a certain memory.” The song might not be technically that good, but the memory you have is great.
Thinking about your role as a label head and producer, were there any producers that you loved that maybe inspired you to be more than a musician? A person who made you think, “I could do that!” It’s one thing to be a kid who picks up a guitar to be a music star, but it’s another thing to think of sitting behind the board.
Oh sure, George Martin, of course! I didn’t even really know as a kid what a record producer really was. But I knew who he was because I loved the Beatles. I remember reading about him a lot. And, of course, Geoff Emerick. And then, later on, I started digging a little more and discovered Joe Meek. I love Joe Meek!
I ask this because of proximity, you being so close to Athens. Was the Elephant Six collective an influence on your sound or your idea of what art can be?
Sure, they definitely were close enough to splash some of that over here. I don’t see why not. I loved listening to Elf Power and Neutral Milk and Olivia Tremor Control, and the Poison Control Center. And then later on, I got to work with Jim Willingham from Old Smokey and Ham1 and his punk band, Harry Carey. They’ve been together since ’94 or something and got back together a few years ago, and I really love that stuff. But he was how I started getting into the Elephant 6 months after hearing it naturally with Apples in Stereo, of course.
So much of what they do is undefinable, unclassifiable. I can say the same thing about The Humms. When I try to describe your sound to friends, I am at a loss for words. I understand garage works for the first record– but even that term doesn’t do it justice. And now with Vampire Hours… How do you describe The Humms to other folks?
Well, like you said from that that first record, which leaned more to garage to the second record, which got a little more experimental. I guess experimental would be the coverall, safe-bet genre.
I hesitate to use the word psychedelic because it’s so overused at this point. It’s such a loaded word that I associate with gratuitous, conjuring images of lava lamps, fringe jackets, paisley shirts, using a sitar for the sake of using a sitar. And anything with a wah pedal gets the tag. I’m sure there’s a soda or craft beer with psychedelic in its name. What does that word mean to you?
If I had to define psychedelic, to me, it would be something out of the norm, whatever that would be for the listening experience. Something that might not necessarily always adhere to certain specifications, or the right or wrong way of recording or producing. Or something that’s subject to change at any moment with no warning (laughs)!
Wow! That works (laughs)! What’s the biggest difference between Lemonland and Vampire Hours? You had 10 years or so to grow and learn. How did your songwriting or recording philosophies evolve?
With that first record, I had all the songs written and threw them on there. In hindsight, it might have been too much. But after that, I let the well build back up. In the meantime, with recording and working with other people, I got to sit in and see as a fly-on-the-wall how the process works for them, how they write, or how they put a song together or how they would whittle out a song, come back, and then just trash the whole thing and do it again. All these different ways of working. So there was a lot of that that went into the second record. A lot of it was recorded, hence the name, after hours when no one else was at the studio.
What are you most proud of with Vampire Hours?
I guess that a second album even happened (laughs)!
Do you feel like you’ve gained some momentum with this release? There are some prolific artists out there that try as I like, I can’t keep up with– Guided by Voices/Robert Pollard, King Gizzard, Thee Oh-Sees, Ty Segal. Do you think you could ever be that prolific?
I know what you mean. I was talking with a friend about this just recently, actually. We were trying to figure out if it’s that a person is able to put out that amount of material in that amount of time, or is it that whatever mechanism in your head that tells you, “No, this isn’t ready, this song isn’t good enough,” have they learned how to shut that off and just plow stuff out every three months or whatever? Some folks can do that really well. And like you said, it doesn’t seem like any filler or anything, but I haven’t been able to pull that off yet.
Speaking of that switch, how do you know when a song is ready to be recorded? Do you play it live a few times, or is there a gut reaction? Your own sense of finality?
It goes back to what kind of song or what kind of thing you trying to do to begin with. If I’m playing in a band and if we go out, play this song, and get really good at it, then, of course, I’m going to want to get the band in the studio and get it as close as possible to what we’ve been doing live and try to capture that feel. Other ones, if I’m just by myself, I might just start banging a drum, get a steady beat, and then I’ll loop that. And I’ll listen to that from morning ’til night. I’ll try to write down some words or something and then build the song that way. So there’s that approach to it as well, which in that case, I equate it to a sculptor chipping away at the block. You can only chip away so much until you’ve reached your goal– or you chip away too much!
I really don’t know if I’ve been able to define a line of when it’s finished. What I like to do a lot is to just have the time to let it rest, set it aside, and come back in a week or two weeks. Or sometimes even longer than that, when your ears have really forgotten it and then see how it gets you. When you put them back on, and if it’s still grooving, chances are it’s like it’s ready to go. And if it’s like, “Oh well, I liked the song a lot better before it got to this,” then I think, “Oh, well, let’s go back or let’s start over.”
Do you write with live performances in mind? Are you concerned about not being able to replicate on stage what’s on your records? Or are they two different experiences?
With Vampire Hours, we had started rehearsing. We were going to try to and do some touring and some light stuff. We had set up sample pads, like drum machine sample pads that either me or Bleech could activate, all these different sounds and stuff. And then COVID happened. That all got canned. I like to go and see a band. I know some folks are put off by seeing a band that doesn’t sound like the record– and I get that too if they sound worse than the record (laughs)! But I love hearing a different version or a live rendition, you know?
Were there any bands that you used as reference points for this record? Any band you looked to and thought, “We can do that.” You’ve mentioned your love for the Beatles, and I always think Paul McCartney when I hear your acoustic fingerpicking or gentle psych stuff. Back to Lemonland, I think “Close Your Ears” and “Sleepy, Sleepy” are the best back-to-back song combo I’ve ever heard. Any other bands getting rotation on your record player these days?
C.A. Quintet. They have a record called Trip Thru Hell (laughs)! And NRBQ. As far as when I was younger, The Flaming Lips. I got into them, especially Oh My Gawd!!!… The Flaming Lips.
Do you ever feel the need to write something more commercial? You have such talent for melody, hooks, and arrangements. I was wondering if you watch other songwriters and think about giving it a go.
I could try. You know, the Beatles, they got banned from the radio and wouldn’t have even been signed to EMI if it wasn’t for Brian [Epstein]. I guess Decca turned them down, but yeah, that goes back to the whole commercial thing. And I know you understand this more than anyone– the whole commercial thing is subjective. But I get what you mean, like selling an ad for a commercial, something that is radio-friendly. I would be down for that. If someone came to me and said, “Hey, we want to put you on a payroll to write songs for ‘X’ person.” I’ve had friends that do that and pay their light bills.
Yeah, when we were kids, we begrudged major labels and “selling out”– but now, I am middle-aged with a family! I am all for my friends and heroes making a living with their creativity. It seems selfish and absurd to think otherwise from this vantage point of older age.
Yeah, you eat enough pinto beans, it won’t be so hard to write a song (laughs)!
Where do you get that sense of melody?
That is a tricky question. Half the time, they seem so simple that I feel like they’re right there. Anyone can grab them. And sometimes I worry that I’m ripping somebody else off without even knowing it– which I guess that’s all music is when you get down to it (laughs)! Of course, there’s the Beatles. But then you have Wayne from Flaming Lips. I love the melodies that they come up with. Even the Carter Family and the harmonies they bring to the melody. And I grew up in a Methodist church, so I heard a lot of those hymns. I wouldn’t call myself religious, but I still feel a lot of those songs are pretty.
We both grew up in the South and understand the presence of religion and churches, and we both love Little Richard and R&B and its relationship with the church. Did the church affect your relationship with music?
Sure, the hymns. My mother played piano in the church for years, and my dad would play guitar. It wasn’t your praise band bullshit. It was a choir and an acoustic guitar and a pianist. It was very bare-bones. The beauty of that stuff ! I loved just going to church to hear the music, but the message after a while got tarnished.
Thinking more about creativity, did the pandemic affect your writing at all?
Not, not really that I can tell right now. But I know there was a lot of a lot of folks in some bad, bad positions.
Did you pick up any habits that you can use in the future?
I have some friends that went in the opposite direction, but I chose that moment to dry out for a minute. I’ve got nothing against drinking. I might be drinking again by this time next year. But I needed to take a little break from that. So that’s one habit that I picked up from there.
How long until the next record? Another 10 years?
We just finished our third album*, but it’s not going to come out until next year.
Zeke, you’re just now telling me (laughs)!
Yeah, I was hoping it wouldn’t take another 10 years, but the third album came together. It’s pretty much done except for one song and we’re going to look at trying to put it out sometime next year.