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Q&A: Dan Messe of Hem

Addiction is a bitch.

Dan Messe‘s reliance on prescription painkillers destroyed his marriage and nearly snuffed out Hem, the sparkling, metaphor-heavy Brooklyn-based band he co-founded with guitarist Gary Maurer in 1999.

Hem’s latest release, Departure And Farewell (Waveland Records), stalled for years as loss, sickness, and divorce pummeled its members (including vocalist Sally Ellyson and guitarist Steve Curtis), in addition to the drain of Messe’s struggle with pills.

Started as a poignant goodbye to fans loyal since 2002’s gorgeous debut, Rabbit Songs, and each other, the album slowly marked the band’s exacting rebirth and contains the gut-wrenching songs, however winsome to the ear, to prove it.

“It is both a breakup album and a reunion album,” Messe confirms. “I think that’s why the song ‘So Long’ works, it’s so powerful for me. It is a breakup album, it’s a breakup song and a song that basically says that we will never be broken up and we will come back together again in some way. Maybe not the way we expected originally, but some way.”

Ever the multi-tasker, Messe called from New York using a headset – “I can barely sit still and talk at the same time” – to speak frankly about his role in the band’s near-collapse.

Illinois Entertainer: Before the album had a release date, you tweeted that rumors of the band’s death have been greatly exaggerated. But wasn’t there a time when the band considered this album its last hurrah?
Dan Messe: Not only that, but there was a time when the album wasn’t even going to come out. The band was just over. But yes, originally it was conceived as a final album. I think we started it around 2008 or so and it seemed like we had run our course both personally and artistically and it seemed time. And we sort of set out to create this album that not just celebrated endings and goodbyes, but also tied up all the themes we’d been working with throughout our catalogue and became much more than that eventually. But that was the initial idea.

IE: How do you from the album might not happen because we don’t want anything to do with one another to maybe we’ll make a record to give us and the fans a sense of closure to this might not be the end of us?
DM: First, I guess I should say that . . . the pills that were sort of killing me was a big part of healing the band. So that sort of happened around that time and that sort of really destroyed those relationships, which is why eventually it became the album’s just not going to come out at all and then once I got help for that we were able to heal both personally and then it was sort of a rebirth artistically. That was sort of the whole arc between 2008 and now.

IE: That wasn’t necessarily on speaking terms. Who made the first call?
DM:
I did. Basically once I got help and my head was clear, I reached out just to repair the friendships and then we were like, “O.K., let’s at least finish the album.” And then once we started working on the album again, we realized how much we love working together and how lucky we were to have found each other in the first place. That opened the door. We started writing again together and just playing together, and it became clear that we had a lot more to say and the album became a rebirth more than anything.

IE: You weren’t the only one struggling in the band and going through a divorce. Was there ever a moment in the midst of this emotional turmoil where you thought, “Well, at least I can get a good song out of this”?
DM:
I was wondering how to think of this. God, you never want to leave a marriage, that’s the hardest thing in the world. Our music has always been about consolation both in terms of consoling someone, but also this idea that you’re getting something else as result. Like I said, I never ever would have wanted to trade my marriage for a song like “So Long,” but I’m glad that that song exists.

IE: That songs closes Depature And Farewell and it just stabs you in the heart.
DM:
I know, it’s brutal. I can’t even listen to it. It’s too hard for me.

IE: What does that mean for the tour; is a song like that left off the set list?
DM:
I’m gonna suck it up. I’m not going to cry onstage is my goal. I’m not going to [curl up] in the fetal position.

IE: These songs are autobiographical in a way. How do you relive that pain night after night?
DM:
Well, we don’t use pills anymore, that’s for sure and I think it’s hard. The currency we deal in is emotion and it’s an exhausting life; it’s a hard way to live. But it’s also rewarding. There’s a lot of joy as well. In terms of performing, there is a certain amount of performance involved that it’s almost like a shield. I can play it onstage. I cannot play or listen to it alone by myself. I think part of it is just the joy of performing live cushions a lot.

IE: You’re open about your struggle with addiction. You even reference it in the press release for the album. What made you say, let’s put it out there?
DM:
I’m really not comfortable talking about it, believe it or not. Like what else can explain it? And there really is no other explanation besides the truth and on top of it, you do always hope that perhaps someone who’s struggling can hear that there’s hope because it’s so tough. It’s just a terrible, terrible disease and I hope someone could get something out of it.  You just try to do service that way and try not to worry about embarrassment. It’s all new for me.

IE: You realize this is the third question listed on every interviewer’s notes?
DM:
Exactly. When you live your life as a biographical writer – which I don’t ever consider myself confessional because we code everything in metaphor – but we definitely write about the life that we live, so this is part of it. And we’ve shared everything from great joy to great sadness, and this is just one part and I couldn’t be an honest writer and not write about it and then not talk about it.

IE: Is touring going to be a challenge?
DM:
I don’t know. In many ways we’re stronger than we ever were. We’re much more loving and patient with each other, and I mean some of that is just the function of being older and having survived a lot together. Even when the band, we weren’t on speaking terms it’s not like it wasn’t clear that the love was still there. There’s two forces in the world. There’s an isolating force and then there’s love and love usually wins out. We’ve survived a lot together; I think we can survive ten days in a bus.

IE: Is writing songs for Sally a lot like picturing the movie of your life and imagining someone like Bradley Cooper playing you? Is that how it is to write these things and then have this amazing, otherworldly voice bring it to life?
DM:
No, it is totally true. Like, when I sing the song, it is like the ugly version. It’s odd though, like I’ve never been a singer-songwriter. I’ve always been just a songwriter, so as soon as I heard Sally’s voice, that became the voice that I heard in my head when I wrote songs. I don’t think it’s any different than a playwright who writes for a particular actor. It’s just that it’s more personal than that, in which these songs – my most personal expressions – I hear in her voice. She is my muse in that way.

IE: Part of the mythology of Hem centers around finding Sally from an ad you placed in the Village Voice. Today, people find everything online like it’s no big deal, but still, for guys, it seems so fated.
DM:
Totally. It’s hard not to believe things don’t happen for a reason when it’s so clear they do. Every step of the way has felt meaningful in that way. Like, we’re on this journey and we were meant to be together, and when that happens it’s easy to keep the faith that things are going to work out O.K. in the end.

IE: It’s been about a decade since Rabbit Songs came out. If you could go back to the Dan of 2002, what would you say to him?
DM:
The one thing that is hard not to regret is the time wasted with fighting with the pills, but even then you hope there’s a reason for that as well. It’s just not been necessarily revealed to me yet. Like I said, I hope that it might help someone else. That’s the only regret that I have. It’s always been such a passion-driven project. It started out as one last attempt to do one thing that I didn’t have to compromise on and so there’s never been any regrets about the work itself.

IE: Bands licensing music to a corporation is nothing new, but Hem worked closely with Liberty Mutual for a series of commercials. Other than the monetary benefits, what made you stick with them?
DM:
Honestly, it was the fact that they were so supportive of us creatively. They gave us a lot of creative freedom. In fact, they gave us total creative freedom and there was a lot of trust involved. It was shocking because, certainly, it was nothing we ever expected going into that we would find some company that would allow us to create songs that we truly loved even though they were being used for this other purpose. It was a long run and, certainly, it kept us afloat during some really hard, lean years. It would be nice if we were back in the ’70s and we could make money just off album sales again, but we live when we live.

Appearing: 4/19 at Old Town School of Folk Music (4544 N. Lincoln) Chicago.

— Janine Schaults

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