Interview: The Mysterious World of Holy Hum

In Andrew Lee’s apartment, a disassembled dirt bike sits in the kitchen amidst the clutter of an artist at work. Traditional Korean music drifts out of a record player, carrying shrill reverberations, odd echoing drum patterns, and at one point, the sounds of the musician laughing uncontrollably.

“There’s something very beautiful about laughing like that” Lee comments with a smile. “It’s freeing”. His kitten, Lunchbox, scurries onto my laptop, inadvertently pausing the recording. I keep her away from my lap after that.
Almost four years after the release of In Medias Res’ last album, It Was Warm and Sunny When We First Set Out, Lee, the band’s frontman, has resurfaced with a new project, a new sound, and new musical identity: Holy Hum. With lead track “Sun Breaking” already out on Bandcamp and a full album recorded, Lee is set to finally return from his hiatus– but his return is plagued with more mysteries than answers.


Lee began Holy Hum by releasing an 18 minute teaser of him recording in the home of Phil Elverum. The clips range from snippets of Lee playing basketball to long shots of him layering sounds over quiet melodies, silently revelling in the echoes reverberating off the walls. To call it a documentary would almost be misleading, because the film doesn’t answer questions so much as it creates them: what is Holy Hum, what does it sound like, and what is happening in the world of Andrew Lee?

I learn that Lee’s hiatus wasn’t due to conflict within In Medias Res, but the death of Lee’s father. For Lee, Holy Hum isn’t just a project, but a new start, free from the comparisons and pressures of the past. Instead of playing in clubs– spaces Lee dislikes– he is free to play in galleries, public exhibitions, and spaces where he feels his music belongs. Instead of being obligated to play songs, Lee allows his work to develop organically. And perhaps most importantly, Lee is free to be vulnerable about the death of his father.

At the end of our interview, Lee plays a track from the upcoming album– I’m the first outsider to listen. An odd, bouncing drum pattern emerges from his speakers, followed by an almost transcendental synth line and the soft, almost whispering voice of Lee. It sounds like a musical epiphany, coupled with a tone of remorse.

Holy Hum couldn’t be a more accurate name.

What’s the origin of Holy Hum?

It was more of a logistical kind of reasoning– I had to record the album cheap, and i was writing the album as I was recording. A lot of it was just me sitting down. Whatever came out, came out. I kinda sat down not knowing what I was gonna do at all. A lot of what you’re going to hear on that album… I don’t wanna say they are demos, but they evolved right in front of me and refined later. Rough ideas were recorded and were then flushed out, and at some point I realized that I had an album.


So it was recorded in an almost improvisational sense, like jazz recordings?


There were one or two songs that I wrote and then recorded, but the other songs were things that happened more organically. It was really fun to have it unfold right in front of me– it was just at some point I realized “oh, I have an album now”. So a lot of the editing process was trimming down songs and melodies afterward.


Not much is known about Holy Hum. You teased it with a documentary and then released the first track almost out of the blue. In your own words, what is the project?


I had come off of touring with In Medias Res, and in the tail end of that tour, my father passed away. I came back into town and I wasn’t sure how I was going to go on– I felt like I needed to let IMR go. Not forever.  But I needed a change, I needed something to cloak myself in terms of being pressured by my own expectations of what that band should be or could have been. I decided to start a new project. The name “Holy Hum” actually comes from the sound that emanates from hospitals– the buzzing and humming of machines. That was sort of ingrained in my psyche after my dad died of thyroid cancer. I decided to turn that into a project. I knew I had to make another album– I owed my previous label a record– so I started working on that, but everything came out being about my dad. That weirded me out, and I wasn’t comfortable doing that. I fought that for some time. But every time I sat down to write a song, it came out that way. After a while, I managed to let go of that anxiety. And, inevitably, the record is mostly about my dad. Most of the songs relate to my father. It’s a vulnerable place to be, to put that album out, but I’m also super proud of how it sounds. I started Holy Hum as this cloak for me to do whatever I like, and now it’s turned into an animal of its own, and it finally has some meat behind it– I have a 7″ coming out on Kingfisher Bluez sometime in the new year.


One thing I’ve noticed about Holy Hum is that you’ve restricted your live shows to quiet spaces like art galleries– SFU, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Surrey Art Gallery. What’s the choice behind that?


It’s really cool that you’ve noticed that! I deliberately made the decision after I came off of all that touring with In Medias Res that I didn’t like being in all those spaces. I didn’t like being in a club or a venue like that, so I found it kind of odd that i would expect my fans and my friends to come out to those venues to watch me play, even when I wouldn’t even want to be there myself. I found it odd that I expected people to come out and see me there in that atmosphere. So I made a hard, fast decision to play in places and spaces that I could see myself being in. And also, the Holy Hum project is more suited to a quiet space. I don’t wanna use the word “intellectual”– that also weirds people out. But as a visual artist, I have access to spaces like galleries. So it was definitely a conscious decision to play in gallery spaces.


The last In Medias Res album was called “It Was Warm and Sunny When We First Set Out”, and the first Holy Hum track is called “Sun Breaking”. Is there a symbolism there?


Absolutely. “Sun Breaking” isn’t the first Holy Hum song, but it was the first song I was okay in calling a Holy Hum song. I didn’t purposely do that, but you see the album art up there, right on that shelf? My father was an immigrant to Winnipeg, and kinda beckoned to my mom in Korea to get married. It’s not a sob story, but they didn’t have a happy marriage. The image, to me, coupled with the title, alludes to stormy weather on the way against a backdrop of calmness. “Sun Breaking” has an image of me standing on a hill in my dad’s hometown. The sound is a pocket of that moment in my brain– that’s where that sound comes from.

The documentary for Holy Hum was shot at Phil Elverum’s studio. Can I ask how you two met?


I played a show at the Vancouver Art Gallery in November of 2012, and I had the show recorded. I wanted to put it out, but I was like “Who would put out this weird shit?” I asked Phil if he would and he said no– “I’m not a real label” is what he said exactly. And then I was at his music festival and heard through the grapevine that I could record there at his studio. I contacted his studio and asked to record. He’s not like my friend or anything like that– he’s doing his own thing.


A lot of bands go through a lot of bad names before they find one that works. What’s the worst name you’ve ever performed under?


In Medias Res.


Really? I always thought it was quite clever, since it means to look back at a story when you’re in the middle of it.


You’re right, that’s exactly what it means. But no one spells it right, no one pronounces it right. I’ve seen it spelt “Inmedia Rez” or “Immediate Res”. I like it for the name’s significance, but for whatever reason, it just gets misspelt. I like it, but I also hate it. I’ve had to live with it.


My last question is, what’s next?


Lunchbox needs to be played with, for starters.


True. I’ve got an album in the bag, now I just need someone to put it out. I’m starting to line up tours, even though the album isn’t officially out yet. I’ve got tours planned for India, China, and Europe in the fall of 2015.


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