At first, Her Space Holiday's new two-disc offering, Home Is Where You Hang Yourself, seems a smooth ride, the sort of gentle-sounding bedroom pop that you don't so much listen to as tuck into at night. But listen to the lyrics and you'll discover the potholes in the road. Take the Hurtful Kid mix of "Famous to Me." Over foreboding piano and string loops, San Mateo native Marc Bianchi barrages the listener with samples of his voice calling himself "stupid" and a "hurtful kid." The words bear the sting of self-accusation; indeed, Bianchi's lyrics lay out the difficulties he's had, both as a child and as an adult.
"That particular remix was done at a time when I was just thinking about mistakes that I made and the repetitive nature of saying, "You need to take responsibility,'" Bianchi, 27, offers from behind his geek-chic glasses.
Other songs dig deeply into the flawed moments of Bianchi's relationship with his girlfriend, Keely Chanteloup. On Home's title track, Bianchi laments, "You tell me you love me but there's hate in your eyes," and then through the course of the disc tells why. Other numbers are filled with suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, sleeping pills, and stiff drinks.
To make matters even pricklier, Chanteloup accompanies Bianchi onstage during live HSH performances. Sitting in the cafe of a chain bookstore in his strip-malled hometown, not far from the house where he recorded the new album on eight-track, Bianchi tries to explain the reason for the record's beautiful misery. "[The album] was something I needed to do to just get out every subject that I had problems with in my past or my life."
Bianchi began the HSH project in 1996 after playing guitar in the hardcore punk bands Calm, Mohinder, and Indian Summer. (Two ex-bandmates in Calm and Mohinder -- Ewing Parton and Canaan Amber -- went on to form Duster, a band Bianchi remixes on Home's second disc.) Even in those days, Bianchi says, he was impatient to pursue more contemplative solo work. "When we were in the latter end of Indian Summer, we didn't even listen to hardcore. We listened to [mellow indie bands] Seam and Palace and Bedhead. Gradually I just got more and more out of hardcore."
With titles like "Ceilingstars" and "The Astronauts Are Sleeping," Bianchi's earlier work as HSH radiated an outer-spacey vibe. And, around the same time Bianchi began recording as Her Space Holiday, he and Chanteloup started a label, AudioInformationPhenomena Records, that released music by space rock bands like the Asteroid #4 and Cerberus Shoal, as well as San Francisco's more down-to-earth group Half Film. (Work on the label is now on hold -- possibly permanently -- while Bianchi concentrates on his own music.)
Since Bianchi gave up rocking out in the punk scene for rocking introspective as HSH, he's released two full-length CDs and a handful of singles and EPs on a number of tiny indie labels. But with Home, HSH moves from the periphery to center stage. "As far as everyone in the media's concerned," he says, "this is the first record."
More than a mere cataloging of weaknesses and insecurities, Home is the sound of a talented songsmith exploring the bounda- ries of home-recording. Whether on the first disc's originals or on the second's remixes of bands like Bright Eyes and Aspera Ad Astra, Bianchi crafts loping melodies and warm, sleepwalking shuffles, seasoning the music with electronic bloops and pings as spongy as an infant's toys. He sings in a boyish voice a short step from a whisper, a style that gives his frank lyrics that much more power. Explaining why he isn't afraid to beat himself up in public, Bianchi says he found songs easier to write than apologies.
In the States, Home was released on Tiger Style, the label of online indie shopping site Insound. In the U.K., it's been licensed to Wichita Recordings, the newly launched label of former executives from '80s Britpop standard-bearer Creation Records. The deal has earned HSH the attention of scene-defining British rock periodicals like NME, Melody Maker, and Mojo; unfortunately, not all the press has been positive.
"Her Space Holiday's excesses make you wonder how Mark Bianchi managed to program a drum machine while nailed to a cross," James McNair wrote in Mojo. "There's treasure here if you can bear the gloom, but book someone else for the office party."
That Mojo review vexes Bianchi. "When I get criticism saying I chose to do this style of music, that's when it feels like an attack," he says. "I wasn't purposely trying to make a sad record, just an honest one. Unfortunately, the majority of experiences I was going through at the time weren't that lighthearted."
While in London for two Wichita showcase gigs, Bianchi and Chanteloup found British writers as likely to play marriage counselor or interrogate Bianchi about his tattoos as they were to ask about the music. Then again, how could journalists avoid getting personal with an artist whose work peels the skin off his love life?
Chanteloup says, "It wasn't anything that I even thought about until there started to be press. And then it just kind of hit me that there are some really personal things being said in the songs that people are going to want to address. Especially with us playing onstage. People look at how we interact with each other. It's kind of strange --"
"-- to have the relationship --" Bianchi breaks in.
"-- on display," she finishes.
It's not just the relationship. Bianchi constantly refers to childhood and longing for home on the album's first disc. In "Through the Eyes of a Child," he offers a clue as to why, singing, "I know my mom gave me up for a good goddamn reason."
"I'm adopted," Bianchi acknowledges. "It's just a facet, a small portion of my life. It's not that I had a bad childhood, but I always felt disconnected. I felt a little disassociated from everything. That alienation is the main theme of the record."
Home calls to mind another album that folds expressions of unease into chamber rock: the self-titled third album by the Velvet Underground. On this dorm-room fixture, Lou Reed steps back from the madding crowd of junk fiends and S/M aficionados he documented earlier to say: "I feel out of place here, in my world and in my skin." Coming from a seen-it-all rocker, the album's "Jesus" is a disarming prayer devoid of noise and irony: "Jesus, help me find my proper place/ Help me in my weakness/ 'Cause I've fallen out of grace."
On Home's final song on disc one, "Homecoming," Bianchi offers an eerily similar prayer: "Sweet baby Jesus, are you there?/ Sweet baby Jesus, help me care/ About my life and the things I do/ I was wondering is my place with you?"
Eerier still is the fact that Bianchi insists he's never listened to Reed's tune. "I've heard two Velvet Underground songs my whole life," he says. "But it was weird that you mentioned that about "Homecoming,' because I got an e-mail this morning that completely asked about that song."
That's not the only correspondence Bianchi's received from fans. "There's been things where people -- one person in particular -- have gone through really traumatic times and lost a loved one, and [say] the record helped them through that period."
His post-Home material -- including a scheduled fall 2001 album -- might ease up on the somber themes a bit. "I don't know if the record was cleansing or whatever, but I don't always want to make such dark music," he says. "I think that portion of my life's a little more rectified. The next record's going to expand a lot more on what I did and make it a little more open." Besides, the sackcloth-and-ashes approach takes a toll on the relationship. "I can't keep making songs the way that I'm making them."
And even with its dark tone, Home hints of a redemptive light in the distance. The dire verse of "Famous to Me" gives way to the airier chorus: "You're famous to me/ You helped me breathe/ You're famous to me/ You're all that I need."
Surviving the hard times has made him stronger, Bianchi says. "I can say for the first time in my whole life that I'm really happy. Things worked out at the end."