What really sticks out from that meeting, though, isn’t the empty promises, but something the record-company president said almost in passing: “I don’t want to fuck you up.”
At the time, Delegato didn’t know what he meant. Six years later, he has an idea. Plucked from Portland, where it labored in obscurity, and deposited directly into the machinery of the British music industry, the Hugs were, for a flash of time, England’s next big thing. Of course, over there, next big things come and go with editions of the Daily Mail. After 2 1/2 years of building buzz around its guitar-driven, ’60s-inflected garage pop, the subsidiary label that signed the Hugs folded, its album never came out, and the band returned to Portland, where it was no less obscure than when it left. Looking back, Delegato understands why the label head said what he did. It was a warning.
“He was basically saying, ‘I don’t want to destroy you as a kid,’” Delegato says from a table at the Starbucks near his home in Northwest Portland. “Because we were kids, y’know?”
At 24, Delegato still looks very much like one. Tangled black hair hangs to his shoulders. His boyish face, dotted with a teenager’s blemishes, is augmented by round-frame glasses. Naturally, Delegato is a bit sick of discussing those days in London, mostly because he’s made a lot of music since, under his own name and as the Hugs, but also because, well, who wants constantly to be reminded of who they were at age 18?
When he does talk about that time, it’s with the resigned nostalgia of someone recalling a particularly eventful summer camp. In 2006, Rod Sargent, an English rock photographer, came across demos on the band’s Myspace page. Impressed by the maturity of the arrangements and melodies—and, no doubt, Delegato’s Brit-pop leanings as a songwriter—Sargent went to James Endeacott, the A&R rep responsible for discovering the Strokes, and together they flew to Portland to see the Hugs play live. Even though the most high-profile gigs the group could line up were at coffee shops and house shows, Endeacott signed the Hugs to his Columbia-backed imprint, 1965 Records, and brought them to London—which, as might be expected, didn’t help the band’s standing among its local music peers.
“We got a lot of backlash from Portland in general,” Delegato says. “Just people being jealous that we were so young and getting loads of money from the label that aimlessly signed us out of nowhere.”
For the next few years, the Hugs lived in the U.K., where it toured, had meals with major industry figures, got name-checked in NME, smashed newly-bought guitars, hung out with the Libertines and, eventually, went into the studio with producer Liam Watson. Although he’d won a Grammy for his work on White Stripes’ Elephant, Watson “sucked the soul out of our sound,” Delegato says. As the label waffled on putting out the album, the band returned to Portland. Three months later, 1965 Records went under. Then the rest of the band quit on Delegato.
At a career crossroads at age 21, Delegato struggled to decide what to do next. He started processing his flirtation with stardom through solo acoustic songs. Now, Delegato is on his third incarnation of the Hugs. He self-released the first album and its follow-up, Again & Again, in 2009, and last year put out an EP indicating a shift toward a more rhythmic sound. He’s got another full-length planned for the summer. He says he’s not scarred by his dalliance with fame. It taught him a lot about being an artist. And the biggest lesson, he says, is what it takes to truly make it in the music business—something he’s still aspiring to.
“I was much more concerned with doing what I wanted,” Delegato says of himself back then. “I was young and just didn’t give a fuck about what other people thought. Now, I’m like, I need fans. They need to hear that thing that makes them go, ‘Wow.’ And I’m still waiting for that moment. I don’t think I’ve written anything that’s amazingly great.”
SEE IT: The Hugs play Mt. Tabor Theater, 4811 SE Hawthorne Blvd., on Friday, March 15. 9 pm. $5. 21+.