In August 2012, Matthew Hemerlein drove from Washington to Los Angeles to become a rock star. A year and a half later, he returned home to play a sold-out show at the massive Echostage under his new moniker, Lo-Fang, with pop phenom Lorde.
With 5,000 people — plenty of them family and friends — in attendance, the show was supposed to be a triumphant homecoming for the Columbia, Md., native.
Then he started feeling sick.
“I had a fever that show,” Hemerlein says, of the March 7 gig. “I did not feel good. I kind of just went in, did the thing, and left immediately.”
On Saturday, in the basement of Chinatown’s Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, Hemerlein gets a do-over.
“This will be the real homecoming show,” he says. “I might try to set up some kind of DJ set afterwards so people can come out and chit chat a little.”
They’ll have a lot of catching up to do. In February, Hemerlein, 30, put out his debut album, “Blue Film,” and performed his surprise hit, “#88,” on the “Late Show With David Letterman.” Just last week, he wrapped the tour with Lorde, a gig he scored after the New Zealand native was wowed by a Lo-Fang concert in L.A.
Now Hemerlein is in the middle of a cross-country headlining tour that wraps on May 7 in Portland, Ore. Not bad for a guy who, just a few years ago, was playing D.C. coffee shops and producing his own DIY variety shows.
In other words, Hollywood has been good to Hemerlein. Though he started to write most of “Blue Film’s” dreamy, mid-tempo songs while traveling through Cambodia, Indonesia and Japan, the bright lights of L.A. were what brought the tracks into focus.
Out West, Hemerlien landed a development deal with renowned British indie label 4AD and polished his album with the help of Gotye producer Francois Tetaz.
A classically trained musician who played every instrument on his album, including piano, cello, guitar and violin, Hemerlein wows audiences with his ability to swap instruments mid-song without missing a beat.
Back in his D.C.-coffee-shop playing days, Hemerlein performed as a one-man band, layering beats and instruments with the help of a loop pedal. These days, he has two other musicians on the road with him, which allows him to focus on the one instrument he’s least comfortable with: his own voice.
“I used to be content to just sing and let my voice sound the way it sounded,” he says. “Now I’m actually practicing singing. It’s the most important thing in pop music. What most people respond to is your voice.”
Matthew Hemerlein penned this Lo-Fang song in just two days. It features Hemerlein’s naked voice accompanied only by atmospheric guitars and the occasional hand clap. The lyrics are inspired by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Circular Ruins.” “It’s about this guy who is a lucid dreamer and he is … seeking out to dream another human being in full detail, with all the organs and all the viscera and all the skin,” Hemerlein says.
A radio-friendly ditty with a catchy refrain (“Make no mistake, these are animal urges”), this song is about evolution as much as reproduction, Hemerlein says. “I ended up thinking a lot about the scene in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ where the spinning bone turns into a satellite,” he says. “When the violin arpeggio turns into a synth arpeggio, it’s kind of like that moment.”
A simple pentatonic melody finds itself in the company of increasingly complex layers of off-kilter chimes, warped-record sounds and orchestral swells. Suddenly, they all fall silent and an unadorned banjo riff takes center stage. Hemerlein wrote and recorded that part while staying at a friend’s house in Nashville, Tenn. “I don’t own a banjo. It’s the only time I ever touched a banjo, really,” he says. “I’m not going to pretend to be Bela Fleck or anything like that.”
Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW; Sat., 8 p.m., $15-$18; 202-408-3100. (Gallery Place)