Chicago Drive-In
Pavement Entertainment

Head Of Femur interview

| February 29, 2008 | 0 Comments

Head Of Femur
Traveling Light


Not long ago, Taco Bell introduced a promotion whereby an indie band’s touring budget could be massaged with the infusion of free grub. If only they’d discovered Chicago-based Head Of Femur before cannibalism set in.

Appearing: April 11th at Schubas in Chicago.

Before you go updating the Newgate Calendar and place the band alongside such monsters as Sawney Bean, they haven’t actually eaten (much less slain) anyone. But Head Of Femur are trimmer these days, not only in person but in sound. Their third orchestral-pop epic, Great Plains (Greyday), brings into focus what their sometimes 20-person entourage seemed built explicitly to avoid.

“On our first record,” guitarist Mike Elsener relates, “it was more ‘We have this instrument — let’s put it on there.’ And the second one we spent weeks and weeks writing string and horn parts.”

“We wanted that one to be grandiose, orchestrated — big,” explains vocalist/guitarist Matt Focht. “But [for] Great Plains everything was like, ‘O.K., does every song need orchestration?’ We were pretty careful about it. I think we were thinking ‘stripped down’ obviously because we’d been touring like that. That made a difference. But a lot of people who have heard Great Plains are still saying it sounds big. People think it sounds like us, as far as the orchestration goes.”

The words “sounds like us” take some qualification. On a budget that wouldn’t have satisfied Brian Wilson in 1963 much less 2003, Head Of Femur’s debut, Ringodom Or Proctor, ran rings around itself. Attention deficit disorder would have been a calming influence, and might actually have been on 2005’s Hysterical Stars (Spinart), which, while certainly more indie rawkin’, tried to burst its sonic seams at every turn. Great Plains, however, may have required 15 musicians for assembly, but casts itself as the great American road album, weaned on The Band and Neil Young as much as Incredible String Band or Pez candy.

“I can see that for sure,” Elsener says. “We’re big fans of classic rock. We don’t really understand new music.”

Focht deadpans, “We’re pretty much living in the ’70s over here.”

“We’re stuck in it,” cracks Elsener.

But there is a loose theme? “Travel west — the beginnings of that,” clues Focht. “Pioneers. Traveling carnivals. There’s a place called Chimney Rock in Nebraska, it’s a real cool-looking rock formation — like a chimney.”

“Kind of a beacon of the Old West,” Elsener interrupts. “And it was written while touring and thinking about that kind of stuff. Traveling for two years straight, pretty much.”

As native Nebraskans, Head Of Femur are somewhat enamored with wide-open spaces — co-songwriter Ben Armstrong even left the touring and recording version of the band to return home. But for the first time the impulse isn’t to color the blanks in. Great Plains has warded off a case of the frantics and welcomed the rolling countryside. “River Ramble,” “Covered Wagons,” and “By The Red Fire” eschew the aural and visual explosions of the city, make their own schedules, and, given space, consider time. Yet it takes a trip all the way to the closing track, “Isn’t It A Shame,” to get at the core. Suddenly prioritized are property and settling down. Rock ‘n’ roll bustle hasn’t landed them on “Cribs”; the job is getting to them.

“I think part of it is it seemed to us all our members were scattered out,” Focht says. “I think everyone was feeling disconnected for awhile.”

Elsener is more succinct, but doesn’t see an end coming. “Touring isn’t the finest way to make an income,” he laughs. “We definitely have consistently been working really hard at it. [The band will] probably always be there in some form. Me and Matt are the two surviving members that are still writing and working on music.”

Maybe some perspective was added while watching someone else’s dream rapidly fall apart. In spring 2006, Spinart Records invited Head Of Femur to their label showcase at Austin’s South By Southwest music festival. The band had already began preparations in earnest to record Great Plains and played some new material.

“They told us afterwards,” Elsener recalls. “We had booked time at the studio. We were going right into the studio when we got back from South By Southwest. And right then, when the studio wanted their first payment, [Spinart] totally dropped the ball on us and were like, ‘We have no money. We can’t do anything.’ Their timing was absolutely horrible.”

It left them, in Focht’s words, “in Shit’s Creek. All of a sudden we just heard that every band was leaving. And we never got to talk that much to them about it. It was strange. From an insider we got this hint to go. And God bless the studio, Wall To Wall, because they said come and do it anyway.”

“We called them up,” Elsener says adding a preface, “we recorded our last record with them and we’re great friends with Dan Dietrich and Chris Brickley — and they were like, ‘We don’t care. We want to make your record.’ Luckily we called Dan when he was at a wedding reception and really happy.”

With an album but homeless, it didn’t take long for Head Of Femur to return to Greyday, who probably wondered where all the other people went.

“[The band] has been very solid since that South By tour when we started these songs,” says Elsener. “But the songwriters are still me, Matt, and Ben. We wrote all the songs, but the band performs them and fills them out and writes all their parts. It’s been good that way.”

Good, and a lot of work. The quintet — fleshed out by drummer Colby Starck, keyboardist Tyson Thurston, and bassist Nick “The Chancellor” Westra — is an inverted house of cards or Jenga tower, where adding pieces is more difficult than subtracting them.

“As soon as the record’s released we always do a [big show],” Elsener says. “Like our last record release was 28 people and the one before it was 20. This one might be more around 15, 16 maybe.”

“A lot of our songs,” Focht adds, “we rearrange to fit the five-piece a little bit more. So, actually working it out with horns, it’s a little bit tricky now. It’s hard to explain when you do the switch from no horns and strings on tour to just the rock band, keyboards, and all that, the parts, it’s hard to go back. You have to write it all out again. A lot of work goes into the sheet music for all the horn parts.”

But it’s better than killing and eating your friends.

— Steve Forstneger

Category: Features, Monthly

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