Thursday, June 25, 2009

2008-12-10 - Salmon of Rock

I had the chance to chat with Of Montreal multi-instrumentalist James Huggins this weekend. The Athens band is wrapping up the U.S. leg of its Skeletal Lamping tour these days.

If you haven't seen the band live yet, I'd recommend it, if you want to see and hear mock hangings, ninja action sequences, centaurs and brilliant musicianship.

Skeletal Lamping was one of my favorite albums this year, a fantastic mix of psychedelic rock and indie-funk that should pass the test of time.

Huggins has been in the band for more than a decade, and now the collective finally appears ready to make a splash on the charts, thanks to ever-imaginative frontman Kevin Barnes. Catch the group performing live on the "Late Show with David Letterman" Thursday, Dec. 18.

Barnes recorded most of Skeletal Lamping in his home studio, and his big band fills in the gaps on tour.

Huggins, a gifted songwriter in his own right, is responsible for a solo album under the name James Husband.

He called me from a Tampa beach this weekend and talked about his time with the band and Barnes, what it's like to finally hit the "big-time," and his plans for an upcoming solo project.

I will post the half-hour interview in three chunks over the next three days. Enjoy!

SoR: How's the tour going?

JH: This is the very bottom of the tail end of the last straw of this tour. We feel like the whole tour was over essentially right before Thanksgiving and then these Florida shows were added on at the last minute. They're all a little bit lower profiles, so we're just kind of doing them just for like a bonus.

SoR: It's obviously the most elaborate show the band has done, with ninjas and costumes and action sequences. Is this your ideal view of what a concert should be?

JH: This time we were more motivated. The time before it was a little bit less. The scary thing is trying to top this now because there's an expectation when you do something really big and theatrical that then, each time, I feel like there's some expectation that we have to impress and improve. So at some point it's going to have to hit a plateau and go back to something minimal.

SoR: You can't really top mock hangings I guess?

JH: Yeah, but that's exactly how we wanted to do it. And for us the only real limitation on this whole tour was venue size, like stage size, and then, of course, money. But we found some very creative ways around the money thing. As far as the size of the venues, we could just adapt our set to accommodate most places.
Like in Atlanta, that was the ideal setup where we had all five video screens and our little drum towers and all that. But a lot of times, like in Nashville, I remember it was really small. We had to strike the risers all together and only use one video screen. I don't know, all those things we have to work around every night. It's sort of a new setup but the show is essentially the same.

SoR: Do you sense that you guys have turned the corner and maybe moved out of the smaller rock band status and into one of those larger acts?

JH: Well, definitely, that's undeniable. For us, it's kind of like a funny thing that we're talking like we're so old and we've been doing it so long. So we have the same excitement that you see in a younger band that's put out their first or second record.
I feel like we've been trained for disappointment because we sort of expected it to do this six or eight or 10 years ago. And with each record and each tour, we feel like we've just been waiting for the audience. Now 10 years later, to have some of those things start to happen, I think we're all a little bit distrustful of the whole situation.
Because it's like it's great that we can be able to put on the shows we want from larger audiences and have respect from other groups and press that wouldn't give us the time of day two years ago. It's definitely a very interesting transition but I think we're all just slightly confused and maybe wary of the success.

SoR: What would be the optimal topping out point? Do you guys want to sell out Madison Square Garden?

JH: Sure, that would be great!

SoR: I understand that the music scene is splintered today with the larger record companies struggling to make a lot of profit. Now there seems to be a lot of the smaller bands that hit the medium status and never get to that Britney Spears-type status. Would your goal be to sell out the big stadiums?

JH: Well that's the thing. I don't think there is an ideal. It's just different things. We love putting on big, funny things and playing in small clothes. I guess it just depends on what it calls for. We had an offer to do a show at the Hollywood Bowl, which I think the maximum there is like 15,000 people.
I don't know if we'd get anywhere close to that. I guess the last show we did in L.A. was like 4,000 people in a single room, and this was like an outdoor room. So we would have the opportunity to have like an orchestra or something crazy. But that would be something we'd do once, and then the next time we might play at the small, little rock club and put on a special show.
Last time we played in London in a big theater and put on the first, real U.K. big performance. But then we're going back in a few weeks and we're playing this show with Franz Ferdinand in a little club that only holds like 600 people.
I think that it's really just keeping it interesting by doing a variety of different kinds of shows and different kinds of environments for different kinds of audiences. I think rotating it gives you perspective.
Because if you just start doing detached, large arena kind of shit, I can see how that would kind of kill the personality of the performance. I've gotten a glimpse of that a couple of times. I've heard of a couple of other bands that say that they can't stand playing really large, arena-type venues because they don't feel any connection. I can see that too, but I don't think we're in any immediate danger of having to do that.

SoR: Can you walk me through the recording process? I know Kevin Barnes records most of the parts and then you guys learn it and perform it live. Is that generally how it all works?

JH: The last couple of records, that's exactly how it works. So if we're talking current events, yeah. But it's a weird thing because we've had lineup changes with people coming in and out of the band.
Dottie and I have almost exclusively been working with the band for almost 11 years, and there was a lot more time where we were living in a house with Kevin, writing all of our parts, singing all of our own parts on the record, and actually writing entire songs for the record. So that was like a whole other era.
To me, it feels like two different bands, and they just kept the name.

SoR: Does it feel odd to make that change?

JH: Obviously, that's a tough transition, but after a couple of albums and seeing how dramatically it's shifted the whole audience and seeing what that's done for him to to get these records out of his brain uninterrupted by compromise, it's good for him and fun for us to see what he comes up with.
Now, we feel much more like musicians. We're all still songwriters and do our own thing, but in this band it's much more about the performance now. I always say that we feel much more like actors, like we're given a juicy script but it's our job to interpret it. And we do that kind of in our own style with each thing and it's never as strictly regimented as a lot of people assume. We usually take what he's done and create a part that represents some kind of essence of what it was and then play them live.
Because a lot of the songs are really impossible to play verbatim. Most of them have four or five or as many as eight bass lines. No one person can play that, so we'll listen to it and find the major points of what pops out the most and then try and construct one single part from that. And it's the same with all the vocals. Most of the songs have at least 10 vocal harmonies and there's only four of us that are singing.
It's like interpreting it, and that's another reason why the performances have gotten so outrageous because the rest of us in the band need to do something creative if we're not writing the material. All that shit we do. Very, very little of the stage design has anything at all to do with Kevin, or people also seem to think that it has some literal translation of the lyrics. That's not always true.
It's like the band and his brother, and we just get together and come up with these ridiculous ideas and go shopping and we build all the stuff ourselves. All the video content we shoot ourselves. So it's very much a group effort that a hundred ideas are sort-of in a pot and we'll come out with 10 good ones.

SoR: You've recorded under the James Husband name.

JH: That's been an ongoing recording project for me for years that I haven't really ever made much of an effort. I've done shows, I've even done whole opening tours for Of Montreal. But it's mostly just a bedroom recording project that I make mostly for just my friends and to distribute to a few. It's a real small-time project for now.

SoR: Are you still working on coming out with another album?

JH: I'm desperately trying to get into a situation where I feel like I can release something with a label that's going to do it the way that I want to. I've been really reticent to put out like a small release of a single album because I've seen it happen so many times where you put all your eggs in one basket and then it doesn't get any kind of attention. Then the songs are dead and you gotta start over again. ... I want to make a multiple disc release that is not just like 10 songs, 12 songs. At this point, I've amassed so much material that I'm trying to find someone whose willing to put out like a four-disc thing, almost like a posthumous-type thing, like a collection of an entire decade. I think that I will eventually be able to do it and I'm talking with Polyvinyl about trying to convince them to do it.

SoR: Are they giving you an impression that they'd be willing to do it?

JH: We haven't even gotten that far in the discussion. It's more about them agreeing to do something and then we'll have to figure it out at a meeting. But yeah, I would absolutely love to do that, and if I have to make them myself, which is what I've been doing, and sell them at shows, then I'll do that. That's a whole other ball of wax. But to be honest, I'm not sure what's going to happen.

SoR: I figured you had to be working on your own material as well, if Kevin is putting all the albums together.

JH: Yeah, it's actually pretty interesting. We did go into a real studio and we attempted to do this album "Skeletal Lamping" live, as like a live feed. And we did, we went in for like a week. We did about six or seven songs. We thought it sounded great, we were really enjoying being in the studio.
And we were working with this producer who I think Kevin felt uncomfortable with. And then I think he just kind of napped on like the sixth or seventh day and just decided that he didn't feel comfortable and explained to us that it wasn't about our playing or his recording, but that he was really dying for the privacy, the personal experience of staying up all night and recording whatever he wanted in his pajamas.
That's how he works, he usually recorded way late in the night, starting around 9 or 10 until like 7 or 8 in the morning. So he ended up using a lot of that stuff on the album. There's a couple of tracks where it is all of us playing and he's gone back and sprinkled all his crazy electronics and falsetto vocals over it and taken that as a blueprint and gone with it.
So it's frustrating to us because, of course, we think we could do a great live album, and that we're considered, I hope, to be really musical beyond theatrics. It's frustrating to never get a real chance to show that in a recording. But at the same time, we have to allow him that because when he did get full control he came back with something that really surprised us and was actually fun for us to listen to as fans.
It's like a weird kind of give and take sort of thing, but I think we're all at a point where it's not about egos or feeling like we're not getting some sort of opportunity to do this or that. It's more like just releasing all that crap and allowing him to have his voice and we just help him.

SoR: What did you think of Skeletal Lamping when you first heard it?

JH: I really disliked it. Until I started deconstructing it, I didn't see how unique and multi-dimensional it was. At least for the first two or three listens, I felt like it was just really disjointed, frustrating, simple, sexual booty-pop or something and I just couldn't understand where he was going.
And then when he started sending these isolated keyboard parts and harmonies and stuff and I sort of detached myself from my personal interpretation of the lyrics just by knowing him and knowing his family and knowing his psyche, I tried to not consider that. And not consider any of the lyrics literally and pretend like it's some sort of alien voice that's just coming in and doing a little tap-dance and getting off on it. That's what he wanted.
And then I talked to him about it and said, 'God what's the point of this? Why did you end it like this?' And he was saying how it was his calculated intention to make it upsetting and jarring to listen to, and that all of those cut-in-half songs and quick starts and sharp endings were meant intentionally to kind of keep you on your toes. He wanted to make this sort-of difficult arrangement that wasn't like a standard, three-minute song, track by track for 14 songs.
So anyway, after a little bit of context and a little bit of time and then actually trying to piece it together myself and learn parts, then I got a deep respect for this album. I think it might be one of the best. But that defines any good record if you can listen to it five, eight, 10, 12 times and find something new out of it, that is definitely the case with this one.
I would recommend a minimum of 10 listens before making any sort of opinion. And, it's such a short record and it does change so often that you can stomach listening to it 10 times in as many days and it wouldn't be like some kind of chore. Just pop it in your car and ride for a half an hour and it's over.

SoR: I understand what you're saying. With each successive Of Montreal album, I think that I'm not going to like this one as much and than after 10 listens, it's my new favorite. I guess that's the mark of a good album and I guess that's what you guys are hoping for.

JH: The thing is, I think Kevin just disregards any of that when he's making them. For him, I really do think he's making it for himself.
It's really hard being an artist, and especially if you know that your voice is being heard. I can sit around and write stuff and I'll actually consider, 'Does this sound like it could be played on the radio?'
But Kevin doesn't give a shit what anybody thinks, obviously. So he's able to detach himself from any self-editing, and that's a big part of some of the creepier, sexual lyrics. He said he wasn't going to sit there and say, 'Oh I shouldn't say this,' or 'I shouldn't say condoms on my ice-cream cone.' Whatever he wanted to say he just said it, because it made him laugh and it made him smile in the moment of creation. And then he wouldn't go back and reconsider, 'Is this offensive?'
I have to respect that, not to suggest that just anything you fart out is gold. There's obviously some consideration there, and I don't think anybody wants to hear every random thought that an artist has. I do think that freeing up your ego a little bit can certainly yield interesting creative work and I think he's done that very successfully.

SoR: There's an image that people seem to have of you guys. I keep hearing the word 'superfreak' thrown out there to describe the personality that you have on stage. Is that really how you guys are or are you actually just sitting around drinking hot tea and relaxing?

JH: I think it's a very real and natural part of all of our personalities, but that's a misconception. When we're on stage, we are trying to put our best foot forward to put on a show for people to have a great hour and a half.
It's not like it's difficult for us to do that or that we're forcing some other personality on ourselves because each one of us has that in us.
But then, we all have a depressed, sitting in the back of the bus side. We all have a groggy, bitchy in the morning side. We all have a crazy, loud eccentric side.
I guess the thing that bugs me mostly when people say stuff like that is that a) we are insane, or most frustratingly, we are on drugs.
We eat well, aside from maybe drinking a little too much. Nobody even smokes pot at all, not ever. Everyone just assumes that to be inventive you have to be abusing substances and that drives all of us nuts.
Why can't we not have decided to put on this performance with a gigantic, rotating room and a man in a centaur outfit and not have it come from a night of smoking bongs?
It's like, no, we had a production meeting where we sat around and came up with that. To us, it's not that insane. It's just entertaining.
That's the thing that gets lost. It's trying to be entertaining and definitely comical. Some people feel like maybe they shouldn't laugh because this is serious art. Well yeah, it is art and we're serious about it but it doesn't have to be uptight and it can be very playful and comical.

SoR: Is this a band you hope is going to be around in 30 or 40 years?

JH: Well, the goal is not longevity for the sake of a good story. It's like, as long as there's good material and we're healthy enough to jump around, and if Kevin still wants us to work in this sort of arrangement. But yeah, I would definitely see it five or 10 years from now. I don't think we're slowing down.
I was talking with (Kevin) about that yesterday, that it's funny to me that young kids are discovering us that now we're approaching this sort of territory like Sonic Youth. Because right now, we're definitely over the decade hump. After five or six more years, and then suddenly 15 or 20 years, you think, 'God we've been doing it for 20 years.'
I could see that definitely. I'm not going to make any predictions but I will say I don't think we'll be stopping anytime soon.

SoR: I have to ask, based on the band's influences. Beach Boys: Pet Sounds or Smile?

JH: I'm always going to go with Smile because it represents everything that I love about recording, but then Pet Sounds is also fantastic. It's just two different things. It's like when people ask me the Beatles or the Stones. I think it's a ridiculous question because I love them both for so many different reasons.

SoR: I think that's the best answer you could have had.

JH: Anyway, for the sake of whatever, Smile.

SoR: Prince: Purple Rain or Sign 'o the Times?

JH: I would have to say Purple Rain personally. I was always a sucker for the hits and that one has a bunch of them.

SoR: I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me.

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