On His Toes: James Huggins III on Of Montreal, James Husband
YOU MIGHT HAVE been surprised when — seemingly out of nowhere — Of Montreal announced new tour dates on Jan. 7. So was James Huggins III, the group's de facto drummer.
"It was announced online on the Polyvinyl Records Web site and Of Montreal Web site the night we were asked if we could do it," said Huggins, who will also open all the shows (including stops in Baltimore and D.C. this week) under the moniker James Husband. "I actually had no idea I'd be doing these Husband shows. I thought I'd have until March. So for me it's like scrambling to get it together."
This included assembling a backing band and rehearsing, which when we spoke to Huggins on the afternoon of Jan. 15, his band had yet to do.
Such is the life of a musician working for Kevin Barnes.
"It's incredibly frustrating," Huggins said of his boss, the enigmatic of Montreal mastermind. "He just doesn't work at the pace, or the schedule, or the sort of hours of operation, or linear mental process of anyone else on earth.
"He is so singularly devoted to this one thing that it's not, in his mind, unreasonable to call me at 5:30 a.m. and ask me if I've heard that rare Curtis Mayfield track from 1973 and do I think I can make a drum sound like that. And this is after having not spoken for a week," he continued. "He's only focused on making the album and that's what he does every night, and he's a super, super night owl. He wakes up when the sun sets and goes to sleep when it rises."
Additionally, the indie poppers had only rehearsed once for this tour at that point. For a band that spent most of 2009 on the road, it normally wouldn't matter, but Of Montreal live shows are far from normal. The 2008-2009 "Skeletal Lamping" tour saw David Barnes, Kevin's brother, creating the group's most elaborate stage setup yet, with moving set pieces, costume changes, actors and — at one show in New York — Barnes riding a white horse.
Barnes recently decided he wants to eliminate all pre-recorded backing tracks from the theatrical live show — telling Stereogum earlier this month that he'd like to have a massive 10-person band. For now, the group remains six members deep, but this tour will be the first without backing tracks, which means Huggins — who usually spends about half the show on drums and the rest on keyboards, synthesizers, guitar and bass — will stay at his kit for most of the show.
"I think were going to try to do all the 'Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?,' 'Skeletal Lamping', 'Sunlandic Twins' hits, but without any of the backing drum tracks so it's going to be a stripped-down-rock approach," he said. "It's something I've done before, but a lot of those songs have such complex multi-layered electronic sounds on them, and that's kind of the personality of doing them live. ... We've only tried it one day and so far a lot of the songs I do the big keyboard leads on — [like "Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse"], that's the song where I play the main big part, and its not even there — I'm playing the drums. It doesn't sound as weird as you think. We did it once and we were all just looking at each other like, 'Shit, that was fun,' so it will be what it is.
"It's kind of like: take a deep breath and hang on to your hat because this is the last hurrah," he added.
Huggins seems to be anticipating quite the shift once Barnes finishes Of Montreal's 10th album, which should come out later this year. As Huggins mentioned earlier, Barnes takes a very insular approach when recording, often composing and recording most of an album's parts by himself. This time, though, he may open himself up to another voice as he plans to mix the album with acclaimed producer Jon Brion.
"It sounds very similar to 'Skeletal Lamping,'" Huggins said of what he's heard of the record. "It sounds kind of like Part B of that or something, and there are definitely some differences ... Hopefully the fidelity will be a little bit different because the Jon Brion thing is happening, as far as we know, so it will be one different layer to the mixing. It will just be super hi-fi, plus he's going to have just different ears. [Kevin] wouldn't let any of us mix the record, but for someone like that I think he's going to try to relinquish some control."
The album also features guest appearances by Janelle Monae and Beyonce's sister Solange — both of which sing on songs Barnes originally wrote for them, but were too weird, so they became Of Montreal songs.
For now, Huggins is still focused on James Husband's first album, "A Parallaxi I," which was released in October. It's Huggin's first solo album — a collection of 10 years of recording that's finally seeing the light of day.
"I looked at them as sort of like a photo-scrapbook — 'Ohh, there's me in 2001 on New Year's Eve; there's me in 2006, the summer, beach house' — musical kind of snapshots of different times," Huggins said.
Despite the breadth of material, the album's startlingly cohesive. Only Huggins himself could distinguish his 23-year-old voice from his 30-year-old voice. There's shades of Huggins' work in various Elephant 6 groups — the Athens, Ga., musical collective that spawned Of Montreal and The Apples in Stereo. The album's more stripped down and lo-fi than of Montreal's recent work, with added psychedelic flourishes and quirky guitar parts.
Huggins describes his sound best, though, via a covers EP included with the album.
"If you want to say [my album] kind of sounds like The Beatles if they had listened to Guided by Voices and maybe a little bit of Gary Numan, well, you're absolutely right," Huggins added. "It was kind of like wearing my influences on my sleeve."
Express had Huggins take us through the EP's six tracks, which yielded some interesting stories about a bad break-up, beef with Jens Lekman and Huggins literally going out of his mind.
"My Shadow in Vain" (Gary Numan)
Well, I didn't discover Tubeway Army until maybe three years ago, and the only record that I had was "Replicas," which I guess many people consider to be the classical definitive Gary Numan work — and actually, there's a lot of songs on that record that I like better then this. I attempted this version of "Are 'Friends' Electric?" and I was happy with it but I lost ... I told you we had this machine at some point of misguided recording approaches, between our super-analog devotion and, like, discovering Mac-based recording software, we had this mid/late '90s digital eight-track and it took these little MiniDiscs, so I recorded the Gary Numan cover on the MiniDisc and — I don't know, Kevin can't tell me where it went, I don't know where it went — so I lost the machine. All the years in Of Montreal, you don't understand the amount of gear we've amassed and stored. So now I have the little MiniDisc but I could never find anyone who could play it.
So I happened to be in Sweden working on some other songs and I came across "My Shadow in Vain," because it just happened to be the only one my friend had in his studio. So I went, "Well, I really wanted to do that ["Are 'Friends' Electric?"] but I didn't have access to it and for some reason I never bothered to go and download or buy it — it all happened very quickly — so I decided kind of last minute I'll do ["My Shadow in Vain"]. It's interesting because I never really thought, "Hey, that's a song I really want to do because I love it." It kind of just happened to be like what we were going to work on that afternoon and we just recorded the Guided by Voices covers the day before. So I think I was still in the Guided by Voices kind of mood so I think that the way I sing the Gary Numan song was kind of like me doing Gary Numan as if they were Bob Pollard.
"Buzzards and Dreadful Crows" (Guided by Voices)
"Indian Fables" (Guided by Voices)
Part of the reason why I did those two in particular — and why I did the whole cover thing in the first place — was a pre-emptive shield against criticism of derivative influences. To me, it's like if you listen to my record and you think, "OK, he's got all these crazy chord changes, it's kind of lo-fi, he likes the thing with doubled vocals with delay on it — obviously he listens to "Bee Thousand" a lot.
James HusbandI was kind of saying by putting these out there, "If you're trying to guess my influences — here they are." This is a road map, so if you want to say it kind of sounds like The Beatles if they had listened to Guided by Voices and maybe a little bit of Gary Numan, well, you're absolutely right. It was kind of like wearing my influences on my sleeve. Certainly I did listen to a lot of Guided by Voices and I'm sure they have influenced me but the thing I like to believe — and maybe I'm repressing it — but I really do think that it's more coincidental the way that I record. I feel like it's kind of like you know how there's that big band now that everyone's talking about because they're super Top 40? They're called Owl City and everyone says he sounds like the Postal Service and he claims he didn't even listen to Postal Service. Part of me likes to think there are such coincidences where what I do happens to be similar to what he does but I'm not going to say that I'm ignorant to it. To me it's a compliment. Nobody's said that it's a negative thing.
"What You're Doin'" (The Beatles)
"We Can Work It Out" (The Beatles)
Both of them were me trying to use Paul McCartney's words to win back an ex-girlfriend who had left me and I couldn't write any songs. So I listened to both of those and said, "That's exactly what I want to say," so I recorded them specifically for her, sent them to her, then decided to use them later, but they were never meant for anyone else's ears but her. The "We Can Work It Out," I changed the lyrics — I didn't even notice it until I mixed it. In the first line of the chorus I sing, "Life is very strange," and they say, "Life is very short." I don't know why I said it but when I realized the mistake I said, "Well, I guess that's why they call it a cover version" and kept it.
["What You're Doin'" has] an interesting kind of story, too. When I recorded it — and still to this day — it's not a well known Beatles song, and when I recorded it about seven years ago it was before the reissues, that was before the "Love" project and all that, and even back then almost no one knew it. You could call yourself a big Beatles fan and not know that track, so whenever I'd play it people would think it's mine. So much so that I played it for a Swedish friend of mine and she played it for her friend and I get this e-mail four or five years ago from what I think is this girl — this is before I'd spent any time in Sweden — from this girl Jens — I thought it was Jennifer or something — saying, "Can I use part of your song to sample for a drum beat?" And I was thinking they were going to take that little [vocalizes opening drum beat].
So it turns out I said "Yes, but just make sure you give me credit and if this recording comes out that you give me copies and let me know," thinking it was this kid that was doing home demos. Turns out it was Jens Lekman. He used it, he released it and sampled the entire first part of me playing everything — took my guitar, bass, keyboards — and he released it on that record ["You Are the Light"] and it's called ["I Saw Her in the Anti-War Demonstration"]. He took the entire first verse, sampled it and just wrote his own song on top of it thinking he stole it from this unknown American and it turns out he had no idea it was a Beatles song. When I finally confronted him in Sweden I saw him, came up to him, I was like, "Hey, man, what the fuck? You didn't call me, you didn't credit me and are you aware that you're not taking my copyright, you're taking Paul McCartney's?" And he was like "What? No." He was really awkward, almost like he didn't believe me.
Since then I've had two more confrontations with him and I just gave up. I contacted his record label, I tried to ask — it wasn't like I was going to sue him, I just wanted credit. To this day people hear my song and say, "Oh, you're ripping off Jens Lekman." It was something I was really upset about a couple years ago because I was trying to get the record released and I didn't have any momentum and it was the peak of him becoming this indie darling and I was like, "C'mon man, just do me a favor, put me on the Web site." I even asked him [if I could] open some shows or something. I don't know — he's a weird dude. Not that I'm trying to spread bad blood but that is the true story.
"Out of My Mind" (Neil Young)
I tried to make it sound like you were listening to a crackly 45 in the '60s. The thing is that was true inspired madness. I was going through a heavy-duty winter time depression in between living in Sweden and coming home for the first time for Christmas after having lived there, and I took all this recording [equipment] to my grandmother's house in south Georgia, the middle of nowhere. And when I say my grandmother's house, she's not with us, it's just the house she owned, it's in Buena Vista. So I proceeded to just get ragingly drunk and spent six or seven days holed up in this house and I mean not even leaving the house. I got groceries, I got booze, I got recording equipment — I borrowed mics and cables from the church — like, raided the church — went into the church drunk late at night and was playing the piano. I was out of my mind — literally — and I was listening to all sorts of different shit and that song came on and I was like, "That is it! That is it!" And I decided to make it sound as old and washed out as possible and when I sang it I was wasted — I mean barely standing up — and I was genuinely singing. I felt like I was in a very fucked up place and it came out with a lot of emotion, so there you go.