James Husband – Of Montreal
By Thriller Monday June 6, 2011
It is not always easy to be a sideman in a band, but it is especially hard if . . .your front man suddenly takes control of the music, leaving no room for your input. And, it is even harder when you are a songwriter who can play a handful of instruments ranging from the guitar, to piano, to trumpet. James Huggins, sometimes known by his stage name, James Husband, was in the strange position of dealing with all of these things at once when Kevin Barnes took control of basically every part of his band, Of Montreal. After roughly a decade of striving and five albums (plus four compilations) that ranged from lo-fi brilliance (their debut, Cherry Peel), to occasionally unbearable whimsy (Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies), OM had very little to show for their work. They were still grinding it out on the road, still playing for the same twenty or thirty die-hards, still going basically nowhere. In 2004, Barnes admitted to his band that he was thinking of quitting if the new album, Satanic Panic in the Attic, didn’t go over any better. The band already felt a bit weird, since Barnes had recorded the album almost entirely by himself for the first time in their history, so they might not have been too surprised at his admission. But, Satanic Panic was the most intricate, well-rounded, pop-oriented album the band had released. It was, in fact, something of a masterpiece. And that’s when the whole thing started to take off. Barnes followed quickly with Sunlandic Twins, which was great but not as good as its predecessor. Then, he topped himself again with Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? The group grew in popularity exponentially as the other members’ input decreased seemingly in the same proportion. However, the band’s heightened profile—including an Outback Steakhouse commercial that changed the lyrics to “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games”, which many saw as a traitorous act—seemed to weight on Barnes’ conscience. So, he began recording a challenge to everyone who said he’d sold out. The resulting album, Skeletal Lamping, was kind of the indie rock Bitches Brew, except that it kept all of the frustrating parts of Miles Davis’ most controversial album and didn’t really show any of the brilliance that make Brew such an essential classic. It sold well and was widely praised, but it is a tedious affair made up of short snippets of songs—most less than a minute long—that are patched together by transitions that are often jarring. Right after it was released, Thriller caught up with Huggins. Since the interview, he has left the band to pursue his solo career, and OM has released another decent but not great album, False Priest.
james2You’ve taken a serious step up in terms of stage performance. What has that been like?
It’s been an experiment that I think has gone very well. There are a lot of changes this time around, and we’re doing, by far, our biggest production in an increasing series of big productions, but this one takes the cake by a landslide.
The first thing I thought when I heard Skeletal Lamping, the only thing I could think of was how in the hell anyone would perform it live. It seems impossible, with all of the drastic changes in the songs. Was that hard to learn and is it hard to perform?
I’m so glad you asked, because no one ever asks about actually performing the music. It seems like most of the attention that the live spectacle gains is from the visual, and I think it’s very easy to forget, even for us, that the whole thing is supposed to be based on the music. We spent about two months before a single costume was tried on or a single prop design was built, learning the actual music. Sure, it’s difficult to learn something that disjointed. I think for Kevin, it’s very natural because he’s spent months with that material, kind of cutting it up and playing it backwards and forwards and inside out, and when he had decided on what he thought would be the final mixes, a lot of the stuff, that was the first time we heard it. Some of it we played on, some of it we had been playing live for months before he put out the album, but I would say a good sixty to seventy per cent of it was new to us, the same as it would be to a fan. Basically, it takes us several weeks where we just take each section and isolate a part or two or three that we think we want to do and try to make the closest representation to the album as possible, which is impossible because most of the songs have a minimum of about forty-eight tracks, some of them up into the hundreds. So, basically, between the six of us, we have to find the essence of three or four parts each and try to condense that into the most basic arrangement of what he has recorded.
It seems like that would take a while to get used to.
It definitely gets easier the more we do it and makes more sense slowly as we do it. But at first, it was very difficult and frustrating because I’m used to, sort of doing one thing or the other on a particular song. So, I could pretty much dedicate myself in the past to playing the bass or the keyboards or the guitar or the drums for about two or three minutes. But, I still look at this new stuff as each segment being its own song, so even if its seventeen seconds or thirty-one seconds, I still think of it as a song, independently that flows together in a segue or something. So, for me, there are a lot more challenging instrument switches, where I don’t think the consideration of the flow of the order of the songs is based on what I’m doing. I have to adapt to it, which means on a lot of these songs in the new set, I will be picking up and putting down as many as four instruments in one track, and that track might only be two minutes long. So, it’s definitely challenging, but then again, that’s just me griping that I get to do all that shit, because the truth is, it’s fun.
Skeletal Lamping is not an accessible album, really. What did you think when you first heard it?
It was challenging for me. I didn’t even like it for the first several weeks. I found it tedious to listen to. Now, I feel like it’s second nature and it makes perfect sense to me, but it took dozens of listens. And then, after learning it, I can’t listen to it, because now it’s like I can’t see it as an album that you sit down and listen to for forty minutes or whatever. I know too much, you know what I mean? That’s the sacrifice for us; we can’t allow ourselves to be fans because we’re too close to it.
How has your audience received it?
I’m surprised, people seem to love it just like it’s a fucking new Beatles record or something. I don’t get it. I, as an older indie rocker, presumed that the kids would have the attitude I had when I would go see bands, which was, “Oh, God. I hope they don’t just play their new album.” To me, that was always the attitude that, like, if you loved a band, especially if it was a band that you thought was your band, like even slightly underground, and then you see them start to get a bigger audience. I was afraid that all these kids would think we were too big or are losing it or whatever, and are just playing our new album – “They didn’t play anything off of Satanic Panic.” Which is funny to me, because most people think of that as our first record, and I still get people asking why don’t we play stuff off Gay Parade, which was when most of our current fans were still in single digits. That said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised, instead of having that attitude, it’s been the opposite, where most of the people only want to hear the new album and they are freaking out at the beginning, it’s like, you can tell when you play the first three seconds of a song that a couple of hundred of them all know the lyrics and they’ll start singing immediately and singing the entire thing. And they’re not easy lyrics to remember. I don’t even know half of them.
I’m one of those who enjoys hearing the old stuff as much as the new.
But, most of the time, the new material gets the biggest response. We’ve been playing some oldies—we did a couple of songs off of Satanic Panic and a couple of songs off of Sunlandic Twins, and those have been fun for us to play and I’m sure that plenty of people have enjoyed watching them, but they don’t get that instant roar that some of the new shit does.
I mean, I even want you to play stuff off of your first album, Cherry Peel, which came out in 1997.
Yeah, man, fucking another lifetime away from that stuff.
You all made about nine albums before one really hit. What is it like to work for so long at something and then finally get the recognition almost a decade later?
It has been gratifying in a sort of jaded, “It’s long overdue” kind of way. All of us have been like, “What the fuck? It took ten years to even get to a mild cult indie status.” We thought we were putting out great shit in 1998. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t some sort of big surprise. It was more of a relief. Because we were going to keep doing it either way, but it makes it a whole lot easier to have people supportive of it and to be able to slightly make a living off of it and to be able to relax a little bit and focus more on it, than have it be this thing you’re fighting for.
Do you remember what you wanted out of the band when it started?
I don’t know, I can’t even remember what I was thinking then. I just know that we have always wanted to be full-time functional touring putting out as much stuff as possible kind of band. But for a lot of time, for several albums, it felt like more of a struggle to make that happen instead of an opportunity to let it happen. That’s why right now, we’re all able to completely focus on doing this, and so it makes it easier for us to really take it all the way, which is what we’re doing, I hope.
That’s nice, but I think what most people don’t realize is that being a successful touring act is hard fucking work.
It’s a full-time job, and it is a job, no matter what anyone says. Because there’s a lot more than jus that hour on stage, especially when we’re doing overseas stuff. We’ve been doing a lot of flying in and flying out, spending two or three days in the airport, thousands of dollars on weird travel expenses—you can’t imagine what it’s like traveling with instruments these day—just to do a thirty-minute radio program in England and come home. So, a lot of times, just a single performance has six or eight people’s lives tangled up for three or four days to make happen.
Since Satanic Panic, Kevin Barnes has really taken the reins in terms of writing and recording everything himself. Was that weird for the band when that happened?
Totally. I mean, it’s a very slow, natural adaptation we’ve had to go through. For me, the performance has little to do with songwriting or initial creation of the material. It’s always separate anyway, whether I wrote it and played it or whatever. I just think of it as acting. I’m still an actor and it’s my job and my talent, but I have a script. Instead of being a writer/director/actor, on this particular journey, I’m mostly just doing the performance for myself and for Kevin, and it’s still a very improvisational thing for me. I mean, a lot of it is obviously heavily organized, but within that, I still feel like I’m playing with as much freedom as I did when I was writing my own parts to the albums four years ago.
Does he give you any input as he’s recording or let you hear things as they develop?
Sure, I get to hear as much or as little as I care to. And a lot of times, I prefer to wait. During the creation of this album, Kevin would be sending mp3s of half-assed mixed songs every couple of days for four months, and I probably opened up a third of them.
He seems to be writing increasingly about his personal life—almost painfully direct songs about whatever he’s going through. Do you have any sense of where that comes from, or do you have any input on it?
It’s not that simple. There’s a lot more interpersonal, psychological ping-pong going on than that. Plus, a lot of that has to do with physical proximity. I haven’t really been living in Athens, and for most of the creation of this, our only contact was email and very little phone conversation. So, it’s not like a daily thing, getting up and making coffee, “Oh, what are you writing about today, Kevin?” It’s more like three or four weeks go by and I’ll get an mp3, “Hey, James, what do you think of this? Should the ending be this long?” You know, “I don’t know, it’s your song, dude, what do you think?”