In the seminal 1997 film The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays Euliss "Sonny" Dewey. A charismatic Pentecostal preacher who travels across the South, Duvall's character hits the radio waves and fills tents with his fiery brand of syncopated hallelujah preaching and stomping, wild-eyed histrionics, inspiring hand-clapping, ass-shaking and great wailing incantations. Pocketbooks open, and the good Lord's work is done.
A new breed of bands has begun to pop up in the far corners of the fertile modern-music landscape, bringing a similar brand of fanatical fervor and showmanship devoted to nothing but the potent uplifting forces of rock. Some of them bring full choirs wearing robes (the Polyphonic Spree), others tell poignant tales of life, death and rebirth while banging mercilessly on everything in sight (the Arcade Fire), while still others trek across the sea from remote criminal colonies (Architecture in Helsinki) to tell their ardently hopeful tales.
The Chicago octet Head of Femur fits well into this new wave of revivalists. For the recent release of their second album, Hysterical Stars, the band members brought a staggering 24 musicians onstage to perform the wildly ambitious, defiantly jubilant album from front to back, packing a house that's normally devoted to bands an eighth of its size.
Named after the term for the place where the leg meets the hip, the body part that enabled Elvis to swagger so scintillatingly on The Ed Sullivan Show (the "junction of music and sex," says the band's Web site), Head of Femur is led by Nebraska natives Mike Elsener, Matt Focht and Ben Armstrong. I spoke with Armstrong from his new home in Kearney, Nebraska, to discuss leading such an unwieldy musical undertaking and spreading the magnificent blessings of Rock power.
Rich Sharp: Twenty-four band members: That's quite an adventure. What's it like to collaborate with so many people?
Ben Armstrong: Generally, our collaborative process is that one of us will come up with the outline or skeleton of the song either together or on our own, then we'll come together and Matt will set up the lyrics. For the more heavily composed work, the three of us compose all the string and horns and extra percussion parts, and then we'll write them out on sheet music and distribute them. So we had a string section and a horn section come into the studio and read off sheet music for the recording of Hysterical Stars, and then the same thing for the live performance. The three of us, with a few exceptions, composed most of the orchestrations. At the show, there were a few more mics and a lot more instruments, but we normally play as an octet, so we're kind of used to doing a big show.
Compositionally, your albums are really complex. Have any of you guys had classical training?
No. I mean, I think Mike has a couple of years of guitar lessons, Matt took some drum lessons and guitar lessons, but neither of them read or write music. I had piano lessons as a little kid, and I do all of the transcription onto sheet music, but it's not something that's particularly easy for me because I never had any training beyond neighborhood piano lessons. I had to teach myself a lot more theory than I knew at that point. A lot of the horn guys, like the eight-piece band, have music degrees and high school bands, etc.
It seems like there's sort of a growing trend toward bands who are more ambitious in that way, that are putting more sound onstage, bringing a lot more band members and instruments into the mix.
Yeah, one thing I liked about Architecture in Helsinki in that vein is that they're not afraid to be a little more experimental with things. I've seen this trend happen, too, over the years, and a lot of times you'll get a regular four-piece rock band and they'll just slap a horn section on the thing and call it good. And it's cool to see bands like Architecture who are willing to interweave stuff and put down the guitars sometimes and play other instruments, make things happen, make some daring choices instead of being just another rock band.
There also seems to be an almost thematic trend going on with a lot of bands now. Guys like you and Arcade Fire, bands that seem vaguely positive, almost spiritual in a sense, which for a while seemed like a real rarity in indie rock.
Oh, it was a rarity and, in fact, a no-no for a while, 'cause you wanted to be soul-baring or introspective, pouring over life's emotional side, and the negative context was kind of the template as well. It's cool to see that people are breaking away from that and moving towards something a little more uplifting. I enjoy that trend towards more upbeat, positive music.
Kudos for coming up with the name of your band, but I have to admit that for a group that's named after the sex urge, I rarely feel like getting it on while listening to your music.
I can understand that. We played with a German band named Missouri on this tour, and they pronounce it "Misery," but they're a very kind of sexual band, kind of a Roxy Music-Spandau Ballet feel. We're definitely a 180 from that. But you know how band names are. It's something someone came up with at practice, and it just kind of stuck.
I read an interview recently, and when you guys were asked what kind of band you were in, someone said "art-rock." Think that's an accurate description?
Oh, I don't know, that's the quintessential question, isn't it? Somebody says, "You're in a band, what does your band sound like?" Most guys are reticent to say, 'cause you gotta be careful. Anything you say has a million different connotations to all kinds of people. I think we've tried to make a conscious answer not to pick a particular style, though I suppose I could see someone referring to it as "art-rock," which just basically seems to refer to someone a little more creative than your traditional rock band, someone trying to exist outside of the framework of the standard stuff, which we definitely are.