Cover StoryWarn's World
In One Ear (11/15/00)
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His Name Is Alive 10th anniversary performance
|More from Melissa Giannini|
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Gut-wrenching low-end voices careening to stretched-nylon heights. Repetition, four-wheel-driven into your soul. Invasive (physically, mentally, emotionally crippling) sorrow.
When you break it down to a spontaneous science-fair project, Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth doesn’t contrast with previous His Name Is Alive material as much as one would gather from a casual listen. The first note sounds like it hopped off the keyboard of a modest Casio synthesizer on the klezmer option. The second is syncopated oom-ch-chahh drum machinery. Then that soulful, deep female voice beckons you to bed. That’s it. “Simple make-out R&B,” the casual listener proclaims and discards.
But then they catch you. The words, those oh-so-invasive words. You feel uncomfortable. No, miserable — the most wretched feeling you can imagine. A realization of truth, that burning-knotted-stomach, limbs-gone-limp, lump-of-cane-sugar-caught-in-your-throat feeling. Then you’re hooked. You start noticing unassuming nuances such as toothpick-thin tip-tap that you’d swear was coming from the attic. Or the timid grand piano, even the straight-up R&B staples that would sound clichéd in anything but a recording structured in the basement of a lifelong Livonia resident. It takes a few hundred listens to come to this realization, but what good is a His Name Is Alive record if that’s not the case?
“To me there’s such a unifying element to all of it that’s been there since the beginning. There are details or aspects of it that are different each time, but ultimately it’s the same feelings, the same perspectives, the same emotions every time in every song,” explains Warn (né Warren) Defever, the man behind the pensive quirk of His Name Is Alive.
“Then I got to thinking, maybe that’s not how other people see it. I really feel better about it when people see the consistency in everything we’ve done. ‘This song moves me like this, and this album makes me feel this way.’ I guess I deal in more of those abstract terms … it’s just music and that’s an expression of something. Someone’s gonna hear this and say, ‘Why are they doing R&B?’ And I felt like we often redo old songs, and themes reoccur over different albums. It’s all the same thing. It’s evolving, it’s different, but it still comes down to certain feelings and how you express them.”
The album is somewhat of a tribute to the positive effects of a culture clash.
“The last three years, we’ve been working with Lovetta (Pippen, vocalist). Her and I, we really come from different worlds.” She, a modest apartment complex just off the freeway on Detroit’s west side and a childhood free of secular music. He, an upper-middle-class suburban two-level house and punk fandom at age 10.
“The combination of what I add to what she does and what she adds to what I do — it couldn’t be what it is if we were both from Livonia. I went into it with the idea in mind that I was going to put together music to support her singing. And she’s a soul singer. I wanted to make an album that not only complemented that, but basically framed it. I wanted to make a background for her.”
The songs that hint at instrumentation one would expect from an HNIA recording have the most starkly literal lyricism. And the least comparable musically are the most similar lyrically. The effect is sparse ear literature. Transparent? Try buck naked. Compared to past albums where emotion was kept neatly tucked behind metaphor curtains and string sections, Someday My Blues raises Defever’s most ragged undergarments up the flagpole. Which matches an overall mood displayed on some of his more recent solo material, I Want You to Live 100 Years or Warn Defever. The starkness also points to the band’s physical makeup. There are really not many people left.
At this point, Defever realizes that no matter what he does, someone will complain.
“If your second album sounds too much like your first album, people will say you just did the same thing again. And if it’s too different, it’s like, ‘Well why didn’t you do what you were doing before?’ There’s a little bit of a weird pressure there, and I really can’t think about it. I think the important thing is you hear a His Name Is Alive album and it brings you down a little bit.”
None of this will help you prepare for the band’s 10-year anniversary show at the Magic Stick this Saturday. Not only does the album not come out until January, but the band’s label, 4AD, has stopped releasing albums in the United States. You’ll have to order the import or wait for it to find a home domestically. In addition, not much connects the recordings to performances. The songs are butchered. Sometimes a puppet show will take the place of a second set.
“We did a tour two years ago where Lovetta sang, Erika (Hoffmann) sang and Deb (Agolli) was the drummer. Deb was on a riser in the center of the stage. Lovetta stood up and played congas in front. Erika stood up and played piano in front. Me and Chad (Gilchrist) sat down in back behind cardboard bushes. A lot of people who saw us didn’t realize what band it was. We play songs that don’t sound the same as they do on the records. Different people play them. Different people sing. Some people don’t like that in a band.”
The Magic Stick show is another of those “last time you’ll see HNIA for a while” kind of performances. The band is currently working out some kinks with the manufacture and distribution of the first three albums, which affects touring. Of course, if you count years on both hands from the group’s very beginning, you’ll run out of fingers, but the first album was released in 1990 and that’s when they started playing out.
Besides, why don’t we just give this one to the guy. Defever is one of the most creative — and perhaps misunderstood — minds to surface from the mitten. He is indeed ahead of his time while maintaining a stuck, snug and smug position within it.
Outside, it looks like any other country-livin’ suburban 2.3-kid household that left the light on for ya. Except, of course, for the bloody limbs on the porch, leftovers from the Haunted Tube, one of the various annual projects put on by Time Stereo (www.timestereo.com), a label run by Defever and roommate Davin Brainard out of their dining room.
Inside, Defever is relaxed, seated on a cushy couch inside his Livonia home, the kind of dwelling you always promised yourself you’d have as a kid. Videos stacked to the ceiling on top of the mantle, little plastic toys tastefully displayed on a stool, a 3-D owl portrait, Mexican wrestling masks welcoming you as you descend a staircase to a basement recording-studio Oz, complete with a “hidden” video camera in a bush to document sessions.
With a wry smile, he begins one of his famous painstakingly detailed yet wildly consuming stories about a tour stop in Vancouver, all the while maintaining a characteristic tone that compels while it condescends with dry sarcasm.
“So we do a show and we meet some really nice people who we stayed with. One of them was this DJ at the club. We get to his house and he’s got these weird Tupperware containers in his fridge with little flowers. He eats flowers. So I eat a couple flowers, everything’s going good. One of his friends is this young woman who’s really into the Undertaker — the wrestler — and some of us stay at the DJ’s house and some of us stay at the Undertaker fan’s house. She’s got this shrine — really elaborate, really scary. The next day, we have a day off and they want to show us this national park in Vancouver. We go there, and we’re hiking. We’re there for like half a day and it’s really beautiful and really nice, but it’s hiking so it’s boring.
“Eventually, we get to this clearing and there’s a cliff. There’s a small waterfall and these 13- or 14-year-old boys not wearing shirts, cliff diving. It was like a dream. So we climb up there, and two people in the band had just gotten fresh tattoos and weren’t supposed to get them wet. So I’m standing there and one of the boys, the Canadian boys, yells, ‘Hey, mister!’ And I’m not usually being called mister. He yells, ‘Hey, mister, don’t be afraid of your freedom.’ At the time, I didn’t think of it in the context of, he thinks I should jump. Suddenly, it had this great metaphysical significance. So I jumped. And it was so scary. There was so much time on the way down. You had time to think about, why did I do this? This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I’m gonna die and break my leg. Why in the hell, did I do this? They know something I don’t. There’s a rock. I’m supposed to jump left or to the right. But it worked out OK.
“It was at that moment. That was when I started playing free.”
Believe it or not
“Most of the time when he starts talking about Canada, it’s a lie,” offers Warn’s brother, John Defever, with a laugh. The two grew up in the same Livonia home Warn has lived in his entire life. Which, oddly enough, is less than a mile away from the hospital where he was born. John lived in the house until six years ago when Warn bought it from his father.
Although the HNIA main man is famous for the dreamlike myths he unleashes in interviews, John explains that the lies he was referencing with “Canada” usually revolve around a certain entertainer.
“When we were kids, he found out that William Shatner was Canadian, so Warn started claiming he was too.”
The problem is, the truth is often stranger than the lies: The Dutch government funded an exhibition of the Haunted Tube in a gallery in the hometown of 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch.
The same UK label that was riding high on the success of the Breeders and the Pixies (4AD) listened to a tape Defever sent them with the title I Had Sex With God and offered the band a record deal more than a decade ago.
Or try this one. Defever recently received a gold record for a song he had recorded on a tape deck years ago, which was part of the Jerry Maguire sound track.
About the gold record
“What do you want to know,” he asks.
“Do you have it here? Physically?”
“Yes.” he answers.
“Where is it,” I probe.
“Right now? On the floor in the office, in a pile of records. It’s in a plain sleeve. In like a record cover. I think it’s something that someone who really likes His Name Is Alive will spend a lot of money on, on eBay. I don’t know.”
“Everyone who had something on the album got a gold record?”
“Yeah. It’s like a compilation album.”
“What do you think about that?”
“It shines and it’s the worst thing I’ve ever been involved with.”
He actually was asked to score the entire movie. See, the guy who was hired to drive Cameron Crowe (director) around was a His Name Is Alive superfan. He once bought an HNIA record that Defever cut a 78 groove into, over some other music: “Totally unplayable.” The fan spent $50 on it at a show in L.A. Every day, on the way to the set, Crowe’s assistant would play His Name Is Alive. Tom Cruise has a scene in the movie where he has a nervous breakdown. He can’t get it. So Crowe says to his assistant, “Why don’t you go get that music from the car?” The assistant plays it on a boom box on the set. And Tom Cruise is able to have a nervous breakdown in his first try listening to the music of His Name Is Alive.
“They think, ‘This is the guy to do the score,’” Defever adds. “It’s an honor. I don’t know.”
Maybe this story should have gone in the “believe it or not” section. But the gold record is real. Defever was on one of the local news stations because of it.
“It was like the most legit thing that I’ve done,” he says. “They originally had asked me to score the movie and I couldn’t do it. It was wrong. The people that worked on that movie were so, I don’t know the word, um, professional. I was talking to people who’d have a fax machine in their car. I was like the country boy from Michigan that accidentally told the director that my favorite movie was Batman. That was a big mistake. There were three assistants going, ‘That was a mistake.’ It was horrifying. What it came down to was they ended up using one song that I had recorded years ago on a cassette tape deck.”
The experience did allow Defever’s music to reach a lot of people.
“A Tom Cruise movie is huge. When you’ve been doing basically underground music for a long time, your aunts, your uncles, your neighbors, your friends, your friends’ moms who still don’t have any grasp on what you do, they’re wondering when are you going to get a job? When you do some music for a Tom Cruise movie, everyone goes, ‘Oh, he’s a musician. He’s a professional musician.’ But it was such a joke, because it was an old song that I had already released. It wasn’t like anybody cared about the song at all. Zero. It was like a lie. I was living a lie.”
In the beginning
“When I was 5, I started playing music with my grandpa. He was always in bands and he had a bunch of instruments, so we would learn country-western, polkas, waltzes — music up to about 1954, when he ... tuned out. We would play the accordion, the fiddle, slide guitar, the banjo, stuff like that. And I was playing this sort of music and these instruments before I’d ever even listened to music, before I knew what a record was or the radio. There was no connection made between ‘doing’ music and listening to music. I did that for a number of years.”
At around 8 or 9, Defever discovered oldies radio.
“I thought that was what the kids really dug. Because I was playing all this music from post-World War II, totally unaware. When I was 10, I had this friend who had moved to Cleveland and came back a changed kid. He was totally punk when he was 9 or 10. I got turned on to that stuff. That’s when I really thought, ‘This is the right music for me.’ Not that country stuff, not that western swing, not polkas and waltzes. For a long time, all I listened to was rockabilly and surf music, more garage-oriented stuff.”
Defever and his brother would experiment with the instruments themselves in addition to music.
“We sanded down his bass and he wanted to glue some feathers onto it,” John remembers. “But we didn’t have any around, so he cut up my mom’s bed pillow. Ironically, it didn’t have any feathers in it. When my mom saw what happened, she was in tears.”
Before one of our interviews, Defever gave me a short tour of mostly houses, hospitals and high schools in what he likes to call “the city of natural beauty,” which is not the slogan for Livonia. He just likes the ring of it when he’s describing his hometown to European press.
“It’s actually ‘families are still first’ or something like that. Really bad, the same slogan as a Target or Kmart.”
We drove by the school where Defever would often sleep through classes and where his band’s name originated.
Supposedly, the story goes that he was in class and the teacher was talking about Abraham Lincoln and how “his name was alive.” It struck something inside Defever.
Meanwhile, he had been playing bass in Elvis Hitler, a fast, loud, rockabilly-surf-punk band. Defever was 16. The other members of the band were in their late 20s.
“I would play in bars, clubs and theaters on weekends. Sometimes we would do a short tour. I may have been too young to see the things that I saw.”
When he was 21, he formed His Name as Alive almost as a reaction to the realities of being in a band.
“We (HNIA) never really played. That was one area where we were different from other bands. I thought there was a better way than doing shows and hanging around bars. There were two years before we actually put out a record.”
One of the realities of playing in a band — personality conflicts — was something Defever could never really shake.
“Two ex-guitar players, five ex-drummers, two ex-keyboardists, six ex-vocalists ... There’s an ever-growing list of people who will not work with me anymore. It has been firmly established that I am very difficult to work with,” he admits.
Elvis Hitler had a strong group dynamic. His Name Is Alive did not. John worked with HNIA briefly for some festivals in Canada.
“To say that one works ‘with’ Warren in His Name Is Alive would be like saying the apostles worked ‘with’ Jesus,” he quips.
One former vocalist who sang with His Name Is Alive for 11 years, Karin Oliver, describes the experience literally.
“Mostly, my part in the band worked like this: Warren would write a song. He’d call me over and give me a lyric sheet. He’d play the melody he wanted me to sing on his guitar, and I’d sing along. We’d go over the new song about two to five times until I had the melody down. He’d put me in the ‘recording room’ with the lyric sheet and my notes tacked up to the wall in front of me. He’d record a few takes. Then we’d move on to the next song.”
Oliver says her ideas didn’t really play into His Name Is Alive. Although some of Defever’s later work was more collaborative, in the beginning, she believed her voice was seen as an instrument. For live performances, he suggested she play a few notes on a keyboard per song to add some stage presence.
“If I tried to make it a chord or add some rhythm to it, he’d get upset, so I’d just stand there with my hands on the keyboard playing one note over and over through the whole song. I am no longer in the band because he kicked me out. I should have quit, but I was happy to at least get the chance to sing. And that part of the experience will always remain great.”
1998’s Fort Lake represents the more collaborative years.
Says Defever, “His Name Is Alive, when it started, was really just me writing the songs and playing the instruments. Whereas, over the years, it became a rock band. In Fort Lake, there’s a lot of freak out, kind of long jams, and it’s about the musicians coming together, interplay. And that’s how shows have been for basically the past five years. This album kind of went back to me putting together the music. I’ve had friends come over and play on it. Dan (Littleton) from Ida plays on it. Fred (Thomas) from Flashpapr’s on it. But it’s real bare bone. It went from being more of a group sound, a group feeling, everyone contributing their own parts and doing this music that, to me, was really satisfying. People put their all into every second of what we were doing. It was the right group of people and the musicians. Just the way they expressed themselves was really magical. It was something I had never really been a part of before. And suddenly, there was nobody left. It was me and Lovetta.”
His Name Is Alive and Elvis Hitler aren’t the only bands Defever’s been involved with over the years. One project was the Dirteaters EP, a recording created in the early ’90s that featured the voice and bass skills of Queen Bee’s Karen Neal.
“It was probably one of the most unnatural things that I’ve been asked to do, well, with my voice anyway,” Neal laughs. “It was really minimal, real straight, kind of brassy. But it was cool, different.”
The first time the two worked together was when Defever recorded Inside Out, one of Neal’s former bands.
She recalls, “From that recording, we got our first song on a compilation, ‘Venereal Girl,’ a Madonna spoof. That got us our independent deal in England on Meantime Records. Warn didn’t tell me until just a couple years ago that that was the first time he ever recorded a band.
“He’s a very strange guy, but I’ve always respected and admired his creativity. And his imagination. He is so prolific. I can’t imagine coming up with as much material in my whole lifetime that he could come up with in a week. He just lives and breathes music. I’ll talk to him, and he’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m recording an album today.’”
Defever’s other projects reinforce his “performance art” side. There’s Control Panel, an electronic project that changes at whim. A few months ago, it was a group of noise artists in long black robes weaving through the Gold Dollar, eventually tying one individual to a chair and then dragging the chair-plus-person through the room where something charred, burning like sage or incense, softened the blaring static and siren. Then there’s Princess Dragonmom, another noise band known for performing at annual Haunted Tubes and Noise Camps.
“I try not to think about what I do as a job. If I did, I’d be doing it differently. If I’d been doing this for 10 years and it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t have made it. It’s a constant struggle. There are opportunities to basically sell out all the time. You see the paths that people take.”
Every day, Defever gets up and does what he wants. It’s usually recording, writing songs or doing shows.
“My favorite show was with Princess Dragonmom in the basement of the Majestic. It was called ‘Fire Truck,’ but it should have been called ‘Fire Trap.’ You had to go down a rickety stairway. It was only up for about three or four months because it was a total hazard. We did a show and there’s only one light bulb, so we got everybody down there and basically broke the light bulb, set off the explosives and listened to people scrambling out of there. It was horrible, but I think that’s a good time. That’s the kind of show I want to go to.”
Who knows what we’ll get this weekend.
Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times music writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.