Touring the indie-rock way
is hard enough, driving cross-country in a van and sleeping on friends'
floors. It's even more difficult when you have to cram eight people plus
assorted horns and a double bass into the van. So you have to hand it to
Chicago's Head of Femur for ambition, if nothing else.
"If you had to put a label
on us, I suppose 'ork-pop' would be apt, just because we do tour with
orchestral instruments," vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ben Armstrong
says. "They do figure prominently in the sound, and they're on 80 percent of
the live material. So if the qualifications for being an ork-pop band are
the presence of horns and strings, I guess by default, that's what we are."
Actually, the three key
members of Head of Femur are, first and foremost, great pop songwriters in
the tradition of '60s heroes such as the Beach Boys and the Left Banke.
Orchestrating their material is less of a novelty for them -- as it is for
some groups in the ork-pop genre -- than a means to realize the complicated
sounds in their heads.
Armstrong, Mike Elsener
and Matt Focht have been making music together for more than a decade, since
they played in a band called Pablo's Triangle in their native Lincoln, Neb.,
often sharing bills with the fellow Omaha group Bright Eyes. When their
first band split up, Elsener moved to San Francisco, Focht moved to New York
and Armstrong relocated in Chicago. After a three-year break, they decided
to make music again, and since Chicago was midway between the coasts, it was
the ideal compromise.
HEAD OF FEMUR;
MARK MALLMAN; DEVIN DAVIS
2011 W. North
"We've gotten a lot of
breaks due to the nature of the Chicago scene that possibly wouldn't have
happened anywhere smaller, like Lincoln," Armstrong says. "They possibly
wouldn't have happened anywhere bigger, like New York or San Francisco,
either. Chicago has been good for us. It's a warm scene with a lot of good
bands, a lot of helpful people and so many good clubs that it makes it hard
to pick where to play."
The bounty of musicians
in Chicago also has made it easy for Head of Femur to realize its ork-pop
"When we started, we
wanted to sound like '60s pop, Left Banke-type music, and we didn't, but we
got closer when we added the horns and strings," Armstrong says. "There was
a violin player living in the house we practiced in, and we had a very good
friend who is a trumpet player." One by one, other instruments were added to
the mix until the band's 2001 debut, "Ringodom or Proctor," became a lush,
The band's new album
"Hysterical Stars" is even more ambitious, with the three core members --
who trade off on vocals, guitar, keyboards and percussion -- augmented by
trombone, tuba, trumpet, violin, cello, French horn, flute and even a harp.
The group will expand to 21 instruments -- "The only thing that will be
missing is harp, unless someone wants to donate the money to fly her out
from California," Armstrong says -- when Head of Femur celebrates its new
release by playing the album in its entirety at Subterranean.
"For the new record, we
wrote for whatever instruments we felt like and worried about finding them
later," Armstrong says. "Thankfully, we were able to locate every instrument
we wrote for, and nothing was compromised."
None of the three
musicians are formally trained, but they're able to realize their complex
arrangements with help from a computer program called Finale, which scores
instrumentation for orchestra.
"I used to write it out
by hand with a quill with a feather on it," Armstrong jokes. "But this is a
hell of a lot easier. All of the musical parts are written out for the
people who come in; it isn't a situation where we say, 'Oh, we want
saxophone; let's bring a sax player in to solo over this part.'"
Head of Femur is at its
best when it's most concrete. "Elliott Gould Is in California Split," which
opens the new album, evokes a feeling of Hollywood decadence, while "Jack
and the Water Buffalo" tells a haunting story set during the Vietnam War.
Occasionally, the group gets too whimsical for its own good -- as in the
tune "The Sausage Canoe" -- but even then, it's hard to resist the gorgeous
"This album is more of a
collection of songs that we have been writing over the past two years while
touring," Elsener says. Adds Armstrong, "'Ringodom' was pretty much
conceived and composed in that order, whereas with this one, it was like
going through our backlog of songs that were complete or mostly complete and
fleshing them out and recording them."
"We'd be happy with
10,000 records sold," Focht concludes. "And we'd like people to come out to
see the shows. What we want to accomplish is just being able to sustain the
band as an independent entity without having to throw thousands of our
dollars into it. And, of course, quitting our jobs would be nice."
REASONS FOR LIVING
After the Beach Boys'
enduring 1966 masterpiece, "Pet Sounds," the album most responsible for the
current "ork-pop" revival is the self-titled 1994 disc by Cardinal, a
much-loved underground duo featuring Oregon native and trumpeter Eric
Matthews and Richard Davies, the former leader of Australia's psychedelic
garage rockers the Moles.
Davies moved to Boston
in the early '90s and linked up with Matthews, who had abandoned his
original goal of joining the symphony there when he was distracted by the
city's vibrant rock scene.
On their remarkable
debut, the two created a cross between Pink Floyd's "The Piper at the Gates
of Dawn" and Love's "Forever Changes," with Davies' fragile, soul-searching
tunes fleshed out by Matthews' regal scores and the duo's velvety harmonies.
But tensions simmered below the gorgeous melodies.
"There was an intense
relationship," Davies told me at the time. Added Matthews: "It was fruitful,
but Richard and I pretty much intended on making only one record together.
He's more comfortable being his own boss, really."
shortly after the disc's release, and while both men went on to pursue
worthwhile sounds on their solo efforts, nothing they've done on their own
has topped what they accomplished as a team. Now, the emo label Wishing Tree
has reissued "Cardinal" as a special set with the complete original album as
well as 11 demos, outtakes and bonus tracks. Best of all are the fascinating
liner notes, which hint that a reconciliation and reunion may be in the
Ork-pop fans can only