Horns, strings instrumental to Head of Femur


May 27, 2005


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.



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  • "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 dreams.

    "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, symphonic affair.

    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 arrangements.

    "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."


    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."

    Cardinal disbanded 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 works.

    Ork-pop fans can only hope.