Music For Headphones interview
Hey … I want to thank you for sitting down with me. I caught you all when Music For Headphones and Asteroid No.4 opened for Sonic Boom, and again here at The North Star with Adam Franklin. You’re keeping good company.
Jonathan: Thank you for asking us! Yes, we have been very lucky in the past year to play with such amazing musicians. Sonic Boom is responsible for sending me down so many paths and has been such a positive influence in my career as a musician. We were lucky enough to open for him in 2007 and were ecstatic to be asked again this year. I have known the Asteroid guys for a number of years and have played with them off and on as well as many other classic “Psychedelphia” bands. Our keyboard player was even in Manta Ray back in the 90’s. Playing with Adam was a real treat as well. We were actually not originally on the bill but asked to fill in when Ports of Call had to pull out. Adam is a long time friend of Perry Pelenero (Skylight/bliss.city.east/Morpheme) who has become a great friend of min over the past year and led to our involvement with XD Records. It was awesome to meet Adam, its like connecting all the dots to my musical heritage.
I’ve read the bios, and the reviews, but let me hear it from your mouth, how would you describe you lushly layered neo-psychedelic sound? Or have I just done that?
Jonathan: Haha, that’s pretty good. I have a hard time classifying what it is, the records don’t flow linearly like that, however I suppose the live show does always end up with a lush, noisy neo-psych vibe.
The band’s vocals stand in stark juxtaposition to the music, and is almost narrative in its content, how did that come about?
Jonathan: I did not set out to be a singer, and spent the first ten years of being in bands writing the lyrics for female singers. When our last vocalist unexpectedly quit in December of 2006 I was thrust into the role of “front person” and have worked really hard to develop a voice. Where that has led me is to a very Mike Gira/Ian Curtis place but it was certainly not on purpose or by design. Its just where my voice sits. Life in Mono is most instrumental, but all of the previous records are narratives of my life. Its the only way I know how to write and it is the piece that connects all of the recordings. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Has the music become a group vision, or is there still a guiding hand?
Jonathan: Well, there have been nearly 30 members in Music for Headphones over the last ten years and three cities I’ve been based in, so it has always been my project, however the record we are working is turning out to be a group process. I have been playing with these guys for the last few years and they have all brought important, interesting, and exciting ideas to my songwriting. I trust them to be partners in the creative process which is not something I have ever felt before.
You’ve taken many of the technologies from the late 70’s and 80’s, for example, electronic drums, and while other bands fail completely when trying this, you’ve managed to succeed … do you see a reason for this?
Jonathan: Thank you! I have spent a great deal of time listening to 70’s German music and the origin of electronic music as well as had a a long time interest in bands like New Order, Section 25 and Depeche Mode. Part of my background is as a recording engineer which leads me to listen to music technology in a different way. I was lucky enough to find a drummer who is not only a phenomenal and proficient drummer of many styles, but also an electronic musician and DJ. He has truly helped me realize and integrate those sounds seamlessly into MFH.
I should have done this from the get-go, but would you mind introducing the band please?
Jonathan: My name is Jonathan Allen (guitars, synths, vocals). We also have Greg Kinter (guitars, synths), Justin Gibbon (drums, electronics), and Phil Watson (organ, synths).
Philadelphia has a rich history for music going back to the late 50’s early 60’s, not to mention the neo-psychedelic bands like yourselves, Asteroid No. 4 [whom I’ve interviewed], and War On Drugs, do you see the area becoming recognized again for its hidden treasures?
Jonathan: I actually don’t. It seems like Asteroid spends more time on the west coast these days, and War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, and Sounds of Kalediscope play here less and less. We have a closer connection to the psych/shoegaze scene in Chicago than anything going on in Philadelphia. Neo-psych and shoegaze have been going strong in the Pacific Northwest for twenty years, but when you look at things like the CMJ charts or what’s played on satellite radio it becomes evident the neo-psych and shoegaze are the truly independent, underground scenes. Sure there are artists who break out and are recognized by the “indie rock” community like Kurt Vile or A Place to Bury Strangers, but its largely a very close and private scene. When the Brian Jonestown Massacre signed to TVT in 1998, it seemed for a moment like neo-psych might transcend and become as widely culturally viable as the original psychedelic seen did. Maybe I am wrong and it will happen. That would be amazing.
You seem a bit darker, but never-the-less, inspired by 60’s rock, yet seem destined, or at least I hear production influences that would lead me to believe that you’re venturing into the realm of soundscapes?
Jonathan: I was lucky enough to grow up in a household with thousands of albums and I really took advantage of that, listening to everything I had access to and trying to understand it. It also encourage a rampant habit of buying music in me as an adult. I rarely set out to create any one particular sounds, its all really just a combination of everything. I love the Small Faces or the Byrds as much as I love La Dusseldorf, the Cure or Spacemen 3. I grew up listening to Sonic Youth, early Mercury Rev and early Flaming Lips. I would still say the Ronnettes are my favorite group though!
Along those lines, your songs are singular events, and exist well in that environment, have you given any thought to connecting the dots and creating an album where everything is tied together?
Jonathan: Oh I feel I did that on 2010’s Secret History of the World. It is truly a linear narrative where the music flows and is connected from one song to the next as well as the lyrics. There’s a very clear story on that record. I do believe the new record will feel similarly.
You must know this question was coming. Have drugs influenced your creations either positively or negatively … or have they as Mr. Dylan says, “Just fueled the engine …”?
Jonathan: Well, psychedelics definitely helped me understand reverb and space in a way that I do not think you can with out them. That being said, they are not a necessary nor regular part of my song writing process. I have to take so many pills to function, none of them are much fun at this point. I managed to rupture three discs in my back by age 29 so pain meds are necessary half the time to walk around!
Would you mind taking a few minutes, getting a bit technical, and talking about electronics, effects, pedals, and what they allow you to achieve?
Jonathan: I realized early on that I didn’t want my guitar to sound like a guitar. As I mentioned above, growing up listening to wildly weird guitar noise in Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips, and Mercury Rev, I went on a manic journey to find ways of using delay, wah, fuzz, and ring modulation to create beautiful chaos and then I saw Peter Holmstrom from the Dandy Warhols in 1997 and saw how you could use those tools in neo-psych music. This led me to guys like Will Sergeant. I started listening to what Robert Smith was doing with his guitar in the Cure and found where all those come together in Kevin Shields playing. I firmly believe in experimenting with tone and sound, creating my own voice. I find purity and beauty in chaos and noise.
Other artists have told me that they write the song on the instruments it’s to be played, while others like to sit down with an acoustic guitar … how does the creative process develop for you?
Jonathan: Generally the recording process and the song writing process are one in the same. I develop sounds and motifs in my head then start recording them where they inspire or develop into other ideas. This isn’t to say I don’t have an acoustic sitting in my living room that songs get written on because I do. However it generally starts with electronics, organs and synths. Lyrics are written last 99% of the time.
There’s a production precision to your sound, you function as a unit rather than individual members … is this concept difficult to maintain?
Jonathan: On one side, yes and that’s why there have been so many members in the band. On the other hand, no because that’s the way I need to make records and can’t imagine doing it any other way!
Are you a perfectionist, or do you let things happen?
When recording I am pretty focused on an outcome and becoming fairly obsessed. Live, however, anything can and does happen, and there’s an inherent level of non-control to what we are doing.
Some bands delight in making the music, while you guys seem to delight in playing it live. Do you discover new aspects of your songs in front of an audience?
Jonathan: Its taken me a long time to enjoy playing live honestly! I am finely getting there though and it has everything to do with the strength of this line up. It has become rewarding seeing how the audience reacts to songs and how they grow and change. “Doctor” from Preface/Alternate is a great example- I’ve been playing that since 2007 and it is still growing and evolving. Then there’s “The Blood” from this years Life in Mono which I don’t find to be anywhere near the highlight of the record but has become our set closer and my absolute favorite song to play live. Playing it in front of an audience brought out a feeling in the song I had not noticed before; a joy, a release.
Aside from huge success, stadium shows, and OD’s in the back of a BMW, what’s eluding you, something just out of reach, resting in the ether, that you’d like to bring back to terra-firma?
Jonathan: What I hope always will- contentment, happiness, and satisfaction. When I find those things it will be time to stop making art.
Thanks for taking a few moments for me, is there anything that I’ve missed? Anything you want to get off your chest?
Jonathan: Well, the only other thing I’d like to mention is that we have recently signed to Xd Records, a new label operated by Slade Templeton, Perry Pelenero, and Dean Garcia from Curve. We really feel like we have found an amazing family and are so happy to be a part of it. Contrary to what I stated above, I believe these guys are going to start a revolution. There are some fantastic bands already signed, my favorites being Bloody Knives and Morpheme, and some truly amazing things on the horizon. Our first record for them will be out next February.
Where can folks contact you on the web?
Jonathan: http://musicforheadphones.bandcamp.com, www.evolrecordings.com, www.xdrecords.net, facebook.com/musicforheadphones, myspace.com/musicforheadphones, youtube.com/evolrecinc… Pretty much everywhere! We are really easy to find.
[smiling, shuffling my feet] At the end of your set at The North Star I surprised myself by shouting out, “Just one more!” How could you have turned me down?
Jonathan: I am sorry about that! We haven’t figured out how to integrate any of the Secret History songs with the Life in Mono stuff, so we haven’t been rehearsing it for nearly a year! As far as the new stuff, well, one of those was played and we weren’t ready to introduce anything else as we hadn’t planned on playing that show. Monday we will be though!
Interview made by Jenell Kesler / 2011
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