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Head of Femur: Where Rock Becomes Sex

 
story by tim mcmahan


 

 

Lazy-i: Sept. 11, 2003


Head of Femur
w/ The Golden Age, Crush the Clown
Sept. 13
9 p.m.
Sokol Underground
13th & Martha
$7

Conducting an interview over the phone is tough enough. Try it with three people on the other end.

"You can say, 'The band said,' as many times as you like. We like being attributed as a group," said a grinning voice talking into a speakerphone somewhere in Logan's Square, Chicago.

It was one of the trio that makes up the core of prog/art/indie/rock band Head of Femur -- Matt Focht, Mike Elsener and Ben Armstrong. The three are credited with playing a variety of instrument, vocals and songwriting for a band that, when on stage or in the studio, balloons to an 8-person orchestra of friends and acquaintances.

But today, it's only Focht, Elsener and Armstrong, three former Nebraskans gathered around a phone in Focht's Chicago apartment, answering questions with voices so similar it's tough to distinguish between them, especially when they finish each other's sentences or jump in with a funny aside.

Their voices also merge in beautiful harmony on their debut full-length album, the strangely titled Ringodom or Proctor, just released on Portland indie label Greyday Productions.




 

 

The core sound is percussion, guitar, keyboards and quirky, layered vocals. It's surrounded with everything from trumpets to violins and cello, glockenspiel and other assorted noisemakers on songs that sound like a weird combination of Moody Blues, King Crimson, Flaming Lips, Talking Heads, Elton John, Yes and Left Banke.

The end-product is like staring at a glorious Peter Max sunrise poster, a baroque bouquet of bright colors centered around one simple idea that keeps changing before your eyes. There is a theatrical, rock opera feel to their music, like listening to a psychedelic, '70s-era musical (Tommyand Jesus Christ Superstarcome to mind). Their sound is at once stylistically complex and emotionally simple and unpretentious.

"There's something that brings it all together," said a voice, probably Focht's. "Some people say it has a kid's spirit, an innocence that comes from a child's point of view."

Head of Femur formed in November 2001 when the trio came together during an ad hoc reunion of their former band, Pablo's Triangle. Ex-Omahan Focht also plays with Bright Eyes and was a member of Lincoln band Opium Taylor. Lincoln native Elsener played in Superglue and Plastik Trumpet with former Lincolnite Armstrong, who also was in Commander Venus, Gabardine and The Black Dahlias.

In the end, the Pablo's Triangle reunion never happened. Instead, Focht, Elsener and Armstrong started writing songs together and one-by-one brought on the other players, including bassist vocalist Jonathan Hischke (My Name is Rar Rar, ex-Flying Luttenbachers), percussionist/keyboardist Jonathan Crawford (Ed Gray and Grey Ghost), violist/cellist Tiffany Kowalski (Bright Eyes, Mayday, ex-Lullaby for the Working Class), violinist/keyboardist Charlie Vinz (Solar Wind), trumpeter Nate Walcott (Pinetop Seven, ex-Lullaby for the Working Class) and recent addition Trumpeter Max Crawford (The Sea and Cake, Archer Prewitt).

Getting everyone together is easy, since all live in the Chicago area. But the core songwriting and arranging is done almost entirely by the trio before the other instruments are brought in to fill out the sound.

"We don't throw it all together right away," Armstrong said. "The three of us will get together and write songs, then bring in the bass player and then get the others together. Horns are usually the finishing touch. We spend months writing the parts. A lot of charts are written, but we also give everyone a chance to come up with a better idea. We just direct what they're thinking."

As you might imagine, touring with such a large ensemble can be cumbersome. "We've been on tour with this many people several times over the past year," Focht said. "The van is set up for it. If you're willing to put up with cramp conditions it can be fun. Everyone likes to joke around and nobody's an asshole. We've been pretty good screeners when it comes to asking people to join the band. Many of them have been friends for years. We're lucky to have nice people who are available to do shit like this on a low budget."

 


"Everyone likes to joke around and nobody's an asshole. We've been pretty good screeners when it comes to asking people to join the band."

 

 


 

 
"We've been called a Bright Eyes rip-off band. We all enjoy Bright Eyes, but we don't sound anything like them."

 

 

So how do they manage to coordinate between all the members' different projects? Focht said it's been challenging, especially when he and Elsener were on the road with Bright Eyes (He doesn't foresee any Bright Eyes tours in the near future).

"It really hasn't been a problem yet," he said. "For the three of us, Head of Femur has been a full-time thing from day one. Even when Mike and I were gone, we were on the phone with Ben every day."

"Lately, the other members have been dropping things for us, and we're quite happy about it," Elsener said. "They've shown real loyalty. A lot of them are Chicago gigsters and being in this band isn't a big time constraint. Mike Crawford is going to tour with us in September and the day we get back he'll go right back out with The Sea and Cake."

With connections to so many Saddle Creek Records acts, Head of Femur has been lumped into the "Omaha scene" by association. "At first, it helped us get a foot in the door," Focht said. "Now it's hard to get away from. We've been called a Bright Eyes rip-off band. We all enjoy Bright Eyes, but we don't sound anything like them. It's a weird connection that we're trying to get away from.

"Whatever our affiliation with Bright Eyes, Head of Femur is its own thing. They're different musical projects."

The band hopes to galvanize the differences as they continue to tour and record. They've already written material for two more albums. "Most of our next album is ready to go," Armstrong said. "We play half of it live. We could go into the studio tomorrow and record, but this one just came out."

The focus now is just getting people to associate their unique sound with their rather bizarre name.

The name Head of Femur comes from when Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the cameramen were told to film Elvis' pelvis no lower than the head of femur, a location the band says is the point where rock and roll becomes sex. But what's the meaning behind their CD's title, Ringodom or Proctor?

"It means nothing," says someone over the phone. "Think of it as Kingdom or Proctor." But before long, the band was goading Focht to give his theory on the album's name.

"It's kind of like, well, Ringo Starr is funny, charming, a nice great guy," Focht said. "Then there's Proctor from The Scarlet Letter, who is kind of the opposite of Ringo. So it's good or bad; a Ying and Yang kind of thing."

The band is less innocuous when it comes to explaining why they left Nebraska for The Windy City. "I don't think any of us are enamored about Chicago," Focht said. "I like it because these two guys right here live here, along with tons of other friends. We moved here because of our friends, not because we were in love with the CTA or Sears Tower."


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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader September 11, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.