of Femur: Where Rock Becomes Sex
story by tim mcmahan
Lazy-i: Sept. 11, 2003
w/ The Golden Age, Crush the Clown
13th & Martha
an interview over the phone is tough enough. Try it with three people
on the other end.
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.
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.
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."
likes to joke around and nobody's an asshole. We've been pretty
good screeners when it comes to asking people to join the
been called a Bright Eyes rip-off band. We all enjoy Bright
Eyes, but we don't sound anything like them."
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
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
The focus now is just
getting people to associate their unique sound with their rather
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."
Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader September
11, 2003. Copyright © 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.