Warren Defever (His Name Is Alive) interview

Where to start? For my money, ‘Livonia,’ the proper debut album by Michigan’s His Name Is Alive, is one of the strangest, most beautiful and frequently unnerving records ever made. Its prolific and perseverant protagonist, Warren (sometime Warn) Defever, was signed up by his dream label, 4AD, back in 1990 and has been the bane of lazy musicians everywhere ever since. Most recently, a bountiful series of his “gauzy dreampop,” pre-‘Livonia’ home recordings have been issued on the London label, Disciples. Over email, from his Livonia hometown, Warren deftly backhands some, often slightly uncomfortable, prying from a nostalgic fan.

Glen : Do you consider yourself an artist?  A songwriter?  A musician?  Or something else?  

Warren : Although I’ve been playing music since I was five and I usually play guitar or piano everyday, I don’t identify as a musician, especially if I’m around other really good musicians. I don’t practise scales, I can barely sight read a chart, I only have a basic understanding of how all those parts kind of fit together. It’s like hatha yoga – I taught myself out of a book when I was a kid, so I never really learned it right and then, over time, my versions of the asanas have all devolved into weird homemade postures like Statue of Liberty and Man Frozen In The Ice. I’ve written a couple hundred songs but I’m not much of a singer, so when you tell people you’re a songwriter they kind of expect you to bust out one of your songs and nobody wants to hear me do my version of, ‘I’ll Send My Face To Your Funeral,’ if we’ve just met. When I try to pass myself off as a composer, it quickly becomes apparent that I don’t know my sinfonietta from my sonata. When I played music with my grandfather, John Kloschinsky, the main lesson I learned was that anybody can play music and that everybody should play music. I was only five and I was in his band. I’m pretty sure he could’ve found a more qualified musician but he didn’t seem to mind that I couldn’t barely hold the accordion on my lap and I definitely couldn’t see over it.

So, getting back to your question, what do I consider myself? Thanks. Now I’m having a nervous breakdown. What am I? How do I define myself and my role in society? What am I actually good at? Who am I? Is this what an identity crisis feels like? First question and I’m ready to walk into the ocean. Thanks for the hardest interview ever. Let’s see who survives.

What were your interests outside of music when you were a kid? What did you do with your days?   

Warren : There was some tree climbing and lake swimming for sure but mostly I was indoors, sickly, pale and laying around. I read the newspaper a lot and my older brother had comic books and music magazines, so I read those while I was laying around. We were always listening to the radio, records or tapes. Laying on the floor next to the stereo with headphones on was probably the thing I spent the most time doing. I know it’s boring, I’m sorry. I went hunting a couple times and shot a bow and arrow at a deer once but missed. Is that more exciting? My younger brother shot at me once in the woods – not right at me but in my general direction. He claims he didn’t realize I was out there but you never know. I never stole a car, robbed a liquor store or broke into the neighbour’s house when they were in Florida during the winter and stole their TV, knowing that they wouldn’t be back for months and by then the trail of clues would be long gone, so I think I mighta missed out on some regular hi-jinx and horseplay when I was kid. So, as an adult, I’m still excited when someone asks if I want to ride around in the back of their pick-up truck while they drive drunk through the city, in the snow, at midnight.  

How and where did you buy your instruments and recording gear in the early days of making music?  Did you have a favoured store?  Did you trade gear with others? 

Warren : From when I was ten, until I was sixteen, I worked in the Summer in the cornfield and saved up my three dollars and thirty five cents an hour until September and would buy one piece of musical gear – a bass, an amp, a four track, a phaser pedal, etc. There was only one store in the Detroit area that I was aware of, called Crazy Clarence’s and they had funny tv commercials and Wes Beech from the Plasmatics worked there sometimes when he wasn’t on tour and he had a giant mohawk, so that was a cool place. Mostly, I used what my older brother had laying around and he played with other musicians (which I seemed unable to really get together), so sometimes they’d leave a drum set around or cool amps or weird guitars. Trading gear? No, I only had, like, three things. 

How would you describe Livonia (the place) to someone who’s never been there? 

Warren : There’s two options in this hypothetical situation that you propose. In Option One, I’m doing an interview with a British person and I say it’s beautiful, wildlife abounds, children are sometimes taken in the woods in the night by bears. Livonia is known for its rolling hills, it’s an idyllic place, worthy to be subject matter of many ballads and poems written by the great Romantic poets of the mid 1800’s. It’s always springtime and there’s just enough of a nice breeze to blow a cute leaf into the book that you’re reading while laying on a blanket in the park. In fact, I have a club called Leaf Club and the members display and occasionally trade unusually pretty leaves that land in books while reading, during picnics.

Option Two is a little more honest and direct : Livonia is a six by six square mile area, devoid of culture diversity. What it lacks in scenic areas or places of interest, it makes up for in racism. The population is around one hundred thousand people who live in houses that all look the same, on streets that are set up in a grid pattern. It’s the worst case scenario of the suburban nightmare. DO NOT ENTER THE CITY LIMITS. When I was in high school, the population of Livonia was 99.9% white and I don’t know how much has changed. 

Was there a Livonia scene in the late 80’s/early 90’s?  Where did you cut your teeth playing live? 

Warren : Livonia is Detroit adjacent, so if you grow up in Livonia, a lot of your teen years were spent sneaking into clubs in Detroit to see bands. I saw The Jesus and Mary Chain at Traxx less than a month after (their debut album) ‘Psychocandy’ came out, which really helped me set a course for the future. But a lot of bands skipped Detroit back then (and now) because there’s really not that many people here and people are chicken of Detroit. In the 80’s, guys from the MC5 and Stooges were still hanging out and were like superheroes. Unfortunately, a lot of the local Detroit music scene seemed to be in a race to the bottom of who could be an even dumber, more simplistic version of the MC5 or the Stooges and then be more one-dimensional. Hardcore was huge, so playing very loud and very fast was a requirement. I played at bars like Reruns in Dearborn, Paychecks and the Hamtramck Pub in Hamtramck and in actual Detroit at the Red Carpet, St Andrews, the Vanity Ballroom, the Old Miami and Alvins Finer Twilights. 

For the uninitiated, what’s the story behind the name, His Name Is Alive?  What’s your relationship with the name these days?  I’m specifically thinking about how names lose their mystery after a while and perhaps just become like the name outside the store that you no longer need to look up at.  It just is

Warren : The name is what it is. If I could’ve come up with something a bit cooler, that woulda been great, like something with Jet in the name or Fire Dogs or Space Mirror but no, I got His Name Is Alive. I wasn’t really thinking about the big picture. I slept a lot in school and would wake up confused and disoriented often. Once, I awoke and the teacher was talking about someone and he really sounded great and magical and said the phrase, “His name is alive.” Later it was revealed that the subject was Abraham Lincoln, who is fine and one of the great presidents but not that magical. But it was too late, I had already said the words, “That would be a great name for a band.” So it was settled. Not Silver Motorcycle, not Jet People, not Tiger Electricity but His Name Is Alive. It’s fine. Whatever. I guess my burden is constantly being judged by poor choices I made thirty five years ago. 

What was your gear set-up around the time of recording ‘Livonia?’ 

Warren : Livonia was really done in two parts. The first part – aka the worst part – was a four track cassette. No mixer, no amplifier, no drums, one guitar, one sampler and one or two tracks for vocals. Wait – there was also a bass but if you listen to the album, the song with bass doesn’t really have guitar in it, so it was like, “Pick one – you don’t get both.”  I had a microphone from Radio Shack and it was a weird microphone – the PZM – a metallic flat square that you would hang on a wall or set on a desk near the thing producing the sound.

The second part – aka the good part – was when it became clear that 4AD might be interested in doing something, although originally Ivo (Watts-Russell, head of the label) had suggested maybe he could put a couple of songs on the new This Mortal Coil album he was working on at the time, ‘Blood.’ I took my four track cassettes and transferred them to an 8 track reel-to-reel at my friend Lenny’s studio. Suddenly, the world opened up, the black and white Wizard of Oz switched on, full colour. I had twice as many tracks. We added some drums, bass clarinet, extra vocals, bass and guitar. I put percussion on the vocal tracks in between verses when Karin wasn’t singing. It was like maximalism. I hear it now and of course it still sounds ultra-empty, skeletal. There’s usually only two or three things happening at a time but you know how it goes. At the time, I thought it was panoramic and by including less things, they would appear larger. When you hear a symphonic orchestra, there’s 127 instruments and they all blend together in the background but when you hear Gaither Carlton playing the fiddle and singing into one microphone, he sounds like he’s right there.  

It’s documented that you were pretty persistent sending your demos to 4AD.  Why 4AD specifically?  Who were your favourite 4AD bands at that time?  Did you have a plan B?

Warren : I was a super 4AD nerd fan. I had bought the Cocteau Twins ‘Aikea-Guinea’ single just because the cover looked interesting and then listened to it a million times. They didn’t seem to have any basis or any connection in anything I was familiar with. Then, the more I dug in, I heard This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance, Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares and my favourite album, ‘Sleeps With The Fishes,’ by Michael Brook and Pieter Nooten.

It was all so mysterious and beautiful. There didn’t seem to be a formula and every note and sound was unrelated to anything I could put my finger on. It was all alien but the good kind of alien, not the bad kind. Their planet was clearly better and I wanted to go.

I had sent a tape called, ‘I Had Sex With God,’ to a couple labels and 4AD was the only one that responded. Ivo said he liked about half of the songs, specifically the ones Karin sang, not the terrible ones that I sang terribly on, which I hope nobody ever hears (please God). So, Ivo had been working with a couple American bands then – Pixies and Throwing Muses – and I guess it was annoying with the time zone nonsense and the shipping costs, plus organizing flights, etc, so they were gonna try to avoid that scenario again if they could. Ivo gave me a couple tips, suggestions and concerns but also suggested a few other labels I could send stuff to. No one else was even remotely interested. I appreciated the feedback from Ivo – honestly he was the only person who had heard what I was doing and had anything to say, although a few people did tell me it was awful, noise or terrible; I can’t remember exactly. Ivo, to this day, has never specifically said, “Please stop sending me tapes,” so I just keep sending him stuff, even now. He always has great suggestions like, “You should tune the instruments before you press record….Maybe if you had a drum machine, you could play in time better….You should add a gospel choir to that one,” or, recently, he put in a request for a long sustaining fuzz guitar solo with a harmony part added in. Ivo was the first guy to play me the Beastie Boys – I think it was ‘Check Your Head’ or maybe ‘Paul’s Boutique.’ It blew my mind. I had no idea that was happening. He’s always doing something interesting, like rescuing dogs or illegally sneaking religious antiquities out of Thailand. Not everyone can design their dream house in the desert and then build it but that’s typical Ivo. Also, he’s a great drummer. We jammed one time in my basement. We didn’t record but I’ll never forget. It was loose but he had a magical groove, like from 1969 Canterbury, kinda psychedelic with a lighter, jazzier touch. He’s a magic man. 

‘Livonia’ album cover : Vaughan Oliver/v23 – art direction and design
Beverly Carruthers – photography/Chris Bigg – design assistance

Can you talk me through how Ivo and John Fryer got involved with ‘Livonia?’  How did you feel about handing over the reins, so to speak?  What was the technical process here?  Did you just send over the multi-tracks?    Any instructions?

Warren : The album isn’t very long and two songs appear twice It’s probably only twenty minutes of music total and then a couple repeats. I don’t think of myself as a control freak and when the guy who ran the label with Cocteau Twins, The Pixies, Bauhaus and This Mortal Coil asks to do a mix, you say yes, let him do it. It’s pretty simple. I barely knew what I was doing and there was tape holding my stuff together and I was mixing to a boombox, so I knew enough about how things worked; that you probably shouldn’t make a record from a crappy, lo bias Kmart cassette. I just sent him the multi-track master reel. There was just the one. It wasn’t very complicated. Instead of notes, I don’t think I included any track sheets or any info at all. Plus, we had been taping over some punk band’s old album, so occasionally that would still bleed through (deep ‘Livonia’ listeners might notice a stray hardcore drum beat that comes in for a few seconds). 

Do you remember how you felt when you heard the final mixes?

Warren :  It wasn’t a complicated process. They just did the one mix and they mixed a couple songs twice differently to make it long enough to make an album. My ideas were never too involved and songs generally had one part and then sometimes another part but they didn’t go on very long. Some people called the album Art Rock or even Prog Rock when it came out probably because it didn’t seem very punk. But honestly they probably shoulda called it Basic.

So, when they sent the mixes, they were already in order. I cried and said, “Wow, it’s a million times better! Thank you for saving it!” I think Ivo was used to working with people that were meaner or more uptight or picky. So it felt like a good fit. I wish I could find someone now to mix my album. Just give it to someone else, let them do all the hard parts. That’s the dream. 

His Name Is Alive ‘Fossil’ from ‘Livonia’

Going by Youtube footage, there seems to be a sharp contrast between the live versions of the ‘Livonia’ songs and the ones on the record.  Were you always reworking them, live? 

Warren : Two things : One, we played them pretty much exactly as they were on the album, maybe went on a bit longer, ‘Some and I’ was the super-jam that could go on for half an hour but we mostly stuck to how they were on the record early on. There’s a video on YouTube from 1990 of us playing ‘How Ghosts Affect Relationships’ at the Majestic Theater in Detroit. It holds a thousand people. I remember we did a show there right when ‘Livonia’ was released and dang, it totally sold out but in the video you realise it’s just one guitar and vocals. There’s no “band.” A couple of songs had drums but really it was insanely minimal and I’m pretty sure nobody in the audience knew what was going on. It didn’t sound or look like a normal band. We played like that for a while in Detroit, Chicago, Ann Arbor, NYC but no extensive touring. A couple years later (’93), we did a regular US tour with 28 shows in 30 days : Tuesday-in-a-bar-in-Milwaukee kinda tour. By then, things had developed a bit and everything had been reworked or twisted or reversed or we did the music for one song but Karin sang a different song and we had, like, four people in the band, so we could do a lot of things. Still there was plenty of times when I’d look out into the audience and everyone was just looking at me like, “You’re doing it wrong.”

What about lyrics? Do you have recurrent, go-to themes? 

Warren : I try to stick to the classic themes, same as Shakespeare and William Faulkner : dreams, death, love, revenge; what are you doing this weekend; what’s your favorite colour; do you ever think you had a twin that you murdered when you were still in the womb; am I a vampire; why don’t I have more energy; how was the universe created; how do you measure what is missing? So, you know, the universal basic ideas that everyone can relate to.

Do you enjoy playing live?  I work directly with a lot of artists that not only make most of their income from playing live but need to, for their own, hmmm…mental stability.  Obviously, these are taxing times for those artists.  Do you miss it?  Has the pandemic made you re-evaluate your hopes for HNIA? 

Warren : I toured a lot when I was younger, straight outta high school. Elvis Hitler released an album that was kind of a college rock hit, so we toured non-stop for a couple years. Our album, ‘Disgraceland,’ was a mix of rockabilly, hardcore and metal and it crossed some weird lines so, like, Playboy Magazine called it “the Country Album of the Year.” And then we went on tour with the Dead Milkmen when they released ‘Bitchin’ Camaro.’ We toured constantly, so I got a real musical education from playing with bands like The Cro-Mags, Devo, Pussy Galore, Corrosion of Conformity, The Unsane, The Gun Club, plus way more. I think I got touring out of my system early on. I started performing when I was five with my grandfather. He had a band in Western Canada in the 1940’s. He taught me and my brothers how to play polkas, waltzes and country and western music. We played at old folks homes, hospitals and trailer parks. The audiences seemed to fall into two categories : very old people with gnarled skeletal claws for hands, who lived in retirement homes, with strong chemical scents failing to cover the smell of death and then fun drunk people, who were probably also on drugs, with their shirts mostly unbuttoned, who lived in trailer parks amongst garbage mountains and when we played ‘Roll Out The Barrel’ or ‘Beer Barrel Polka,’ they went insane. When I look back, they were probably already insane. I saw dogs chained to car batteries and blood-stained clothes hanging from the clothes line.

If you bleed all over your clothes, don’t hang them on the line outside. C’mon people!

So, maybe I prefer recording to reliving the trauma of these formative experiences performing live. We did two shows in 2019 and they went really well; we had gold necklaces, I wore a vest with no shirt, we played in LA and NYC and both nights I looked out and saw people crying during the sad songs. We only had one show planned for 2020 but it was a big one – at the Toledo Art Museum in a cool, round, all-glass pavilion; it was gonna be a three hour show with 15 musicians. Hopefully, we can reschedule it but I think maybe the moment has passed. 

I instantly and always loved ‘Livonia’ but with the gift of hindsight, I actually think it’s one of the best 10 albums 4AD ever released. The artwork, too, is some of my favourite v23/Vaughan Oliver ever did.  Invariably, artists tend to think their newest work is their best but 30 years on, how do you feel about ‘Livonia?’ 

Warren : When Livonia came out, the publicist at 4AD let me write my own press release and I called it, “Fucked up minimalism, arranged classically by an irresponsible youth from Michigan.” I think it’s still pretty accurate. I still don’t know why they let me do that; it maybe would’ve been nice to bring in a professional. In 1990, I don’t think the world was ready to buy into a thing that was described as “fucked up.” 

Original 4AD US press release for ‘Livonia’

Brothers Quay made some incredible videos for your music.  Where did their involvement originate?  Were you aware of their work, prior?  Do you recall their reaction to your music?  A startling amount of work must’ve gone into those videos.   What were your thoughts on them?  (Sidenote : some years ago, I had cause to phone the Brothers about a project and was amused that, not only were they were both on the call but they often finished each other’s sentences).

Warren : Vaughan had met them when he was in school. I think they had taught a class. Ivo sat me down in front of a TV and a VCR and without much context said, “Watch these.” It was a VHS tape of five Quay Brothers short films. They were, of course, amazing and dark and scary and cute and funny and weird. They were everything. So, when it was over, Ivo asked what I thought about asking them doing a video for us. I said there was no way in a million years that would ever happen and bet him a hundred dollars. I was wrong. We went over their studio a few days later. They wouldn’t tell us the exact address, just some cross streets and said we’d recognise it. When we got close, we could see an antique bicycle chained to a post that looked like it hadn’t moved since Lewis Carroll and William Blake left it there to go fight in the Crimean War with the British East India Tea Company (sorry British history isn’t really my thing). They said they would never do a music video but were very polite despite there being a weird vibe in the air. The studio had sets from all their films around, which were a little creepy plus when we showed up, one of the brothers wasn’t wearing a shirt and the other had on what appeared to be homemade glasses. I’m not judging, just saying. I walked out of the meeting confident that Ivo was gonna owe me a hundred bucks. The next day, they called and said they couldn’t believe the music and would love to collaborate on a short film. We ended up doing a couple things with them and the videos were included in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC a few years ago at a thing. 

The Brothers Quay’s wonderful, unsettling video for HNIA’s ‘Are We Still Married?’

Some of the artists I’ve spoken to have expressed surprise at some of the antics unveiled in Martin Aston’s 4AD biography, ‘Facing The Other Way : The Story Of 4AD.’  Did you read it and if so, did anything surprise you?

Warren : It is a great book, Martin did an amazing job putting it all together and it revealed so much about the bands, the label, the music industry and one man’s journey through creativity and depression. I strongly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in 90’s shoegaze, goth or whatever. I was a super nerd fan of 4AD before working with them, so the book definitely rekindled all that love. What didn’t surprise me was the most successful bands complaining the most. It’s weird how that works. What absolutely blew my mind and was the hugest revelation considering how closely I worked with Ivo for thirteen years, having gone recording shopping with him so many times, listening to tons of records with him and the hundreds of songs he’s sent me over the years, he never once mentioned to me that the label originally started with him attempting to license Chrome’s first album, ‘Half Machine Lip Moves’ for the UK. If that woulda happened : wow wow wow, can you imagine?

From the mid-90’s onwards, you often alternated between 4AD and self-releasing (with timeSTEREO, etc). What are your thoughts on being signed versus being independent?

Warren :  One of the many great things about our relationship with Ivo and 4AD was how unstandard our contract was or at least how little the terms were enforced. I would make an album and believe it was the best thing I had ever done, like the ‘Electric Pinecone’ album that had an instrument that was an actual pine cone with a pickup attached, run through various pedals and amplification but ultimately sounded not unlike an mbira or African thumb piano and then performed as a series of duets, which highlighted its unique musical properties, as it was contrasted with a harp, saxophone, violin etc. I would then deliver the album to 4AD and say pretty much the same words every time, “You gotta release this. It’s amazing. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. You’re gonna freak out when you hear it. We’ll be rich!” And Ivo would find a polite way of saying, “You know we already have two releases scheduled for you right now…Maybe you can release this one yourself?” So, basically, from day one, we were releasing anything that 4AD passed on thru other labels and then later thru timeSTEREO, which was my friend Davin Brainard’s label. He lived in Livonia and we went to high school together and then later we lived together for ten years. So, I kind of enjoyed being signed and independent simultaneously for about thirteen years. Prince was not so lucky. 

The recent release of your previously unreleased pre-‘Livonia’ recordings, made between 1979 and 1986 have excited a lot of fans, though there’s also been some doubt about how someone so young could’ve produced something so fully-formed.  Much of what I’ve heard sounds surprisingly contemporary.  What are your thoughts on this?

Warren : The recordings don’t have a lot happening so there’s nothing specific to date it. If we had included the songs with lyrics about hating Ronald Reagan or the songs with 80’s cheesy drum beats, it would be easier to place them in time. It’s really not too hard to imagine how an eleven year old could write a song that’s only a minute long and only has one part with two chords. This is not rocket science. William S. Burroughs had a system to put a curse on a thing or a place by recording audio and then playing it back in the same place a few days later. This playback would be superimposed on top of the current reality and would trigger a disruption of the “control system,” – one would be pulled out its correct time position. Perhaps I accidentally used this same technique with all the tape loops and cursed myself and I got pulled out of time. I think this is the best and most reasonable explanation of my musical career trajectory.

Promotional video for ‘Hope Is A Candle,’ the third and final volume in a trilogy of Defever’s teenage tape experimentation.
Video by Dominic Foster.

I get a strong sense of melancholy nostalgia from the early recordings.  Are you a nostalgist?  Do you believe things were better in your past/the past? 

Warren : The past was definitely 100 percent measurably worse. No question.

When I was a kid, it was still basically the dark ages. Doctors would says things like, “We don’t have a word for what you have” and now you can just click on a button and your doctor sends you a text. It’s amazing. Cat allergy pills are so small. Pills used to be so much bigger when I was young. I was sick a lot.

Maybe the music has a melancholy or nostalgic feeling but it just happens. It’s not my fault. In fact, now that you mention it, I would hate to hear that there’s musicians who decide to write something on purpose with a nostalgic vibe. I hope nobody is doing that; that would be terrible. I hope there’s not a series of techniques or a formula that artists are weaponizing to lure listeners into a world of sad memories. You’re making me question everything. 

Do you record at home these days?  If so, what are you main instruments and gear? 

Warren : I like recording and I keep a minimal set-up going at home. I like some of the old classics when it comes to gear but also I hate some of it, so like I always use a 1951 RCA 44 ribbon microphone on stuff but I don’t use a mixing board or console.  I’ve used Protools since about 1994, so I’m an expert on recording digitally and although I recognise the merits of recording onto tape, especially the big thick greasy low end you get with a 2″ 24 track machine moded, so it only records 8 triple wide tracks at seven and a half inches per second, instead of the standard fifteen or thirty but that thing’s the size of a refrigerator and tape costs about fifty dollars per minute, so for home recording that kinda takes the fun out it. 

Warren’s home studio

You have one of the most distinct, instantly recognisable guitar sounds (a big influence on me) – big, overdriven but defined and contained.  Where/how did that sound originate?  Experimentation with a particular combination of pedals?  Or were you influenced by a particular guitarist?

Warren :  I think early on I recognised that regular boring bands had two guitars, bass and drums and I had read about Minimalism but didn’t really know what it sounded like and if you combine those two things and the limited instruments I had at home (guitar, piano, sampler that held about one second of memory), it meant that songs were only going to have two or three elements. If your song has ten things, then all the parts are smaller than if you have a song with three things. The few individual elements that I was using became larger, more prominent. Also my brother had a boombox that, when turned all the way up, created a crazy over-driven fuzz sound. I didn’t know what a fuzz pedal was but I was using this as a fuzz box. I didn’t grow up playing cover songs or playing in a cover band, so I didn’t really ever focus on nailing down everyone else’s style. So my thing is just a sloppy mix of misunderstanding and simplifying what other people have already done. 

Just some of Warren’s impressive guitar/FX arsenal

You obviously have a chemistry with (former Pale Saint) Ian Masters.  How do you two collaborate?  Do you prefer working in a room/studio with someone or are there advantages to long-distance collaboration?   

Warren : What’s weird is before I met him, everybody warned me, “This guy is nuts” or “Good luck with that one, he’s a bit difficult” and it’s true, he’s completely insane but (ok Ian, quit reading now) I love him, he’s one of the smartest, warmest, kindest, gentlest souls I have known. He’s an amazing musician who can play or sing anything, he’s infinitely curious and constantly creating. I don’t think there’s a boring bone in his body. He’s literally a super genius who needed a challenge and moved to Japan to become a rocket scientist. It’s one thing to become a rocket scientist in your native language but Japanese rocket science as a second language is in the top ten of hardest things a person can do. And that voice : it’s so easy for him to sing like an actual angel, that’s what angels sound like, that’s his voice, just his regular voice.

熊虫
from 天国の王国 by ESP Summer (Ian Masters and Warren Defever)

In the recent debates about streaming, particularly the diabolically unfair royalty rates to artists, it’s become obvious that it’s increasingly difficult to live off one’s musical income alone.  Do you do something else besides music to pay the rent/bills, etc?  What are your thoughts on surviving as an artist in 2021? 

Warren : A few years ago, some friends of mine did a study of musicians all over the world. They interviewed 15,000 musicians from Ethiopia to Brazil to Detroit, etc and they figured out that most musicians have three jobs. Being dependent on a single income stream doesn’t really work, so we work in music stores, we give lessons, we teach, we sell merchandise, we do live sound, we organize festivals, we perform, we record, we engineer recordings, we donate plasma, we sell our instruments, we have our cars repossessed by the bank. I think one of the reasons we talk about how difficult it is now that streaming has replaced record sales, is that it’s affected wealthy musicians also. Poor musicians have always been poor – there’s no news there. 

Where do you see music going fifty years from now?  Both in terms of how people will be making music and how audiences will be listening to it?

Warren : Music hasn’t changed in hundreds of years, it’s not going anywhere in the next fifty. There’s always gonna be some minor divergence of styles in western popular music that is basically insignificant if you look at the big picture and you know whatever the new development is, older people (30+) will say it’s not as good as it used to be and younger people will be fine with it but basically the bell is struck, the air vibrates and if you’re lucky, your ear catches it and you feel something. There’s really not too much to it. 

What are you listening to right now?  Do you keep up with 4AD releases?  What are your thoughts on The Breeders’ take on HNIA’s ‘The Dirt Eaters’ on the new 4AD covers album, ‘Bills & Aches & Blues?’  Did their choice surprise you? 

Warren :  Whilst I type this, I am eating Bugles and like most people, I stick them on the ends of my fingers and then eat them from there. I am listening to an album by Zia Mohiuddin Dagar called ‘Raga Yaman.’ It’s got two tracks, the first is forty minutes and the second is twenty nine minutes. It’s probably the best record ever made.

I haven’t kept up too much with 4AD in recent years but I’ve been enjoying all the covers album. I thought someone woulda covered the Cocteau Twins or Dead Can Dance but I guess the kids today aren’t learning Latin or Elvish in schools like they used to.

The Breeders cover of ‘The Dirt Eaters’ completely killed me. As a super nerd Breeders fan and as a kid that saw the Pixies a bunch of times, from right at the beginning, when Ivo sent me a message that they were gonna cover our song, it was a truly surreal moment. It meant so much. Then Kim (Deal) sent me a heads up and a mix of the song before it came out and I’m not very good at keeping secrets but I felt like I better not ruin this. It’s a great feeling hearing someone who gets it. I think they really got it, probably because they’re from Ohio, which is practically the same as Michigan, except slightly worse in most measurable ways. I can only describe the feeling as probably similar to when a serial killer kills you but wears your face for a while… but in a good way. That probably didn’t come out right but I mean its an honour and they picked the rightest song for them. It’s perfect, I love it.

Favourite non-American band?

Warren : Why would you draw that line? Did you just not want me to say Weather Report or Pharoah Sanders and does it have to be a band band and not a person? Is this a test? Is there a right answer? What if there’s one American guy in the band? I’m just gonna go with The Kinks or The Jesus and Mary Chain. Final answer. Wait maybe it’s Os Doces Bárbaros but they only made one album and it’s live but there’s a DVD too. I can’t decide. Also now there’s too much pressure to not screw this one up. Thin Lizzy, it’s Thin Lizzy. 

Do bigger budgets and better studios equal better records, do you think?  Does the idea of, say, $500,000 to make an album interest you? 

Warren : I would literally do anything for $500,000. When I see on the news that some lobbyist group donated a million dollars to someone’s campaign, I think, “Yeah, I would totally sell my vote for a million dollars,” absolutely no question. I remember when bands, punk bands, were getting $100-300,000 budgets to make records and I was always disappointed that they didn’t suddenly start making records with huge orchestras with tons of tympani and boy’s choirs and why weren’t they recording in the Bahamas in the Winter? You know here in Michigan it starts snowing in October and always snows in April; maybe once or twice in May.

Prince has that song, ‘Sometimes It Snows In April,’ – maybe its a metaphor or something but it literally snows in April every single year since as far back as I can recall and he was from Minnesota where it’s way worse. If I was ever going to bump into Prince at a party or whatever, that was the main thing I would have liked to talk to him about.

$500,000 budget means you rent a castle, a haunted castle, probably in Eastern Europe, maybe Latvia or Estonia and spend the first month trying out different brands of strings on all the guitars you rented and then a week testing out different brands of nine volt batteries in fuzz pedals to get the right amount of gription. Please send me $500,000 and I will spend it right and provide a budget proposal and schedule. I promise a good value for your investment. A hit song? Maybe not but I can guarantee a lot of alternate mixes, demos, extra albums, a secret side project recorded after hours and definitely a behind-the-scenes DVD. Generally albums that were recorded in one day aren’t very good but there are some exceptions and I’ve kinda come up with a working theory that most musicians aren’t able to work productively for more than about three hours a day, so I like a three hour session. You don’t really need to take a break if you’re only working for three hours, no dinner break, no arguments about should we get a pizza or Thai food or burritos, nobody needs a nap after the dumb lunch break, etc. It’s only three hours, you can have some snacks out but let’s stay focused. As you probably already know, I usually record at home, alone, unsupervised, with no budget.

Generic Arcane Delights question : how would you describe HNIA to a cab driver? 

Warren : When people find out I play music, they usually ask what kind of music and I always say the same thing : blues. It’s all blues. I think there’s a quote from Townes Van Zandt about how there are only two kinds of songs : blues or zip-a-dee-doo-dah. I’d rather be blues.

A big thank you to Warren for being so generous with his time and responses.

Please, please, please visit the His Name Is Alive Bandcamp page

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for having this conversation and sharing it with all of us. :-) Defever was, and continues to be an influence on the music that I make from time to time, and reading this evoked the memories of hearing their music for the first time, or seeing them play shows with just a drumset, vocals and guitar.
    It felt like Dave Eggers was in the corner of the room, nodding approval at font choices, and that is some high praise. It might not sound like it, but the sound would be [ chef’s kiss ].
    Also thank you for getting Defever to shed some light on his recording process over the years- it might seem less mysterious now, but just as magical, if not more so.

    5 out of 5 stars. Would recommend!

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