January 08, 2002

Interview: His Name is Alive

His Name is Alive--the brainchild of one man, Warn Defever--is a name that, to his fans, ultimately means diversity. To say that Defever is prolific is an understatement; one look at his time stereo catalog will show you that the man probably has had very little sleep in the past 10 years. Since debuting with the solemn, pastoral Livonia in the early 90s, Defever has led his ever-changing His Name is Alive crew to styles between rocakbilly, folk, retro-pop, goth, atmospheric...and to contiune naming would be both redundant and probably slightly prophetic. With his newest album, Someday My Blues Will Cover The Earth Warn has shocked longtime fans once again with a total stylistic change--straight-forward R&B. Yes. Even more odd is the simple fact that, in my humble opinion, this style is anything but new; I do believe that Thus, I consider it a great honor that Mr. Defever allowed me to ask him some questions via email. Even by email, the man's humor, wit, and love of music shines through, and I hope you enjoy my little insight into this great mind.

In the time between Fort Lake and Someday..., you've moved from Karin Oliver, to guest vocalists, until it's now just Lovetta. Is the change in vocalists due to the change in His Name is Alive's musical style, or is this change in style due to the change in vocalists?

We did a long tour for fort lake and by the time we got back home, we had lost everyone except me and Lovetta. Trey had moved to Seattle, Chad went back to school, Scott g. got a job as a truck driver, Erika was going to school, and Karin had gotten a good job at an advertising company.

For the most part, all of the vocalists that you've worked with in conjunction with His Name is Alive have been women. Does this use of female vocalists mean that His Name is Alive is a representation of your feminine side?

Lyrically the perspective is sometimes male sometimes female. I guess I just like the sound better when women sing than men. Some of my favorite male vocalists sing very high. In general I like mixed bands. I don't like as many groups which consist of four boys that went to high school together.

Just as the influence (however tenuous) of Smile-era Beach Boys had on Stars on ESP and Fort Lake-era His Name Is Alive, would you say that there was a particular record that made you feel like, "wow, I should be making gospel-tinged acoustic R&B?" Or, as in the case of "Universal Frequencies," do you feel that gospel-tinged acoustic R&B is something the world needs more of?

It was sort of an experiment. i have always been interested in electronic sounds and in the year 2001 i think that r and b is where the most exciting innovations in electronic music are to be found.

How did the Jerry McGuire deal come about? Was it a question of "show me the money" or simply something that was done on a corporate/business level with its appearance not directly being warranted by you, and, either way, does this indicate any particular desire to compose cinematic scores, or, at the very least, be involved on a film soundtrack?

The director's assistant was an old His Name Is Alive fan and as the legend has it, would play Home Is In Your Head in the car each morning on the way to the filming. When Tom Cruise was having difficulty getting the "nervous breakdown" scene together, the director suggested playing him some of that "crazy music" from the car. They played "sitting still moving still staring outlooking" on a tape from a boom box off-camera and then "Jerry" was able to do his thing convincingly in one take. So they really wanted that song to be used. That seemed like good function of that song so I said sure. I can imagine other situations where i would have said no but to be honest I've only really had that one opportunity come up. In the movie the song is heard for less than a minute, but since the soundtrack has sold hundreds and hundreds of thousands of copies I have to assume that would be the most "well known" His Name Is Alive song to-date. I made a fair amount of money from the mechanical songwriting royalties which have allowed me to invest further in my home studio and help pay for health insurance for a couple years. I think it worked out okay. In terms of soundtrack music, I make short films around here and usually make music to go with them. That's fun.

Rhythm and Blues, on the very surface, seem to be based in sorrow, loss, and pain, yet, underneath all of the sad times, there's a positive light, that the suffering is only temporary, "where there's life there's hope" if you will. Do you agree, and if so, is this one of the factors that has drawn you to R&B?

This is a hard question to answer, let me begin by first saying that there is a spiritual plane of existence and the material world. words like "r and b" exist only here in the physical world. I believe that music is just made of sound, vibrations, waves, frequencies, you know. I don't want to get involved with the wars that go on here. I don't want to sum up what a million "r and b" songs have been written about for a hundred years in one short sentence. There is no easy answer. I wouldn't say that I have been drawn to r and b, because i guess i don't believe it really exists.

Another key element to R&B is the idea of repentance/redemption. In the liner notes to the Emergency album, you mention a jinx. would you say that part of your turn to this radically different style of music is a form of redemption from the music that was being made in the middle part of your career, which was as much a diversion from the style before it?

Sort of. I like to see both sides of a situation. I like to go both ways. You can't get to heaven until you been to hell. I like the extreme ups and downs.

Do you still feel jinxed? Was part of this jinx rooted, at least in part of both the millennium and the major changes that happened in the music industry at the time of recording, and a fear that your future as an artist in the capacity as you had known it was in danger? How did the merger affect you, or did it?

My jinx included many elements but one part was definitely what was going on with 4ad starting with Stars on ESP up to our new album. I had never really connected with anyone there besides Ivo, and when he left in 1995, there were many communication problems. there were disagreements about the entire basis of our relationship with 4ad. It was an awkward time that ended with me making a personal vow to never send any more music to those people. After going on a spiritual journey that started in India and took me to Nepal and eventually Japan, I realized I had an obligation to continue making music and there had been further changes at 4ad, the USA office was shut down, and there was a new staff hired in London. Luckily it turned out that the new guy, Chris, was super cool and I finished my album and gave it to him in good faith.

As far as the business part of the question, His Name is Alive is pretty independent of the "music industry". We just do our thing here in Michigan and occasionally check out some other cities when we want to get out and play sometimes.

What is apparent, when listening to "Someday" in the context of "When the stars refused to shine," is that this style is indeed much closer to the first few His Name is Alive releases than one would think when placed in context with Ft. Lake and ESP. Should we take it that this indicates that the styles found on "Someday" are not the grand departure in HNIA styles, but simply a maturation, or, indeed, a more matured return to form, as witnessed in the remade version of "are we still married"?

I don't really care about "style." I like when things are plain and simple. not too ornamental. I like minimal things. Its kind of like an Amish sensibility. i think the emotional level of things has been consistent will all His Name Is Alive records. Sounds change, "styles" change, but ultimately its the same sort of thing. I have grown a lot over years as a person and as a songwriter, but there are certain things I will always love or at least fall back on: I will always love eating pineapple fried rice with tofu. The piano always goes in the left channel. I approach music on a very personal level and a very emotional level. I don't think I get obsessed with kinds of music but really certain songs and certain musicians. The record industry created artificial categories a long time ago which do not always reflect what musicians will naturally play and people will be interested in. The organic process of hearing something and responding to it has been forever tainted by the politics of the business. That's too bad. It doesn't bother me too much, but I do feel it affects how my humble attempts to make a living as a musician.

You're known as a man who knows what he wants when he's in the studio, when you worked on "someday" did you personally test out the make-out ability of this "simple make-out R&B"?

Your suggestion, if I have interpreted the question correctly, is totally gross!!! Mostly i like to listen to music when I go to sleep at night. So the test for me is whether an album is good in that capacity. They don't have to be "quiet" but there is a certain quality that i look for in music. Some Merzbow albums have it, Pharaoh Sanders has it, "brown rice" by Don Cherry has it. Its hard to predict.

Seeing as how you've been known to return to songs you've previously recorded/ released, do you ever feel like your songs are really, truly finished?

Finished just isn't a word that should apply to a song. Maybe you can say a recording is finished, but i think the thing about a song is that they are supposed to be timeless. When i play an older song that i wrote, i approach it no differently than someone else's song or like a cover version. It has to make sense in the now. I have to feel it now. the words have to make sense to me currently and apply to what's going on in my life at this time. That standard is applied to other peoples music the same way.

One of the nice things that you do, that most other artists would never dream of doing, is release albums or tapes of outtakes and demos from your recording sessions.

I thought everyone does this now. "when the stars refuse to shine" album was released over a year before "someday my blues will cover the earth". I believe this is an extremely rare instance of the outtakes and alternate versions being released before the actual album!!!!

Do you do this in part because you're a fan of classic rock and rollers such as the Beach Boys and you want your listeners to experience more than what they get when they buy the official release, or do you believe that the art that's created in the process of creating the final product is as interesting, if not more so, than the final product itself?

Traditionally we usually release something new each time we go on tour. It used to be difficult for us to sell the regular 4ad albums at shows and i was never really into selling "products" like shirts, mugs, hats, etc. I just wanted to get music out to people. So it made sense to sell tapes of live shows or fieldrecordings from Mexico, etc, and it just sort of grew from that. I end up making a lot of music here at home. Some bands record in studios and make one album every year or so. I got this studio set up in my living room so we record a lot of stuff. Its fun and If a person isn't super into all that they can just buy a new His Name is Alive album on 4ad every couple years.

You're not one who has but one project, it seems. what other kinds of loving creations are you cooking up at time stereo?

Secret projects include an Ida cd, a warn Defever solo cd, electric pinecone album, an album which can only be referred to at this time as "a cat" Time Stereo is presenting the "haunted tube" at a heironymous bosch exhibition in Holland soon. Also, there is some work beginning on afancy His Name Is Alive box set for 4ad with bonus tracks and extensive liner notes

Ten years is indeed a long time. What do you think about it all? Are you happy with what you've accomplished? Any regrets? Ever just want to say, "screw it, let's reform Elvis Hitler and make big bucks as punk rockers?"

I wish we could get an Elvis Hitler reunion together.I see my brother a lot , but i don't even know how to get a hold of those other guys. There are things I definitely miss about those days....my only regrets right now mostly involve not really getting involved more with the business side of things earlier on. I was 17 when i started making records with Elvis and 21 when "Livonia" was released. I didn't really ever start taking it seriously until around 1995-1996. I guess if i was really happy with the music i have done so far i could just stop. So until i get it right i have to continue. Oh well.

Thanks, War!

--Joseph Kyle

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