Nebraska Strikes Again
When Matt Focht, Mike Elsener, and Ben Armstrong–now the core members of the orchestral pop group Head of Femur–showed up here late in the summer of 2001, they weren’t looking to start a new band. They were hoping to get their old one back together. Pablo’s Triangle had been a popular act in Lincoln, Nebraska, until Focht and Elsener moved away in ’98, and with two other former members, bassist/reedist Jonathan Hischke and drummer Colby Stark, already established in Chicago, this seemed like the place to try to build on their earlier success. But with Hischke and Stark on tour with other projects (the Flying Luttenbachers and Bobby Conn’s band respectively), the second coming of Pablo’s Triangle would have to wait.
“While they were gone, we got together and started writing some simple pop songs to while away the time until they got back and we could start doing Pablo’s again,” says Armstrong. “But they were gone for months.” By the beginning of 2002, what had begun as something to do was seeming more like a band. It soon was, and next Thursday at Schubas there’ll be a record-release show for its first album.
Where Pablo’s Triangle was “noisy and chaotic,” according to Focht, the new group (named for the uppermost section of the thighbone–supposedly the lowest point on Elvis’s body the Ed Sullivan Show cameramen were allowed to film, and thus, the band concluded, “the point where rock and roll becomes sex”) was going for a sound that reflected its members’ interest in the elaborate, meticulously structured pop of 60s groups like the Left Banke, the Zombies, and the Beach Boys. Armstrong, Focht, and Elsener all sing and play several instruments each, but as they recorded demos of the new songs, the arrangements they heard in their heads grew increasingly ambitious, and they started finding additional musicians to flesh things out.
“We’d get one person, and then we’d decide we’d need something else,” says Focht. “It just kept building.” Soon a whole crew, nearly all veterans of the same cluster of Nebraska bands, had come aboard to help, including Hischke, trumpeter Nate Walcott, drummer and keyboardist Jonathan Crawford (from Grey Ghost), and bassist Matt Silcock (formerly of Lullaby for the Working Class). “I was pretty against bringing in all of these people in the beginning,” Armstrong says. “I like the small-group setting so much, and even though I knew we were going to maintain the larger part of the creative control I was worried about things getting cluttered.”
A year and a half later, Head of Femur isn’t exactly a small group–they’ve yet to play a show with fewer than seven people onstage–but there’s little clutter on their terrific debut album, Ringodom or Proctor (released last week by Portland indie Greyday Productions). All the layers of ornamentation–horns, strings, marimba, accordion–never smother the band’s catchy melodies and pretty contrapuntal harmonies. Sometimes the group tries too hard, and a little more space in the dense arrangements might be welcome, but it’s an impressive piece of work–especially since it was recorded in just two weeks.
To get it all done and stay under budget, they spent months thinking through every detail in dozens of interlocking vocal and instrumental parts before traveling in March to Presto! Studios in Lincoln to work with A.J. Mogis. He and his brother Mike have between them produced, engineered, and mixed most of the records by Cursive, the Faint, Bright Eyes–the bands that have brought national buzz to Nebraska.
The Omaha scene–anchored by those groups and their label, Saddle Creek–gets all the glory, but it can be hard to tell where it ends and the Lincoln scene begins. Presto! remains the near-official studio for the region (the cities are about an hour apart), and everyone’s worked with everyone else at some point: Armstrong was in the local ur-band Commander Venus, and Focht and Walcott still play with Bright Eyes. Head of Femur naturally hoped that these ties would get them some attention in Chicago. “Initially the fact that we were from Nebraska seemed like a selling point, something that set us apart,” says Armstrong.
Their pedigree didn’t help too much, however, in a bigger pond with a lot more fish, and trying to break in here was discouraging at first. “To me it seemed impossible when we started,” Focht says. “But one thing has led to another.” While the group remains relatively unknown in town–the gig at Schubas will be the first time they’ve headlined at a major Chicago club–they’ve done short tours supporting Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley.
Playing shows is complicated for a band with such an ornate sound, and the core members have relied on the generosity of their friends to field a full lineup every time out. “We’ve been really lucky,” Armstrong says. “They’re into it enough that they’re willing to make sacrifices as far as compensation at this point. But you can’t expect somebody like Nate, who can get wedding gigs that pay 300 bucks a night, to always come with us for two weeks and get 50 bucks and beer.” Luckily, the band now has enough connections in Chicago that when one of the regulars is unable to make it there’s always someone willing to step in. Head of Femur is currently booking a two-week tour for September. For Thursday’s performance a 17-piece version of the group will perform Ringodom or Proctor in its entirety.
City of the Winds, a documentary by French filmmaker Gilles Corre about jazz in Chicago, covers the ground you’d expect– Fred Anderson and Von Freeman, the current crop of AACM players, Ken Vandermark and the north-side scene. But Corre covers a lot of it, and he keeps things lively and pleasantly agenda-free. New York-based (but Chicago-born) singer Ellen Christi narrates and conducts the breezy, conversational interviews. It’s showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center Sunday at 5:30 and again Thursday, August 28–the opening night of the Chicago Jazz Festival–at 8. Christi will answer questions at the Thursday screening before taking off to play a set at HotHouse.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.