"I'm not in a normal band."
So says Chad Thompson, Johnny Headband's singer-keyboardist, delivering what surely could be considered one of the local musical understatements of the year. But even though this is surely a band that loves to use theatrics — with members often donning outlandish outfits that are more like disguises while swaggering, hurling, dancing and rocking their way through sometimes baffling but always engaging live shows — there was never a conscious intent to be a band of "mystique."
"It's just performance," Thompson explains, shrugging nonchalantly.
Thompson originally started the band with his bassist brother, Keith, primarily as a way to channel their multimedia ambitions. "We almost always think visually when we're thinking musically," Keith says.
Growing up near Flint in the 1980s, the tight-knit brothers began learning music at a very young age. But they also developed an equal passion for video — a result of getting their own camcorder in the early '90s, which they began using to reinterpret musicals and Disney fairytales they'd watched on TV. After graduating from Michigan State University with degrees in media information, the Thompson bros decided to form a band that could balance the aural with the visual. As a backdrop for their evolving stage shows, the pair combined music videos with poster art and ostentatious photo shoots of their own, while donning matching white outfits to wear amid the smoke machines pumping around them. It was a perfect visual component to accompany their unique blend of rock, new wave, disco and krautrock, all of which they produced via synthesizers, heavy metal guitar riffs and danceable beats.
Despite their claims to the contrary, an air of mystery soon surrounded the dudes, with their local shows becoming somewhat a thing of legend. The mystique and intrigue grew when their shows became less frequent. In fact, Johnny Headband's upcoming show this weekend — during which they'll be playing with longtime drummer Rob (RGS) Saunders and their newest member, multi-instrumentalist Pan!c (from Pas/Cal), who debuted with the band in Hamtramck last July — is their second local appearance of 2009 and only their third in 12 months.
The paucity of performances, though, had less to do with creating an aura of "mystique" than it did with other musical callings: In 2007, just as Johnny Headband was beginning to peak locally, Keith was asked to quit his day job in commercial editing to join Detroit satirists the Electric Six. This directly led to Johnny Headband's inactivity — Keith departs at least three times a year for national tours that can last for months at a time. He was also called upon to help develop Electric Six's two most recent albums, including the upcoming Kill, slated for an early October release.
Those extracurricular activities found him coming into his own as a songwriter, though; in fact, by the end of this year, his material will be featured on four separate local releases — including a collaboration with the Pop Project's Zach Curd (done entirely via e-mail), resulting in a disco-soaked, club-house, dance-rock duo called Desktop, which released a recording titled Liberty EP online and on vinyl earlier this month. Meanwhile, Keith's solo Enzovah EP — recorded under the moniker "52-Week-High" — features contributions from Jon Weier (the Dead Bodies' singer-guitarist-keyboardist), Steven Tuthill (the Beggars' singer), drummer Adam Cox and guitarist Jon Babich.
Nevertheless, these new projects didn't actually sideline the brothers' Johnny Headband industriousness. Chad continued to write and record at home when Keith was touring with Electric Six.
"It's not like it all dissolves," Chad says of Headband. "The band's always in our heads. It doesn't seem like we began this very long ago. I was 25 when we played our first show and now it's five years later. But from the first moment that we started thinking about the band, [the idea behind it] has never changed. There's always evolution. But it also always goes back to the original manifesto." He pauses, grins, and then he says, "Which, doesn't exist, of course. But, you know. ..."
"It does exist!" his brother insists quickly. "It's just not written down."
Throughout those first five years, Keith provided his brother with a "temporary" place to crash, thereby allowing them to work together almost constantly, preparing and refining the band for two out-of-state tours in 2007, as well as two memorable (dare we say "legendary"?) local performances — the release party show for their Happiness is Underrated debut CD in Detroit and then supporting Electric Six in Ann Arbor.
Chad grew up a drummer, studying the instrument and eventually giving lessons to aspiring percussionists. It was weird for him as the group's original drummer to assume a frontman role.
"What I like about it is that I've always done stuff in this band that I don't do naturally — such as singing, playing a keyboard, a guitar, or even recording and writing pop tunes," Chad says. "But the confidence came from rehearsing — knowing it backwards and forwards. And then it's easier to step into 'entertaining.' When we started, though, it was more out of necessity; like, 'Well, who's gonna sing?' 'Well, alright, I guess I gotta learn.'"
Part of that learning curve included producing, and Chad helmed the boards for all of Johnny Headband's recordings, including 2007's self-released debut as well as the upcoming Phase 3 EP, which is only their second proper release in five years
The new EP's narrative follows the process of "breaking through" — essentially exploring the plight of the musician with a day job. To illustrate the meaning, Chad suddenly breaks into the chorus of "Wasting Time," a song from the new EP: "'I'm wasting time ... but not tonight,'" he sings.
"It means you should do whatever you want to be doing and not make excuses for yourself," he says. "And if that means you stay up till 2 in the morning and still work your job the next day, then you do that."
Though the pair stress preparation and choreography for their shows, Keith says, "We're gonna do whatever we wanna do on any given day.
Chad, recalling all the blank stares and cocked eyebrows at live shows, adds, "And if it doesn't work, that doesn't mean we'll never do it again. Some of it is crash and burn but you just gotta do it. ..."
In the end, the bros claim that much of Johnny Headband's onstage bravado rises from their individual weirdness acting as a muse for the other to keep pushing boundaries. Stringy-haired Keith is hyper, as his onstage ballet-like leaps and bass attacks prove, while Chad's shy mop-topped grin slides into the audience's heart with a bashful magnetism.
Beyond the "weirdness" and creative bond, the brothers have a rare, seemingly ego-free confidence. And as it often is, the weirdest people in the room are the most secure. After all, as Chad is quick to explain, it's awfully hard to hang onto insecurities when you're standing shirtless in front of hundreds of people.
Johnny Headband plays Saturday, Sept. 19, at 8:30 p.m. on the Metro Times Main Stage (beside the Woodward Avenue Brewery) at the second annual Ferndale Street Fair, Nine Mile and Woodward, Ferndale. With Darling Imperial, the Hentchmen, Lucero, the Hard Lessons and 32 more bands. Johnny Headband also performs on Saturday, Oct. 10, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave, Detroit; 313-833-7665. With Silverghost Hidden Ghost Ballroom Ship and DJ Proxy. Freelance writer Jeff Milo uses weird as a weapon. Send comments to email@example.com
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