Eclectic ladyland

Feb 11, 1998 at 12:00 am
As if the mere appearance of a 7-foot, slam dancing, papier-mâché whale on the stage wasn't perplexing enough, its appearance capped off a disorienting His Name Is Alive performance. This set also included the obliteration of a once-fragile early HNIA song, tenderly resurrected in a Hendrixian maelstrom. Part of the song's guitar solo came from a player wedging his guitar between the ceiling and the PA. That player shredding his own song before the gathered college town crowd was lifelong Livonia resident and primary HNIA creative force, Warren Defever.

"I look at what we're doing as pretty simple," said Defever, not long after the disorienting gig at Ann Arbor's Blind Pig. He may view it as simple, yet in its decade-plus of existence, HNIA has created a complex system of sonic illogic. Divisions between process and result, between band members and outside contributors, and, of course, between genres, have been manipulated into a constant stream of creativity. Strange vestiges of performance art intrude upon live shows. Live shows radically differ from studio work. Mysterious HNIA documents pop up on sundry one-off 45s, as genre after genre gets recreated in the HNIA style: ambient, new wave, dub, Folkways field recording, even a Bob Seger cover.

Lately, His Name Is Alive has been low-profile in an exceptionally public way, self-producing monthly revues at Detroit's Gold Dollar as the group prepares its fifth album for England's 4AD label. Judging from demos, it ought to be a typical HNIA album -- which means that about two of the 12 songs sound like what you'd expect HNIA to sound like.

This time around, Hendrix-style boogie-funk mixes with sneaky nighttime Fender Rhodes, while flourishes of new wave electro-pulse melancholia pop up in doses of '60s hit radio.

Defever brought in an outside producer, an HNIA first, for some tracks on this as-yet-untitled album. "If we were going to pursue this seriously," explained Defever, "and try to have, let's say, a single in the U.S., the way we'd want to do it is have a fancy producer come in and fix our songs. If it's classic rock, why not get the best classic rock guy in the world, Eddie Kramer?" (Kramer engineered Electric Ladyland and co-produced KISS guitarist Ace Frehley's solo record -- 'nuff said.) Kramer, however, didn't understand Defever's fractured approach -- he wanted to produce the entire record, while Defever just wanted him to work on a couple of songs.

Similar attempts to musically connect with Tom Dowd and the Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis team (!) failed. "Then I got to thinking," said Defever. "We've never done anything right before. Why start now?" As with nearly all of HNIA's music, this record was recorded at Defever's home in Livonia. Coproducing is Livonia-born Steve King, a pro who has worked with artists as diverse as the Winans and rocket-rockers MOG Stunt Team 555 -- two groups who in an odd, literal way, encapsulate the breadth of the His Name Is Alive experience.

The band started out in the mid-'80s when Defever, now in his late 20s, created the home-recorded solo groundwork for the early HNIA catalog. Two tapes predate mainstay vocalist Karin Oliver's participation in the band. "They're mostly instrumental," laughed Defever.

Defever sent the third cassette, provocatively titled I Had Sex with God, to every label he could find. 4AD loved it, and the tape formed the basis of the more tastefully titled Livonia, which 4AD released in England in 1990. Both Livonia and its follow-up, Home Is In Your Head, had all of the 4AD hallmarks: fluid guitar downer-pop abstractions and beautiful female vocals, the apotheosis of some of the pet sounds of 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell. Defever perfected his own intensely personal sound world: a gauzy, ethereal sound track for a lonely dorm room Friday night, just you, the clove cigarettes and the atmosphere.

The amazing third album, 1993's Mouth by Mouth, was a relatively upbeat, extroverted pop collage. HNIA still had its own unique methodology, but now it had a rock uplift like it never had before. Stars on ESP continued the stylistic bricolage, and the most recent release, the Nice Day EP, has a '60s pop flavor to it that no one who first bought Livonia could have predicted.

Whereas previous albums have been put together piece by piece, a lot of the upcoming one was created through the editing of spontaneous studio jams. Fleshing out the core trio of Defever, Oliver and drummer Trey Many have been bassist Chad Gilchrist (also of Outrageous Cherry and Aces High), vocalist and conga player Lovetta Pippen, and second drummer Scott Goldstein (of MOG). Said Oliver, "Chad and Warren have been working together a lot on this new album. When we get out and play, it definitely shows." Oliver noted the spontaneous sonic spirit of Jimi Hendrix that permeates recent HNIA, both recorded and live.

Defever elaborated: "That's where someone like Scott Goldstein or Lovetta really, really excel. They're just super-spontaneous, and I've been enjoying that side of things lately. I don't know how long it will last, but right now that's sort of a phase."

While it's a novel approach for Defever in the studio, a looseness of interpretation has always held a place in HNIA's live sets. Gilchrist's justification: "Some people don't like that at all, but, for example, Dylan always does different arrangements. So does Will Oldham."

The audience doesn't always see it in such a historically justified light. As Defever said, "A lot of times people yell, 'Play it right!'" Defever may combine the mercurial and the jovial. However, he doesn't take the integrity of his art lightly. A few years ago, he had the opportunity to write the score for a major Hollywood film -- perhaps you've heard of Jerry Maguire? Defever would have been working under the auspices of the guy who discovered Tom Petty. "He was acting like he was Ed McMahon, knocking on my door giving me the sweepstakes."

Defever declined the big bucks of Hollywood, choosing instead to focus on Stars on ESP and other projects that mattered to him. He did, however, let the Petty guy use a tossed-off, previously released studio noodle, and now Defever has a gold record and some cash to show for it.

Now that Warner Brothers no longer licenses 4AD artists in the United States, there's a chance that the next HNIA record won't come out here. Defever doesn't seem too worried: "There's no reason why we wouldn't keep making records or keep recording or keep playing. But I kind of expect that over time it'll sort of go in different directions." Different relationships with the industry and, of course, different sounds.

As a possibility for an upcoming Gold Dollar show, Defever mentioned a movie night with His Name Is Alive providing a live atmospheric sound track. "'Sound track,' 'atmospheric,'" Defever said with a laugh -- the ultimate stereotypes of the early HNIA sound and the last thing that you'd expect to hear them do live, aside from a Hendrix tune. Predictably, Defever is unrestrained in defying expectations: "Why don't we actually do that? Why don't we try that and see what happens?" Greg Baise gets electric in the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]