Detroit's music is known for many things, but it's the cosmic element that is perhaps the most underplayed. It's easy to rattle off any number of heart-pumping rock 'n' roll ballads and icons that reveal the blood, sweat, and tears to portray an obvious and dire sense of urgency, simply because they're too loud and boisterous to ignore. In near obvious contrast is a layered, sometimes ethereal, sometimes familiar, sometimes just plan strange anomaly. For a quarter of a century, hidden — but not quite very well — in the undercurrents of the city's sound has been Warren Defever, or however it is that you may know him, most often as His Name Is Alive.
His Name Is Alive is a lot of things. There is almost always a guitar and a synthesizer, often a voice (though always a female voice), quite often a melody but sometimes a serious space-out. If you've somehow mistaken the project as either lighthearted or a little too serious, you obviously weren't privy to the conversation we had about ghosts, Livonia, rock operas, philosophy, and murder. It's then that that ever-familiar Detroit aesthetic peeks though in the discussion that veers more than once toward politics.
"It all comes down to who will you kill to survive," purports a somewhat elusive Defever, referring to murder ballads, politics in general, and maybe even his newish concept album Tecuciztecatl. For someone who is known for never owning up to all manner of falsities (see Orbit's "His Name Is a Liar" from days gone by), Defever suddenly seems strikingly on point.
Tecuciztecatl focuses on the story of the twin, the notion itself embedded with mystery and ancient African voodoo conceptions. Whereas Psychic TV's Genesis P-Orridge has become a sort of living totem of the notion, Defever uses the platform as a way to explore, in true twin form, two ideas at once. "What if there's a story, the rock opera, the Tecuciztecatl story about the twins and the one murders the other — whatever — but what if really that is, on the surface, a complete linear story with characters and a storyline, but to me that tells a more personal, detailed, extremely accurate autobiographical story that isn't what it is on the surface."
That's a lotta yak for someone who's spent the better part of his life attempting to live in obscurity on the public platform. This more developed storyline is due in no small part to Defever's work with legendary jazz saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey, first noted for the 1970s avant-cosmic jazz outfit Griot Galaxy. Defever first started with the musician as recording engineer and collaborator round about the mid-2000s, but eventually moved into a mentoring relationship that came about in a way that was completely unexpected.
"[We had] very little verbal communication," says Defever — that is, until he attended a panel discussion at MOCAD and Warren heard Bey pontificate on strange new ideas he had never before uttered in his presence. "I heard Faruq say more things in that 45 minutes than in all the six years that I had known him." After an inquiry by Defever at the public forum, Bey delved into the infamous Chrome Your Face concept pushed by Griot Galaxy, in which the group painted their faces in metallic paint during live sets. Bey went on to touch upon the connection of the face painting to "the auto industry, to the manufacturing, hot rod culture, motorcycles — everything that was so Detroit," and how that was a reflection of the community. Suddenly something that may have been dismissed as shenanigans gained a depth worth pursuing.
Defever approached the understated jazz giant with the idea of a student-teacher relationship, to which Bey simply responded "no." So it was a bit of a surprise when Defever received a phone call several days later by a now unreserved Bey, readily spouting off ideas about "music history, music philosophy, music composition" in turns after giving Defever the very clear direction to "stop talking, start listening" when attempting to interrupt to ask the newly enlisted teacher how he'd like to arrange things for their sessions.
"He just started talking right then and there and I had to grab a pencil and pad and start writing things down as quickly as I could. We started meeting once a week up until he died ... It was so much information about different cultures and the beginning of time and the physics of music and the frequencies and different societies have grabbed those numbers and rounded them up, about being out of touch with the order of harmonics ... It was really intense." At one point, Bey ceased lessons until his student had read the Quran in its entirety. Throughout the entire series of lessons, not once did the pair pick up an instrument.
Defever has studied music history in a rudimentary sense for a good part of his life by way of the archival, record-collecting approach. A deep HNIA catalog listen finds stations at horror soundtracks, original dub, blues, gospel, avant jazz, classic rock, and more recently a bit of a prog-rock element, which is a natural flow from what Defever self-describes as a rock opera in Tecuciztecatl. Yet no matter what the instrumentation, these days even more than ever, it's the ideology of making music that stands out in his mind. "As a musician, I'd been playing professionally for 20 years, and someone's like, 'You don't know anything.' Now I'm starting. This is the first time I've composed music with anything behind it."
Defever, ever the mock self-antagonist, pretends to suggest the most recent album is merely part one, as if it's a thing unfinished. But what's dramatic is that with the voodoo plus life-versus-death themes and sounds present in Livonia, that first record from 25 years ago, Tecuciztecatl suddenly feels very much like part two. Reflection comes full circle.
So it's fitting that Livonia should receive an LP and CD deluxe packaging reissue, complete with an as-yet unnamed companion release "digging up old cassettes of four-track recordings and the thing that I did before four-track recordings called one-track recordings on Kmart tapes from the early 1980s. I did those recordings at home as a teenager before HNIA." It's really no surprise that it's being released on the week of Halloween.
Given all the knowledge and cosmic revelations picked up along the way, it's fair to ask whether the record re-released today has any relative meaning. "I think the record, like all music, is still going," he says. "The way time works doesn't really affect it. If you're 16 and you hear that record now, it doesn't really matter when that record came out. The whole context of it isn't important. It's the vibrations in the music that are released when you listen to it that affects your brain. That's timeless."
In physics, this meeting of space and time could be referred to as the space-time continuum. In the mythological world of Warren Defever, even time can become manipulated by cosmic forces, making a quarter of a century feel like yesterday.
Whether helping her children with a science project or forcing them to relive some of her favorite moments traveling the space ways of Alternate Take on WDET, Liz Warner resolutely believes that the cosmic force is well and truly with us.