Michigan-born LA-based songwriter Ben Schneider tells the story of how his musical and visual arts ‘project’ Lord Huron was created.
amed after Lake Huron in Michigan, where the first EP was conceived, Lord Huron is the musical and visual project of singer-songwriter Ben Schneider. Since becoming a fully-fledged touring band and being picked up by IAMSOUND Records in the US (and Play It Again Sam in the UK), they released the widely-praised Mighty EP in 2010 and then, more recently, the album Lonesome Dreams, which we reviewed here.
Although clearly influenced by the native folk music of America’s west, there are hints of more exotic rhythms in the music so it’s no surprise that Ben is a well-travelled man. We discover he’s spent time in Southeast Asia and Mexico, and consequently there’s a strong sense of movement in the music which we’re keen to explore.
The band are based in LA, but we catch up with Ben back home in Michigan visiting family for the holidays, relaxing and planning a bit of songwriting after finishing several months of touring. It’s where the musical adventure began, so an apt setting to get retrospective…
When did music first start for you?
I started playing music when I was pretty young. My dad always had a guitar sitting around. I’d pick it up and start strumming around and he taught me some chords. Then I started playing bass in the orchestra at school when I was about 10 and eventually got a bass guitar. I had a few pretty awful bands in high school, then I ended up studying visual arts in college and moved out to LA to pursue a career in that. I was doing music as a part of my project and it was always a part of what I was doing, but I started drifting more towards that. At some point, the balance tipped, the music took over and the visuals became secondary, I guess. But I still think of them as very closely tied together when I’m writing songs.
Do you have a lot of involvement in the visual elements such as your videos and album artwork?
Yeah that’s stuff that I’ve tried to keep control of since the beginning and it’s actually a big part of the songwriting process too – I tend to develop images while I’m working on songs. I started thinking, because of the way my brain’s wired I guess, that they can help inform each other and I’ve often come to a realisation about a song by working on an image which accompanies it.
Can you give us an example of when that’s happened?
Yeah, one that definitely had a lot of visual stuff to go with it was The Man That Lives Forever where I was trying to evoke this somewhat exotic feel. I imagined this Eastern garden, so I started making images to fit that. Somewhere along the way I felt things clicked and I understood the song and the lyrics better, so I was able to complete it.
So did the artwork come first or did it come together when you were creating each piece of music?
Generally I work on them in tandem and, with this album in particular, I had this overall vision of a series of pulp adventure tales. So I was working on this very Western imagery and I was influenced by where we were touring, about where I was living out west, and they developed together and felt really natural.
What instruments do you write with?
A lot of it’s on guitar, but I really like writing drum tracks too. I’m not a great percussionist but luckily I’ve got a great percussionist that I work with who can translate the message I make into something more palatable. Rhythm is a really important in our songs and probably a key part of our songwriting process is figuring out that movement.
So does rhythm come first in the songwriting process? Where does melody and lyric come in?
It’s all really different to be honest. Occasionally I’ll have a line or even the title that’s sparking my imagination and I’ll start there. So sometimes it’s lyrical, but sometimes I’ll just be messing around and I’ll come up with a groove that sounds good and that’ll be where it starts. There’s been times when I’d build entire soundtracks before putting any vocal down, so it can go any number of ways.
So what are your influences when you were growing up?
A lot of stuff that was playing in my house – American folk music, Bob Dylan was always a big one and my mum was a big Springsteen fan. A lot of Paul Simon and Neil Young.
You must have heard Graceland a few times over the years…
I absolutely did! One of my all-time favourites. Such a great album.
… because we noticed a hint of those world music rhythms in Lonesome Dreams. Has that come from your travelling?
I think a lot of it comes from being interested in world music growing up. I think it’s through foreign movies – I would really like to go to the video store and pick up Japanese and Indian movies and that would often lead me to the soundtrack. I just started getting into Indian classical music, Bollywood and some Middle Eastern music.
Have you ever written music for films?
Yeah we’re having a lot of fun making the videos to our songs right now. And I’m hoping to do as many of those that I can. I’m getting really into the film-making part of that. I’ve done a couple of short films for students over the years and I’m talking to people about making longer-form stuff. I think it’s a challenge but I’d like to give it a try.
That’s interesting as, although your album is about movement and travelling the world, it was written in one place wasn’t it?
Yeah a lot of it was. I tend to come back to Michigan a lot. I like being secluded up here. It’s the place where I grew up so there are a lot of memories and formative experiences attached to this place. It’s a very engaging place to write.
So when you’re there, do you like to write on your own or do you ever collaborate?
I generally like to start on my own and get things demoed. I find that’s the best way for me to most clearly express what I’m thinking about. Just keep it to myself at first. Now that I’ve got a touring band, those guys all contribute to the record. Once I’ve got the songs fleshed out, they’ll help me give it a little more flavour.
Are they the same band you’ve always played with?
Most of them are actually people I grew up with in this town, who were in my first band. We were all scattered around the country, but now we’re all in LA and working together again. It’s pretty cool because we can skip all the ‘getting to know you’ discomfort that other bands have. There’s no bullshit because we know each other so well, so it’s really easy to get creative together because we all know each others’ tastes and we’re not afraid to tell each other when something sucks!
You make it sound very easy. Do you struggle with any part of the creative process?
Some songs just come out fully-formed in a really easy resistence-less process, but for me a lot of time will be the middle stages when it gets hardest. Or I’ll have a difficult time getting started and then it’s getting into that next level where it feels like a cohesive song, that I’ll struggle with for a little while. Particularly with Lonesome Dreams, I’d spend a lot of time with the lyrics – I really wanted them to be simple and straightforward, but not boring. That was a lot harder than I thought it would be. Keeping it simple and easy to understand, at least on a base level, but have some more nuances as you get deeper into the record.
When it comes to lyrics, are you a rewriter or are you more spontaneous and go with your first instinct?
I definitely rewrite quite a bit. In fact we did a couple of live performances of some of the songs from the album months ago and I’ve changed some of the lyrics quite a lot since then. If a line’s bothering me I’ll change it and I’m not afraid to go back and reconstruct a song if it needs it. There’s been other cases of, not just lyrically, songs that we thought we’d basically completed and sometimes it’s really helpful to tear it all down and start over.
When you’re back home writing, are you quite disciplined? Do you get up at 8am and spend the whole day on it, or do you just hang out, relax, pick up the guitar and let it flow?
Once I get into the groove I’ll sit there for hours working on it, but I really like to take walks and mull things over that way. Just to get outside. Sometimes when I go on 12-mile walks to think things over and sometimes getting away from the music can help me think things through a little better. It’s so hard to know where [inspiration] is going to come from and sometimes shaking up your brain is all you need to figure it out for yourself.
Looking back at how you got into music, when did it get to a point when you thought you had a chance of doing something meaningful?
It was kind of accidental actually. I came to Michigan for a friend’s wedding and had some days off and just went by the lake and recorded a few songs and thought it sounded pretty good. At the time, to pay the bills I was working in an advertising agency as an art director. It wasn’t really the right fit for me – it was very creatively taxing even though I wasn’t producing anything that I gave a shit about! I’d find myself very drained at the end of the day, so it was kinda tough.
Then my sister and I went to a music festival in California and handed out some of the CDs that we’d made. A blog picked it up and people started asking us to play shows, so at that point I decided I’d take the leap of faith and leave my job to see if I could make a go of it making music. Luckily I’ve got no mouths to feed, I’m not married or anything, so I’m at the point of my life when it’s time to see what happens.
So what are your plans for 2013?
Our next thing is we’re coming to Europe in February, we’ll play a couple of shows in London, and then go to Belgium, France, Germany and Amsterdam. So we’re pretty excited about that to make some new fans over there. Then we’ll be probably come back and tour all summer and see what we can do with this record.
Do you write on the road?
I always try to write as much as I can. We’ll do a bit of jamming when we’re soundchecking and sometimes a few ideas will come out of that. I’m always writing down lyrical ideas and gather a bunch of notes while I’m on the road. Then we get time off I’ll have the chance to process them and piece them together. We’re already working on the next album and I’d like to keep up a schedule of putting out a record at least every couple of years, so hopefully it’ll see the light of day in the next 18 months or so.
Interview: Aaron Slater
For more on the band, visit: lordhuron.com