“You don’t wanna alienate people,” Johnny Headband singer/keyboardist Chad Thompson says, talking with his hands, “but you also wanna say: ‘Let us…show you…what else we can do!”
This is not the same Johnny Headband story you may have heard.
It’s a golden shackle for a band to be commonly known for something. For this Detroit quartet, the boilerplate perception often gets tangled to their live show’s sleek, oddball exuberance. Chad points, “We can still do that.” But, then, he points with his other hand, “but we’ll do this also, and then,” he joins his 10 fingertips, “we’ll combine them and we’ll be stronger!”
The this he refers to, is the pure punch of inspirado soaked into the sonic pages of their forthcoming LP, Who Cooks For You: a propulsive, ebullient and anthemic odyssey that utilized the ambiance of an unassuming cabin’s airy, high ceiling's resonance-boosting architectural layout.
“We went up there, got lost in it and made an album,” Chad said. “I wanted something that made you wanna move, and feel good, and go out into the sun and feel like things are possible. These songs, they’re visual. They’re all on sonic landscapes.”
What's sometimes overlooked is Headband's dazzling space rock/disco hybrid extravaganzas are presented atop tightly wound performances; exuberant, yes, but more so exacting; they’re each of them girded by years of experience and notable diligence to the craft.
Not to mention their penchant for interweaving earthy (acoustic) elements throughout their recording’s soaring synth and pedal-plumed aural landscapes; as well as Chad’s recent whim of exploring subtle inflections of “weather channel smooth jazz” onto substantial funk!
Yes, they only sporadically appear on the Detroit scene, but that doesn’t connote sporadic activity or wavering dedication. As bassist Keith Thompson puts it: “You gotta leave the pilot light on, even when the oven heat’s not on. We keep our pilot light on because we’re gonna turn it up at some point. So far—we’re ramping it back up.”
Johnny Headband have always been inspiring. They were daring without being reckless. Their songs had a bit of a winked, funk-flaring vibe to them that mutated dancey/dorky new-wave onto epic-reaching atmospheric prog-rock. Their live show was boisterous and baffling, utterly dignifying a pastiche of otherwise kitschy UFO aesthetics with a dynamic display of musicality and keen eyes towards presentation. It was agile improv, harmonious chaos.
Now, with their 2nd LP wrapped and ready for a summer release, Johnny Headband can be inspiring in a new way; leading by example of how to stay a band in the 21st century.
Who Cooks implicitly documents their resolve to keep the light on in the face of various obstacles: with no ostensible music business, with Keith tied to demanding yearly touring/recording schedule of his tenure in Electric Six, with their guitarist, guitarist Pan!c currently doubling on drums for Detroit-based electronica/pop quartet Lettercamp, with their drummer, RGS (Rob Saunders) situated way out in Kalamazoo with a day job of his own and with their singer and head songwriter, Chad, negotiating his freelancing-way through the commercial video production world). This is a new story:
This one’s a story of dedication (…beyond the brotherly kind shared by Chad and Keith) and also a story of inspiration (…the fleeting kind conjured only in certain secluded scenario. In this case, the inside of a quaint, roomy cabin up north near a bomb site).
(2nd “ladder” photo: Trever Long)
Who Cooks for You. “It’s nine tunes,” Chad says, nodding, “like Dark Side of the Moon. We went up north to make it and we disconnected. We disconnected from…technology, from people, from everything.”
“When you’re here,” Keith chimes in from his standing position in Chad’s living room in Ferndale, “you can walk to the coffee shop, or to places to hear music. You can walk and go get sushi. You can walk your dog. Everywhere you look, there’s people. When you seclude yourself, you remove all these things from the equation.”
“We didn’t even have phone reception,” Chad nods.
Chad and JH drummer RGS set up camp in a roomy, decently equipped cabin up in Grayling, last July. Two days into the excursion, guitarist Pan!c joined their base up in the unassuming but idyllic woods near Grayling, MI, near the babble of the AuSable river and yet also not far from more imposing babble of a bomb-testing Military Installation. (No literal explosions made it onto the recordings though).
Up there, in the woods, in the magic cabin, the team marched along to the rhythmic engine of RGS, they survived the harsh whims of the potentially wild outdoors thanks to their in-band Eagle Scout, Pan!c, they got their shit together fast and efficiently with the motivational force of Keith (honed by the all-too-rigorous yearly touring-and-recording schedules from working in The Electric Six) and they were inspired by the enthusiasm and the songwriting vision of Chad.
“We set up a studio, and everything revolved around that; the album process was the priority,” said Keith, who arrived on Day 4.
“We just disconnected from any preconceived notion of what we should do or shouldn't’t do,” Chad said.
In autumn 09, having then just added Pan!c, Johnny Headband released a declarative, fuzz-fired EP, Phase 3 – what Chad now considers “a sonic transition. But, (Who Cooks) has more heart and soul into it.”
“We’re taking Phase 3’s transitory ideas and,” he starts talking with his hands again, like he’s holding an invisible beach ball to his nose, “…taking some new sonic palettes.” He looks at his outstretched hands, “You gotta do this when you say ‘sonic palettes,’ cuz it’s an elevation! It’s an expansion upon what has already happened –to another dimension. Not necessarily better, not worse. Just, more! Not reigning in,…expanding!”
Audiences, whether smitten or bewildered, tend to be drawn to their live show’s dynamics. But if any listener digs deeper, they’d learn what the Thompson siblings learned early on; it takes a lot of work to be the life of the party.
“We are having fun,” Keith assures after regaling all the finger to the bone work that goes into their rehearsing, recording, and live flow, “but to get to fun, to get to that point, in anything, is really a festival of horrible events and difficult things in your life.”
“But, come on,” said Chad, “we started in music a long long time ago.”
“We’re used to a military/factory-based approach to performing,” said Keith. Whether it was school band teachers from their home near Flint equating their rehearsals to car assemblages, or Chad’s exhaustive hours spent woodshedding (and years later, instructing) for Michigan State’s drumline.
Rehearsing “every day, all day, all the time,” said Keith, “is all we know. We’re still doing that, that’s what was instilled in us.”
“It takes a lot of energy,” Keith said, to attain a balance: reentering the Headband headspace after months of enduring becoming a “perpetual zombie” throughout those blurring tour nights with Electric Six and still push oneself to step it up and hone the craft.
"Our energy and our commitment," Keith said, "is going to go up; it’s not always gonna be the same, how we feel about it might always stay consistent, but the amount of time and resources and energies you allocate to it cannot stay the same…for any band.”
“So far,” he looks at his brother, while the final demos sit stored in the laptop on Chad’s coffee table, freshly mixed, “we’re ramping it back up.”
They play some songs. A chorus melodiously swells and soars and Chad throws his arms out, “This is like: you’re outside! You’re outside riding bikes! This is what the cabin sounded like…” The songs utilize the ambiance of that unassuming cabin, with its freshly tuned upright piano.
Who Cooks blends weird Weather Channel smooth jazz trips into hip/hop beats (if they were only played by John Bonham). Atmospheric guitars fuzzily soar over chiming organs and a sonorous upright piano. They interweave the organic elements characteristic to Michigan’s northern woods: ““the outdoor space and the wind and the river and the forest…” The cabin had its own spirit.
“This is not little stuff,” Chad says, recalling the songs they forged last summer and the tranquil invigoration of working inside that cabin. “We got to exist, disconnected, within that bubble, for as long as we could, and just create…until it was time to come home.”
“I think we're a band defined by our live-show,” Chad said, “what we look like what we sound like and what people feel and enjoy together...in-that-environment.” A memorable or remarkable live show is one thing, Chad said, and the band’s appreciative to have something people gravitate toward. “But we’re still gonna try to make our recordings a separate entity that is its own experience. And we’re going to elevate the recording to the level of our live show.”
“You just keep trying to progress and grow and get better,” Chad surmised. He continues to flourish his own freelance commercial video production (as Health + Fitness) while overseeing defacto Headband HQ –a.k.a.—his fully equipped studio basement.
“And…just to stay a band! Stay Joh-ny-Head-Band! I’ve just wanted to be in Johnny Headband, I don’t wanna be in anything else.”
Johnny Headband – May 13 – with Lasers & Fast & Shit, @ The Belmont, 10215 Joseph Campau, with DJ JCV -