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FILTER 49: Way Out West: The Art And Music Of Lord Huron

By Breanna Murphy; Art by Ben Schneider on November 9, 2012

 

FILTER 49: Way Out West: The Art And Music Of Lord Huron

“I’ve been dreaming again of a lonesome world, where I’m lost and I’m on my own.” —George Ranger Johnson

George Ranger Johnson, born March 11, 1946, published over two decades of material from 1966 until his last story, “The Ghost on the Shore,” in 1987, in a collection of hardbound, pulp-novel adventures entitled Lonesome Dreams. The author currently resides in Tuscon, Arizona, and it is not known if he will ever finish the series.

Don’t go looking for George Ranger Johnson. For one, his books are all sadly out-of-print. For another, he doesn’t exist. At least, not in reality. His stories belong to someone else.

The enigmatic literary figure, his novels and storied personal biography instead reside as appendices inside the crowded, chromatic imagination of Ben Schneider. “Johnson” is merely one example of the super-detailed, mysterious, supplemental aspects that Schneider constructs as elaborate, made-up histories to his musical project, Lord Huron. The postscripts that comprise and project the 20-something musician-artist’s works provide backstories that are so complete, so convincing and compelling, that they build up a dream-like universe fit to live in.

Schneider has been doing this kind of thing for a while.

Growing up in Michigan, he pursued both art and music, ultimately deciding to study painting at the University of Michigan. After three and a half years at art school, he left to spend some time in Marseilles. Eventually stranded in the Mediterranean, the winnings from a painting contest back home fortuitously returned Schneider to the States. He landed briefly in New York City, inhabiting an apartment he renovated in exchange for rent, but finally settled in the West, where he lives today.

“I moved out to LA to pursue a career in art, had a few shows, but my problem was that the projects I tend to do are conceptual in a way that makes them hard to sell the art,” he laughs.

"Ends of the Earth"

Shut out of the art scene by the sheer expanse of the ideas behind his pieces—“the art world was something that I wasn’t really comfortable with, and it didn’t seem very comfortable with me, either”—Schneider worked as an ad agency art director for a few years before taking a break. While on vacation in Michigan in May 2010, he turned back to music more seriously, and began to record a project he named Lord Huron, after the lake he grew up nearby.

Admittedly eager about releasing his work, Schneider distributed a self-recorded EP the very next month at the Woodsist Festival in Big Sur. The three-track Into the Sun demonstrates a glimpse into Schneider’s remarkable ability and enthusiasm for combining organic, synthetic and dramatic pieces into a wonderful, cohesive whole. Amidst samples of waves—the lapping, liquid kind as well as radio static—layered choruses compete amiably with complex percussion rhythms, while Schneider’s airy, resonant vocals profess love, escape, desire and adventure.

The reception and attention to the mysterious Lord Huron was overwhelming and sudden. Needing a band to supply the demand for live shows, Schneider called his high school friend Mark Barry, a session musician in Nashville, who drove out to Los Angeles the next week, gear in tow. The rest of the band consequently took shape: bassist-percussionist Miguel Briseno, guitarists Brett Farkas and Tom Renaud, plus Barry on percussion—all Michiganders by coincidence or fate.

In 2011, the quintet released another EP, Mighty, and toured across the US (including major festival appearances at Sasquatch, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands) but it’s not until this fall that Lord Huron releases its debut full-length, the aforementioned collected works titled Lonesome Dreams. Schneider has been careful with his time, concentrating on releasing the exact work that fits his detailed inspiration behind the project. And it’s not just an album of music; art and ephemera in the world of Lord Huron isn’t merely complementary, it’s constructive.

"Untitled Ice Diorama"

Your music is rich with themes of being far away from people and places, and longing for things that aren’t within reach. Having traveled so widely, is that a reflection of yourself?

Ben Schneider: I don’t necessarily think about that consciously, but I think that is a big part of my personality. In some ways, I’m still very much a homebody. I miss Michigan; it’s still definitely my favorite place in the world, probably. But I’ve gotten out there, and that’s definitely influenced me.

During your shows, you’ve used Jurassic Park Brontosaurus whoops and unconventional instruments, like a Theremin, to recreate the field-recording samples on the records. How does the band adapt those more complicated recording techniques to live shows?

We try to integrate that stuff as much as we can, which isn’t the easiest thing. Especially recording those dinosaur noises in the field [laughs].

A lot of stuff on the record is synthesized or heavily processed, so it’s hard to figure out how to recreate it live. Everybody else, except for me, is a really talented player. I mean, I’m OK, but they’re, like, amazing. They’re all really creative with finding ways to replace those sounds with something they can actually play.

"She Lit a Fire"

Your songs are very linear and narrative-based. Who are some of your favorite storytellers?

Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen; they’re all really amazing storytellers. I’m also a big fan of Westerns—movies and books. One of my favorite books is The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje. It’s such an inspiration to me in terms of how I work because it tells a story without being straight prose; it tells it very lyrically. I always think about that book when I’m writing songs because, like you said, I like to tell pretty linear stories. But doing that in the constraints of a song can be pretty challenging.

The new album has really gone in that direction. It’s not quite a concept album, but almost all the songs sound like stories from the same person’s life.

The art and the music pair really well together, but at the same time, the music incorporates nature and realism, while the art creates a world that’s a bit more fantastic.

Overall, that’s the core of what I’m trying to do; that’s the concept behind the whole project. It is based on my experiences in the real world, but it’s kind of an augmented version of that. It’s an enhanced version of reality.

"Lonesome Dreams"

You work artistically in many different mediums: 3D models, painting, drawing, graphic design, photography…

I like to do whatever I feel like will help me think about something. Sometimes, it’s getting more tactile. I’ll paint textures or colors, transfer them into the computer and combine them with photography or video. I try to only use stuff that I’ve shot. I was in Indonesia for a wedding and spent a couple weeks touring around. I took some pictures of elephants and combined it with other beach scenes that I had taken [for the Mighty EP].

You’re taking bits of the real world and creating a place that could never exist in reality.

I’m really interested in exploring that. The feeling of this whole record is almost like an exotic Western. It’s like a Western from India or something, and that’s been a fun aesthetic to explore.

It’s a thing that I’ve been doing for a long time, but the shift has gone to music now. My thesis in college was a fictional Antarctic expedition. I created a history exhibit about it: pieces of art that told the story, combined with little snippets of writing. I had this obsession with Antarctica. I applied for a grant to go there and work on an art project, but I didn’t get it. It’s funny because if I had, it would have been for a year, and that would have been right when Lord Huron happened. So if I had gotten it, I might not have done Lord Huron. I might’ve become a penguin. F