Pop on the album Indian Summer – the debut full-length, self-produced, and self-released album by The Hendersons – and you’ll be transported to a time when flowers grew in hair grown long and the world was free from the shackles of technology. Harpsichords flutter, recorders whistle and guitars meticulously pick the right notes at just the right time to produce a lovely sum of all the intricately weaved parts. The entire album works as one loving whole, each song existing in its own little world of coalescing imagery, reminiscent of those originators of psychedelic and baroque pop and the much more carefree relic of a world they existed in.
Maybe you’d be surprised to learn (as I was), that this band, whose collection of songs sound like a lost vintage record of instant classics, is composed by one young man. N.R. Robertson, a multi-instrumentalist in his early twenties, wrote, produced and performed the standout debut in his bedroom in Forth Worth, Texas, released on Euphio Records. He’s now fleshed out his work with a live band and has moved his instruments out of the bedroom and into a professional studio, where he’s currently recording his anticipated follow-up record with producer Nathan Parnell at Ninja Cowboy Studios in Arlington, Tex., which is expected in early 2014.
A thoughtful and articulate musician with a flair for words, Robertson creates playful and hook-happy music, yet views the all-important art form with the aptitude of a serious scholar of music. Flashes of the Kinks, the Beach Boys and The Beatles shimmer in the thoughtful pop arrangements, although Robertson describes that “there is more content in five minutes of Beethoven than in the entirety of The Beatles’ output.” What he’s going for is more classically inspired, citing classical music as his main inspiration and Beethoven as the greatest composer to ever live. The articulate thinker aims to meld those complex classical compositions and philosophies with popular music to create a fresh and joyful niche – a nostalgic story to sing along to, set in the “horrible, boring rut” of modern pop music.
Listen to The Hendersons below!
Raz Mataz Magazine (RMM): On your Bandcamp site, you describe The Hendersons as a pop band with “heavy psychedelic, baroque and vaudeville influences.” What kind of vaudeville and baroque influences make their way into your music?
N.R. Robertson (NRR): I listen to a whole lot of classical music. Not much baroque but lots and lots of late classical and early romantic. Structurally speaking, I try to create music honouring the tradition of Beethoven and those luminaries who came before him. To me, there is no greater composer of music than Beethoven. . . .
I do all of the instrumentation save for drums on the records, and I try to instil in my arrangements a complex unity of all of the parts based on motifs that is usually more of something you’d see in the classical world than the pop world.
As far as vaudeville influence, my harmonic language is very strongly informed by the vaudevillians. More superficially, my use of baroque instruments like the harpsichord, recorder, and strings would land us the designation of “baroque rock”.
RMM: When did your love for classical music, and Beethoven in particular, start, and what are your favourite things about their compositions? Do you feel like you’re adding something new to the always transforming pop spectrum by blending it with such historic roots?
NRR: I’ve loved classical music since I was seventeen, so about five or six years. Beethoven, and particularly his symphonic cycle, came more recently. I’ve been way into Beethoven for two years. My favourite things would vary from composer to composer. There are too many good things to say about Beethoven, but overall classical music is just chalk-full with incredibly rich content. There is more content in five minutes of Beethoven than in the entirety of The Beatles’ output, and it is incredibly masterfully handled. Whole philosophies are expounded without a word uttered, just notes.
I don’t feel like I am yet adding anything new to spectrum pop necessarily, but I do think that pop at large is in a bad way, or in some sort of horrible, boring rut, and I am doing my best to honour the traditions of excellent music of the past. I really would be delighted if I became some sort of trendsetter. Because, you know, I try to make my music content rich and instil it with a good amount of structural depth, but I try very hard to keep it fun and accessible to anyone. I want to satisfy both the hook-hungry teen who can only appreciate catchy, and the true music appreciator who isn’t satisfied by the same schlock.
RMM: There are a number of burgeoning psychedelic acts coming out in the second decade of this new millenium. What is it about psychedelic music that you think so many bands are picking up on to make the genre new 50 years after its creation? Do you have any favourite bands that are out now that have a similar style?
NRR: I’ll begin all this by saying that I’m honestly not really plugged in to the modern indie scene. I listen to classical music, various world music, and about a dozen or so pop albums. Much of what I love most about psychedelic music is difficult for me to find in the works of contemporary psych artists. I believe a strong majority of the psych music coming out today is markedly different from my own work in both approach and attitude.
The general aesthetic of the psych scene of the post-aughts seems emblematic of a certain kind of irreverent frivolity that resonates profoundly with the hip youth. This wave of new psychedelic artists are largely of a different school than that of the progenitors of psychedelia. Anton Newcombe is to the kids of today what John Lennon and Brian Jones were to Anton Newcombe. And, while I think The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s catalogue contains some strongly-written and stylistically-sound work, these songs couldn’t hope to stand up to the many-splendored subtleties and varied wonders of The Beatles catalogue or much of The Kinks’ and Beach Boys’ respective catalogues. Not to a discerning, objective ear, anyway.
My first album as The Hendersons was strongly influenced by the so-called Newcombe School, but I have since consciously rejected that influence in favour of more excellent music.
The reason this music is so special, at least to me, is easily qualified. Taking for granted their inspired, skillfully-performed melodies and masterful craftsmanship, the characteristics which set this small section of pop above the rest are thus: exceptional stylistic variety, detail-rich and colourful arrangements, and good-natured whimsy. The swath of The Beatles’ oeuvre spanning from ’66 to ‘68 could be called psychedelic pop. But what specifically is psychedelic about ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, ‘Getting Better’? If ‘Fool on the Hill’ were taken on its own, or followed by a set of similarly-arranged and performed tunes, would anyone accuse that music of being psychedelic? Not likely. But, drop it in with a dance hall number like ‘Your Mother Should Know’ and a bubblegum pop tune like ‘Hello Goodbye’ and you get a collection so varied that it could only be called psychedelic. This is even truer of The White Album. The psychedelic potential of songs like these, and like ‘Honey Pie’ and ‘Piggies’, is exposed only through juxtaposition. The White Album, Sgt. Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour, et cetera, are kaleidoscopic in terms of both style and character. Lennon and McCartney, as well as Ray Davies and Brian Wilson, not only possessed a preternatural understanding of pop music and the vision and skill to realize their compositions at a high level, but they also refused to be put in a box, ensuring that each tune was its own microcosm, distinct from the last.
RMM: What was different about making Indian Summer as opposed to your other releases? What have you learned along the way from your first Hendersons release to today?
NRR: Whatever differences that exist between the respective work processes of Lotosyros and Indian Summer can be traced to my increase in confidence between those two releases. The gear used and workflow on both albums were relatively the same.
When I recorded Lotosyros, every step of the way was a learning experience. I had been writing and recording my own songs since I was fourteen, but this was the first time I was writing, arranging, and performing full-band pop songs. I was learning how to record while I was recording. Additionally, I was learning the merits of being a strong and objective self-critic, which incidentally, much like melodic elegance and lyrical subtlety, is at once an invaluable and un-trainable skill. I learned about recording from Lotosyros, but not as much about songwriting or arranging. These things I learned while composing solo and small ensemble instrumental pieces and occasional songs in the days between the two albums.
If I could offer one bit of advice to a young person with a new confidence in their burgeoning songwriting ability, it would be to fall in love with classical music for a couple of years and try to identify X-factors existing between these standards of excellence and their favourite pop songs. This is what I was doing in the days between both records, along with working hard to develop my voice, and both of these endeavours paid off in spades.
RMM: You have a masterful producing technique, and use a number of unique instruments in the studio. When did you first pick up an instrument and how did that lead you to where you are today, with three releases and a live band? Were there any bands or musicians in particular that influenced you to make music?
NRR: Music was with me from the start. Since a young age, I’ve heard music in my mind as clearly as the music in the air. We always had a piano in the house growing up. It was incredibly old and just as heavy (built in 1892 to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of The Americas). I never took lessons, but since childhood I’ve been able to remember melodies and recreate them at the keyboard. My parents bought me a drum kit for my ninth birthday. My great friend Zach, who now plays drums on the records and guitar in the live group, taught me to play guitar as a tween. I bought a guitar at thirteen, a synthesizer next. When I was in high school I was interested in learning lots of different instruments, so I’d ask for a new one every Christmas and birthday – mandolins and banjos and accordions and flutes. Now, a part of me wishes I’d just focused on becoming an excellent guitarist or pianist, but I do think this prepared me at least somewhat for the mindset necessary for good arrangement.
RMM: Your masterful producing skills remind me of fellow baroque popper, Jacco Gardner, who also writes, plays, and produces his music. You’re both solo artists writing and producing music that sounds 50 years old, and dub it (among other things) baroque pop. Gardner uses a lot of analog and vintage recording techniques and instruments to infuse that genuine ‘60s recording sounds. Do you use any different techniques that aren’t exactly modern to get your songs to sound directly out of the golden age of music?
NRR: I have, indeed, listened to Jacco Gardner’s work, and I find it to be more than satisfactory. His arrangements are very thoughtful and tasteful, and very convincingly of “that era”, so to speak. However, I would disagree with the assessment that his songs sound as if they were recorded fifty years ago. On the contrary, I think Jacco is one of a handful of luminaries whom have successfully struck that delicate balance between the clarity and separation of modern recording techniques and the thickness and sweetness of vintage recording techniques. The sound he has developed is the ideal sonic home for modern psychedelic music, and it is a sound I am seeking to approximate on my future recordings.
As far as specific vintage techniques I used to achieve a certain sound, I’m not exactly sure. I’ve never tried to make a modern-sounding record, so I don’t know for certain where my methods diverge from those of a trained modern engineer. There are a few things here and there, like vocal doubling, hard-panning, and hard-EQing, but these are arguably more arrangement considerations than production techniques. I really just tried to make the best possible album I could with several of my favourite records as frames of reference.
NRR: My path of development over the course of writing and producing Indian Summer was definitely one of refinement. In the fall of 2011, Zach Mayo and I recorded many songs, several of which would comprise a large share of what would eventually become Indian Summer (‘Skid Row’, ‘Daisy’s Name’, ‘Magdalena’, ‘Maximilian’, ‘Fancy’). In the winter of that year, the live band split, and for several months I took to writing. By the end of this period, I’d composed some new songs (‘Wish Upon a Weathervane’, ‘Delilah’, ‘Hazy Dream’, ‘Appalachian Stew’, ‘Moonbeams’) and also achieved a compositional breakthrough, which allowed me to heavily revise and augment the original bunch of tracks. It was during this period of refinement when the album came into its own.
I tried with each song to attain a definite and thorough unity of all the parts. To be clear, I define “parts” as lines played by instruments, not different sections of the song. I wanted all parts to be recognizably derived from and aware of one another. The bass part is harmonizing with the vocal melody, and the keyboard is completely aware of and responding to the bass line, and the guitars are playing a syncopated derivation of the keyboard line, and each part is as important as the next, all working for the greater good in the service of the song.
That is the point I’ve come to now, and that is the most substantive description of our new material that I can offer. The stuff I’m working on right now is certainly a logical continuation from the ground covered in Indian Summer, and many of these tunes were even conceived at the same time as those from Indian Summer. But this record as a whole will be more thoroughly arranged, and all the songs will exist in the same universe. It’s the magical, mystical, hazy realm of Evergreen! [laughs] We’ll see. . . .
An additional interesting development has been a change on workflow. I recorded Indian Summer largely alone in my bedroom, but I’m now working in a real studio with talented engineers and all sorts of unfamiliar gear. So, right now I’m learning a lot from guys who really know who to dial in a sound. It is the first time I’ve had to work much around other folks’ schedules. I get anxious wanting to work in the middle of the night when I’m at home. I’m used to being able to do all of this stuff in my underwear [laughs].