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Singing the blues

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Head of the Herd strives for authentic storytelling on new album

The two-man force that is blues-rock outfit Head of the Herd (lead vocalist/guitarist Neu Mannas and vocalist/guitarist Clayton Frank) focuses just as intently on crafting intriguing stories as it does catchy riffs. Prior to its show in Edmonton, Mannas explained the recording process behind By This Time Tomorrow and working with a producing powerhouse.

Vue Weekly: How long did it take to make By This Time Tomorrow, from the initial songwriting through to the end of the recording?
Neu mannas: We met with Garth (GGGarth) mid 2011 and sorted out that we wanted to work together. He was making Biffy Clyro’s latest record in LA (which hit No 1 in the UK), so we knew we had a minute before we were going to get in the studio together. We decided to use our time wisely and start putting pen to paper later that year. By spring of the next year we had about 25 demos. We headed to Toronto in July to put down three songs produced by Rick Jackett and James Black from Finger Eleven. Garth freed up that fall so we spent October working on our studio tans with him and Ben Kaplan. Fast forward a year and we’ve got a No 1 song and the record’s on shelves. We’re ecstatic.

VW: When you were writing the songs, did you come at them in a particular way? Lyrics first? Music first?
NM: Inspiration just hits you how and when it hits you, so we’ve never had a real system on writing tunes. If we find an idea we like, we just follow it where it takes us. The song “By This Time Tomorrow,” for example, just jumped off the page, I couldn’t write down the lyrics fast enough. Once we had a look at the words, that slide-guitar riff fit like a glove.

VW: Where did the lyrics begin for you and what did you want to express with this album?
NM: Lyrically, we’re always looking at the story in the song. The goal is to be honest, but most of all, shameless with the emotions behind the stories. Instead of shying away from those really personal moments you have, we put a magnifying glass on it. I’ve always had a real love of writing about relationships, and those real human moments when you do awful, irrational shit. Either loving someone who treats you badly, or treating someone badly you love, it’s a complicated moment and a story worth telling.

VW: What were the recording sessions like for this album? Is this the kind of thing you recorded live or did you piece it together one track at a time? Why?
NM: We had the privilege of working with some amazing people on this record. Each session had its own style, but as the two us play most of the instruments on the record we build it piece by piece. We brought in a deadly good drummer, Dave Gens, whom we had toured with for years. We’ve always had a huge focus on the rhythmic elements of our music, so we spent a long time getting the perfect drum sound. Once we had that monstrous foundation it was time to experiment and that’s really where the sound of this record was made.

VW: Were there any other songs written that were left off the album?
NM: There’s a handful. We knew once we had our batch of demos that we were way too close to them to pick what should make the record. It’s like picking a favourite kid: you’ll probably fight about it and make the wrong decision. We trusted our producers and handed the song-picking reins over to them.

VW: You worked with GGGarth to produce the album. What drew you to him and what did he bring to the process?
NM: We met him after winning the CFOX Seeds competition in 2011. It’s a contest that has helped launch the careers of folks like Nickleback, Matthew Good, Bif Naked, Default, etc. We hit it off and started making plans right away. When you’ve got the man behind Rage Against the Machine’s first record batting in your corner, you know you’re going to make something special. That guy’s fantastic to work with; he brought a really cool energy to the project. [He] steps in where he ought to and steps out where he ought to, and he might be the funniest son of a bitch I’ve ever met!
He really got what we were trying to do with the album, though—take a song like “Breathe Me Baby,” for example. It’s a pretty twisted little story, and when I was doing the vocals he wasn’t hearing that pain in my voice enough. I did a few takes and he called me into the control room. He says, “Neuman, you don’t sound as beat up as this story ought to make you. You and Clay head home, get good and drunk, smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em and when you wake up tomorrow morning don’t say a word. Don’t talk, don’t drink a glass of water, shut the hell up and come straight to the studio.” I thought, “Fine, twist my arm; I’ll go get wasted.” I did so and showed up the next morning still cross-eyed and mute. I opened the studio door and Garth’s standing there. He says “shhhh” and points me to the vocal booth. I put the headphones on and without a word, the song started playing and I struggled my way through it. Few minutes later that song had a new life, and sounded how those lyrics ought to sound.

VW: If you were to trace the musical map that led you to By This Time Tomorrow what would it look like?
NM: You’d be zig-zagging and tripping over whiskey bottles, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. V

Wed, Nov 27 (8 pm)
With Glorious Sons
Pawn Shop, $14 (advance), $17 (door)

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