Recording an electronic-pop album in a cabin in the woods? Might seem unconventional, but it worked for Detroit-based Johnny Headband, who released sophomore album Who Cooks For You in April.
The austere setting has left a palatable atmosphere on the album, seeping through and imbuing the danceable ditties with quite the trippy ambiance. “We went up north into northern Michigan and recorded some of it in a cabin that had a pretty cathedral sort of sound,” says bandleader Chad Thompson. “The drums that were recorded there have a really open-room sound. A lot of things recorded up there have a distinct sound to them.”
Though Headband—which also features Thompson’s brother Keith Thompson (AKA: Smorgasbord, bassist in disco-punk-metalists Electric Six), drummer RGS and guitarist Pan!c—had quite a few demos recorded when they ventured to the trout-fishing cabin near the Au Sable River, the setting was conducive for adding some fresh texture to the songs.
The intros and outros of the songs bear the obvious stamp of the process, infusing the record with spacy atmospherics. “Anglo Probe” in particular takes on a bit of Pink Floyd-feel, sweeping and laconic in its digital soundscape and muffled robot intonations. “There’s a lot of ambient, environmental sounds that made their way into ends of songs and beginning of songs,” Thompson says. “I think a lot of people choose to record in someplace a little bit cut-off. You don’t really have a lot else to do when you don’t have access to anything other than playing music.”
The return to nature also inspired the record’s name. “Literally, it is a barred owl call,” Thompson says. “We were sitting around the camp fire and it just so happens our guitar player was like an Eagle Scout and knows bird calls. He said, ‘I know how to call a barred owl.’”
The call consisted of the guitarist cooing, “Whoooo cooooks for yoooouuu” into the night’s sky. “We’re like, ‘That’s gotta be the title of the album.’ As time goes on, I’m coming up with more meanings for Who Cooks For You.”
The Thompsons formed Johnny Headband in 2005 and released their debut full-length, Happiness is Overrated, the following year. A three-song EP was released in 2009, and while the band has grown since its inception, Thompson said there was not a conscious effort to alter their sound—what he describes as “somewhat standard structure but with a lot of weird sounds and psychedelic sounds”—with the new record. “As far as a plan for us, it was really to try and make exactly the record we wanted to, regardless what it may come out as, and we did that,” he says. “It was just kinda like, ‘Why are we making this and how do we want to look back on this later in our lives?’”
The nine songs composing the album vary from insouciant, joyous pop (“And Then Again”) to more sincere, at times even somber, meditations (“Older Now”). “I’d say that’s probably a good description of where we come from in terms of approach,” Thompson says of the subject range. “A main theme throughout is wanting to do what you want to do more than you’re able to. I think we all have something we want to spend most of our time doing and we can’t. Some of that is serious and some of that is lighthearted.”
Thompson, who formerly taught high school drum lines, says the roles in the band are not as clearly defined as in some groups, a musical-chairs paradigm defining their handling of instrumentation. “I taught our drummer (and) that’s how he became part of our band years later,” Thompson explains. “If we needed a really well-played guitar part, we’d get Pan!c. He’s a great guitar player, and my brother is a great guitar player, too. It’s more about what we really need for this track and who’s available.”
In the midst of all the instrument-swapping, Thompson considers himself a producer foremost and the one who lays the bedrocks for the majority of Johnny Headband’s songs. “I guess I start most of the songs and sort of sketch them out, and everybody else kinda plays on it. Keith wrote two songs on there and sent them to me (“Argentina” and “Water Damage”) then we all worked on them together.”
The presence of his brother serves to streamline Thompson’s songwriting. “He’s much more task-oriented than I am,” he says of his brother. “I get hung up on minor details for long periods of time and he moves things forward, more in a management sort of way.”