Human Drama firmly seized the reigns of their own destiny after a brief and ill-fated stint with a major record label in the late ‘80s. That setback didn’t stop them in the slightest, as it has for many artists; for Johnny Indovina and Human Drama, it only resulted in implacable determination, focus and resolve. Human Drama has amassed an impressive 30-year legacy of first-rate alternative rock, only one album of which was released on a major record label. They were never in heavy rotation on MTV’s 120 Minutes nor did they scale the upper reaches of the Billboard Top 200 album chart, but Human Drama’s work has hardly gone unnoticed.
A small but dedicated contingency of fans enthusiastically support the band to this day. Their work never attained mass popularity, but there’s zero doubt that a substantial audience of alternative-rock lovers would strongly connect with Human Drama’s music if given the opportunity. Perhaps that opportunity is now.
It’s past time for Human Drama’s catalog to reach a wider audience, for the simple reason that deeply compelling music such as theirs richly deserves to be heard, particularly for fans of alternative rock. There are at least 16 to 18 Human Drama songs that can easily be imagined burning up the airwaves on alternative radio had that murky path in the woods shifted in a different direction. But then, would initial success have changed the music, and the direction of the band?
Even with 20/20 hindsight it’s impossible to tell, although the likely answer is “yes”. In any event, these frustrating “what-might-have-been” scenarios are beside the point. The past isn’t changing. The only thing that matters now, 30 years later, is a recorded legacy of profound depth and emotional authenticity that’s ripe for discovery. Their music is human drama — all our strengths and vulnerabilities, confusion, disillusion and anxiety, the happiness, the endless fascination at the miracle and fragility of beauty, the wrenching sorrow and the irreplaceable vacuum of loss.
Talent is not enough to survive for this long, dogged perseverance is required to persist 30 years in an industry that is not greasing your wheels with money, influence and exposure. Indovina has managed to stay in the game for a very simple reason: the music is everything. He’s never stopped putting the music first.
Indovina is the driver behind Human Drama — singer, songwriter, musician, director, creator of the album concepts, producer (usually), and only permanent member from start to finish. He’s also the caretaker of Human Drama’s music, image and legacy, a responsibility he undertakes with deep care and reverence. Make no mistake, it’s Indovina’s music that you hear while playing a Human Drama album (although he has been fortunate enough to work with a tremendous group of gifted musicians and collaborators over the years). Indovina recently joined me to reflect on 30 years of Human Drama’s history, to share his thoughts on each of their albums, and to provide an update on the band’s future.
Originally based out of New Orleans, Indovina’s first taste of success came with the Models, a pop/new wave hybrid that became popular regionally. The young musicians might not have been writing killer tunes, but they made up for it when the stage lights hit. “We were just learning,” Indovina says. “There were no song writers in the band. We were just learning our craft and putting it out there with all the confidence in the world. Even though looking back on those songs, we were far from the band that we would become. But man, we approached it like we were kings of the world when we got our 45-minutes on stage, you know. I think that confidence kind of pulled the wool over some people’s eyes as far as quality goes. But we were on a mission and we wanted to expand out of New Orleans.”
Following their ambitions to make it big, the band first moved to New York, and then Los Angeles. The name change to Human Drama came in 1985 after an Australian band also named the Models scored an international hit with “Out of Mind, Out of Sight”. Indovina explains how the name Human Drama came about: “I chose it because I was giving descriptions of other names that I was going to present to the band members, and in one of my descriptions I wrote something that contained the words ‘human drama’. And then in reading the description I went, ‘wait a minute… this is kind of my all-encompassing title in which to write under.’ It’s like I can never write inappropriately for this title because it’s so grand. It kind of rolls off your tongue. So I presented that to the band.”
Human Drama eventually earned a regular gig at Scream, a famed Los Angeles club that helped launch the careers of bands like Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Guns ‘N’ Roses. Human Drama’s “Wave of Darkness” landed a spot on Scream: The Compilation, released by Geffen Records in 1987. It includes many of the bands playing Scream at the time, dubbed the “Scream Scene”.
The album is now a cult classic, and is widely revered by fans of the era. Looking back, Indovina is certain Human Drama’s appearance on Scream: The Compilation helped spark the band’s upward rise. “It cemented our importance in the music scene in Los Angeles as something to be taken seriously,” he says. “That’s what it did. It was a big thing. Now you don’t know that at the time, because it’s like, ‘Gee, we’re great. We get to be on the compilation. Great!’ You’re kids, kinda. But looking back, it cemented us, man. We were now in, and then given a greater opportunity to continue to climb the mountain.”
Climb the mountain they did. A bidding war ensued which eventually resulted in the band signing with RCA Records. “It was a big, big chase after a lot of those bands that were on the compilation,” Indovina says. “One of them rose up almost immediately — Jane’s Addiction. I believe once Jane’s Addiction became accepted as something labels wanted to have, all the other labels came in and started pursuing all the bands that were kinda hot at the time. So we were a part of, you know, that little craze where we would do demos for Warner Bros. and others.”
RCA ended up signing Human Drama without bothering to hear a demo after one of the label reps caught the band’s electrifying live show. Shortly thereafter, Human Drama ended up in Wales, of all places, working with Ian Broudie, producer of Crocodiles and Porcupine, two seminal albums by Echo & the Bunnymen. “I spoke to a few producers whose work I had liked and had conversations with them,” Indovina says, “and the one that struck me the most was Ian Broudie. Everyone decided that it might be a good idea for a band on their first foray into the, you know, the major thing, to get out of their hometown and be away and really focused. So we flew to Ian instead of flying Ian to us.”
Following the release of Human Drama’s debut EP Hopes Prayers Dreams Heart Soul Mind Love Life Death in 1988 (including the key early tracks “I Bleed For You” and “Nothing I Judge”), Broudie (who would later score the major global hit “Pure” under the name Lightning Seeds) returned the favor and flew to them for the recording of Human Drama’s first full-length album, Feel.
Indovina was receptive to the idea of letting the experienced professionals guide the proceedings. He says, “You know, I’ve always been very open-minded… I never profess to know everything. I was smart enough then to know that this is my opportunity to learn from proven veterans. Ian had done some big stuff, the hits with a lot of bands he had done over in the Liverpool scene. The engineer, Paul Cobbold from Rockfield Studios, these were pros, so it was very easy to just sit back, watch what they did, and learn the parts that you felt worked.”
Recorded in Los Angeles with Broudie once again producing, Feel is an edgy, viscerally emotional collection of alternative rock with strong melodic hooks, deeply introspective lyrics, sweltering guitar and vocals by Indovina that are equally convincing as a tortured whisper or a throat-shredding howl.
Feel is anchored by three lengthy, dominant epics that tower above the rest of the songs and expose the album’s tormented heart. “I Could Be a Killer” is a soaring melodrama with blistering guitar-work and an unhinged vocal by Indovina. “The Waiting Hour” is awash with majestic grandeur, with swells of keyboard skimming over an almost tribal rhythm. Perhaps strongest of all is the showstopping finalé, “There Is Only You”, a soul-wrenching powerhouse cleaved directly from the heart. Emotions are laid bare, and nothing is left to the imagination. Indovina just doesn’t go for halfway measures.
Feel fits stylistically alongside bands like the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Church, Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Love & Rockets and others who were growing large audiences, thanks in part to MTV featuring their videos on alternative-focused programs like 120 Minutes and PostModern MTV. “Death of an Angel” and “Heaven on Earth” at minimum were sure-fire hits had RCA handled the album properly.
One truth in the music industry that seems to be universal is that the right single can sometimes break an album big (but not always), but the wrong single can completely derail a project. Unfortunately, RCA took the wrong approach to the album’s promotion (to put it gently) and tried to break the savage rocker “Through My Eyes” at college radio before launching “Death of An Angel” as a major video and single. “Through My Eyes” packs a potent sonic and emotional punch, but it couldn’t be more ill-suited for college radio. Almost any other song on Feel would have been a better choice, particularly “Heaven on Earth”. It was a pivotal turning point in Indovina and Human Drama’s career. Indovina was apprehensive about the label’s plan from the start.
“I’ll tell you man, this is one of the things that can really burn me up,” he says. “Sometimes I will think of this RCA opportunity that if I would have been just a touch more forceful and a little less trusting of the pros in the industry, it could have been a very different career now. In my mind, it was absolutely clear that ‘Death of an Angel’ was the single. We had the meetings, and they told me of an approach: ‘We believe we want to hit you at college radio first with ‘Through My Eyes’ and then take it to commercial radio with ‘Death of an Angel’. I said, ‘I do not believe we are a college radio band… and to try to make our own market at college radio seems kind of non-productive when you have this intention of bringing ‘Death of an Angel’ to commercial radio as a single.’ In those days radio was fucking hip, man. We had KROQ. They were making hits out of the Cure and Love & Rockets, etc.”
RCA went ahead with their plan, and then, despite their promises to the contrary, the label didn’t support Feel when the strategy failed as badly as Indovina had feared. He says, “I went on record as being against it. The college radio guy came in and said, ‘No, we’re going to blast it here, blah, blah.’ I said, ‘Guys, I got a feeling if we fail at college [radio], ‘Death of an Angel’ is never coming out as a single.’ They went, ‘Oh, Johnny. Come on. No, no, no, no. We’re gonna blah-blah and blah-blah.’”
“Sure enough, ‘Through My Eyes’. It was nowhere hip enough for the R.E.M. crowd and punk enough for the Germs crowd or whatever. So we were in limbo at college [radio]. And then it was the old, ‘Hey, they can’t even break through college, you know’. So that’s what happened… Every time I hit the first chord to ‘Death of an Angel’ and the people scream in the audience, it burns me up, man.”
Although the memory still angers him, Indovina is also philosophical about it. After all, had Feel been commercially successful, it would have altered the trajectory of what Human Drama’s music would become, and rock history is littered with examples of bands that enjoyed some fleeting success only to be unceremoniously cast aside by their record label — often deeply in debt — after subsequent releases failed to move units sufficient to make them commercially viable. Indovina reflects, “It could have been very different in a lot of bad ways too, you know. Because once you do fall victim to the commercial radio hit, let’s face it, we all kind of want another one.”
Despite the turmoil surrounding the album’s release, Indovina still looks back on Feel with fondness, and he understands how pivotal the album is to the band’s development. Although some artists tend to disdain their early work, Indovina doesn’t fall into that negativity. He says of the album, “You know, it’s so easy for people to look back and go, ‘Oh, what I’m doing now is the best. What I was doing then was shit. I’m embarrassed.’ Fuck that, you know. One thing leads to another. I couldn’t have done The World Inside had I not got the scream out of my system on Feel. So it was obvious to me, like, ‘Don’t just keep making Feel twenty times, dude. Go explore. Let’s take this one. We’re taking this one inside.’ And that was pretty much the comment that led me to The World Inside”.
Feel went out of print not long after its release, but Indovina released a deluxe expanded edition of the album in 2008 featuring tracks from their debut EP as well as previously unreleased material such as “I Wish I Could See” and “A New Dawn”. The only quibble is that the studio version of “Wave of Darkness” from Scream: A Compilation is not included, but that may have been due to licensing restrictions since that album was released on Geffen Records.
Human Drama severed ties with RCA after the commercial disappointment of Feel and subsequently signed with the independent label Triple X, which became the perfect home for the band. Indovina turned inward and reflective for Human Drama’s second album, The World Inside, which is widely considered to be Human Drama’s crowning artistic achievement. It’s simply a stunning piece of work, an album that any fan of alternative rock should hear. Released in 1992, The World Inside is more acoustic and less strident than Feel and is bedecked with resplendent string and woodwind arrangements (many of which form the main instrumental hooks, instead of the guitar).
From a songwriting perspective, Indovina was hitting his stride. Multiple tracks like “Fascination and Fear”, “This Tangled Web”, “Color Me Red”, “A Million Years” and especially “Look Into a Stranger’s Eyes” all have melodic hooks strong enough to fit comfortably alongside anything playing on alternative radio at the time. There would have been no problem whatsoever with a sequence from Smashing Pumpkins to Tori Amos to Human Drama to Curve. They fit the zeitgeist of the era, but no matter how loudly you scream, if the platform is too small not enough people will hear you.
“Tears” is a deceptively jaunty folk-rock daydream with trilling flute flitting over the heavy rain of acoustic guitar, and a swooning viola countermelody. “Tears” includes the unforgettable verse, “There is writing on the wall / I know because I wrote it / says it’s ok to dream / and it’s alright to promise / just don’t promise what you dream”. Sage advice: don’t base the value of your life on a dream they may or may not come to fruition, but never stop chasing it. Another absolute high point is “The Sound of the Rain”, on which Indovina’s vocal performance, half-whispered and bathed in reverb, is devastating. The World Inside is relentlessly gripping from start to finish, a superb exhibition of songwriting prowess and fully committed performances that cut right to the bone.
Indovina started plotting Human Drama’s second album before Feel was even released, and he knew then that he’d want to shift sonic directions. He also knew he wanted to create an album in which the songs flow and align thematically. “While we were rehearsing for Feel and getting all the production stuff sussed out, every night I would go into my room and I said, ‘I’m not gonna fall deep into that old, ‘You’ve got ten years to write your first album and six months to write the next one,’” he says. “So I started working on The World Inside… I was already sitting inside my room thinking, ‘Okay, I know what this is going to be. We’re still going to do Feel. I know what that’s going to be. And now I’m going to dictate what this next one’s going to be to rise, to grow.’”
The recording of the album, produced by Indovina with Charlie Bouis, was grueling and rife with tension. All of the bandmates he’d worked with on Feel peeled away one by one. Indovina says, “The recording sessions were so intense and stress-filled for The World Inside… [It] was tough because I went from having a budget of $400k to make an album to having a budget of $5k… So it was a process. And also, all the original guys left at some point during the recording of The World Inside. They just had enough.”
Despite its troubled creation, Indovina remains justifiably proud of the album, which spawned an elaborate series of videos and the release of a deluxe remastered edition with bonus material in 2010. The World Inside was widely acclaimed by critics, and Indovina even received congratulatory messages from many of the people he’d worked with at RCA. He says, “I got a call from everybody involved except for the President of RCA after The World Inside going, ‘Johnny, this is the record! This is the record we should have. This is it!’ And I went, ‘Hey, I appreciate it, brother.’ That was kind of what I said to ‘em. So they were at least nice enough to say, ‘Hey, good work, brother. You did it.’”
After the emotionally draining experience surrounding The World Inside, Human Drama’s next project, released in 1993, turned into a labor of love — a collection of covers originally recorded by artists who inspired Indovina. He chose to call it Pin Ups as an homage to David Bowie’s original classic covers album of the same name 20 years earlier. Indovina even shot a cover that pays tribute to the original. He says the concept for the album came quite by accident, ironically enough, during the release party for The World Inside.
“By the time we were doing the record release party,” he says, “I had a whole new band, and Peter Heur [president of Triple X Records] had said, ‘We want you guys to play the album at the party too.’ Peter is one of the best guys I’ve met in this business, and to this day, I just love him. I said, ‘Peter, you’re going to be playing this record over the loudspeakers all night.”
“So why would I get up there and play those songs? Why don’t I just make it fun? We’re gonna pick some of the artists that inspired me to do The World Inside and I’ll do like a 45 minute covers set. So I did. And immediately after the set, Peter walks up and he goes, ‘Johnny, this is our next album!’ [laughs]. And I went, ‘Really? You want a covers record?’ He goes, ‘Let’s do it.’ And I go, ‘That’ll be so much fucking fun. And you know what? I’ll do Pin Ups even though it wasn’t my idea… I’ll do my version of what Bowie did on Pin Ups showing all the inspirations.”
Indovina includes covers of songs by Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Nico, Genesis, Pink Floyd, John Lennon and, of course, David Bowie. One obvious standout is his dramatic take on Lou Reed’s harrowing “Caroline Says Pt. II”. “I had to do something from Berlin,” Indovina says, referencing Reed’s heartrending 1973 classic. Set to stark piano and acoustic guitar wrapped in gentle strings, Indovina tells of a couple trapped in a spiral of drugs and violence with piercing intensity and obvious empathy. The tension and heartbreak are so thick ya practically hold your breath until it’s over.
Perhaps the most beloved track on Pin Ups is Human Drama’s opulent reimagining of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Indovina takes a song that’s taut and restless with tension and transforms it into a baroque acoustic ballad festooned with a dazzling string arrangement, then allows it to simmer to a slow boil before ascending to a breathtaking climax. The sheer imagination behind such an unlikely arrangement is staggering. Indovina is rightly effusive in his admiration for the song.
“I knew I had taken this incredibly tense and emotional song and I had let it run through me,” he says. “It ran through me. And now my song was the way the Joy Division song makes people feel. So I knew I had a twist. I knew I had ‘this is what it does to the listener.’ And I let that come out of me. I felt 100 percent confident that that track was going to hit people the way that it did. So I felt good about that one, let me tell you.”
After the diversion into the covers project, Indovina once again exhumed his psyche and started writing for the next Human Drama release. It turned into a prolific period, yielding enough strong material for an EP and an album jammed to the rafters with 23 songs. Indovina says, “I was definitely cruising at that point. That might be the only time it happened!”
The Human Drama EP appeared in 1994. It revealed a continuation of the introspective and melodic vibe of The World Inside, heavy with strings but with a hint of the aggression that marked Feel. “Breathe” is an exercise in escalating drama and tension with a thrilling cinematic string arrangement. A hidden gem in Human Drama’s catalog, it’s only available on this EP. Perhaps most notably, the EP also includes a substantial reworking of “The Waiting Hour” stripped down to piano and strings.
Indovina says of the reinvented version, “I felt like when I did The World Inside and brought everything inside, I kind of felt ‘The Waiting Hour’ should’ve been on that album, done with that approach. So I spoke to Mark, the piano player, I said, ‘Mark, do me a favor. Slow this shit down. Give me a piano version and let’s see how it sounds piano-vocal. And you know what? Maybe we will do the alternative mix or whatever.’ I don’t know what I was thinking. But you know, I wanted to hear it in that way. And oh, what a good move!”
Tellingly, when Human Drama released The Best of Human Drama… In a Perfect World in 2000 it was the piano version of “The Waiting Hour” that was included instead of the original from Feel. Either version works in its way, and “The Waiting Hour” perhaps best exemplifies the ethos of Human Drama.
The fourth Human Drama album, Songs of Betrayal, followed in 1995. It’s yet another studio triumph, the wealth of material is astounding. The songs still revolve around acoustic guitar, strings, piano, organ and Indovina’s lovelorn, emotionally fractured lyrics. As one might expect, there are moments of deep introspection, but Indovina also amps up the energy by plugging in more electric guitar and by dipping into different sonic textures. “The Puzzle”, for instance, is built on a ubiquitously ‘90s trip-hop beat, and “Sad I Cry” incorporates whimsical jazzy elements.
Produced by Indovina with drummer C.J. Eriksson, Songs of Betrayal is loaded with highly accessible tunes that would have sounded brilliant on alternative radio. The shifty rocker “It is Fear”, with its swirls of strings and guitars spiraling up the tension and excitement, would have been a perfect choice for first single. It could have been followed by “Let the Darkness In”, with its agile hook and the dynamic interplay between flute, pulsing bass, and Mark Balderas’ whirling hammond organ.
Next it would have been the emotional ballad “This Forgotten Love”, followed by possibly the blazing rocker “Another Fifty Miles”. With the right promotional and financial push, those four tracks as singles would have been a surefire recipe for success at alternative radio.. Alas… ‘twas not to be.
That’s not to say the album isn’t successful, it most certainly is. Songs of Betrayal is diverse and experimental while firmly operating under the vast Human Drama umbrella. What is success, after all? Is it a number on a spreadsheet, or is it the ability for an album to touch its audience in ways that most mass-produced music has no prayer of accomplishing? Perhaps it depends on your aim: music or product. Perhaps in retrospect more recognition for the greatness of Songs of Betrayal will come, but in the meantime it’s an epic secret Human Drama fans can savor as a private joy.
The thread of betrayal, as is made clear by the title but even more real by the subject matter, courses through the entire album, but it crystallizes in one particularly striking track. “Tired” is a gritty portrayal of a man roiled by romantic strife. “Tired” is stripped down and raw, just Indovina seething over an electric guitar wrapped in a sinuous coil of dark cellos played with grace by Gerri Sutyak. “Tired” ensnares the listener into a moment where anguish is so palpable it leadens the heart. It’s so absolutely genuine that it’s impossible not to imagine Indovina confronting someone and practically spitting these lines to their face.
Like many great vocalists who may not be the best pure “singers” in the traditional sense (Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Leonard Cohen, Robert Smith, Michael Stipe and Neil Young all come to mind), so much of the power comes from vocal phrasing. Indovina’s impeccable phrasing makes “Tired” utterly believable. He can go from a growl to a whisper to a scream, sometimes all within the same song. He wrings meaning with tone and nuance, sometimes just a hint of a desperate creak. It comes from instinctual connections with the songs, and is a gift that many vocalists simply do not possess. Indovina says getting to that place where he can inhabit a particular persona and deliver it convincingly is a matter of contemplating the impact on the listener.
“Generally for my songs, I know how I want a person to feel when it hits their ears,” he says. “And I go into my mode. I have worked and worked and worked on the stuff long before I hit the record button… That’s what I was put here to do, and that’s what operates in my head. And yeah, of course, you hit the record button and you do what’s appropriate for the song and you try to speak it as clearly whether you’re screaming, whispering or whatever the fuck, try to deliver it with the way that it will be very clear what these words are and how they’re supposed to make you feel and think. That’s it.”
“I’m not a singer-singer, as you know, I’m just a whatever. I do my thing and that’s what I have brought to the ears of the people that have put on my record. Whether they like it or don’t, that’s what they get.”
Indovina remains pleased with the sprawling collection. “I’ll be really honest, we nailed that one,” he says. “Nothing could ever be The World Inside, but we nailed Songs of Betrayal. We did what we wanted to do. We got it done and it exists and that’s one of those good feelings that stays with you.” Four years after its original release, Human Drama reissued Songs of Betrayal as two separate CDs, incorporating previously unreleased material on both discs.
After emptying the cupboard of songs and in the midst of a tour in which Indovina and the band were blazing hot night after night, it was only logical that the next Human Drama project be a live album. Spliced together from two nights at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, Fourteen Thousand Three Hundred Eighty-Four Days Later (which refers to the exact number of days Indovina had been alive up to the date of the recording) was released in 1997.
The live album is a dynamic showcase for the power of Human Drama’s on-stage presence. The opening salvo is one of the great three-song runs to start any live album, ever: a spirited version of “Death of An Angel” followed without pause by the incendiary “Wave of Darkness” and then straight into an absolutely blistering take on Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire”, a folk song that Human Drama ingeniously transforms into a torrent of molten sonic fire still sparking with danger. Indovina once again shows an innate ability to so deeply understand a song written by another artist and that he can turn it completely on its head but make it work brilliantly. You simply can’t do that unless you truly “get” the original song to your bones, and even then it takes a deft hand to make such a radical shift believable.
“I did about the same thing that I did with Love Will Tear Us Apart’”, says Indovina of the song. “I know what Cohen’s song did to me, how it made me feel; and it caused me great tension and thought and nervousness and the emotions that came out. And I did the opposite. I took that one to the scream, I took it up to, ‘I am shouting this from inside… This is gonna be a nasty waltz. We’re doing this in 3/4, and it’s just fucking — ain’t gonna be nothing subtle about it. We ain’t dropping down. We’re gonna blast, and it’s going to slap people in the head’. And that’s what we did.”
The live album is a run-through of many of Human Drama’s best songs, with a few covers added. Indovina is in top vocal form, and the band is tight as nails. Jamii Szmadzinski’s electric violin slices through the rock groove like the keening of a wild spirit fleeing from Hell, still sheathed in flame. Indovina performs a solo acoustic version of “This Forgotten Love” that is out of this world. Electrifying takes on “I Could Be a Killer” and “There is Only You” ratchet the crowd to a fever pitch right before the band unleashes the breathtaking finalé, a ferocious cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”.
As far as live albums go, it doesn’t get much better than Fourteen Thousand Three Hundred Eighty-Four Days Later. It’s a good place to begin a study of Human Drama’s catalog. The live album provides a solid overview of some of their best songs performed with everything they have to give. Johnny Indovina and his collaborators leave everything on that stage. Only an artist who genuinely feels these songs bubbling under his skin and who utterly believes with zero qualms in what he is doing can pull of such a transcendent performance.
After the live project, Indovina plunged back into songwriting for the next Human Drama studio album, 1999’s Solemn Sun Setting. The downbeat nature of the title and the album itself was a sign that things were indeed starting to stagger toward dusk for the band. Although certain songs stand up to any of the best work Human Drama has done, overall there’s a remote detachment to some of the album and it doesn’t quite connect emotionally in the band’s usual way. That said, there are still some killer tracks.
“That was kind of a rougher one for me, a rougher period,” Indovina says. “Maybe I kinda had enough on Solemn Sun Setting and in fact I can tell you now that Solemn Sun Setting was definitely me predicting an end. I don’t know right now that I can say that I was going to surprise everybody and break it up, but I lost a little bit of my focus, maybe I was a little worn down. I never felt like I got it 100 percent together. It was not The World Inside or Songs of Betrayal. You can’t expect them all to be The World Inside, you can’t. And I knew that. I knew that. But Solemn Sun Setting is not the one I’m gonna be known for when it’s all said and done.”
Although it isn’t his favorite overall, Indovina does appreciate several of the tracks. “I think that ‘Single White Rose’ and ‘Loves Way’ could be highlights of a career,” he says, referring to two of the album’s spectacular ballads (his falsetto on “Single White Rose” is nothing short of exquisite, as are the luminous violins played by Jamii Szmadzinski and Mark Balderas’ verdant piano). “That’s how much I think those are fucking amazing,” he says.
“And then you have a song like ‘Somewhere’, he continues, “one of my best lyrics, but I never got it to feel like it was supposed to feel on the streets of New York. It’s in there, but it doesn’t quite rise through the mix and become another ‘Death of an Angel’ because it’s got a beautiful chorus, the words are beautiful but, you know, maybe at 75 percent, I couldn’t find the 100 percent on that one. There were definitely some highlights on that album. I’m not saying that’s a bad album, I like the album, but I know that it was very disjointed and that I wasn’t at my best.”
Despite Indovina’s misgivings, which may be reflective of his state of mind during the process of writing and recording the album, the vast majority of Solemn Sun Setting is quite excellent. “My Denial”, the outstanding opener, finds Indovina singing with cool detachment over a vaguely psychedelic descending guitar pattern, Michael Mallory’s loping bass, and a subtle Wurlitzer played by Mark Balderas that could easily have been beamed directly from 1969.
Two particular gems are “Lost”, a lovely little track with beautiful harmonies, syrupy strings and a stately marching beat, and “March On”, a grand epic in the tradition of “Blue”. Perhaps the biggest issue with Solemn Sun Setting is that at 16 tracks and 67 minutes, it could have used a judicious trim. Slice it down to the 12 strongest pieces and it would be a more satisfying listening experience.
Three years pass until the next Human Drama album, which turned out to be their last (at least for now). Cause and Effect was released in 2002, and Indovina without question learned from his experience with Solemn Sun Setting. While still over an hour, Cause and Effect is more direct and focused. In many ways it’s the most straightforward rock album of Human Drama’s career. Cause and Effect finds Human Drama in the full bloom of badassery: the emphasis shifts to the guitars, hard-driving beats and punchy melodies. The strings are still present, but they play a supporting role. Perhaps not surprisingly, Indovina speaks with much more enthusiasm about Cause and Effect than its predecessor.
He says, “I love that I made that conscious decision to say, ‘Hey Johnny, you’re not in love with doing strings anymore. You’ve done it. Now you’re just gonna be lazy, so fuck the strings. Let’s find some different tones. Let’s go old Chamberlin and mellotrons.’ I always remember David Bowie played guitar on ‘Rebel Rebel’. I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna see now what happens if I become the guitar player on this album. Maybe using all of those things, I’ll come up with something nice.’ So, I demoed three songs in that situation and I was like ‘Yeah, here we go. Here we go… ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ – fucking A, now you’re talking’. I got refocused as you can even tell by the way that I’m talking about it.”
“Goodnight Sweetheart” is indeed the obvious standout, with wicked snarls of guitar and Indovina singing in his lower register, sometimes double-tracked, with a strong sense of menace. “I Am Not Here” is the closest thing to an arena-rock anthem that Human Drama has ever recorded — the fact that it wasn’t on regular rotation on alternative radio is a crime. Haunting takes on Emmylou Harris’ rumination on loss, “Bang the Drum Slowly”, and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” add to the long history of excellent covers Human Drama have recorded over the years.
“Lonely” is an elegant ballad with dazzling piano histrionics handled with deft ease by David Zimmerman, and patterned after Mike Garson’s deliriously romantic work on songs like “Lady Grinning Soul” and “Aladdin Sane” for David Bowie. “Look at Me Now”, with its sweeping melody and vocal harmonies, is another rock-solid winner.
“Madame Hate’s Mad Search for Love” is a work of sardonic brilliance. Indovina opens with lines of mordant humor, archly referencing a Beatles’ standard, “She walks down empty streets / to the rhythm of a song in her head / ‘When I find myself in times of trouble…’ / she forgets the rest”. It’s “Eleanor Rigby” as a misanthropic spinster secretly pining for affection. Indovina says of the song, “I love it, man. I love it. It doesn’t get enough attention even from me like in live concerts but I love the song. It’s such a cute little twist of a very mean sad situation.”
Unbeknownst to fans, Indovina had already decided that “Cause and Effect” would be the final Human Drama album long before it was released, although he did leave the door ajar for a possible return. “I am a big believer in the ‘never say never’”, he says, “but that was it and before we started I brought the guys and I said,’Hey, look. You know, I’ve been thinking, do I start with the solo thing? Do we… What do we do here? Here’s what I’m thinking — if you guys agree, let’s get some of the players on. Let’s finish off this album. Some of the old guys keeping it consistent with what we have right now, and let’s call it a day’.
“Everyone was a little bothered,” he says. “I remember the meeting. It was in Malibu and everybody sitting around going, ‘Oh, really, you know, we had a great run, we’ve done a lot of good things, we were very fortunate, we’re buddies, we’re sitting here, but guys, let’s put the wraps on it.’ And I said, ‘But I do want you guys involved in the finishing of the album and everybody said, ‘let’s do it’”.
And that was it. Human Drama’s remarkable run was over, at least for a time. Indovina would go on to record two albums with a different set of musicians under the name Sound of the Blue Heart, Beauty? (2006) and Wind of Change (2009). While both contain a handful of strong tracks, neither stand up to any of Human Drama’s albums, which Indovina readily admits. He was trying to detach himself from Human Drama and move in a new direction, but he wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.
Walking the Tightrope
“I was really trying to find a way to get out of the Human Drama umbrella even though it was a very general and broad thing to write under,” he explains. “I wanted to get away from it. Didn’t know what I was gonna do, wasn’t really sure… But yes, I got new players, pieced together a few songs and said, ‘You know what? I think I can make an album’, and I was not correct. I was not correct. I wasn’t ready to make the album. It is very much not so much me not being focused like on Solemn Sun Setting, it’s me stepping into a new world, and you know sometimes if you take the path to the left that was incorrect, you gotta go take the one on the right.”
“I really should have titled the Sound of Blue Heart album Johnny Indovina,” he says. “Peter Heur at the record label thought that too, but he has so much respect for me he allows me to do what I want to do. I always tell Peter that’s one of the days he should’ve stepped in and said, ‘Hey, Johnny. Hey, man’… It was time for me to go solo so Beauty? should have been the first Johnny Indovina album. I did it again with Wind of Change. [laughs]
Indovina would finally release his first solo album, Trials of the Writer, in 2014. The album examines the relationship between a writer and his songs, both as they are written and after they are released to the world. He explores how each composition becomes a frozen moment, a snapshot of a feeling, memory or event that will outlast its writer and the inspiration that led to its creation. At times, on the better tracks, Sound of the Blue Heart sounds very much like Human Drama despite Indovina’s attempt to distance himself from that mould. At no point in time does Trials of the Writer sound even remotely like Indovina’s former band. It is a solo album in every sense of the word, personal and deeply compelling.
There was still some unfinished business, though, with Human Drama. In the end, it came down to doing it for the fans. The band reunited in August 2012 for a triumphant performance at El Plaza Condesa in Mexico City, where Human Drama has amassed a sizable fan base.
Indovina explains how it all went down: “You know, I guess it kinda happened this way. There had been so many requests. So many nice people in Mexico said, ‘Where is Human Drama? Are you doing another tour?’”, he said. “I just finally said, ‘You know what, dude? This is such a sweet thing’. How many people get this in life where people want you, you know, they care, they want you there, it’s exciting to them. I said, ‘Fuck it. Just respect it and put together a reunion and let’s make it special.’ God, it’s been however many years at that point.”
“So that was the way I went into the first one,” he says. “We got together and did The World Inside top to bottom, took a break, and then came back and did a greatest hits thing. It was about 3 1/2 hours, and I’ll tell you, I’ve already lived 58 years on the planet. No matter how many more I live, that will be one of those nights that make life special. I couldn’t live until I did it, but to see people celebrating and singing along and smiling and loving every fucking minute because you are there, you’re playing, you’re handing your art to them and now it’s kind of like it was all of ours.”
“I know that sounds corny but it was. Human Drama at that point was as much theirs, as if we were all in it together. And fuck, you just don’t get many nights like that, you know. So that jostled me a little bit and I said, ‘Hey, you know, maybe one day we will do another one.’ So that’s how the one just last year came up, ‘You know what? Let’s go do one more. If they want us, let’s go do it.’”
The 2015 show, marking Human Drama’s 30th anniversary, was a marathon performance at the Circo Volador in Mexico City on Halloween night. The band this time performed Songs of Betrayal in its entirety, followed by a greatest hits set. They played 42 songs in all, ending with the first new Human Drama track in 13 years, “The Liar Inside”.
Indovina explains the decision to regroup Human Drama in the studio: “I wanted to make a commitment to it for a couple reasons,” he says. “Again if people want it, that same old theory, who am I to say no? It’s me and my art, so okay, I’m gonna listen and I’m gonna see if I can put together a new Human Drama song. I did, loved it, felt like it was appropriate, I love the ‘Liar Inside’, so happy with it.”
“Then I told the band, ‘If we do well on this and it works, and it’s fun and everybody is creative, and we make another album that’s worthy of the Human Drama name, I’ll do it.’ And that’s where we’re at right now. I’m writing songs for an album, I’m up to six right now. I’m struggling because I’m battling that, ‘Write the best song, don’t conform to what somebody might think Human Drama is, expand Human Drama’”.
It’s been a tightrope walk for Indovina to balance fans’ expectations of what Human Drama should be, and following his own muse. “Now Human Drama is such a concept,” he says, “with knowledge and all the people that are my fans. It does hit me, and I’ll give you a little example. About a week ago I called the guys and I went, ‘Oh, guys! I got a great one. I just finished it. This is gonna be song number six and it’s great.’”
“The next day I realized I had rewritten ‘Tears’. They go ‘Dude, you’re giving this album a ‘Tears’. What the fuck? What are you thinking?’ You know it’s like I had fallen victim to it, and it got by me. I knew it was Human Drama. I knew it would be suitable and it wouldn’t be a surprise. This is a great song to have on the Human Drama album. So now I have stepped back. I like the words, I like the chorus, now grow it. Don’t make another ‘Tears’, that’s fucking lazy. Don’t be lazy. So that’s my struggle right now.”
For every band that makes it big, selling millions of albums (or in this day and age, thousands of albums) and playing large arenas, there are countless others working for the love of creation, for their own smaller but dedicated fan bases, and of course to make a living. Often these artists are churning out music every bit as compelling as those who saturate the radio airwaves, and with a fraction of the resources. Human Drama is one of those bands.
One of the magical things about music is that there are endless avenues to explore. Artists waiting to be discovered, albums ready and willing for new listeners to dive in and unlock their secrets. Human Drama’s catalog is worthy of exploration, attention and respect. One of these days, we can hope, Human Drama’s collection will be subject to a vinyl reissue campaign. The thoughts of listening to deluxe vinyl editions of Feel, The World Inside, Songs of Betrayal, Solemn Sun Setting and Cause and Effect is a tantalizing prospect.
Thirty years after Human Drama was born, Indovina looks back with pride and satisfaction: “Looking back on it brings me right back to the beginning of when I first got this idea in my mind of what I would like to achieve,” he says, “and to have it pass and kind of be there and be pretty much like I imagined in my late teens… It’s really, really something, man. I’m so proud, I’m glad. I’m glad I made some kind of a difference being on the planet, you know?”
“I can say that it’s nice also that I don’t have any regrets that I ever lost focus, or allowed business to have me. I’m really focused. So there are a lot of things I’m proud of. And also just the relationships that I made, that I kept. It says a lot about your life, you as a person. So a lot to be proud of, man.”
That’s success by any measure.