Interviews

Let the Darkness In: Johnny Indovina Reflects on 30 Years of Human Drama

2001 Johnny in Mexico City (photo from Human Drama.net)

For every band that makes it big, there are countless others working for the love of creation. Human Drama is one of those bands.

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”.

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