His Name Is Alive
His Name Is Alive
His Name Is Alive “inhabits the zone where arty European postpunk and homegrown pop studio wizardly overlap,” according to critic Ivan Kreilkamp in the Village Voice. The group seems significantly different on each album it has released, from Livonia in 1990 to Last Night in 2002. Since 1989 the His Name is Alive (HNIA) lineup has changed as frequently as its ever-evolving sound. Warren Defever is at the core of the group, which is based in his childhood home in Livonia, Michigan, a Detroit suburb. HNIA has released more than a dozen records on the British 4AD record label, and the group and its many offshoots have released countless more on Defever’s own label, Time Stereo. HNIA “make simple music in a complex way and make it sound incredibly simple,” wrote Tania Branigan, a critic for Melody Maker, a British music magazine.
Defever got his start in music in high school as part of his brother’s rockabilly punk group, Elvis Hitler, which released three independent albums and enjoyed success in the underground punk scene. Defever formed His Name Is Alive in 1989 with singer Karin Oliver and drummer Damian Lang. The group’s name came from notes Defever took about Abraham Lincoln in a high school history class. Other than a summer job he had as a teen in his grandfather’s cornfield in Canada, making music is the only job Defever has ever held. HNIA and all of Defever’s many side projects have a dedicated following in the United States, but have as strong a legion of fans in Europe, Japan, and especially England, where the group’s longtime record label is based. Melody Maker critic Branigan even asked rhetorically, “[W]hy buy records made by anyone except Mr. Warren Defever?”
From the start, Defever’s poetic lyrics—which seem quirky on the surface, but always harbor a deeper meaning—have been the base of the HNIA sound. His layered guitar sounds and Oliver’s haunting, somewhat one-dimensional voice further defined the group’s sound. Despite their many radical shifts in style—from “electrified alternative rock” on Mouth by Mouth in 1993 to “purest… soul and blues” on Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth in 2001, according to the Milk Factory, a British music website, Defever claimed that the “HNIA formula” has “always been the same…. 1. A nice girl sings sad songs, 2. I make noise in the background… ’Renewing’ myself is an accident. The whole ’new me’ campaign is not something I do on purpose.”
In its early days, Defever fiddled with his four-track recorder and the group recorded self-produced cassettes. The founder of London-based 4AD records, Ivo Watts Russell, heard one of these demo tapes and agreed to sponsor the group’s debut album. Livonia was recorded in Defever’s home studio and released in 1990. It would be six years before HNIA had an official contract with 4AD; until then, Defever simply presented his music to Russell, who decided whether or not he wanted to release it.
Defever “comes across as an obsessive-savant Phil Spector-Lee Perry type trapped in the wrong genre and the wrong era,” critic Ivan Kreilkamp wrote in the Village Voice. He culls his musical influences from an incredibly wide range of sources. While his Beach Boys and Motown leanings are obvious and well-known, most of his influences are not. He handles the most obscure musical references, however, as if he were dealing with the works of known celebrities. He has borrowed from the protest songs of Sarah Ogan Gunning, reggae artist Eddy Grant, and folk musician Woody Guthrie. On Stars on ESP(1996), he referenced the deeply obscure cult 1960s record label E.S.P. Defever’s musical heroes are “basically people who play music a long time,” he told the Milk Factory, including Akifumi Nakajima, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Neil Young, and Keiji Heino.
“There really isn’t an indigenous form of music in the Midwest,” Defever said in an interview on the Philadelphia City Paper website. “Living here, you pick up all kinds of junk.” This is both a figurative and literal reference—he employs a collection of dusty, flea-market finds to record and manipulate his sounds: He used an antique wire recorder to make vocals sound as
For the Record…
Members include Jymn Auge (joined group, C. 1992), guitar; Warren Defever (also known as Warn Defever; born in 1969), vocals, guitars, production; Melissa Elliott , vocals; Chad Gilchrist (joined group, C. 1998), bass; Scott Goldstein (joined group, c. 1998), drums; Erika Hoffman , vocals, keyboards, congas; Denise James (joined group, c. 1992), vocals; Damian Lang (group member, 1992-93), drums; Trey Many (joined group, c. 1993), drums; Karen Neal (joined group, c. 1992), vocals; Karin Oliver , vocals; Lovetta Pippen (joined group, c. 1998), vocals.
Group formed in Livonia, MI, 1989; recorded for the 4AD label, 1990-2002; released Livonia,1990; Home Is in Your Head,1991; Dirt Eaters,1992; Mouth by Mouth,1993; Universal Frequencies,1996; Stars on ESP,1996; Nice Dav(EP), 1997; Fort Lake,1998; Can’t Always Be Loved,1998; Always Stay Sweet(EP), 1999; Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth, 2001; Last Night, 2002.
Addresses: Office— P.O. Box 531671, Livonia, MI 48153-1671. Website—His Name Is Alive Official Website: http/www.timestereo.com/hnia.
if they had come from the 1930s. He once recorded Oliver’s voice on an old Dictaphone, and then recorded the playback, which sounded otherworldly. “I recently decided that I’m not so much a guitar player, or a bass player, or a songwriter,” Defever told the Village Voice. “I’m a recorder. I record stuff.”
Defever gives his fans plenty of opportunities to buy product with his name on it since he has his hand in dozens of projects at any given time. Most notably he is a member of the groups Princess Dragon Mom, the Dirt Eaters, the Crash, and Noise Camp, among others. The projects, he told the Milk Factory, are just results of his excess material. “I used to record a lot,” he said. Each project “was a good idea at the time. If people weren’t interested they didn’t have to buy everything.”
After years of handling HNIA’s production, his reputation as a low-fi innovator spread, and underground groups began making the pilgrimage to Livonia to record with him. Such bands as Grenadine and Liquorice (both indie-rocker Jenny Toomey side projects), Ida, Tarnation, Godzuki, and Outrageous Cherry have recorded full-length albums in Defever’s dining room recording studio. As if that were not enough, Defever and childhood friend Davin Brainard also founded Time Stereo, as much a visual and performance art collective and warehouse as it is a wildly prolific record label that is run from Defever’s family room.
HNIA fans have “learned to expect the unexpected from” Defever, critic Patrick Foster wrote in the Washington Post,“making the listener grateful for the completely unexpected.” In 1998 HNIA began playing with a new lineup that included bassist Chad Gilchrist, drummer Scott Goldstein, and gospel singer Lovetta Pippen. That same year they released a full-length album, Fort Lake. Pippen’s vocals brought a warmth and soul to the group that gave its sound more depth. Her “earthiness” offset Oliver’s “ethereal chill,” wrote Melody Maker critic Sharon O’Connell. “Defever’s vision is as warped and wonderful as ever,” O’Connell declared. “[F]rom the beginning,” Defever told the Milk Factory, “each record we made was more successful than the one before. With every album our musical scope and audience seemed to grow. When Fort Lake came out, things got complicated real fast.” 4AD was in an upheaval—the label closed its United States office and Ivo Watts Russell was no longer involved.
In 1999 4AD released Always Stay Sweet, a compilation of tracks from the group’s first five albums that had previously only been released in the United Kingdom. Around this time Defever traveled to Nepal and India and essentially lost track of the people at the label. When he returned, HNIA recorded Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth, which was released in 2001; then, contractual obligations forced them to follow it quickly with Last Night.
Defever and Pippen were the core of Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth, which 4AD described as a “moody yet wonderfully soulful and modern R&B record.” Though the release was a far cry from the commercially popular smooth jazz-style R&B, Billboard critic Michael Paoletta likened HNIA’s sound to that of such acts as Sade, Billie Holliday, and neo-soul songstress Jill Scott. He called Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth “the year’s best R&B album that nobody in that community will ever hear.”
HNIA performed a month-long residency at the Knitting Factory in August of 2001. In June of 2002, just before 4AD was scheduled to release Last Night, the label declined to pick up the group’s next album. Though Last Night was released as planned, the label did not provide any substantial marketing or touring support, and 4AD and HNIA parted ways. When asked if the end of the long-standing relationship would mean the end of the band, Defever replied “Yes and no,” online at the Milk Factory, “I’m not really sure what to do next.”
Home Is in Your Head,4AD, 1991.
Dirt Eaters, 4AD,1992.
King of Sweet, Perdition, 1993.
Mouth by Mouth,4AD, 1993.
Sound of Mexico, Time Stereo, 1995.
Great Lakes State Blues, Time Stereo, 1996.
Stars on ESP,4AD, 1996.
Universal Frequencies, 4AD, 1996.
Nice Day(EP), 4AD, 1996.
Can’t Always Be Loved,4AD, 1998.
Fort Lake,4AD, 1998.
Always Stay Sweet(EP), 4AD, 1999.
Finer Twilights, Time Stereo, 2000.
In the East, Time Stereo, 2000.
When the Stars Refuse to, Time Stereo, 2000.
Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth,4AD, 2001.
Last Night,4AD, 2002.
Larkin, Colin, editor, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, third edition, MUZE, 1998.
Billboard, September 15, 2001, p. 38.
Melody Maker, November 8, 1997, p. 54; July 11, 1998, p. 38; August 29, 1998, p. 37.
Village Voice, August 27, 1996, p. 60.
Washington Post, August 17, 2001, p. WW8; August 21, 2001, p. C5.
“Artists: His Name Is Alive,” Beggars Group, http://www.beggars.com/us/hisnameisalive/#bio (February 20, 2003).
“His Name Is Alive,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 20, 2003).
“His Name Is Alive,” Milk Factory, http://www.themilkfactory.co.uk (February 20, 2003).
“His Name Is Alive,” Philadelphia City Paper, http://www.citypaper.net/articles/082296/article024.shtml (February 20, 2003).
“His Name Is Alive Biographies,” 4AD, http://www.4ad.com/artists/hisnameisalive/biography.html (February 20, 2003).