Smile Politely

George Ranger Johnson and I: An interview with Lord Huron

Los Angeles’ Lord Huron, who appeared at Pygmalion Music Festival 2012, are returning Wednesday to the Highdive for a show presented by Pygmalion and WPCD. We recently spoke with Ben Schneider, who started the band as a solo recording project, then built a band of childhood friends around those recordings as the show offers came in. Schneider is a soft-spoken and deeply nice individual who writes, at times, inscrutable music, where East Asian melodies coexist peacefully with a deep understanding of the American singer-songwriter tradition, as well as some oddball samples that float by nearly unnoticed, lending textural support to the nearly soundtrack-like soundscapes on Lord Huron’s records.

I caught up with Schneider recently by phone, and what followed was a look into the mind of a consummate artist. Born and raised in Michigan, Schneider moved west to pursue visual art, but sidetracked himself into Lord Huron’s current success. Guided by a fictional author of adventure fiction named George Ranger Johnson, for whom Lord Huron even hosts a website, Schneider has been pursuing his muses in every direction. So far, such expansion has yielded some fascinatingly deep sounds, as he synthesizes his diverse interests (except for maybe the Wu Tang Clan, who impressed Schneider early in his journey) into a cohesive musical whole.

Smile Politely: I was listening to the album earlier today and it’s sort of like you combine these American folk elements with all these world music sounds, as well as this musical and narrative sense of dislocation that comes with that. Is that related to working out of L.A. now, but being a Midwesterner originally?

Ben Schneider: I guess that’s part of it, a sense of obscure space is something I try to strive for in the music that we make. Every place we’ve been and every place I’ve lived has influenced me in some way or imparted something on me. I think the sound might be obscure and hazy because there are so many places I’m thinking of and referencing. But hopefully that kind of creates a mysterious nonspace that you can inhabit.

SP: In relation to the mysterious nature of the whole thing, you’ve created this character, George Ranger Johnson. Who is he? And more importantly, why is he?

Schneider: [laughs] Well, George Ranger Johnson is a sadly unappreciated author of adventure fiction whose novels are based upon … yeah. It’s just something that helps me get into the spirit of writing and get into the world. I don’t really have a good reason for why he is, but he is. And he’s the guy who helps us write this album.

SP: One of the things that struck me about the band when I saw you at Pygmalion was that you have this haunted quality to the music. You’ve got “Lonesome Dreams,” and then “Ghost on the Shore,” or “I’ll Be Back,” or “Time to Run.” There’s this very transitory and … I don’t want to say sad, necessarily, but kind of a sad-seeming quality to the music. But then when you play, you’re all just having an absolute blast. A lot of bands seem like they’re afraid to do that; it’s not really cool to look like you’re having fun. So how do you do that? Is there any sort of purposeful reconciliation between the content of the songs and how you appear onstage, or is it just that this is what’s in the songs, and you like playing music, and it comes out like that?

Schneider: Yeah, I guess that’s just part of the art of making music. A lot of the songs have things that are maybe sad or uncomfortable or dark in some ways, but that’s why you play it out, to kind of work through it. If I’m playing up there with some of my best friends, we can’t resist having a good time, whether we look cool or not. And we’re working out our issues right there in front of people.

SP: You say you’re up there with some of your best friends. You recorded the first two EPs by yourself, and then Lonesome Dreams was recorded with other people. Is the band made of people that you knew before Lord Huron, or knew from Michigan?

Schneider: Well, I recorded the first couple EPs, then started getting asked to do shows, when I was just kind of doing it as a recording project. Living in L.A., I wasn’t really in the music scene, so I didn’t know anybody to play in the band. So I just sort of called up old friends, the only musicians I knew, really. They were kind of spread all over the place. Mark, the drummer, the first guy who came out, was in Nashville working as a session drummer. I just kind of said, “Hey, would you be willing to come out to L.A. and play a couple shows,” thinking it would be a couple weeks and then he’d go back. And he’s been out here ever since and on the road since he came out.

And the other guys — one of them was here in L.A., but we grew up with him, and another guy from New York came out, then we got another guy from Sacramento to come up. They’re all much more accomplished at their respective instruments than I am, so I knew when I started working on the record that I wanted them to play on it. And we’ve known each other so long that I trust them on a personal level, but also on a musical level, because we’ve played together since we were kids, in some cases. I feel like they understand me and my aesthetic and what I’m going for creatively. And I understand them, so it was really natural integrating them into my pretty idiosyncratic recording process.

SP: Can you talk a little about that idiosyncratic approach to recording or your aesthetic? How does that relate to your original study of visual art? Is it all tied up together?

Schneider: I guess that’s what I couldn’t explain about George Ranger Johnson. The way I like to go about things creatively sometimes takes tangents or sometimes becomes another media entirely. It just helps me flesh things out when I can work on things in several different formats. Sometimes a song will start more with an image I had in mind, and that’ll create an image, and that’ll create a song concurrently with it and they’ll all inform each other.

With George Ranger Johnson it was just a lens to look at the way the songs were written, just another perspective to think about songs from. I’ve always been interested in sort of the immersive experiences, the immersive relationships of art forms. Even music … when I was a kid I loved going through my parents’ record collection and looking at the sleeves and imagining who these people were that made it, how they made it, what their lives were like. And I’ve always been drawn to that sort of thing. You know, one of the first musical acts that I remember being really blown away by like that — and this may seem a little strange — was the Wu Tang Clan, because they had such a firm grasp on their aesthetic and the mythology about their group and the world they inhabited. So yeah, in some ways Lord Huron is trying to be the Wu Tang Clan, if that makes any sense.

SP: So you were blown away by 36 Chambers, or whatever Wu Tang Record it was, but what were you listening to that your parents introduced you to that brought forth that really American folk element that underlies Lord Huron?

Schneider: I was really lucky that my parents not only had good taste but that they saved a lot of their records so we had a big collection. First I just listened to stuff they’d play in the house. My mom was one of the biggest Springsteen fans out there. My dad was a big Bob Dylan fan, and Neil Young. But it was kind of when I started to use the turntable myself and put on things they wouldn’t play all the time that I started to get into the deep Neil Young cuts, and I got into Paul Simon.

My older brother had a membership in this subscription service called Columbia House where you got a free hundred CDs if you bought a hundred CDs. He was one of the suckers who signed up for this thing. He was just a musical encyclopedia, because he had so many CDs. He was the one who got me into stuff like punk and hip hop and new wave. Then when I got a little older I got really into punk music and really into movies and soundtracks. I’d be in the video rental store just picking up foreign movies based on their covers. I was led to a lot of great music through that. That’s how I got into world music, listening to Japanese or Chinese movies I’d watch. And that’s basically my musical history.

Growing up where I grew up, country music was also ever-present. I kind of railed against it when I was younger, but as I grew up I kind of realized how much I cherished Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, all that good stuff.

SP: So the first artists you mentioned Neil Young and Dylan and Springsteen, as well as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash they’re all great storytelling musicians that you’re building your foundation on. And a lot of the Lord Huron lyrics that I’ve been looking at are story songs, but they’re written from a first person perspective. Do you have any comment on the difference between those or why you choose to write in the first person?

Schneider: That’s a good question. A lot of it is because the songs come from my personal experience. I also just think it’s more compelling for me, and more compelling for a song and easier to convey emotion like that when it’s coming straight from the source. It makes a lot of sense to me.


Lord Huron is performing at the Highdive tonight with Escondido starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $14 at the door.

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