Heron Oblivion's Noel Von Harmonson explains the formation of the band, the writing process behind their debut record, and their upcoming performance at Huichica Music Festival.
You guys came together pretty organically as friends and fellow musicians. How did playing together casually turn into recording one of the best psychedelic records of 2016?
That's very kind of you to say, thank you! We did start very casually. We actually thought it was going to be for a different project altogether, a more of a one-off (or two) of completely improvised, free rock music. And that was going really good, and we recorded everything we played. Upon listening back, we dug out some cool melodic parts that resembled more deliberately composed songs and tried arranging them a bit...sort of because why not? One day Meg started singing over some of these pieces and that pretty much sealed the deal that we were onto something worth pursuing rather than just a one off thing.
How was the group linked up with Sub Pop? What ways does a band putting out their debut record land a deal with such a well established label?
Ethan and I were in Comets On Fire who put out two records with Sub Pop and we've maintained close friendships with a lot of folks up there. They operate in a very familial fashion and we always loved working with them. We had recorded the record without a label and basically on credit hoping we could find a reasonable home for it where we could pay our studio bill and get it into folk's hands, etc. We didn't think the HO record was going to land there when we sent it to our friend Dean up there, we just wanted him to hear it as sort of a friendly, keep-in-touch thing. He immediately fell in love with it and said he felt like it was something he wanted to present to the label since some other folks around the (Sub Pop) office were getting excited about it, too, (a surprise to us compared to our early ambitions for the group) and things sort of went from there.
What was the inspiration for the songwriting and sound of the record? Was there always a group consensus on the sound and aesthetic of the record?
I think for the most part there is a push for group consensus on things. We all have pretty strong opinions in the practice space and writing space so things can move pretty slowly through the 4-way grinder that is HO. Like I said, a lot of the guitar parts and riffs were pulled out of the rubble of 25-minute improv sessions so they take on drastically different moods when removed from that context and arranged next to each other as distinct songs. Each of us brought a lot to the table as we moved forward, combining forces and musical influences you could say.
The band is comprised of musicians each with other projects they play with. How is the Heron Oblivion project used in terms of being a creative outlet for everyone collectively?
I'm the only one who doesn't really have another project going on at the same time. Obviously Meg and Charlie are doing gigs and putting out great records under Meg's moniker and Ethan is always running around whether he's putting out another killer Howlin' Rain record or working on screen printing the LP covers for the new Feral Ohms record (also great!). For me, I was trying to bring elements to a group who make music that I wanted to listen to, something that I didn't feel like I was hearing out in the world at the time, or at least I wasn't aware of.
Heron Oblivion is playing this year's Huichica Music Festival in Sonoma. You guys played last year as well. What makes the event worth coming back for? Can you describe how it differentiates itself from other music festivals?
Huichica was a blast last year! We played in that old barn right around that time in the late afternoon when the heat lets up a tiny bit and the light changes. We got to watch Simeon from the Silver Apples! That's crazy. We hung out with Cyril Jordan from the Flamin' Groovies back stage while he showed us the 45s he brought along with him. It's beautiful there and it's a really special meeting where a gorgeous California winery landscape can host a very highly curated selection of music and present people with a truly unique experience. A lot more unique and memorable than a lot of the other wine related festivals that happen in the area for sure.
You've mentioned the record was recorded live in a tiny basement. How did this recording style allow you to develop the mood and sonic flow of the record? What are the challenges of this recording style?
Yeah, we recorded in a really small room all facing facing each other sort of how we play in the (even smaller) practice space so we could maintain eye contact, use visual cues, and just generally capture the "live" sounding vibe. There are very few overdubs on the record beyond vocal harmonies. The whole thing was put together rather quickly during late nights and weekends when we could find the time. The challenges associated with recording like that is everyone has to play the song right all at the same time. The microphones are gonna pick up everything so if someone makes a big flub, it's pretty impossible to "fix in the mix" unless you just smear it with guitar feedback or something (always a classy move!).
With such an open and fluid style of writing and recording, it would seem plausible that you guys have created more material than what's on the record. Is there more Heron Oblivion in the future?
There is more material for sure. It goes back to what I mentioned above about trying to operate with a group consensus. We really strive to all be on the same page with the material and sometimes that clicks right away and sometimes it takes some re-writes and experimentation to get that consensus. We have a lot of riffs, ideas, and arrangements to sort through as we make our way (hopefully) toward the 2nd record. Between balancing everyone's schedules and finding that democratic sweet spot, things take a little bit of time.