Have you ever driven through the desert? Flown across dry, red earth while mammoth spires of stone and humps of rock pin back the wide blue horizon?
Maybe you stopped in the shadow of a peak and began to climb through wiry brush and sandy succulents, picking a forgotten trail up the monolith’s face. Dust on your boots, sweat on your brow, the hot kiss of sun on your body: these will stay with you later, when you’ve returned to wherever you came from and need to remember how it felt to be free.
Lord Huron’s music does this. It picks you up and drops you on an abandoned shore, a dream-like desert, a snowy cliff. It fills your heart with longing for adventure or lost loves. The sound is expansive, with layers of guitar and piano and strings, edges softened and blurred until all that remains is a lush landscape against which singular elements appear and weave. Plucked strings, wind chimes, harmonized chants, and a singer’s voice range like a cowboy’s at the campfire, telling stories too grand to be true and too familiar not to be.
That voice belongs to Ben Schneider, a Michigan native who named his band for the lake by which he developed his first Lord Huron EPs. As the project grew in scope and acclaim, he added friends from Okemos and East Lansing: Mark Barry, Miguel Briseño, Tom Renaud, and Karl Kerfoot. The quintet began touring in 2011, and the 2012 release of the band’s debut album Lonesome Dreams (Iamsound Records) earned critical praise from Rolling Stone, a performance on “The Tonight Show,” and a surge in popularity.
“I started recording as a personal thing. I had no expectations about it,” said Schneider in a phone interview last week. “Music was always a part of my world, but my focus had been more in the visual.” Schneider, who went to art school, created mixed media exhibitions in the form of fake natural history exhibits. “It was not a good business model,” he said, laughing. “The art world was a weird fit for me.”
Living in Los Angeles, and working as an art director to pay the bills, Schneider’s career got a boost from his sister. “She encouraged me to do something, to hand [his first EP, Into the Sun] out at festivals and stuff.” Word of mouth and online bloggers curried enough interest to warrant performances. “I called up the only people I could think of, my best friends who I had grown up with,” he said. They translated the record into stage shows and began talking tours. “I knew I could take the time as a vacation or I could just quit,” he said. “I had a bit of a safety net. No kids, no family, no home. As soon as I saw a chance that I could at least get by doing this, I went for it.”
One of Schneider’s favorite parts of the Lord Huron experiment is his ability to marry songwriting and performance with visual creation. His art manifests as music videos, such as the “Time to Run” faux Western mini-movie directed by Arms Race, and album covers and art with a distinctly evocative, Instagram-like aesthetic not unlike his sound. “I develop that stuff as I’m developing the songs,” he said. “I tend to think very visually, so a lot of times while we’re working stuff out we’ll say, ‘Let’s make this sound like a landscape’ or some other visual.”
If Lord Huron’s sound triggers subconscious visions of these wild, faraway places, Schneider’s lyrics paint a conscious picture. “I’ve been through the desert/and I’ve been across the sea/I’ve been across the mountains/I’ve wandered through the trees. She left no trace/but I know her face/I will find her.” Every song is an endless search, for love or the truth or a way to live forever.
Lonesome Dreams tells the loosely-stitched story of a man named Lord Huron and his companions Admiral Blaquefut and Helena, characters detailed in the Lonesome Dreams series of adventure stories by fictional author George Ranger Johnson.
According to Johnson’s website, he published new installments from 1966 to 1987 and “it is unclear whether the Lonesome Dreams series will continue.” Every Johnson title is out of print, but each corresponds to a song on Lord Huron’s album. “George Ranger Johnson is a tragically underappreciated author of adventure pictures,” said Schneider. “He’s the basis of our first album, but most people have never heard of him. Hopefully one day he’ll get his due.”
The fabricated Johnson is an integral part and product of the Schneider creation process. “I was really interested in taking personal experiences and looking at them through this lens of an old adventure novel—an old dime story,” he explained. “I have a pretty idiosyncratic way of working. I tend to collect a lot of small pieces when I’m on the road—voice recordings of melodies or pieces of rhythm or lyrics,” he said. “When I get home I lay it all out and try to imagine a clearer picture of what I’m heading towards.”
The idea of George Ranger Johnson hinted at something larger. “I’m drawn to stories happening on a grand scale,” Schneider said. “Not always epic or on a God level—just big ideas that can happen in really small stories. They get at some core truth.”
When Lord Huron performs at the Jefferson this Sunday, February 9, the sound may be quite different than the group’s recordings. “I let the two things be the different things they want to be,” Schneider said. “It’s not possible to replicate a 10-instrument arrangement onstage, so I let it be its own virtual experience. Same song but a different game.”