- Hefner: Rough around the edges, but fragile at its core.
It's the eve of Hefner's first U.S. tour, and bassist John Morrison, just back from a recent European tour, is focused on the little details that go into preparing for an overseas venture.
"I've got lots of washing to do," he says via phone from his home in London. "Fortunately, my girlfriend is really kind. When I got back from Spain, I just wanted to sleep. When I awoke, she had done most of my washing for me. I'll put it in a case later this evening, and then we fly to America tomorrow."
Given the way many British alt-rock groups have met with mixed results in the U.S. (it took years for Blur to gain a foothold here, and groups like Gomez and Placebo still haven't caught on, despite success in the U.K.), Morrison sounds uncharacteristically calm about the short, low-budget tour the folk-pop group has planned for the States. Hefner has created a small buzz around England, but Morrison admits he's never quite sure how the band will be received elsewhere.
"We've been stepping up in capacity of audiences," he says. "Each time we play, we play a slightly bigger place. We always say we won't fill it, but we do. We kinda heard we were getting some good college radio airplay in America, but it's hard to gauge until you go somewhere. We just came back from France and Spain, and we expected small audiences there, but most of the shows were jam-packed, and people were singing the songs."
Morrison shouldn't be so surprised. Even if you are completely unfamiliar with the trio, who just released their second album, The Fidelity Wars, it wouldn't be hard to sing along to the songs. On the opening track, "The Hymn for the Cigarettes," singer-guitarist Darren Hayman screams, "I love to watch the girls smoke in my bed" with all the innocuous enthusiasm of a young Jonathan Richman and the intelligence of Elvis Costello. Cleverness and catchy choruses can't always hide Hayman's vitriol, though. On the slow-starting "May God Protect Your Home" (a song in which "home" is a euphemism for a vagina), Hayman sounds downright malicious, as he reaches his hand down to his lover's "home." With Hayman screeching something about "take me home" while a spastic theremin squeals in the background, the song is both mean-spirited and misogynistic.
"I'd say he's pretty angry," Morrison says when asked about how Hayman feels about romantic relationships. "I always think, "Whoa, you have a hard time.' Not all of the songs are completely true, but if you asked him which were true, he wouldn't tell you and would say that you have to decide yourself. Some of the songs are very personal to Darren and are about things going on in his life at the time, but some aren't necessarily personal."
The group switches gears for "The Hymn for the Alcohol," which pairs pedal steel guitars with a thick, galloping bass line. The lurching "The Weight of the Stars" boasts folk-pop sensibilities that compare favorably to those of the Proclaimers, and even ballads like "Every Little Gesture," "Fat Kelly's Teeth," and "I Stole a Bride" -- a track that was recorded live on The John Peel Show -- are well-written and witty. The lush arrangements, equal parts folk and pop, recall something like Rufus Wainwright's 1998 self-titled debut. It's not a bad comparison, when you think that Wainwright's album cost a reported half-million dollars, and The Fidelity Wars was recorded on a small budget in a short 12 days. In fact, it even sounds hi-fi compared to Hefner's first effort, 1998's Breaking God's Heart -- an album which, Morrison says, still holds up, if only because of its primitiveness.
"[Breaking God's Heart] was recorded more quickly," he says. "It's a little bit rougher at the edges and more lo-fi sounding. You can tell that we hadn't been playing together at the time. There's not the same togetherness about it. In some ways, it's kind of nice, because it has a real fragile feel to it and truly does sound like it could fall apart at any minute."
Then, there's the matter of the band's name. When it first formed in 1992, two of the original members, who are no longer with the group, decided upon it, despite Hayman's objections. The moniker stuck, and even though Morrison and drummer Antony Harding replaced the original members, the group couldn't change its name, because it had already developed a small following of fans that apparently didn't mind the fact that Hayman's screechy vocals make him sound as if he's as possessed as Violent Femmes' singer Gordon Gano.
"I kinda don't listen to people saying that Darren has a whiny voice," says Morrison, a native of Birmingham who joined the band after meeting Hayman and Harding when they were still struggling art students at Essex. "I kinda like it, so that's good enough for me. When I first heard Darren singing, I thought, "He's got a very distinctive voice.' His voice compares to the likes of Pavement and the Silver Jews. I think all of us have listened to more American alternative music -- a lot of things on Elephant Six, like Neutral Milk Hotel or Apples in Stereo, which is our current favorite.
"We've been influenced a lot by American soul or country music. I don't really own any records by Blur or Pulp, which would be the things you'd listen to in England. I don't think there's any English band we follow. On our first album, a lot of press compared us to early Stiff Records stuff, like Elvis Costello, but I can't think of many other things within English music that it would be cool to be compared to."