"I've done a lot of weird things in the last 25 years; I can't explain everything," Warren Defever writes via Facebook, the day after we meet in his spacious downtown Detroit loft to try to discuss his musical legacy. I'd sent a message to see if he really believes in UFOs — and, speaking of the night sky, why he's taken so many photographs of the moon through his hobbyist telescope, self-publishing a delicate art book of them. Defever presents himself as a dark and sardonic done-it-all type. He likes to stare off into space in publicity photos, looking like nothing so much as somebody wanted for questioning. And yes, the guy has done a lot, from recording hundreds of bands to releasing 99 separate albums with His Name Is Alive (many of those in very limited edition CD-Rs).
But Defever's secret is that he's really a very sweet, sensitive and introspective dude. He's obsessive and a bit secretive — in fact he's probably a genius. All the major His Name Is Alive records sound different from one another, so they're not easy to describe. The new record, the three-month-old Tecuciztecatl, has a distinct and unexpected boogie-prog psychedelic vibe, for instance. There are a few elements that extend to all HNIA songs — on most of them, a woman sings, the current singer being Andrea Morici. Whatever style of music is popular at the moment is rarely the style of the music at the time it is released. He recently answered a few questions about the band's incredible 25-year run.
You seem pretty good at commercial suicide.
Yeah, we're doing a rock opera, it's really cool! It has an unpronounceable title.
The sound of the band has changed so frequently over the years; why is that? Do you just get bored?
I don't know; I can't tell. But apparently everybody else can. Everyone else is saying, "Well everything sounds so different," but in my mind I'm doing the exact same thing. Am I that different? I'm smarter, maybe. It was a long time ago; mistakes were made, haircuts.
Speaking of haircuts, and as you're doing this big 25th anniversary tour now, I'm curious what you might have to say about your time with the British label 4AD, who were the first to release your music?
At the time, I felt very lucky to be included in the world of 4AD records. The scene around the 4AD office was very special. They had a station set up in the basement for shaving heads; it was a cult-like atmosphere. There was a special code that you wrote on envelopes so that [label head] Ivo would open them. But Ivo was a tremendous teacher, and continues to be an important part of my life today.
In what way does your work fit in with the music scene in Detroit, or anywhere?
Most of my life I've been told, "You cannot play; this band is a joke." I've spent my time alone in the studio working on new ideas, looking for answers, striving to escape a city that one doesn't leave without a mark or damage of some sort. It took me 40 years to leave the isolation of [Detroit area suburb] Livonia, the city where I was born. Moving to Detroit a few years ago, I started playing lead guitar in a local band called the Infinity People, and within that group I discovered a few like-minded musicians. We began playing together secretly on a weekly basis. Having made His Name Is Alive records for over 20 years, it was a surprise to finally find other musicians I was comfortable to work with. Four musicians in a room playing for hours, all the ideas connected to common themes — live music, not programmed, not sampled, not looped or sequenced.
I know that Tecuciztecatl is a rock opera, but I've yet to figure out what it's about. Will you please spill the beans there?
I wanted to make an album that was seemingly about one subject, with a late '60s, early '70s prog-rock, horror movie soundtrack sound with a story line that's easily followed, two twins fighting to the death. But at the same time, on another level, below the surface, it's an album about love, true love: soul mates, and the despair or grief that follows the ending of that relationship. The struggle to maintain two simultaneous storylines that would both maintain a consistent narrative — neither of them acknowledging or dependent on the other — that was extremely demanding.
What about this being fully performed as an opera?
I had hoped that the record would be very successful, so that we could play it on tour as one long piece. In Detroit, we have performed it a few times. I don't believe it will work out, but I thought if the record had sold well then the tour could be possible. And then that would lead to a theatrical performance of the rock opera with singers, costumes, elaborate stage design and lighting. Once the musical became popular in theaters, then we would be asked to adapt it for a cable TV mini series, and then commercial licensing opportunities like Halloween costumes and small plastic figurines of the main characters would be financially rewarding. Then the ultimate goal of students performing the opera on school cafeteria stages would be realized.
Did you ever think that you would have a 25th anniversary of anything, let alone this band of yours?
That's a tough question. I started playing music when I was 5. My grandfather taught me and my brothers how to play polkas, waltzes, country and western music. I was playing music before I'd ever listened to music. I'm 5 years old and my grandma's putting a 127-pound accordion on my lap and just, you have to play it! So, you learn to hate music.
It wasn't fun?
I didn't know what fun was; I was too young to have fun. Everything just seemed like torture. I guess I still hate having fun. Nothing's changed, and I'm still playing music.