When I stumbled onto House of Heroes latest album, The End Is Not the End, last October, I was intrigued. After being reeled in by the singles "If" and "In the Valley of the Dying Son," I downloaded the entire album and found it to be one of my favorite pop/rock records of 2008.
My only concern was that the album was only available in digital format, thus limiting its exposure. Those worries were relieved, however, when the disc was released in stores on March 27, providing a broader distribution.
With Beatlesque harmonies, huge guitars and plenty of hooks in the songwriting, The End Is Not the End is one of the most engaging pop albums I've heard that is worthy of repeated listens. Once you get past the pop friendly aspects of the record, however, it starts to open up in layers.
Yes, there are a handful of great singles, but a closer listen reveals this isn't just an album of loosely thrown together love songs. Individually, nearly every song can stand on its own. When played in sequence, however, the album proves to be a concept record built around the themes of love, war, hope and redemption.
What is truly impressive, however, isn't the idea of it being a concept record, but the fact that the band has created one that works so well as to deserve comparisons to Green Day's American Idiot or My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade. Perhaps more impressive is the group accomplished this without being too heavy handed and still emerges with some truly great pop songs in the process.
With House of Heroes currently on tour and planning a stop at King of Clubs in Claremore next week, I took advantage of the opportunity to catch up with lead vocalist and guitarist Tim Skipper to discuss the record and the band's growth.
"Yeah, this record was actually a huge pain," Skipper said. "We finished it in September 2007 and it didn't get released on iTunes until September 2008."
Undoubtedly, this caused frustration as the band was sitting on an album's worth of new material but could do nothing with it. "We did a little bit of touring prior to it coming out, but there really wasn't a whole lot we could do," he said.
Even amidst the frustration, the disc marks a departure and certain growth form the band's previous effort, Say No More, which presented the band as more a standard emo/alt-rock act. So, what was the impetus for such a change in sound and direction?
"To be honest," Skipper said, "to us it's just been a natural progression, but there was an awful lot of time between this record and Say No More.
"I think the key is that when we recorded Say No More, we were a three-piece and we had consciously decided to not do anything on the record that we can't do live. When we started recording The End, Jared (Rigsby, keyboardist) had just joined the band. We weren't sure if we were really going to do this as a four piece, but we were more open to adding layers. AJ's (Babcock, bassist and lyricist) lyrics were more epic, which added to it, so we were more like 'Yeah, let's stack the vocals and add more parts.'"
The band and the album's direction were influenced more by the war in Iraq than any other outside source. "When we first started writing for this record, we were in the middle of the war and it really struck us as bizarre that we could go home and watch it on TV," Skipper said.
"I asked AJ, 'What are you going to do?' one night and he said 'I'll probably just go home and watch the war for a little bit.' That really got us thinking. We didn't want to write a commentary on the current war, though, so we said, 'Let's focus on the characters: what's important to people and why you would be willing to fight it.'
"Basically we wanted to write songs about love that weren't necessarily love songs." In the process of writing, Skipper and Babcock constructed a song arch that makes broad reference to Vietnam and the Cold War while focusing on relationships, love and redemption.
With the album finally released, House of Heroes was able to hit the road and immediately went out on a month long East Coast run with Relient K in the fall. Now out on its first headline tour, the band is cutting through the Midwest on its way to the West Coast and giving the new material a workout.
Skipper said that after recording the album with multiple layers, the band put the album to the back of its mind until it was time to go out and tour. "After we were done, we thought 'How are we going to do this live?' 'If' and 'Lose Control' are both pretty straight forward and easy to do, but 'Valley of the Dying Sun' and a few others are more complex. We finally relented to the fact that we have to use minimal tracks on about three songs... mostly just some keys and synths."
As the band heads out on its current run, Skipper said that the group will be playing nine or 10 new songs, along with three or four of the old ones and maybe a cover or two to keep things interesting.
"We used to throw together our sets, but we realized we have some songs that are fun and some that are kind of heavy, so we probably shouldn't put them side by side. Now we start with the fun stuff and end with the heavier material," Skipper said.
"This is our first real headlining tour, if you can call it that, and it's nice to be out on the road again and have something to show for it," he said.
House of Heroes plays King of Clubs in Claremore on Monday night, May 4, with After Light and another opener to be announced. Tickets are $8 in advance or $10 at the door.
For anyone who's been wondering, I scammed a preview of PDA's forthcoming Act III disc, which is still in production. If you thought this kid had shown all his tricks on the last disc, you were wrong.
Of course, one song doesn't account for a whole album, but if "Your Girlfriend" is any indication, our hottest local rapper still has plenty up his sleeve. PDA leaves no stone unturned, channeling a late '50s/early '60s surf rock beat while bragging about stealing your girlfriend before ending with a huge breakdown. This one should be big.
Another week is upon us and as May arrives, the spring concert season is hitting full swing with a group of high profile shows coming up in the next few days.
Thursday night, April 30, kicks things off with JoDee Messina at SpiritBank Event Center and Jason Boland and the Stragglers returning to Cain's Ballroom with Hazzard in tow to keep the Red Dirt spirit alive.
Friday evening, May 1, features George Lopez at The Brady Theater for a night of adult-oriented standup comedy (it's an 18 and over show) at 7pm. Later that night, downtown is rocking with Pinebox Serenade at Soundpony, Indigenous at Flytrap Music Hall and Mobius Disco headlining Monolith with Ali Bloomfield and Element Operation for the indie crowd.
Saturday, May 2, highlights include DanceRobotsDance! at Soundpony, Steve Pryor at Arnie's for the blues crowd or RIP Tides and The Silvermen at Mercury Lounge for rockabilly and roots fans.
Finally the week wraps up with some really big name headliners. Fleetwood Mac plays BOK Center on Sunday, May 3, followed by James Taylor at Brady Theater on Monday night and George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars on May 5. Pick wisely and have fun. This could be an expensive week.
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