Interview: David Heumann

Written By:

David Morris

27th November 2008
At 18:35 GMT

4 comment(s)

I first met David Heumann when he played guitar in Human Bell at a show in Cornwall, back in April this year. Heumann, co-songwriter Nathan Bell and drummer Peter Townsend had just travelled the hard way from London.

It took them almost 3 hours to escape the city to take the long trip south and they arrived just in time to play their set. They had no time to sound check as the audience were already watching the support band. They seemed exhausted.

The show began slowly, slightly on the wrong foot. Perhaps they couldn't help but be thinking of getting up at 4am to drive to Dover, then catching a ferry to Amsterdam before flying home to Baltimore. Peter Townsend then had to catch a connecting flight to Kentucky. Maybe the fact that one of their amps had kicked the bucket didn't improve things. But as gravity and friction turn a locomotives free spinning wheels to motion, so the crushing gravity (and volume) of Human Bell's sombre interlocking riffs quickly grounded the three musicians.

The main body of the set came to a stunning climax with the song "Ephaphatha" (from the band's self titled album out last January), which finishes with layers of delayed trumpet blasting from a guitar amp. As a live performance this wall of noise was sonically incinerating. The various pitches Bell strained from the brass found pretty much every resonant frequency in the room. It was reminiscent of field recordings I have heard of the Dungchen, a long trumpet or horn used in Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies. Amongst these furious oscillations Heumann methodically, or it's more romantic equivalent, "meditatively" traced out a series of distorted notes. It left no stone unturned. I get the impression that David Heumann takes a similar approach to the world he lives in.

He currently lives in Baltimore, and is best known for his work as the principle songwriter, vocalist and guitarist in Arbouretum alongside his work in Television Hill and of course, Human Bell. He is also a sometime member of Anamoanon and occasionally appears in Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's band.

Strange Glue: So you've just been in the studio recording with Arbouretum. How did it go? 

David Heumann: Really well. I feel very good about the new record.

S.G: Has your extensive playing with Nathan Bell exerted any obvious influence on the new recordings

David Heumann: No, not really. I think I used a different part of my brain for my contributions in Human Bell. Having vocals, for instance, changes a lot of things and this sense that the songs need to be tied in to each other lyrically, in terms of themes and so forth.

S.G: I read in an interview you gave that in your song writing with Arbouretum the vocals and lyrics follow after the musical composition taking form. I guess that that would influence what you play, rather than working in the context that the song would remain instrumental, like Human Bell.

David Heumann: Yes, because I don't use the guitar to carry the melody as much; in Arbouretum I need to keep space open for the vocals. I might add that in Human Bell there weren't what you'd term "guitar solos" didn't seem there was a need for that sort of thing. But in Arbouretum, it seems appropriate, and also a lot of fun, to have them sometimes.

S.G: I was hoping to discuss some of the lyrics from the Arbouretum record 'Rites of Uncovering' with you. On 'Mohammed's Hex and Bounty' you sang: "Instead of home and haven "I drank in a dim lit cafe. "There some looked for distraction, But I just looked away."

I'm interested in this double negative approach, what motivates the narrator to look away from distraction?

David Heumann: In that song, the narrator's attention is focused inward. He's got all this stuff going on in his head about what had happened between him and the girl, and he's trying to make sense of it all.  So perhaps he's looking away because he's just staring off into space. That's my take. And by the way, the narrative structure of that song runs backwards, that is to say that the 3rd verse is actually the beginning of the story. We (ed: meaning Rob Wilson, who sometimes co-writes with DH) did that to emphasise the brooding quality that memory can sometimes have.

(To listen to these lyrics, look for the video to the song at the end of this interview)

S.G: It seems that a shared trait of your work in both bands is one of taking time; in the vocal delivery, the ideas, the solos and the tempo. You don't appear to be trying to fill the time of a record to bursting with too many ideas...

David Heumann: That's an interesting observation, and I think it's mostly true. The reason for that is maybe that I have a tough time understanding music that is discontinuous; "math rock" and whatever its current progeny is. It might also relate to a rejection of postmodernism, but perhaps I'm overreaching here.

S.G: I felt that the negative or lukewarm press relating to the recent Human Bell LP and Arbouretum's 'Rites..' boiled down to a mismatch of attention span. When listening to your lyrics on 'Rites...' they often reminded me of Francis Bacon, "If a man look sharply and attentively, he shall see Fortune; for though she is blind, she is not invisible" for instance, which is not a style that sits well with current fashions.

How did you feel about such press? If you read it that is...

David Heumann:  What a great quote! It's one that I'm not entirely familiar with. I have read some of the press, sure, and sometimes it's apparent that the writers just don't get it. Of course, I can't really expect them to share my world view. But yes, it's true that music that gets a good review isn't necessarily the best, most "brilliant" thing out there. Once, when I was on tour with Will Oldham, he was talking about a record that one of his peers made, saying that it was set up in a way that would get good reviews, by the order of the songs and what kinds of tempos and textures were happening sequentially, but that that, in itself, didn't make it any better than a lot of other things that were out there that might not have reviewed as well.

S.G: I agree

David Heumann:  And that was a real eye-opener for me - this idea that there can be a disconnect between what is "good" and what is "presentable" somehow.

S.G: While I'm on a Bacon rant here is another applicable quote:"Fame is like a river, that beareth up things light and swollen, and drowns things weighty and solid."

David Heumann: Jeez, I gotta start reading this guy!

I'll be a real bore at the bars! I'll corner people! I'm just joking, of course.

But seriously, that is an excellent quote.

S.G: Allow me one more then it's over!

"The contemplation of things as they are without error, without confusion, without substitution or imposture is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of inventions."

I felt this approach greatly evident in your lyrics. For instance on 'Ghosts Of Here And There' you sing:

"Would you lay aside your wreckage from the tide, "Could you dis-create disaster and its wake, Will you join the rites of uncovering, Down here by the fire we'll speak of boundless things."

It seems that by choosing not to wallow in pain or self pity, but rather read the pain for clues you are severing your appeal from a large amount of listeners.

David Heumann: Perhaps that's true; I mean, people don't want to be challenged, they want to be entertained. Consider that some of these bands that have come out over the past couple years that appeal to a mostly younger audience are spending entire records wallowing in each and every song...and they're selling shitloads of records. There's a sense that voyeurism is entertainment, and that's what drives the popularity of reality shows and such. Personally, I feel that it's something one has to stoop toward, and I won't do that.

S.G: Are there any new collaborators on the record you've been working on this week?

David Heumann: Well, the line-up itself is different than the line-up on 'Rites Of Uncovering', almost entirely so. Daniel Franz, the drummer, has been with us a little over two years now and he plays on it. Also, Steven Strohmeier plays guitar on it, and he has only been with us since April.

Come to think of it, these two guys also played on Kale (ed: Arbouretum's latest release, a split LP only release with Pontiak).

We also had David Bergander play on a song - he did double drums with Daniel for a song. And Walker Teret did some string arranging on the title track with his longtime friend Jay Delisio. It felt really good to have the alums step in and contribute - to have their blessings for the project.

S.G: In a city the size of Baltimore you must often come across bands and musicians you haven't met or heard before. Have you come across Wilderness? Are there any bands you've seen recently that surprised you?

David Heumann: I've seen Wilderness quite a few times. Their music has gotten out into the world a bit over the past couple of years, but I remember seeing them first at least five years ago. I got a big surprise the other night when I went to see this band called "Mr. Moccasin". I'd previously thought of them as being a bit goofy, maybe; a bit guileless. But the other night I saw them and they were great! Just so much fun in a way that was quite unlike anyone else. They have this new drummer that is a woman who's a bit on the younger side - she was smiling the whole time and playing really cool beats in a manner that came off as effortless. The singer Hanna is a friend of mine; she sings in Russian half the time, when she's not singing in English. Her stage presence is amazing because there seems to be a complete lack of ego consciousness to what she does. There was a pretty small crowd there, but everyone was dancing, and a lot of people seemed to know their songs already. And it's completely under the radar. I mean, they play in the weirdest, most obscure venues...

S.G: Currently I feel like moving to a city, because I find that living relatively rurally I spend a lot of time looking for music on the internet, which is not comparable to an experience like the one you just described. We have a large student population, but they seem more conformist than ever. They stay on campus and in the supermarket, and every open-mic night around here may as well have an "inoffensive acoustic singer songwriters only" sign taped above the door.

David Heumann:  Ha-ha. Wow. That sounds kind of dreadful. But Falmouth is so beautiful! When Human Bell was there I felt like we had entered into an almost magical realm.

S.G: There are a lot of good people, don't get me wrong. Some people at that HB show had driven 40 or 50 miles and many of them hadn't heard of the band before. As soon as the word gets out that something other than reggae or trad folk is happening, the interested parties will travel. Which is a beautiful thing.

David Heumann: Absolutely.

S.G: How do you feel when you finish a gig?

David Heumann: It really depends on the show. My feelings in that regard have little to do with public perception, and everything to do with ethereal concepts such as "vibe" and so forth. If a connection has been made with the audience and it's something we/I can feel, then we've done our job. There are those times, though, when I feel disconnected from the audience for whatever reason, and i don't want to be there. I'd rather be hiding in the van or out on a walk or something. There was a time on an Arbouretum tour in '07 when we were in Northern Italy - the lighting was too bright, the audience was seated too far from us, the food had been some kind of sloppily microwaved stuff, and there wasn't enough beer for us to have had more than two each. I hated every minute of it and we didn't do an encore because we were just so uncomfortable up there.

S.G: Any plans to tour soon?

David Heumann: We're planning on touring in the spring and summer; that in itself is rather nebulous at this point and it's tough to predict with more certainty exactly when and where. I'm definitely looking forward to it, but at the same time, I've got other things to keep me busy until the record comes out. One thing that's been fun for me lately is photography; I don't have any grand ambitions in that regard, but it's been fun to mess around a bit. I actually took the photos that are to be the cover art for the new Arbouretum record, and it's a good feeling. I've been talking with one friend of mine about doing a series of shows on the east coast here this winter that would involve solo musical performances and art-showing. I always feel the need to keep busy and stay creative somehow.

Arbouretum's new album is provisionally titled Song Of The Pearl and is slated for release in February 2009.

Here is the video for 'Mohammed's Hex And Bounty' directed by Jessica Lauretti.

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