Tony Cummings reports on the 10 plus years of the harmonic rock band HOUSE OF HEROES
The release last year of the 'Suburba' album by Columbus, Ohio's House Of Heroes brought into focus a band who have consistently progressed since their emergence in 2000. The album has not only produced a slew of radio hits - Cross Rhythms are currently playing "God Save The Foolish Kings" - but has also demonstrated that, like on their previous album 'The End Is Not The End' which took an unflinching look at war and death, House Of Heroes are quite prepared to tackle important and vital themes in their music. This time the subject is growing up in the suburbs, coincidentally a subject also tackled on 'The Suburbs' album by Arcade Fire. House Of Heroes' Tim Skipper spoke to decoymusic.com abut the two albums. "I think our approach was different than theirs because theirs feels to me to be a lot more cynical and jaded. A lot more, like, 'Yeah, this was what I knew back in the day but this is what I know now. I don't like what I knew back in the day and I don't want any part of it anymore.' Whereas ours is more of, I have an appreciation of that and where I came up. My family still lives there and my dad still goes to a job that he hates to support his family. I feel like our album is a little bit more on the side of youthful energy and excitement, whereas theirs is a little further down the road where you're a little more jaded and cynical towards the whole idea of a suburban life."
Tim admitted to journalist Sean Darlington that originally 'Suburba' was intended to be an out-and-out concept album. "'The End Is Not the End' was definitely a thematic record but not necessarily a concept record. 'Suburba' was supposed to be a concept record. It was going to be a linear story from beginning to end but we couldn't find a way to end it. It was just getting a little too artsy and we were just like, 'we've got some good songs here. Let's take enough of these songs that we really like and let's just write a bunch of rock songs to go along with them.' There are definitely themes going on throughout the record. We wanted to go for that kind of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, even The Who. just that loud guitar, really good songwriting type of vibe, but then bring our own twist to it. A lot of it is just about circumstances. Bruce Springsteen writes about that stuff all the time. like escaping from the circumstances you are born into and breaking away from the small town mentality. It's kind of got that vibe to it. The first song on the album is called 'Relentless' and is just about feeling like the world is your oyster and you can get whatever you want and the sky's the limit and realizing that you were a little bit naïve when you were younger; so it's just about dealing with that."
One of the outstanding musical elements on 'Suburba' is the group's harmonies. Said Tim, "I feel like that's become our signature sound. That's the funnest part for me and I think for the other guys as well. When I was in high school I was in a choir, and I was actually in a barbershop quartet as well, so I've always been a massive fan of huge harmonies and huge vocal stuff. The same with Jared Rigsby, our guitar player. He was a musical theatre major in college, so he has a background in very dramatic stuff. We started to explore a little bit on 'The End Is Not The End'. Our producer, Mark Townsend, said, 'I've always wanted to work with a band that is vocally good enough to sing just standing around one mic together.' I really feel like we can do that. So we did that on 'The End Is Not The End'. Then on this album, we had gotten so used to it and our blending with each other had gotten so much better that we were going to try it again and keep it subdued. We got in and did one song and were just, like, 'Dude, that sounds too good. We have to just go over the top with this stuff.' That's kind of how it happened."
Alongside the harmonies and Meatloaf-style narrative songs, the album also features plenty of fuzz guitar. Said Tim, "Before we went in the studio I had been listening to a lot of bands that use a lot of fuzz pedals. Smashing Pumpkins has always been one of my favourite bands and I love Muse and the Silversun Pickups and the supersaturated fuzz sounds that they all get. And so I went in with the idea that we were gonna use a lot of fuzz on this record. Before we went in I had bought three different fuzz pedals and our producer had probably eight or nine from the '60s and '70s and we just went through and dialed in some of our favourite fuzz sounds and pretty much used a fuzz pedal through a Silvertone amp and it just sounds like. dirt nasty. like old, '60s, Jimi Hendrix fuzz but like. even more saturated, so like somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and Smashing Pumpkins and we probably ended up using it on every song. It sounds amazing."
The origins of House Of Heroes go back to the Hillard Davidson High School in Hillard, Ohio when Tim Skipper (vocals, guitar), A J Babcock (bass) and Nate Rothacker (drums) formed a punk band, Plan B. In 1998 Colin Rigsby took over the drum kit from Rothacker and the band changed their name to No Tagbacks. Constant touring built the group a reasonable grassroots following and in 2001 Chuck Cummings (the veteran drummer who down the years played with numerous acts including Silage, Dakoda Motor Co, Lifesavers, Uthanda and Split Level) took the band into Oath Studios, in Columbus. But 2001's 'Ten Months' album on Four Door Entertainment, with its simplistic Relient K pop punk sound and songs like "All The Pretty Girls Are Alcoholics" and "My Conscience Has Purchased An Air Horn", didn't get much distribution and after various setbacks the band took a step back to re-evaluate what they were doing.
Changing the band's moniker to House Of Heroes (based on the Bible passage Nehemiah 3:16), the trio re-emerged with a more focused pop/rock sound that took influence from bands like Weezer and Jimmy Eat World. Recording some demos and hitting the road, House Of Heroes released their debut album 'What You Want Is Now' in 2003 on Vanishing Point Records, a label owned by Scott Stilletta, formerly of Plankeye. The record brought House Of Heroes to the attention of Gotee Records, but issues with their previous label caused eight months to pass before they could officially join Gotee's roster. Making the most of a frustrating period, they used the down time to write their national album debut, a self-titled effort that was issued in May 2005. They supported the record as openers on a subsequent tour with MxPx and Relient K. 'House Of Heroes' was repackaged, retitled as 'Say No More' and reissued a year later on Gotee's sister label, Mono Vs Stereo with two new songs and enhanced bonus multimedia material. House Of Heroes continued touring through the summer of 2006.
One of the additional songs on 'Say No More' was "You Are The Judas Of The Cheerleading Squad" with its thought provoking lyrics, "Get out your ghosts, teach them to sing/Every drop that comes down from above washes you clean/When it rains live in the stream/I've slept in the belly of the beast, now I sleep under your wing." On "Buckets For Bullet Wounds" the injustice of the West towards small nations is confronted: "There are no handshakes only hand guns/Only earth quakes, buckets for bullet wounds/There are no churches only prisons, only senators."
Jared Rigsby replaced A J Babcock as the band's live bassist in December 2005, as Babcock had married and focused on a side project with his wife called FlowerDagger. A J Babcock is still a non-touring member of House Of Heroes and records in the studio and writes many of the band's lyrics. Guitarist/bassist Eric Newcomer joined the band for live performances (though made his recording debut on 'Suburba' contributing a guitar solo). 'The End Is Not The End' had distribution problems at first only being available at live shows and online. Finally though in 2009 it was given retail distribution by Gotee. It turned out to be the band's breakthrough album. Produced and engineered by Mark Townsend, the album featured a number one Christian rock single in "In The Valley Of The Dying Sun". Enthused reviewer Russ Breimeier, "It starts off absolutely crazy with a speedy dance beat, electronic effects and those dreamy vocal harmonies. For sure, this is not typical Christian rock and it only changes further about two-thirds of the way through when even more bombastic vocals and electric guitars break the mood, signifying a holy epiphany: 'All through the night I wrestled the angel to undo the curse that burdened me all my life/And for the first time, I could see that God was not my enemy. I'm living to shine on.'"
At the time of its release lyricist A J Babcock spoke to jesusfreakhideout about 'The End Is Not The End''s war/military themes. "We started to write a few songs here and there towards the beginning of the record - a lot of songs were just music for awhile. It wasn't a plan to go the way it did, but I started getting really inspired by the Second World War - books I was reading, documentaries on PBS and stuff. I kind of dove into it and just kept finding inspiration there. I didn't necessarily mean for it to go that way, but once it started going that way, it was just easier to stay with it. I think that's kind of what happened."
Tim Skipper added, "And also there was a war going on at the time when we started to write the record. We [wanted to] write songs that were relatable to those kinds of people but definitely not about the war going on, because we didn't want to take sides on it or anything. So it's universally relatable. My grandmother can relate to it as much as some kid in History class who's like, 'Omigosh! We're at war!' Y'know?"
After the success of 'The End Is Not The End' the band followed through with three stop gap releases, a digital EP 'The Acoustic End' featuring stripped down renditions of songs from 'The End Is Not The End'; 'House Of Heroes Meets The Beatles EP' where the band offered perky covers of moptop oldies "Can't Buy Me Love", "It Won't Be Long" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"; and 'The Christmas Classics' EP (released November 2009) which offered covers of "All I Want For Christmas Is You", "Silent Night" and "O Come O Come Emmanuel".
House Of Heroes
entered Dark Horse Recording Studio on 1st February 2010 to begin
recording 'Suburba'. It is, according to most critics, their finest
work so far. Tim Skipper commented on the songwriting process leading
up to the album. "We really wanted to write from personal experience
because the last album, 'The End Is Not The End', all the songs were
about wars that took place before we were
even born. We started researching some of our favourite songwriters. Bruce Springsteen said, 'The best songs come from what you know and what you've known in your lifetime.' So we kind of said, 'Well, let's write about what we know. We spent all this time writing about stuff we didn't really know about, making up characters, so let's try to write about what we know.'
"All the songs have to do with either stuff that happened to us, how we felt at certain times or stuff that happened to people very close to us. It's slightly embellished, of course, but for the most part it's very much from personal experience and our lives growing up in the suburbs. It's trying to figure out, 'Do I want this really safe life where I'm going to work nine to five doing this, or do I really want to pursue my dreams and these things that will make the world a better place, even though they're risky, they're dangerous or whatever.' It's definitely been done before, but we felt like if we could write from our direct personal experiences it would be a little more genuine."
Down the years House Of Heroes have been interviewed numerous times about their music though, interestingly, less often about their faith. One exception is the ChristianXtreme.com website where Tim stated, "It's a pretty amazing honour to be used to show people the love of Jesus. I am amazed daily by the favour we have been shown to be able to create music that we love and to go out and play it for those who will listen. I've been a Christian basically my whole life. I grew up in a Christian home and went to church and all that, but that was more of a convenience thing for me. It wasn't until about five or six years ago that I really started to understand that it was all about a personal relationship that I can have with Jesus, with God the creator of the universe. He could be my dude. My bro. I didn't have to talk to him like he was this unattainable entity. I could talk to him like he was my friend if I needed a friend. I could talk to him like he was my father if I needed a father. I could talk to him like he was my God when I needed a God. It's hard to describe. If the Holy Spirit moves in someone's heart through our music or our words, that's the greatest honour."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.