His Name Is Alive - Biography
Your mother was right: It never hurts to ask, and perseverance pays. High school student Warren Defever, of Livonia, Michigan, spent the late 1980s diligently recording cassette tapes in his basement. Defever was a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitars and keys and handling the role of engineer/producer; he enlisted two classmates two fill out the ensemble: Karin Oliver sang vocals, and Damian Lang played drums (the latter had previously teamed with Defever in the regrettably named rockabilly band, Elvis Hitler). Their sound was heavily indebted to the mid-80s dream pop of bands like the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil, with a heavy use of rudimentary loops and effects that echoed post-industrial excursions. Self-releasing their efforts on cassette, Defever named the group His Name Is Alive, and started shopping demos. He aimed high, and managed to get a copy on the desk of 4AD Records founder/owner Ivo Watts-Russell, who bought into the raw yet engaging and ethereal tracks. Several high school kids from Michigan were now on the world’s most respected label for goth-pop atmospherics. It was a one-in-a-million shot, and a perfect fit for His Name Is Alive.
There were a few catches. Watts-Russell found the initial recordings for the first album too rough, and made multiple remixes with This Mortal Coil’s John Fryer. When it was released, the debut was still relatively unpolished, but it offered a clear indication as to where the group was heading. Livonia (1990 4AD) is as far into experimental terrain as His Name Is Alive would venture. Oliver’s multi-tracked vocals are plunged into huge vats of echo and reverb, while Defever traverses all sorts of mopey sonic moors, utilizing samples, loops, and effect-drenched guitars. Carrying it all aloft are the lyrics, which traffic in matters of death, ghosts, lost love, dreams, and spiritual transcendence. The follow-up album was a far more polished affair. Home Is in Your Head (1991 4AD) was also recorded in Defever’s basement and mixed by Watts-Russell and Fryer in the UK, but its songs were more recent and self assured, as were the performances. There’s a vivid breadth to the material, which runs the gamut: tense, quasi-folk paeans; vaguely garage-bred guitar scuzz; elegiac monastic chants; outbursts of snowblind noise. The lyrics are more expressive, and songs like “There's Something Between Us And He's Changing My Words” are impressive verbal excursions. There are still some precocious moments, like the children’s-chorus loop in “Put Your Finger in Your Eye,” but His Name Alive Is Alive is on track.
The folks at 4AD realized they had a group with significant potential, and decided to crank up the atmospherics — and the band’s international profile to 10. After the completion of Home Is in Your Head, they approached legendary experimental filmmakers, the Brothers Quay, and made them an offer: They could choose any song they wanted, if they would make the band a video. Fortunately the Quays accepted. The song is a remix of “Are We Still Married?” and the label built an EP to coincide with its release, The Dirt Eaters (1992 4AD) prominently features “Are We Still Married?” as a subtitle. The video is suitably spooky. Mouth by Mouth (1993 4AD) found Warren Defever with significant studio upgrades, and the results are audible. The samples weave dexterously; the guitars glisten; the vocals have a nuanced appeal, thanks in part to the addition of Karen Neal, Chelle Marie Ehlers, and Denise James, although Karin Oliver still makes the most significant contributions. In fact the sampling became an issue in the US, where distributor Warner Bros. feared lawsuits, so the UK and US editions differ wildly. The original is superior. Defever followed this high-tech epic with a glance to his past: King of Sweet (1993 Perdition Plastics) was a limited-edition compilation of unreleased material dating from 1989-1992.
His Name Is Alive took a three-year hiatus, then returned with Stars on ESP (1996 4AD). It’s a florid, wildly unpredictable tumble through a looking glass of styles and genres, with nods, winks and nudges to all sorts of minor points of reference; yet those points smear easily into one definitive wash of sound. Adding to the appeal of Stars on ESP is, in the loose sense of the word, a concept album, a heartfelt homage to the desperately unique record label of the 1960s, ESP Disks, which offered refuge to a hodgepodge of disparate artists, musicians, and aesthetic orphans who found a home under the ESP roof. Defever brilliantly grasps that dynamic, and uses it to propel what may be his most accessibly gleeful album. After the hurried Nice Day EP (1997 4AD), Defever emphasized that he had moved far beyond the shoegaze thrust of his initial efforts. Sure, he had a mastery of mood and ambiance, but Ft. Lake (1998 4AD) is so diverse in its influences that it boggles the mind. It twirls effortlessly through rock, shoegaze, soul, R&B, pop, funk, country, and even a few licks of rockabilly twang.
If long-time fans were perplexed by the stylistic sprawl of Ft. Lake, they were mostly turned off by the next LP, Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth (2000 4AD). Simply put, it’s an album of slick, urban, R&B ballads. It still has intriguing performances and nuance, but not since the debut LP had Defever colored so insitently between the lines. He’s joined by vocalist Lovetta Pippen and Flashpapr's Fred Thomas, and it really is an intriguing and thoughtful take on the genre, one that merits repeated listening. However, 4AD was not impressed, and severed ties. The next album, Last Night (2001 4AD) predates Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth, but was shelved before its release. Defever continued, issuing albums on his own label, including Detrola (2006 Silver Mountain Media) and Xmmer (2007 Silver Mountain Media). Both attempt — and succeed — to recapture some of the magic circa Ft. Lake, and fans have been responsive, as have the critics. Perseverance pays.