"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 limited edition tapes and CD-Rs).
But Defever's secret is that he's really a sweet, sensitive, and introspective dude. He's obsessive and a bit secretive — in fact, he might even be some kind of a genius. All the major His Name Is Alive records sound different from another, so they're not easy to describe. The new record, the three-month-old Tecuciztecatl (London London), has a distinct and unexpected boogie-prog psychedelia 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. And whatever style of music is popular at the moment is rarely the style of the music at the time it is released — that's also fairly constant.
Metro Times: You seem pretty good at commercial suicide.
Warren Defever: Yeah, we're doing a rock opera, it's really cool! It has an unpronounceable title.
MT: That brings me to a subject I'm sure you're never tired of — your band name. How often do you get asked if you're a Christian rock band, or is the idea that you are trying to weed people out that don't like Christian rock?
Defever: It's basically like, when Guns N' Roses put out their first album, it was hugely successful. Then, their second record was a live EP that was out of tune, sounded horrible, and had some cover songs. It was like they just wanted the hardcore fans to stick with them. I would say probably the worst thing about being in a band for 25 years is that you're still talking about really dumb ideas you had when you were 16 years old.
Probably a negative thing, to focus on the negative — but that's sort of my philosophy, negative visualization. You don't think at the time, "This is still going to be hanging around my shoulders when I'm 45." I need a better name. I guess I'm open; we can change the name. Is it too late to do that now?
MT: The sound of the band has changed so frequently over the years. Why is that? Do you just get bored?
Defever: 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.
MT: 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?
Defever: 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 Watts] would open them. But Ivo was a tremendous teacher and continues to be an important part of my life today.
MT: In what way does your work fit in with the music scene in Detroit, or anywhere?
Defever: 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 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.
MT: 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?
Defever: It's really simple. There are two twins, they're struggling, they're fighting. Eventually one survives. It's a rock opera, so there's a storyline, characters. It's 1969, a woman is pregnant and she can sense that something's going wrong. She's going to the doctor, the doctor's like, "You're having twins, not a big deal." She's like, "I think something's not quite right." Then she's at the library doing research. The librarian happens to look over her shoulder, sees what she's researching. The librarian is also a demon hunter and helps her try to figure out which is the bad one.
There was an album we did a couple years ago called Detrola. There was a song on there called "Mama Don't You Think I Know," about when the Manson family creepy-crawls into your house, kills your family. They try to kill you, but you don't die all the way. You have to pretend you're dead, so they don't finish killing you, but you have to watch all this go down. It's terrible.
But really it's a metaphor about when you're on a date with your girlfriend and you're walking down the street, and she notices you checking out every other girl you see. And she just sits there going, "You know, this sucks." That's the kind of thing. I want to do that kind of thing with this album where there are two linear storylines, one on the surface and one below, where they wouldn't ever reference each other. But if you really dug in, you felt it. If you have a twin, that's pretty much as close as a relationship can get. You can speak your own language, you look the same. It's really about when you're very close to someone and they try to kill you. And the regret you feel years later when you realize you've survived murdering the person most close to you.
MT: What about this being fully performed as an opera?
Defever: 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 miniseries, 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.
MT: Did you ever think that you would have a 25th anniversary of anything, let alone this band of yours?
Defever: 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.
MT: It wasn't fun?
Defever: 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.
Doors at 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 14, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; majesticdetroit.com; $15.