By Stephen Smysnuik
The blues: thousands of people still play it but few are doing anything different with it.
So when a band like Vancouver's Head of the Herd hits the radio with its classic blues riffage filtered through the fuzziest rock'n'roll this side of Jack White's house, one's prone to wonder where the hell they've been for the past 20 years.
"We're taking the best parts of the blues that we like and using them to make unique sounds out of them. We're not copying anything with how we're writing the song," says singer and impossibly talented multi-instrumentalist Neuman Mannas.
Head of the Herd, made up of Mannas and guitarist Clayton Frank has released some of the darkest, booziest blues cuts Canada has heard in a while. On The House has all the grit and grime of a James Ellroy novel and if Trent Reznor swapped his keyboards and computers for banjos and steel lap guitars, it might sound a little like Head of the Herd. Blues riffage is paired up with hip-hop percussion while Mannas' alley-cat howl cuts through it all.
"Blues speaks to man in a way that most music doesn't because it has a real honesty to it. No one's trying to sound cool, you're just saying what you're feeling," says Mannas.
"How we work with the chord changes, we tried to keep it more bluesy. There were a couple that when I sat down I said I want to make a really traditional sounding blues song. Like, 'When I Met the Devil,' I said I wasn't going to mess with this too much... and that's one of my favourite songs on the record."
Both men were dealing with break-ups during recording but instead of crying rivers all over their recording equipment they fashioned twisted, fragmented lyrics about women and devils and, in true blues fashion, how often those two are connected.
The result is a trek through the darkest side of these poor boys' psyches, hiding guns in their pillows and obsessing about the girls that got away. The album is available as a free download on the band's website.
All the songs were written recorded and released before they were ever played live. They've now enlisted five friends to back them up, which at times can radically alter the dynamics of the songs. "Devil Woman," a dusty acoustic ballad tracked with a dozen backing vocals on record is completely apart on stage by an electric guitar and some agogo bells.
"You think a lot differently when you're not thinking about a full band, when it's just the two of us," Mannas says. "A lot of the parts that (we play) live we'll do with bigger instrumentation. We'll cover with a lot of back up [vocals] on the CD."
The two had collaborated on Mannas' electro-pop project, the neu music, and decided to swap the computers and play with some guitars. Despite the help of the backing band, Neu and Clay are still Head of the Herd's core members - they write and record exclusively with the recorded version of the song in mind and the live set second.
They were recently voted in for the Top 20 bands for 99.3 The Fox's Seeds 2011 music competition and will play a showcase at the end of June to compete for the grand prize.
"This certainly confirms that what we're doing is good and that we're on the right track and this is what we should be doing," Neu says.
By Stephen Smysnuik
photo by Cyler Parent