By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Honey Radar.
In the underground Philly music scene, Jason Henn is an enigma worth discovering. His records are like mysterious little gems, especially his June release, Mary Plum Musket. It’s an exploration of tape-manipulated pitch shifting guitars, seemingly stretched beyond the confines of the instrument, compressed drums moving like an underwater current, and waves of fuzzed-out ‘60s inspired vocals. Henn is a true artist, unafraid to traverse far-out sonic territories. The total experience, only eight minutes long, is a rare and refreshing example of an experimental artist like Henn understanding the strength of concision as a songwriting force. The many songs he’s released with Honey Radar showcase his ability to create meaningful and complete arches without wasting any air. His newest release, A Ballerina in Focus, illustrates this, featuring three brief albeit powerful pieces of music. BTR catches up with this trailblazer of lo-fi recording to talk about his process and inspiration.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with music. When did it begin, and what has the journey been like for you so far?
I guess my interest in music began when I saw the Monkees in reruns when I was 5-years-old. That was the mid ‘80s, and I think my parents were scared of hair metal, so they steered me toward ‘60s pop. I got all the Beatles and Monkees tapes I wanted, and my first concert was a Gary Lewis and the Playboys reunion show. Within the stuff I was allowed to listen to, I was able to gravitate toward psychedelia and weirder stuff without anyone noticing. When you’re a little kid, you can sometimes better see things for what they are, and I remember it making no sense to me that I was allowed to listen to “Revolution 9” and “The End” as much as I wanted, but I wasn’t allowed to listen to, like, Cinderella. I think that actually messed with me more than MTV could have.
When I got older, I would stay up and secretly tape radio shows from the public station a couple blocks from our house. This was a small town in Indiana, about 40 minutes from Dayton, Ohio. There wasn’t much alternative culture to speak of, but our community radio station was amazing. It sparked my interest in jazz and classical, and at the same time I heard hip-hop and lots of punk and hardcore on the late night shows.
What is your songwriting process like? What gets you in the mood?
Lately, I try to record as much as possible whether I’m in the mood or not. I studied music in college with my friend, Will Ryerson, who has a band in Baltimore called Other Colors. I remember having conversations with him in school about how the best job ever must have been being a cubicle songwriter, like jingle writers and bubblegum writers, in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I try to sit down and record like it’s a job, which is a good way to get a big volume of stuff you can sift through later.
I just went into the basement with Jesse Stober, who’s been playing guitar in Honey Radar, and we came out with about an hour of chanting and feedback. I think some of that’s going to end up on the next album.
That’s interesting, a lot of your work seems to stem from short outbursts of musical ideas that appear and settle quickly into one another. What makes you gravitate towards these shorter song forms, and do you ever foresee yourself toying with longer pieces?
I like to do both. Some ideas don’t sound to me like they need to be repeated. I think I used to only be able to write short bursts, but now I have some more developed ideas that I mostly save for other projects. Honey Radar is sort of the lint trap for ideas that don’t fit in somewhere else.
For me, putting on a Honey Radar record always brings an element of unpredictability–in terms of song structure, lyrical ideas, and delivery. I feel like I never know what exactly to expect, and it’s a great feeling.
I guess I want it to feel like that. I still think of it as sort of a fake band with no identity. Anything could happen—there are some 10 second songs, some two minute songs, and some noisy freak-outs. There’s room to get weirder though.
Album artwork for Ballerina In Focus.
Your newest release, A Ballerina In Focus, features three tracks, only one of which is over a minute in length. Yet the album still manages to sound complete, like it makes a complete arc and takes you a long way in a short amount of time.
I’m glad it sounds that way. Our shows have been similar. We’ll work up maybe 15 songs that we usually play in about 10 minutes. As long as there’s an arc, like you said, it doesn’t have to last too long to feel complete. I think the new album feels complete in the same way, even though it’s only a little over 20 minutes long. I tried shoehorning more songs in just to hit the half hour mark, but it didn’t make sense. Some of my favorite albums are very short–the first Minutemen album’s fifteen minutes long, and the butchered early US Beatles albums are less than a half hour–so I just decided it was done.
The title track of this release was just a taste of your next full length album, Scorpions Bought Me Breakfast. When can audiences expect to hear it, and what was the inspiration behind some of the musical ideas?
It should be out on cassette and LP in late May or early June. A Philly tape label called Treetop Sorbet and Third Uncle in Indianapolis are both putting it out. The album had about five working titles, and, for whatever reason, it ended up being called Chain Smoking on Easter on the day we had to hand in the artwork. The lyrics and song titles came mostly from a big list of gibberish that we compiled over a period of months—about 900 lines and phrases and things that were just free-associated. I write down a lot of things I mishear or hear out of context. There’s a song called “Birds Reunion” that came from overhearing someone talk about a Byrds reunion.
My friend Caleb sold somebody a copy of the Scorpions album, Virgin Killer, and used the money to buy an egg sandwich and then told me, “The Scorpions bought me breakfast,” so that was the title of the album for a couple months. I don’t know. Total commitment to free association can backfire, and some things that sounded good in the moment will age really poorly. The name Honey Radar came from a game I played a few years ago using coin-flips to pair words from two different lists, and now I hate it. We’re going to try to use a combination of more deliberate writing and nonsense in the future.
Your style has some lo-fi qualities to it. What makes you lean in this stripped down direction artistically?
I think being from the Midwest is part of it, looking up to bands from Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton. And I said before there wasn’t much of an underground culture in Richmond, Indiana, but that’s not really fair. My childhood friend Andy and I were mentored on the four track by Lance Jones, who played in a great Richmond band called Melba. They recorded some amazing, chaotic tapes and an album with Kramer that was never properly released. There was a punk scene in Richmond, too, and I was also really fortunate to spend time playing music in Dayton when I was a teenager. So, home-taping is just sort of a vernacular that I feel like I know intuitively. I don’t set out for the recordings to sound like trash, but I’ve always liked records that sound spontaneous and you can easily picture the spaces where the people made them.
How has your experience been thus far with Third Uncle Records?
Third Uncle is my friend Billy’s label. I’ve known him since I was 13, and I’m really fortunate that he’s willing to at least consider putting out so many of the random record ideas I float by him. I’m really happy for the label. He’s in the middle of doing a series of short run, lathe-cut releases that look and sound beautiful. A pair were by a UK group called Detective Instinct that featured some bass and vocal contributions from Mike Watt. I love the Human Adult Band record Billy just released, and I’m really looking forward to the Tin Horses single that’s coming out next. Julien and Kevin at Treetop Sorbet are really sweet too. They did a really nice cassette single series last year with White Laces, Alpine Roses, and Young Sinclairs. Julien and Kevin’s band is called Avery Rosewater, and they just put out a new single the other day that sounds great.
What’s in store for 2014?
I don’t know exactly. I’m curious about that too. I was really surprised that the tape and 7″ we did last year were written about in a handful of places. I realized recently that this summer marks 20 years since my middle school band put out its first tape, and I’ve gotten used to the idea that I would just keep making these little releases and no one would care and that wouldn’t really matter. Now, I want to put out as many records as possible while it seems like a few more people are interested. We’re doing a one-sided 5” vinyl record that’s going to come with the first 33 LP copies of Chain Smoking. We have an EP ready by a fake bubblegum band called Alphabet, an anthology of another fake band called Balloon, another Honey Radar EP called Beethoven DUI, and another LP called Unreal Pandemonium that’s almost done.