Invisible Jewel

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Here Bryan answers questions submitted by his fans and visitors to this site. He is going to try to do this on a fairly regular basis, so hopefully we will have something new every couple of weeks. If you have any questions, send them to You can also view previous questions and answers at the Ask Bryan archive.

January 16

To Bryan Harvey, of House of Freaks, my favorite band:

First of all, how do you two go about writing music? Does Johnny play guitar (I noticed in your liner notes that he apparently wrote the melodies for a few songs)? And do you collaborate on lyrics for a song, or take turns writing the entire lyrics for a song? The reason I am so curious about this is that the songs sound so organic, so well written, very together. The guitar and drum parts complement each other. I, of course, am comparing this with much of mainstream music, in which whatever melody the guitar has is laid against the typical 2-4 rock beat, with no coherence.


Actually, as I remember it, Johnny was just learning to play guitar when HoF got together. I showed him a few chords and he just went with it. He's a great musician. Very technical, as you can tell by his drumming. His guitar playing was fairly rudimentary but sufficed for writing some music. He's also a very good piano player, although I usually played piano on our records.

Johnny's melodic contributions usually consisted of a verse or a melodic phrase. I don't think he wrote any of the music on our first LP but by "Tantilla" he was coming up with a lot of music; the verse to "Sun Gone Down" was all Johnny (melody wise). The entire melody to "Remember Me Well" was his (I remember him singing it into a walkman in the car) and the verse to "Broken Bones" was his. Usually, though I came in with a song idea or Johnny had a song idea and we would flesh out the arrangement together. If I needed an idea for a bridge or a chorus, he'd throw out something and I'd just go from there. It was never, "my song or his song", we just wrote. Many of the songs were all me ("40 Years", "Never", "A Good Man"). I wrote almost all of the lyrics. Johnny would throw out a line or two every once in a while ("Cactusland" was his title ... I wrote a song around it).

A bunch of our songs came out of jams. We would just start playing and I'd sing some nonsense lyrics and blammo—a song. "Bottom of the Ocean", "Yellow Dog", "Cactusland", "I Want Answers", and "Black Cat Bone", to name just a few, were written that way. I think we got more the "organic" HoF "sound" when we wrote songs out of jams. Otherwise, I would try to write like my idols.

Questions about albums ... I have a lot about "Tantilla", although it's not my favorite ("Cakewalk" is). "Tantilla" has the clearest lyrics, and every time I listen I get a new spin on them.

"Tantilla"'s common theme seems to be the south pre-civil war. The most obvious indications of this are "When the Hammer Came Down", "White Folk's Blood", "Family Tree", and "Big Houses". Was it meant to be a thematic album, or did the songs just write themselves that way?

Secondly, the album is rife with vivid religious imagery and commentary ("The Righteous Will Fall", "King of Kings", "I Want Answers"). Is this related more to the nature of the south at the time (i.e., the religious stuff was an intrinsic part of the southern community, and you wanted to show that), or more of your internal struggle about religion? (haha, assuming that you had a struggle at all).

As far as "Tantilla" goes ... I think a lot of the songs reflected my obsession with race and the south and the lost cause and the nature of southern guilt. Originally I didn't intend to write a "concept" album ("When the Hammer Came Down" was written early on before we even moved to L.A.) but somewhere along the way after the release of "Monkey on a Chain Gang", I thought I'd like to record a southern epic. I tried but I don't think anyone in 1989 wanted a historical epic in their rock 'n roll.

Lastly (and this is certainly an optional question), what religion are you? As an agnostic leaning towards atheist, I've found a lot of solace in your songs—reconciliation of life with the world, with a god not necessarily in the picture. This is pretty much emphasized in "I Want Answers", and a lovely cynical view (mirroring mine, in a way) in "The Righteous Will Fall". However, with your numerous other references to religion, I can't help but wonder where you really stand! Thanks.

I, uh, consider myself an atheist. I don't really believe in God. However, I think I'm a pretty spiritual person. I have a lot of faith in humans. I believe we're capable of incredibly beautiful things (as well as incredibly evil). "I Want Answers" basically summed up how I was feeling at the time (cynical). "Man does the work but god gets the credit" is one of my favorite lines from that record because I was in a pretty pissed off mood. Now that I have a daughter, I've softened up a bit....

Minor thing: any significance to the number "68 hammers" in "When the Hammer Came Down"?

"When the Hammer Came Down" was written after my father died. Actually , I was working on the lyrics when he died. I already had the title to the song but I reworked the lyric to vent about my father dying. My Dad was 68 when he died. "Sun Gone Down" was about his death.

About "Cakewalk": what a gorgeous album. The first one I purchased, and I was sold immediately.

The standard question, which I'm sure you've heard before, is what's the deal with "Magpie Wing"? Who's singing it? (it sounds nothing like you! my friends and I even disagree on whether it's a male or female :).

"Magpie Wing" is all Johnny. He wrote it, played all the instruments, and sang it. Recorded it on his 4 track out on a farm in Charles City, VA. (this primitive farm life recording pre-dates Mark Linkous' Sparklehorse concept by 7 years ... Mark and Johnny are pretty close friends). The reason it sounds like a woman is because Johnny sped up the tape (an old Beatle trick....).

Did "Hymn" originate live? It seems like sort of a folk-jam song.

"Hymn" was a jam. Recorded by Bruce Olsen before we started recording "Cakewalk". I don't believe he actually got credit for that but Dennis Herring ("Cakewalk" producer), appropriated the track and remixed it. I think the original sounds much better....

This is not a question, but I just thought that the insecurity and denial woven into "Never" is incredible. Great lyrics, great music.

Thanks. I think "Never" is one of my favorite Freaks songs. I wrote it in my Richmond apartment, sitting in the doorway to my bedroom on a summer day in 1990. Written about a recent ex-girlfriend, inspired much of the cynicism of "Tantilla". For some reason I was trying to sound like Bob Mould (we had toured with him the prior year), but I don't really know his music that well ... I think its the drone thing. When we were doing "Cakewalk", we tried to capture the feel of my demo recording of that song. The demo had a really great buzzy guitar feel. My demo had no drums and when we went to record the song for the album, Johnny suggested that he play a cardboard box instead of a drumkit. Dennis, ever the "rock" producer, didn't go for it. So we recorded a real drum kit. When my wife heard the early mixes of the song, she told Dennis it sounded like "I Ain't Missin' You", that shitty power ballad song by John Waite. Dennis was mortified, and spent an entire evening remixing the drums to make them sound like cardboard boxes. That made the song. It's a guitar heavy song, very sonorous and melancholy ... and very much like my original demo. I think its my favorite Freaks recording ... melody, lyrics AND sound.

Were the people who played on "Remember Me Well" the same as those who played on "All My Friends"?

One of the guys on "Remember Me Well" played on "All My Friends". Jocko MacNelly (who incidentally is the brother of political cartoonist and strip cartoonist of "Shoe", Jeff MacNelly) wrote the horn arrangement for the song. He played tuba. He also played the "Jazz guitar" stuff on "You Can't Change the World Anymore" on "All My Friends". We also had a clarinet, a trumpet and a trombone. Johnny played a big Salvation Army bass drum and I sang and strummed an acoustic. It was done live, even though I re-sang the vocal later on (if you listen closely, you can hear my original vocal in parts).

And where'd you get the funky pants for the album cover?

The pants were made by some stylist out in LA. The art director for the record wanted to do a Freak show type of thang for the cover. We thought, what the hell, even though we had up til then always tried to avoid literal representation of our name ... nice package but I don't really like the dress up bit.

Hmm ... I would love to go on to "All My Friends" and "Invisible Jewel" (I still haven't found "Monkey on a Chain Gang" anywhere) but this message has enough questions already. If you are not too overwhelmed, I will ask them in a later email. I'd be glad if you could answer even just one of the questions I've already listed.

And of course, I encourage you to publish your new material! I know it may seem like a hassle for you, but we are absolutely dying for any material from you. I've personally converted more than 10 people to loving HoF ... the crusade must continue. But it's hard to get people hooked if they can't find any of your music anywhere!

Finally, I want to thank you for everything you've done for me. I'm sure you hear this a lot, but your music has been a stabilizing force for me for many years, and has touched my emotions like no other music I've heard ever has—and I have literally hundreds of CDs and tapes. HoF has taken me through so many ups and downs, and has established itself as a thing of such singular beauty that I've come to know it as a great friend that I can rely on in a time of need to bolster my spirits, calm my fears, or answer my questions, or just let me rock. Thank you for everything.

A huge fan,
AJ Shankar

I'm very flattered our music effected you so deeply. I just wrote what I felt. Basically for myself. Johnny did the same. But all along we fought the record biz and tried to do it all just for ourselves. We probably could have been bigger had we played the game, but I suppose we just didn't want all that crap. I'm happy we did connect with some people out there. It's nice to be remembered and appreciated. I sometimes forget that I was once a musician.

Thanks for listening and writing. I'm sure I'll get around to releasing my last record one day ... it's pretty good, I'm just lazy. Maybe I'll make it available for download....

I'm sorry you can't get our records anymore. I guess we never sold enough to justify continuous pressings. However, feel free to write to Rhino records and tell them they're assholes for no longer keeping our records in stock ... this is the so called rock archives label which kept the Bay City Kazoo Band in print for decades.... I think that "Invisible Jewel" is still in print (check out the Enemy Records link on this site).

See you ... feel free to send questions about other records.



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