Long one of the most ambitious bands in Chicago, Head of Femur made a big splash on the local scene with its 2001 debut, “Ringodom or Proctor,” and it spent a year and a half touring the country in support of its second album, “Hysterical Stars” (2005).
“It was when we were touring that a lot of the ideas for [the new album] ‘Great Plains’ came to us,” says band co-founder Matt Focht. “Being in the van and thinking about travel and crossing the plains made us think about being like the early pioneers, not having a lot of money and having to live off the land — or at least park the van and sleep in Wal-Mart parking lots.”
With songs such as “Covered Wagons” and “Napoleon’s Boots,” the group’s new third album is, indeed, lyrically evocative of an earlier, simpler time in America. The irony is that in addition to all of that time in the van, the other big inspiration was a trip that Focht took to the other side of the world not long after the band’s label folded and left the group in a lurch following its second release.
“After ‘Hysterical Stars,’ we were meandering and kind of floating in weirdness. After we left [the label] spinART, we were really confused, and we really didn’t know where we fit anymore,” Focht says. “We were trying to figure that out when I took a 34-day trip to Asia, and it was a mind-altering experience. We all kind of felt like we were in a bubble in Chicago — trying to fit in and trying to make the band happen — but I took that trip and it really opened my eyes to what everybody else is doing and what else is out there in the world.
“The idea of being in Asia and seeing the rural, primitive way that some people still live translated into some of the songwriting for ‘Great Plains.’ We were writing about how it all began for early Americans, and in some of the places in Southeast Asia, some of the people are still living like the pioneers here did.”
“Great Plains” is the band’s most cohesive album musically as well as lyrically. Yes, the disc still boasts complicated arrangements and multi-part suites, with lovely serpentine melodies delivered by a small orchestra’s worth of instruments. But believe it or not, this actually is the sound of the band paring down.
The three core members — Focht, Mike Elsener and Ben Armstrong — are all multi-instrumentalists who share in the songwriting. They started playing together in their native Omaha, Neb., in the early ’90s, sometimes moonlighting as members of Bright Eyes. When their band Pablo’s Triangle broke up, they scattered across the country but eventually regrouped in Chicago. A few years ago, Armstrong returned to Nebraska. He no longer tours with Head of Femur but still contributed songs to the new album.
“It used to be me, Matt and Ben who’d write everything, and then we’d get whoever we could to play with us,” Elsener says.
“But the bars we were playing at didn’t exactly accommodate an eight-piece band with horns and strings,” Focht says, laughing. “And after a while, the van just got extremely crowded and it was hard to pay everybody what they deserved. We were also getting into a lot of music that was more stripped-down.
“So now we’ve switched over to being a five-piece, and it’s worked out great. Now, when we have the horns, it’s like a special occasion.” (The group will, in fact, expand to a 10-piece outfit when it performs the new album in its entirety at its record release show tonight.)
As for Armstrong, whom his old mates describe as “our silent wizard,” the distance only seemed to help the collaboration this time.
“For the last record, me and Matt wrote a lot of songs up here and Ben wrote a lot of songs back there, then we got together, combined them and worked on them solid for a couple of weeks before Ben went home again to his family,” Elsener says. “For this record, we were more separated, so me and Matt would work on songs, and Ben would do things on his own.”
“Despite that, we feel like this is the most cohesive group of songs, and also the most thematic record,” says Focht. “It all ties together very well.”
The band’s goal? That listeners will follow the 13 tracks on “Great Plains” and experience something of the journeys it has undertaken in recent years.
“We all still love vinyl, and we still feel that when you put a record on, you don’t just go right to your favorite song,” Elsener says. “You start at side one, and then you listen to side two. And that’s very much how we would like people to handle Head of Femur.”
Head of Femur, Kid Dakota, Darren Spitzer
10 p.m. Friday
Schubas, 3159 N. Southport