This big band doesn't cover Artie Shaw.

Bonin' Up 

This big band doesn't cover Artie Shaw.

In the 1997 film The Apostle, Robert Duvall plays E.F., a charismatic Pentecostal preacher who travels across the South, hitting the radio waves and filling tents with his fiery brand of syncopated hallelujah preaching and wild-eyed histrionics, inspiring hand-clapping, ass-shakin' and wailing incantations. Pocketbooks would open, and the good Lord's work was done.

A new breed of bands has begun to pop up in the far corners of the modern music landscape, bringing a similar brand of fervor and showmanship devoted to celebrating the potent uplifting force of rock. Some of them bring full choirs wearing robes (the Polyphonic Spree). Others tell poignant tales of life, death and rebirth while banging mercilessly on everything in sight (the Arcade Fire). Still others trek across the sea from remote criminal colonies (Architecture in Helsinki) to tell their ardently hopeful tales.

Chicago octet Head of Femur fits well into this new wave of affirmation. For the recent release of its second album, Hysterical Stars, it brought a 24 musicians onstage to perform the wildly ambitious, defiantly jubilant album from front to back, packing hometown club the Subterranean, a house that's accustomed to bands an eighth of Femur's size.

Named after the term for the place where the leg meets the hip, the body part that enabled Elvis to swagger so sensationally on The Ed Sullivan Show (the "junction of music and sex," says the band's Web site), Head of Femur is led by Nebraska natives Mike Elsener, Matt Focht and Ben Armstrong. We spoke with Armstrong from his new home in Kearney, Nebraska, to discuss leading such an unwieldy musical undertaking and spreading the magnificent blessings of rock power.

Twenty-four band members. That's quite an adventure. What's it like to collaborate with so many people?

"Generally, our collaborative process is that one of us will come up with the outline or skeleton of the song, then we'll come together and Matt will set up the lyrics. For the more heavily composed work, the three of us compose all the string and horns and extra percussion parts, and then we'll write them out on sheet music and distribute them. So we had a string section and a horn section come into the studio and read off sheet music for the recording of Heavenly Stars, and then the same thing for the live performance. The three of us, with a few exceptions, composed most of the orchestrations. At the show, there were a few more mikes and a lot more instruments, but we normally play as an octet, so we're kind of used to doing a big show."

Compositionally, your albums are really complex. Have any of you guys had classical training?

"No. I mean, I think Mike has a couple of years of guitar lessons, Matt took some drum lessons and guitar lessons, but neither of them read or write music. I had piano lessons as a little kid, and I do all of the transcription onto sheet music, but it's not something that's particularly easy for me, because I never had any training beyond neighborhood piano lessons. I had to teach myself a lot more theory than I knew at that point. A lot of the horn guys, like the eight-piece band, have music degrees and [were in] high school bands, etc."

You toured with Architecture in Helsinki for a couple of weeks. How did that go?

"Great. They're a great band and really a bunch of fantastic people. They were a really solid match for us as well, just because they're an octet as well, with all of this sort of elaborate, zany instrumentation."

It seems like there's sort of a growing trend toward bands that are more ambitious in that way, that are putting more sound onstage, bringing a lot more band members and instruments into the mix.

"Yeah, one thing I liked about Architecture in that vein is that they're not afraid to be a little more experimental with things. I've seen this trend happen, too, over the years, and a lot of times you'll get a regular four-piece rock band and they'll just slap a horn section on the thing and call it good. And it's cool to see bands like Architecture who are willing to interweave stuff and put down the guitars sometimes and play other instruments, make things happen, make some daring choices instead of being just another rock band."

There also seems to be an almost thematic trend going on with a lot of bands now. Guys like you and the Arcade Fire, bands that seem vaguely positive, almost spiritual in a sense, which for a while seemed like a real rarity in indie rock.

"Oh, it was a rarity and, in fact, a no-no for a while, because you wanted to be soul-baring or introspective, pouring over life's emotional side, and the negative context was kind of the template as well. It's cool to see that people are breaking away from that and moving toward something a little more uplifting. I enjoy that trend toward more upbeat, positive music."

I have to admit that for a group that's named after the sex urge, I rarely feel like getting it on while listening to your music.

"Yeah, I can understand that. We played with a German band named Missouri on this tour, and they pronounce it misery, but they're a very kind of sexual band, kind of a Roxy Music-Spandau Ballet feel. We're definitely a 180 from that. But you know how band names are. It's something someone came up with at practice, and it just kind of stuck."

You're about, what, six weeks into touring for the album? It's pretty dense and strange material sometimes. How has it been received?

"Great reviews have been pouring in all the time. Pitchfork dug it, Alternative Press gave it five stars. We haven't had any slams yet. A few raised eyebrows, a few question marks, but nobody's been like, 'This is shit,' which is cool."

I read an interview recently, and when you guys were asked what kind of band you were, someone said "art rock." Think that's an accurate description?

"Oh, I don't know. That's the quintessential question, isn't it? Somebody says, 'You're in a band. What does your band sound like?' Most guys are reticent to say, because you have to be careful. Anything you say has a million different connotations to all kinds of people. I think we've tried to make a conscious answer not to pick a particular style, though I suppose I could see someone referring to it as art rock, which just basically seems to refer to someone a little more creative than your traditional rock band, someone trying to exist outside of the framework of the standard stuff, which we definitely are."


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