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John Huss Moderate Combo - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 13 / 1 / 2002

John Huss Moderate Combo - Interview


John Huss is the vocalist, guitarist and songwriter in his own group "The John Huss Moderate Combo', which he formed in 1993, after a decade of playing off and on both in other bands and as a solo ac

John Huss is the vocalist, guitarist and songwriter in his own group "The John Huss Moderate Combo', which he formed in 1993, after a decade of playing off and on both in other bands and as a solo act. The Moderate Combo, who are from Chicago, are both versatile and humorous, and combine together musical genre hopping and snappy, deadpan wordplay. Their critically well-received debut album 'Lipchitz' was released on 'Zippah Recordings', which is the record label of the well-known Boston recording studio, Zippah, in mid 1998. The John Huss Moderate Combo first formed when John Greenfield, the group's bassist and other original member, introduced himself to Huss, who was playing one-man shows, and offered to work with him. Greenfield is a prolific member of the Chicago rock scene, and as well as fronting his own band 'John Greenfield's Rock Band', he also performs in another act 'Slink Moss and the Flying Aces'. " I was playing solo in rock clubs, and John heard me play on a few occasions" Huss reflects in an interview with Pennyblackmusic " And one day he just called me up and said "I hear you are playing solo at the Avalon. Would you be interested in having some back-up on bass ?" John was a college student at the time and I said "Well, maybe, but you don't know any of the songs !" He said "Oh, I've heard you playing quite a bit. I think I know a lot of your songs, and I'm pretty sure I know how to play them on bass. I thought he was kidding, but he assured me that he wasn't, so I said to him "I'll tell you what. The gig is on Saturday. Come over on Friday, and if you actually do know some of the songs you can play with me." He knew them all .He played them perfectly. By listening to them, he had actually figured out the bass lines." "John is incredible. He is one of these guys that can play a very old-fashioned style of bass, or he can play stuff that is very inventive. Most guys who play bass in rock are not really bassists. They are converted guitarists. John, however, knows how to play a walking bass line. He can read jazz chord charts, and he played the double bass when he was in High School. He has the full training." While Huss, after this first show, was keen to keep working with Greenfield, and wanted to expand their act into a trio, he initially had trouble finding a regular drummer for the group. Unsure at first how the new outfit would blend and structure together, his choice of name for the band was, therefore, a play on words which reflected this uncertainty. "At the outset we were not completely combined." he recalls."I wasn't sure how stable the line-up was going to be in terms of its membership, and I think if you're really going to be a combo it is a combination of the way a certain set of talents sit together. We just didn't know at the outset when we needed a name whether we were going to sit together in that way, so I thought that calling it The John Huss Moderate Combo might be a good way of handling people's expectations." By early 1994, the band had begun to gel with the induction of Michael Lenzi, its first drummer, into the group, and that spring went into the Chicago studio 'King Size Sound Laboratories' to record their debut release, a four track seven inch EP 'Braying Mantis'. 'Braying Mantis' displays both the band's varsity and offbeat humour, and was released by 'It Won't Go Flat', a fledgling local label later that year.Its tracks include 'The Moderate Combo Theme Song', a quirky and frantically-paced rock 'n' roll number, and 'National Anthem', a song about hating people made to sound like it is being sung at the start of a baseball or football game. The other songs on the EP are a garage rock tune 'That's Unfair', and the playful 'Delaware' which pokes good-natured fun at people from Delaware for their supposed dullness and squareness. Michael Lenzi left The John Huss Moderate Combo in 1995 to work full-time with 'Number One Cup', another Chicago act that he was also playing drums in. His replacement in the group was J. Niimi, who was already working for the band as a tape operator at their live shows. Niimi has remained in the line-up ever since and another well-known figure on the Chicago rock circuit, he also plays both in the band 'Ashtray Boy', and has his own side project 'Anglophobe'. The realigned John Huss Moderate Combo began work on 'Lipchitz' the following year in 1996. 'Lipchitz', which while not finally released until 1998, was recorded over a five month period that year, firstly at'Lair', a small project studio in Chicago run by a friend of the band, James Gillespie, at which all the bass and drum parts were laid down, and then concluded at Zippah where Huss put down his vocals and also added some additional guitar work. The title of 'Lipchitz' was suggested by Niimi as a name for the album at the time of the Lair sessions, and, to the distaste of Greenfield who thought it too vulgar, is a scatological play on words. It, however, soon developed another connotation too. "A weird and crazy thing happened. John found a matchbox in the street, and on it it had a picture of a sculpture by a Jacques Lipchitz. We were thinking more along the lines of Lipchitz being some guy named Joe Lipchitz, who was a dentist or something. John, however, all of a sudden latched onto the idea of this artist. We had been playing shows at art galleries, and had even performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago inside a cube as part of an exhibit called 'Performance Anxiety'. When it turned out that Lipchitz was a Cubist sculptor, everything just started coming together. John then became the biggest proponent for calling it 'Lipchitz' and even though a lot of other people thought that it was still not the best name, we all just rallied behind it." The album, which has a front cover photograph of the group standing in an art gallery beside a portrait of Lipchitz and his wife Berthe by the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, is in a variety of styles and encompasses elements of folk,pop, rock 'n' roll, jazz, swing and bluegrass. Three of the tunes, introspective mood piece 'Theme for Lee', the sinister and menacing 'Braying Mantis'(which while sharing the same title as the first record was a new tune) and the Eastern-influenced 'Juan Campoverde', upon which Huss plays the sitar, are instrumentals which were born out of improvisations during the band's rehearsals. Another song 'Rockin at a Hyde Park Party', the only track on the album upon which John Greenfield takes lead vocals, was recorded live in the studio at Lair. A historian and philosopher of science with degrees in geology and palaentology, Huss's range of targets are equally well-rounded. Not surprisingly perhaps, many of the half philosophical, half tongue-in-cheek wordplays that dominate 'Lipchitz', have their basis in technology or nature. On the opening track 'Millennium', which features a cameo appearance from God, he pokes light-hearted fun at Y2K hysteria. 'How Can You Say There is No God when the World is So Bent' is about the differences between science and religion, while 'Tire Tool' begins with Huss out running finding an abandoned car jack and ends as a lively rant about maths. Other themes for Huss's wit on 'Lipchitz', however, include his own upbringing on 'Dad Sold His Sax','Office Work' ; science fiction on 'Whaliens' and grassroots culture on 'Suburbilly'. The album features various guest musicians, and, as well as Huss, Greenfield and Niimi, it also includes violinist Susan Voelz who has played with both 'Poi Dog Pondering' and John Cougar Mellencamp ; saxophonist John Upturch, formerly of 'The Coctails' ; ex-'Scruffy the Cat' singer Charlie Chesterman on guitar ; esteemed Chicago rock critic James Porter on harmonica and the album's producer, Pete Weiss, who appears on both keyboards and the mellotron. 'Lipchitz' is the first full-length release of Huss, who first began playing music when he "picked up the guitar" at the age of eighteen, but who long before then had started composing songs. "Even when I was a small child I wrote songs." he recollects "Like a lot of people who write songs, I just started writing in general, writing poems and writing songs. I actually wrote some songs before I knew how to play to them." After a period playing in 'Musical Euthanasia', a college band, Huss, a native of New Jersey, moved to Maine and taught high school for a couple of years. He moved again in the late eighties to Chicago, where he played as a solo act for a while, and then in 1989 joined another group 'The Stoats', which also comprised of Steve Unzicker on drums, Chris Funk on bass and Tim Heffernan on lead guitar. "The Stoats were a little bit like the John Huss Moderate Combo, except the difference there was everybody in the group wrote lyrics or they had ideas. They were four guys that really wanted a vehicle for their own expression in one way or another, where as with the John Huss Moderate Combo while the other guys are good players, and I like working with them and give them a lot of leeway, most of the time it is me who is composing the songs." The Stoats broke up in early 1991 when Tim Heffernan left the group to return to live in his native Massachusetts. Shortly before splitting, however, the band recorded a demo tape that included some of Huss's songs and which through a mutual friend found its way to Boston producer, Pete Weiss. Weiss is one of the most important names on the Boston independent music scene, and the co-owner of Zippah recording studios, he has worked with acts which include 'The Willard Grant Conspiracy', Charlie Chesterman, 'The Magdalenes', 'Kustomised', Vic Chesnutt, Paula Kelley, and former 'Velvet Underground' members, Moe Tucker and Doug Yule. Weiss, who had first started Zippah two years before in 1989, was impressed by the demo , and getting in touch with Huss was able to offer him some cheap recording time. The two, who quickly became friends, began to record together regularly. The results of their early sessions were compiled together in 1991 onto a demo tape entitled 'Folk 'n' Roll' which Huss, to recover his recording costs and to pay back Weiss, started to sell at his live shows. A second demo tape 'Pie Aren't Squared' that contained some of the best tracks from 'Folk 'n' Roll' plus several new numbers followed two years later in 1993 , which again Huss sold at concerts to pay off his debts to Weiss. Weiss has remained Huss's regular producer ever since and is also responsible for releasing 'Lipchitz' on his own 'Zippah Recordings' label. "Pete is extremely intuitive" Huss says, describing his friend's contribution to 'Lipchitz'. "A lot of producers are just technical-minded, or gear heads. They want to throw everything in the book at a given song.You need technical know how, and Pete has it. He can splice cables together,and do all the technical stuff even with limited gear, but the great thing with Pete is he has crazy ideas that in the way he pursues them and implements them they actually wind up not being as crazy as they sound." "On 'Suburbilly', we had a great harmonica player, James Porter" Huss continues, talking about a bluegrass track from the album, which, written from the perspective of an innocent-seeming suburbanite, is in part about this own move from New Jersey to Maine and then to Chicago. Pete said"Play, like you have just learnt to how play the harmonica, like you're not an authentic country musician or anything. You're a suburbilly. You're someone who is just figuring out how to play this instrument." That worked great." "I took piano lessons when I was little boy, but I don't play anymore." he adds "Pete suggested on a lot of the songs "Well, you know basic keyboarding ! Right ! Why don't you lay out some organ parts ?" We tried that, and on songs like 'Tire Tool'that worked well too." In recent years, Huss, as well as remaining heavily involved in both his musical and academic work, has also branched out into film production. He was the co-screenwriter on an acclaimed independent comedy feature film 'Use Your Head', which was released in 1998 and is about a drug research investigation at a medical centre into combined cannabis and alcohol use.The film stars Ben Phillipps, who was at college with Huss, and Huss's co-writer on the project was Phillipps' older brother, Loch, a filmmaker who directed the film with his wife, Lee Skaife. Three of the songs on the soundtrack of 'Use Your Head' appear on 'Lipchitz'. The first 'Tire Tool' was recorded with the Moderate Combo, and the latter two songs, the film's moody title track which Huss features Dana Colley from 'Morphine' and 'Go', a blistering rock 'n' roll number,appear as bonus tracks at the end of the album, and were recorded separately by Huss, with the aid of Weiss and some other Boston musician friends. "I really had an internal debate as to whether to include them or not" Huss explains. "I thought that they were strong songs, and I wanted them on there because I wanted as strong as possible an album that I could. Loch and I also had an agreement that we would try and help each other, he helping me in my musical career, me trying to help him in his film career. Anything we could do, therefore, to crossover and to make music people aware of the movie, and movie people aware of the music, we would try to do . I, therefore, made an agreement with the guys in the group that they would appear as bonus tracks and would be set apart by a certain space of time, and would come at the end of the album." Huss has further film projects planned also. He is working at the moment with Loch Phillipps on two more film scripts, and spent Christmas in New York working with a cousin of the Phillipps, Hub Moore, who is also a musician, on a short film idea. "The entire film is a series of movie montages, like you sometimes see in the Hollywood movie" Huss says "A bit of spoofery that we hope is close enough to the real thing to make people cringe a little." The film, which is as yet untitled, will run to twenty five minutes and Moore and Hub, who have collaborated on both the music and the script, hope that it will begin shooting in the spring. They are being helped out by Moore's brother Max, and also Loch Phillipps, who the only non-musician of the team, has written some of the lyrics and is also the co-ordinator of the project. The John Huss Moderate Combo, however, remains very much a focus. Niimi has recently switched to guitar, and the band have a new drummer, Andrew Frost, who also plays with Greenfield in Slink Moss and the Flying Aces. Huss has further plans too for expansion for the group, wanting perhaps to add a third guitarist, and maybe a horns or strings section for their live shows. He is also currently working on some lyrics and songs for a new album, which he hopes to start recording with the band soon. If it proves to be as innovative and as funny an album as 'Lipchitz', it should make another great record

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John Huss Moderate Combo - Interview

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Lipchitz (2001)
'The John Huss Moderate Combo' are a band of striking contrasts. The title of 'Lipchitz', their debut CD, is in part a scatological pun, in part a tribute to Jacques Lipchitz, an early Cubist sculptor

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