Saturday, 25 July 2020
Mick Dillingham Interviews : Ex Norwegian
The Florida based Ex Norwegian have been serving up exceptional sixties tinged melodic, inventive music for the last decade. Like the always wonderful Greg Curvey and Mothboxer, they have built up an extensive back catalogue of delights to explore and then embrace.
Built around the abundant talents of one Roger Houdaille, they started as a band, went through various line ups, none of which stuck for long before finally settled into being just Roger and various friends, most noticeable Fernando Perdomo, as the years passed by. With a superb new album Hue Spotting upon us it is time to sit down with the excellent Roger and talk about it all in some depth. This is going to be good.
What are your earliest memories of first getting into music?
“First thing that comes to mind is the Jive Bunny. You had all these 50s rock n roll classics set to a single beat and mashed up. I must have been around five years old and would literally go nuts with that stuff. But other than that, I can’t say I was that interested in music in general. In fact, the only class that ruined my straight A’s was music where I got B’s.
I started paying attention to the LPs in my mom’s collection and there was the mysterious blue vinyl Beatles 1967-1970. Looked so cool and the sounds were different! Got me hooked. So, it was the usual Beatles that turned me on just as millions of others. Their spell is quite strong.
Anyway, this was the early 90’s and Apple Records were issuing their catalogue on CD and I still remember clearly browsing the aisles of my local record shop and spotting Badfinger’s Straight Up staring back at me. It had just been reissued. Sure, I recognized it from Beatles books, but had no idea what it sounded like or what to expect.
It became the soundtrack to my sixth grade in elementary school. I remember playing it in class hoping to convert some other friends but “no dice”. I was pretty much alone in preferring Badfinger to Kris Kross. Anyway, the next band I got into was the Who, thanks to their 30 Years Maximum Box Set which I splurged all my money on.
Then, someone gave me a copy of the Kinks Lola vs. Powerman on cassette and that was a life changing moment too. The other discoveries would be via the dollar LP rack at the record store down my street. I found things like Jethro Tull’s Stand Up and Grand Funk’s red album which are still highly regarded by me today. Highly influential stuff.”
When did you start playing an instrument?
“I got a guitar around the fifth grade, but couldn’t be bothered to learn to play it properly until a few years later. There was also a Casio keyboard around, but I never picked it up seriously. In middle school I got stuck with the French Horn, but being The Who fan that I had become, I was happy to follow in John Entwistle’s footsteps.
I was always a creative person. I spoke my own made up language for the first couple years of my life. When I got really into geography, I made my own countries and almanacs and history books about them. When I got into cars, I made my own brands and designs and everything. Of course, that was all fun but pretty useless at the same time.
However, once I got into music and The Beatles, I started forming my own fake groups and discographies and songs. That was useless too, but writing actual songs wasn’t. I just seem to have got stuck there. So it was pretty early on that I was coming up with ideas, but had little skill to execute them. The first live performance of one of my compositions would have been a song called “Electric Lady” at an eighth grade school concert.”
When did you first meet Fernando Perdomo
“I met him backstage at a school performance. I would have been in the sixth grade and he was in the eighth, but he came back to help reinforce our sound. As I mentioned, I was only familiar with about four chords at the time, so the school group needed all the help we could get. It was the first time I had someone next to me that could play such good guitar. I recall requesting him to play the “The Rain Song” intro, which he duly did. That was our first encounter.
Then a few years later I ran into him again when auditioning for the Miami Beach Sr. High School Rock Ensemble. For my audition I did Jethro Tull’s “To Cry You A Song”. Fernando was intrigued at my choice and we became fast friends, sharing the love of all this horribly out of fashion music. Well naturally we started hanging out and would record stuff together.
We both had 4-track cassette tape machines and even formed a band with the name Dip. I wasn’t very good, but Fernando was much better and together we almost sound like a passable band on some of these recordings. We definitely got better over the course of the next three years. However, there was never a serious plan or anything. There was only one gig, where we performed one song and we got one song on the radio. It felt like a big accomplishment.
There are lots of recordings floating around and I do intend to put something together compiling everything nicely in a couple months. Fernando. I have been back and forth about re-recording some of the material too. Honestly, the new Ex Norwegian album is kind of a throwback to the way we worked in those days.”
"I first met Chris Price back in high school, as he was also a member of the Miami Beach Sr. High Rock Ensemble. At the time he was more interested in rap music, so we didn’t connect to be honest. It was only years later that we crossed paths again and as he was into more reasonable music, we kept in touch.
I don’t remember the details too well, but next thing we had a band called Dreaming In Stereo. This was Fernando Perdomo, Chris Price, Derek Cintron and myself. It was a lot of talent for one band. We played the South Florida circuit hard for a few months and recorded an EP. This would be 2004. Incidentally, this EP along with a couple live soundboards are being released digitally in July 2020.
It was an exciting group with everyone in the band being able to hold their own both in performance and songwriting. There was a bit of a following and lots of energy too. But the more Chris and I tried to steer it towards becoming a serious, signable band, the more it started to fall apart. It became a little frustrating and to diffuse some of that frustration came Monkeypox. This was something just for fun.
Next thing you know we had tons of material as Chris started writing and I had plenty of new things too. We enlisted Chris’s brother Mikey on guitar and Eric Hernandez (currently of Torche) on drums and we went crazy for a few months, recording, performing, and even filmed a feature length movie! It was a highly inspired time but like all good things, came to an end after that summer.
Chris was still set on getting signed and the Monkeypox thing was just too silly for that. There was an elaborate backstory, as all members in the band adopted characters. I was Junior Bevel, for example, an ex-bobsledder from Aruba, no less. While the songs were great, the whole package wasn’t. So Chris went off to Los Angeles and duly got signed to Geffen Records and I stayed behind in Miami and attempted to normalize my life."
"Father Bloopy was a moniker I had stolen from the British sitcom Maid Marian & Her Merry Men. I used it as my stage name in my first band project, The BJ Experience. That is a whole other story, but anyway, the name stuck and I used it ill-advisedly as my solo project name.
In 2007, I was encouraged to take things a little more seriously and I put together a record that I would manufacture for the first time professionally. I did another unthinkable thing and hired a PR guy who had pitched his services to me on MySpace. This was the first time I was taking myself seriously and actually marketing my music in some semi-pro fashion.
To my surprise, there were some very good reviews coming in from people and publications that were strangers to me. It felt good. But then there was the name…Father Bloopy. It got destroyed by everyone. It didn’t make any sense. I agreed. So, moving forward I knew there had to be a change. Thus, the only slightly better named, Ex Norwegian, was born.”
How did Ex Norwegian first come about?
“I put a live band together to help promote the Father Bloopy ‘Ginger, Baby’ album. Naturally I had an all-girl backing band. That lasted a few shows and in the end only Nina Souto stayed on (playing bass). After recording “Something Unreal” we just knew we had something good and needed to move forward with a new identity and everything and that became Ex Norwegian.
We auditioned drummers and Arturo Garcia got the gig and after a false start or two, we got pretty serious pretty fast. It helped that once we posted “Something Unreal” to our MySpace page, people took notice. It was really a special time looking back and the new band and song was perfect for that new way of music discovery and social networking that was occurring on that platform. This would have been the summer of 2008.
There was definitely a buzz in the beginning, but it was real and for lack of a better term, it was very grassroots. Meaning we had no money behind us, no big label, no real marketing… nothing. So it could only reach so far and I think it reached as far as it could. It was a bit of a confidence booster nevertheless. However, as a band, we were not ready for prime time players.
My voice would usually be shot towards the end of the set and we could not replicate our record sound live at all. It was a different beast. You see, my original plan was to prepare and record the album for about six months, giving us plenty of time to get good. This would allow us to know how to do the things we needed to do, but we ended up jumping right into the fire. One of our first shows was for the CMJ festival in NYC.
The good news is we did get better as our calendar was kept full. I made a point of taping the shows to study back and we would do our homework. At this point it was the four of us, Nina, Arturo, his childhood friend Guillermo (aka Billie G) and myself. Michelle would join us occasionally but she was still in high school and then quickly went away for college so couldn’t be a full timer.
We did take things seriously for about a year or so. So it felt more like a band by the time we prepared for the second album ‘Sketch’. But the preparation was for a five piece band and by the time we were ready with it, we were down to a power trio. I must admit I didn’t particularly enjoy making that record but now, on certain days, I really enjoy listening back to it. It was just a different beast.
I was hoping we’d be more consistent and make Standby 2, Standby 3, but alas it was not meant to work out that way. Another big problem I had was while there was some great material on ‘Sketch’, I felt it was really unmarketable. I think we had a feeling of being lost. Being stuck in Miami did not help.
When working on the third album, it just wasn’t happening anymore. The others started rejecting my material and despite my encouragement for them to write and contribute more, nothing happened and that original band broke up. A long story short, Ex Norwegian never truly operated at that level as a band again.
The label Dying Van Gogh at the time was kind enough to re-release the record with a marketing budget that included college radio and European press and it helped boost the bands status a bit. Unfortunately, the band had broken up by then!
When I reformed the group months later, I took more of a Zappa approach to being a bandleader. For the next few years it was Michelle, Lucas Quieroz and Giuseppe Rodriguez mostly involved in the group, but not always too present on the recordings and a steady flow of different drummers.
The difficult third album started life as Roger Houdaille’s House Music. I recorded a whole solo record one week with my former Monkeypox colleague Eric Hernandez and that would have been the future for me. This was in-between Ex Norwegian breaking up and ‘Sketch’ being re-issued. The plans for the solo House Music project eventually lost the battle against Ex Norwegian reforming.
I simply kept the more suitable material from that album, like “Not A Mouse” and “Tong As In Pete” and went on to finish up a proper Ex Norwegian album. Compared to the other two albums, this was more of a Frankenstein effort, as I also re-worked a Standby outtake and former Father Bloopy tune, “Ginger, Baby” to kick start the record.
I was also working on producing singer-songwriter Ed Hale’s album and we were both obsessing over some book about all the songwriting and production tricks. As a result, I think ‘House Music’ ended up being overproduced, as I made sure I included as many tricks as possible in each song.”
Onto your fourth album, Crack
“I could argue that there was a major crack in the band and perhaps that’s were subconsciously that title came from. I was determined to keep things going and I was struggling hard as a result. The band was in a tough spot and that’s when we connected with Brian Kurtz who ran the Limited Fanfare label here in South Florida and was interested in helping out.
I didn’t have enough money to do a proper album, so I pieced together some out-takes and sweetened up some demos and turned it into ‘Crack’. Sounds pretty appetizing, I know. It was meant to be a low key release, but as it came out on Limited Fanfare, it introduced us to a different crowd and it ended up doing better than ‘House Music’. Go figure! We never even pressed up proper CDs for it.
Without going into too much detail, things kept going sour fast for Ex Norwegian in 2013. Towards the end of the year, I was introduced to Lucia Perez who was a big fan of the band and as it turned out, a great singer who albeit, had never recorded or sang on stage or in public before. Nevertheless, we hit it off fast, and started working out tunes. I was excited to be able to write music for someone actually excited to sing the songs.
The first one we recorded, “Feelin’ It”, went viral for a day or two as soon as it was unleashed to the world. It was “Something Unreal” all over again. I knew we had something. But ultimately, that something was still too weird and quirky to get industry people behind it. I was determined to make it work though, so I managed to get us to Los Angeles and record with Fernando Perdomo at his home studio.
We literally recorded a full week non-stop (Well, we had one day off when Fernando was tracking with another Roger of Jellyfish fame at his studio) and then I got back to Miami, out of budget and wasn’t able to mix it. I let it sit for a bit and ended up spending all summer mixing it myself. It went from trying to be super commercial to being super lo-fi.
Despite the drastic change in plan, in the end, ’Wasted Lines’ is easily my favourite of the bunch. The studio is a place I rarely go to… I love to record at home in private. I think the only song recorded fully at a professional studio was “Girl With A Moustache”. That was a cool session but I remember being unhappy with my vocals. I couldn’t get into the studio vibe. The ‘Wasted Lines’ album comes close in that we did the bulk of it at Reseda Ranch Studios, living and breathing it.
Not so spoiler alert - things didn’t work out with the Lucia line-up and so I found myself teaming up with the House Music/Crack peeps again to record a proper band album Pure Gold. We kept Fernando on drum duty, recording his parts out in L.A. while the four of us (Michelle, Lucas, Roger, Giuseppe). We recorded at my friend Emmanuel Canete’s home studio for free as we were his guinea pigs to test out all his new gear. I didn’t have enough songs though, so the idea was to do mostly covers. Nowadays, it may seem like Ex Norwegian is mostly a covers band, but at the time it was a very novel idea.
I think I picked a good bunch of tunes to do where it sounds like its own album. Most of the songs are obscure enough to pass off as original material even. The surprise highlight was the last minute cover of The Shirts' “Tell Me Your Plans”. I say surprise, because I wasn't expecting it to work. I loved the original and although it had the Ex Norwegian male/female harmony formula, I didn’t think we could add to it or dare I say improve it or make it our own.
But turning it into 4/4 just changed everything. Overall, I think ‘Pure Gold’ is a pleasant record, but could have used more edge. Towards the end of making the album, I was hours away from dying due to bleeding out from an ulcer. Despite that drama, I have fond memories of making the record. And at least I came to understand why I was so low energy at the sessions!
After some serious blood transfusions, I suppose I was re-energized and naturally wanted to tour in support of Pure Gold. I also knew we’d have the same problem as the early days where we couldn’t reproduce the record sound live, so I drafted up a set that we could pull off live. I went as far as dumbing down the songs, removing key changes and simplified chord changes. Even lyrics to things like “Don’t Bother” were simpler and normalized.
We did about two hours rehearsal with the whole band a couple nights before hitting the road. That was all we could squeeze in. I remember Lucas and our tour drummer Andres Bedoya got into a nasty car accident going home after the rehearsal. The story goes they were jamming a little too hard to some cheesy Paul McCartney song and ran through a light. Very close call!
Thankfully, the tour went pretty smoothly. The highlight being invited to record a Daytrotter session. We also introduced songs like “Life” and “Ice” that would appear on the next album, ‘Glazer/Hazerr’. This garage rock approach would become what ‘Glazer/Hazerr’ was about. It was a very dirty sounding 60s influenced “love letter” as Shindig! Magazine put it.
The ironic part is although it was reflective of our live sound, it was recorded just by me, Fernando and Michelle. Playing live with Ex Norwegian is a bit like riding a rollercoaster. A lot of ups and over under sideways downs. I always say it is easier to play the big shows with a whole technical crew and proper monitors than to play a small club doing your own sound. It’s actually pretty brutal.
So right off the bat, those are the most unenjoyable shows. But when things are all set up nicely, the experience can be wonderful. I’m not a player who can play well under bad conditions. If things don’t sound great, I won’t get into it and as a result won't play great."
"No Sleep was an attempt to return to the beginning. I set out to do a record in the vein of the first, ‘Standby’…something accessible and relatively safe. The previous album, ‘Tekstet (Subtitled)’ was a strange affair in that it was mostly a solo thing that I recorded in haste after having to scrap the band album we were working on because the (so-called) drummer fired Michelle. Things weren't going in what I felt was the right direction.
A couple things, “All Hips No Waists” and “Funny Zipper” eventually came out as a single. Other stuff was released as an EP by the Velocity Gospel called ‘Tampico Hall’. So in the middle of that I did ‘Tekstet’, a horribly named album marking another difficult time in the Ex Norwegian world.
‘No Sleep’ would be a better experience, at least until the sketchy promo management booking company that we hired went bust a good month or so before our release forcing us to cancel the tour. We had to quickly prepare to release and market the album ourselves, without getting any of the thousands we foolishly pre-paid the company back.
I've never talked much about that situation, but needless to say, those series of events silently killed off the band. However, it was thanks to this company that “No Sleep” was even conceived as when we originally hired them, it was to promote what became “Something Unreal: The Best of Ex Norwegian”.
Instead, it made sense to do a fresh new band album and I started writing the whole album. Michelle helped on a couple things I had trouble with and Jim Camacho wrote some lyrics for “Marquee 1970s”. I’m now realizing now as I write this that 'No Sleep' was all put together in about two months time. Meanwhile, the Best Of compilation would be saved for release in 2019 and I think was helped with the inclusion of the highlights from 'No Sleep’.
I got turned onto R. Stevie Moore in 2015 and it resonated with me a lot. That was the catalyst to my side project Plastic Macca. The idea was to record without pressure and just put it out there. Do it almost anonymously. The cryptic name lent itself to this whole project. Much like McCartney had his Firemen outlet, this was my outlet to try and do some different things.
It quickly became a grandeur endeavour as the first album turned into two. There’s ‘Sensation’ which was the more organic one, and ‘Is Here’ which had the programmed drums and stuff. This was 2015. I think the following year I did ‘New Meat’ followed by the ‘Twist’ album in 2017. Quite a bit of the Plastic Macca material ended up being worked into Ex Norwegian catalogue like “Wasteland”, “It’s All Panda” and “Sensation”.
Back in 2013 I put out a solo record under my own name titled ‘Safe Keeping’. I just heard it again the other day and was duly impressed. When you have a sort of brand name like Ex Norwegian, you really don’t want to saturate it with so many releases, so a lot of stuff I do ends up going elsewhere.”
What would you say were your biggest influences?
“The Kinks are the big ones. Not just the music, but their attitude and Ray Davies’s way about doing things influenced me a lot. The UK band Family is another big one. Fun fact is I run their fan website and a Facebook group dedicated to them.
The way they just did what they felt like doing all the time, I respect a lot. Then there is the Monty Python influence which I think seeps through, starting with the band name, obviously to our music promos.”
How does the song writing process work with you?
“I like starting with a song title. That’s usually what happens too. Perfect example being the pun ‘Hue Hopper’ (given to me by Fernando Perdomo) which turned into “Hue Spotter”. Or “Team No Sleep” was some graffiti I saw and quickly wrote a song around it.
A couple other methods are having a great riff, or also the recording process, as described below recording “Bloody Parrots!”. I also did a couple remakes of older songs which were probably the hardest ones to do!
In regards to lyrics, they’ll just pop in my head. I end up with a lot of cryptic words as a result. And I have a bad habit of keeping my first drafts even if I don’t like them. I am not one to spend a lot of time on the process. Like Badfinger sang, “there is no real perfection”.
Over time you’ve built up a loyal fan base and now a new album from you is quite an event…
So we come to the superb Hue Spotting a very assured album of great interest.
“That is nice of you to say… I’m always amazed to have anyone listening to and following us at all. Despite being so connected these days with fans, I feel very disconnected too. An important part of the process of this record was how I pre-mixed everything, creating stems that were then sent to proper Grammy award winning mix engineer Zach Ziskin. I knew I wanted to experiment with sounds in a way that only made sense if I did it, but also didn’t want it to sound like an amateur hour.”
Let’s do a track by track breakdown shall we?
"Fear Backwards - Not only the first song of the album, but the first song I worked on for the 10th album. I messed around with a “new approach”. This is the result of listening to Spotify’s new indie rock and Neo-psychedelic playlists for 48 hours in the background.
Pitching the song around I received feedback that was more or less saying they would have wanted the song to build up more and it’s true, that was my entire point. Most of what I heard on these playlists were pretty monotonous stuff, so it sounds like I’m on the right track.
Comfort Sands - This one has a pretty cool riff going thru it; however, I extended it longer than I normally would have to “fit in”. Maybe I shouldn’t have been the producer of the record too? (haha). I particularly like the wild ending. I was definitely channelling some Amon Duul II both lyrically and sonically.
Hue Spotter - The sort of title track, which took its cue from Soft Machine’s “Dada Was Here”. I thought this would be a lot more popular than it seems to be. I had Fernando do some backwards pianos. The fuzz solo is a one taker, warts and all. I didn’t want to get too fuzzy, I mean fussy with perfection as long as it came from the right source.
Bloody Parrots! - This one I wrote with the recording technique, which means I’ll pick out a drum loop to track to and more or less formulate a song after hitting the record button. It started out on bass, which is why there’s the lower register riffs dominating the verses. I was very happy with the results and definitely my idea of modern popsike.
You Turn Papers Colour - I wrote this one back in high school. I wrote it as a fast 4/4 thing and transformed it into a slow, creepy 3/4 for this version. It’s interesting, I knew all the lyrics by heart, even though I wrote it so long ago. I think it breaks up the rhythm of the album nicely.
Something 2020 - A psychedelic remake of “Something Unreal”. I already had put “Something Unreal II” on the Best Of compilation, which is essentially this same recording, but produced slightly differently. My template for this production was “Armenia City In The Sky”.
Post Post Malone - This one was written very fast and is very topical. Surprisingly more popular than I thought it would be. It’s a mesh of different ideas production wise and it was a difficult one for me to translate what I heard in my head to the actual record.
Your Mind Is Mine - A popsike re-make of a song “Ice” that I’ve had around since the Monkeypox days. I wasn’t too sure about including it on the record but I didn’t have anything else to put in its place, so it just stayed on. It brings a little more pop to the record, which is a good thing, before things go out of control…
Not Underground - Besides being the longest Ex Norwegian track (although a b side, “Pretty Paradox” comes in rather long with an extended guitar solo too) it is probably the most wildest track. It features the most insane playing Fernando Perdomo has ever done.
I just had the one line which kept repeating and didn’t think I could manage to write a chorus that made sense so I let it become this super repetitive thing. So why not drag it out for six minutes? Originally I had some chunky electric guitars which were replaced by some acoustics to give it more of a Syd Barrett feel.
Night Is Long (As Long As Night) - This was the second song I worked on and really spent a whole lot of time on it. It was before I defined a direction to psychedelia, but it was heavily inspired by early progressive rock as well as T. Rex/Roxy Music. This is another one I thought would be more popular. Perhaps placing it after “Not Underground” wasn’t an ideal spot.”
As a companion to Hue Spotting you have released an album of obscure psychedelic covers, Spotting Hues….I love this stuff...takes me back to a time when I totally immersed myself in all thing Rubble, Circus Days Bam Caruso
“Yes! Spotting Hues is kind of a weird way for me to put out a compilation of songs I like. My own Circus Days. It was a lot of joy to put together. I was releasing a song a week this year, usually covers, including most of what’s on Spotting Hues. I had to stop once the new albums came out to give them their space.
I hope to resume soon. Personally, psychedelia means the kind of music I covered on Spotting Hues. I’ve never done drugs, so I don’t relate psychedelia with that. It’s really just a musical genre to me and one of my favourites.
Some future covers include John Cale’s “Endless Plain Of Fortune”, Unicorn’s “Holland” and I’m also busy putting together some collaborative covers. There may be another full length release by end of the year.”
You can catch up by listening or buying all things Ex Norwegian here.