By Casey Lewis
Ben Schneider, the frontman of Lord Huron, isn’t just a singer. He’s also an art-school grad and gifted illustrator who logged time working a graphic design gig in Los Angeles before his musical side-project took off. Now the frontman of one of the biggest indie-folk bands of the moment has found a way to incorporate his artistic background -- while making both his English teachers and his record label very happy.
MTV News recently caught up with the 31-year-old Michigan native, who dreamt up the elaborate fictional worlds that inspire Lord Huron’s debut album, Lonesome Dreams, and its brand-new follow-up, Strange Trails. There are complex characters and expertly woven narratives, mapped out with the help of movie trailers and comic books. At a time when most discographies read more like personal diaries -- we’re looking at you, Taylor Swift -- it’s unexpected (and awesome) to listen to an album that weaves a story as compelling as a Serial podcast.
“I’ve always found, at least for me personally, fiction can speak more succinctly and eloquently about reality than a documentary can, especially when it's crafted carefully," Schneider said, calling in from a tour stop in Santa Cruz, California.
The cover of the "Strange Trails" comic book:
What Schneider doesn’t say, at least not explicitly, is that fiction also allows the band to maintain anonymity much more easily than if they were writing songs about themselves. Lord Huron has been a summer-festival favorite for a few years now, and they’ve got tracks all over screens big and small, including some hit MTV series. But you probably can’t name a single band member -- and that's the way they like it.
“I’m a pretty private person, and I like to keep my private life mine and not bare it all to the world.” (Mission accomplished.)
Instead of confessional ballads or autobiographical anthems, Schneider writes songs about made-up villains and heroines, often rooted in Western lore. And though the second album touches on a lot of the same topics as the first -- there’s romance and adventure and tragedy -- it’s far from a sequel. “I imagine the albums exist in the same world, but it’s a different time, different characters and a different place,” he said. “A lot of the same themes are explored, and a lot of the vibes are similar.”
The debut was based on adventure novels by George Ranger Johnson (stop hanging your head in shame because you’ve never heard of him -- he’s not real ), and while the sophomore record’s initial influences were slightly less fantastical -- he drew inspiration from Kilgore Trout, a fictional character invented by Kurt Vonnegut --the reoccurring cast of characters on the 14-track LP are of Schneider’s own imagining.
One of the greasers in the World Ender gang inspired by Track 4, “Hurricane (Johnnie’s Theme)”:
Through the music videos and story-spinning lyrics, Schneider introduces personas like Frankie Lou, Buck Vernon, and Lily, the object of Buck’s affection who we meet in “Fool for Love,” the first single off Strange Trails. The music video, co-directed by Schneider, shows our protagonist attempting to win over his lady by picking a fight in a saloon with a Western gang called The World Enders, which also happens to be the name of another song on the album. The video includes a very real phone number you can call to join in the story, choose your own adventure-style.
This kind of participatory storytelling extends to Lord Huron’s social media too. Rather than press promos and behind-the-scenes tour snapshots, the band's Instagram account is an inspired work of art, filled with hand-drawn illustrations that Ben mindlessly sketches while writing music. There’s a visual component accompanying every single track on Strange Trails, and if Schneider has his way, that’s only the beginning.
“This idea of Strange Trails was conceived as a movie,” he said. “It's been hard to get that going because that's a whole other world that I'm not initiated in yet. We're trying to find ways to get it made.” We’re willing to bet they’ll be successful.
A truly frightening undertaker inspired by Track 8, “Meet Me In the Woods”:
A super creepy skeleton inspired by Track 12, “Way Out There”: