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25 April 2011

Interview: Jonathan Allen of Music for Headphones.

Music for Headphones is a Philadelphia-based group whose dark soundscapes weave 60’s rock, krautrock, post-punk, psychedelia, new-wave, and shoegaze into one cohesive aural trip. Vocalist and guitarist Jonathan Allen has been behind the vision for Music for Headphones since the very beginning, the band starting as a concept around 2000. In the past decade the band has gone through various line up changes and sabbaticals, as well as Allen's brief stint in The Upsidedowns, but all the while Allen has continued to hone MFH's sound into something truly unique. This has never been as evident as on the band's most recent release, the exemplary LP, which was released in January 2011. The band recently played a show with Spectrum, and the new LP has been getting plenty of well-deserved attention since it's release. If you haven't heard MFH yet, check out the band's bandcamp page and stream some of the mp3s there. You'll be an instant convert. When The Sun Hits hopes you enjoy the following interview with Music for Headphone's awesome frontman, Jonathan Allen.

How was Music for Headphones formed?

Headphones has been around off and on since 2000, but mostly active since 2006. The original line up started in Athens, GA at the demise of a previous band. I was playing bass back then and our guitar player quit in the middle of a recording project. The drummer and I looked at each other and decided we could make a record on our own. It was a crazy experience, highly conceptual. Nothing was written.We would record bass and drum tracks live and improvised then layer on guitars and synths. Finally, I'd get in front of the microphone and improvise the lyrics. Its a sprawling piece of space rock. You can easily tell I was only listening to three records while making it- The Cure's Pornography, Spacemen 3's Perfect Prescription and Pink Floyd's Meddle. When it was complete we decided to move to Portland, OR, but I quickly disbanded the project for a variety of reasons.

Next I found myself as one of the founding members of The Upsidedown, but again I left directly before the signed with Reverb Records. I think the only released thing I play on is a song called "Soul Diving" that I wrote with Jsun Atoms. My song "Pepper Spray" ended up on their debut. At this point I focused all of my energy into production, at least until I ended up in Philadelphia.

There have been close to 25 members in Music for Headphones over the years. I met the one constant member, my bassist Aaron Aleiner, in 2005 and recruited him and my younger brother, Patrick Richardson, to reform Headphones. Like I implied, there have been near constant line up changes over the years, but the band I have with me now has been together for the past two years.

Music for Headphones. Only Angry Lies.

Can you tell us what you've been working on and what you've got forthcoming in the near future (new releases, tour, etc)?

Well, we are desperately trying to get out on vinyl. The response to it in Europe has been overwhelming, and Philadelphia is finally starting to take notice. I'm not sure if anyone has attempted the shoegazey electro kraut we have been playing out for the past 5 shows. We played with Spectrum last Friday and the response was unreal. Even Sonic Boom gave us a glowing review and you can't really beat that - having one of your primary influences tell you how new and exciting your music sounds.

Beyond that, we are starting to write a new record as a band (a first for me, I've always written or written/performed everything). was an experiment in kraut rock. I wanted to see if I could do it. It wasn't intended to be a pivotal Headphones record, but it is drastically changing the way we are approaching and performing music. I'm not going to try and reproduce another Neu! 75/La Düsseldorf homage, but I expect the repetition and rhythm will permeate the next record. is sort of devoid of guitars, at least the way I play, so live it has become a very different beat with layers of shoegaze and noise mixed into the synths.

As for touring- we won't be doing anything extensive. Probably bounce around the North East a bit.

Taking the hint from the band name, do you consider your music best heard on a good pair of headphones?

The name is really more a reference to my production style but has definitely directly applied to certain records we've made. We are talking about shortening the name to MFH. Who knows.

Do you consider Music for Headphones’ music to be part of the current shoegaze/dream pop scene, or any scene? I consider MFH to be a sort of electronic psychedelia dream pop hybrid; defining one's sound by a genre can be tiresome, but do you feel that the band identifies closely with any genre? How do you feel about genres in music, in a general sense?

We certainly were in 2006-2008. we played a ton of shows with the Sky Drops, Thrushes, Alcian Blue and later Screen Vinyl Image (whom we still play with often). At some point I started to drift back toward neo-psychedelic music more like the Warlocks, but I've always had a massive pedal board and made crazy shoegazey sounds. I agree with your label - particularly the hybrid part. I am an avid record collector and everything I hear touches me. I don't try to stay in one place, I have more fun as a songwriter combining genres in new ways.

Can you talk a bit about your other projects?

I have two other projects going on. The first is called New Speedway. I just play guitar in the band and don't do any of the writing. Our first record just came out, Feel It, and is heavily influenced by Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr. Rocco, the front man, already has two more records written that we are rehearsing and one is much more like Bardo Pond and the other like Spacemen 3, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Mudhoney. It's loud, noisy, heavy shit.

The other band is called 2060 Chiron. It's primarily my girlfriend, Nikki, and I writing songs in our apartment. We are in the process of recording an EP and I'd describe it as Mazzy Star meets Her Space Holiday.

Oh, and I dj fairly regularly at a bar in Philly called Teri's. Primarily post-punk, neo-psych and 80's brit pop.

What do you think of modern shoegaze/dream pop/psychedelia artists, any favorites?

That's sort of a tough one. I was pretty burnt out on it for a while, feeling like everything was to derivative, but the bands Dave (Allison) at Custom Made Music puts out never cease to impress me. I've been a LONG TIME fan of Screen Vinyl Image. They are easily one of the best live bands I have seen. I play them in almost every dj set as well. They are so good! I also dig Dead Leaf Echo a lot too. I've been friends with Tom Lugo from Stellarscope for over ten years and he never fails to impress. Speaking of, I downloaded the entire Rock Back for Japan series yesterday (we are on Volume 4) that he compiled and I am blown away by all the talent spread across these six discs. Amazing. Bliss.City.East and Calm Palm Vapor from Chicago are friends whose work I truly admire. I think Soundpool are awesome. I'm sure there are thousands more I am forgetting.

Music for Headphones. Open.

What is the most important piece of gear for your sound? Any particular guitars/pedals/amps that you prefer?

I change amps every couple of years. Right now I'm using an Orange Rocker 30 (it's white!) and I love it, but I have no clean tone. I used two Fender Deluxe Reverbs for a few years, but the output transformer on one blew out and the second one caught on fire during a recording session. I was pushing them WAY too hard. I have been primarily playing a Rickenbacker 370 since 1998. I love it. My main fuzz is a HBE UFO (this week) and I always have at least three delay pedals on my board at a time, one analog and two digital. Then there are a ton of other toys.

What artists (musicians or otherwise) have most influenced your work?

Phil Spector, Peter Kember, Jason Pierce, Anton Newcombe, Michael Rother, Klaus Dinger, Thurston Moore, Jonathan Donahue (in the 90's), Will Sergent, Neil Halstead, Adrian Utley, Dave Roback, Martin Hannet, Dave M. Allen, Robert Smith, Peter Holmstrom.... the list could go on...

How do you feel about the state of the music industry today? There is no doubt a massive change is underway; how do you see it and do you feel it’s positive at all?

It's in total flux. How to succeed is anyone's guess and and we are all grasping at new ideas and technologies to get our music heard. I think it's all about community. The shoegaze community has always been pretty tight between the bands, but we need to find a new way to engage, embrace, and include the fans. No one is going to get "rich" or "famous" anymore, so people need to remember that playing music should be about expressing yourself and hopefully having fun (I'm still working on the fun part). I think the change is necessary and will undoubtedly be positive. I hate to say it but "corporate rock still sucks."

Do you prefer vinyl, CD, cassette tape or mp3 format when listening to music? Do you have any strong feelings toward any of them?

I haven't bought a CD in a few years and don't even own a cassette player (though Headphones has appeared on a few cassette comps). Our listening time is spent equally between the turntable in the living room and the computer in the bedroom. I am back on big vinyl buying kick so we are spending more and more time staying up to dawn listening to warm, fuzzy music.

Can you tell us a little about what you are currently into (books, films, art, bands, etc)?

Music pretty much consumes my life right now. I am falling back in love with Mazzy Star, spending lots of time listening to the last Warlocks record, and still fascinated by kraut rock. Neu! 75, La Düsseldorf's Viva, and Can's Tago Mago, have been on the turntable a lot.

If you had to choose one Music for Headphones track that was the ultimate definition of your sound, which would it be and why?
I wish it were different, but "Doctor" from 2008's Preface/Alternate is the song people seem to grab on to. Looking at it another way, "Doctor" does have all the elements of the genre hybrid style I write in. Neo-psych intro, big washes of shoegazey guitars, droning organs and sparkling synths, and of course, post-punky baritone vocals.

Can you tell us a little about your song writing process?

It usually starts with sequencing organ parts and drum beats then building the live instruments around it. Words are usually the last thing I write. However, sometimes I wake up with words in my head, grab my acoustic, and write a song that way.

What is the most exciting thing that happened for MFH in 2010, and what are your goals for 2011?

The only really exciting thing that happened was the release of Secret History of the World (though I don't think anyone's heard it). It was a very painful record to make and took two years. I had back surgery during the process and ended a long term relationship. 2009 was really rough. The goals for 2011? Make the best album yet and get to Berlin to play some kraut rock for Germans, my way.

What is your philosophy (on life), if any, that you live by?

I just try to make through each day. My life feels a lot like Neil Young's "Everybody Knows this is Nowhere" most of the time (except I've got the girl right here).

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