Haunted House: Interview
“It’s pretty great to be able to come up with songs and have OJ’s legal team come play behind them.”
This year is a big year for Minneapolis's Haunted House. Not only are they attempting to release three albums between now and next summer, but their music is taking a new direction, especially in the live setting. Indeed, it's been a long road since the band's debut as "Andrew W.K. as an Enya-inspired drunken blackout."
Over the course of six months, Tiny Mix Tapes worked on an epic interview with Mike Watton, the founder of Haunted House. But while it took months to complete, we feel that much closer to understanding the Haunted House mystique, Sparks, Morris Day, and Greg Ginn's Grateful Dead fandom.
Let's start by bring everyone up to date. Fill me in on the last few
years for Haunted House.
When I moved to Chapel Hill in 2006, I had maybe 8-10 songs worked out
that I had done since recording "Upper Class Red White Living," our
2nd album. When I say "songs" I'm saying I had the keyboard part
worked out and maybe a vague idea of where I wanted it to go from
there. When I moved to Oakland, I slept on the couch of Clipd Beaks,
whom you may have heard of. I finally got my own place after getting a
job with a casino company in Oakland. I worked from 8 p.m. until 4:30 a.m., sitting on blackjack tables and watched the players and dealers for
cheating. I would have to pay the winners and take money from the
losers, everyone trying to fuck me over every time, the amounts
occasionally in the thousands.
It was hell in a lot of ways, but I was settled down finally, so I started working on music. This went on for about a year, the remainder of my stay in Oakland. At the end of that time I had 37 songs I wanted to use. I missed Minneapolis, wanted to work on this stuff with the band, so I went back. The guy who had been drumming (Cole Claerhout) is an amazing guitarist, so we put him there. We had both gotten really into the '70s band Sparks and we wanted to work that influence a bit, so guitar was necessary. We kept the same bass player (Jon Davis), and got an amazing drummer named
Adam Patterson. Cole and I worked out all 37 of the songs in my
basement, him playing drums and guitar, me writing lyrics and singing
over the keyboards, guitars and drums on a 4-track. Then we worked out
a handful of those songs with the other two to do live. We played
shows around Minneapolis for a while, then went in the studio and
recorded all 37, the live drummer playing on the tracks he knew, Cole
doing the others, except for 3 I played drums on.
We picked up another drummer when the first drummer went away for a couple of months. He is an 18-year-old kid, just out of high school. We didn't want to teach him any songs, so we decided to improv all our shows, make it seem like we were playing songs, but we actually had no idea what we would do. It was a lot weirder than the pop stuff we usually do. When the regular drummer got back, we put some of the songs back in, but still
improvising between songs.
We're kind of like the Grateful Dead; we don't have a set list, and we jam a lot, while still playing some rehearsed songs. We did a show with Ariel Pink a few months ago, and he didn't show until 1 a.m. because of weather, so we did a 90-minute set, which included only 7 actual songs. The set had a 10-minute drum solo. Lately we've worked with some other drummers, Colin Johnson from Vampire Hands, Dosh, Freddy from Skoal Kodiak, which is a Minneapolis band everyone should see. This year we are working on releasing 3 albums called Guess Who's Not Coming To Dinner, Lesh Is More (named after the Grateful Dead bass player), and Ravage Through The Bum's Hair. The last one is supposed to include a video game of the same name, but that's probably a pipe dream. You would have to find different items in the hair of street people, who get progressively more dangerous as you advance through the levels.
In some circles, mentioning the Grateful Dead is like tolling the
death knell. What's your thoughts on the Dead?
I love the Grateful Dead. My dad got me into them in junior high. I
had every album after a couple years, plus some shirts, comic books,
some other stuff. Teachers at my high school were giving me
condolences when Jerry Garcia died. Even after I got into punk
shortly after, I never bought into the whole "you have to think the
Dead is uncool" thing. That's absurd. I love seeing old pictures of
Greg Ginn playing in Black Flag wearing a Dead shirt, pissing off all
the skinheads. It was seriously uncool, but I'm pretty sure that I
was the only teenager running around Des Moines growing his hair out
and being super into Nirvana, but at the time being positive that
American Beauty was the best album ever. I even love listening to
the '70s studio albums that so many people like to diss. Wake Of
The Flood is one of the most underrated albums ever made. One from
the '60s, Anthem Of The Sun is absolutely one of the most
artistically interesting albums ever made, and one of the best
overall. I wish I had gotten to see them. But Jon and I are both
huge fans, so it was kind of a natural to think of them more when we
started improving our live shows more. When doing some rehearsed
songs with a lot of jamming between, they're kind of the godfathers. But as far as people who think that it's uncool to be into the Dead
because hippies are lame or whatever, screw them, they'll get theirs.
Colin from Vampire Hands is super big into them too, it's nice to have
some backup around here. He just got me into Garcia, Jerry's solo
record, which is totally chainless.
"It'd be fun to have a CD booklet like every band in the '90s where every page would be the lyrics to a song with an out-of-focus picture of a flower or something."
How do you explain the differences between the way your earlier
stuff sounded and your newest output?
I think when I first started doing Haunted House I had a more focused
sense of what kind of music I wanted to make. The whole "Andrew
WK-meets-Enya that you can dance to" thing. There was a lot of hip-hop on my mind at that time too, which I don't know if you can really
hear or not. Its probably there in the dancy-ness of it. But as I
kept at it, I decided to acknowledge more music that I'm really into
in the music that I make. Stuff like Germs, Can, Swell Maps,
Radiohead, Sparks. So those things merged into what I had been doing.
And as I got more comfortable playing with people live, I thought
about what other instruments should do while writing on the keyboard,
and it became more of a band thing from that. The other guys being so
good at what they do definitely has made a huge mark. So it was just
a willingness to add more of what I like and playing live as a band
that did it.
These songs have a much less gritty and distorted feel - is there a
concious effort to clean up your sound?
Yeah, I would've recorded the early stuff at the most expensive studio
in LA if I could've. It sounds shitty because that's what I was able
to do on my own. I had a digital recorder and put everything in the
red. I wonder if a lot of the bands that are doing that now would
sound better if they had the means or the technical know-how. I
definitely would have. I had this huge, pristine wall of sound in my
head. I would've liked it to hit people like a tsunami of laundry
detergent, in a very pleasurable sense. But it turned into something
else out of trying to make it that way when it was totally impossible,
and I'm happy with it. I'd like to re-record that first album in a
studio though and see what would happen.
Did you keep the 18-year-old drummer when the regular drummer got back?
Oh yeah, he's awesome. Karl Tabeest is his name, he drummed in this
noise band in Minneapolis called Sarah Johnson for quite awhile. One
of the other guys in that band recommended him to us when we needed
someone to fill in, and I wasn't sure because he seemed to be very
harsh, musically speaking, in Sarah Johnson. But the first time we
played with him we just jammed and it was perfect. The guy is an
incredible drummer. He made us sound like Can when we were sick of
playing our songs and just winged it live. He's just an awesome
drummer, and when you put him together with Adam Patterson it's
amazing. I'm pretty sure that if nothing else, no other band can fuck
with our live rhythm section, taking them along with Jon Davis. I wish
we could go back and do our recording with this lineup. I like the
fact that we have an age range of 18-32 in the band. Unfortunately
he's just moved to Florida to attend some sort of accelerated dental
school, but we should get back together with him when he comes back
One of my biggest complaints about Haunted House has been that the
lyrics are so good, but I can't hardly understand them. Are you going
to include the lyrics with the release? Do you want to share some of
your favorites with us?
The first album is like that because of all the crazy fx and layering
I was doing with them. I think it's possibly even worse now for a few
reasons - a lot of them are hard to sing first off, and I'm no
professional. But also, we recorded 37 songs, did at least two layers
of vocals on all those, and we did all that in maybe a day-and-a-half.
I was shredded. I can really hear it on a few of them. But when you
have time constraints in a studio that you're paying for, that's what
you have to do. It wasn't ideal. I wish we recorded in the Seychelles
and I could stroll on the beach and drink a beer out of a coconut
between vocal takes. Next time, for sure. But I think I'm pretty good
at making lyrics. As for other musicians, I really only think about
Darby Crash and Leonard Cohen. So many bands just try to come up with
lyrics that sound like "rock lyrics" so a lot of it is just being
really sure to not sound like that cliche. But mainly, it's thinking
about images. Movie scenes that I make up in my head. Or just natural
settings, and emotions like anxiety. I like to think about lush
tropical settings and put some violent, hallucenigenic anxiety into
it. I feel like I do that exact thing in damn-near every song. We
probably will just put the lyrics online somewhere, it takes too much
space in an album. It'd be fun to have a CD booklet like every band in
the '90s where every page would be the lyrics to a song with an out-of-focus picture of a flower or something. But that probably won't
happen. As far as personal favorites, I'm partial to the An island of
flowers shot into space, gardened by the girl from the red
corvette/Out on the highway in the summer sun they could freeze to
death line from "Ravage Through The Bum's Hair."
"The only flaw is that it's actually considered a compliment or an honor if Morris Day throws you in a dumpster, it's not an insult."
I'm assuming you've seen Purple Rain. If not, that's absurd. But I
figure you have, and I wonder how you feel about that movie.
It's a pretty realistic portrayal of how everything goes down in
Minneapolis. There's a lot of coordinated dancing in the balconies at
shows, especially when Wolf Eyes comes through. I, and everyone I
know, puts their coat over puddles before walking through them. The
only flaw is that it's actually considered a compliment or an honor if
Morris Day throws you in a dumpster, it's not an insult.
Where do you place music in your life?
Extremely high. But not to the point where I want to be living in a
garage when I'm 60 with no health insurance because I wanted to spend
years riding around in a van with some dudes and sleeping in some cat
piss in Missouri. Totally love it though, playing it and listening to
Since returning to Minneapolis, what has been the response from
people who were familiar with the early Haunted House? How do they
react to the changes in format (from the Karaoke-style to an improv
I don't know, some people like it. Some people definitely do. No one
would say they don't like it as much, it just isn't the kind of town
where you get negative feedback to your face. Sometimes not even
positive feedback, people are just very reserved around here. But
very, very few people are going to come up to you at your show and be
like "I don't like it." Gotta save that shit for the internet, or
maybe you hear from somebody way down the line that anonymous people aren't digging it. It's probably like that almost anywhere I suppose.
Nobody wants to make waves. Also, with a couple exceptions, this is
very much a three-and-a-half-minute-rock-song town. And some people
here do it quite well, but no one's going to freak out over improvised
kraut-noise Garcia jams.
Tell me more about '70s Sparks, at least what you know.
Sparks are a very mysterious band to me, and I kinda like it that way.
I know about the Mael brothers being from LA and taking off for the
UK, in the late '60s I think, getting a backing band once they got
over there and making it big. Ron Mael has a huge Air Jordan
collection. But that's about it.
Are you releasing all three albums at once, or at least this year?
We were trying to figure this out for a long time, whether to release
them all at once, separately, just do 18 7"s, a 2.5-hour song on
iTunes or whatever else. We've got 3 albums plus leftover material
that we like. I think it makes more sense to do the three albums
separately, it's kind of a load to listen to all at once, especially
since it's all similar stylistically, so we might as well spread them
out a little. So the plan is to have Guess Who's Not Coming To Dinner
this October, Lesh Is More in February or March, and Ravage Through
The Bum's Hair in the summer.
Where do you see Haunted House going now?
I don't know for sure. I've started working on some stuff in the same
way that I used to, just me and my keyboard, but I'm leaving it way
more sparse, because I'd like to work with the other guys more in the
writing process. The other guys are just too good not to. I feel
pretty absurd standing onstage with the other 4 guys, they're all a
lot better than I am, at least technically. It's pretty great to be
able to come up with songs and have OJ's legal team come play behind
them. I've always enjoyed the mix of personalities, so it's our own
little village of love.
Um, not to offend, but it seems you're saying you're getting away
with murder because your back-up band helps cover up the evidence of
your technical in-expertise. Do you feel somewhat self-conscious or
bashful about your music, or am I reading too much into this?
Haha, no, I get what you're saying, "OJ = murder"? Not at all. The '27
Yankees maybe? Point being, it's a strange position to be in when
you're not a technically distinguished musician, yet you're in a band
where everyone else definitely is, and you're the frontman. I think I
know how to make things interesting in a different way than most, but
I'm not like the other people I play with. It is totally great to
write stuff and have such serious muscle to come fill it out.