A promotional video for the first album included in the new His Name Is Alive four-CD box set, A Silver Thread (Home Recordings 1979-1990), features a bunch of evocative phrases — “unamplified meditation music,” “ghosts, reincarnation and death” — that could be used to describe the instrumental, ambient home recordings that band mastermind Warren Defever, 51, made between the ages of 10 and 17. The terms were also part of the press release for the band’s 2014 rock opera, Tecuciztecatl.
But the line in the video and press release that best describes His Name Is Alive’s approach to music is “secret language and mythology.” Defever has been toying with both since the band’s debut album, Livonia, was released on the massively influential U.K. label 4AD in 1990.
“[4AD] definitely had a mysterious reputation,” Defever, 51, says via email. “The album covers rarely included photos of the band, they released a lot of weird music, and some of their most popular bands — Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance — mostly sang in made-up languages. I think we were super-normal and suburban by comparison. We had songs called ‘What Are You Wearing Tomorrow’ and ‘Are You Comin’ Down This Weekend,’ and we had songs about cornfields, not mysterious stuff.”
Though he denies cultivating an enigma, Defever is known for creating mysteries by playfully making things up when talking to the press — an article about him in the old Detroit-area publication Orbit was titled “His Name Is a Liar.” But the Hamtramck resident and Livonia native’s willful disregard for autobiography isn’t just a long-running dedication to pranks, or a defense mechanism — though perhaps it’s a bit of both. Defever wants listeners to bring their own interpretations to His Name Is Alive’s music, whether it’s the haunting ghost-folk of 1991’s Home Is in Your Head, the ultra-catchy pop of 2006’s Detrola, or 2016’s prog-rocking Patterns of Light.
The 60 wordless and impressionistic soundscapes on A Silver Thread (Home Recordings 1979-1990), available at hisnameisalive.bandcamp.com, is the perfect set of music for listeners to write their own His Name Is Alive headcanons.
The compilation collects three recent collections of what Defever calls “The Idiot Teenager’s” experimental bedroom juvenilia alongside a bonus disc of material and a booklet featuring liner notes by Detroit writer Mike McGonigal. Defever family photos are featured on the album covers and throughout the booklet, showing faded images of 1970s and ’80s suburban Michigan life: a group shot on a flowered couch set against a wood-paneled wall; playing in deep sidewalk snowbanks; a deer strapped to the roof of a car.
There’s a wistful sense of nostalgia with the home recordings project, but also a hint of melancholy that both mourns childhood and evinces a tension with it, maybe owing to Defever’s growing up as a sensitive, creative person in a typical suburban Michigan environment where such traits weren’t always welcome. When asked if that’s the case, Defever brushes off the idea.
“You are projecting,” he says. “The music is instrumental and is vague enough for people to hear what they want to hear in it; it’s fine. … I had suggested waterfalls, rainbows, and sunsets for album covers and instead the label started stalking my aunts’, uncles’, cousins’, and brothers’ Instagrams for embarrassing old family photos to use. Initially I thought it was a practical joke and that the combination of a pimply teenager on the album cover and poorly conceived teenage jams was going to end me.”
Ann Arbor native and Detroit musical polymath Shelley Salant was tasked to go through Defever’s multiple boxes of tapes, transferring them to a computer and listening to the hissy relics for interesting sections that Defever could then sort through, clean up, and reorder to make up the albums in A Silver Thread.
“I’ve kept these tapes in a grocery bag for years and years, and then later a cardboard box without a lid,” Defever says. “They weren’t in great shape. … I told [Salant] I kinda recalled that there might be 10 good ambient tracks buried deep in these hundreds of hours of terrible nonsense. … I needed someone who could listen and not judge me too harshly. … I owe her forever.”
Defever has long worked with creative women like Salant as part of His Name Is Alive. He’s employed multiple female vocalists to front the band over the past 30 years, as well as playing with a huge rotating cast of talented Detroit-area musicians.
But His Name Is Alive is entirely Defever’s esoteric vision: the cryptic beauty he projects into the world, and the fables and figments of how that comeliness comes to be.