Every track on Lord Huron’s 2012 debut Lonesome Dreams took its title and lyrical inspiration from an anthology of old western adventure tales. George Ranger Johnson, a prolific, but relatively underappreciated writer, wrote 10 installments of his series between the ‘60s and ‘80s, with an eleventh incomplete work that never saw the light of day. Though Johnson does maintain a relatively sparse website, those interested in his writing will inevitably hit a brick wall in finding any of his out-of-print books, because Johnson does not actually exist.
Inspired by Kilgore Trout, the shapeshifting sci-fi writer referenced throughout Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, Johnson is but a piece of band founder Ben Schneider’s longstanding fascination with narrative world-building. When conceptualizing music videos for the various singles featured on Lonesome Dreams, Schneider and his bandmates Mark Berry (drums), Tom Renaud (guitar) and Miguel Briseno (bass) went so far as to re-enact the adventures described in Johnson’s stories. Naturally, Schneider played the role of the recurring protagonist “Lord Huron.”
“I really like when I work on something to have as much background and context as I can possibly have,” says Schneider in the backyard of his Mount Washington home located just outside downtown Los Angeles. “It helps me write the songs and and feel like it’s more fleshed out. The concepts are more real.” Providing listeners with several layers of meaning is key for Lord Huron. “I’ve always been drawn to stuff I can really inhabit and immerse myself in. We wanted to create projects that you engage on multiple levels. If you’re just interested in the music that’s totally cool. Just listen to the music. But if you’re interested in getting into some of the ephemera that we create around it, there’s this whole sort of world you can dive into. I’ve always sort of appreciated storytelling and these days it’s really easy to craft a very rich world across multiple media.”
Lord Huron is once again exploring this interconnectivity of art forms on their sophomore LP, Strange Trails. The 14-track album was recorded at Whispering Pines, a formerly abandoned studio Schneider and his bandmates renovated themselves last year. Located down an alleyway behind an auto shop in L.A.’s West Adams neighborhood, the space was discovered by the group after answering a Craigslist ad. Left unused for over 20 years, the place was in significant disrepair. But after stripping out a lot of old gear, cabling, and other equipment, the fixer-upper now functions as a legitimate clubhouse for recording, rehearsals and upcoming in-house performances.
No longer faced with the time-constrained restrictions that come with renting someone else’s space on a per diem basis, Schneider says recording lent itself to more experimentation. “It felt a little more natural,” he says. “We were able to live with the material a little bit more and I think that tightened up the songwriting and the arrangements.” The extra time also allowed Schneider to expand on the setting and tenor that was established with the group’s first record. Whereas Lonesome Dreams glided exclusively on a frontier, man-with-no-name romanticism, Strange Trails takes that same pulp aesthetic and broadens its scope. Here Lord Huron veers narratives into weirder, darker places such as vintage sci-fi or horror. From being confronted by a “visitor…from the great beyond” on “Until the Night Turns,” to a living corpse that refuses to buried in “Dead Man’s Hand,” to a cursed spirit on a path of vengeance and death in “The World Ender,” the band’s campfire cast of characters all endure more otherworldly journeys.
Schneider says horror genre comics such as Alan Moore’s run of Swamp Thing and the work of Charles Burns—best known for the graphic novel Black Hole—were a large influence on this tonal shift. “On the road touring I was reading a lot of comics. When we were in a new town I would go to the record store and the comic store and I’d come back with a couple things.” As the rollout for Strange Trails kicks into gear, Schneider has already begun building the album’s multi-media world around this comic book inspiration. The artwork for their most recent single, “The World Ender,” consists of an aged comic book cover starring a protagonist decked out with a Ghost Rider skull and leather jacket. Taking things even further, Schneider says he plans to publish his own limited comic series, co-written with his sister, featuring characters and connective threads born out of certain songs. With his own chapter-based music videos and short films also in the works, Schneider says, “We’ll see what else we come up with. We started this whole other world with Strange Trails that revolves around the stories in these songs.”
As Schneider and his band continue to push the boundaries of an album’s visual element beyond a well-crafted cover sleeve, the focus of Lord Huron always returns to the music and its ability to transport audiences somewhere else—like any good tale should. “For me it’s more about communicating a story,” Schneider says. “If it’s not a literal story, some sort of mood and vibe which communicates a narrative in its own way. That’s the main thing I’m trying to do: communicate a narrative that comes in varying degrees of storytelling.”