Interview with Ian Henderson (Phénolhouse)
Phenolhouse is one of those groups that you would call a “hidden wonder”. Trained in Moscow by the Canadian-born singer and guitarist, Ian Henderson’s Phenolhouse has been playing for seven years now. Admittedly, it is a group which turns constantly. Henderson emphasizes that as workers, all of their energy is spent rehearsing, recording, and then broadcasting their music digitally on Bandcamp.
Their latest album, Unheard of, seen, combines a punk-rock mentality with geometric minimalism. Inspired by SST Records’ debut list, Phenolhouse takes the punk rock energy of that era, constantly experimenting with additional elements – more melodic and dissonant, avant-garde or inspired by country music.
Louder Than War chats with guitarist and founder of Phenolhouse, Ian Henderson, about his life in Russia, the chemistry within the band, the ongoing writing process, the language and future plans.
LTW: First of all, how did you get to Russia?
Ian: I started visiting Russia in the 2000s as a Canadian student. I was studying international relations and Russian was my preferred language. First, I lived in Tver. Then I traveled for a while. I did an internship in Moscow and then started working here.
By the time you started Phenolhouse you had been living in Russia for a few years. How has this cultural difference and diversity affected you creatively?
This is an interesting question. It may not be so much a cultural difference as the pace of life in Moscow that gets things done relatively quickly for us (the pace of life is much faster than in Canada). I must say that I was lucky to find players like Nikita Zubov (drums) and Ivan Garbuz (bass) who are open to various ideas. In addition, as we are all workers, we are permanently established in Moscow. This means that we are not making new albums or EPs. On the contrary, once a new work is published, we are already working on brand new ideas.
But if the process is underway, how do you generally sort the ideas?
I think our process is pretty straightforward… I come up with a few riffs or chord progressions which I think work well. Then we scramble it – fast, slow, how many times per riff, etc. Earlier, I think it was more conceptual – “I want a song that should sound exactly like that”. But now we get the basic ideas to practice and I could refine them over the course of a few weeks. As for a “vibe” or “vibe”, it could be from having new strings on the guitar or practicing in another rehearsal room. While recording, of course, finding a mood and a groove is essential. Usually it can take a while, like a goldfish getting used to a new bowl. However, we try to filter out the ideas and use the ones we are most passionate about. There are hours of jams and incomplete songs.
There are quite a few songs on the new album that focus on rehearsal. structures, like Song For Rodion. Is it something you want to fit into your music or just where the song takes you?
Probably both. Ultimately my interest is what suits the song best… it could be several different parts or a lot of repetitions, or both. One thing I really enjoy doing now is rehearsing parts with varying dynamics; louder / quieter, individual chords / notes etc. It also opens things up for the rhythm section, I think.
Your previous eponymous LP was released in May 2020. Then you released Red Eyes Session No.1 and now Unheard, Seen. Having this kind of non-stop process, what usually causes you to decide that “this will be an LP or an EP”?
Well, The Red Eyes EP was an experience we recorded at our rehearsal venue where we demoed a bunch of songs I wrote during the Covid-19 quarantine. We took the top three songs and made a quick EP in the old school hardcore sense. Then we continued for a while, refining the remaining material or writing new songs. There wasn’t a lot of live activity so we could focus on writing most of the time.
Being a band that doesn’t tour constantly and perform live from time to time, do you think that gives you a new perspective on things? In the end, not all songs could be repeated the way they were recorded. But also, sometimes the reaction of the audience affects the way the material is presented.
Well, I would never rule out filming in our future, whether in Russia, Europe or even North America. Playing that stuff to different groups of people in different places would be a great experience. As far as reinterpreting the songs goes, I think it’s kind of an organic process for us.
Since we record most of the instrumentation live, with no click tracks, we don’t get locked into a particular way of making songs. Some songs have evolved in a relatively short period of time. For example, Four Choirs of our last album sounds different each time we play it, even if it repeats the same four chords.
Four Choirs is an interesting topic to discuss. It seems to me that within the same degree of organic of the internal band, your sound on the previous LP is much more angular and contrasting compared to Unheard, Seen.
Yes. I think the new one is a bit more “traditional” in the sense of songwriting. No more actual choruses and hooks. Or simpler arrangements.
What caused this change?
I think it’s more or less natural. I can’t speak for Nikita or Vanya, but I feel more comfortable and confident with applying more melodic elements without being too cliché.
For a lot of hardcore artists, this becomes quite a task. It took a while for Minutemen to go from The Punch Line to Double Nickels On The Dime – to strike a balance between melody, rhythm and a certain degree of lyricism. In this sense, it would make sense to ask yourself what language do you use in the group?
We communicate in Russian. The lyrics are in English though. I think the balance is struck by trying new things while being democratic enough if something doesn’t work. As for how the group develops, it comes from getting used to each person’s individual playing style and rhythms more, while also trying to expand and try new things.
What first drew you to play together?
Well, this is the band’s second line-up. The first line-up loosely formed in 2014 as a unique experimental powerviolence-noise. We did the first division with Bolo from Petersburg and Zhenya, the lead drummer, decided to focus on his other group. So after a while we found Nikita who had a completely different style and feel so the music immediately changed. It was also around this time that I was starting to get tired of playing with distortion tones and disillusioning a bit with a lot of extreme music. We changed the styles, made it faster, more jazzy, cleaner and more surfer, and clearly under the influence of the early LP Minutemen. Then Ivan, the first guitarist / bassist, left and Ivan Garbuz joined us in 2016. It’s training and it’s pretty much the second phase of the band since then.
Your lyrical complexity varies from song to song. Literally. How much of this change has been made to the melodies within Unhead. Seen affect you at the lyrical level?
I think I was trying to find a balance for each song, doing the half-spoken / calm scream thing but with a more pop approach. I used to listen to a lot of ’50s and’ 60s country (Ernest Tubb, pre-outlaw Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, etc.), and I think some of those vocal assignments crept into some songs.
Was it difficult to integrate these tones into the sound and some organic elements did you have a band at that time?
Yeah it could be. This is where working with a good sound engineer like Stas Baranov, who recorded most of our stuff, can really help. He understands what we’re looking for and knows how to coax the right feeling when I’m singing. Obviously I’m not a singer by training and voxes aren’t to everyone’s liking, so sometimes it’s good to have that support or that clever advice.
Stas is someone who’s been working with you for a while. What do you think the addition of Colin Marston, who did the mastering for Unheard, Seen brought to the sound of Phenolhouse?
It seems richer and deeper. Colin worked on my friend’s album, Antediluvian’s Divine Punishment, and it gives bands a lot of options to achieve optimal sound that matches their vision. And he’s extremely professional and has a broad understanding of music.
What should we expect from you?
Probably more music in the near future. Some fast others slow.
Interview by Dan Volohov. Find here the archives of its author.
Photo credit: Dasha Pocherk