The Western motif that surrounded Lord Huron's debut record Lonesome Dreams is gone, replaced by a collection of strange, mysterious characters that inhabit songs inspired by vintage pulp fiction.
"Since the beginning, I conceived this new record as sort of an anthology of weird fiction, a collection of stories that kind of overlap and intertwine," says the band's songwriter and guitarist, Ben Schneider. "It's really about contemplating the end of the world. It's throughout the record, sometimes in some more surprising ways."
With its cover boldly promising "14 Songs from the Unknown," Strange Trails, released in April, is a major step forward for Lord Huron, a bigger, darker and more captivating album.
The characters Schneider places at the core of his songs are both flawed and driven: "Fool For Love" tells the story of a rockabilly singer meeting his fateful end, with its Bo Diddley beat used as a musical shorthand to push listeners into the world of the song. "The World Ender," features a fittingly dark surf guitar, tells the story of a man who comes back from the grave for revenge.
"A lot of what the record is about is not being afraid to face the dark side of everything. That can seem kind of a dangerous thing to do or a scary thing or a depressing thing," Schneider says. "But for me that's a really healthy part of life, to be able to take those things and confront them honestly and sort look into the void and see what you find."
Where Lonesome Dreams was "based" on the purported novels of fictitious author George Ranger Johnson (who, according to the website Schneider set up to flesh out the backstory, has retired to Tucson), Strange Trails is made of stories that are more an anthology than a series of stories. Yet despite his predilection for writing songs based around made up characters and stories, Schneider doesn't rely on a particular process for songwriting.
"There's no set way that stuff happens for me. Occasionally there will be a lyric or a melody or just an idea of a story or a character, but it can come any number of ways," he says. "With this one, I tried to imagine them as pieces of a whole. I was writing most of them concurrently. Maybe I'd think one was finished and then discover something in another song that would inform what I'd already done. So I let them play with each other. I think it's important to not get too locked into at and let it change."
To begin working on the album, Lord Huron set up its own headquarters, finding an old shuttered recording studio in Los Angeles, southwest of downtown in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods. The studio was built sometime in the 1960s and used into the mid 1990s, but the band hasn't yet been able to learn much more about its history.
"Whoever owned it, we don't know if they died or moved on or what, but it was just sitting there," Schneider says. "It has a very haunted feeling there and that was just right for what we're trying to do. It pushed us even further down that path."
The band named its new spot Whispering Pines and began transforming the space into as much of a clubhouse as a recording studio.
"One thing that we really wanted to do was to have a place to work, at our own pace and experiment and explore and let things unfold naturally," Schneider says. "Like how I write songs, creating this world while I work on it, we could just completely take over the space. We stripped out the old stuff and just moved in there for six months to work on the record. It's really great—we could work whenever we wanted to."
The ability to work at their own pace, without the pressure of having to always watch the clock in a studio for hire, was both a big relief and a source of inspiration for Lord Huron.
"We don't let the pressure get to us. We make what we want to make and hope for the best," Schneider says. "It's never healthy to get too in your head or concerned with what people are going to think."
And the vintage atmosphere got under the band's skin, finding its way onto the record, especially in "Fool for Love."
"I was thinking a lot about those traditional golden-age country songs and the stories you hear in those, tragic and heartbreaking," he says. "But also there's an element of humor to it too, this fool who puts himself in this terrible situation. That one set out with the idea of the type of story I wanted to tell. I crafted the music to support that, to recall some of those older tunes that have similar themes."
That idea gets at the essence of why Schneider's songs come from the pen of a long-forgotten author (and maybe George Ranger Johnson will return to the Lord Huron universe at some point), or making theatrical, narrative-driven music video or how the album cover is designed to look like a dime-store novel.
"There are all these shorthand ways to suggest things without having to be completely literal," he says. "That has a lot to do with how we do the artwork too. A song is a very economical form of storytelling and you can only get so much in there. Our thinking is 'Why not share this background and this visual part we're developing?' It's not something we want to jam down anybody's throat. It's there for you to engage with if you're so inclined."
Creating a world behind the songs that the listener can also inhabit extends to the live performance, though it's still very much a DIY operation.
"You can set people down a path or point them in the direction that helps create the vibe that colors the way you hear the music," Schneider says. "We try to incorporate what we can visually. This time around we'll have some very cool things on stage. Hopefully it makes the world more rich to have this visual element to augment the music."