Column 331: Big Harp: One Attempt at a Perfect Life
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Somewhere on a sun-baked highway in Southern California drives the Senseney family. Presumably in a mini-van.
Behind the wheel is father, Chris, navigating the straight-arrow route from their home in Los Angeles to Palm Springs. His wife, Stefanie Drootin-Senseney, leans over and adjusts a strap on the car seat that holds baby Twila, age 11 months, while brother Hank, who will be 3 in September, cranes his little neck toward the window, waiting for the giants to appear.
The giants in Hank’s world stand upright, one right next to the other, each with three heads that spin around a single eye, all facing the same direction like a row of sentries guarding the hilltops.
“Hank wanted to see the windmills that make electricity,” Chris said. “We found them, and he was happy at first, but he didn’t like it that we couldn’t go into the windmills.”
Golden family moments like this are one of the reasons the Senseneys moved to Los Angeles.
The story began three years ago in Omaha. Chris was the frontman to arty folk-rock band Baby Walrus, as well as a sideman in a handful of other acts including Art in Manila and Flowers Forever. Stefanie played bass in Saddle Creek Records band The Good Life as well as in her own project, Consafos.
“We’d seen each other around Omaha,” Chris said, “but we didn’t really know each other until the tour.” The tour was a joint road trip between Art in Manila and The Good Life. “It just kind of happened. We kind of hung out during the tour, now here we are with all these babies.”
Their move to Los Angeles was driven more by convenience than rock ‘n’ roll. Stephanie’s parents live out there, an eager pair of babysitters. Chris’ home in Valentine, Nebraska, also was an option, but “there’s not much of a music scene there,” Chris said.
Music wasn’t on his mind much at first, anyway. Perhaps out of a sense of duty or roll-playing tradition, Chris got fitted with a cubicle inside an LA advertising agency, where he joined the legions of Americans who toil behind a computer from 9 to 5. Still, he never quit writing music.
“It seemed to make more sense to at least make another record and put it out and tour on it and see what happens,” he said. And so, Chris and Stephanie created Big Harp, and fleshed out Chris’ simple story ballads, sung with a smoky, throaty yowl similar to Mr. T. Waits or Mr. R. Newman or Mr. D. Berman or Mr. S. Merritt. They got their friend, Pierre de Reeder of Rilo Kiley fame — whose daughter is around Hank’s age — to let them use his studio and record their songs over the course of three days.
They sent the recording around to some labels and got a few bites, but it was their old friends at Saddle Creek Records who took the bait. “There was some back and forth,” Chris said. “They wanted to make sure we were willing to tour and do other things bands do.”
And so, on Sept. 13 Saddle Creek Records will release the debut full length by Big Harp, but before that happens…
Somewhere on a sun-baked Midwestern highway drives the Senseney family headed to Omaha. Presumably in a mini-van.
Sharing the back seat with Hank and Twila is a drummer, and maybe one more band member, along with someone charged with looking after the kids when mom and dad are on stage. Just like their search for the windmill giants, touring is a family affair.
“We’ll try to have one of our moms along or try to find a friend who can come with us,” Chris said of the tour logistics. “We’re going to do whatever we can to make it work. It’s not the easiest thing to do with kids, it’s a little harder, but we can manage. The only concern is we’re going to have to make more stops along the way, and we’re not going to be sleeping on people’s floors. It’s going to be more of a production, but that’s okay. I think it’ll be fun.”
In some ways, Friday night’s show at The Slowdown is a return to the scene of the crime, though Stephanie has made trips back and forth between Omaha and L.A. to coordinate her new project, Omaha Girls Rock (omahagirlsrock.com), a much-needed organization focused on providing support for girls who want to try their hand at making rock music. Helping her is an army of the area’s best talent — members of Omaha’s tight-knit creative community who are more like an extended family, a type of family that doesn’t exist for them in L.A. It’s something that the Senseney’s have learned to live without.
“It’s different now, we have our own family,” Chris said. “Most of the creativity stuff happens at home. I’m doing this with my wife, someone who’s always around me. We have each other to work with; we have our own creative community.”
Life for the Senseney family seems, well, kind of perfect.
“I don’t know if it’s perfect,” Chris said, “but we’re all really happy where we are right now. We’re looking forward to getting the record out, hitting the road and bringing the kids along, and seeing if we can make it perfect.”
Big Harp plays with The Grisly Hand and Gus & Call Friday, July 8, at The Slowdown, 729 No. 14th St. The show starts at 9 p.m., tickets are $7. For more information, go to theslowdown.com.
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I first interviewed Kansas City self-proclaimed emo band The Get-Up Kids way back in 2002 when they were arguably at the height of their popularity (you can read that story here). Three years later the band called it quits after a decade in the business. A year after that, I interviewed then-former Get-Up Kid Rob Pope as a member of Merge Records band White Whale (read that one here). When asked if he still listens to his Get-Up Kids output, Pope said he hadn’t. “I’m sure I will at some point for novelty’s sake,” he said. “The last time I did listen to it, it took me back to when I was 18, which was cool. I still appreciate music I listened to when I was that old, but, really, do you listen to the music you listened to when you were 18?”
Well, Rob, now not only will you get to listen to it again, you’re getting to play it again, as the band has reunited with a new album released this past January called There Are Rules out on their own Quality Hill Records imprint (rather than old label, Vagrant). Now you, too, can relive those 18-year-old memories all over again tonight when The Get-Up Kids play at The Waiting Room with The Globes and Major Games. $19, 9 p.m.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.