FABULOUS FOUR. Hausu gathers for a rare moment of silence before going onstage at Portland’s MusicFest NW. Photos by Leah Nash
Alex Maguire ’14 on guitar
Carl Hedman ’13 on bass,
Ben Friars-Funkhouser on guitar and vocals
Santi Leyba ’14 on drums
One of the most entertaining aspects of a Hausu concert is watching what the band does to its audience. During a Portland show last year, a middle-aged man in wingtips began fist pumping so hard it looked like he was menacing the heavens. After a gig at a grimy downtown dive bar, a famously jaded bartender came backstage to give the band a hug. Countless knots of hipsters have begun a Hausu performance with their arms crossed, backs stiff, resolved to hold out against the twitching in their legs. They are all dancing by the end.
But the best place to hear Hausu play has got to be the student union. At first the atmosphere is comfortable. After all, when Carl Hedman ’13, Ben Friars-Funkhouser ’14, Alex Maguire ’14, and Santiago Leyba ’14 aren’t Hausu, they are Reedies—they’ve shared classes in art history and economics with half the audience. But when Ben and Alex begin to arpeggiate their dueling guitar lines, when Carl’s bass line rolls in like distant thunder, when Santi crashes down on the cymbals, and Ben’s baritone voice booms, something special happens. Reedies dance, cheer, and pump their fists in triumph. They know—like no other audience—how hard Hausu has worked to craft their intricate brand of rock music. And they are proud that, with the release of Hausu’s debut album Total, all that hard work is finally paying off.
Released in June by Hardly Art records (a subsidiary of the infamous Sub Pop label), Total has met with critical acclaim. Portland Mercury called it “one of the finest debut records in recent memory.” The website Allmusic described the album as “infectious,” and wrote that its single, “Leaning Mess,” felt like a “distant classic.” Over the summer, Hausu went on a six-week, cross-country tour from Portland to New York City to Los Angeles and back.
The band defies easy classification. The term “postpunk” gets thrown around often. So do comparisons to ’90s alt-rock icons Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. On their website, the band itself pokes fun at efforts to categorize them, labeling themselves a “Rock Music Performance Group.” Still, Hausu’s music is puzzlingly diverse, stretching the time-tested formula of two guitars, a singer, bass, and drums from gorgeous harmonies to penetrating dissonance, often in the same song. Album lead “Chrysanthemum” moves from dream-pop lush, all hush vocals and muted, softly plucked guitars, to a shockingly upbeat power-pop refrain, while on “Tetsuo,” the drums and bass drop away and only a sparse guitar line frames Ben’s drone vocals. “What’s next?” he sings, elongating the phrase out and repeating it over and over until it collapses into itself. “Bleak,” the album closer, is built around a guitar riff so muscular and anthemic that, when it comes on in the car, you can’t help but pull over and bob your head violently until it ends.
Total is an unlikely album. Then again, Hausu is an unlikely band—brought together because of a serendipitous meeting in 2010. Ben was a prospective student visiting campus and ran into Santi, who had started playing the drums earlier that year. Ben’s high school band, Herr Jazz, was turning heads in the indie-rock world at the time and the two hit it off. When Ben arrived at Reed that fall they started playing together, enlisting Alex, also a freshman, to play bass. Their first show together was at a Reed house in the Sellwood neighbourhood, nicknamed “Suburbia” for its brown shag carpeting and yellow wallpaper. Carl lived in Suburbia, and they borrowed his bass for the show. Soon they had recruited Carl, too, with Alex moving to guitar. The lineup was complete, but they were still experimenting, trying new sounds out on and with each other. The four boys weren’t a band yet. “There was no pressure to do anything,” Alex said. “We were freshmen, we had a lot of time on our hands, what’s a better way to fill time than by playing music?”
The band’s name stems from an incident that took place on Elk Rock, an island park in Milwaukie, Oregon. The bandmates had brought a generator out to the rocky island and were attempting to pirate a Wi-Fi signal in order to play an online game called Civilization VI. “After moving about, we were able to tap into a signal named ‘Construct Alpha: The Abyss,’ and quickly began playing,” Santi says. “One hour later, the signal shut off and our screens went black. Looking up at one another, startled by the deep darkness, we felt an intense connection. Then, the number series ‘639078’ appeared on each computer.” The students packed up their gear, headed back to Portland, and plugged the numbers into a friend’s cryptographic analysis spreadsheet. The word “Hausu” came out. “It seemed appropriate that such an event would lead us to our band’s name,” Santi continues. “After a quick Google search, we discovered that Hausu roughly corresponds to the pronunciation of the Japanese word ハウス, or ‘House’ in English.”
In some ways, it was the rigor of Reed’s curriculum that motivated them to buckle down. As Carl [economics], Santi [studio art], Alex [anthropology], and Ben [art history] delved deeper into their respective studies, they also got more serious about Hausu. It wasn’t easy. Ben often wrote his lyrics while brainstorming paper ideas, and band practices often had to be pushed deep into the night, when their classes and shifts at the Paradox Café were finally over. But the pressure of being both a student and a musician gave a new level of purpose to both. “Working as hard as I did on our music helped me figure out what I wanted out of my classes,” Santi said, “And success in the classroom gave me confidence as a musician.”
Reed also helped insulate Hausu from the uneven tides of contemporary popular music. In an era dominated by blog reviews and YouTube hits, promising young bands are often discovered and discarded in only a few months, before they work out their identity as a group. Hausu honed the songs on Total for almost three years, working through dozens of incarnations until they had exactly the sound they wanted.
Total was recorded last winter, at Yale Union center for contemporary art in southeast Portland. It was particularly difficult for the band members to make time for the recording—Carl was in the midst of the midwinter thesis rush, while Alex, Santi, and Ben were dealing with their junior quals—but they didn’t have much choice: Hausu had signed a contract with Hardly Art, and the label wanted to release their record by summer. The title Total is partly meant to symbolize the complicated relationship between the group members’ different identities. Total, the band’s artist statement reads, “serves to document the evolution of our experience, to be understood in spite of and indebted to our time in school.”
Hausu played Portland’s MusicfestNW in September and toured the East Coast in October, introducing new audiences to their music. When they get back, they can look forward to playing another gig in the SU to an audience that recognizes how hard they have worked as musicians—and as students.