Little Beirut on their Bush connection, Fear of Heaven, and the dream of playing puppet shows with Spinal Tap

Little Beirut, a rock/pop quartet hailing from Portland, Oregon, is breaking new ground with its new album, Fear of Heaven, due for release September 4. I recently got to chat with bassist John Hulcher and, contrary to the band’s provocative name, was met with an awesome down to earth attitude and witty sense of humor, and discovered why “Little Beirut: Not weirding you out since 2005” may very well be the band’s motto in the future.

Q: To start, how and when was Little Beirut born, and why did you choose that name?

A: To start, we were born just like any other band, having been dropped on a doorstep by a stork. Our stork was a serious rocker, though a real good dude. Edwin and Hamilton have been writing together since college. Their previous incarnation moved to Portland because they heard it was a great town, dragging twenty people and some cats and dogs with them.

Little Beirut is a nickname for Portland, famously given by George H.W. Bush. When he came through Portland, he was met with your typical progressive, in-your-face protesters; people with picket signs and tear gas, and a little parade. All these pranksters decided to swallow red, white, and blue food coloring and throw up the American flag on his motorcade. You can watch it on YouTube. It really freaked [President Bush] out and he called his son to tell him to “never go to Portland on a campaign. It’s like little Beirut.”  It gave us a good reputation.

Q: I read on your website that “everyone in Portland is living a minimum of three other lives.” What are your other two lives, and how doe they influence your music?

A: Firstly and foremostly – yes, we just made up that word – we’re all husbands and/or fathers, and we cherish our family lives. Tis by itself entails a lot. We only have a fraction of the time to spend together that other bands have to rehearse/write, so we’re accustomed to making every moment count.  Secondly, between the four of us, we’ve been in about a dozen bands and we know we’ve got something really good. Therefore, we scrutinize and develop every thought fully before we know we’re done.

Q: How is Fear of Heaven different than Permanent Kiss and High Dive?

A: While our previous albums were more about trying every idea and sneaking it in, we went into recording FOH with a “less is more” approach. Our attitude was to take away, rather than add the kitchen sink. We feel we ended up with a stronger, more direct record, staying true to our sound. We want to make new fans, while keeping our current fans happy. We hope FOH does that.

Q: What inspired this new album, and was there a certain message that Little Beirut was trying to convey through it?

A: While in no way a “concept” record, the title, Fear of Heaven, applies to most every song. We’ve always believed that most people fear true happiness, going out of their way to find misery. Some say that’s a product of having too much, or getting sick of a good thing you’ve got, but we’ve always gotten a laugh out of the idea that Heaven and Hell are totally separate good/evil things. But there are too many shades of gray and it helps to remember that these concepts are of human design. The human condition IS change, and any constant repels us. If any of us found true Heaven, would we know what to do with it?

Q: Did working with Jeff Saltzman change the direction that Fear of Heaven initially had? If so, how and what kind of light did he shed on the band?

A: Working with Jeff was a total blast. We had worked with him previously, though only in a mixing capacity, so working with him as a producer was completely new to us. He encouraged us to shed a lot of our preconceived notions. We feel the record is more focused and direct due to his professionalism and experience. While recording Cosmic Waitress, for instance, originally Edwin and Hamilton’s guitar lines were written to complement each other in a question/answer type of way. It was our favorite part of the song. When Jeff heard it, he immediately asked us to cut one of the guitar tracks altogether, which really pissed us off – at first. But upon hearing the playback and final mix, we got where he was coming from, and it’s a much better tune.

Q: Let’s talk about the video for Last Light – amazing. How did the concept develop, and was making a video everything that you thought it would be?

A: Thanks! We’re glad you liked it. We’re pleased with it as well. David Emmite directed the video and we must credit his immense visionary skills. The video, in our view, provides a tasty visual representation of the song. David and Hamilton had a nice flow in developing visuals. Hamilton would supply some lyrics each week, and David would crank out a few visual ideas. They batted back and forth, and it was quickly apparent that David would get on a roll. His visual style on previous projects included themes of decay, loneliness—many of the themes in the song. We thought it was a great fit.

In some ways, the video-making process was what we thought it would be: makeup, hair – for those of us who have hair; Edwin and Hamilton – wardrobe, etc. We had a lot of fun during the shoot. We’ve already begun kicking ideas around with David for our next video.

Q: Which song(s) off the album do you hold dearest and why?

A: As you’d expect, we’re really proud of the whole darn thing! That’s like asking a parent of four children to choose their favorite child. That said, True Swords is one of our favorites. We’ve always aimed to be that band that tries out ideas that push our comfort zone, yet staying true to our sound. One reviewer called it a prom theme – we love that! Even if it doesn’t feel natural at first, we try to make it our own. Bow and Quiver is just plain funky and fun to play, [and] it combines a lot different elements of our sound in a totally new way. That’s one tune that went through the arrangement ringer, and we love it!

Q: I read this quote from Hamilton Sims; “One of the things I tell people when I give them the album is to expect it to be a pretty big, fat pop record, because that’s something that stands out here. We’re not avant-garde, we’re not trying to weird you out.” Okay, so what else does Little Beirut want to be recognized as?

A: Here’s a candidate for our band motto: “Little Beirut: Not weirding you out since 2005.” Seriously, there are those bands that, throughout time, aren’t recognized for specifically this, or just because of that. Rather, these bands are recognized as “a great band” doing their own thing. You can’t explain “their own thing,” you just know you like it and you want them to keep doing it for as long as possible. What band does one compare Wilco to? What about Rush? What about The Smiths? In a perfect LB world, that’s how we hope we’re recognized. As we said before, we’re so busy with our separate lives, we’re not able to play out as much as we would like. But we’re a great live band, we put on a killer show, and we want to be known for that too.

Q: What does the future hold for Little Beirut?

A: More music to share for all, that’s for sure. And we’ll also be working with Davit Emmite on another video. And plenty of live shows to promote FOH including, clubs, house parties, arenas, and puppet shows with Spinal Tap.

If you’re in Portland on Saturday, September 4, join Little Beirut for their official CD release show at Secret Society! And for all the latest info on LB go to: www.littlebeirut.com

Permanent Kiss

High Dive