First, the girl. The story in the official press release (Herod calls it "the cartoon version" of what happened) is more romantic than wrenching: they date, they break up, he grabs his guitar and his four-track and holes up at a beach house where he swigs wine and pens odes to his lost love. The twist that adds an almost surreal air to the story is that the girl happens to be a public figure--Dawson's Creek actress and Hollywood "It" girl Michelle Williams.
Now, the business. After signing with an English label, the band goes on an odyssey that includes numerous lineup changes, hired and fired managers and no fewer than three recorded versions of the album. At one point, The Comas spend $30,000 to record what Herod indelicately describes as "a piece of shit" with a big-money producer at Sony Studios in New York. Discouraged, the band returns to Chapel Hill. After a moment of eureka in which Herod hears an old Comas single on WXYC, the band end up back where they started, recording in Richmond with soulmate Alan Weatherhead and releasing their excellent new CD on local Yep Roc Records.
Conductor--the result of all that pain and angst--is a breakup story (surprise!) vaguely disguised as a sci-fi fable. While Herod cloaks much of his real-life drama in metaphor, he seems to chronicle the downside of dating an actress on the scathing "Tonight on the WB": "I love it when you fall apart / you turn it into higher art" and "Your legs are so skinny / you're so rich with meaning." Sonically, Conductor takes the gentle slowcore of The Comas' early days and the loop-driven pop of A Def Needle in Tomorrow and steers it toward a more aggressive, fuzzed-out sound. The CD comes with a bonus DVD, an animated film by Brent Bonacorso featuring both Herod and Williams.
Herod was interviewed via cell phone from his new hometown of Brooklyn while he drank coffee, did his laundry and nearly drove the wrong way down a one-way street.
Independent: What really happened at Wrightsville Beach?
Herod: I was living with my girlfriend during the winter but she had been away for about six weeks. I was just kind of staying in her house and we had already decided to break up. I had my four-track. It was just a really creepy, sad time. I love how Wrightsville gets in the winter--it's really deserted and sleepy--and while I was trying to figure out what to do next, I wrote all these songs.
If this is a breakup record, then I feel like I have to ask you about the girl. The first question is this: Does she really have skinny legs?
(Laughs.) Oh, god. Yes, she has totally skinny legs. She's got little bird legs.
Is it hard for you when people ask for details on the relationship or the breakup? I mean, it's none of their business, but in a way you've opened yourself up to the scrutiny.
I don't really go into details. People date and they break up. Honestly, for me this was like the big one. I was head over heels for this girl for a long time to the point of ridiculousness. It kind of diverted my whole trajectory as far as music and my life and everything. I basically was in la-la land for about two years.
What's funny is that these songs were written throughout our being together. It was stuff I could see coming--problems--and then a couple songs came after we broke up. The breakup had been coming for about a year. It was us trying to hang on.
We're still friends and I love her but we've moved on. Now when I play the songs, there's a little bit of bitterness there still. They've all kind of taken on a new meaning for me. There's a new sort of ironic tone to them and I'm really enjoying singing and playing them more than ever.
Is it sort of empowering to play them now as you get more distance?
It really is. I'm seeing all these different ways to look at the songs that are more ironic than sincere.
How did the Conductor movie come about?
In order to sequence the record, I hashed out this simple story about a cartoony, Mickey Mousey, little scientist-guy falling in love with the moon, and then having it turn into an obsession and having it kind of destroy his life. It wasn't really a concept record or anything to begin with, except for the broken relationship theme that runs throughout. I called my friend Brent, who had animated our song "Tiger in the Tower," and asked him if he would be into animating an entire record. He said, "I've always wanted to do that!"
It was surprising to me that Michelle actually appears in the movie.
I think that's one of the most beautiful details about the whole thing. She was always a fan of the music and she'd always talked about wanting to be a part of a video or film project. And I thought I should definitely milk this for what's it worth! (Laughs.)
The Chapel Hill music community is a long way from the New York/L.A. movie "community." What kind of insights into the world of Hollywood did you get?
I don't know. It's such a big, broad thing to talk shit about, but my experience and my perspective on it was that it's an ugly scene altogether. I definitely saw a whole lot of it and I had some crazy adventures, but most of it left me with a pretty sour taste in my mouth. I'm not saying I'm some kind of down-home, Southern, sincere kind of guy, but I've definitely come across more pretentious fucks in the last couple years than I would have otherwise.
How much of this whole experience--the writing, recording, filming and now the scrutiny--has been therapy and how much has been pure agony?
It's been 100 percent therapy. I knew the Michelle thing was gonna be a big deal and I was a little worried that it would be a focal point. But the fact is that's what happened--that is my life--and that's what this record is about. I've come to terms with that.
A couple of the interviews I've done have been awesome and really therapeutic. I'm definitely nearing a time when I wanna not talk about it anymore. But the best part has been seeing the response to the music and getting these amazing, sincere compliments both from people that I know and people I don't know. I took a miserable, heartbreaking experience and turned it into a piece of art that some people are truly enjoying and getting something out of. There's nothing better that I've ever experienced in the way of therapy or satisfaction in my life. It's great.
A new-look Comas lineup--which Herod calls "by far the most fun, rocking, exciting version yet"--celebrates the release of Conductor with a show at Cat's Cradle on Saturday, Oct. 23.