It used to be that whenever guitarist Bryan Harvey and drummer Johnny Hott got onstage, people would wonder where the rest of the group was. After all, the two were billed as a band -- House of Freaks, to be exact -- and most bands rounded out guitar and drums with bass or keyboards.
"It does seem like the obvious thing, right?" says Harvey.
But the obvious thing never really appealed to these guys, which is one of two reasons House of Freaks wound up building its
What was the other?
"We couldn't find one, actually," Harvey says with a laugh.
House of Freaks, it turns out, started by accident six years ago in Richmond, Va., when Harvey and Hott wound up playing a show together at a local club. "Neither of us really wanted to put a band together," says Harvey, speaking over the phone during a press stop in New York. "In fact, we didn't even want to be playing together initially."
Things clicked, though, and the two quickly wound up with other bookings.
"What happened was, we had to roll pretty quickly as far as getting songs together," says Hott from another extension. "The whole time while we were looking for a bass player, we were still making gigs, doing them just with the two of us. We talked about different people, you know, but we never actually got somebody in."
"And then we realized that we were going to make more money as a two-piece," says Harvey.
"Yeah, and we thought it was fun that way," concludes Hott.
More to the point, that stripped-down sound was a lot closer to the music the two had looked to for inspiration. "We were listening to Lightnin' Hopkins, Fred McDowell and Robert Johnson, and thinking, 'Now, this Robert Johnson song is cooking, and it's just guitar -- maybe he's sort of tapping his foot and singing,' " says Harvey.
"That kind of says it all. So we really got into the starkness of that music. Just because you only have two instruments doesn't mean that you can't play great music."
Getting record companies to see it that way was another matter entirely, however. In 1986, Harvey and Hott moved House of Freaks to Los Angeles in hopes of getting signed; the two landed a deal, but hated L.A.
"Our stint in L.A. was positive as far as our sort of business end of it goes," says Harvey. "We needed to get a record deal, we needed to get management, we needed to take care of those things. But I think our music suffered, and that's why we had to come back home."
Staying out of the music business mainstream has let House of Freaks develop naturally, a process that explains the quirky, atmospheric sound of "Cakewalk," the band's third album. "We had a surprising amount of freedom on this," says Hott, who adds that the record company never bothered the band with questions about commerciality.
But a funny thing happened on the way to finishing "Cakewalk" -- the band's sound got bigger. So big, in fact, that the duo now tours as a quartet.
"We couldn't do what we were doing on record with just two people anymore," says Harvey. So the two added onto the House with ex-Long Ryder guitarist Steve McCarthy and former Silo bassist Bob Rupe.
"One fear I had was that we weren't going to be able to keep that element of the unexpected when we added two more people," adds Harvey. "But it's starting to happen."
House of Freaks
When: Sept. 28, 8 p.m.
Where: Hammerjacks, 1102 S. Howard St.