Morgan Henderson Is Your Favorite Band’s Secret Weapon

You might not know his name, but you know his music. Morgan Henderson is the unsung muse, sounding board and taskmaster of Fleet Foxes and the Cave Singers. At 35 years old, Henderson is a 20-year veteran of the Seattle music scene. The self-taught multi-instrumentalist took his first major steps playing bass in with fabled post-hardcore band the Blood Brothers, which later splintered into Past Lives, in which Henderson played guitar. In the late ’00s he befriended Robin Pecknold and helped shape Fleet Foxes’ 2011 masterpiece Helplessness Blues, playing violin and bass clarinet along with electric and upright bass. Last year around this time he became the newest member of the Cave Singers, joining for the recording of their open-road-rock album Naomi. He’s an immensely talented and remarkably humble guy who’s been a part of some major moments in Seattle music history. Ahead of the Cave Singers show at the Neptune on Saturday, Nov. 30, we talked to Henderson about the nature of collaboration, improvisation, the Walkmen and going solo. 

City Arts: You’re the common thread between three major bands to come out of Seattle over the last 10 years. What connects the Blood Brothers to Fleet Foxes to the Cave Singers?

Morgan Henderson: Joining the Foxes or joining the Cave Singers were two completely different scenarios that can’t be approached the same way. And certainly a lot different than joining the Blood Brothers, which was a band—five people who were equal in their banging around in the music.

They started [Blood Brothers] without me. And there was another guy, Devin, who played bass. They were a five-piece. Then Devin left. I knew them at the time; Seattle was such a small scene you know every band. And they knew I didn’t have a band anymore so they asked me to play bass.

So you never had to ask to join these bands?
I’ve been really fortunate to never have to ask to join.

You’ve been recruited.
Yeah. In the case of the Fleet Foxes, Robin’s girlfriend and my girlfriend worked together and were friends. They thought Robin and I were similar people and wanted to see what would happen if we hung out. We wound up loving each other. It was in-between records, early to mid-period of writing Helplessness, when Robin and I started hanging out. It was a really natural thing. All the bands I’ve ever been have been extremely natural things.

It’s funny—recently some people have asked me to work on records and that’s been difficult. I worked on this record with [Hamilton Leithauser], the singer from the Walkmen. He has a solo record coming out. Me and Richard Swift on drums and Paul the guitarist from the Walkmen. And doing that, all of a sudden it felt like I was in the music business. I knew the Walkmen because Fleet Foxes toured together with them, but setting how much money to charge, stuff like that, I never had to do. So far I’ve been asked to join bands and avoided being in the business side of the music business. I don’t have a manger. It’s all very personal.

And how about the Cave Singers? 
I’ve known Derek [Fudesco, guitarist] for a long time. Murder City Devils really championed the Blood Brothers and invited us to play shows with them as they got bigger. That was a huge boost of confidence; they were the biggest band we knew in Seattle at the time. So I’ve known Derek forever.

And they wanted to augment their sound with bass?
On No Witch, the album before Naomi, they had me play upright on two songs. That was the first little toe-step into their world. They must’ve felt it was time to try something new. 

They’ve evolved with each album. 
They have a songwriting style but they’re interested where they could go with that. We’re very unafraid to have somebody—me—suggest and play bass lines. They wanted bass lines, not something that felt like the foot pedal Derek uses. They want the bass to have strength and weight to it. I hadn’t played electric bass in a band since the Blood Brothers, five or six years, and I really missed it. It was a confluence of a lot of positive things. 

Besides instrumentation, what kind of attitude do you bring to these collaborations?
There are certain things I’m a stickler for. So making Naomi I was a bit of a intonation cop and time cop. If something felt out of tune or weird rhythmically I would be on top of it. That stuff really sticks out to me.

When I look back to the Blood Brothers experience, we were so young. And we practiced a lot. Once it became our livelihood, we’d practice five days a week. Nobody told us too but that’s what we did. And that band existed 10 years, a large period of time, now I’m in that headspace of not being lazy. I don’t know if that’s perceived about me or not, but that’s something I’m sure I brought.

But there’s no aesthetic or thematic thread you see between those bands?
Not really. With Foxes, Robin writes those songs. The role for me was not to be intonation cop or time cop. It wasn’t to be a gateway. I was there to give my ideas and feedback and when giving an idea a try I do my best. It was so different from the Blood Brothers because I served someone else’s ideas the best I could. Which is different from being in a band where it’s more like the best idea goes forward, whoever it comes from. But when it comes and clicks everyone feels it and you move on. It’s an unspoken thing, at least in the Blood Brothers. In the Foxes’ case Robin was looking for ideas and he might have people play things. He had to hear things put together and then he’d know if it was right or wrong when it was played. And I understand that process because I’ve made music of my own on my end. In your head you don’t know if it’s right or wrong until someone plays it for you, like, that wasn’t the right idea, let’s move on.

With the Cave Singers album, it was back to the Blood brothers thing where we just sort of put ideas forward and you’d feel one click into place. We rehearsed the songs together more so than with Helplessness.

Do you have a preference? 
I like a combination of the two. There are things that will happen, with a rhythm section especially, where were just playing in a rehearsal that won’t happen in a studio setting. As comfortable as you might make a studio, it’s not as comfortable as just messing around. That kind of information from playing songs live and playing in your rehearsal space is valuable. But I like being in the studio and getting macro with it, where you can see the big picture more clearly.

Naomi is the Cave Singers’ most accessible album. It makes me think of Tom Petty.
I didn’t think about Tom Petty but I think that seems right. I watched that Tom Petty documentary and I really love Tom Petty now. Not that I didn’t like him before, but seeing the Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ story endeared me to their music even more.

They’re from Gainesville, which I’ve been to many times, which is not a place that I think is great. Seattle had that at one point—it was not a cool city back in the day. Gainesville is not about music, it’s about sports. The Gators are what you run up against when you come through town.

But I think Naomi has that Tom Petty-ish lightness and groove. That’s something I was kinda of conscious of. All the songs, even the sparser ones, have a groove. Very groovy. In hindsight, once we started practicing their older material, I realized the record doesn’t have the sparseness of their older stuff.

Sparseness is hard to achieve when you’re adding members. 
The approach of adding bass to it and it just came out so quickly and naturally that I never got to the intellectual part. It was so immediate, all the bass lines were really first reactions. And there were things I’d change a little, but most of what you hear on that record bass-wise was what initially came out of my hands right away.

Simple, not easy. Natural.
Those were my exact words. It was so easy to do. But not like it was like, whatever! A throwaway. But that it was so easy I didn’t have to think about it. It gives it more force. And then certainly because I play flute it gives an opportunity to add an instrument that hasn’t been there before at all. So we can do some sparser material where I don’t play bass, I just play flute. I like doing that, it seems to do something for those older songs.

So what instruments do you play?
I practice three or four. The upright, the bass, clarinets and the flute. I don’t practice electric bass. Even though electric an upright are both basses they’re not the same instrument. But in the Foxes I had to play the violin, too, which I don’t like. 

So that bass clarinet solo on “The Shrine/An Argument” from Helplessness… Where was the intonation cop on that? I take it it’s in tune but there’s no melody there.
No, that was more about a texture and an energy than about playing a line.

Tell me about that.
I recorded all my stuff that record at the space in Fremont. It used to be Jack Endino’s space, Reciprocal, where Bleach was recorded. That building has changed hands a bunch and during Helplessness Robin had it, Fleet Foxes had it.

There was no preparation for that [solo]. Robin wasn’t like, At some point were gonna do this… which was good. I listen to a fair amount of free jazz and out and improv music, so that technique wasn’t foreign to me. But basically I was just doing bass and doing flute and then Robin was like, I want you to… I wish I could remember his words, but he was like, I want you to fill this space. And it was robin, [producer] Phil [Ek] and myself in the space and they hit record and I just went for it.

It was spontaneous?
I didn’t have time to think about what I was gonna do. I don’t know how intentional that was. I think I recorded it three times. The fist time I did it for level-setting. Then I did it two more times, and because the mic was a stereo mic, I walked from one side of the mic to the other twice. So you have this panning in it but it’s because I walked through the room. And that was it.

It was one of the proudest artistic moments for me. I’m really happy to be a part of that because while that record is artistically beyond anything that Robin had written before, that was a point that brought in something so unfamiliar in the building blocks of sounds. But it works really well in the context of the lyrics and the mode of the song. It’s just a moment.

That record was fueled off Clif bars, pho and coffee. We’d sit that space, go to Fred Meyer, get Clif bars, eat them, go to Than Bros in Ballard, get coffee and it would just be that way all day long. It was probably the unhealthiest period. ‘ just sit in that space before working on any of that material and make these fake soundtrack parts. And occasionally he’d play me parts of what would become songs, and it was amazing to sit there and have this person play these songs to you.

Are you in touch with Robin these days?
Yeah. He lives in New York and I was out there a few weeks ago. He’s doing great. I had a hard time imagining him there. Everywhere we’ve hung out or been or talked about going has all been wilderness, or at least a more natural setting than concrete jungle.

He’s testing his boundaries.
I think he’s taking this opportunity to be different places and see different things. That’s inspiring to me. Most people’s inclination is to finish one record and get to work on the next one and not allow time in between to have a life or change perspective. That might not be the whole picture of what he’s after but I imagine there’s some amount of pressure to start making another thing. I can say for some of the groups I’ve been in, you blink and it’s 10 years later and you’re whole life has been about making records and touring. Some people should take some time. That allows for a wider gap in sound between records. You can only get so far in time record to record.

How about you? Are you gonna release any solo material in the near future?
I have a ton of material on my hard drive collecting dust. It gets hard when I have to go work on someone else’s record because there’s only so much time in the day. These days I do a lot of running, that’s another focus for me. There’s only so much time.

I have a Soundcloud and for awhile I would finish a song and put it on Soundcloud and only handful of people would hear it, but mentally I need to purge it. It’ll just sit there otherwise. Stuff I’ve had banging around for years that I finally finish. Sometimes you get it all in a day. I just try to get it out the door. I’m such a thinker that I’ll just sit on it and go onto something else,  some other record.

I keep thinking, What is it that I’m doing? [Laughs] What is it that I’m doing? I realize I’m only 35. But thinking about records I’ve made, like, what was I doing? Not that I have to stick to a course. But am I just a journeyman musician who’s gonna do these records, but what am I waiting for? What’s gonna be the point when I release something that represents just me? Those questions are bouncing around.

Photo courtesy Nikki Benson.