Henry Miller Sextet was a rock band formed in Chicago, Illinois, later based in San Francisco, California, and active from 1999-2007. The band was established by and is composed of vocalist and guitarist Christian Adams, bassist and vocalist Chris Lanier, and drummer Matthew Tucker.
The band recorded and released three albums and three EPs during its seven-year existence, all of which were self-produced. Its membership went through several changes between 1999 and 2005, returning to the original line-up for 2005-07, to record and release a final EP, Swan Song, before amicably disbanding.
Since the release of the band’s debut album Start the Insanity Now in October 1999, Henry Miller Sextet became known for its musicianship, complex compositions, and eclectic lyrical motifs drawing heavily on punk, progressive, and mundane imagery.
HMS’s music style varied over the years, but remained fixed in a unique form of progressive rock.
The band has been cited as an influence by absolutely nobody.
The band played an estimated 100 shows, including several West Coast mini-tours (2001, 2002, 2005).
Origin and formation: The Penalty Side Project
Henry Miller Sextet took root in Chicago in late 1998, stemming from a long-running but nearly secret side project by Adams and Tucker.
The duo was “unknown” at the time as Penalty (aka Penalty Bros.), and was revived during an unexpected period of Golden Tones’ inactivity.
“At that point, Matt and I had played together non-stop for over ten years, ” Adams told Black Sunshine’s senior correspondent Temerity Smith-Flax.
“We spent a lot of time in the practice space or the garage, just the two of us, hashing out arrangements or simply playing off the tops of our heads. It didn’t happen all that often, but whenever a practice was canceled, or one of the guys failed to appear, we’d say, ‘Fuck it—Penalty…’ To us, me and Matt, not being able to play or practice really was a penalty. We took that shit personally, you know?”
Penalty ‘practices’ were usually two 45-minute improvisations with a 15-minute break. “We rarely discussed what we were going to play,” Tucker explained. “I would just follow Christian. Sometimes he’d hear me warming up and say, ‘Oh, I like that—play that.’ From there all bets were off.”
Adams described the evolution of Penalty. “In the early days, we’d work on the arrangements of whatever Brain Kiss song, but by 1995, we’d developed our own guitar-drums improv jazz-metal outfit. We’d go to the practice space on off-nights, just to play. One day, after Golden Tones went on hiatus, Matt said, ‘We should do a Penalty show,’ and I said, ‘OK, I can get us a show.’ We were just about to take it from the practice space to a Tuesday night at Big Horse, and then we had to change direction. It’s too bad because Penalty had a super cool Flying Luttenbachers-meet-Rush thing going on. But fortunately, we turned that energy into HMS.”
Both Adams and Tucker remember the Penalty days fondly, despite never playing outside of the practice space. Penalty officially went dormant in 2008. “Penalty is on a break,” says Tucker, “but we’ll be back some day.”
Golden Tones’ hiatus
The Golden Tones live band project was suspended in December 1998 after a series of mishaps and personal issues. “Everyone was burned out,” Adams said. “It took more than a year to make the record, add another three months on post-production, and then another two or three putting the live band together. Some people just needed a break.”
Golden Tones agreed to reconvene in the spring of 1999, however, through his connections with Dust Lounge Studio owner Herios Ledesma, Adams had already secured recording time for what he planned to be the next Golden Tones record—and the clock was ticking. He had continued writing throughout the production of The Portable Thruster and Hyperspace Companion Kit and found himself with over two dozen demos.
Rather than lose the studio time, Ledesma, who co-produced, engineered and mixed the majority of Start the Insanity Now, allowed the duo a tremendous amount of flexibility and support.
Adams: [In January ‘99] Dust Lounge was still sort of new and Herios had a big blank spot on the calendar. They were still working on the live room acoustics, so he said, ‘You guys can be our in-house guinea pigs.’ We came in, set up, and practiced for a few nights. Herios was running tape but none of that ever got used. They (Ledesma, assistant engineer Pete Most, and Tucker) spent one whole night getting drum tones. The drums and the main guitars were recorded in two nights—the second night, Matt and I ate a bunch of mushrooms and nailed everything in first and second takes. And then of course, the overdub and mixing sessions were spread out across two months.
– “The New Power Trio Generation: Henry Miller Sextet Is Making Noise in S.F.” By Noel Bancredi, Critical Condition Magazine, Dec. 2001.
“We went round and round about it” Adams said. “We could have gone with Penalty, but this definitely wasn’t Penalty material. For one, it had pre-defined structures. Even though many of the riffs and ideas came out in Pentaly sessions, it was too organized. And I had written all these songs for Golden Tones anyway. So it was getting near the end of day two and Herios finally said, ‘Look, either you fuckers come up with a name or I will—and I guarantee you’re not going to like it.’”
Fortunately, Adams, an avid list maker, had for many years maintained a massive list of potential song titles and band names. After parsing through the list, he and Tucker finally settled on Henry Miller Sextet.
“A little known or appreciated fact is that the original name we liked on the list was Henry Miller Genuine Draft. Somewhere along the way, Matt and I found two things we could agree on. We wanted the name to be plain but ultimately ambiguous and misleading. Matt liked the idea of naming it after someone who wasn’t in the band, and I think I came up with the Sextet part, which was based on the idea of a jazz quartet. We both liked the idea that people would see the name, pop in the disc, and expect to hear some swanky saxophone trio.”
Following the mastering sessions in April 1999, Adams remembers, “We burned about ten cassette copies, I took all the masters home, and that was the last anybody said about it.” In June, Adams moved to S.F.; Tucker followed a month later.
The Henry Miller Influence
Adams has written and spoken at length about the author Henry Miller’s influence on the initial recording, and the course of the band’s lifespan. He has often said that Miller’s Tropic of Cancer “has been one of the greatest overall influences of my adult life,” crediting the 1936 novel for “giving me the courage to leave Chicago for the West Coast.”
Adams also claims to have been reading Tropic of Capricorn during the Start the Insanity Now sessions. “It was definitely in the control room during down times,” he said of the book. Adams named his son, Henry Gabriel Adams (b. 2012) after the author.
Adams has described his sudden move to San Francisco in June 1999 as “easily the scariest thing I had done in my life up until that point.” A large part of his decision to migrate was based on his longtime friendship with fellow Illinois-native, Chris Lanier. During one of Adams’ 1997 visits to S.F., the pair co-wrote a song, “Please Don’t (That Hurts)”, which was re-recorded for Golden Tones’ The Portable Thruster.
Bottom of the Hill and revival
Shortly after becoming an S.F. resident, while at Bottom of the Hill with Lanier, Adams inadvertently slipped a copy of Start the Insanity Now to Ramona Downey, the club’s owner and main booking agent.
“I didn’t know it was the Ramona,” Adams says. “I was new in town and totally naïve. I asked the woman behind the bar where I could drop off a demo tape and she said ‘Right here.’” Ramona Downey passed the tape to assistant booking agent Anthony Bonet, who handled the local bands. Several weeks later, Bonet called Adams and offered him a show—if he could put a band together to play it. Bottom of the Hill would end up becoming HMS’ de facto home base; the group played the club a dozen more times than any other venue.
The Band Comes Together, Slowly at First
Adams and Lanier met in the late 1980s in Chicago and maintained a friendship throughout the 90s. In 1997, they collaborated on each other’s music during Adams’ visits to S.F. Meanwhile, Matt Tucker followed Adams from Chicago, and the pair shared a Richmond District flat near Lanier.
Lanier was currently playing guitar in Sensei, a band consisting of Bay Area high school teachers, and drums in High Horse, a jokey faux country band, fronted by Ross Rubin. Upon securing the BOTH show, Adams asked Lanier to play bass in Henry Miller Sextet. For the band’s first show, Rubin filled in on keyboards.
The first show (in August ’99) went “well enough,” said Adams, and the group was offered a second BOTH show, on Election Night ‘99 (in November) with future rehearsal space partners, Mates of State. “It was a disaster for everybody involved,” said Lanier. It was the last show HMS would play with Rubin.
“[We] loved Ross,” Adams said, “but it didn’t work out.” In the meantime, Lanier left High Horse, and the newly-formed trio decided to lay low and write new material over the next few months. Lanier, who handled the bulk of the band managerial duties, was also awaiting the birth of his daughter, Ruby Akiko, born in March 2000. Lanier said, “It was a good time for us to regroup and consider what we were really doing.”
Welcome to the New Millennium
During the first half of 2000, the group wrote and rehearsed new material for a second album the eponymous Henry Miller Sextet (aka II) which was recorded in June with Kyle Statham (of Fuck) at Black Eyed Pig, and Desmond Shea at Tiny Telephone.
Henry Miller Sextet is considerably harder and more intense than the first record, opening with the two-n-a-half minute blast of unashamed Brit-pop, “Gorilla For Sale”, and closing with the Beatlesque “French Kissing”, which was recorded on 4-track by Adams and Lanier. “The overall concept of the record was to be as tight and simple as possible, to keep the focus sharp,” says Adams.
As the new album was being finished the band started playing as many Bay Area shows as they could get. “We’d only ever played Bottom of the Hill,” Lanier says. The trio wound up the summer with a series of shows when confronted with a whole new set of obstacles. As Lanier’s daughter Ruby worked her way through her first year, he found himself with less time for playing in a rock band.
Adams returned to school for his bachelor’s degree, and Tucker was switching jobs. They played sporadically in the fall and winter and it seemed that all the momentum they’d built up over the year was lost. It wasn’t until they we’re invited back to Bottom of the Hill in January 2001 that Adams says, “we felt like being a band again.”
The group began preparations to record an EP, again with Kyle Statham. Released in spring 2002, Metal Never Made a Friend, Vol. 1, contains several of the most popular HMS songs, particularly “The Chess King.” However, despite constant gigging and attempts by Lanier to attract attention to the band, HMS never gained any traction in the media or with record labels.
Metal Vol. 2
The band self-recorded a second EP, Metal Never Made a Friend, Vol. 2, on a Tascan 488 4-track and a Roland BR-1180 digital 8-track. Production dragged on through the second half of 2002, as the band continued to play mid-level shows at S.F. venues in support of more popular talent, as well as shows in Seattle and Portland.
For Metal Vol. 2, the group selected half a dozen cuts from their ever-mounting collection of new material. Adams was particularly happy with the collaborative effort, saying, “We were finally playing and thinking as a unit.” He also credits Metal Vol. 2 with containing a few of his favorite HMS songs of all-time.
Adams produced, engineered, mixed and attempted to master the majority of Metal Vol. 2 by himself, a decision which did not yield positive results. Lanier and Tucker were “horrified” upon hearing the final mixes. Adams says, “Basically, I destroyed the beauty of the original production by running it through a bunch of effects and compressors and EQ. However, it’s a testament to the quality of the songs—no matter how shitty the production was, we still got invited to Noise Pop.” The track “Crush Proof” from Metal Vol. 2 was included on the 2003 Noise Pop sampler.
Following the disappointment of the EP, Adams found himself increasingly distanced from his band mates. Lanier welcomed the arrival of his second child, a son, Niko, in April 2003. For his part, Adams was prepared to leave the band, unless changes were made.
Perhaps the lone ray of sunlight in the band’s otherwise darkening skies was live performance, where the group attempted to push the limits of the power trio format. Many observers have noted that their recordings failed to capture the true grit, soul, and power of their live shows.
“No doubt,” says Tucker, “we were never able to get that ‘live’ sound in the studio. Personally, I was always disappointed with [the drums].” Though many HMS shows were sparsely attended, the audience feedback was almost unanimously positive. But like everything else, playing shows also came with a downside.
“The truth is I had always been uncomfortable as the front man,” Adams said. “I thought that if I didn’t have this [guitar] around my neck and wasn’t glued to the microphone in the middle of the stage, then I could be a proper front man.
Like DLR, Michael Stipe and Bono and all that, right. So what I pitched to the boys [in 2003] after the disaster of Metal, was: let’s either be an instrumental band, or let’s get another guitar player-slash-multi-instrumentalist, to make this fun again, because I’m not having fun, at all.”
The Jeff Lyon Era
In September 2003, the band announced via its website that guitarist Jeff Lyon had joined the fold. Lyon, a multi-instrumentalist with an extensive studio background, provided an immediate boost of confidence to the sagging morale of the band, and would play a key role in the recording of the band’s third full-length record, Achieve Through Failure.
Tucker’s Near Fatal Injury
Less than two weeks after Lyon joined the band, Tucker was struck by a car and seriously injured while crossing a street in San Francisco. Early in the morning of Sunday, October 3, Matthew had left the Tongue and Groove and began walking in the direction of his apartment on Nob Hill (Van Ness and Pacific) when he was struck from behind by a car and knocked to the ground. He sustained multiple fractures of the jaw and a slightly fractured left leg, as well as severe skin abrasions on his hands, face, and legs. He was admitted to S.F. General Hospital later that morning.
On Tuesday, October 7, Matthew underwent surgery to wire his jaw and insert a plate in his chin.
The band obviously suspended all activity pending Tucker’s recovery.
Achieve Through Failure (2004)
Following six months of recuperation, Tucker was deemed healthy enough to return to playing drums, and the band began mobilizing to record. Through one of Lyon’s connections, HMS secured a practice space-slash-studio, where the band would spend April-October 2004 working on Achieve Through Failure, recording in analog to Ampex 2” tape. “I can’t tell you how excited we were about recording on two-inch,” Adams said. “Even though the machine [recorder] was a bit hinky and almost constantly under repair, just working in analog was a treat.”
Between Adams’ prolific songwriting and the creative spark of new blood, the band went into the sessions with 15 songs, 12 of which made the final cut.
“My m.o. was to demo as much stuff as possible for X amount of time,” recalls Adams, “and then go back and see what works, what I like and think could work somewhere else. When Matt got hurt, I had four months to make demos and distribute them to the boys and say, ‘Whaddya think of this cut?’ By the time he [Tucker] was well enough to play, we’d essentially had everything worked out. All Matt had to do was come in and nail it like he usually does. And he did.”
The sessions wrapped in November 2004. Adams commissioned local artist Kelli Bratvold to design the artwork.
The addition of Lyon was a tremendous boost to the band creatively and logistically, however, differences between Adams and Lyon began to surface during the Achieve sessions. “Jeff was a perfectionist,” Adams says, “and I was the anti-perfectionist. If there was something weird about a vocal harmony or a guitar part that Jeff thought we should fix, I’d say ‘Leave it! It adds character!’ and go off and crack my 12th beer of the night.”
Many of the Achieve overdubs were recorded with only one HMS member in the studio. Adams praises the work Lyon did on his own. “I’d come in after a weekend away and he’d say, ‘I want you to hear the piano I did on [the song] “Achieve”,’ and I’d be completely blown away.”
A month after one of the band’s most high-profile shows at the Great American Music Hall, Jeff Lyon abruptly left the band.
“He [Lyon] told Lanier that ‘we weren’t going anywhere,’” Adams explains. “He was right, but at the same time, having him in the band was the reason I was hanging in there. As far as guitar, you couldn’t ask for a better player. So when he left, I kind of said, ‘Well, that’s the end of that.’”
The Last Band Standing
Encouraged by Lanier’s relentless drive to get the band some respect, Adams says he slowly grew to appreciate the strength of Achieve, though it would never see a proper release. “That’s always been a big regret to me, that we sort of abandoned the record after Jeff left,” Adams says. “Hands down, warts and all, it’s the best [HMS] record we ever made.” The band was invited to their fourth Noise Pop appearance in 2005, and a track from Achieve, “No Charge For Touching,” was also featured on the industry-distributed sampler.
In the summer of 2005, the band went on another mini-tour of the North West. As the year wound down, the band found itself with less and less time and interest for HMS.
Swan Song (2006)
During winter break of 2006, Adams informed the band of his intention to begin a side project called Aztec Hearts, and brought up the subject of disbanding.
“Putting Henry Miller Sextet to rest was not as easy as I thought it would be,” Adams recalls. “We had six going on seven years of solid investment in the band, with very little to show for it. Chris Lanier was by far the best guy I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with in terms of his commitment, drive, and follow-through. That guy was relentless in getting shows and doors opened. He’d say, ‘Dude, I’m going to get us signed to so-n-so’ and the next thing you knew, we were playing a show where so-n-so was supposed to be. Nothing ever truly developed, but all three of us are survivors. We thought we would be the last band standing. So [the decision] was contentious. Matthew (Tucker) and Chris (Lanier) were not very happy.”
After some serious consideration and negotiations, a deal was struck. Adams agreed to give the band one more final push, by recording an EP, Swan Song, with Wally McClellan (Wallysound).
“I did it for them, basically. There was no way I could walk away and have them pissed off at me. They were and still are my best friends in the world.”
At the same time, Adams was feeling increasingly handcuffed by the limitations of the power trio format and a growing dissatisfaction with the creative direction of the band.
“Even though I was the guy who wrote and sang most of the songs, it had gotten to the point that due to certain thresholds—maybe our own potential—we couldn’t do a lot of the stuff I wanted to do [musically]. We would have needed about seven more members and we just had a guitar player quit on us. Plus, all three of us are stubborn. You really couldn’t get anyone of us to do something we weren’t comfortable with, and there were some things I wanted to do that they didn’t find kosher—like playing shows without set lists. They fucking hated that. Therefore, I was writing two sets of material; one set of songs for HMS, and another set of songs for some time in the future. It wasn’t until Jeff (Lyon) quit and the album (Achieve Through Failure) tanked, that I thought, ‘You know, this playing in a band bullshit is for the birds’ and made a conscious decision to pursue the direction that eventually became Aztec Hearts.”
The sessions for Swan Song were tense, with the band finding itself in uncharacteristic stand-offs and disagreements. Adams says he was cold and withdrawn, while Lanier and Tucker were quietly furious with his disinterest in the project.
“At the time, I just didn’t want to be there,” Adams recalls. “The guys were kind of standing around with their hands in their pockets, like, ‘What are we going to do about this kid? He just doesn’t want to play ball…’ I can’t think of a single instance in the lifespan of HMS where we had a serious argument – not even an intense shouting match – which is rare for rock bands, I think. Every other band I’d been involved in had at least one knock-down-drag-out brawl where more than someone’s feelings got hurt. Jesus Christ, Brain Kiss (Adams’ and Tucker’s early 90s band) was like the WWF in comparison. The bass player in that band nearly killed me on several occasions. That didn’t happen [in HMS], probably because we were older and mature and had a lot of respect for each other.”
In an attempt to bring a vital breath of fresh air into the project, Lanier asked his friend, Ted Nesseth of The Heavenly States, to assist with production and the mix. “Ted had some great ideas – like the call-and-response vocals in the chorus of ‘Watercolors’,” add Lanier. “His presence definitely added a spark that had been missing.”
In retrospect, Adams says, “Listening to the record now, I think it sounds great, but you can hear that I’m at the end of my fucking rope. And then we wrapped it up and I said, ‘OK, this is it. This is the last record. It is over. Let’s put this thing down.’”
The End of HMS: Final Show
Henry Miller Sextet played its last show at the Rickshaw Stop in July 2006, an event Adams describes as equal to “attending your own funeral.” Before the final number of the set, Adams addressed the crowd.
“There were maybe ten to fifteen people, maybe a few of them had any idea who we were. None of our friends came. It was sad. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was along the lines of: ‘It’s really too bad that you are the last audience this band will ever play for.’ We played the last song and that was it. HMS was over.”
* self-released unless otherwise noted
Start the Insanity Now (1999)
Henry Miller Sextet II (2000)
Achieve Through Failure (2005)
Metal Never Made a Friend, Volume 1 (2001)
Metal Never Made a Friend, Volume 2 (2003)
Swan Song (2006)
“Crush Proof”, Noise Pop Sampler cassette (2003)
“No Charge For Touching,” Noise Pop Sampler CD (2005)
The band has been a trio for the majority of its existence. Their first ever performance featured Ross Rubin of High Horse on keyboards. For the next four years, the band continued as a trio. Local guitarist/songwriter/producer Jeff Lyon joined the band in September 2003 and left in early 2005.
Christian Adams – vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, production, engineering (1999 – 2006)
Chris Lanier – vocals, bass, management (1999-2006)
Matthew Tucker – drums, percussion (1999-2006)
Ross Rubin – keyboards (1999)
Jeff Lyon – guitars, vocals, production, engineering (2004-2005)
Producers and engineers:
Herios Ledesma – engineer and co-producer, Start the Insanity Now
Pete Most- engineer, Start the Insanity Now
Kyle Statham – engineer and co-producer, II, Metal Never Made a Friend, Vol. 1
Desmond Shea – engineer, “Gorilla For Sale” and “Dated: 2/27/89”
Steven Armstrong – mixing, Achieve Through Failure
Gabriel Shepard – mixing, Achieve Through Failure
Wally McClellan – engineer, Swan Song
Dust Lounge (Chicago)
Black Eyed Pig (San Francisco)
Hyde Street Studios (San Francisco)
Tiny Telephone (San Francisco)
75 Pueblo (Daly City)