An email Interview with Roger Houdaille

Band: Ex Norwegian
Label: Think Like A Key (TLAK)
Location: Miami, FL, U.S.A.

Roger Houdaille is one of the most credible and talented underground pop musicians to emerge in the twenty-first century.  His songs have a classic sound that is instantly captivating and unique.  When I first heard the Ex Norwegian album Standby, the songs immediately stuck in my mind and became eternal favorites.  Roger has since released a whole slew of Ex Norwegian albums that have captured the minds and hearts of intelligent guitar pop fanatics all around the world.  His ability to consistently come up with credible entertaining songs is just one of many things that sets him apart.  His melodic sense is mindblowing and his arrangements are always a perfect fit for each composition.  Houdaille surprised almost everyone when he started his own record label Think Like A Key.  The label boasts a long list of Ex Norwegian releases as well as a surprising array of other nifty artists.  The label has quickly garnered unanimous praise and support from those who place a bigger emphasis on creativity and credibility than popularity, fame and money.  This interview took place in early 2023 at a point when Roger had just released and/or reissued several new Ex Norwegian albums and was also riding high on a tidal wave of positive response to the album Spook Du Jour.

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The name Ex Norwegian initially confused me until I looked it up and thought...duh...I should've known that, considering how much I love Monty Python stuff.  Do people usually 'get' where the band name comes from?

It has happened, yes, but not often. A fan suggested the band name relates to the Parrot sketch, since the ex-parrot in that sketch is a Norwegian blue. Now that would be clever, but I actually got the name from another sketch in which Eric Idle literally says “an ex-Norwegian prime minister...” I had Flying Circus episodes playing in the background for days until I heard something and that's the one that stuck with me. Before that, we were leaning towards “the Besides” or “The B Sides”. We wouldn’t acknowledge Monty Python in the early days as much when the question was asked, instead telling a fanciful story about how we all dated the same Norwegian.

Who has influenced your sound the most?

It's hard to say, but I suppose The Kinks would be the one both myself and the audience would agree on. My main music tastes, which arguably are my biggest influences, would lie in British psychedelia of 67-69, early progressive pop/rock, bands like Family, Jethro Tull and Procol Harum seemed to resonate a lot with me. Stuff that wasn’t totally blues or rock’n’roll but still rocking and clever. Short songs are also a big influence, at least early on. When it came to Ex Norwegian, I had the idea of sounding like those 60’s bands did on their BBC sessions. You know, the sound of their music without studio gimmicks. Big and bombastic. A three/four piece rock band playing simple but interesting and clever material. That was a very specific target but, of course, we didn’t end up really sounding like that. I was unfamiliar with the bands that were thrown at us as being soundalikes. I must confess to never really listening to bands like Guided By Voices, The Pixies or Pavement, which may surprise some people. I assume we sound like them because we had very similar influences.

Approximately how many songs have you written at this point?  How many would you estimate have been tossed to the side for one reason or another?

It’s a good question. Without looking more into it, I was going to say 140-150, but then I started really counting and it may be closer to 200. That’s over two decades worth, including things written back in high school. Then there’s probably 40-50 co-writes. I love releasing music, so a lot has been out there in some shape or form. Or in some cases, older songs have been reworked and used in Ex Norwegian or other projects. There’s probably only a dozen or so unfinished, abandoned Ex Norwegian songs…not many.

Which do you enjoy most: composing new songs or recording final versions?  Why?

I enjoy the recording process the most. I am usually impatient when it comes to composing. Recording the first demo is always cool, and usually will capture an energy and bits of ideas that get lost along the way. But I think I’m most happy once a final master is ready and I can move on.

What did you do before Ex Norwegian?  Provide as much or as little detail as you like.

Musically, I have been performing since my high school days in the late nineties. It was a very busy time, but after that it slowed down as I was reluctant to have my own band. I did form a band with a buddy of mine, BJ. This was called The BJ Experience, naturally. I put all my time and creative energy into it, which many suggested was misguided as it was a bit of a joke band. And arguably, it doesn’t hold up too well. However, it’s interesting as it was a content band, meaning we didn’t just gig and release albums, we did a documentary, magazine and even had an online sitcom!

There were no social media or practical ways to share content in those days, so it was a flop, but at least it was ahead of its time. I joined a band called 100 Fires in 2001 on bass and a year later I was in nearly a dozen different bands. The "band whore" days were short lived, as either the bands fizzled, or I just burned out. There was no money and I needed to get serious. However, it was a very valuable learning experience.

Throughout, I had been recording my songs and had a few friends and associates who really liked them. My music really didn’t fit in the local scene at the time, so I rarely performed solo. But later in that decade, it seemed to make sense to try and put my own band together. And by that time, I had plenty of experience and knew what to do but more importantly, what not to do.

I initially took the name I used in The BJ Experience, Father Bloopy, as my moniker for my own band. And to do something different, I recruited only female musicians to be in my band. That didn’t last too long and it turned out to be a real case of musical chairs with the only solid partner being Carolina Souto on bass. Previously, she only played classical guitar, so it was all new to her and she had to dedicate a lot of time to the material. And I guess this allowed her to be more interested in sticking with the band as it morphed into Ex Norwegian. After doing a proper album release with the name Father Bloopy, the reviews for that made it clear that I needed to change my artist name. But the real catalyst for the name change was the song “Something Unreal”. There was something different about it that had the potential to be a big deal.

Which matters more...your opinions or the opinions of others?  Explain.

Well, it depends. In general, I am pretty detached to my music. I have my own strong opinions and those are important in the sense that they guide me in my musical efforts. I do take opinions of others into great consideration, within reason. A perfect example is the decision to change the unmarketable band name Father Bloopy to a slightly more marketable Ex Norwegian. I was so used to the original name that I didn’t think about how it would be perceived outside my world. Same with the songs. So, in those cases, especially when you are spending hard earned money, I find it very important to hear and take into consideration what others have to say. Ultimately, though, I will do what I want and not what others want. Explains why Ex Norwegian will always be underground.

Why did you decide to start your label Think Like A Key?

I love releasing records. Both my own and helping others do it. And as Ex Norwegian was slowing down, I started thinking more seriously about putting more focus and money toward a label. Then when the whole world slowed down in 2020, it was ironically an ideal opportunity to take up my saved-up money and run with it. I was able to get distribution thanks to the unexpectedly well performing Hue Spotting album, I found myself with the opportunity to put out a couple releases I had been pitching to other labels for decades. I took matters into my own and jumped right into it.

Obviously, the label reflects my taste in music, but it also serves a purpose beyond that. I think this type of music – call it what you will – is underrepresented. One of my goals is to make music available to the general music buying public as they deserve a better choice than what is being made available through the mainstream labels or some real crummy reissue / exploitation labels. Cross-promoting and creating an exciting community for both fans and artists is another key goal. So far, the response has been wonderful, albeit underwhelming in terms of sales, unsurprisingly. It’s all very much still growing and figuring itself out. The truth is the commercial world of music is ugly and boring. It’s hard to balance it all out.

How did you and Fernando Perdomo initially cross paths?  Any plans for future collaborations?

We go way back to the first concert I played with an electric guitar on stage. This would be back to the 6th grade, and Fernando showed up with his SG to help the school band out. He was this 8th grader who already mastered the guitar. Backstage, we talked a bit and I remember asking him to play “The Rain Song” which he duly did and it was impressive. What’s funny is that he was crashing gigs even back then! Anyway, it wasn’t until I auditioned for the Miami Beach Sr. High School Rock Ensemble a few years later that I saw him again. He was there for my audition, which incidentally was “To Cry You A Song” by Jethro Tull. We became instant friends as we were the only ones with any sense to what good music was. We had a band back in those days called Dip. We recorded a lot on our TASCAM 4-tracks. But we are always in communication and as you know, plays drums on most of the recent Ex Norwegian stuff. I played bass for his progressive rock Out To Sea band project. Then we also have a history backing up singer-songwriter Ed Hale, for which there may be some new recordings coming up. And most recently we have started re-recording these old Dip songs. It would be a strong contender for a future Think Like A Key DIY series release!

Which do you think is more important...intelligence or intuition?  Explain.

Probably intuition. That’s something you can’t really learn. Anyone can be intelligent, but intuition is a little more personal and interesting.

Does a sense of humor generally help or hurt songwriters?  Explain.

I’m not sure. Obviously, my preference is having a sense of humor. However, the best is when it’s subtle. Sparks or Loudon Wainwright III come to mind. But, as with my examples, I think humor hurts your commercial reach. So, the answer would depend on what outcome you are trying to achieve.

Simultaneously running a band and a music label involves a huge amount of tasks.  Which tasks do you enjoy most?  Which do you enjoy least?

Yes, there is a lot on the plate. It is too much, especially as it’s mostly a one-man operation. I enjoy compiling releases, and putting together artwork, and believe it or not, metadata. Tasks I enjoy the least are working out licensing details, dealing with projects that drag on too long, and the logistics of shipping.

What has happened to commercial music over the past 50 or 60 years?

The powers who shouldn’t be decided that it needed to get worse and worse. Sure, there was always daft commercial music, but at least there were humans behind it. Now it’s all AI induced yuck. And unfortunately, it spills into a lot of the big independent music and labels.

Just about anyone can record their own songs now and post them on the internet for free.  Is this good or bad?  Explain.

I used to say good, but now I say bad. Ten years ago, it might still have been good. Or at least fun…interesting…novel. You still needed some talent and know how. But now, you just need a text prompt, and you have your music. It’s quite fascinating. I think it’s awesome on many levels. But it’s bad. When you have thousands of songs being placed on streaming platforms each day, it’s gotten out of control. And it’s just not fun. And it’s sad because the honestly great folks will simply not be found in that mess. Things are changing fast, and my thinking is to just enjoy things while we still can.

Is memory important?  Why or why not?

Yes, and we should keep our memories alive.

What makes a song good or bad?  Explain.

For me, a good song should still shine though when you strip it away from any style, production, etc.  I like re-imaging songs that I like to test them, in a way, and see if they can survive a stylistic change.

Which do you think about most: the past, the present or the future?  Why?

These days I suppose I think a lot about the future, which is so uncertain that I get lost in it. I used to get lost in the past! I still can be pretty nostalgic but I have a more forward-looking outlook. I’m just living in the present but not paying attention to it.

Why did music became such an important part in your life?

By accident really. I stumbled upon some great music growing up and that triggered something.

Most artists or bands release a bad album at some point.  Despite the lengthy discography, there has never been a bad Ex Norwegian album.  How do you maintain such a high quality of material?

Well, thank you for that high praise! I am lucky, I suppose. I’m not sure I’d agree though that we haven’t had a bad album. I think it's helped that there haven't been controlling management or record labels stirring us in bad directions. And the band hasn’t made a habit of trying to be something we weren’t. One trick is to save good songs. Don’t use them all up because down the road, you may need one or two to help keep that consistency.

The album Spook Du Jour included some new recordings of older songs.  Will future albums include more old songs or will entirely new material be the focus?

With a few exceptions, most Ex Norwegian albums will have one or two “catalog” songs from my archive. This next album I am hoping to feature entirely new material. At the same time, I would like to do one album that features only older material that I haven’t done much with. That is, if Ex Norwegian keeps going.

Are most things very difficult or relatively simple and easy?  Explain.

Simple and easy…only relatively difficult.

The name Think Like A Key seems to suggest that this is your own personal way of dealing with stuff.  Is this the case?  Or is it just a name?

Well, there is a stupid story behind the name. Much like Ringo’s “Eight Days A Week” and “A Hard Day’s Night” – I muttered let’s “Think Like A Key” when Ex Norwegian were frantically trying to find our lost keys to our rented van while on tour. Everyone fell to the floor laughing and a few weeks later, when it was time to name our publishing company, Think Like A Key was it. I really wish I would’ve come up with something a little more…generic for the label name but since when I set things up in 2018 I wasn’t imagining anything of what has happened, releasing so many artists both legacy and up-and-coming, and working with you on an LMNOP reissue, and R. Stevie Moore, and people like Netkar and Peter Daltrey…it’s all over my head. But it’s cool! And to answer your question…it really is just a name. But it’s cool.

Do things get better or worse?  Explain.

Things get better, although it may not seem like it sometimes. One has to will it though…and it will.

What is success?

Totally subjective. But when someone figures out what success means to them, then that is partial success.

If everything goes the way you want, what will your life be like in 2030?

I will be able to look back on my body of work with pride. And who knows, maybe there will be enough fans to do a sold-out hologram live stream show out of my living room!

 Interview ©2023 LMNOP aka dONW7...
but the artist obviously owns the copyrights to his own words.