French/Swedish pop duo Herman Dune's biggest break came in puppet form. Their puppeted likeness—previously designed by the band themselves for their "1-2-3 Apple Tree" video—made an appearance alongside a puppet Kanye West in his cuddly "Champion" video. But, alas, there is no "Kanye bump" in units sold when you're assembled from felt and glue sticks, and just as Lamb Chop (the hand puppet, not the band) can attest, there just might be more to life than fame via puppetry.
The history of Herman Dune, the version assembled from actual skin and bones, is this: Their discography is five official albums along with countless CD-R recordings, they were formerly a trio but now are a duo, all members use Herman Dune as a surname (à la the Ramones), they once had an umlaut in their name, and the late John Peel was their biggest fan. Much like just about any tale involving the saintly Peel, it was the DJ's golden touch that randomly plucked the band from promo-bin obscurity and placed them in their current position atop the anti-folk movement.
"John Peel was everything for us when we first started," explains singer/guitarist David- Ivar Herman Dune from his Toronto hotel room. "He picked up our 7-inch, the first one, started playing it on the radio, and invited us for a Peel Session." It was one of many, as the band rolled tape on a staggering double-digit collection of Peel Sessions throughout the years and, along the way, forged a close friendship with music's most respected tastemaker.
The years that followed Peel's death found the band—the aforementioned David-Ivar and drummer/percussionist Neman Herman Dune—releasing a slew of recordings seldom heard outside Paris or their adopted home of New York's Lower East Side. Alongside the likes of pal Jeffrey Lewis and the Juno- approved Kimya Dawson, Herman Dune carved out a niche for penning playful— nearly childlike—love songs that rely on simplistic structure and David-Ivar's wounded vocal delivery. He is more Jonathan Richman than the original Modern Lover has been in years, a love-struck troubadour with the keen ability to reel off miles of material from the austere pains of a wounded heart.
It's only on their latest, the ambitious Next Year in Zion, that the music of Herman Dune has been widely discovered stateside, thanks to new label Everloving (home to Cornelius and—gasp—the original barefooted stomping grounds of bro-meister Jack Johnson) plus domestic jaunts supporting Jolie Holland and Tokyo Police Club. Zion opens with "On a Saturday," where the syrupy-sweet hook and whimsical structure—right down to the polite blasts of horns—come together like a pair of lovers' interlocked hands. The lyrics might as well have been swiped from the Bill Callahan songbook ("I said tonight is a night for you and I/And I intend to prove it"), back in the day when the Smog frontman was still telling his girl to dress sexy at his funeral.
David-Ivar's gift for penning lyrics that skirt that fine line between clever and pretentious—"I thought I'd never say that I bought Nevermind, and it changed my life some 15 years ago" (from "Not on Top")—might explain the band's not-so-surprising youthful following. Kids—yes, literally little humans in single-digit age groups—love Herman Dune. And while the band's off-the-charts adorability might flirt with the murky mire that is children's music, this is definitely not the soundtrack of Raffists. (What? Isn't that what Raffi fans are called?) Herman Dune might be steeped in whimsy, but this is music for adults.
Well, sort of.
"I recently played a show for kids, in the afternoon before our show," explains David-Ivar. "I thought it was going to be a small, but 200 kids showed up, and I noticed that their attention span doesn't last a long time. They love the rhymes; it's not really about the topics, because most of my songs are love songs. So when you are 5 or 6, that's not really up your alley."
This cross-generational appeal is probably best captured in their "Take-Away" (the popular online video series where performers strip down their songs for spontaneous live versions) performance. While other acts treat these sessions as if they are deeply serious works of art (see Arcade Fire crammed in an elevator, dramatically tearing a piece of paper), David-Ivar was donned in some sort of bear-head dressing—lazily resembling the top portion of a mascot's outfit; grizzly on top, Frenchman below—while roaming Paris and singing Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." Neman does Herman Dune's collective sanity little favor by performing on the de facto instrument of the insane: the slide whistle. It's as puzzling as it is adorable, and, given the casual, incidental nature of the video, it makes one ponder: Had the cameras never appeared, would David-Ivar be singing Dylan songs in the middle of Parisian traffic while dressed like a cheap high-school mascot? Probably.