Come hell or high water — and the latter, at least, certainly seems to be on its way — people are never going to tire of music stripped down to essentials. You see this in a number of seemingly disparate styles: thumping dance music in the clubs; two and three chord punk at all-ages shows; elemental rock, from Neil Young to Pearl Jam and from “Wild Thing” to its descendent, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; and, in another realm, the once-again popular ancient music of Gregorian Chant and Hildegard von Bingen. Simplicity or uniformity of rhythm, melody, or both characterizes all these strains, notwithstanding any complexities, hidden or otherwise, that may also adhere.
American folk music, too, has always relied on simple building blocks, but right now there’s a special emphasis on raw, “authentic” sounds and compositions. No band exemplifies this spirit and trend better than Hillstomp, the Portland, OR duo that has just released its second full-length CD. I caught up, electronically, with the band, otherwise known as Henry Kammerer and John Johnson, as they toured California before returning to the Pacific Northwest.
The band, which proudly calls itself “Portland’s third greatest guitar / bucket-n-can duo,” creates a unique sound out of trance blues, hillbilly grit, and an undercurrent of goofiness. With only voices, a guitar, and a “drum” kit made of buckets and other assorted objects — plus, occasionally, a little harmonica and keyboard from friends — they bang out traditional songs like “John Henry,” country blues nuggets by R.L. Burnside and his mentor, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and original songs. Tempo and mood vary but a certain gloomy glee remains fairly constant. Hillstomp’s ragged sound comes out of who they are, but it is also reactive, as percussionist Johnson explains:
It comes naturally to us because those are the elements of blues and country that we like. From a performance standpoint, it comes naturally because it’s really the only way we really know how to play. It’s [also] a reaction, even if unintentional, just because we don’t like the kind of polished and pretty blues and country you’re talking about. For us, blues is all about grit and dirt. It’s not about notes, or technicality or any of that crap. Does it make you want to shout and holler? Does it make you feel a little dirty? These are things it should do. If it makes you say, “Wow, the production on this is impeccable! Mr. Segal’s solo over the bridge on track 3 is really hot,” you should be slapped.
As a reviewer who finds himself saying just such things now and again, I consider myself duly slapped. Kind of like the guy in the cowboy hat on the cover of Hillstomp’s new CD The Woman That Ended the World is about to get slapped if he doesn’t let go of that woman’s arm and let her get on that train. She must have realized she could do a lot better; Hillstomp, on the other hand, hasn’t tampered with its successful formula. The production on the new CD is a little cleaner (*slap* ouch!) but that is of little importance. More significant is that with their single method and limited palette the duo can create enough different musical statements to make two full-length Hillstomp CDs a good listen all the way through.
“Nope,” from their earlier CD One Word, is a sweet love song that contrasts blaringly with the hard scratching of Bukka White‘s “Shake ‘Em On Down.” The stately raga-like solemnity of Burnside’s “Goin’ Down South” leads into the hearty good humor of the band’s own bluegrassy chant “Lucy’s Lament,” vocals grating out through vintage Turner bullet microphones, the kind usually employed to give blues harmonica players their flattened, raucous sound.
On the new CD, in addition to the slightly sharper production, the musicianship has improved. Kammerer’s vocals are a bit stronger and surer and his guitar riffs more varied, while Johnson’s percussion kit technique has expanded. If anything, there was a slight sense of hesitation in the playing on the first CD, which is gone on the new one. But you have to listen closely for these changes; they’re subtle and not critical.
The band also stretches their song structures a little more on the new CD. The easy shuffling beat of “In The Hole” belies a macabre story of a boy who falls in a hole and meets first a rat and then an unexpected fate: “My mother said you live until you die/I never thought my mom would tell a lie/Black rat and me just keep on keepin’ on/We’re dead down here and still singin’ this song.” “Shake It” is a Chicago-bluesy soul jam assisted by David Lipkind on harmonica and Lewi Longmire on Hammond B-3 organ. And “Boom Boom Room East Blues” pounds like a sledgehammer: “I got a woman/She long and she tall/Sleeps in the kitchen/Legs out in the hall…Born as a baby/Into a girl/Became The Woman/That Ended the World.”
Not surprisingly the band got an enthusiastic reception overseas. Audiences in the UK “went apeshit!” Kammerer reports, noting, however, that “they often do that over here [in the US] as well.” But “people in the UK are into blues, and into the offshoots of.”
Far from the first rootsy American act to find acclaim across the pond, Hillstomp is planning a more extensive European tour this Fall, after which they’re going to play a few shows in the Midwest and then take some time off from the road. “We’d really like to get back in the basement and start drinking beer and just playing music together for awhile,” says Johnson. “That’s how this thing was born, and we’d like to get back to that for a bit. It would do us some good.”
Johnson evinces a very healthy, realistic attitude towards a music career: “Making a living at this would be great. For me especially, it would be a dream come true. But, we aren’t really willing to do it without regard to consequences, if that makes sense. We don’t want to wake up in five years and realize we don’t have any fun playing this stuff anymore and that we haven’t really lived any kind of life. Hopefully we can find a reasonable balance. This music has longevity in it if we don’t burn it and ourselves out.”
The traditions Hillstomp builds upon certainly do have longevity. Just ask the ghosts of Fred McDowell or Dock Boggs. Or Hildegard von Bingen. And look out for Hillstomp – coming, if you’re lucky, to a stage near you.