July 12, 2012

You Always Make Me Talk When You Know I Want To Sing: The Karl Hendricks Interview

The Karl Hendricks Trio, 2012, photo by Corey LeChat

[Photo: Corey LeChat] Make no mistake, friends: while Karl Hendricks is too humble to say it, the latest long-player from his eponymous trio is a triumph. It's lean, only occasionally mean, tightly focused and remarkably -- remarkably -- insightful. The Karl Hendricks Trio on the new nine-song set is a massive inexorable force, from the fire-breathing title track to the characteristically brawny closer "Hold On, Cool Breeze" to the gut-punching ballad "Dreams Ha." The uptempo, guitar-dense work-outs strewn across the album are as gratifying as ever, but even more impressive here is Mr. Hendricks' burgeoning ability to deeply, richly capture within strands of melody and snatches of words the big, sometimes overwhelming, feelings ("facing more and more loss, facing relentless responsibility, facing the realization that decay wins") that dog us, consciously and sub-consciously, day and night. He does this in songs that increasingly face outwards and make observations, in contrast to the music -- largely concerned with affairs of the heart -- from the early part of Hendricks' two-decade recording career. These are among the many things Hendricks reflects on in the comprehensive, career-spanning interview he gave to Clicky Clicky Music Blog. We are incredibly grateful to Karl for his time and insights, and invite you to get comfortable and read on. The Karl Hendricks Trio's new record The Adult Section, certainly among the best albums of the year to date, will be released by Comedy Minus One records Tuesday.

Clicky Clicky: The first time I saw you play you were playing on the patio at the Terrace Club in Princeton, New Jersey in the summer of 1993. You were out supporting Buick Electra. The show made a big impression on me, especially the song "Stupidhead," which became an instant mix-tape classic for me. Can you remember the show at all?

Karl Hendricks: I don't know if I remember that show precisely, as I have what seems like one cumulative memory of the three (or four?) times we played in Princeton during the early/mid '90s. It was a welcoming environment and the audience was always enthusiastic, and I feel like lucky to have had those kind of experiences early on in the band.

CC: Was that one of your earliest dealings with your current label head?

KH: I suppose playing at Princeton was the reason I met Jon, though I'm embarrassed to say I can't exactly remember the first time I talked to him or met him. I think that the first time we played at the Terrace Club was also one of the first times we had played outside of Pittsburgh, so I was just excited to be playing anywhere new, so that may have overwhelmed any memory of my initial dealings with Jon. I will say that, since then, we certainly have had a lot more dealings in the world of music and he's become one of my very good friends.

CC: I've seen your remarks somewhere that you are writing songs very slowly these days, at a rate something like three a year. But of course you are still turning them out. Is songwriting a compulsion for you?

KH: I don't know if I would say "compulsion" is the exact word to describe why I write songs. You know, there was a customer at the store I worked at (and now own) who, speaking on the subject of whether collecting records was an addiction, said that he bought so many records because it was his "tendency." And I like that word (for both maybe why I collect records and write songs). So much of my life the past fifteen years has been centered around work (of various kinds) and responsibilities, that I try to keep the music thing going just to keep alive some part of my identity that isn't strictly related to getting to the next day. So, it's more of conscious decision to keep it as part of my identity (even though it's not easy or convenient to do so).

(And as an aside, I don't think my particular situation is unique. I would have to think a lot of people -- well, okay, people who have this luxury -- have to come to terms with how to fit the parts they like best about themselves into more mature lives that aren't centered about them.)

CC: Is the songwriting side of the musical life what keeps you involved in music? Or would you say live performance is the thing that drives you to stay in the game?

KH: Though there are aspects of writing songs and playing live that I love, I really think the main driving motivation for me is making records. Years ago, when I was 18, I started learning how to play guitar and how to write songs for the specific purpose of recording them on a four-track that I had just bought (and then releasing them on cassette). And "making something," some concrete object, has always pretty much been my main goal. But again, I also really like other parts of the process, too -- but when they become hard work, it's the possibility of making another record that keeps me going.

CC: Do you know when you've written a great lyric or a great hook? Do you sit around and sing "your eyes whisper no, whisper no, while you scream yes" to yourself like I do, or do you have some distance from the music?

KH: Sometimes [I know]. Or maybe if I'm reluctant to make absolute judgments about stuff I've written, I can say that sometimes, I'm more happy with some parts of songs than with other parts. I can say that I don't ever hum any of my songs to myself in the way I might another song I like. But I am trying to write the kind of songs that I like, so hopefully, I do actually occasionally like at least some parts of them.

CC: Do you still have any apprehensions or doubts when you are writing, even this deep into your career (this assumes, of course, that you did early on)?

KH: Apprehension and doubts -- sure! To quote Spalding Gray (more or less), "doubt is my bottom line." But to speak philosophically, is there any creative person who doesn't have those things? I don't know know if I would be much interested in their art if they didn't.

CC: There is an ease to the record, musically, and even in the lyrical delivery, despite many of the songs dealing with anxiety of some sort or another. It makes me think of how Elvis Costello was branded as an Angry Young Man when he was making his earlier records, but at a certain point he just wasn't "that guy" any longer. I guess we don't see change coming, but now as an older person that kind of change seems inevitable. Is this idea at all reflected in the chorus of "The Whole Fucking Thing?"

This is a hard question to answer, because I think it asks two different things. But to try to answer the question about an increased "ease" or changes to my musical "persona" -- I guess I would say I don't know. I think you're right on when you say that we don't see change coming. This may sound like I'm being purposefully naive, but I think I usually just try to make the best thing I can with what I have in front of me and then stuff results from that. If it sounds like there is more "ease" (and I sort of know what you mean), maybe it's because I'm just trying to always get a little bit better at doing this and sometimes that actually happens. I will say, however, that one slight difference in the process here was that I was sort of consciously trying to write songs that I thought would work for the trio (as opposed to the four-piece that had recorded The World Says).

To answer the last part, about the chorus in "The Whole Fucking Thing," I guess I would first want to say (and again, this may seem disingenuous) that the speaker in the song isn't the same person as me, so I don't know. Also, I guess you should keep in mind that sometime I'm trying to be funny. After those two things, I guess my next answer is that actually, if I had to analyze what the lyrics in the chorus say about me as I'm getting older (besides just trying to make fun of myself a little) is that I actually feel much less "ease" -- I feel more unsettled and unsatisfied than ever, I think. But I think knowing that is probably neither here nor there in terms of what I hope a listener gets out of the experience.

CC: I consider myself pretty bad at perceiving humor in music, in part I think because I prize music so greatly that I really want to identify with the narrator (well, the ones I like, right? Not Beiber). That said, one of my favorites among your catalog is "Naked And High On Drugs," and I smile every time I hear that opening line. Humor has been consistent in your songwriting. Is that because you "consume" a lot of humor, you know, stand-up, movies, that sort of thing?

KH: I am a fan of humor in all kinds of art (though I don't know if I am more of a fan than the average person who reads a lot of books, listens to a lot of records and watches a lot of movies). I don't know if I'm especially a fan of stand-up. I loved Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and George Carlin when I was a kid. I really love Louis C.K. and usually like Patton Oswalt and David Cross now. Beyond that, I don't know a lot of comedians.

CC: Were you the class clown-type as a kid?

KH: I most definitely was not a class clown as a kid, and to be honest, though I do attempt to "be funny" a lot of times as an adult, I think my attempts are mostly failures. I guess I sort of think of myself as a deadpan comedian, but I'm probably too awkward (and sometimes too genuinely serious) to pull it off.

I also definitely wasn't aiming for humor early on in the Karl Hendricks Trio, but at some point, I think I noticed that it was in there in songs like "Naked" and I decided that was okay. I think some songwriters who many people think are very serious are actually pretty funny (in a good way). I think Leonard Cohen can be really funny. Bob Dylan and Nick Cave can be really funny (though I think more people notice it with them than with Cohen).

But so much of what has stuck with me throughout my life combines humor and pathos -- I loved Woody Allen when I was a kid. Philip Roth and Kurt Vonnegut's books. And so forth. I don't know if any of that stuff directly translates to my songwriting, but I guess it's all in there somehow.

CC: Your music has been impervious to trend, or so it would seem. KHT records have been remarkably consistent, not just in quality but also stylistically, for two decades. Would people be surprised to find that you have been influenced by some very contemporary, even trendy, artist at any given point over the years? I definitely remember trying to basically write Sunny Day Real Estate's "Sometimes" over and over back when I was just starting to write songs way back when. Maybe it's a newer writer's move?

KH: When I started out on guitar as a teenager, I was so incompetent that I don't know if I could even speak about that kind of influence. I could barely play a chord, much less even thinking about "copying" what someone else did on guitar. And those first couple of years of writing songs and recording them on my four-track was really a process where I learned how to play guitar and in some ways it was pretty self-contained. And I kind of feel like I never really got away from that. I still think of my guitar playing as necessarily connected to my songwriting -- it's always a huge project for me to learn a cover!

CC: So what are some of the more recent influences? Is there anything you think echoes fairly obviously in the songs on the new record?

KH: A lot of the "old" influences are still there with me -- all the music on SST and Homestead that first got me really excited about music when I was a teenager in the mid-'80s, all of the bands that had some influence on how independent rock sounded (I'm thinking bands like Slint, Codeine and even to a certain extent for the KH3, Helmet) a few years later, bands I played with and became friends with a few years after that, most especially Silkworm/Bottomless Pit.

But there are certainly a lot of other things that have been important to me besides mid-'80s to mid-'90s independent rock. Neil Young feels like a constant presence in my life. All kinds of other songwriters from Dylan on, to more recently Simon Joyner and Ben Barnett (of Kind of Like Spitting). And then there are guitar players who probably influence in what I strive for as a guitar player (though you probably couldn't hear it in my playing all the time), probably starting with Neil Young, but also including Andy Cohen from Bottomless Pit and even Damon Che (who I played with in the Speaking Canaries).

But I still only feel like I'm scratching the surface. I'd want to list a ton of other guitar players, like Richard Thompson, Sonny Sharrock, Tom Verlaine/Richard Lloyd, and so on, as influences, though anything from them may only filter through to the KH3 in a vague way. Stuff like DC hardcore is in there. Lots of classic rock, like Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers. I'd want to say, heck, even free jazz, but that sounds pretentious. I guess the point is once I start thinking about influences, I have a hard time not listing pretty much everything.

But as I also said, kind of also nothing, because when I sit down, I'm really just conscious of my own thoughts and my own limitations (or my own painfully acquired skills, if I want to be half-full) as a musician. And I think that had a lot to do with how I started writing songs in what felt like a kind of vacuum (something I talked about on the Low Times interview). And now, as I said last time, since I've been doing this for a while, I do feel like I have a sort of precedent to draw upon (which I sometimes push or pull against slightly, depending on what I'm going for).

I haven't touched on "new" influences... but I listen to new stuff all the time, and I like a whole lot of it. Part of that has to do with being a record buyer for a store for pretty much my entire adult life (as well as now owning the store). I have a vested interest in seeing music (popular, underground, whatever) remain a vital thing in my life and others' lives -- and I think that makes me a more open and attentive listener (especially at this point in my life; I was a lot more cynical twenty years ago, in my early twenties). And so this daily interest in new music is certainly an influence on me currently as a musician, if only that it's a part of what keeps me thinking it's worthwhile (there are other people out there like me!) at a time when playing what I have the ability to play (guitar-based rock music) isn't particularly fashionable among as large an audience as it was in the past.

One last thing that I think is worth mentioning, both in terms of influence and just in general, is the experience of playing with Jake and Corey. We've been talking about lyrics (which I do spend a lot of time with), but just as important to me is the "band" element of what we do. I'm grateful (and I've always been grateful to whoever has been in the band) that I have the chance to write these songs, take them to practice, and then see what Jake and Corey are going to do with them. Thinking about how something travels from chords and lyrics in my basement to a rock song in our practice space is also, I think, a really big influence (if not the biggest influence) on how I put these songs together.

CC: One thing that really struck me about the new record is the relatively frequent use of vocal harmonies. I can't think of a single prior instance of them in the Trio's catalog, although I realize now that there a few songs with vocal harmonies, maybe a little down in the mix, on the Karl Hendricks Rock Band record. Were you against the idea of incorporating harmonies up until some point in time, or was it just all about having the right personnel to pull it off?

KH: I can't say I ever really been against them or it was even really a conscious decision to incorporate them now. Corey, who plays bass on The Adult Section (and The World Says) and who recorded The World Says, is a talented vocalist, so it seemed like a natural idea to have him do some background vocals. I pointed out the spots I wanted them, and he just did his thing, adding the harmonies.

CC: Maybe because I identify with the "adult themes" of The Adult Section, the record seems a little more serious to me. And I find A Gesture Of Kindness to be sort of dead serious. Among all of your records, do you consider any of them the "this is Karl making a big statement" record?

KH: I might as well be honest here... I think the second through fourth albums (Some Girls Like Cigarettes, Misery and Women, and A Gesture of Kindness) were kind of dealing-with-a-heartbreak albums, and I suppose I was kind of trying to make a "big statement" about my heartbreak. And I'm slightly embarrassed about my motives, though I'm not embarrassed about the records (which actually, have probably turned out to be the ones people have liked the most, for good or bad).

But I would say, the record that started the band (Buick Electra) and all the ones since those next three until now (For A While, It Was Funny, Declare Your Weapons, The Jerks Win Again, and The World Says) have more eclectic approaches to writing songs. I think I was just figuring out how to write songs on the first, and I've been trying to figure out how to write songs about things other than heartbreak since then -- and I'm actually much more interested in writing more outward looking songs now (and also maybe more willing to include some humor). And I think the challenge of making (perhaps) less personal, more observation-driven songs actually sometimes leads to even better songs in the end.

That said, I think The Adult Section does feel more serious to me. I really want to avoid talking about the voices in the songs as if they are me (even though as I said in the last part, that seems disingenuous). But if you'll allow me to do so, I would say the singer of those songs is a bit more preoccupied with things that I think people can -- like I said [earlier], if they have this luxury -- struggle with as they get older (facing more and more loss, facing relentless responsibility, facing the realization that decay wins), while also being a bit more aware of how the small habits and objects around us help us cope with those larger struggles. And I think the more songs I wrote for the record, the more I let those themes stick around--so I think it very well be true that there is somehow a more cohesive statement in there. And if talk about "themes" sounds self-indulgent, I would say that I partially agree with you and I hope that the humor helps now and then.

CC: What can fans expect in terms of touring The Adult Section? I can't imagine you can get away from the record store for too long.

KH: Well, unfortunately not a whole lot... but probably more than none. Maybe New York one trip, Chicago on another weekend, a couple more cities here and there. We may have surprises left in us.

CC: Thanks Karl, it's been a thrill for me to do the interview.

KH: Thank you, Jay! I hope I didn't embarrass myself, but if I did, thanks for the opportunity.

Pre-order The Adult Section from Comedy Minus One records right here. The album will be released July 17.

The Karl Hendricks Trio: Facebook | Wikipedia | YouTube

1 comment:

songs 2012 said...

Looking forward for Karl Hendricks Trio new album.

thanks for sharing "the men's room at the airport"