Graham Reid | | 13 min read
Micah P Hinson is one those artists who is just starting to appear on the radar for many people, this despite much touring, two excellent albums before his current Micah P Hinson and the Red Empire Orchestra album, and a back-story that has been of interest to music writers.
The slight Hinson -- who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household in Abilene, Texas where his father was an academic -- started making music as a teenager, was influenced by the Cure and Nirvana as much as the pop music of his parents’ generation, and hooked up with John Mark Lapham of the Earlies who has been a longtime supporter and mentor.
Hinson path was rocky however: by his own account he fell into a lifestyle of drugs and homelessness, was seduced by a famous rock star’s widow, and then cleaned up his act.
He began to record (with help from Lapham), his debut album The Gospel of Progress in 2003 picked up excellent reviews and much was made of his drug habits. Since then he has levelled out his life.
In 2005 he injured his back and took a lot of time out, proposed to his girlfriend on stage at Union Chapel in London in 2007 at the end of a show, and his new album Micah P Hinson and the Red Empire Orchestra reflects a somewhat happier -- if still slightly uncomfortable -- state.
The album finds his dark voice set against some thrilling noir-pop backdrops courtesy of strings and slo-mo guitars which have been likened to the grandeur of Sigur Ros (a Hinson favourite) as well as still stalking the alt.country territory of previous albums. And in places a wide open twang which suggests the spaces of his home state.
Lyrically he deals with many aspects of love, a number of which form the subtext of this interview as it turned out.
The album is easily his best work so far and after some troubled times Hinson is affable and good humoured, remarkably candid . . . .and we might even suggest, happy?
He talked about that, about having a lawyer who doesn’t charge him, of Patsy Cline, and of being big in Barcelona . . . . . .
I tried you last week and wasn’t surprised to not get you -- because you were going to France.
Yeah, we just got back from France last night. It was just one gig at a town called Saint-Malo, we were supposed to do that and then have 10 days off and start again in Dublin and go around England. Me and my wife were going to have a proper honeymoon -- but the closer we got to it the more we realised we didn‘t have the energy or the money for it. So we just decided to go for the four days to France and have a vacation, play a gig and so some press. It was a quick one and we travelled more than we got to see stuff.
Was that a festival?
It was a big festival and the Breeders were there, Sigur Ros and other people. There were three different venues and the one I played in was about 500 seats, a small theatre. And another was 20,000 on a big stage where Sigur Ros played. But the venue I was in suited my music quite well because it was just me and my buddy Nick Phelps playing drums, banjo and lap steel and me on acoustic and electric guitars. It was good to be in smaller place where we weren’t expected to ’rock out’ or whatever.
You are going to Dublin and England, that’s the kind of level you play there too? The 500-600 seat theatres?
Yeah, that’s the way it is going I guess. That last time I was in London it was about that, but in Spain we’ll sell out to 1500, maybe 1600 people in Barcelona, Madrid about 1000. In Berlin it was about 150. In the States about five people show up, so there’s a cool, enormous range of reactions to my music. I’m not like Coldplay where I can go to any country and know 6000 folks are going to show. Thank God I’m not like that.
I saw you play the Wine Cellar in Auckland in 2005 which I think seats five.
[Laughs] Right, that place at the bottom of those steps! It was a small place. It was fun and I have fond memories of playing there. Thank God last year I got a new booking agent and he’s talking to people down your way about getting back. My guy before was a bit of a shady character and he never did what I wanted him to do. So I’m talking to my new guy about getting back down. Even though it is halfway across the world, it needs to happen.
Tell me what you attribute that huge audience in Spain to? Is it Spanish people or is it American expats?
To be honest the majority of people who show up are Spanish and in talking to the record label people they tell me only a small percentage of people speak English so most at the show probably don’t even speak English and have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s a good question. Maybe the emotion of my voice? You don’t have to understand what I am saying maybe? I like Sigur Ros and I have no idea what he’s on about. Maybe it’s the cliché that music is a universal language.
You might find that it came down to one song being played on one radio station. But I think you are right, you don’t necessarily have to understand every word. On your new album there’s almost a hymnal quality about some of it but then I get the sense of a Texas guitar twang which suggests wide open spaces. It’s also a very positive album -- for one which was mixed in a funeral parlour.
Yeah, it used to be called the Tapp Funeral Home and this guy John Congleton and a friend cleared everything out and put in some equipment. It’s a strange place and is an area called Oak Cliff which is a part of Dallas, a very financially destitute part of town with a lot of crime and drugs. So it is definitely a strange place to record at. The studio is there because it was the cheapest place they could find and John is a stunning co-producer and he engineered the majority of it. When we trying to get this one I wanted the sound to be above and beyond anything I had done so far.
The Opera Circuit was kind of lo-fi and I wanted something bigger and grander, but it was strange because we recorded a lot fewer instruments on the album. In the past I would be inclined to put 10 guitar parts down together and that was cool. But this time it was just one, very stripped down and reserved -- but in the end I think it has a timeless sense to it.
It is musically ambitious, it reaches out.
[Laughs] I wouldn’t call my music ambitious but I do like that adjective.
It sounds like you are in happy place at the moment. I know your background so we won’t go over all that, but it does sound like life is working out.
Yeah, things have gone really well. A bit over a year ago now I took time off -- just a few shows here and there because you have to have money -- but I sat around and hung out with my girlfriend who was then my fiancée and now my wife and things were good trying to get my back sorted out. And taking a deep breath and getting my life in order.
And it has proved very successful, you can hear it in the album and I’m coming from a different point of view on the songs. I guess when I think of love and relationships it is from much more solid ground. In a way I know more about love than I ever have. If a song had something to do with love on my last albums that was me just being a young kid and not really knowing what that really meant.
Meeting my wife was the first time I met someone who had that sense of unconditional love, and it’s hard to find people like that who can understand it and put it into practice.
So to get that, it’s been a good time. I’m not living on cloud nine but I have some solid footholds and foundations of life to make everything worthwhile.
You don’t sound like man given to the dramatic gesture, but you did propose onstage at Union Chapel in London, which I have to say a very beautiful venue.
We’d talked about getting married and had bought a ring and things, then it was up to me to decide where I was going to ask her and how I would go about it. If I thought about it and I couldn’t . . . there was nothing that struck my mind that maybe not a lot of people in the world could do and then it dawned on me . . . God has blessed me in my life and I’m lucky enough to be able to make music a career. So the fact I could get on stage and ask her sounded like a perfect thing.
But I kept it my little secret and then I asked her to come on stage and was all chocked up. It’s amazing, if you are going to do it anywhere you might as well do it in a place like that.
When you ask someone to marry you, you are proclaiming to the world that this is for the rest of your life and you are committed. The fact that someone has put it on YouTube and I’ve seen people write about it magazines takes off from that idea and actually takes it to the world. It’s a really cool thing.
But no, I’m not a dramatic guy in lots of ways and doing that was a bit out of character.
I’m glad I did it -- and I’m glad she said yes. I would have become a total arsehole and we’d be having a totally different conversation right now. And my last record would sound like Trent Reznor had made it. Or Marilyn Manson.
Are you playing Union Chapel on your next tour? And would you want to play in that place again?
That’s a good question, I’ve never thought about it. That was a really good time for me and my wife, and a healing time after some of the things we’d been through so I guess to go back might be . . .
I don’t think it would ruin the memory, and they did want to book it but I said no and let’s do it at this other place. But it wasn’t for that reason, it was because I wanted to be loud, and at Union Chapel you can’t be loud. There are a lot rules and regulations regarding volume. And I want to be excruciatingly loud, I like going from being really quiet to painful where people want to leave the room. I think it’s important to have all angles.
Will it just be the two of you making it loud or will you have a band?
Me and Nick have toured a lot of places and we have got loud and caused a lot of trouble. Sometimes just the two of you playing is a bit strange because you are missing those essential things like bass. We had a bass player on a couple of tours but that didn’t work out, so it’s back to me and him again. But I think it’s good.
For the London show I’ll be hiring some strings and actually my wife has started doing backing vocals on some songs and she plays piano really well so she’ll be playing Wurlitzer and Hammond organ.
It’ll be getting fuller -- but it depends on money, if money wasn’t an option for me and all the money I made could just go into shows it would be different. But touring is an important part of being able to survive that I’d rather take out one person and be able to pay them really well. Nick makes a proper living off me because all he does is play with me, and I’d rather have that than six people in a band who scrape by.
Two people can make an unholy racket of they really want. I saw J Mascis play a solo show recently and it was deafening.
I’ve never got to see him but I’ve had some friends who have and they said he was absolutely stunning. J Mascis -- and KT Tunstall when she was getting her start -- can use loop pedals really well, but you put it in the hands of the wrong people and you’ll get bad stuff.
Are you a technological person. You mention Sigur Ros whom you like and even though what they do is simple at one level there is a high degree of technological smarts at work there.
Yeah definitely. We played with Blonde Redhead and it sounded incredible, but there’s something about me which says that if you can’t pull it off when you are there then you might not need to do it. So to a certain extent I resist it. There’s a song called Me And You on an obscure Spanish EP I did and it there is this lulling loop which doesn’t really change or have a start or ending point, and I’ll use things like that for atmospheric things. But as to pre-recording a bass line or strings, that seems a bit too much.
I guess being a two-piece band it would make sense to have that kind of stuff in the modern world, but it even goes into recording. If someone sits down with cello part and screws up at the end I’m not a fan of drop-ins and stitching things together, I’d rather start the whole thing over. I want it to be a whole solid thing and I’m not into that cutting and pasting. But you have to do it to a certain extent, with a reel-to-reel thing and its $300 a reel for 15 minutes recording time, I have computers and use them. But as far as live I try to get it as natural as possible.
Do you listen to much music for pleasure in your downtime as it were?
As of late I’ve found myself not getting the pleasure I used to from it. I guess it’s like a plumber going home and working on his own sink. But there are some people I’ll listen to and will always find me in a good mood and I’ll always be able to listen to not matter what mood I’m in: people like Sigur Ros and Patsy Cline. Especially Patsy Cline. No matter what is going on I can always put on one of her records and everything will be better.
I have harder time to listening to many songs because I listen to recording quality or how they panned a certain thing or did effects. I just get a bit too wrapped up in the technical thing.
Listening for sheer pleasure is very different thing for a musician sometimes.
Yeah, and even listening to my own stuff. I got in the vinyl of The Red Empire so this morning I listened to the first side and I was having a hard time listening to everything at once and not just picking things up and trying to find what mistakes I made.
It’s difficult to step away from your own stuff and listen to it as a finished product, because that is what it is.
That’s the way it goes, a lot of times I feel like I’m a bit of whore to music because I don’t have a manager or a tour manager or a driver or any of these things. So when I’m at home I’m working on music or dealing with record labels or on the road it is all on my shoulders. In the end I probably only have five percent of my time dealing with music, the rest is bureaucracy.
Some musicians spend more time talking to lawyers than they do with other musicians. And I feel sorry for anyone who has to spend any time talking to lawyers.
[Laughs] The good things for me is I have this really good lawyer, he’s a crazy enormous man from Hoboken, New Jersey and he refuses to let me pay him anything. He’s been working for me for four years now, although I guess I paid maybe $1000 for a side project on 4AD. I’m like his pro bono work or something, minus the drugs. It’s like we’re Hunter S Thompson and Dr Gonzo. Sometimes I think we should introduce drugs into our relationship and see what happens. He’s a good guy.
But yeah, sometimes it is rough getting up every morning and dealing with e-mails and getting irritated with people who are screwing things up. It’s a headache but in the end I am such a control freak I wouldn’t want to give up any of that to anyone else.
Is touring life easier now in the past few years the more grounded you are?
Definitely. Since we are venturing into new countries it gets a bit nerve wracking but going to England or Ireland or Spain I do know what to expect and that’s a home away from home. That doesn’t mean it’s not stressful because it is, but it is much easier than it used to be and I’m sure as I get older it will get easier and you don’t have to rely on someone driving you around and that.
Presumably your wife tours with you all the time?
Yeah definitely, I actually got her to quit her job right before we got married. And the day after we got married we went to Spain and started touring. Luckily we are blessed enough to make enough through the music that she can come out and do this with me.
But she is a trained professional counsellor, that’s how I met her. She was going to university under my father in his marriage and family therapy masters programme. So the year I took off and didn’t do a lot of shows she was working on her professional career and now we are going to work on mine, and we’ll pass the buck back and forth for a little bit.
But my mother kind of followed my dad a lot and she ran his business and dealt with al his stuff. And looking back, she’s getting on to 60, she used to want to be an artist and is a talented painter. So the question is, what has she done for herself lately?
And I don’t want to be 60 years old and have to look at my wife like that and that we had spent all our time on music and not letting her fulfil her dreams, because that is such an important thing.
If someone asked me to give up my music to follow their career I’m not sure I could do that. So it has to be equal.
And you can’t get the time back. I’m pleased things are going so well and we really would like to see you back in this part of the world because you played to a small but enthusiastic audience.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s all coming back in waves. Let’s do it. I’m in contact with the right people and I’d like to get there are soon as possible, but I would think after the New Year.