Micah P. Hinson plays Crawdaddy this Thursday, 4th November. Siobhán Kane spoke to him about Spain, Roy Orbison, and doing My Way his way.
Micah P. Hinson essentially announced himself to the world with his 2004 record Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress, and a year later compounded his stealing of the heart with the majestic The Baby and the Satellite; something in those two records managed to haunt, and created a deeply resonating dynamic between hurt and hope, and more than that, a legacy. He has carried this dynamic through subsequent records, from his covers album All Dressed Up and Smelling of Strangers to this year’s Micah P. Hinson and the Pioneer Saboteurs. His double covers record gave an insight into his own musical tastes (“for the ups and the downs” as he has previously said), featuring Pedro the Lion‘s ‘Slow and Steady‘, The Lovin’ Spoonful‘s ‘You Didn’t Have to be so Nice‘ and Roy Orbison‘s ‘Running Scared‘ – it seemed appropriate for him to share a kind of musical dialogue with them, since their common ground is over a true individuality.
His young life has already been full of tumult and despair, but also adventure and courage. After some dark times years ago, he managed to save himself, enrolling on a college course, and creating music; then, after creating some beautiful records, he developed the chronic back pain that still haunts him now, but around the same time found personal happiness (he proposed to his now-wife Ashley on stage after a concert at Union Chapel, London in 2007), it has always, it seems, been about the clashing of emotional extremes. Reading about his life often feels like reading an E. Annie Proulx story, since geographically they often inhabit similar territory (for her Wyoming, for him Texas), but also emotionally as well, since there is an implied rebelliousness, as well as a sense of kindness. There is also a sense of being grateful but not necessarily content, there is a vision of life as a journey, never complete – which is evident in the way Micah revisits his work, adding in reprises, and different versions of songs, all the time.
His 2008 record Micah P. Hinson and the Red Empire Orchestra indicated a shift of sorts, as there was even more subtle, luscious orchestration based around his acoustic guitar and inimitable drawling, twisting vocal. This shift coincided with a very difficult time in his life, where, still suffering from chronic back pain, he retreated home to Texas, to contemplate a life without making music, but with producer John Congleton’s encouragement, Micah ended up producing one of his best pieces of work. Perhaps this is part of what makes him so special, his years of refusal to conform, to do what is ‘expected’. It frames everything he does. His work seems to ache with both tenderness and savagery (for love, for politics, for everything inbetween); his is a cry of someone truly alive, like when the heavy sounding cello kicks in two minutes into ‘The Leading Guy’ or with the nostalgic, heart-wrenching tone throughout the entirety of ‘I Still Remember’ to the mischief of ‘Sweetness, Take off that Dress for Me’: ‘you can come home with me/ against all hope and sense of decency’.
It seems particularly appropriate in the best superhero vein that Micah works in a comic book store back in Abilene, Texas – by day comic store employee, by night gifted musician, Siobhán Kane meets him.
Over the last couple of years you have spent some time in Spain, and have worked on some very interesting projects there, how did they come about?
Yeah I’m doing all sorts of shit in Spain! I have a label there called Houston Party and I have released two EP’s with them called A Dream of Her and Surrendering, and the third one will probably be released in December. I have that one finished. Then I am going to re-record everything and make it my first next big proper release, because so far it has only been available in Spain.
Then this publishing company called Alpha Decay published my first novel You Can Dress Me Up But You Can’t Take Me Out and they really liked it, it’s not too long like the Bible or anything [laughs]. They are doing a worldwide Spanish translation, which I can’t believe, some writers wait forever to get something translated, but I wrote it in English and it is being published in Spanish. They have released around eighty novels in the last forty years in Spain, and are really well respected publishers, so I am very happy.
On your latest record, you are further experimenting with sound, the orchestration at the beginning, for example.
I have definitely become more interested in the concept of sound. When I went to record the new record, I bought a reel-to-reel for five bucks, an old Yamaha, old tape machines, I wanted to make a really strange world, kind of like atmospheric records like Pet Sounds or most records by The Pixies, it’s a different world. I tried to do that with the record, because it begins with the strings and is very pretty and normal and nice, but as the record goes on it gets more fucked up, the drums don’t sound like drums. I don’t know how I do this, whoever makes those records in there, and whoever is out here is a completely different person.
It is such a complete record, that by the last song, it feels as if you are releasing us from a strange dream.
I always wanted to build to that, the climax, where you get to ‘She is Building Castles in Her Heart’, and ‘The Returning’, at the end of that, I wanted to bring people out of that world with the strings, as I had begun, but also the other things. It is a strange world in there indeed. One thing we did was to send a signal through a tape machine and then let the strings happen but we would turn it up, and have the main strings going, but then other instruments and sounds would be going in and out to make it sound weird. None of these things I am saying I set out to do, it is just the result.
There seemed to be a subtle shift in sound around the time of the Red Empire record.
I suppose I always say with each record that it was the record I needed to make or had to make, but the Red Empire one was important for me as I tried to strip down everything, and make it simple, but also Phil Spectoresque, that Wall of Sound thing but with fewer instruments.
Then with your covers record you surprised again, with some less-obvious choices.
The covers record was originally supposed to be all shoegaze stuff and then Buddy Holly pops up!
But then you took an established song like ‘My Way’, that has almost moved beyond being a song because it so iconic, and you stripped it for the parts and breathed new life into it.
My label did not want me to put that song on the record, they didn’t. I am not sure they understand why I did it even now, but it’s out, I think people really dig it, and I am really glad. Who cares if it is done a million times, it is like folk music, maybe Frank Sinatra wasn’t a folk musician, but who is to say it is not a folk song, that’s how I see it.
One of your covers particularly struck me as resonating quite deeply with you, Roy Orbison’s ‘Running Scared’. I was listening to The Traveling Wilbury’s again recently, and it came to mind that after the deeply tragic struggles he had in his life, he gained a sense of real happiness with that project. And though ‘Running Scared’ was recorded over twenty-five years before the Wilbury’s, he still carried it with him, he appreciated the happiness because he would always be the vulnerable man in that song facing potential grief, it is very powerful.
He was all about struggle and tragedy. He had a tough life, especially for just being who he was. I think he is better than all those other dudes, put together. It was a scary song to do, it was frightening, and so I tried to keep it as true as possible. On his original he had his vocal parts doing different things, it was quite complex, whereas I had the strings do some of those parts, that’s as much as I changed it up with that song really. I haven’t listened to that covers record in so long, I bet I would like it if I listened to it again [laughs].
Throughout all of your work, no matter how melancholy, and there is a lot of melancholy – there is always an echo of hope, is that an essential aspect for you?
That is a really good thing you pointed out, it is a very important thing to me. This record is a very depressing record, possibly the most depressing I have ever made, but within all of it, there is light, and whether you find that in its satire, or wherever, there is always going to be a light at the end of the tunnel with all of my stuff, whether I am singing about a negative thing or not, the purpose is not to dwell within that, but get beyond that, to be as complete and happy as a person you can be on this earth. I think some of the best musicians in this world have done that.
Your records almost seem to have a narrative, or a concept of sorts attached to it, is this painstaking in terms of preparation or not at all?
You know, I don’t think about music ever! I don’t take notes on things. Songs just come to me. Like that song ‘Sweetness’, that is literally the first take you are hearing on the record. I had an idea about words and the song and I didn’t want to forget it and that was it, I didn’t spend any time on it. ‘Beneath the Rose’ came about the same way, I spent a little longer on it, but if I spend any longer than a little time on a song, it’s weird. I don’t rehearse, and when it comes to my shows I hope it will just come to me, and that everything will work out fine, if it doesn’t, well, it will still be fine. The only thing I spend more time on is the piano, as I have a lot of sonatas that are maybe thirty minutes long, well actually they are never-ending [laughs].
Part of what seems to influence your records is a sense of never wanting to conform with what society would almost dictate, would you agree with that?
I would. I have always been a very sensitive individual towards humanity, but as far as doing things my own way…I spent a lot of my childhood in a lot of trouble for doing things the way I thought necessary. There is that metaphor where your Mum would say something was hot, so don’t touch it, I knew that it was hot, accepted it was hot, but would still do it – that right there is a good metaphor for my entire life [laughs]. That way is not for everybody. I know that, especially when drink gets involved, I used to be a real heavy drinker, but I am blessed that I have been able to get away from things that are harmful to me and still do what I think necessary.
Where does that strength come from, to be able to pull yourself out?
I think the strength comes from somewhere else, I am not sure where that is, the great magnet in the sky, I suppose, but I am very grateful for it, it gives me everything I have today; sitting here with you in London, being with my wife, making my music, it’s great.
I remember when you proposed to your wife in Union Chapel, as part of that tour with Mountain Goats and Alasdair Roberts in 2007, it seemed like a very special tour, and a very special time.
It really was. Alasdair is a funny guy. We were in Glasgow I think near the end of the tour and the Mountain Goats were asking him about haggis, if it was a real animal, so Alasdair just replied that it was a four legged animal with two legs on one side that were shorter than the other, so that it could walk down the hill – I fucking laughed my ass off, and no-one else laughed, no-one else got it. That was probably the only thing he said for the three weeks on tour, but it was good. That’s kind of the thing about him, he always seems to be one step ahead, with a joke like that it’s obvious, and so most of the time he can stay calm and serene because he knows that he is better than everyone else.
Over the years, Alasdair has made a point of collecting stories around quite rural parts of Scotland, in order to document them, but also often to use on his records, have you ever thought of doing something like that? Like E. Annie Proulx does in a novel like That Old Ace in the Hole, documenting cattle-herding, panhandling, rituals, lives – there must be a thousand stories from where you live in Texas.
You know, I have thought about doing that, but I think it would be easier to collect on a certain type of people. There are a lot of deranged individuals and destitute human beings around my home. And in terms of panhandling? It would take me a month, because you know, we have a ten thousand strong homeless community in our town, but that’s only in the city, there are seven and a half thousand transient people as well, isn’t that crazy?
– Siobhán Kane
Micah P. Hinson‘s latest record Micah P. Hinson and the Pioneer Saboteurs is out now on Full Time Hobby. He plays Crawdaddy on Thursday 4th November and we’ve a pair of tickets to give away – just email your name & your thumped user name to email@example.com with MICAHTICKETSPLEASE as the subject by midnight on Wednesday & your name goes into the hat.