A Conversation with Bob Hillman
Huffington Post 11.6.2015
Mike Ragogna: Bob, your new album Lost Soul was produced by Peter Case. How did this come together and were you already a fan of his music?
Bob Hillman: Peter Case is one of the songwriters who inspired me to become a songwriter. I grew up in LA in the ’80s, when The Plimsouls had A Million Miles Away and were featured in Valley Girl. I bought his 1989 solo album–The Man with the Blue Guitar–based on Robert Hilburn’s LA Times review, and spent a lot of time with it during my second year of college. In the summer of 1990, I went to a show at McCabe’s, which opened my eyes: you could play solo, but with rock energy. After that, I went to Peter’s shows whenever I could, and a couple of times approached him after. He was always very generous with his time and wisdom, but never moreso than when I sent him my first batch of demos in the mid-’90s. He not only listened, but called me on the phone! We stayed in touch after that, and both wound up in San Francisco in the 2010s, where we met for coffee periodically and talked about songwriting. Eventually, I convinced him to work on a record with me.
MR: It’s been a few years between the last album and this one so you must have a backlog of quite a few songs. What was the process for choosing material and while working with Peter, what was the recording like?
BH: Peter pushed me to re-arrange and re-write a bunch of the songs on Lost Soul. For example, we transformed “Bad Business” and “I’ll Replace You With Machines” from their original versions. In terms of lyrics, he pushed me to reconsider a verse here and a bridge there. For example, he asked me to write five new second verses for “Alison’s Part of the Equation,” which I did while running the San Francisco Half Marathon. I sent them over to him later, but he never really responded. Maybe he just missed the email, but it’s more likely that he just wanted me to get my juices flowing. The second verse that appears in the recording is the last of the five I came up with during that run.
Peter spent a lot of times with the songs, and came up with a few different concepts for the album. At one point, he considered taking all the songs with a place in the title: “Big Sur,” “Saint Catherine Street,” “Holly Park,” “Ocean Beach,” “Mission Creek”…there were a lot of them. Eventually, he settled on the batch that ended up on the record, with minimal input from me. My big contribution was to argue for the inclusion of Lost Soul. In hindsight, he chose a group of songs that hang together lyrically but have enough musical variety to make for good listening.
The recording process was very different from my experience. For one thing, I’ve never played and sung at the same time in a studio, much less played and/or song at the same time as a bunch of other musicians. There was me in a small booth, Danny McGough in the keyboard room, and Danny Frankel [drums], Jonny Flaugher [bass], and Joseph Arthur [guitar] in my line of sight. I’d give them a chart and run the song down once, then we’d run it down together a time or two. Peter might tinker with the arrangement or say something about a part–“More of this! Less of that!”–and then we’d run it down again and move on. Seriously, it was that “live.” So, instead of me singing the songs in a dark room by myself, punching in syllables for hours, what you’re hearing are complete live vocal takes. Literally, there might be three examples, of comping a word or line. I am actually amazed at quality of the performances, under the circumstances. I mean, there are definitely some cringe-worthy moments in terms of pitch–I won’t tell the general public what they are, in case they don’t notice those things–but in general I’m happy with what I and the band accomplished in such a short time.
One more thing worth noting is that I had almost no input beyond the songs and my vocal and instrumental performances. I certainly wasn’t listening to what the other guys were playing. I had enough going on! So, it really was the musicians coming up with ideas and fine tuning them with input from Peter. In the past, I have been known to obsess over this and that bass line or guitar sound. This time, in accordance with Peter’s wishes, I just let it go. The result is a much more spontaneous album than I’ve ever made before. Does anyone even play the same thing twice over the course of a song? I told everyone I wanted something different, and that’s exactly what I got.
MR: How did you want Lost Soul to differ from your previous works? What did you want to achieve sonically?
BH: I just wanted to do something different. By which I mean, come up with a sound that was different from what I hear in my head. What I hear in my head is fairly straightforward folk-rock, but I’ve made that record three times. If I was going to make another record, I was going to branch out, and that’s why I needed a producer. Peter and I discussed various touchstones, including Suzanne Vega’s 99.9 F°, when she worked with Mitchell Froom for the first time and made that transition from folky to ultra-modern. We weren’t necessarily after those particular sounds, just the spirit that moved her in that direction. In the end, David Bowie’s Low was probably a better analog. Anyway, we sought out musicians who, above all, would not fall into a folk-rock groove. Danny Frankel, for example, is a super-creative drummer who would not fit into The Eagles. I wonder what Peaceful Easy Feeling would have sounded like if he’d been behind the kit!
MR: You’re a pretty literate artist who worked for The Princeton Review and joins songwriting workshops, even spending time in Iowa as your wife pursued a career in writing. Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite works? How have they affected you as a person, your own writing and life’s path?
BH: I’m always surprised to hear about writers who don’t read. For me, reading is not only a diversion but also a way to hear different voices and experience different perspectives. The Basketball Diaries was formative for me in my senior year in High School. I couldn’t believe someone would choose poetry and drugs over basketball! That particular teacher–who was a parent at the school but also affiliated with The Beats in some way–asked me a series of questions that led me to the conclusion that you could make that kind of choice, and that there were damn good reasons for it. Some of my all-time favorite authors are Charles Dickens and Jane Austen–from the “old school”–as much for their humor as anything. I love Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow, Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson, and Hunger by Knut Hamsun. More recently, I’m on the George Saunders, Karl Ove Knausgaard, W.G. Sebald, and Edward St. Aubyn bandwagons.
MR: You’ve also been a professional athlete. How does that ethic affect your approach to writing, recording, career, maybe life?
BH: It’s a stretch to say I was a professional athlete. I played on the Association of Volleyball Professionals beach volleyball tour for one week, and earned $175. I did that for fun, but also to check a box: I demonstrated to myself that I could qualify for an event when the AVP was at its peak in the 1990s. I’m sure I could have played in a few more tournaments and earned hundreds more dollars, but instead I moved to New York and started the ball rolling on the singer/songwriter thing. Details aside, I did play a lot of sports in high school and college, which has had limited bearing on my recording career. One notable area has to do with performing. I understood the “stage fright” feeling, because it’s the same thing you get before an important game or match. I’m not sure how much that knowledge helped–getting on stage is still petrifying at first–but I did make the connection. Another obvious connection between sports and music is that being on a team is a lot like being in a band. It’s easy to bond with people when you go through strange experiences with them, like traveling to away games or going on tour. I feel a strong personal connection to many of the musicians I’ve worked with, and that feeling can develop quickly, i.e. over the course of a week-long recording project.
MR: Lost Soul is your fourth album, it following If You Lived Here You’d Be Home,Welcome to My Century and debut, Playing God. Creatively, what do you think evolved most over the course of your albums and how do you think you’ve grown as an artist?
BH: I have ALWAYS tried to get better at writing songs. That comes from early exposure to Jack Hardy, once of whose mottos was “you’re only as good as your next song.” I remember Jack once saying to me in front of a group of songwriters, “Bobby, you’ve got to address the melodic situation.” More recently, there’s a tendency to fall into abstraction–“tell don’t show”–that I struggle against. During the Lost Soul era–essentially the 2010s–I’ve tried to pick my subjects more thoughtfully and also write more vividly about those subjects. I’ve also evolved from angry songs to, I hope, songs with a little more heart. “Alison’s Part of the Equation” is a good example of that, and maybe “You Started Drinking Again,” which feels compassionate to me even as it describes someone who’s going off the rails.
I should add that I’ve also been working on my singing with an exceptional voice teacher named Louise Taylor. Louise is an accomplished singer/songwriter herself, and so knows exactly what to do with someone like me. Among other things, she has addressed my longstanding “breathiness” problem, and helped me “inhabit” the songs more. I studied voice for a year or so in the ’90s, but that teacher took a more technical approach: here’s how you warm up, here’s how you pronounce certain syllables, etc. Louise is more about putting songs across, which–I hope–is reflected in the vocal performances on Lost Soul.
MR: Some of Lost Soul‘s titles are pretty pointed, for example “I’ll Replace You With Machines,” “Overnight Failure,” and “I’ve Taken Enough S**t From You This Year.” From where do these characters get conjured and how cathartic does your writing get?
BH: “I’ll Replace You with Machines” is a complicated hybrid in that it was written for a friend, the songwriter/journalist Jim Allen, when he made a synth album in the vein of The Magnetic Fields. It sounds like I’m one band member singing about another, but in fact I’m Jim singing to his acoustic guitar, which is getting uppity and can easily be replaced. It might be a mistake to reveal that, because it sounds idiotic, but that’s where that particular song came from. More often, my characters are really real–like, they are my friends, and the songs chronicle their exact experiences–or informed by a distant reality. “Overnight Failure” and “Bad Business,” for example, come pretty directly from things in my life, but “Alison’s Part of the Equation” and “You Started Drinking Again” are more imagined than real. So, you know, there’s a continuum, but there’s generally some basis in reality that gets distorted into something that’s worth saying and can be said with three verses, a chorus, and a middle eight. In terms of catharsis, I offer “I Think I’ve Taken Enough S**t From You This Year.” I really had taken more than enough shit from that person that year, and it was fun to get that feeling out.
MR: My theory about Bob Hillman is that the latter song–much like Playing God‘s “List Of Enemies”–is kind of proof that you’re about 50% singer-songwriter and 50% punker. Which artists inspired your musical outlook and are there any creative contemporaries or current artists that you admire?
BH: As I think I mentioned earlier, I have always been interested in solo performers who bring rock and even punk rock energy. Black Flag was hardcore, but so was Woody Guthrie. Would anyone ever argue that point? He didn’t scream or run his guitar through a fuzz box, but his guitar killed freakin’ fascists. Is there anything more punk than that? It’s a version of that energy that first attracted me to Peter Case’s music, which comes explicitly from old folk and blues and the punk and rock scene of Los Angeles in the early ’80s. Another touchstone is Dan Bern, with songs like “Too Late to Die Young,” which offer dramatically different takes on sacred subjects: “The day that Elvis died was a mercy killing.” Dan’s vision was fairly uncompromising in his early years, when–for example–he sang a song with the line “aliens came and f**ked the monkey, they f**ked the monkey” at a folk festival. People were freaking out and dragging their kids away from the stage; I’m pretty sure he was immediately banned from that event. Now that I think about it, “List of Enemies” started with a line from his song “Estelle”: “I was sitting there updating my list of enemies…”
MR: Your title track is so uncomfortably honest about a particular failed relationship scenario. The guy’s an a**hole, right? He knows it, the relationship implodes, but he regrets it and has good wishes for his lost love’s future. Thoughts?
BH: The guy’s not necessarily an a**hole. Rather, he felt like an a**hole in that situation, and may have been viewed as an a**hole by the other person in the relationship and her friends. Lost Soul revisits a subject that will be familiar to anyone who heard my late ’90s songs, a number of which were recorded for but left off ofWelcome to My Century. Now, of course, I have a different perspective, and a remove that permits a more balanced viewpoint.
MR: Do you rework your material until it achieves a certain level of character exposure or is it an unconscious process?
BH: I am NOT one of those songwriters who waits around for inspiration, or blurts out ten verses and changes nothing, or experiences fully-formed songs in dreams. I come up with an idea and some sort of structure, and then fall back into craftsman mode. I am extremely meticulous when it comes to the “mathematics” of the song–that’s what Bob Dylan calls it in Chronicles–and am not satisfied until a line is perfect in terms of sound and meaning. When I say “perfect,” I guess I mean “as good as I can get it under the circumstances.” Sometimes, a line or an entire song doesn’t work no matter how hard I try, because I’ve painted myself into a corner, meter-wise, or I can’t dial in the meaning, or whatever.
MR: My favorite song on the album is “War of Independence,” which I believe addresses an outlook on life that embraces complacency, the mundane, or maybe just surrender. “The war of independence is not a revolution, here out West, the people rest.” To me, it’s kind of building on the blasé of “Celebrating Nothing” from If You Lived Here You’d Be Home.
BH: “War of Independence” is basically the same song as “Celebrating Nothing.” I write one of those pretty much every time I visit a certain place to see a certain person. Both songs–and, for that matter, “The Latenight” from Welcome to My Century–address the complacency situation. And, they’re all somewhat angry songs. Why am I so angry at people I perceive as complacent? Is it any of my business? Are they even complacent? Or, are they just living their lives as they see fit? Probably, my vehemence comes from a place of insecurity or fear, but I don’t have the psychological training to make a final determination.
MR: That brings us to the album’s closer, “Party Dress,” about the “wonderful actress” who fools everyone but you. The intimacy of the recording with its mournful trumpet and after-hours vibe brings out how pathetic the character is. You can almost see her sitting alone at the edge of her bed after five drinks too many complete with runny mascara and distant gaze. In a connected universe, I think she also could be the star of “You Started Drinking Again.” Or not. I tend to overthink things.
BH: Man, you really missed the boat on this one!
MR: Yay! Love when that happens. Okay, divulge.
BH: That song’s about a woman who is uncomfortable in the limelight. Her partner perceives this–“tongue-tied in the spotlight,” “I have never seen you less than self-assured,” “fooling everyone but me”–which is touching, because only he knows her well-enough to see through whatever veneer she’s putting out there…”you are a wonderful actress.”
MR: Many of your songs seem to be tales of people losing their way, falling off the hero’s path, and the mess that follows. Thus “Lost Souls”? Maybe a tad? And to some degree, do you believe we’re all kind of lost souls?
BH: The idea behind the title is that, in middle age, people sometimes seem squared away–family, job, etc.–but may be just as confused as anyone else. Some are pretty far out there: for example, “Overnight Failure” and “Bad Business” are about adultery, and “You Started Drinking Again” is about alcoholism. Others, however, are just exploring or figuring something out, like the guy in “Big Sur” or Leonard Cohen in “Saint Catherine Street.” You may only be a “lost soul” for a short time, or in a specific situation–e.g. the woman in “Party Dress” who is uncomfortable in the limelight–but you will feel lost at some point beyond when you’re supposed to feel lost. “Lost souls” are not just for people in their twenties who have been reading Kerouac or Henry Miller.
MR: You include a few musical guests on the new album. Can you reveal each person’s contributions and what you think they added to the better interpretation of the song or recording?
BH: Peter Case identified the musicians, with a couple of assists from Sheldon Gomberg, the engineer. Peter goes way back in the business, obviously, and knows everyone in Los Angeles. So, he had clear ideas about who could help execute our “do not make a straightforward folk-rock record” approach. That’s how we ended up with Danny Frankel [drums] and Danny McGough [keyboards], who have played with people like Lou Reed and Tom Waits and for whom “not straightforward” is a default setting. Frankel is a drummer who builds his parts around the words. Literally, instead of working out a beat while he’s listening to a song for the first time, he’s annotating the lyric sheet. McGough, who supported Tom Waits on the Mule Variations tour, which I saw at the Beacon Theater–one of the best shows I’ve ever seen–is a perfectly sane person who transforms into a mad scientist in a room full of musical instruments. Jonny Flaugher [bass] and Joseph Arthur [guitar] came through Sheldon. Jonny is a versatile, extremely musical bass player who happens to live in an apartment above Sheldon’s house, which is in front of the studio. How can you not hire him?! Joseph replaced another guitar player, who had to bail out at the 11th hour. I only knew Joseph as a singer/songwriter, but it turns out that he’s talented in about ten other ways. For example, have you seen his paintings, or his off-the-cuff snapshots on social media? As a sideman/lead guitar player, Joseph is about boundless energy and unlimited ideas. While I was running down a new song, he’d head into the other room and create a loop. We weren’t planning to build the album around loops, but that’s what developed. Then, I don’t think he played a single guitar part that I ever would have thought of. The vision for the album is definitely Peter Case’s, but he would have realized that vision very differently without Joseph Arthur.
I also want to mention Cindy Wasserman and Mark and Kipp Lennon, who sang most of the harmonies. Cindy is a friend of Peter’s who, it turns out, I’d seen with John Doe’s band when they opened for The Replacements in San Francisco recently. She’s a fantastic singer and warm person who added just the right nuance on songs like “Overnight Failure.” For example, I love the way she approaches the line “get up and get out” at the end of the bridge in that song.
Finally, Mark and Kipp Lennon are old friends. In fact, they played at my wedding with their side project, The Pine Mountain Logs. Their main group is Venice, which includes Kipp’s brother Pat and Mark’s brother Michael. There’s a great David Crosby quote out there, along the lines of “Venice sings way better than CSN.” That will seem like an outlandish statement to some people, but it should help with perspective. Anyway, it was great to finally work with these guys in the studio; they took “I Think I’ve Taken Enough S**t From You This Year,” “Big Sur,” and “Alison’s Part of the Equation” to the next level.
MR: Considering some of these songs have been gestating for a while, is there a song on Lost Soul that you’re relieved to have finally recorded?
BH: “War of Independence” has been around for a while. It’s been around so long, in fact, that I was sick of it even before we recorded it for Lost Soul. I considered it for If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home–we even cut a track with guitar and double bass–but left it off because it wasn’t working on that particular day. Probably, it should have been on that album, but it works well enough here. “I’ll Replace You With Machines” is another one that’s been kicking around, but we changed it a lot and now I like it again.
MR: By the way, do you have any Lost Soul favorites, either as songs or finished recordings or both? How about your back catalog?
BH: My favorite track on Lost Soul is “Bad Business,” which started out as a slow waltz and ended up as crazy rock music. The combination of that industrial-sounding loop and the abrasive keyboards make me very, very happy. I also like how “Big Sur” turned out, and “Saint Catherine Street.” In my back catalog, I’m very proud of “Valentine’s Day” and “Tolstoy,” which continue to resonate with listeners.
MR: Bob, what advice do you have for new artists?
BH: Practically speaking, I am a new artist myself and in need of advice. It’s true, though, that I had a run in the late ’90s/early ’00s, and probably learned a thing or two. In a nutshell, my advice is: write more songs. That’s what it’s all about, and there’s no substitute. At least, in the world I aspire to being part of. In addition to having good songs, it helps to have an authentic presence on stage, in social media, etc.
MR: Speaking of brutally honest, on your first album from back in the mid-’90s, you recorded a song titled “When I Wrote The Book” that, I feel, casts the protagonist as someone who might have started out with good intentions but escalated his compromises in order to achieve success. It comes off like a fresh take on the old “sold his soul to the devil” concept. How do you feel about that subject these days and might that somehow tie-in to your creative approach on Lost Soul? D**kish question, I know.
BH: That protagonist never really had good intentions; he’s on the make from the get-go. I have never been a “deal with the devil” type, if only because I don’t think I could write a “hit” if I tried. I mean, I could probably be more commercial, but only a little more. Commercial potential certainly did not enter into the Lost Soul “calculus.” In fact, we were thinking (1) I’d probably never try to re-create the sound live and (2) we wouldn’t pursue radio play. So, there are all those loops, and two of the catchiest tunes feature radio-unfriendly words in the choruses. I actually wish I’d considered (2) during recording, because I am now thinking of trying my luck at radio.
MR: Where does Bob Hillman go from here? What are your immediate plans and ideally, what would you like to have happen over the next few years?
BH: I just want to keep doing music. It would be great if Lost Soul could find a small audience, an audience that would demand another album. Then, instead of relying of my friends for financing, I could rely on a combination of friends and fans. It might be interesting to see what Peter and I could come up with next. How far out could we go and still serve the songs?
MR: Rumor has it you have a simple yet magnificent song titled “Ian & Lydia.” Any plans on ever recording it?
BH: Very few people know about that song! Two of them are Ian and Lydia, whose names have not been changed. They’re a couple that should have been, but definitely wasn’t. Anyway, I cut that song for Welcome to My Century with David Hamburger on pedal steel. It’s unfinished, but I’m including it with an expansive, annotated set of demos in a Kickstarter package. People who missed the Kickstarter–which ran in June 2015 and financed Lost Soul–are out of luck for the time being.
So. What should President Trump do after he finishes building his massive southern construct, you wonder? Well, Bob Hillman offers up Scott Walker’s favorite solution with this Lost Soul leftover…