Charlie Hunter lays down the funkiest riffs this side of Paisley Park, but attempting to describe the improvisational guitarist’s music only leads to frustration.
By Hunter’s own admission, you have to listen to his recordings and see him perform live to understand his music. He’s a real musician – no fancy trappings, no laser beams or multi-story towers for him. Just a guitar, a good backing band and an audience willing to take chances are all that he needs to entertain.
Hunter’s latest album – Gentlemen, I Neglected To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid – is his first release on Spire Artist Media and features drummer Eric Kalb (Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, John Scofield) and a horn section including trombonist Curtis Fowlkes (Jazz Passengers, Lounge Lizards, Bill Frisell), trombonist Alan Ferber (Don Byron, Kenny Wheeler) and trumpeter Eric Biondo (Antibalas, TV On The Radio).
And those musicians had to think on their feet. Gentlemen… was recorded live direct to two-inch analog tape using equipment dating back to the 1950s. It’s not an uptown disc. It doesn’t contain any overdubs, mixing or special effects. It’s honest music recorded by hard-working musicians. With a Jan. 12 release date, Gentlemen… could turn out to be your favorite album of 2010.
Pollstar recently talked with Hunter during a conversation that refreshingly reminded us that the music biz isn’t all glory, 20,000-seat arena concerts and big bucks, but is built upon the backs of people like the maestro himself, playing club after club, night after night.
How do you describe your music to someone who’s never heard you play?
I don’t. I tell them to come to the gig or go on YouTube and check it out. It’s just impossible to describe music, in my opinion. And it’s not supposed to be described. It’s supposed to be communicated on a non verbal-level.
Should music ever be described?
I mean, there are definitely styles, and you’re always going for making a style. It just doesn’t hit the nail on the head. It’s like trying to explain very complex math equations in English. It’s not going to work. You need the numbers. Just like you need your ears to hear what the music is supposed to be.
Do you hear music where others may not? Such as traffic sounds or a walk through a forest?
I mean, I guess everything is, but it’s not as cut and dried as that. Everything definitely has the potential to make music. I don’t know if I hear it in places others don’t, but I definitely think it.
It’s just impossible to describe music, in my opinion. And it’s not supposed to be described. It’s supposed to be communicated on a non verbal-level.
Tell us about the new album – Gentlemen, I Neglected To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid.
You only need one speaker to play it, because it’s in mono. I’m really excited about it. I think it’s a great record, just myself and a drummer, Eric Kalb, and three brass. We pretty much did it the old way. We put up a few microphones, hit “record” and we had a record.
How long did it actually take to record? You’ve recorded directly to analog tape before – no mixing, what you capture is the moment.
Exactly. Which is what I do anyway. Even when I do stereo – mixing and stuff – it’s still capturing the moment.
How long did it actually take to record?
Just two days. We probably could have done it in one day, but it probably would have been a less enjoyable experience because we would have been rushed.
Were you following a plan or was it mostly improvisation?
There’s always improvisation. That’s what we do.
But there are definitely horn arrangements and I brought songs in, of course. The horn arrangements are written out, but there’s improvisation between the drummer and myself. The horn players doing their thing. There’s always improvisation.
How do you feel about certain copyright issues – file sharing, fans posting videos and such? You’re not really known as a “control” person when it comes to determining how your music is heard.
Yeah, you can’t control anything. And a guy like me – I’m not an action figure, lottery-winner musician. I’m an actual, practicing, working musician, every day, 365 days a year, and guys like me are never going to make a lot of money.
Even back in the day when there was copyright stuff, you’d still get ripped off. And I’ve been ripped off so many times it’s not even worth getting into. It’s just the way that it works.
If you’re a musician, you’re on the very, very bottom of the totem pole in the music industry. You’re below the janitor that works at the record company, because he has health insurance and a union. You’re the bottom.
But the flip side is you also have the most fun.
But as copyright goes, my attitude is, it would be great to get a payday, but every time you get a payday, so little of the money actually reaches you it’s not worth getting your hopes up.
The most important thing is the people have the music. I put these records out, not because I can make money on them, because I don’t. I put them out so I can break even and make enough money to record the next record. Basically, to have a calling-card out there to say, “Hey! Here’s the music we’re doing, if you’d like to come down to the live gig” which is really where we make our living.
"I’m an actual, practicing, working musician, every day, 365 days a year, and guys like me are never going to make a lot of money."
What can you tell us about the tour supporting the new album?
It’s essentially going to be the same kind of set-up as the record, but newer music in addition to the stuff on the record. Sometimes I can’t afford to bring my brass guys with me, so I’ll have local guys reading my charts and stuff like that. It’ll be fun.
I’m going to Serbia and England. We’re having a Serbian horn section in Serbia and an English horn section in Britain. That should be pretty cool.
What’s it like to do a show with musicians you’ve never worked with before, or will never work with again?
You don’t necessarily ever play with them again. That’s the beautiful thing about this music game. You make new acquaintances all the time. That’s how your horizons broaden. That’s the whole name of the game.
So, no, it’s fun. It really is. You go into these gigs and these people have a whole bunch of knowledge you don’t have, and vice-versa. It’s just fun letting it go back and forth.
For me, I’m not a stickler for people playing the arrangements spot-on. I’d rather keep it loose and have people be comfortable and make a few mistakes and have the overall vibe be joyous and fun.
You’ve played with various people ranging from Norah Jones to Mos Def. Is it difficult to play with different artists from various genres? Or is it just another gig?
It’s just another gig, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s always fun. You’re always exploring something, and you’re always finding some weakness in your playing that you’re trying to work out. It’s all good.
Any musicians or artists you want to play with?
Yes, but first I’ll have to build my time machine to go back in time. I’d go back to the dawn of time and hear our ancestors somewhere in Africa playing on a log near a fire. I’d go back and check it all out.
Other musicians have gone to Africa to experience tribal rhythms firsthand. Is that something you’re interested in?
Probably not. You never know. I may get over there. I’ve played with so many different musicians and I’ve been to a lot of different places, I don’t really feel I need to go there.
When I lived in France, I played with a lot of those guys there. The music is transported. Wherever you go, the music goes with you. And it brings the culture with you, too. I feel I don’t need to go there, but it could be cool. But I travel enough as it is.
Have you ever considered working on film and TV soundtracks?
That’s the big payday if you can get it. That’s a world you really have to insinuate yourself into. You don’t just sit there and have them come to you. You have to move to L.A. I’m just not that kind of guy. I don’t deal with my own engineering and production. I just play music and write it. I can’t deal with all that other stuff you have to do. I really don’t have too much interest in it either.
But if someone tapped me for something, I’d be more than happy to do it.
"I’d rather keep it loose and have people be comfortable and make a few mistakes and have the overall vibe be joyous and fun."
How many gigs do you do a year?
These days, probably down to 100. Used to be more, but with the recession and getting older, I just can’t get away with doing as many gigs as I used to do.
Who would you want to play yourself in a movie based on your life?
Oh, man. I don’t know. Mel Carter? Dom DeLuise? Orson Welles? Ice Cube? The guy who played in the “Odd Couple,” Jack Klugman. Jack Klugman and Ernest Borgnine.
At what age?
Any age, it doesn’t matter. And it would be an avant-garde kind of film.
About the album coming out in January – Gentlemen, I Neglected To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid – is there a story behind the title?
There is, but it’s secret and I can’t tell anyone or I’ll be killed in the street. But I wasn’t the one telling others they wouldn’t be getting paid. I always pay.
Click here for CharlieHunter.com.