The jazzy musician known for his mastery of seven and eight-string guitars talks with Pollstar about his new album, touring and everything in between.
A role model for DIY artists, Charlie Hunter is releasing his new album – Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead – Oct. 2 on his own imprint label. His first album in three years, Hunter recorded the tracks with only one other musician – drummer Scott Amendola.
While talking with Pollstar, Hunter described a very minimalistic approach, not only in the recording of the new album, but in the tour supporting it: saying he and Amendola can set up and play a gig “in under 10 minutes.”
The new album – Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead – is pretty much a back-to-basics album, isn’t it? That is, no overdubs, no headphones, just you and Scott playing.
Playing right to tape. I’m calling it “almost mono” because all of the information, the rhythmic information, basically anything that’s not ambient, is mono. The only thing that’s stereo is just the room’s ambience. It’s kind of like the best of both worlds kind of vibe. You get the punch, the directness and fatness of mono but you get the openness of stereo without all of that, this instrument way over … and what happened to the time kind of vibe.
Because of the simplicity with you and Scott playing in the studio without any enhancements or overdubs, did you spend about the same amount of time recording it as it takes to listen to it?
It took us two days but you’ve got to understand a lot of the first day was just setting the stuff up and getting to the point where you just roll tape. That’s what we did. There was no EQ on it either. We just went straight to the tape with Dave McNair’s brilliant mixing on the fly. It was mixed while we played. I think most of the stuff there is first and second takes. We did a bunch of stuff the first day and listened to it the second day, then went back and did it again. Just two days of recording. We could have done it in one day if we had to but then you’d feel rushed from the get.
Since you were recording your guitar and Scott’s drums in the studio in mono, what exactly did you have to mix other than those two instruments?
A lot. Especially when we didn’t have to wear headphones, which is glorious. We spend most of our time playing live and we can regulate our own dynamics because that’s pretty much the entire name of our game— the interplay and dynamics. Basically, Dave was just having to find the relative level of all the microphones we had set up so he could capture our dynamics. There was a little bit of work.
How many mics did you use?
Not that many. I know there were probably two or three for me, two or three for Scott and maybe two for the room mics. Not that many at all.
Did the individual tracks begin as improvisations or did you go into each recording session knowing exactly what you were going to play?
It’s typical kind of whatever you want to call “jazz improvisations,” in terms of that I wrote these songs and they have very specific forms and the improvisation is done over those forms.
You have almost 20 albums to your credit. Do you have a wealth of recordings that hasn’t seen the light of day?
Not really. I usually try to get an idea and really work it. If it’s not working, I just leave it on the side of the road. There are a lot of things that probably didn’t ever get to the point. … Maybe there are certain motifs and things that will surface later on but generally those things are left on the side of the road.
What are your tour plans for supporting the new album?
We’re touring that the whole October, November and December. We’ll probably take January off, but tour February, March and April. We’re supposed to be in Japan and probably May in Europe. Scott and I will be out there crushing it.
Just you and Scott? That must really cut your overhead.
These days you’ve got to be really careful. On paper what looks like a great European tour, you get over there, with the exchange rate of the dollar and the price of jet fuel, you can lose your shirt. You got to really be careful.
Seems as if the drums/guitar model is becoming more popular. The Black Keys, for example.
I don’t think [The Black Keys] play as a duo when they perform. They have tracks recorded a lot of the times and they also record with whole bands in the studio. Maybe just the working, the business end, is just two people, but, ultimately, it doesn’t flush out that way. But with us, it’s about as down-and-dirty on the ground as you can get.
We can pull up to the venue, we don’t need to use the sound system. We can be set up and playing the gig in under 10 minutes. And we can be out of there in under 10 minutes, too, if they don’t like us and don’t want us around anymore.
And we also make a tenth of a tenth of what those other guys make. It’s a whole different universe we inhabit.
What do you use for tour transportation? Do you and Scott take turns driving a van or station wagon?
Not a station wagon. I get in my Jetta diesel TDI that gets about 50 miles to the gallon and I do the majority of the driving. Scott trades off with me, but I drive, probably 20-30,000 miles a year at least.
Are you going to keep the drums/guitar setup the next time you record in the studio?
I don’t really know. I love this setup, but … hopefully some singer somewhere who has a big huge audience will want to have Scott and me be their backing band (laughs).
I don’t really know what I’m going to do next. I have so many records out. I don’t like to just put records out to have a record out. I want to make it a real special thing. … We’ll see. A couple of years down the line, we’ll see what happens.
“I usually try to get an idea and really work it. If it’s not working, I just leave it on the side of the road.”
Has this always been your method of operation – playing it by ear as you go on?
Yeah, more or less. A lot of the times you really don’t have the choice. Back when I had a record deal, they want it when they want it. When you’re young, you can generate that stuff. People haven’t seen your curve ball and your slider. At this point I have to work that knuckler out.
Interesting metaphors. Have you ever played the National Anthem at a major league baseball game?
I have not. I just don’t know, I think it would be too much of a non-sequitur for me to do that. If I was backing up a singer, I’d be happy to do it. But just me getting out there and doing it? No. 1, I’d be terrified. And No. 2, it would be a non-sequitur, people would be saying, “What the hell is this guy doing and why is he here?”
What haven’t you done but would like to accomplish?
I don’t know. I mean, I feel like I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do with the music. I don’t have any regrets about that. The only thing I have issues with is just … the economic downturn. But everyone has that problem, now. I really can’t complain. I feel that I’m in one of the few professions, that even though it’s the farthest thing possible from a meritocracy, if you work really, really hard, you can eke out a real honest living and work with awesome people. I’m just happy for that, to be totally honest. Anything else, if I can make just enough to pay all the bills, I feel like I’m ahead of the game. Anything else that comes down the pike would be a fantastic bonus at this point.
What can you tell us about the title of the new album – Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead?
It’s the story of today. How slowly, slowly an entire society … or 99 percent of that society’s mentality shifts from this kind of attitude of “The American Dream” to “Not getting behind is the new getting ahead.”
I spent 25 years driving around this country playing every nook and cranny in it. A part of me feels like maybe a pretty decent reflection, or reflector, of that. The songs are kind of about that without really getting political. It’s not meant as a political statement. It’s just meant as a reflection.
You’ve toured a lot over the years. What changes have you noticed during your travels?
Twenty years ago, you could go to these towns and for better or for worse there was no Starbucks, no Walmart. There were downtowns, there were people who owned businesses you could walk into. Your conversations with them were not dictated by some lofty corporate protocol. You really felt everyone’s community was different. Although there were some similarities, obviously they had a different thing. Next time you’d go through town, you’d see the same people again. There was a general kind of prosperity to that. Now you go and these places don’t exist anymore. In a lot of these places, the job opportunities are very, very small. When they do get them, your interface with them is completely dictated by some corporate protocol from far, far away.
The whole grassroots way of somebody like me being able to roll into a town and create a couple hours of intellectual, visceral kind of distraction … gets a little harder. You go to towns like Detroit that I saw basically rebuild from 20 years ago, and you go to other places in whatever you want to call the “rust belt” and stuff is hard. These are people that most of them did not get to take part in the dot.com boom yet they’re baring the full blunt of the bust we have right now. You see that stuff and it’s real. It’s no joke, it’s no sit-com, there’s no laugh track. This is real, these are real people’s lives.
I don’t want to get too heavy about it because that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be providing those people with a distraction. But it is what it is.
If you could send a message back to the Charlie Hunter in the early 1990s who was preparing to release the first album, The Charlie Hunter Trio, what would you tell him?
I would say, “Anything I would tell you now, you would ignore and you’d be a total asshole about it. You’d be so arrogant that you wouldn’t be able to hear any of what I have to tell you. So I’m going to tell you nothing and watch and enjoy your youthful exuberance. That’s what you can enjoy from that.”
It’s like that whole axiom where the Truth comes to your door and you say, “Go away. I’m looking for the truth.”
You know what I’m saying? That’s the only thing I could say. That and “Why don’t you try to eat a little healthier?”
“We spend most of our time playing live and we can regulate our own dynamics because that’s pretty much the entire name of our game— the interplay and dynamics.”
Upcoming shows for Charlie Hunter include a few New York City-area gigs in the immediate future, playing the Brooklyn Bowl Aug. 20 and NYC’s Rockwood Music Hall Aug. 22 and Sept. 10, 17 and 24.
Other shows coming up in the coming weeks include the Albany (N.Y.) Jazz Fest Sept. 8 and the Long Beach (N.Y.) Jazz Fest Sept. 22.
Hunter and Amendola’s upcoming tour launches in Fall River, Mass., at the Narrows Center For the Arts Oct. 10. Other gigs include Philadelphia at World Café Live Oct. 12; Wilmington, Del., at World Café Live At The Queen Oct. 13; Northampton, Mass., at the Iron Horse Oct. 17 and Cambridge, Mass., at Club Passim Oct. 18. For more information, please visit CharlieHunter.com.