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Hobbyhorse: San Francisco's Sunshine Superteam Re-Imagines Folk Psychedelia
By Mark Kirby
(more articles from this author)
2008-01-11
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Psychedelic rock in the 1960's had two edges and came from two different strains. One was the heavy and intense Acid Rock of bands like Buddy Miles' Electric Flag, The Zombies, and countless other fuzzed-out, guitar-led bands going on sonic mental trips. The other strain of that period's music followed the hippies' path, a search for and return to a lost innocence and authenticity. Some artists like Jerry Garcia found jug band blues and mountain swing. Others, like Donovan and the British band Pentangle, mined the rich tradition of Emerald Isle folk music (which touched on Celtic myth and magical other-worldly creatures like fairies and sprites, things seen sometimes on extreme doses of LSD, perhaps fueling curiosity about the music). It is this strain that Hobbyhorse has pursued.

Hobbyhorse starts with these influences and creates an individual sound. It is organic in the sense that the duo -- comprising Annie and Phil, who play guitars and a variety of other instruments including harpsichord, organ, and percussion of various sorts -- sound natural, like they're playing in the living room of a cottage in the woods for friends, instead of for an "audience" of "fans." Their new CD, Break in the Clouds, captures the essence of psychedelia, that other-worldly concern with mythology, the occult, the fantastic, and visions from altered states (chemically induced or not). Lyrical storytelling is accompanied by music that is cinematic. The CD's lush instrumentation and Annie's dark angel voice give the listener more with repeated plays - a disembodied guitar twang there, a chord here, organ drones that sound like they're coming from another room in your home. The songs are memorable, particularly the sweet "Good Morning Moon," the surreal "Museum," and my favorite, the eerie "Melesina."

[Mark Kirby] What are your earliest musical memories?

[Annie] My earliest musical memories are of listening to 70's am radio. I loved so many of those songs. The songs of that era often told stories. Even though many of them were sort of corny, they were so sincere.

[Phil] My parents and sisters played classical music with varying degrees of skill. When I was a six or seven, my grandmother gave me a transistor radio and I carried it with me wherever I went. But even before that, I listened to my parent's records of folk songs by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and the Weavers. I could memorize long, complicated songs way before I could even read. In the late 1960's, I used to listen to underground FM radio. "Jelly Pudding" was the name of the show, hosted by "Michael Xanadu." He played the latest, hippest bands from San Francisco, England and other psychedelic scenes. Those sounds really captured my 10-year-old imagination!

Hobbyhorse performs 'Lullaby'

Hobbyhorse performs "Lullaby" live for the Open Mix Documentary (www.theopenmic.net) at Freight & Salvage Coffee House on April 3, 2007.

[Mark Kirby] Break in the Clouds opens with "Lullaby," a gentle song that has the wispy yet earnest spirit of the summer of '67. The guitar comes in with delicate chords backed up by the subtle percussion of tar (a middle eastern frame drum) organ and bass. Annie's voice is delicate, ethereal, singing words that conjure lost innocence: "Snake in the grass - little lion in the tree / My love holds tightly on to me / The sun comes up behind my closed eyes / Dream of a lullaby." The full effect of classic psychedelia is aided by the sitar that enters half way through the song, creeping up on the listener like 'shrooms after a full meal.

"Angus Og" continues in the same vein and captures the psychedelic feeling musically by using electric sitar to play the opening musical theme; organ and cymbals adorn this simple song about the life a woman dreamed of and loved by Angus Og, the Celtic god of love. The lyrics, voice and instrumental textures are akin to painting with rich yet opaque watercolors: its simplicity veils its subtle complexity.

What are your individual musical pasts?

[Annie] I took uninspiring piano lessons when I was a kid. It wasn't until I was at college that I picked up a guitar. I did it because my friends all played instruments. I learned a few chords and within a couple of weeks I figured out, from a folk songbook, how songs were constructed. I wrote my first song before I could hardly play. It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life.

[Phil] In 1965, I used to pretend to play guitar along with Rolling Stones records using an old tennis racket. My parents noticed this and bought me a real guitar, and signed me up for guitar lessons. One of my early guitar teachers was a jazz player and he taught me to improvise. So I was always more into playing my own thing than into copying anyone else's style.

[Mark Kirby] What were the first groups you were a part of like?

[Annie] My first group was also the first incarnation of Hobbyhorse. I sang my songs and a friend played guitar, he played bass. The problem was that he could not really play. We had one gig at one of his friend's parties. He got stoned before the gig which made him even worse. I abandoned him there and never played with or talked to him again.

[Phil] My first band was with some 4th grade school friends. We played "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" (by the Monkees), "Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron" and a few other songs like that. I played through an amplifier that my father built for me. Our drummer had a snare drum and one cymbal. Our keyboardist played my little sister's Magnus Chord Organ. We practiced a lot and performed once or twice in a community variety show. When I was 10, I played in a rock band with some older kids who were 13. We had a girl bass player and a Hammond organ along with drums and guitars. We played songs like "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "Little Bit of Soul," not to mention the classic "In the Midnight Hour." I was in several other bands through my teenage years and played lots of Bar Mitvahs in that period.

[Mark Kirby] What are your musical and artistic influences?

[Annie] The mood of many of my songs is influenced by the mystical sound of Donovan's Sunshine Superman record and the haunting sounds of Pink Floyd. Some of the female singer/songwriters I am influences by are Suzanne Vega, Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks. Led Zeppelin has made me more aware of riffs. There is nothing like a great riff! I have studied middle eastern percussion and have developed my own percussion style through these studies. However, with all of these influences, the truth is that I feel I have little control over how I sound and write. I have found that accepting my own limitations and natural expression has made it possible for me to be a musician, writer and artist.

[Phil] Psychedelic rock from the 1960's was my first serious influence and obsession. In the 1970's, I discovered John Fahey and he had a profound influence on my guitar work. An older cousin introduced me to late period John Coltrane, and along with Miles Davis (Bitches Brew, in particular), that opened up yet another direction. Karl Berger had an enduring influence on me through my brief period at Creative Music Studio, in Woodstock, NY circa 1977. I have listened deeply to almost every style of American music, most European music, a lot of Indian music, and at least a little bit of music from every other culture in the world. I steal ideas and concepts from it all.

[Mark Kirby] How did you arrive at the style of music you are currently playing?

[Annie] It was a natural collaboration between Phil and I. It is a combination of my songwriting style and Phil's playing style. We both love the dreamy, psychedelic sounds of the 60's and the haunting sounds of music like Pink Floyd. Our sound comes from these influences.

[Phil] Hobbyhorse music is the sound of me and Annie each doing what we do best, and loving what we do. Hobbyhorse plays to Annie's strengths as a songwriter, and at the same time allows me freedom to create music that sounds the way I have always felt music should sound.

[Annie] I named the band Hobbyhorse after the Dada art movement that took place during WW1; Dada is another word for Hobbyhorse. Hobbyhorse also means an obsession. Music is not a hobby to us. Everything else is a hobby. Music is the real thing. Eventually the most important meaning of Hobbyhorse emerged: It stands for the freedom of the imagination. We describe our music as psychedelic folk/rock. Sometimes we call it progressive folk/rock. It is intricate and poetic.

[Phil] In the first psychedelic era, a door opened between the everyday world and the eternal world. It was like a very brief but very bright spark, and the spark lit a lot of fires that are still burning today. Hobbyhorse music lives in that door between the worlds and acts as a conductor for that spark

[Mark Kirby] Magical worlds are evoked in most of the songs on this CD. "Museum" speaks of a museum with magical instruments, a place that could exist only in this twilight zone. Yet contemplating such a place, even in a song, helps to open the mind to other possibilities. Isn't that the essence of psychedelia?

"Melasina" is the darkest and most eerie of Hobbyhorse's songs. The music immediately conjures images of the Red Room in the Black Lodge, the place of evil in another dimension, on the show Twin Peaks. Musically, this song captures a feeling of other-worldly dementia. Just as on the Twin Peaks T.V. show and the (horribly underrated) movie, violence against women by one familiar, with all the attendant symbolism of evil attacking innocence, weak against strong, and the assault on innocence. The music captures this. Dissonant keyboards and disembodied guitars, sounding like distant thunder and winds, cascade from the first note.

The voice sings a virtual monotone over a patchwork atmosphere of descending ringing keyboard chords, guitars that sound like buzzing bees, and sounds that evoke the feel of vast spaces like the ocean: " Your hands felt so familiar / As they caressed my cheek / Suddenly, transformed with rage / They pulled me down deep / . . . The wind blows against the waves / Midnight falls into the sea / I swim against memories / That darken my dreams." The concise lyrics and emotional and visual music combines to make a virtual movie in the listener's mind, like a passage of good prose.

Your website mentions that you are influenced by myths. Which culture's myths do you draw from? Why and how do you apply them to your music?

[Annie] I write songs inspired by myths from anywhere around the world and from any time. They are timeless stories. Writing the song helps teach me about the myth. I let my mind dive into the story. I extract the essence of a character or event. Writing the song helps the story come alive. I usually write the music first and then the story will fit in like the pieces of a puzzle coming together.

[Phil] Many of the songs I write are allegorical and use a lot of alchemical imagery. I am most familiar with classical Greek and Roman mythology, with Egyptian mythology being a more recent interest. I have also studied many world religions and draw from those traditions.

Hobbyhorse performs 'Yellow Feather'

[Mark Kirby] When you perform live, do you have just the two of you or do you have a larger band?

[Annie] Currently, we perform only as an acoustic duo. The sound is unique and different from our recorded sound. On the recording we play all the instruments ourselves, but overlap them in an arrangement. And we play some electric and some acoustic instruments on our recordings. We plan to form a band in the near future so that we can have the flexibility to play as a band or duo.

[Mark Kirby] You spent about a year on the new record? Why so long?

[Annie] The CD formed gradually through experimenting with home recording. We were recording song by song and then realized one day that we had an album. During that time we also designed the website. It was a lot of work. We had unique ideas that we wanted to realize: conscious choice pricing, guest artists, a special section for people who sign up. I painted all of the artwork for the website. We wanted a break from live performance.

[Phil] Each song has a unique voice, a unique story to tell and a unique form. Annie never writes the same theme twice nor does she use standard song forms. I put the same care into arrangements. Every arrangement is crafted to the specific song. No arrangement ever uses the same combination of instruments, the same motifs, nor even the same recording methodology. So we put a lot of thought into writing and arranging, and we experiment a lot with recording techniques. It takes a lot of time!

[Mark Kirby] The song "Walking Away" is textured to resemble and conjure the image of a caravan going across a desert; this is created by the combination of ringing bells, droning bass sounds melding with the low rumble of the frame drum, and searing guitar lines made of long, extending notes. This melange of sound is painterly in its composition. "Pheonixology" is an instrumental interlude. Perhaps Annie and Phil sought to put words and singing to this track and then realized that it didn't really need it. A simple xylophone motif opens and anchors the song throughout. Bells, organ and bass play counter lines until it all comes together at the end, an end that promises more. The song's pregnant pause ending flows into the aforementioned "Angus Og" comprising a mini suite, a musical voyage.

How did you decide to create the Hobbyhorse Café?

[Annie] We decided that we wanted a website that catered to the listener. So many sites on the web are geared toward booking. They are more like press kits. Or they are sites with thousands of musicians on them that are probably visited only by the musicians themselves. We wanted Hobbyhorsecafe.com to be colorful and fun and sort of like a little virtual music venue. Some of the artists on our site have been friends of ours. Others found Hobbyhorsecafe.com and contacted us. We choose people whose work we like. We like the musicians to be local or visiting so that we can make a unique recording of some of their songs so that their fans have something new to listen to. Phil has a portable recorder, so we can record live performances. It has been really fun to have guests on our website.

[Mark Kirby] What is Conscious Choice Pricing and what is the concept behind it?

[Annie] We have flexible pricing on our website. You have three choices, a minimum, standard and patron of the arts choice. Hobbyhorse or the guest musician set a minimum price, standard is 99 cents and patron of the arts is open ended. I am working on having special items available for our Patrons of the Arts.

[Phil] We were initially inspired by Jane Siberry's online store, which was our first encounter with flexible pricing.

We are consumers of music as well as producers of music. As such, we see both sides of the question "what is the fair monetary value of music?" And there is no easy answer! Our solution is to allow fans to make a choice with a range of prices (and artists with a choice in how they set their prices). The outcome of this system is that you have to think consciously about the value of music whenever you make a purchase. We don't make any judgement about the price level that you choose - it is entirely up to you. But we do appreciate our Patrons of the Arts!

[Mark Kirby] What are Hobbyhorse's future plans?

[Phil] We are playing out a lot more this year and will gig even more next year. We plan to tour a much larger region. Also, we continue to write and record new songs and have about half of a new CD completed. There is no planned release date, but Regulars (i.e., subscribers) at hobbyhorsecafe.com will hear about it first, as well as gigs and interesting news items. It is entirely free for you to sign up at www.hobbyhorsecafe.com and we only send two or three emails per month.


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