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Lighting up the low end with Smokstik
By Matthew S. Robinson
(more articles from this author)
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Since 1997, John Kiehne and Hillary Koogler have been making their way in the music scene through a unique and oft-misunderstood combination of instrumentation and writing style. That Hillary plays drums may be odd enough, but it is John's choice of musical weapon which gives Smokstik both its name and its edge.

Invented in California by Emmett Chapman over 25 years ago, The Chapman Stick is a hand-made combination of bass and guitar which is played more like a piano (i.e., with each hand tapping different registers simultaneously) than a guitar (i.e., with one hand forming chords while the other plucks). The result is a highly-coordinated sound which Kiehne can effectively shape into nearly any style.

Once cleverly disguised as the rhythm section for Jim's Big Ego, John and Hillary are now well on their way to making their own mark on the music scene. Their debut CD, Bugs, has received wide acclaim and their constantly expanding tour schedule is bringing their singular sound to more and more fans each night. (Their cool website * * doesn't hurt either!)

I recently had the chance to catch the busy bandmates during a quick home stand.

[Matthew Robinson] How did you come to play The Stick?

John Kiehne I had played fretless and six-string bass and I was really trying to find new sounds. I had had the idea of a Chapman Stick off and on for a number of years, but they're really hard to find! I finally found one and I traded-in a bass for a Stick * never actually having played one. At first, I didn't get to play the Stick in any bands, but I practiced a lot and about six months after I had it, I put the bass away.

[Matthew Robinson] Have there been any difficulties with having a "novel" instrument set?

John Kiehne Yeah! Because some people are like- "Oh! That Stick will really draw people's attention!" And honestly, it doesn't. Most people are really not so much interested in "different."

Hillary Koogler They want something that sounds good!

John Kiehne Yeah. I think that people are more turned off by something different than they are excited about it.

Hillary Koogler The other big problem we have is with bookers or at festivals. They see that there are two people and they assume that we're an acoustic duo. And we're not! Without hearing us, people don't quite understand how it can be a rock band.

John Kiehne We played a gig at a place we had played a few times before, but the new sound guy didn't know us, so he went ahead and set up for an acoustic duo and when we got there, he was all upset. He said, "I thought you were a duo!" I said "We are a duo * we got drums and Stick!" So a lot of people don't understand just what's going on with us.

[Matthew Robinson] What's it like having (to use poor terminology) a "chick drummer"?

Hillary Koogler Actually, it's really popular.

John Kiehne Yeah! A lot of guys will see me and say "You're the drummer, right?" A guy and a girl with a girl drummer is unusual, but there are more girl drummers now, so it's not as unique as it was a few years ago.

Hillary Koogler It's been all positive feedback that I've gotten. In fact, I have a lot of girls who tell me that they wish they could play drums. And I tell them "Do it!" because it's never too late. I have a lot of guys who come to me and say it's really cool!

John Kiehne Once people see her play, they're usually very impressed. And it's always a good thing to have "chicks" in the band!

Hillary Koogler (Laugh). But John does all the nude posing, so if you want a bikini...

[Matthew Robinson] Would that be a "bi-Kiehne"?

John Kiehne "Bi-Kiehne"- Exactly!

[Matthew Robinson] What other projects are you involved in and how does that affect your band relationship?

John Kiehne We play with other people as much as possible! We're playing with Micah Richards right now. I played with Joe Feloni [of The Amazing Mudshark] for a while. We did some stuff with Anandi. Hillary plays with Paved Country once in a while. We play with Dave Crossland.

Hillary Koogler I'm with John Belini and Judy's Clubhouse.

John Kiehne And I'm in The Blue Man Group. I think the more we play with other people, the better! Smokstik is something I can't quit because I'm the guitar player, bass player, singer, songwriter, producer, engineer, etc., so it's better that there's something else around for us to do and experiment with. Whereas if you have a regular band with three people, it's easy for one or two to take off and it changes the whole aspect of what's going on.

[Matthew Robinson] So is it easier or harder operating as a duo.

John Kiehne Both. It's easier because there are fewer personality conflicts. It's also a lot easier getting from place to place and to schedule things. The downsides are that is that it's hard to come up with the guitar parts, bass parts and vocal parts all at the same time, so I kind of have to be three people at once. It's a little challenging to step outside of myself and write something that's cool. From the money aspect, it's great because if we make money, we split it two ways, but if we have expenses, there are only two of us to pay for it.

Hillary Koogler And it sucks hauling gear!

John Kiehne Yeah, it does! We got two people and like four people's worth of gear, so that definitely blows.

Hillary Koogler The personality thing is like the biggest thing. Because we get along so well, we see eye to eye and have a lot of similar interests and similar thoughts-

John Kiehne And a lot of similar goals.

Hillary Koogler Yeah, so it's not like we're trying to stretch two ways on where we want to go. I've been in a ton of bands with like four, five, six people besides myself and personality conflicts can be a big deal! Or even getting people together for a rehearsal or a gig. We can be a lot more spontaneous this way.

[Matthew Robinson] So what's coming up for Smokstik?

John Kiehne I'm getting a Warr Guitar... Kick ass!

Hillary Koogler A new album is coming! It will be out early next year.

John Kiehne In the meantime, we're gonna' hit the Midwest and the South and then we'll play around here * up to Portland, over to Albany and then down towards New York City. We're [also] going to try to work on Boston a bit more. It's been hard for us to break into the Boston area. We're also working on national distribution. Basically we just trying to be a "national" band. That's our big next step. We want to get CDs into New Mexico and also try to play there. That's what we're gonna' try to accomplish over the next year or so.

Hillary Koogler We'll get stuff in stores there a lot quicker than we will us, but it's a start!

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