Lighting up the low end with Smokstik
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 * www.smokstik.com * doesn't hurt
I recently had the chance to catch the busy bandmates during a quick home
[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
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
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
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
[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!