By ERIC SCHELKOPF
Legendary Chicago musician Cliff Johnson - of Off Broadway fame - is just one of the many musicians who drop by on "Hang On," the latest album of King Mixer's Eric Howell.
To celebrate the release of the new album, King Mixer will perform June 18 at Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Phil Angotti and The Bigger Empty also are on the bill.
The show starts at 9 p.m. and tickets are $10, available by going to Martyrs' website at martyrslive.com.
I had the chance to talk to King Mixer about the album.
Q - Great talking to you. Of course, you will be performing at Martyrs' to celebrate the release of "Hang On." In sitting down to make the album, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?
KM: I suppose, being an independent artist, it's a goal to make art your own way, on your own terms. But this can also mean you're living in a world of nebulous deadlines. Elastic deadlines. Making an album can take a long time, and it's helpful to have a hard deadline in place before you get into recording, even if that deadline does end up getting pushed back a bit.
Limitation is good for creativity. Especially if you think you've truly got the goods, it can test that theory. Less can be more, etc. At the outset of this album, what would eventually become "Hang On," it was basically time to get moving, time to put something new out.
I released my first album, which was "Eric Howell's Greatest Hitch! Vol One" - back in 2009. I woke up one day realizing I'm only a few years off from the 10-year anniversary of the first record, and I hadn't even put out a second record yet! Pathetic.
Time to get moving. I wanted to basically make a record that would be fun to play live, fun to listen to, that would keep people's interest from start to finish, and for several months before starting the album I had a handful of, for me, really different melodies and song ideas running through my head.
Nothing like "Greatest Hitch!" at all. And I had been playing with some great musicians in sort of corporate bread n butter type gigs, jobbing gigs (which is SO not my thing), and from those gigs I met some terrific guys, some great players, and I thought, "Now is the time to make a new record, while I have these guys in my circle of musician contacts," etc.
And it turned out that my producer, Christian Cullen, he knew most of these great players I was bringing into the fold and so it was just a sort of perfect time, a perfect storm for making a new record while this collective was running hot. I am certain that everyone involved in the project feels we made a much better album than the little indie record we initially thought we
In terms of scope, it started out as "American Graffiti" and ended up "Star Wars," no question.
Q - I understand that you crowdfunded the making of "Hang On" and surpassed your goal. Are you honored that so many people would want to fund the project? Do you feel like the CD is now even more connected to your fans?
KM: For sure, absolutely. I was initially hesitant to use the crowdfunding method, I resisted it for years.
I'm from the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" generation, man. I've been homeless rather than accept a hand out.
But I was again at that point where it was time to make a record and my resources for doing so were almost nil. I make just enough as a full time musician to just, you know, LIVE.
There's never enough money to make your grand masterpiece. So through the advice of a dear friend, I decided to use GoFundMe to attempt a crowdfunded record.
Crowdfunding is NOT a handout, the concept operates on the premise of "mutually beneficial reward." Still, I was hesitant because other platforms like Kickstarter and Pledge Music, though hugely successful, insist that your campaign is globally public, as opposed to perhaps selecting a specific demographic of friends, family and fans through social media and keeping it sort of between you and them, which is what I was interested in doing my first time into the crowdfunding thing.
And GoFundMe let's you do that, if you're sort of wading into the crowdfunding waters like I was it's great. Plus, with those other platforms you have a certain amount of days to reach your desired financial goal and if you don't reach the projected
goal by the imposed deadline, that's it.
All the money you managed to raise through that platform is returned to the people who tried to help you and you get nothing and your project doesn't get made.
And then you have to soldier on, perhaps with the very public stigma attached to you that "Oh, he couldn't reach his goal, not enough people cared, so why should I care?" from your audience, etc. Kinda like being dropped from your record label back in the day.
I didn't wanna deal with that possibility. It had been five years since I had released anything. I didn't know if anyone still cared. So I chose GoFundMe because you can leave your campaign open-ended, there's no hard deadline to meet your financial goal.
And as it turned out, I raised 10k in about 48 hours. I was flabbergasted. Just knocked to the floor. I was on cloud nine for days, knowing that people still care about my music and wanted to hear more of what I would create.
It makes a huge difference in one's attitude going into a project like this to already know you have advance orders on the record, before you've even begun tracking. That's a huge shot in the arm, creatively. Of course, I burned through that money extremely fast, paying for studio time and musicians and pizzas and baby sitters and engineer's rates.
The musicians on the record are top shelf but it's not like we'd been touring together playing these new songs for months orbanything. A lot of the songs were created in the studio, building on just the basic tracks and experimenting with a myriad of ideas to see what would stick. We didn't have the songs totally down pat.
I generally don't work like that in the studio, I've always tried to beat the clock but with Christian producing, experimenting with sounds seemed like the best way to ensure I didn't just make a repeat of my first album.
That's an expensive experiment, though. More than a few blind alleys were doubled back on. I ended up putting another 10k of my own money into the record as well, before it was even finished.
But the GoFundMe campaign remained open throughout the recording process and I would post video updates every few weeks, and more money started flowing in. Eventually I met and surpassed my second fundraising goal.
So yes, without a doubt, I am forever grateful and extremely motivated by the direct connection I've maintained with my fans throughout all this. Of course, there's various tiers and rewards given to whomever pledges towards the project. But I must say, it's vastly different playing a house party or giving a guitar lesson to people who directly supported the creation of your art, rather than just playing to get paid so you can eat.
The campaign is still up, just so everyone can see the magnificent results, but I'm done asking people for help in that regard. I feel extremely lucky to have the backing of friends and fans who not only believe in my music, but they've also been very patient with the whole process.
You can't ask for more than that. The record is about to launch, and I plan to show my gratitude with a great live show. The payback is the live show now, sink or swim.
Q - Is there a meaning behind the album's name?
KM: Yeah, everyone was saying it during recording...LOL. A missed cue, an aborted take, trying to find the right guitar tone, or waiting for Logic or Pro Tools to reboot it was always, "hang on." Those two words came back a LOT.
Then over time, it became like a mantra for that inner voice inside..we all have that nagging voice inside telling you it's not good enough, it's a pipe dream, it isn't going to work. And you shut that voice out, but it can be very taxing just trying to hold it together.
Trying not to cave under the pressures of day to day living. That seems to be a running theme on the record. Things fall apart. Keep it together.
All of this eventually ends, you and me and everything. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Every day we're aging.
How does one handle that rather unforgiving information? When you're young, this is an impossible concept to grasp.
I believe we're designed NOT to grasp it, fully, in youth, lest we give up and not live up to our fullest potential into old age. It's only later that we begin to understand it, within ourselves. It's deeply personal.
Why should a young person fully understand it? That would be tragic. The understanding comes with age and experience, I think that's part of the pact. You lose a few friends to drugs and alcohol or one day it's a text, bluntly stating that someone you've had a sacred relationship with has succumbed to cancer. Relentlessly unforgiving information.
And it's not a TV show, it's YOU. It's your life. And yet life goes on. We have to hang on, to fulfill our destiny. And yet is it so much to ask to just...get a break every so often? Can't any of my genius ideas make me rich so I can invite all my friends onto a yacht for a weekend? Or have I missed the boat?
There's a tendency to give up, to give in, once you know you can no longer hide behind your adolescent allusions. Where do you go when your certainty about things proves false? The old stand byes cease to work anymore.
Now what? And yet, life is ongoing. Just as it was when you were 10. There's still as much beauty and wonder as there ever was, and we just need to keep at it more as you get older, to find it. To rediscover it, while everything is seemingly conspiring against you doing just that.
You have to hang on, to find it again. These are themes within the new record. The song "Zookeepers" with the line, "Does anybody else out there see the world as a beautiful parasite...where life eats life?" or in "Gravity" : "It's coming at you all of the time, the wants and the needs of a mind...in particles and waves of light..invisible to the naked eye."
In the final song on the record, "Days That Used To Be" it says, "All those things that you believed you're wishing now you could retrieve, there's no guarantees, delete your head, reboot your heart."
That's where nearly all of the songs on this record ending up going in some fashion: "Keep it together, it's the changing of the guard, you'll be alright..roll with it...just...hang on."
Q - Cliff Johnson, of the Chicago-area band Off Broadway, is one of the guest artists on the CD. How did you connect with him and what do you think he brought to the table? Did the band have an impact musically on you?
KM: Cliff is a wise sage, man. He has seen it ALL. I didn't know him when we made the record. I dug out an old song I wrote when I was 16 years old called 'Don't Chu Think' and with Christian producing, we brought the song back from the dead.
Off Broadway was a huge influence on my singing. Huge. When I was in junior high, you couldn't get away from their record "On." It was Cheap Trick with "I Want You To Want Me," The Knack with "My Sharona" and Off Broadway, "Stay In Time."
On the radio, all the time. It sounded so Beatley, so John Lennon like on my AM clock radio.
But unlike those other songs, "Stay In Time" wasn't about a girl, didn't allude to anything sexual. "Stay In Time" seemed to be addressing, "Hey man, live in the now, not in the past, don't get stuck, don't spend your time ruminating in your 'sad dream' that is denying your own ability to love. "What a sad thing."
That is some heavy shit for a power pop record in 1978! And it somehow got on the radio! I think that first record, "On," sold something like 100,000 copies in Chicago alone. And somehow Atlantic Records blundered horribly and didn't put any overseas tours together for the band and so they remained local heroes.
Meanwhile, Cheap Trick is at Budukon and breaking world wide. I saw Off Broadway play College of DuPage in like, 1980 or '79. I couldn't even drive yet, but they blew my mind they were so good. The guitarist was like Elliot Easton from The Cars.
He was playing these crazy fast leads that threatened to derail but never did, beautifully crafted over these simple Buddy Holly staccato chords. So I loved Off Broadway and wrote my own version of an Off Broadway song with "Don't Chu Think," in my little bedroom, freshman year in high school.
Flash forward a lifetime later I'm explaining all this to my producer, and he goes, "Do you know Cliff?" - I'm like "No, I'm just way into Off Broadway" and Christian says, "Well I do. I know him. I wonder if we could get him to sing on this."
Phone calls were made, demos were emailed, and two weeks later, I'm meeting Cliff for the first time and we're in the studio tracking vocals on a song I wrote when I was a kid, pretending to BE HIM. Life is beautiful. And Cliff is a sweet dude.
He's a pal. And more than a little crazy LOL
Q - A number of other guest musicians also appear on the album. How did you about picking the musicians on the album and did the recording process go smoothly?
KM: Like I said, there were a number of just fantastic musicians I was playing money gigs with for a year or two, prior to King Mixer forming. Guys like Matt Nelson on keys, who is just a savant, Nick Kitsos, who drummed for The BoDeans for years, Grant Tye who plays guitar for Robbie Fulks' band and a number of other great bands in Chicago.. I met all these guys through playing with Nick Kitsos in his band for a couple years.
I was a side man for Nick and then I stole all his guys! LOL kidding. Kinda. But with guys like this, their talents put them very much in demand and they are always juggling projects so being a proper band, a four legged table where all the costs and the artistic glory is divided equally, is just out of the question.
King Mixer is more of a collective in that sense, not a band. It's healthier this way, we've all been in true bands and it's like being in love for the first time, it's great, it's scary and you live for it and barely get out alive. And it only happens once.
And we've done all that when we were younger so being called into a collective where there's a great deal of mutual respect for what we've done and who we are now is...more on balance with where we are in life now, I'd say.
And it allows me, as the show runner, to tap various musicians for both the live shows and recordings. I have been a fan of The Smoking Popes for many years, and I reached out blindly to Mike Felumlee, the Popes drummer, and asked if he'd play drums on a few songs for my record. In situations like this, Facebook and the Internet is a very handy thing.
It cuts through all the B.S. and gives you direct access to a lot of people you'd otherwise have to spend years hanging out in clubs and bars to meet. So, same as with Cliff Johnson, I emailed Mike my demos and we met for the first time a few weeks later, rehearsed once, and boom, we're tracking.
And it turns out, he's been fronting his own band, The Bigger Empty, for years, and playing guitar in that band, not drumming at all. He told me, "I haven't touched my drums in six years," just before we began rehearsal.
I was like, 'Ohhh..." this could be terribly awkward...LOL. But within seconds of playing, Mike's hitting the skins so hard I had to turn my amp up so loud to keep up, I was almost hallucinating. It felt like we were in a stadium with legions of kids pogoing to my songs, and I understood where the secret weapon lies in the power of The Smoking Popes.
Mike is opening our Martyrs show with The Bigger Empty and the bass player in The Bigger Empty, Reuben Baird, mixed the King Mixer record with me. So having them start the show is a great way to kick off the record release party.
Q - Will the night be even more special because Phil Angotti will be opening for you? What makes him a good musical fit? Will he be joining you on stage?
KM: Phil is one of our city's true treasures. We've been pals for many years now and have a mutual fascination with all things Beatles. We've even played Liverpool together and played The Cavern Club.
We sang together on a tour of John Lennon's boyhood home, in the front hallway, just like John and Paul did when they were first starting to write songs together. And so we had to sing together in that very same spot. Cuz we're nerds, LOL.
But Phil has like 100 albums out, he's a terrific songwriter in his own right and he's a wicked, visceral guitar player and I'm sure all of this will be on full display when he takes the stage at Martyrs with us. Plus, June 18 is Paul McCartney's 74th birthday, so I'm inviting Phil back on stage during King Mixer's set for sure.
We've got some special surprises for the 'Beatle People' in the works!
Q - What do you think of the Chicago music scene and how do you think you fit into it?
KM: I don't think of the Chicago music scene. And I can't think of any scene I've ever fit into, honestly, musically or otherwise.
It's kind of like what people say about being the life of any party: you make your own fun. Don't expect anyone else to bring the "it" factor into your life. YOU bring "it". Or don't.
But no, I just finished making my best record on the good faith of about a hundred people who gladly pledged their hard earned money for me to do this. That is the scene I fit into and I intend to shower that scene with great songs and just...let it do whatever it does, with love in my heart for all who enter the grounds.