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Interview: Charlie Hunter - Life in the Pocket

Interview: Charlie Hunter - Life in the Pocket

Hunter discusses his latest album, "Public Domain" the importance of drumming and the pocket, why he doesn''t listen to modern music, and changing tunings with his Jeff Traugott 7-string.

Click here to watch a video of Charlie playing his Jeff Traugott seven-string at the 2010 Montreal Guitar Show.
Charlie Hunter is the kind of musician you continue to visit to keep you honest. While the rest of us occasionally get distracted by the razzle-dazzle of virtuosity and tricks, Hunter continues his steadfast soulful journey. He has a knack for making use of the stuff that’s available to all of us to make good art. Why hasn’t everybody mined Tuck Andress, Muddy Waters, and Wes Montgomery and assembled something cool with it? His influences are diverse but the common thread in his music is blues, groove, and soul. It’s in everything he plays. Whether he’s performing solo counterpoint with himself, or working in group projects, Hunter plays to the beat of the human heart.

His latest album is a collection of songs all in the public domain, which is music that is freely available to the public. It’s called Public Domain, and the entire project was recorded live in the studio without editing. Imagine what it would be like to have Charlie Hunter sitting in your living room performing songs like, “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “Meet Me In St. Louis,” and “Limehouse Blues.” It’s a cozy record with an intimate vibe, but pops with the artistry that comes from a guy who knows what to do with a seven string guitar. I caught up with Hunter on a day off from touring and he had this to share.

What gave you the idea for the new record?

I wanted to do a solo thing for a while, and I was talking with my grandfather about those old songs. Then it dawned on me that it would be a cool thing to do all these public domain songs from back in his time. He was born in 1911. When he was a kid he remembers that song “How You Gonna Keep ’em Down On The Farm.” He specifically remembers that being around when the soldiers came back home from World War I. [Laughing] Pretty intense.

Now that’s what I call childhood memories.

Exactly. So much of it is about his recollection, so we sat down and picked out all these public domain tunes. I went online and got the original sheet music which would be how those guys made their money back in the day a hundred years ago. That was an interesting education, too. We picked out about fifty songs together, then I whittled it down to what made it on to the record. I tried to do some interesting things with them in terms of treatment.

Your interpretations sound honest. You really made those songs your own.

Thanks. That was the idea. I spent a lot of time every day playing drums to really understand how the groove really functions. I try to bring that to my instrument. That’s what the solo thing was about—are the drums being represented enough here.

You mean the percussive way in which you attack the strings?

Not just that, but also the time and the pocket. There should be a pocket to all of those songs. It should have a groove that’s always there and the groove is paramount. Everything needs to be sublimated for the groove.

Did you play to a click track?

No, I didn’t. Unlike most people, I enjoy playing with a click. I practice with a drum machine or a metronome. I spent so much time dealing with the finer points of time and feel. Playing behind the beat, playing ahead, but always having that forward motion and always having that intensity of the groove. I think like a drummer when I’m playing my instrument. That’s the thing, you want to think like that because that’s what holds the music together. Music without a pocket and time is just not very alluring.

Do you think guitar players would be better guitarists if they played drums?

Oh yeah. I think that it’s an almost absolute necessity. If a guitar player came up to me and said, “I want to learn what you do.” I would say, “Ok, you are not going to play guitar for at least a year. You are not going to touch it. You are going to play drums. [Laughing] And then when you come back, you will automatically go to the 90th percentile of good guitar players because you’ll actually be a bonus to people on stage, rather than just kind of there making sounds.”

It’s true. Most guitar players are making sounds on top of the rhythm section instead of being part of it.

That’s ok if the music that they’re doing isn’t about that. We were listening to some Van Halen the other day and going, “Wow, his rhythm playing is great, but the band is not able to actually play rhythm with him and they don’t sound so good.” Then he starts doing solos and it just all goes out the window. It’s like wow, I can’t even really listen to this. It’s so all over the place.

Then we put on ZZ Top and it was just like a breath of fresh air. These guys play time beautifully. Same with AC/DC. For these guys I have the utmost respect. It may seem strange for a guy like me who plays the kind of music that I play, but I find that to be so much more gratifying to listen to than a lot of jazz stuff today. Reverence for the pocket, groove, time, and soul you can’t really learn in school. You have to learn by learning them yourself.

On Public Domain not only is your playing different, but the overall sound is different. It’s a very intimate sounding record.

I just used a couple of mics, a guitar amp, a bass amp, and that’s it. It was in a small drum room so we put a room mic in there and that was it. I wanted warts and all. I feel like the pocket is good on all the tunes. There’s a few tunes where it speeds up a click or two, but I’m a human being. You get excited about things and you make little nanosecond changes and things happen. The entire recording session took about four hours. I spend a lot of time trying to be good at my instrument so when I go into the studio I don’t have to spend a lot of hours in there. It’s all about playing the songs you write.

I sense a very honest and clear creative path you’re on. Was there ever a time when things weren’t so clear? Were you ever a copycat?

I had my time when I was really into learning Charlie Parker solos, Wes Montgomery solos, or learning how to play more Tuck Andress or Joe Pass style. Even stuff that I never transcribed a solo of. I’ve never transcribed any Bill Frisell or Scofield but I listened to them a lot. I listened to a lot of old blues because that’s what my mom had around the house. So I have a wealth of information that influences me. Also, all the people I’ve played with have all been pretty much bad asses. They really influence how I play and make me always want to get better and not let anybody down in terms of being on the bandstand.

Ultimately you start to realize after a while that not letting anyone down on the bandstand is about representing yourself as good as you can, and developing your own thing, and coming with that as strong as you possibly can. That doesn’t mean just coming out of nowhere and saying, “I am so developed” after only playing a year. I’m forty-three years old and I feel like I’m just to the point in my life where I would say, “I’m actually playing pretty well.” I don’t mean like physically playing the notes, but finally I’m forty-three and I feel like I’ve developed a style.

I don’t think I had a style ten years ago. I definitely could do a lot of stuff and I may have had a kind of sound, but I feel like I do something now that is my own specific kind of thing. It’s involved with the instrument I play, but also kind of a way I want to do music.

Who do you think you were ten years ago?

I don’t think I sounded like anybody. I sounded like myself but you’re constantly trying to get more to the center of what you are and be much more secure in that. I think I was who I was ten years ago but just not as secure as I sound today. There were still things I would do that were trying to be really overtly guitar-like because I thought maybe people would be impressed by that. I just don’t do that anymore because I’ve burned that out. I’m just trying to get to the music that I think is more honest.

I know there are lots of guys and gals out there that can really play bass and really play guitar and have something to say on it. I just have to continue to develop this thing that I have which is more about the counterpoint than the rhythmic thing that happens between these two parts, and how that goes into the music and can be different. It’s an uphill battle because people are generally impressed by shiny objects.

I played a gig with my friend Jim Campilongo. I played a six string and I started doing all those kinds of things that people hear you do on guitar and are really impressed by, but really it’s not that musically exciting to me. But people just loved it! I realized that if I did this I certainly could be having a lot more success, but it would be not what I’m really excited about doing. What I’m really excited about doing unfortunately involves covert chops. Things like working on time, soul, phrasing, and how to be a better drummer on the instrument. Things that ultimately are not going to be really overtly exciting to people, but if they weren’t there they’d be very noticeable. I love that, so that’s what I continue to do. I don’t think I could do it differently.

Do you feel that the unique nature of your instrument and your playing style distracts some people from your music?

Maybe. On the whole probably not. I went on YouTube and looked at all the guitar players who had the most hits. One thing really resonated with me. They all were very good at getting around on the instrument but they had almost zero musicianship. They had a very shallow understanding of music in the grander sense and how music works. It was just very shallow. I feel like many guitar players fall into that kind of category.

They’re able to play flurries and things that are exciting to the average listener, but when you scratch the surface there’s very little substance there. But that seems to be part and parcel of the guitar industry. I can’t tell you how completely uninteresting that is to me. There are very few guitar players I’m even interested in hearing. Most of the time when I hear it, it’s just like somebody force feeding me massive amounts of salt, MSG, sugar, and candy all at the same time. There’s just nothing I can use in there.

I understand when you’re a sixteen-year-old boy. When I was sixteen I could use all of that, but it’s just too much. There’s just very little of interest in there. But people like that because that’s where they’re at in their evolution and I can’t fault them for that.

What do you listen to for inspiration?

I pretty much listen to any jazz before 1964, and any soul and pop between 1964 and 1975. After that I don’t listen to anything. [Laughing] I hate to say it but it just doesn’t interest me that much.

You’re like a seventy-five year old man! [Laughing]

[Laughing] I know, it’s terrible. I’m the worst. People are always like, “Oh this guy is so open.” No I’m not. I’m worse than Wynton Marsalis! I’m the worst guy! I don’t like English blues guitar players. I have no need for that because I grew up listening to Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, then ultimately B.B. King, Freddie King, and Hubert Sumlin. I’m spoiled. Everything is backwards just because of the way I grew up.

I think the fact that you draw from older influences informs your music in a different way than if you were into The Mahavishnu Orchestra.

It’s an interesting thing you bring that up because I never listened to that music. It’s not that I don’t like it, it never crossed my path. Whenever I hear it, it’s just something I don’t connect with. I did a gig with Ron Miles and we did a Mahavishnu song on a gig. I was like, “Ok, this is kinda cool!” It was just something that I never gravitated toward, the fusion thing. I have really good friends who make their living doing that. It’s just not something that I was ever interested in pursuing.

I think the juxtaposition between the modern guitar techniques and your old school sensibility makes for good music. Public Domain has a lot of soul and it’s not about how many strings are on your guitar.

Click here to watch a video of Charlie playing his Jeff Traugott seven-string at the 2010 Montreal Guitar Show.
Thank you. The guitar I’ve been using for the last couple of years was made by Jeff Traugott who lives up in Santa Cruz. He usually makes acoustic guitars, but made me the one I play now. I’ve changed my tuning a bit over the years. When I first started out it was all about, “I gotta show people how much stuff I can play and exactly in the same register!” [Laughing] I was making this instrument do something that it was ill suited for. The bass would never have a long enough scale length so it wouldn’t be punchy enough, but it was a sound and it was cool.

As I got older I wanted it to be more about the sound and not so much about impressing people with guitaristic flights of fancy. It’s great when you’re young, but as you get older and you get more of an understanding of music, it’s kind of silly. I never really wore tight pants, but I certainly am not going to be wearing tight pants when I’m seventy. [Laughing] Know what I mean? It’s embarrassing for everybody!

So I tuned up to F for a while and that was nice. Then I realized that the groove is just not driving or drumistic enough. I’m not convinced. The reason why I kept worrying about doing the tuning changes was because I was like, “Oh man, I’m really leaving the guitar community behind. It’s going to be so different.” Then I started to realize that, that’s what I want to do. That’s what I need to do in order to really develop this into it’s own thing. I need to let go of that community or whatever, and really just pull the anchor up and sail away.

So I tune up to G now, so my lowest three strings are G, C, F. The higher strings are C, F, Bb, and D. That’s been a revelation to me because I use heavier strings, and it ends up having a lot of tension but it springs to life. It’s more drumistic and creates all of that counterpoint which is really the strength of the instrument. It becomes a lot more powerful. It pops a lot better. You lose a lot of stuff like the bending thing, but I realized I’m not really interested in that. I don’t want to play overtly guitaristic stuff. It’s not a goal of mine. I’ve done that already. I’m also having more fun now than I think I’ve ever had playing.

What are you using for amps?

For the past couple of years I’ve been using a Headstrong Lil King for the guitar side. It’s just a Princeton with a 12, and that’s all I use. For the bass side I’ve had the same Mesa Boogie single 15 cab for like ten years. I use either an Eden or Mesa head and that’s about it. I don’t use any pedals, I just go straight into the amp.

Didn’t you used to use a volume pedal?

Yeah I use to use a volume pedal and this thing that use to make this insipid organ sound. [Laughs]

Man, I loved that organ sound.

Oh thanks. It was fun at the time, but to me it just sounds desperately cloying. Like a young guy trying to help the world. “Look at me! Look at me!” [Laughing]