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This is an exercise in restraint: an interview with Will Hoge

June 15, 2006

This was quite a fun one. A singer I’d been following for a while and kind of knew and I get to interview him for a website no one reads, other than my mom. I was a little thrilled. Though, in retrospect, it was super awkward. In the immortal words of Keith Mars, “It’s hard being a fan.” And where it is on the WayBack.

You have not heard of Will Hoge. He lacks that certain something, let’s call it irony, that lately brings things like radio support, record labels, and the love of the hip and knowledgeable. His sound does not follow any of the current trends. You may be in luck as I keep hearing that earnestness is making a comeback. If you know where to look you’ll see a plea for a return to something that doesn’t sound like the latest reworking of New Wave. Will Hoge gives you something during his performances, particularly during the songs he performs without any accompaniment. He will tell you that something is ineffable if you ask, but that’s why you’ll go back. That’s what he does rather than try to sound like The Arctic Monkeys, find a little magic that you can take home with you.

Will Hoge could probably be grouped in with bands like Drive-By Truckers or Josh Ritter. The story goes, after touring for a few months in support of his first album, Carousel, labels started courting and he ended up with Atlantic, which did not last. Around the time that relationship was breaking up, the second album, Blackbird on a Lonely Wire, was released, still on Atlantic. A few band members later came The America EP, shortly followed by The Man Who Killed Love, released independently and distributed with some help from Junketboy and ThinkIndie.com. Radio support, though spotty to non-existent in the past, looks to be picking up with the new campaign. That plus the fact that every time I see him play there’s at least 20 more people in the audience seems to indicate that his “obscurest of the obscure” fame could be in jeopardy.

I sat down with Will recently when he passed through Columbus, OH.

Mary Roebuck: What influenced you to trade college for rock and roll?
Will Hoge: Just a lack of passion for college. I just didn’t enjoy it at all, it just wasn’t for me and I just started playing music the summer after my senior year of high school. My first year of college, I kind of balanced the two, did ok in school and was learning to play guitar. And then by the second year it was kind of much too much love for music…so I kind of gave up on the whole thing.

MR: What is it like touring non-stop?
WH: It’s good, it’s kind of the double-edged sword of the business. In the nature of how we’re doing things, independently, with no record deal, no publishing deal, no financial help from anyone, it’s tough. Touring is an expensive business. To keep nine people out on the road in a touring bus with these lovely gas prices is a full time job…It’s the only way that we can guarantee that we’ll be able to get our music out to people. The other thing is there’s nothing like playing music live. I think that’s a huge part of what drew me into wanting to be a musician. To me the live experience is the proving ground. It has it’s bad points, you get tired, you’re constantly traveling, you step off the bus and play music every night. It’s what you always say you want…You get that and people complain about it and I don’t ever want to come off sounding like that. I don’t regret it at all. It’s a lot of work and there’s some shitty things about it, but overall I wouldn’t want to do anything else…

MR: What is happening on the label front?
WH: Nothing.
MR: Are you fine with that?
WH: It’s like a relationship question, do you have a boyfriend?
MR: No
WH: Are you ok with that?
MR: Yeah.
WH: There you go, it’s kind of the same thing, if the right thing came along I’d hate to be negative on that…We could get a record deal. We’ve talked to record labels and we’ve done all of those things. The thing that comes with that is it’s a trade off. Do you want to give up part of what you do? The thing is there isn’t someone coming in saying yeah we love exactly what you do, how you want to do it, we want to put your records out, we want to give you all this money and shower you with all these things and just do your thing. That isn’t the way that that works. They come in, they want to tweak it a bit…and that’s fine everybody that gets involved, new musicians tweak it in a certain direction but that’s all for what people think is better music and unfortunately with the only record label experience we had it was all changing things that weren’t musical. They were things they thought would look good on a cereal box and that’s not why I want to make records.

MR: Would you ever consider going back to a label if it was one that you respected?
WH: Yeah, that’s the thing that I come back to with the relationship comment a lot. Everybody’s been in bad relationships. You can’t give up on that. I don’t foresee the situation happening that way but if there was a label that got what we were trying to do musically, as a career, if someone really understood what I was trying to do, I’d love to have somebody else around who could help, but we just don’t have those people around. If that changes it would be great.

MR: What are you trying to do?
WH: I want to make music for a living. I want to do it for the rest of my life. I don’t want to do it for 6 months. That’s the thing with a lot of record labels, it becomes very short-sighted, very temporary. We need you to have this hit, we need you have a song…I’d love to make some more money doing this…I’d love to pay the people around me, play bigger places, but I think that a real musician does this because it’s a part of your soul. I don’t have a choice really…I do this because I have to do it, I want to do it.

MR: Does the lack of radio support bother you?
WH: We’re just getting ready to start a radio campaign for the new single that’s going to start the 29th of May so hopefully there will be a little radio support as that comes and goes. The radio business is the same as the retail business and the music business…If you aren’t signed to a major label it’s a really different game to play. We’ve been fortunate. There’s still some bastions of people that are music fans and believers and work at little stations that can help a little bit…It’s not going to get us on the Grammy’s necessarily, but if it brings another 500 people out to see us play then that’s absolutely what we want, we’re trying to be realistic…

MR: Will there be any more line-up changes? Is this the final band?
WH: I’d love to sit here and say yes but I thought that two years ago, final band for now. I’d like to keep these guys around as long as it keeps being challenging and moving. That’s the thing, bands a lot of times just get stagnant and that comes with repetition. That’s the other thing about a band, it’s trying to maintain a relationship with seven other people and that’s hard because those people have other lives too…Who knows what could happen in Dean’s life [bass player] that could involve him having to leave. I hope that’s not the case. I can’t quit playing music because someone else has to.

MR: Does it affect you when people leave the band, the constant change?
WH: … I didn’t have a master plan to have my own band. You start innocently, think, well I’ll join a band, cause a band is great. It’s like being in a gang or a club and you have this little group of people and this kind of code. It’s kind of like being pirates, which, as a kid, all boys want to be pirates…That band concept is great but the whole reason that wanes is a band is this thing that doesn’t really exist. What happens in a band is there’s one person or two people who do all the work, but everybody wants the credit and I did that for enough years…I know it’s “Will Hoge” but I really do welcome everybody’s opinion. I love what people bring in…Bottom line, at the end of the day it is my thing and I do have to make decisions that are hard and piss people off and that’s the reality of the situation. You also develop a closeness that is hard when people have to leave…Some people on the message boards say, I can’t believe that you can go on without so-and-so, and it’s not really fair because someone came and saw four shows and liked the guitar player and you think it’s so hard to be without him. You don’t have any idea what it’s like, that’s my family and my friend that I don’t have the same relationship with that I had before. I’m sorry you don’t get to see the hunky guitar player anymore, but there’s a little more to it than that. But the good thing is you get new people, new family members it’s kind of give and take. You learn to deal with it.

MR: When you’re up on stage and you’re doing songs without a mic or any accompaniment, what is happening?
WH: It’s one of those things that happens. That’s my favorite thing about live music. One of the things that initially attracted me to Dean is we would have these conversations in his old van, that’s what live music should be about. There should be a moment every night, you could see a band 50 times, and there should be something that happens every night that makes you feel like that has never ever happened before. It’s hard every night to have something that is magical, that makes you as a listener ask that question, but we try to maintain that. Part of that is you can’t have a script. We don’t have the same set every night, we don’t play the songs the same way. The great thing about that is some of the night’s it comes off where there are just these magic moments, where the crowd sees it, where we feel it. The other thing is there’s also nights where it just doesn’t work and you kind of come off looking like an idiot and you have to figure out a way to get around that, and that’s always the thing…There has to be an element of danger. It’s the tight rope walker thing, you go because you want the guy to make it, but there’s a chance the guy could fall, that’s what makes it exciting. That’s what makes it rock n roll.

MR: Where do you want your career to go?
WH: Forward. I would love for it to just continue to grow and get bigger…This band is playing so well and I just feel like we’ve developed such a thing among ourselves and with the amount of songs that we can draw from, we can put on a pretty damn good rock and roll show. I’m really proud of what we’re able to do at this point. I would love to get it to a point where we could play 1500-2000 seat theaters. Where we could still be in your face and rocking, but we could also strip things down and be really quiet, but still be personal. I’d love to get to that point. That’s an immediate goal. I really welcome the opportunity to do that. Musically, just keep trying to write good songs and make good records and keep pushing to be the best damn band around, and I don’t know that that part of the goal ever changes…I want the fan base to grow. I want the people who love this band to keep spreading the word to other people and just really grow this thing in a way I don’t think people have done in a long time.

Will Hoge will be playing Southpaw in Brooklyn on June 20.

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