Email Interview With Hans Chew
Hans Chew’s debut solo album, Tennessee & Other Stories is a road trip from a Tennessee childhood up the highway to a career as an in-demand Brooklyn musician. Clanging, upright pianos steeped in the roisterous, honky-tonk tradition of the American barroom ride in the backseat as Chew drives along. The album explores troubled times, like the loss of Chew’s friend Philly legend Jack Rose, and redemptive epiphanies (despite all the pain, we’d do it over again, Chew sings). Having played with Rose as well as D. Charles Speer & the Helix, Chew has been a fixture in a particular brand of twangy, Americana folk for years and has finally released his own opus. He talked to Philly Venues about the experience:
Philly Venues - The cover of Tennessee looks like a tribute to the old Mail Pouch Tobacco barn ads. In addition to your name actually being ‘Chew,’ do you think this sort of fading Americana imagery is relevant to your music? What else can you tell me about the cover?Hans Chew - Well to me, the cover of the album is very relevant to the music within. Tennessee & Other Stories… is kind of an ode to my childhood and adolescence, to the family I had there and to myself, and to the time I spent literally growing up in and around Chattanooga, Tennessee. One can go ten miles in pretty much any direction from there and be out in the middle of nowhere. My mother’s parents lived just north of Nashville off of I-24, and we frequently travelled there by car, driving past where I-59 ends up coming out of Alabama, over and across Nickajack Lake and by the huge TVA dam upstream of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, over Monteagle mountain and up into the Cumberland Plateau…these great scenes of raw and rugged America flying by…and dotting the scenery all along the way were those old tobacco barns, their roofs the prime advertising space back before the days of billboards. I hear that painting advertising on the roofs of barns isn’t peculiar to the area (I’ve heard of the “Burma Shave” adverts out west) but I’ve never seen any other barn advertising, and I never seemed to see a barn advertising anything other than Chattanooga’s most famous natural attraction, Rock City (sorry Ruby Falls…and sorry Choo-Choo!). To a curious kid behind the window of an automobile, those barns were little marvels, gothic works of folk-art: hand painted and often leaning over in various states of decomposition, they made for striking images with their fire-engine red walls, black roofs and white lettering…you could almost hear them barking: “See Rock City!”, and “See Seven States!”, and “The Eighth Wonder of the World”…sometimes the more robust and active barns could be seen billowing thick, black smoke from their vents as farmers cured their dark-fired tobacco crop within, a smell so earthen, so rich, and so decadent, now so dear to my heart: my mother’s parents were tobacco farmers, so I was familiar with the smells and the ways of life…the men’s hands at church covered in the orange tar and nicotine from working the leaves off of the plants all week, and the pouches of the finished stuff in the breast pockets of their overhauls…so when I was trying to think of an iconic image for the cover of the record, I knew I needed something that abstracted the essence of the nostalgia and mood of the album, but that also represented how I felt psychologically regarding the content, the music, the lyrics. I was thinking about possibly using a Lewis-and-Clark-era topographical map of Mocassin Bend (the area of the Tennessee River which I grew up on, between Signal and Lookout mountains), something that looked like it might be spread out on an 18th century cartographer’s table, but that wasn’t quite right somehow…I also thought about a still life with the Tennessee state flag’s draping folds as the backdrop and objects representing each my mother and father, grandmother and grandfather etc., but that wasn’t it either. Then finally the imagery of the old tobacco barns came to me, with their built-in advertising graphic element there to spell out any message I wanted…and the tobacco aspect tied in so much of my family history and song content (I talk about tobacco in at least two of the songs on the album!)…it seemed the obvious choice. So I cobbled together various images into a fantasy collage and was lucky enough to have my lovely and talented girlfriend Melodie Provenzano execute the image in acrylic on canvas, a medium that gave the image just the refinement I felt that it needed. Additionally, on the back cover, we hid a little four-leafed clover that represents my grandmother, who passed away before the completion of the record…she always picked and mailed me the first four-leafed clover she found every spring…
P.V. - The first three songs on Tennessee & Other Stories are subtitled (Tennessee Parts 1, 2, 3), but they don’t flow as one song. What’s the connection?
H.C. - Yeah, well, I had written about four songs specifically regarding Tennessee (Magnet Moon could be considered the fourth), and I felt that they kind of loosely went together chronologically speaking. “Old Monteagle & Muscadine” is like the trip through the countryside to my grandparents house, to the geographic area where I feel that the magic lurks…my grandmother and her sisters were full of ghost stories, and stories of indian burial grounds, and tales of old crazy locals battling inner-demons and dementia…so it’s like the “welcome to Tennessee” song mood-wise, and also your creek-side baptism into the darkness and yearning of the album. “Carry Me, Bury me” could actually be the “part three” song, but track sequence-wise, it worked better second! It’s a longing to be returned from whence one came ultimately, that after everything is done, the circle remains unbroken. Or quite literally, to be returned to the soil, to be buried by my father, to go back “to my seed in the ground, and lay my body down”. Yet “Carry Me, Bury Me” is appropriate second chronologically because it’s the coming-of-age tale of boy preparing to strike out on his own after his father dies and leaves him unto himself. “I Would There Was a Train” is the last in the trilogy and finds the narrator landing in a new town, a little broken, a little beaten, but in pursuit of something, compelled to find it, regardless of how he longs for his past geographically or spiritually. Again, it’s also a song about growing, but with its epic-sounding outro, it seemed like the better song to end the trilogy with it’s feeling of resolution and cathartic release. Magnet Moon could have just as easily been a part of the grouping, as it’s very similar plot-wise and thematically to “Old Monteagle”, but again due to track sequencing, it ended up on side two to provide a breathier, airy moment between two rather intense songs…at the end of the day I suppose I also felt that I needed to justify the album title, Tennessee & Other Stories…, and that by saying “here’s Tennessee, parts one, two, and three”, that I was accomplishing that…
P.V. - Philadelphia artists mourned the loss of guitarist Jack Rose just over a year ago. You played with Rose and said he was one of your biggest supporters. Can you tell me about your relationship with him?
H.C. - Oh man, Jack Rose was like Huck Finn to one’s Tom Sawyer, or vice-versa, I don’t know…he was one of the few people I’ve met in my lifetime where I felt like *he* had known *me* my whole life the first time I met him. I went and saw him perform out of the blue, and before I went, I emailed my NYC-based musician friend (I was still in Atlanta) D. Charles Speer (née Shuford) to see if he knew anything about him, and he said that yes, he knew Jack well through his performing with No-Neck Blues Band, and to say hello. So with that connection, I introduced myself to Jack after his performance that night and we talked immediately and intensely about the things that mattered to us the most: music, music, music. My enthusiasm matched his at that time. Looking back, that was lucky for me: Jack swallows people whole with his excitement and intensity. I very soon thereafter moved to NYC to join D. Charles Speer as part of his backing band the Helix, and we gigged with Jack, and he remembered me clearly, called me by my first name, and that impressed me at the time because I’m thinking “here’s a guy that travels the world meeting people all the time and he remembers my name a year later”. D. Charles Speer & the Helix ended up touring the East Coast and Mid-West with Jack in the spring of 2008 and for some reason Jack really took a liking to me. I think it was because I made him laugh, and because I played piano and NOT guitar, an instrument that he didn’t understand inside and out! I think he respected my ethic. But we would also sit up chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and talking music, music, music. Music hit him the way it did me: He felt it. And he also liked my songwriting. He drunkenly told me one night that a specific song of mine that I do with the Helix was “the greatest song ever written”!!! That dude could be funny as hell sometimes…anyway, he subsequently asked me to play on two of his records, and we spent some time going back and forth to his house in Philly to practice, to my place in Brooklyn. Actually, the first solo show I ever played of my material was opening for Jack at Brickbat Books in Philly! He reminded me (or, corrected me rather) of that fact on a couple of occasions when I was talking in his presence of playing my “first show” with a different Philly artist (my first full band show)…I mean, there you have it, he set up (and strongly encouraged me to play) my first show. He was a huge supporter of me, and let me know that he loved my music. He gave me the ultimate validation of asking me to play on his records. He gave me infinite confidence. I had completed Tennessee & Other Stories… just before Jack died, and I had given him a copy. A couple of weeks later at Jack’s funeral, I’m standing there in the reception room at the cemetery and the owner of Thrill Jockey records tells me, “I just want you to know that Jack was your biggest fan. He BEGGED me to listen to your record. He called me daily to see if I’d listened to it yet, and I’d tell him, ‘Jack I’m on a road trip and I don’t have a CD player in my car!!!’” That’s the kind of friend Jack was to me. That’s the kind of guy Jack was. That’s the relationship we had: He did more for me than I could have ever done for him.
P.V. - What separates musicians like you and Rose and Speer from the standard revivalist acts? What I mean is, you can find people playing traditional banjo styles or swampy upright pianos at folk festivals across the country, but you seem to come from a different school. How are you ‘keeping it weird?’
H.C. - That’s an interesting question…it’s like asking a cat, “what makes you a cat?”…it has a lot of the same features as a dog: paws, tail, fur, whiskers…but cats aren’t pack animals, they hunt alone. Dogs are more social, they do the pack thing. I guess cats like me and Speer and Rose have a bit of the “outsider” phenomena happening. We appreciate the rawness and the freakishness, and can relate more to Skip James than say to Stevie Ray Vaughn, or to Link Wray than Elvis, or to James Booker than to Harry Connick Jr. I suppose because of our backgrounds, our pasts, our families, and our experiences, we crave and need the different way of saying things and of seeing things…it’s what keeps us interested and involved…the cracked and broken and unusual sounds better than not…it’s more dangerous and unpredictable…more chaotic yet natural in that sense…I’ve often wondered myself, “what makes me any different than any number of guys playing country and blues?”…I think the answer is of course, that I AM NOT those guys, and that if I listen hard enough for that pleasing sound that comes from my instrument when I’m at my most vulnerable and open and honest, well then that’s when I’m gonna sound perhaps the tiniest bit unique…and I suppose that unique-ness is what’s perceived as different or weird…
P.V. - There’s a wide range of influences I hear throughout Tennessee & Other Stories; Gram Parsons, Dr. John, The Band, Lead Belly. Are there musicians that hold a special place in your heart that no one would be able to pick up on listening to your music? In other words, what would someone be surprised to find in your music collection?
H.C. - Well you’re definitely correct in that all of the musicians you mentioned in your question are on my musical radar, so to speak…though Gram Parsons and The Band are far less influential than Dr. John and Mr. Ledbetter. I don’t know who would be more surprising for people to find in my music collection: The Birthday Party or The Soul Stirrers? Also, there’s a lot of music that I love that isn’t influential or apparent in my own songwriting, and there’s also a lot of music that was certainly influential on my songwriting voice that I don’t have in my collection or even listen to anymore. In terms of influential albums, nothing too shocking probably: I’m a product of American culture circa 1975. The Grand Ole Opry was on the TV or radio constantly at my grandparents house, as was Bill Gaither’s gospel show and Ralph Emery’s show, and going to the little country church where my grandfather and his brothers sang in a quartet familiarized me with the droning and twangy “high-lonesome” harmony sound in rural country and bluegrass music. My mom turned me on to Jimi Hendrix and the Stones, and from there Led Zeppelin got me on to Robert Johnson. My father listened only to classical music: I knew Beethoven’s Fifth long before Led Zeppelin IV. My father would listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (the London Festival Orchestra version with the live cannon fire) on his hi-fi at maximum volume and you’d think that the books were gonna come off of the shelves… Run DMC “Raising Hell” was the first album I ever bought, and I found The Grateful Dead and Jane’s Addiction a little later in middle school. When I moved from Chattanooga to Atlanta, I met D. Charles Speer in high school there, and he turned me on to everything that was then current and great at that time: Scratch Acid and The Jesus Lizard, Melvins, Rapeman, all that great, art-damaged, post-classic rock stuff…I also loved Opal’s “Happy Nightmare Baby” and Mazzy Star’s first record “So Tonight That I Might See”. In my twenties I became obsessed with ska, reggae, and dancehall: Desmond Dekker, Culture, Burning Spear, Tenor Saw; and also mid-nineties hip-hop: Wu-Tang Clan, Redman, A Tribe Called Quest. I’m not sure what would be surprising for people to find in my collection, I think that in the Internet age, everyone is a dilettante record-collector and that everyone knows everything, but here’s a few albums off the top of my head that currently get frequent play: Various Artists “Afro Baby: the Afro-Sound in Nigeria 1970-1979”, Aretha Franklin “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Your Funeral, My Trial”, Jerry Lee Lewis “She Still Comes Around”, The Meters “Second Line Strut”, Bob Dylan “Desire”, J.J. Cale “Naturally”, Magic Sam “West Side Soul”, Maurizio Pollini “Chopin:Polonaises”, Fred McDowell “Long Way From Home”, Astor Piazola “Adiós Nonino”, Allen Toussaint “The Sceptre Recordings”, all of Leon Russell’s first three or four albums, James Booker, James Booker James Booker: he’s my favorite and the personal hero of my soul…he saved my life at 28 years old when I discovered him through Dr. John’s autobiography, “Under the Hoodoo Moon”…
P.V. - You use a lot of traditional instruments, like upright pianos, lap steels and banjos, but what’s that drone on “Words & Music?” Have you considered different instrumentations on future records? More horns maybe?
H.C. - Ha, that’s a funny story, that “drone”…I had two people mix the record independently of each other, and both put the same effect on that track! Neither had heard the other’s mix. The sound that you hear on the record is just an over-driven fuzz effect on the bass guitar. Jason Meagher (owner of Black Dirt Studio, where the record was recorded, and who also engineered and played on the entire album) had that sustained bass note hanging out there ringing and I guess it just begged for an effect to be added to it! I think we were calling it the “duck quack” during mixing…which reminds me, we did a hilarious varispeed version of that vocal take where by speeding up the whole thing just a bit in tracking causes a slo-motion and lowered pitch effect in playback, and subsequently my voice sounded like that of a 400-pound soul singer…we were joking about releasing that as an anonymous single under the name Jo “Cold Duck” Jones or something like that and then pressing up a hundred 45’s and going around sticking them in record store bins…a kind of reverse-shoplifting scheme! But yeah, as far as different instrumentations go, I am all for them. I’m gonna try to write more material for my next record on guitar. Different instruments give different sounds that effect the brain differently, and that can help one to come out of a rut stylistically or out of a predictable sound or pattern of playing…I think Tom Waits said about playing one instrument too long that one’s fingers “become like dogs, returning to the same places over and over again”…but eventually I’d like to go completely nuts with instrumentation, and even eventually I’d like to just sing and front the band, entertainer-style! I do love the tiny bit of horns that appear on the record, Wednesday Knudsen of Pigeons did such a great job with those parts to create a one-person horn section, and the solo she blows at the end of “Only Son” was the first and only take! Eventually I would love to do the full band revue thing: full band, grand piano, horn section, gospel back-up singers, the whole bit. Do medleys of covers interspersed among the originals, play two sets a show for 2 and a half hours…old school entertainment style…go all the way!!!
P.V. - It took a couple of listens for me to realize how dark your song “Forever Again” is, at least for a boogie-woogie stomp (I also noticed it opens with a subtle reference to ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’) It reminds me of one of Randy Newman’s ‘unreliable narrator’ songs. Can you tell me a little bit about the your lyric writing style? Throughout the album you seem to describe narrowly escaping tragic missteps.
H.C. - Hmm, that’s interesting…I do love the “unreliable narrator” style: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying uses that plot device in the chapters narrated by the mentally disabled kid, and that’s one of my very favorite books, but that’s not where I was going with “Forever Again”! While the lyrical content does come from a dark place, that song was an attempt to break through the darkness and into the light. I was thinking about all the death that has surrounded me, and that surrounds us all, and that it actually binds us all together, that it’s something we all have in common, that everyone who has ever lived shares with us: that we’re all gonna die. “Only the wise man sees any rhyme”, as in rhyme or reason. “Every once in a while it seems like it’s right”: there are certain moments where I understand in my being that “death” is what gives “life” meaning, that to suffer is to live, and I’m not afraid, I’m actually happy and kind of feel enlightened for a moment…then it’s gone, “most of the time, feels like forever again”, or the dark abyss of eternity…I think most of the songs on the record are explicitly about life, death and rebirth, and there’s also a vague notion towards the power of love and creation over death and destruction (though it’s the death and destruction that makes the life and rebirth possible!)…and yeah, I thought that quoting “John Brown’s Body” with its exclamation of “glory, glory hallelujah…” was an appropriate affront in the face of death…. In terms of the writing style of the record, and the record IS an autobiographical one, most of my experiences up to this point have been about pain and anger, death and destruction, followed by a yearning for wisdom and relief from suffering, and the subsequent love and rebirth, or enlightenment that follows. I lived a lot of years crammed into the first 28 years of my life, and was able to turn things around rather dramatically at the end of that run, in no small part due to the power of music, and I felt that I needed to comment on that period of my life, that it needed to be expressed, and to be understood. In simpler terms regarding my lyrics, I try to begin with a powerful first line that draws the listener in: start with something shocking, or something that begins a story, or a line that just plain sounds good…”they say that good guys always wear white…”…one of my favorites. And I also try to avoid cliches, if it’s been said before, then don’t say it again unless it’s absolutely necessary. I also try to avoid being too “rhymey rhymey”…instead of “love/dove”, try some assonance: “love/grub”!!!
P.V. - Your piano playing seems to have been in demand for a while. In addition to Rose, you’ve played with D. Charles Speer & the Helix and The Lost Crusaders (Did I also see you playing with Marc Orleans and Steve Gunn?) Do you feel like you had to cut your teeth playing for others or were you always secretly looking for a way to put out a solo album? Or was the time just right?
H.C. - Well, I wanted to come to New York City to set out on a career as a musician, and joining D. Charles Speer as part of his backing band was a great opportunity to do so. Not only was I able to hit the ground running in a new location, but I was able to support a friend and play music that I totally believed in and was inspired by, AND it was a great way to meet people, learn how to make records, learn how to book tours, get experience performing on stage, and a way to play, play, play as much as possible. I always knew that I would eventually make my own records and lead my own band, so I think I felt that I had to do all of the above, as you say: cut my teeth playing with others AND look for a way to put out my own records, and looking back, the timing WAS just plain right in my life and in the lives of others for me to come to the city and get involved. I have been VERY lucky to have been embraced, welcomed, and supported by so many wonderful and dear friends: D. Charles Speer, Jack Rose, Jason Meagher, my manger Jake Cunningham, my girlfriend Melodie Provenzano, and many, many more…and to my new friends and fans in the press…thanks for the interview Billy!
-Billy Kekevian (Philly Venues Contributor)Hans Chew will be performing on Feb. 18th at the M Room - Get Tickets