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Sleepy Furnaces and Upside-Down Guitars: An Interview with Mark Hutchins
By Ben Larson
Fort Wayne Reader
Many of you who are familiar with the local music scene probably know Mark Hutchins through his bands Vandolah and New Pale Swimmers. However, on January 30th, Mark will be releasing his first solo album, entitled Sleepy Furnace, and will mark the day with performances at the N. Anthony Wooden Nickel and One Lucky Guitar.
“I’ve always been playing music, since I can remember,” he told me, “The Beatles were my primary influence since . . . I can’t even remember the first time I heard them. I think everybody my age has a Beatles song in their head at some point, whether they like it or not.” As he got older, though, his tastes took a turn for the more obscure. “I got more into the indie rock side of things in the late 80’s. Husker Du and Bob Mould, then into Pavement, Guided by Voices, Sparklehorse and so on.”
Hutchins said he didn’t necessarily grow up in a musical family (which seems out of the ordinary after one has interviewed so many musicians), saying “well, my sister played clarinet in band, but that doesn’t really count. We didn’t really have a lot of music around the house. I think my parents had some Bobby Goldsboro albums, but that was about it.” Having grown up in a rural area, Hutchins said that he made it a mission to pick up a tape every time he was able to come to the city, citing this as how he discovered bands like R.E.M. and U2. “When I was in high school I wrote U2 all over my notebook, and I remember people not having any idea what that was. This was in the Unforgettable Fire era. I don’t want to dog where I come from, but that gives you an idea of the kind of area I was in.”
Naturally, my next question to him was “how on Earth were you able to discover Bob Mould, then?” and he said “when I was a teenager I used to race BMX, and I got to the point where I got to go to nationals, a few of them, and I ended up reading the magazines and going to stores in places like Nashville. It was a crapshoot, really. I remember one guy [in a magazine] talking about how his favorite albums were The B-52s, Husker Du, and Tears for Fears. That’s pretty much how it started.”
Hutchins began recording with Vandolah around 2002, along with Toledo-based guitarist Dan Grunke, drummer Kyle Stevenson, and sometime member Darren Monroe. Vandolah went on to release three albums, Please, Walk it Off, and First Off The Moon, and also put out releases during this time under the New Pale Swimmers Moniker. In regards to his songwriting, Hutchins said “I think there was always the undercurrent of a self-contained songwriting sensibility the whole time, which again I think comes from the Beatles.”
Hutchins also has a unique playing style when it comes to the guitar. He’s left-handed, but plays a right handed guitar and just flips it upside down, making the strings fall in the opposite direction than they normally would. When I asked him about this, he said “I just started out playing that way, and that’s what I’m used to now. When I was little, my sister gave me her guitar and I just thought the fat string should go on the bottom. It just felt right to me, and there was nobody there to tell me otherwise.” And in regards to why he has kept that style, he said “I guess at this point it’s more like ‘OK, I’m getting results; I can find the chords that I need.’” He also said, “I’ve picked up a left-handed guitar before, and it feels like, well, it feels like it would to someone who has never played before.” Either way, it definitely adds a distinct feel to his music, and puts him in the company with other upside-down players such as Dick Dale, Albert King, and . . . Seal.
As to why this new album is a Mark Hutchins album, as opposed to Vandolah or New Pale Swimmers, the answer is really pretty simple: life got in the way. “Dan got busy in Toledo (he plays solo and in several bands – both on guitar and on ukelele). Kyle was havin' babies (not technically true, but you get the idea) and gearing up a photography business. I looked at my guitar every now and then. There were deaths in the family, kids running around, jobs to do. The songs dried up for awhile. I wondered if that was it, if I didn't have anything left in the tank. Then, a handful popped up in 2008. Then, crickets for a number of months before the rest came in a pretty concentrated bunch. I did a couple of acoustic shows with Dan in Toledo, tried out a few of the songs. I don't recall anybody being offended. The album finally took shape in the latter half of 2009. And here you go: Sleepy Furnace.”
Another aspect of Sleepy Furnace that distinguishes it from Hutchins’ previous efforts is the people involved. Stevenson pops up on drums for a few of the tracks, but other songs feature contributions from Kevin Hambrick of the Orange Opera, John Hubner from Goodbyewave, and Hutchins’s co-worker at Sweetwater, Casey Neal, plays banjo on the song “Lost Lake.” The album was also mastered by Thunderhawk frontman, and sometime stage-mate Josh Hall. While Grunke is absent from the album, Hutchins insists that he is there in spirit by the amount of enthusiasm and support he added to the project.
Having listened to Sleepy Furnace many times by now, I can tell you that it is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard coming out of Fort Wayne (or, as my girlfriend put it the other night, “this doesn’t sound local”). A mostly acoustic album, there’s a great flow to the songs that makes you want to listen to it as a whole, instead of just concentrating on a few tracks. The songwriting and instrumentation are simple, but in a very though out, precise manner. Hutchins’ lyrics are the kind that are easily relatable, but are good enough to avoid the cliches of top 40 pop. Hall’s production matches the music perfectly, and the contributions from Hambrick, Hubner, and Stevenson are seamless matches for Hutchins’ songwriting.
Again, Sleepy Furnace will be released on January 30th, with shows at the N. Anthony Wooden Nickel and One Lucky Guitar. The OLG show will also feature performances from C. Ray Harvey of Wooden Sattelites and Thunderhawk’s Josh Hall.