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The Ghosts of Vandolah
Mark Hutchins’ “band” returns with new E.P.
By EA Poorman
Fort Wayne Reader
When I first arrived in this area I made it known to the few people that could stand me I was interested in hearing some local bands. Being a music writer it's sorta what I do. There were a few names mentioned: Instigator, Harry Balls, The Brighton Papers and Miss Fancy Pants. None of them were worth the air used to push those names out of one’s mouth. But there was one band that struck a chord. After hearing the first 30 seconds of Vandolah's 'M.I. Angola' and this perplexing word puzzle ,"He's encased in a plastic stream, in a wilderness pose, without a wrinkle in his clothes," I knew I needed to delve deeper into this Vandolah. After some research I discovered two things about Vandolah. First, Vandolah was a town founded by M.H. Vandolah in Hardee county, Florida. It's now a designated ghost town, with only desolate train tracks running through what used to be a community. Vandolah is also an indie rock band from Fort, Wayne, IN by way of Ohio.
It may be coincidence that both of these seemingly different Vandolahs' are populated by ghosts. One, filled with ghosts of a residential nature. The voices of store owners, working stiffs and playing children now only audible through the braying wind and callous screech of the locomotive passing through what once was a town. And the other, populated by the ghosts of Mark Linkous, Vic Chesnutt, and the static, sentimental beauty of a bee-swarm noise Wilco. Another coincidence (or maybe not) is that the indie rock behemoth Vandolah was founded by an M.H. as well. Mark Hutchins, an Ohio transplant, who by day is the 9 to 5 guy. But when time allows he cranks out indie rock that would make Bob Pollard, Stephen Malkmus and the late, aformentioned Mark Linkous smile with respect (and envy). After a few years of putting the Vandolah moniker in moth ball storage next to some photo albums and a copy of Vonnegut's Mother Night at the bottom of his hallway closet, Hutchins has pulled Vandolah out and realized it still fits like a glove. Mark was kind enough to sit down with me over a cup of coffee and discuss the return of Vandolah.
So after 5 years, why bring Vandolah back from the dead? “Honestly, I was getting a little bit tired of promoting shows and music using my name,” Hutchins tells me. “It felt kind of weird and a bit conceited to put my own name all over posters and CDs and gigs. I don't feel that way about other people who do it, but it just feels a bit uncomfortable for me. The kicker is that I assembled more full-band lineups with more people than I ever had before, and I think that lends itself to a band name rather than my name. The bottom line is that I don't think I could see ‘Mark Hutchins’ on a t-shirt, but I'm fine with ‘Vandolah’ on one. I'll probably still do some acoustic solo shows under my name, so people don't feel like they're going to see a whole band and here's this one guy with a guitar. Eventually, though, I'd like to just do everything under the Vandolah handle again. It's all kind of playing pretend, anyway."
One guy with a guitar. If there's one person that pulls that off beautifully it's Hutchins. Playing stage after stage with nothing more than his acoustic, trademark black attire and his ghost stories put to music, he holds a crowd's ears hostage for as long as he sings. But that was then, this is now. And now includes a brand new Vandolah e.p. titled One More Minute that Hutchins just released independently.
What was the process in creating this e.p. (which btw is amazing, brothers and sisters)? "This one was mostly just me,” says Hutchins. “I got several drum parts plus some keyboard and guitar from J. Hubner [Goodbyewave]. He was a really big help on this thing. I sent him a rough mix, he did his parts, then he sent them to me. While I'd love to work in a room with musicians and cut basic tracks live, I definitely can't complain about this way of working. I went into this one with just a couple of concrete song ideas, and those came out quite a bit different from when they went in. I played around with some simple drum loops and pretty much wrote half the songs around those... some on the fly, right at the computer. It was really low-key and fun this time out; I didn't start fussing over the songs until closer to the end stage of the thing — you know, like, when I started sequencing the EP and stuff, and had to try to get the levels of the songs compatible with one another."
Hutchins doesn't like the idea of an M. Hutchins Bobble Head on the dash of every soccer mom's Honda Odyssey, so he puts the Vandolah indie ball cap on and starts penning under a moniker again. Me, being nosy and a pain in the arse, wants to know the difference between a Vandolah song and an M. Hutchins song? "That's a tough question. Originally, Vandolah was a ‘project,’ and I wanted to put a band around it from the get go. Eventually, it kind of settled into me, Dan Greunke, and Kyle Stevenson. But most of the recorded Vandolah stuff was done pretty much the way I did the solo projects. I guess the short answer is that it's all kind of blurred; there's definitely a bit of a different approach between the two, but it's not easy to define. I wanted to be able to play all the MH songs solo acoustic and with a band. With the Vando stuff, the live aspect really wasn't taken into consideration when I was writing and recording."
Is Vandolah hitting the road for some shows? "I'm playing with a couple of different lineups, depending on the situation. There was a Rail show in mid-September with just me, Josh Hall, and Jon Ross. Probably most of the shows will have Dan on guitar, Jon Kynard on drums, and Lee Andrews on bass. Oh, and I would LOVE to get Kevin Hambrick to sit in. He was in the Vandolah lineup for the first couple of shows. Did you know that?" I did not. "Kevin's a genius. So is Josh. We're pretty lucky to have guys like that around these parts. Hubner too. That's an awful lot of songwriting talent in one place. I think between the three of them it's probably 30-plus albums. Insane." The midwest version of Elephant 6? Maybe.
Before Mark Hutchins told me get the hell out, I asked him what the future holds for Vandolah. "That's a good question. The whole reason I started going under my own name in the first place was that I knew I was going to be doing a lot of solo shows. I'm still doing that, but I think the Vando thing is a little more anonymous, a little more free. Generally, a little louder onstage too! I'm having fun, and I hope some folks out there enjoy the music and the shows. I've been doing this long enough that it's really part of what I am; I can't imagine not doing it."
And this fan can't imagine not hearing Hutchins, Vandolah and their ghosts.
You can listen to One More Minute at vandolah.bandcamp.com.
Also at reverbnation.com/vandolah