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The New Normal
Vandolah's Mark Hutchins Talks New Music, New Perspectives
By EA Poorman
Fort Wayne Reader
It wasn't that long ago when it was common place to expect new music from names like Hambrick, Hall, and Hutchins on a semi-regular basis in the Fort. You could hit up Wooden Nickel and find any number of Orange Opera, Thunderhawk, and Vandolah records just waiting to fill your ear holes with songs as good, if not better, than what you'd read about over at those uppity indie music sites. These three guys were true blue, DIY music gurus, pumping out songs that made permanent residence in your head (and yeah, even your heart...wanna make something of it?)
Of course in the mid-2000s there were plenty of great bands doing their thing and engaging with audiences, all the while helping to further the reputation and vibe of Fort Wayne as a hub of musical artistry that rivaled far bigger and diverse cities. But for my ears, Orange Opera, Thunderhawk, and Vandolah captured something far more specific and direct in their musical art. When you heard songs penned by Kevin Hambrick, Josh Hall, and Mark Hutchins you felt like you were listening to one of the greats (or future greats.)
I especially found myself falling for those Vandolah records. Please, Walk It Off, and To The Moon were on par with some of the best Sparklehorse had to offer. Hutchins even hit the solo thing and pumped out two great albums under his own name. Sleepy Furnace and Liar's Gift came out in 2009 and 2011. Vandolah was resurrected again in 2012 with the release of One More Minute....then things went quiet. We get older and maybe those creative pistons aren't firing like they used to. Life throws you a few curve balls (or maybe it fires a couple cannon balls at 10 feet away even), kids, family, jobs,...it all works to snuff out that drive to create.
Mark Hutchins is no different. But after a couple of years with some creative starts and stops he has returned, along with Vandolah, and he's ready to share the fruits of his (very labored) labor. Don't Stop Giving Up is the new Vandolah LP and it has been worth the wait. Mark sat down to talk with me about the record and the process he went through to get those songs to our ears.
EA Poorman: So its been a long four years since Vandolah's One More Minute was released. You've gone through some big changes in your life, is Don't Stop Giving Up a document of these last couple years?
Mark Hutchins: Four years? Wow. Yeah, a lot of things have changed since then. I didnít write much over the last few years, and most of what I did write felt a little bit too close to the boneÖ I was worried that it was more ďtherapy musicĒ for myself than something to share. But it doesnít differ so much from other stuff Iíve put out. And really, if the first instinct is that itís kind of uncomfortable to put out there, then that means itís honest. Share the wealth, ha ha.
EA Poorman: So the last Vandolah record was like a chapter ending.
Mark Hutchins: Looking back to the last one, One More Minute was kind of describing the vase falling in slow motion, knowing that crash is coming. This one is describing the pieces afterward, to some degree. Iím really selling the hell out of this, arenít I? But itís relatable, and if somebody listens and gets that, then itís the kind of connection that makes this worth doing and worth hearing. The songs werenít necessarily fun to write, but thatís what came out.
EA Poorman: Let's talk about the new album. Despite the darkly humorous album title and the more sardonic tone than usual, the songs themselves sound brighter and looser. Opener "Beast Of My Worries" sounds like a 'Wildflowers' extra that Petty decided to keep off the album.
Mark Hutchins: ďBeastĒ was initially a test of the recording software, to see if I could navigate it and get through a project. Itís basically a chorus. Thereís a very different version I did on a 4-track tape machine thatís longer, but I felt this short little song made a nice intro and kind of set the tone. I never considered the Tom Petty thing, though I love that album. To your point about the songs sounding brighter, I guess it may be a subconscious need to frame the darker lyrics in something a little more pretty. Or maybe it just sounded right.
EA Poorman: What was the writing and recording process like with 'Don't Stop Giving Up'?
Mark Hutchins: Most of the songs had been kicking around over the last couple of years, but I just wasnít motivated to do any more with them beyond the vocal/acoustic guitar stage. But once I dug in and recorded some drums and loops and percussion, I started building them up and writing some new stuff as well. I didnít fuss over this one as much, partly because my gear situation forced me to work differently and partly because my voice wasnít up to tons of takes. A few years off will do that to you.
EA Poorman: You have always had a knack for layering both Vandolah and your solo recordings with some great sonic nuggets, and 'Don't Stop Giving Up' is no different. There's strings and synths peppered throughout the album. Did you have access to new musical toys on this record?
Mark Hutchins: The first toy was my kidís keyboard. I pilfered that for a while and played around until I found some sounds. Then a friend, Dave McCall from Plaxton and the Void, let me use his synth keyboard. Still a toy for me mind you; Iím no keyboard player. But it felt right to hang some shiny ornaments on some of the songs. One in particular, ďVahd K & Zan X,Ē is really, really sparse, so the keys and some e-bow parts helped gussy it up.
EA Poorman: With this being a Vandolah long player, was Dan Greunke involved with the creative/writing process? Will he be playing some shows with you?
Mark Hutchins: Itís funny, because I initially wanted to do a Vandolah thing on the 4-track, with songs from both Dan and me. One of the big factors that got me motivated to record again was bouncing ideas off of Dan and seeing him get energized to start recording too. It didnít work out the way Iíd intended this time out. He lives in Toledo, so we donít get the opportunity to write or record together regularly. And Iím pathetically impatient once I get on a roll, so I usually chase a new song to completion before anybody else has a chance to get their hands on it. So, no, Danís not on this one. BUT, weíre already working on another one that will definitely have songs from Dan on it.
EA Poorman: Speaking of Greunke, when you're writing what makes a song either a Vandolah tune or a Mark Hutchins solo tune? You released two great solo albums in Sleep Furnace (2009) and 'Liar's Gift (2011), then switched gears with the Vandolah One More Minute mini-album in 2012. Do you see yourself just sticking with Vandolah for the foreseeable future?
Mark Hutchins: Thereís really no discernable difference anymore. At one point, the stuff I did under my own name may have been a bit more acoustic-based than what was being done under Vandolah. Or so I thought at the time. The irony is that I did more shows with Dan and with a band to promote the albums under my own name. Promoting music and shows under that name gets old pretty quickly. I prefer Vandolah. Itís less confusing to just go under that name, whether itís an acoustic solo or duo gig or a full-band show. And though Dan doesnít show up on all the recordings, to me heís kind of the soul of the thing in a lot of ways.
EA Poorman: So the album is done and its time to promote it. What's the plan? How is the album being released? How can people put it in their ears?
Mark Hutchins: Itíll be available for digital download at vandolah.bandcamp.com. Weíll also have a very, very short run of cassette tapes available. Thought it would be fun. The tape will come with a digital download card as well. I think we might do the same thing with the next one too.
EA Poorman: Can you talk about some of the shows you've got on the calendar? Where can old people like me see you doing your thing? Are you doing solo acoustic sets? Full on rock shows? Maybe one of your famous ham and eggs breakfast shows?
Mark Hutchins: Sure! Weíll be at The Friendly Fox in Ft. Wayne on July 23 and playing the patio at CS3 on July 29. The next morning (July 30) weíll be doing a breakfast show at the Glass City Cafť in Toledo, then a show that night at The Village Idiot in Maumee. We also have shows in August and September in Ft. Wayne. Theyíll be posted at facebook.com/vandolahband. Some of the shows will be acoustic, with Dan, Lee Andrews on mandolin and Jon Kynard on percussion and/or drums. Weíll have some electric sets too. I may be doing some solo shows in southern Ohio and here in town later on, but right now the more the merrier.
EA Poorman: So now that you've exorcised some demons through 'Don't Stop Giving Up', what now? Do you have a new batch of songs you're ready to commit to tape? Four years in-between albums for you is a lifetime. Can we expect the gap to narrow between albums this time around?
Mark Hutchins: I wouldnít say ďexorcised,Ē but at least observed, ha ha. Iíve got a handful of new songs, as does Dan. Itíll be looser and less pored over, probably a lot more 4-tracked material. Weíre hoping to make an EP out of itÖ and sooner than four years, I hope!
Head over to facebook.com/vandolahband and pick a date to go check out Mark and Vandolah. And make sure to keep tabs over at vandolah.bandcamp.com and snag a copy of Don't Stop Giving Up.