Logjam Presents is happy to welcome back Hillstomp for live concert performance at The Top Hat on Friday, October 05, 2018.
If you’ve spent any amount of time around the Northwest Music Scene, the name Hillstomp should sound familiar to you. They’ve been making music for the past 17 years and touring with the likes of Reverend Horton Heat, The Devil Makes Three, and Southern Culture on the Skids. And yet misconceptions still abound. Let’s start this one… “They’re a Blues Band”. Well, sure, they know how to drive the blues as well as anybody, and credit RL Burnside among their influences, but lots of their songs are played on a banjo and just as suggestive of Appalachia as they are of Mississippi. “They’re a Jam Band”. Fine, it’s impossible not to dance when Hillstomp is in top gear, and there are more than a few barefoot hippies at every show, but they’re offset by the punks and the hillbillies, so I consider that a wash. Plus the songs are almost all 3 minutes or less, leaving no time for guitar noodling.
So, then, who are these guys?
Hillstomp is a 2-man band comprised of Henry Hill Kammerer and John Johnson. Henry plays guitar and banjo like a hurricane, and if you close your eyes you’d swear he’s playing 2 parts at once. John Johnson beats mercilessly on his drum kit (which often contains a bucket, brake drum and broiler pan) with the fury of a demon loose from hell. But once you get past the pure ferocity of his playing, you notice that the parts are intricately crafted patterns that provide the framework for Kammerer’s guitar and banjo sorcery. Save for a couple of outlier tracks, there’s just no room for bass guitar, and no-one misses it enough to ask for it. This is folk music in its purest form – from loud and gritty, to intricate and poignant, and most importantly, always heartfelt and true.
The whole thing started as a love letter of sorts to North Mississippi blues played by the likes of RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. The band stayed there for a few years and then started to morph – adding banjo and becoming more and more confident writing their own music rather than just paying tribute to their influences. The fast and loud songs kept coming, but now they were interspersed with ballads and slow-burners to give the sweat-soaked dancers a chance to breathe. It first caught on in college towns like Eugene and Olympia, but soon bigger cities got it as well. The band set out on national headlining tours, they tore their way through Europe a few times, and opened for more than a few or their heroes.
Following a few self-released LPs and a live album, they had a breakthrough of sorts with their 2010 record, Darker The Night. The record contains “Cardiac Arrest in D”, which became the centerpiece of their raucous live sets – whipping the audience into a transcendental frenzy. Saving Country Music gave the record “2 guns up!”. In 2014, the band released Portland, Ore, which raised the bar even higher. Mixed by Chet Lyster (Eels) and recorded at Fluff and Gravy Studios, the record captured the most authentic snapshot of the band to date. It prompted Dan Aykroyd’s The Blues Mobile to say “Hillstomp is a band out of Portland, hoping to bring the same energy to Oregon that the Allstars brought to North Mississippi”. It caught the ears of the Coen Brothers too, with one track being featured in the commercial trailer for Hail, Ceasar!
That all brings us to Monster Receiver, which is set to be released through Fluff and Gravy Records on October 19. Recorded by Juniana Lanning and John Shepski at Fluff and Gravy over the spring of 2018, the album finds the band challenging the stereotypes once again. Producer, John Shepski, and mixing engineer, John Askew (Richmond Fontaine, Laura Gibson, Wild Flag) teamed up to drive the Hillstomp sound into more experimental territory. The drums and guitar are pushed to the limit on screamers like “Hagler” and “Snake Eagle Blues”, while the gentler sounds on tracks like “I’ll Be Around” and “Dayton, Ohio” seem to stop time for a few minutes. Featuring guest appearances by Anna Tivel on violin, Erik Clampitt (Hook & Anchor) on pedal steel, and David Lipkind (I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House) on harmonica, the record flows seamlessly between grungy folk, garage rock, and tender ballads. Dare I say that there’s even a disco/funk number buried in there that feels right at home.
The lead track, “Hagler” is a song that fell out of a new guitar – a 1992 Gibson ES 135 that Henry recently acquired. “New guitars tend to do that”, Kammerer explains. “The song sounds tough, and it needs to. Marvelous Marvin was the toughest guy from my childhood and he always stuck with me. He was just a bad ass. I’m so happy now I get to sing his name for the rest of my life.”
“Snake Eagle Blues” started life as a cover of Robert Johnson’s Preachin Blues. It’s an age old blues tradition to borrow and damnit if Hillstomp doesn’t mind doing it one bit. Mr. Johnson did it sure as well – just ask Blind Willie Johnson. The band has softened a little from the days when they’d call themselves a “punk blues band,” but this one proves that they can still move like that. Let’s call it a biker song.
“Angels” is Henry’s attempt to write a Staples Singers song. He likes to say that the Blues is Saturday night and Sunday is church songs, often played on the same guitar. He continues, “I’m also trying to remember that there’s a lot of good people out there. Doesn’t always seem like it, but Angels are everywhere.”
Side A closing track, “Dayton, Ohio”, is a tender love letter from Kammerer to his parents. They moved from New Jersey to Utah while his mom was pregnant and got stuck in Dayton for a few days. Henry recalls it as a nice memory of his parents from a time they were in love, and when you hear him sing it you might just fall in love too.
The band plans to work as hard as they every have – tirelessly touring and making asses shake across the Pacific Northwest and the West Coast. It’s carried them this far… What else are they going to do?