|ISSUE 8.4||FALL 1998|
|A discussion with
Christian Hurd of
songwriting and the
of how not to be
Interview (August 15,16, 1998)
Cringe: Could you talk briefly about the bands you have been in which are most prominent in your mind now?
Chris: The first band I was in that played original music was called John Doe. This was back in high school with David Holm who is now in Bigfoot. After that I was in a lot of bands that I probably wouldn't want to mention. I moved to Atlanta (from Delaware, OH) in '91 with a band called Helm's Deep. We stayed there for about two years and were negotiating a deal with an independent label called Railroad Records when our guitar player flaked out and went home to Ohio. We lost the deal and shortly thereafter one of my friends had just graduated from the Berkelee School of Music. He was working (recording and playing) in the Boston area, got sick of the music business, and moved to Columbus. He asked me to record a full-length with him. And since I didn't have a band at the time, I decided to move back to Columbus and work on this project. It ended up being a band which we both wrote songs for called Gift of Wood, but the drummer wasn't committed and we never released it. At the time that was falling apart, I was also involved in an experimental musical group called The Titanic Blues Section which was the "dream band" of a friend of mine called Exit, who doesn't really have traditional music skills, but has all of these strange and beautiful ideas. So myself, a group of others (including David Holm again), and several of the members of Bigfoot all collaborated on it. In the words of Exit, "it was insane". But the funny thing about TBS was that Exit was really into the whole Titanic thing before it "blew up". He's ahead of his time.
Cringe: Well, I guess you could say that he missed the boat on that one.
Chris: Yeah, he totally missed the boat. But he's onto other projects now that are far beyond that. My next band, Mohio, started about two and half years ago. I ran into my friend Marilyn (Kempton) one night. She was drunk and she said that she was learning to play the bass. She also said something to the effect of "my life wouldn't suck if I only had a drummer." I asked her if she had a drum kit and when she said yes I offered to play.
Cringe: Did you have any previous experience playing the drums?
Chris: Not other than playing on kits which were left at practice spaces by drummers that I was in bands with. I didn't think it was going to turn into a real band, but I went over to their house a few days later and she and her boyfriend (Moe Nelson) sure enough had the kit, and he had a bunch of songs which he had been showing her. She and I learned to play together and that was fun for a while, but then it just got crazy. I stuck it out with Moe for a while after Marilyn ran away, but I finally quit to pursue others things. While I was in Mohio I was also in Tater and that was more of a writing project for me. I played guitar in that band and sang, but we also had the noncommittal drummer problem. The only time that I never had drummer problems in a band was when I was the drummer, but I guess that I was Moe's problem because I wasn't as interested in playing his songs as I was in doing my own thing. Mohio was Moe's songs and I played the drums. After Tater broke up I decided to pursue another project which I wanted to call Templeton, and I really wasn't concerned with whether or not it was going to become a band. I started recording songs, playing the various instruments, while occasionally having a friend sit in to play something.
After a while of working on this, I ran into Emily (Allen) A.K.A. "Ms. Honey Huff and Fuss" from Monster Zero and she was interested in playing bass. We tried out a few guitar players and ended up finding Bryan Myers, from Melk, who is just a dream to work with. Between the three of us things were working out great. It was just a matter of finding the right drummer. I must have talked to half of the drummers in town (and out of town for that matter). And just at the point of severe frustration we met Ben (Kemp). He was rehearsing with Cali Swain at Land of Sugar Studio which is also our rehearsal space. I thought that since he was in Cali Swain that he wouldn't be interested, and I didn't really want to work with a drummer who was in another band since it is so hard to get anything going when everyone is spread so thin. But Cali Swain ended up breaking up anyway, so I gave Ben a 90 minute tape of demos and less than two weeks later he came over for a tryout and knew everything top to bottom and front to back. And he was into it, and totally locked with the rest of us. From there, we were almost booking shows right away. We only had three rehearsals together before we played our first show down in Athens about three weeks ago. We've had five shows since and haven't even had time to sit down and see where we are.
Cringe: I understand that you had quite a bit of formal musical training growing up. How do you feel that has influenced you as a "rock" songwriter?
Chris: I don't think that it had much of an influence at all since I never took any composition courses. I also was never really "into" classical music. I actually majored in jazz in college for a while, but I dropped out because I hated it also.
Cringe: What instrument were you playing when you first started studying?
Chris: I started playing trombone when I was four. That was my dad's main axe. I can't even remember when I had my first lesson; I just grew up always being around music. My dad was a big band player, and I guess you could say his claim to fame was that he played for a while with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. He became a music teacher, and he ended up being a high school vice principal. That was more or less the route which he wanted me to take if I was going to go with music since I would have something to fall back on. But I was never interested in teaching or in falling. I just wanted to play. But to get back to the question, I'm not sure that songwriting is something which can be really "taught". Maybe it can even have the same effect that too much musical training can have on your playing in that the more you know, the more you realize there is to know. And that can be overwhelming. I actually had to deprogram myself at a certain point from all of that training, and I am having a lot more fun playing now because I don't have all of the "math" going through my head. I really learned more about songwriting just by listening to records and the radio, or going out and seeing shows. Most rock seems to have some sort of pop format to it, and pop is all about verse and chorus. Knowing that, I just try to fit my ideas into a reasonable amount of time and space and then I have a composition, I guess.
Cringe: What are your first recollections as a songwriter?
Chris: My first song was called "I live under the sun." My dad helped me write it when I about six years old. It was a big deal in my family because I had the melody and the words to it, but I was too young to actually arrange it, so my dad sat down and wrote out all of the notes to the song and distributed it to the family as my "original work". I was really excited about it, and I took it to be a sign of encouragement.
Cringe: How do you feel that you have grown as a songwriter throughout the years?
Chris: I'd have to say that the biggest thing was getting over the hump of actually feeling that I was a songwriter instead of just wanting to be one. Now, I don't really question it. And it's not a matter of whether or not I am any good. It just took me a long time to figure out that I simply write songs, therefore I am a songwriter.
Cringe: Is there anything that you can point to that helped you to get to that position of confident self-awareness?
Chris: I think that encouragement plays a big part in it. I do want people to like what I'm doing, but I've always been told that it's just a matter of finding your audience. I really think that the encouragement starts internally -- like if you are writing in a band, if at least the people in the band like playing the song, then that is enough encouragement to keep going.
Cringe: Do you recollect at what point you first felt this level of encouragement?
Chris: I guess that Tater was the first band that I felt like I was actually getting the results which I wanted from my songwriting. I also had people in the band who I could communicate well with and who I could work well with to produce a good song.
Cringe: Do you have a fairly consistent process which you go through when you compose a song?
Chris: I don't really have a formula if that's what you mean. I write on the guitar most of the time because it's so easy to pick up and figure out chordings. But if I happen to be in a group where I'm not playing guitar, then I might write on whatever instrument I happen to be playing in that group. I used to have more of a process. I used to write the lyrics and be thinking of the melody at the same time. Then the arrangement would just come naturally come around it. I have more musical ideas than I do lyrical ones. Lyrics and melodies require the most inspiration. And arrangements are something that kind of come naturally for me. But lately I have been doing more riffy stuff. So I'll have the riff, and I'll try and come up with the melody around that. And if it actually turns into a song it'll be because I have words forming along with it. But I don't really have a formula because I never know how or when a song is going to surface. It can come from just about anything.
Cringe: Are there any elements of your songwriting which you feel still need work?
Chris: That's a tough one- all of them, I guess. It's a difficult question to answer, and all I can really think to say is that I just want to be able to write better songs.
Cringe: That's certainly a fair enough response. But how do you know when you have written a better song?
Chris: It's a very personal thing obviously, but if I take it from the point of inspiration to the point of visualizing a finished song, and if the feeling I get when I compare these two points is a good one, then I'm happy.
Cringe: Your lyrics seem to be quite personal. Is it fair to say that they are predominantly based on first-hand experiences?
Chris: Not always. Some of the stuff that I write about is from an outsider's viewpoint. But some of them are very personal. Some of them may make sense only to me, but hopefully it's not like that. Hopefully, I can project what I'm feeling. The lyrics have to do with people and social issues. That's what I know. I'm not highly educated, and I'm not a bookworm, so most of the material comes from my own experiences or the experiences of a friend.
Cringe: Is the songwriting process ever tedious for you, or is it something that you enjoy so much that no matter what happens you always like it?
Chris: It's only tedious if you are really trying. Whenever I have tried to sit down and write a song it has either turned out to be a disappointment, or it's frustrating getting it all to come together. I've found that if I don't plan on writing that things will just fall into place, and it seems that I've been more prolific since I've stopped "trying" to be a writer.
Cringe: After having spent some time around you and the other members of Templeton, I am quite impressed with your work ethic and your lack of pretense. Could you comment on both of these observations?
Chris: [Laughter] No, next question.
Cringe: Now this is going to be a pretty poor comment on your work ethic if you can't speak to it at least to a small extent.
Chris: Alright. My work ethic was beat into me at an early age.
Cringe: I hope not literally.
Chris: Well, occasionally. But really it just feels good to accomplish something. I hate to listen to tapes of songs which I never finished. And since I'm not making any money doing any of this, the only sense of fulfillment I get is to have done something productive with the ideas I have for a certain composition.
Cringe: What does it mean to you to be viewed as lacking pretense?
Chris: You know, I actually used to be fairly pretentious about playing- I thought I was something because I played music. But I guess that the older I got the more I realized what bullshit it is, and the more I watched other players I realized that those I respected the most were the ones who did not have an elitist attitude. I think that just goes with being a person though. I don't think that any one thing that any person does is any better than something that someone else does.
Cringe: So this change in attitude was more or less a progressive phase in your life?
Chris: Yeah, it was a long period of...
Cringe: So you were an asshole for a long time before you became a nice guy.
Chris: [Laughter] Maybe so. I don't know. I just know that I don't like going out and
feeling that there is some sort of "thing" between myself and someone else just because I play music and they don't. Besides, I want to have friends too. [Laughter]. Cringe: While I'm sure that you have had your ups and downs in your musical career, you seem neither cynical nor jaded about any aspect of music. To what do you attribute this attitude? Chris: Just seeing so many others my age and older being so cynical. And even seeing kids who are in their first or second band who are already jaded about music. It just doesn't seem right. I look at all these angry people that can't even enjoy listening to music. They don't enjoy playing music like they did when they were a kid, and they have forgotten why they started in the first place. It makes me sad sometimes to sit down with someone who has been through a bunch of shit and who is still hung up on it and can't come out of it. I don't want to be like that. I have gone through cynical stages in my life. I didn't like how I was, I didn't like how I was being treated, and I didn't like how I was treating other people. I made an issue out of everything. But I have mellowed. I am trying to keep the things about my youth that I enjoyed, and I'm also trying to have a good perspective on being an adult- because I am an "adult". [Laughter.] Cringe: Can you explain why you chose the name Templeton for the band? Chris: I like bands that have childhood references because rock and roll has always been something that makes me feel young- just pop in some Rolling Stones and it's going to make you feel youthful and maybe even a bit rebellious. Templeton was a character in the book Charlotte's Web. As the story goes, Charlotte (a spider) wanted to save Wilbur's (a pig) life. Her idea was to spin a word into a web that described the pig, but she couldn't think of the right word and she needed help. Templeton was a resourceful rat who Charlotte knew could help. With a bit of coaxing, he went out and found some words in print that had some impact. The gist of it is that if you are putting together any kind of project which has some intricacy to it, then you have to use your resources. The first thing you need in putting a band together is getting people to play with you. I could write a million songs, but unless I have people playing with me, they'll never be performed the way I intended them to be. Cringe: What musicians and songwriters do you feel have had the most impact on you? Chris: Lately the big ones have been local artists. David Holm (Bigfoot) has been a big one. We've watched each other grow up in music. In high school, I was a big Police fan. Cringe: What about The Police appealed to you? Chris: At the time, they had a really fresh sound. There was a punk aspect to them, but they were really good musicians, and I always thought that Sting's lyrics were insightful. Prince was a big influence as well. I could think of countless influences, but right now the community here is what I think of most. There are several other local artists that come to mind: The Deal, Scrawl, The New Bomb Turks, Gaunt, Bob City, Makeshift Conquest, Burlap Sun, Pretty Mighty Mighty, PoPo Volcano, Haynes' Boys, EBL [Emperors of Bad Luck], etc. , etc., etc. The music in this city has definitely been what has kept me here for the last five years. Cringe: Any other musical influences that you care to comment on? Chris: John Doe from X is a great writer, and I love the sound of his voice. Lately, I have been into a band called Tanner from San Diego. I don't know, there are so many. Pick a day!!