Two years ago, despite years of releasing top-shelf indie rock hotness, Mark Hutchins (formerly of Vandolah) was a little known artist in his hometown Fort Wayne scene. He was the hot stuff in Toledo due to his Ohioan roots, and the biggest music geeks around Fort Wayne knew many of his songs by heart, but the majority of players and fans around town knew of Vandolah as little more than a cool band name they’d sometime see on fliers. Then, in January 2010, came Sleepy Furnace, Hutchins’ first solo record and most fully realized work to date. One of the most adored Fort Wayne records ever released? Absolutely. Probably one of the best indie rock albums released in 2009, anywhere. For the release of that richly layered, sweetly nostalgic songwriter opus, Hutchins played a sold-out acoustic show at the One Lucky Guitar offices. Soon after that he played a second release show, loud and proud at the Brass Rail, electric guitars turned upside down and blazing. Another hit show. What happened from there, well, no one saw it coming.
Amongst his pre-Furnace fans and friends, Hutchins, a family man with no need for scene gratification, was known for putting out a record, hardly promoting it, playing a show or two and then, for the most part, disappearing for another year or more, until the next record came out. We’d all show up to the shows and take in as much as we could – fun while it lasted. Not this time, though. After the blazing Rail set, Hutchins just kept on playing. Different venues and different towns, with different players here and there, all playing slightly different versions of the Furnace songs. Too many shows to count. Eventually Hutchins was even picked up by a small Ohio-based label called Old West End Records, who’ve been helping him out ever since, even releasing a single a few weeks ago. This past spring, nominated for a few local arts awards, Hutchins played one of the longest and best Whammy Awards Show sets ever. His band for that show? Scenester all-stars with names like Jon Keller, Jon Ross and Josh “Thunderhawk” Hall. Not a bad year.
“Sleepy Furnace was the first time I tried to make a real effort to push something, to get it out there, to get a little attention for the album,” Hutchins said when asked about his big year and even bigger record. “Granted, on a really small, microscopic scale, but some folks responded to it and that was really rewarding. It motivated me to play more shows and play with different people.”
Now, seemingly out of nowhere, Hutchins has surfaced with a second fully baked solo record titled Liar’s Gift, out in October and celebrated with a house show release at his New Haven abode on October 7. The record, twangy and produced in a far more minimal way than Furnace, is another cohesive and consistently good offering of golden-voiced indie rock, a record that Wilco and Pernice Brothers fans alike should fall hard for.
The question for me, after hearing the album, was probably similar to what most fans were wondering: How did this Guided by Voices-obsessed garage rocker dude end up a making clean, twangy songwriter record on par with Jay Bennett’s late-era work?
“That’s a good question. I don’t listen to country music. Somebody else asked me this a while back, and I didn’t have an answer for it, but it made me think about it,” Hutchins laughed. “I grew up in this area, so I’ve been exposed to country my whole life. Never actively listened to it, but it was always there. I’ve listened to things like Old 97’s and Wilco and the Mekons – and Neil Young, definitely. I mean, it’s still me. It’s not like I’m trying to mimic country tunes or make fun of anything. These were just fun songs to write and play, and they felt right when I wrote them, and they’re a bit of a change from the last batch. I mean, ‘Old Rodeo Frontman’ from Sleepy Furnace was pretty twangy too. Listen to a good chunk of the songs on the first Vandolah album: there’s definitely twang going on. Maybe not to the extent of some of the songs on Liar’s Gift, but it’s always been there.”
When Hutchins, by day a copywriter at Sweetwater, originally told me that he was working on something new, he at first called the project a single, then an EP, then maybe a mini album. Needless to say, I was quite happy when he handed me a 10-song, 30-plus-minute record of fully realized music. First coming to know him as an overly prolific rocker who churned out bedroom production after bedroom production (mostly short, simple, awesome rock n’ roll songs with weird lyrics, amazing vocals and jagged guitars), I realized that, with the kind of all-out record Sleepy Furnace was, Hutchins wasn’t going to be releasing a record every few months anymore. Still, knowing his history, I had to ask if there were hard drives full of unreleased Vandolah-era songs stacked in a closet somewhere.
“I’ve slowed way, way down in the last few years. There’s not really much to speak of sitting around. In fact, a few of the tunes on the new disc had been around for quite a few years, just waiting for the right home,” Hutchins explained. “These days, it’s just as valid to put out singles and EPs as it is to do albums. It may be more interesting to move in that direction because you catch your creative spark and follow through instead of assembling ideas and saving them for a full-length.”
One thing to keep in mind is that Hutchins has a full-time job, a rowdy handful of kids, a wife, a house, a reading habit and so on. That in mind, I asked Hutchins about recording at home, off in the suburbs of New Haven.
“We tracked the drums and the banjo at Jon Schafer’s place. He’s a friend and co-worker, a drummer and a really good engineer. He’s also been great for feedback throughout the process because he’ll tell me if something’s not working,” Hutchins said. “I did all the other parts at my place. The local pool had just opened when I started the album, so I’d get to work as soon as the kids left to go swimming. Not exactly a rock star setup, but it got done. Outside of Jon Ross’s drumming and Casey on banjo, John Hubner from Goodbyewave added some piano tracks and ambient guitar to a few tunes. His contributions were completely via e-mail. I’m shocked at how well that works. Everything else was me.”
Since the release of Sleepy Furnace, Hutchins has become a favorite amongst local musicians. Many of those folks have found themselves on stages, playing Furnace songs. One time, Jon Keller, a scene favorite who recently moved to Nashville, stood on a stage ranting about how lucky he felt to have the opportunity to play with Mark. When I recently suggested that another musician I know consider moving to New York, he simply replied, “There’s no Mark Hutchins in New York.”
So, about his, er, band …
“I don’t have a regular band, per se, but there is a group of guys over here who I’ve been working with and, hopefully, will work with for a while. Casey Neal played a ton of banjo on the new album. He’s getting in on quite a few of the shows, doubling up on banjo and Nashville-strung guitar. Jon Ross played drums on it and has been doing live shows with me. Josh Hall has been helping out on bass, and another co-worker named Lee Andrews is playing mandolin. Dan Greunke from Toledo has been playing guitar and singing with me whenever I can get him. He’s been totally essential to the Ohio shows. Most of his band (the Fairly Handsome Band) backed me up at a Toledo show a few weeks ago. I’m hoping to play with those guys when I go over there again in October,” Hutchins said.
“I love changing up the format whenever I can. We played an outdoor show a couple of weeks back that started out with me solo. Then Casey and Lee came up. A couple of numbers later Jon and Josh came up. By the end of the set it was full-out loud electric. So I did my best to cram all the different formats into one set. Yeah, it may have been a bit of a challenge for the audience, but you have to ask, ‘Would I want to check something like that out?’ I thought, ‘Yes,’ so that’s why I did it. We played as a six-piece at the Brass Rail the other night. It was ridiculous. I loved it. But I’m also going to do solo shows, acoustic shows with Casey and Lee and full-electric shows. I’m spoiled, man. I want it all.”
What can we expect at this upcoming house show? Another intimate affair or a call-the-cops loud set like no other ever heard in the New Haven ‘burbs?
“Well, I really liked the vibe of the Sleepy Furnace release show at One Lucky Guitar. People were there specifically to hear the music, and I really appreciated that I could do an unplugged acoustic show and pull it off,” Hutchins said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with a noisy bar, mind you. I just like a less-conventional venue for a release party, and this one’s going to be at my house. Hey, I get to throw a party for myself, invite my friends over, play music and sell CDs. I’d say that at my age that’s a pretty cool gig.”
Before letting Hutchins get back to his busy life of secretly recording while the kids go for a dip, I had to ask about the family dynamic. Does Mark, like every other musician I know, listen to his demos and rough mixes constantly while recording? More so, does he subject his family to the process?
“They’re really, really supportive, but it’s not like my songs are blaring out of the speakers at my house or out of the family car on a regular basis,” Hutchins laughed. “I have a hunch that, by the time I’ve done the umpteenth mix on a single song, they’ve overheard enough to have gotten their fill by the time the album comes out. But they’re great about it. They know this is just what I do. There’s nothing weird or mysterious or precious about it to them. I like that.”