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October 10, 2006

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Micah P. Hinson is proof that outward appearances don't count for much. His deep, ravaged baritone contrasts with his slight build and youthful looks. His largely melancholic music tilts against his lighthearted, cheerful demeanor. His straight-laced, conservative background seems out of place with his chosen avocation – writing songs about reckless love affairs, self-destruction and redemption.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Hinson, one of America's brightest young singer/songwriters, has enjoyed his greatest success to date far from his Abilene, Texas home, in Europe. While his first album, the jet-black Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress , received rave reviews abroad, it was largely ignored in North America. After completing an EP of early material, The Baby & the Satellite , and spending time with The Late Cord, a side-project with John-Mark Langham of the Earlies, Hinson geared up to record the follow up to Gospel , only to be stricken with a debilitating back injury as the result of a playful punch from a band mate.

Bed-ridden, in severe pain and heavily medicated at home in Abilene, Hinson enlisted a group of musical guests and acquaintances to help him get to work on Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit , the follow-up to Gospel . Though Opera Circuit shares its predecessor's dark heart, Hinson allows more light to shine through. Bathed in string and horn arrangements and featuring a wider array of instrumentation, Hinson's particular brand of desolate joy has never sounded more appealing.

Being There spoke with Hinson at length about the production of Opera Circuit , working through a haze of painkillers, his unusual, colorful background and achieving creative independence.

Being There: Let's jump right into the new album. This is your second full-length album, with the Baby & the Satellite EP and The Late Cord sandwiched in between. But the circumstances and process of recording it were a little different than you expected, weren't they?

Micah P. Hinson: Yeah, I guess we should delve into all that.

BT: If it's not too painful.

MPH: It's all pretty painful shit. I'm still kind of dealing with the same shit now as I was dealing with when I was making the album. What happened was that I had an incident with a friend, had a disc pop and was going numb from the waist down – just a massive chronic pain. I had surgery, and it was in the midst of this surgery that I realized that the record needed to be finished soon, or I would get off my back and I would be piss poor. The doom that it presented to me didn't seem very positive, so I just decided to make the record. After the surgery, when I was able to sit up, some of my friends – one from Manchester, another from Austin and some folks from Abilene – just came around to help me work on the record. Also a guy named Eric Bachmann from Archers of Loaf?°¦

BT: And Crooked Fingers?°¦

MPH: Right. He met me in Abilene as he was going up to Denver, and we spent about a month writing out our work and getting people to record it, in Colorado and Seattle as well. The circumstances were shit with my back, but I thought it was great, because with everything else I'd done – with The Gospel record and the re-recording of The Baby – I'd gone places and got help from people. Here I was faced with a kind of shit life, and it showed that all of my friends really did care. It was not just about making a couple of bucks – there really wasn't any money involved for anybody. Except for Bachmann maybe – the whole entire budget had to go to pay for his crazy ass. I think in the end it was a bit rough around the edges. But the record was made with love and compassion toward my plight, and I think it kind of came out in music. It sounds more like myself than anything I've done.

BT: When you were originally looking at these songs, before the injury and your recovery from surgery, was the conception of the next album that you had in your head different from the way it turned out?

MPH: It's a good question, but I don't think I've ever sat down with any of my records and said, “OK, we want the songs to sound like this, or have this kind of instrumentation.” With The Gospel and The Opera Circuit , it's a matter of just finding a good handful of songs, maybe 20 tunes, and recording them – let them find themselves in a way. And at the end of it just kind of see what the songs turn themselves into and whether that is going to work on the record. I'm just too fucking lazy, man. We kind of hope and have faith that the music's going to take care of itself. I think music is powerful enough to do that if you let it. Nobody heard anything until right before the record was finished, when we were going to master it. It was sort of a secret between me and my mates who had worked on it. But to answer your question, there's no real intention. It's just a matter of making songs and hoping that they turn out good.

BT: Well, on the back of the album it says, “11 songs from Abilene, TX”, so I suppose that's about as simple as you can get.

MPH: I do try to keep it very simple. That's why I do the artwork the way I do?°¦

BT: It's really striking.

MPH: I think it's better that way. With the modern age and digital downloading and all this kind of bullshit, you really have to give people a reason to go out and buy it, because we can steal this shit day in and day out nowadays. I just wanted to make something as striking as possible and off the beaten path a little bit. I don't see a lot of records that look that way, black & white, with typewriter script, with no words. I just try to let the music speak for itself and get a kind of stark beauty out of it. A lot of people come up to me and say, “I really like the record. I illegally downloaded it and now I really want to buy it.” At the end of the day, I really don't care if people steal my music. If I can affect their lives, that's more important than getting ten bucks out of their pocket. Once ten dollars becomes more important than somebody's soul, I'm fucked and I should probably go put a gun in my mouth. Hopefully it won't come to that.

BT: The term “Opera Circuit” in the album's title, I understand, refers to the musicians who came to play and record these songs with you. Were these all friends you had worked with previously?

MPH: I have a drummer named Nibbles, Jason Kallett, and he played drums on just one tune – he's kind of like my staple drummer when we go overseas. He does all the European stuff with us. There's a guy named Nathan Sutters [bass] has been playing with us since the first show we ever did, in Manchester. Luke Senter, who played the majority of the drums, he's the bastard that punched me in the back and gave me all these problems, but he's a good mate. I've known him since college. The Opera Circuit is what we had called ourselves since college. Nick Phelps, who plays banjo, has been a mate of mine for a couple of years. I guess I'd worked previously with just about everybody in a roundabout way except for Robert Partin, who played some of the accordion on the record. He's like 60 years old and has some stuff growing off of his face. He's a real dirty bastard, but musically just genius. I think he's kind of like an idiot savant or something.

BT: All of the horn and string arrangements were done separately, right?

MPH: There were about 17 songs and Bachmann came up and I said, “Just listen to it, and whatever you want to do, just do on it. Just be yourself because I'm really in love with what you do.” And so it comes back a month later with Frank Sinatra. Every single song had these enormous beautiful string parts, these enormous horn parts. At the end of the day we had to cut a lot of it back, because I'm not Frank Sinatra. So what you hear on the record is a massively tamed-down version or what he had written. I just kind of let him loose on my music and guaranteed that he would get a paycheck.

So it was a lot of friends and a couple of strangers who made up the Opera Circuit. My next record will have a different name, and it will be the same staple people, but the horns and strings and that kind of stuff might change. At one point, I was talking to The Earlies about doing the Opera Circuit record with them, but at the end of the day it was just like, “Fuck, I don't want to make another record that sounds just like the last one.” I just wanted to make something different – something on my own. With a lot for the reviews of Gospel , it was like, “Look what The Earlies have done for Micah.” Like they were my saviors or something, and they were in some ways, but in some ways they weren't. I had gotten out of the drug addiction, I had been bankrupt for a couple of years, I had gotten away from some of the shady women and all of this a year or two before I'd actually become signed [to a record deal]. So here I just wanted to make a stamp for myself – do the production, do the recording, do everything on my own, stand up on my own two feet. It was daunting, because I knew that if I put out a second full-length record and it was shit, everyone would think I was just some crappy, sad fool.

BT: A flash in the pan?

MPH: Yeah, and maybe I was a sad fool, but I was doing everything I could to push against that. Luckily, it's doing a lot better worldwide than any of the previous records I've done.

BT: I think it's a beautiful album. To me, it sounds a bit fuller than Gospel , with more different sounds and shades – accordion, banjo – all this interesting stuff happening.

MPH: Right.

BT: I don't want to take you back through all of this again, but obviously when you were putting this record together you were going through this reliance on medication, as a result of the surgery. How did that affect the recording process? Could you rehearse the songs the way you normally would? What about actual performance – could you stand up and play, or were you seated the whole time?

MPH: One thing that we've never done for a record is actually sit with the band and rehearse. A lot of it is spawned from me just playing the guitar parts and singing, and then we just kind of build things on top of that. I guess drugs affected the record in some ways. I don't think it affected the words or the content of the album itself. None of it had anything to do with drugs or the surgery or back problems or any of that. But I wasn't as worried as maybe I should have been making the record, because I was on a lot of codeine and Xanax and morphine. I was just doing what I loved and I when was really fucked up on drugs I wasn't concerned with how other people were going to take the songs. I think maybe it was a good thing. A lot of bands are under this stigma – “What can we make popular? What will the public want?” Like the second Franz Ferdinand album. It sucked balls, because they were thinking, “What's going to make a million record sales?” as opposed to “What are we going to do that we love?”

It was a bit hard, recording this stuff in the condition that I was in. In the end the surgery that I had ended up being a failure and I'm going to have to go in and have another one. So I definitely worked too hard and did too much initially, making the album and then jumping right off and starting to tour just four or five months after the surgery was done. With the drugs and the state of my back, it did make for an interesting record, but in the end I think I probably worked it too hard, and now I'm kind of suffering the consequences. I'm still on the codeine and Xanax, and it's still a monster that I have to face every day. Last time I went to England, for a single week, it didn't hurt at all, and it had been two years since I felt that.

BT: Were any of the songs on the new album actually written during the time you were recovering from the surgery or were they all written before that? I suspected that “Jackeyed” may have been, but I'm probably wrong!

MPH: That was written three years ago now. The songs that were written during the depths of this were “Diggin a Grave,” “Seems Almost Impossible,” “She Don't Own Me” and a couple more. After I'd had this surgery I'd been with this woman – the woman who is on the cover of both of the records. I'd been with her for about four years and she helped me with the surgery. I had a shower chair and a walker, so she was really helping me. I couldn't turn myself alone. So she was helping me with all of this stuff and I gradually started getting out of bed a bit and working on the tunes. It was quite strange, because they were like break-up songs for her, but I had yet to break up with her, and it wasn't until the first tour after the surgery, when we were in Valencia, that things kind of went tits up.

But nothing was really written about my physical condition at the time I did the album. It was more of the mental anguish of trying to be with a woman who you know you love so much but you know doesn't work. It was definitely a difficult time, but at the end of the day I don't think it's God punishing me for anything. It's me just making kind of wrong decisions. Hopefully as time goes on and I grow up I can start wrapping my mind around this and I won't have to deal with back problems or fucked-up relationships with human beings. Who knows? I'm sure that before I make my next record something nasty will happen in my life and people can have something else to talk about.

BT: When you go to record your next album, wouldn't you love it if it were just a boring process? Would it feel strange to record an album where you just went into a studio and laid the songs down and that was it?

MPH: It could be a bit weird, but as I said, when I got signed and recorded the Gospel of Progress record, I'd kind of pulled myself away from a lot of the things that the press really latched onto. They forgot about the year and a half to two years previous to the recording. They made the drugs and all of this stuff go right in together with the music...

BT: Which had happened years previous, right?

MPH: Yeah, exactly. The music caught me by the bootstraps and pulled me up. Nothing saved my ass except for me just kind of sitting in this messed up hotel room one day that my grandfather had paid for, because I was homeless, and just realizing that nobody was going to save me anymore. If I was going to have a reasonable life, I was going to have to do it myself. So then I got a job and started making it back with my family, saved some money and ended up moving to Denton, Texas. I was trying to make something out of my life – went back to college.

So I guess, in some ways, The Gospel was a record that I recorded in normal circumstances. I went in and I put the tracks down. It was odd in the sense that I didn't know anybody in The Earlies except for one person, so every day a stranger would come in to work on the music. That was kind of strange.

But the press is really big in to the romanticizing of the destruction of the human soul. And that's fair enough, because at the end of the day, if I didn't have a half-ass reasonable story there would be nobody to talk about me. I'd just be like the next Willy Mason or something. So I'll be the fucked up drug addict. I'll be the guy sleeping with Vogue models, getting his back punched open, and that's fine – as long as it keeps the electricity on and I can do what I love and affect people.

I know a lot of people who don't really dwell on those things. People I see at gigs want to share with me how I've affected their lives or relationships or helped them through divorce or the death of a loved one – that's the real fucking deal. That's when you know that the music is working and that it's alive.

BT: Let's talk a little bit about your background and how you started as a musician. Am I right that you were born in Memphis and later moved to Texas?

MPH: Yeah, I was born in Memphis. My dad was trying to become a psychologist, and we moved to West Virginia, where he finished up his PhD. He got a job as a professor at Abilene Christian University, so we moved there and I was there from about four years old on.

BT: I've seen you referred to as being a “skate kid” when you were younger. Is that accurate?

MPH: I was definitely a skate kid and went and caused a lot of trouble. I kind of don't like [the skate kid label], but I guess it kind of connects me to the “emo kids.” I was a skater, but in my mind that leads me to think of some sort of stereotypical human being, and I don't think I was that or am that. But I used to love skateboarding. Abilene was such a small, desolate hell hole that you had to find things to bide your time. Some people made a mess with underage girls. I just decided to pick up a guitar and go around on a skateboard smoking grass and tripping on LSD. I went the route of less violence and destruction at first. I definitely got into the shit later in life, because I was just trying to get through.

It was easier to grow up there in some ways, because people weren't getting shot and there weren't gangs and all of this bullshit, but it was so damn boring. It could be a good thing and lead to a lot of creative processes, or it could be the destruction of the human soul, and Abilene destroyed a lot of people I know. I know a lot of people who ended up dying of drugs, a lot of people who are still in jail because of the sheer Christianity/boredom of that town. Jack Kerouac wrote about it in On the Road . He and his buddy Dean Moriarty drove up to the tracks – I know exactly where the tracks are – and they got out and said, “Why the hell would anybody ever live here?” and drove the fuck off. I was reading On the Road in a really tough spot and I thought, “Jesus, Kerouac's been here! I don't feel so bad. He hates it just as much as me.” It's a terrible place.

BT: But you still live there, right [laughing]?

MPH: [Laughing] Yeah, I still live there with my folks. I just travel so much that it's hard to justify in my mind paying a lot of money for rent and bills when I'm out and about. I'm not back in Abilene too much, but when I am I just reside at my folks'. I've got a piano and a little fucked-up blind Chihuahua, so we have a really good time.
BT: Was there a lot of music around your house when you were growing up – or was it more something that you discovered on your own?

MPH: My Dad listened to a shitload of John Denver and the Oak Ridge Boys. My mom was massive into Neil Diamond and the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing [laughing]. That was the music that I heard growing up, not much more than that. But my older brother, who is two years older than me, when we got into high school started finding bands like The Cure, Skinny Puppy and Ministry. We started listening to a lot of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur, Jr., as well as Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. It wasn't something that I grew up with – it was more something that we found together and raised ourselves on it. Having older siblings that aren't too much older than you can be a real blessing.

BT: How did you come to play so many different instruments? I'm looking at the credits on Opera Circuit , for example, and you have more than half a dozen – guitar (of course), bass, banjo, mandolin, organ, piano, percussion, accordion?°¦

MPH : I started with the guitar and then moved from there to playing other stringed instruments, like the mandolin and banjo. Me and my brother had a dulcimer when we were growing up, but I was always musically inclined. My grandmother always had a piano, so I played on that. The credits are quite long for the instruments I do play, but I honestly don't know how to play a single one really. Even on the guitar, you couldn't ask me to play a scale for C. I couldn't do that – I would be completely lost. I understand what it is, but I'm quite dense with that kind of stuff. But with imagination and use of instruments I guess I can pull it off. If you can get stringed instruments and keyed instruments then you have a lot of bases covered. So I guess that's the thing – just a lot of fucking around and having keyboards and things around the house growing up. I've been trying to make music since I was 10 or 12 years old. I fell down in my piano class in college, so it's all just general fucking about. I guess somehow the gods have blessed me with an inkling of some sort of talent. I'm lucky enough to do what I'm doing. Better this than be good at accounting or something [laughing].

BT: Now people have written a lot about the personal shit leading up to Gospel of Progress . But I'm more interested in how it came to be that the songs you had written while you were going through all of that came to be heard and eventually recorded. How did you go from a telemarketing job to a UK record deal?

MPH: Well, as I said, from the age of 12 or so I was trying to write songs, and it was when I was about 17 or 18 years old, maybe a bit older than that, that I had recorded The Baby & the Satellite . That was the time in my life when I felt like it was a step, some progress, and that maybe I could actually write a song.

John-Mark Lapham from The Earlies, who I am in The Late Cord with, heard it and called me up one day and said, “I really like The Baby & the Satellite , and a lot of people I know like it. I'd really like to sign you to our little label, and whether we ever release it or not, we can use it as a way to get your music around.” So basically for two years, every time he sent out an Earlies demo he sent out a demo of The Baby & the Satellite .

It almost got signed to Rough Trade but they decided no in the end. Things were coming up here and there, but always kind of fell flat on their face. And then finally [John-Mark] played a radio set on BBC radio and put on a demo version of my song “The Possibilities,” in between a Sigur Rós tune and some other song. Sketchbook [Records], who had said no to us a year and a half prior, called up called up John-Mark the next day and said, “Who is this? Is this some kind of lost Will Oldham song?” He's like, “No, it's that Micah Hinson fucker you passed on.” Within two weeks he'd signed me to [Sketchbook].

Then I just went over [to the UK], made half of The Gospel , came back home to make the second half and had gotten the interest of BMG publishing. The night of my first English tour, I got an offer from them, so it all just kind of fell in my lap.

I guess it comes down to the fact that a lot of people learn how to write a song and start pushing it – they want to be rock stars or recording artists or whatever the hell people think that means – but I never had the endurance myself to send out the demos or do the self-publicized tours and stuff. In fact, when I got signed I wasn't even playing guitar very much. I was helping my banjo player, Nick [Phelps], with his music, and I wasn't really pushing it on my side. It wasn't until I got signed that I said, “Shit, I really need to get a half-assed nice guitar and take it seriously.” Bands try for years and years and nothing ever comes of it, but it just fell in my lap. I always keep it in mind that I've been as blessed and lucky as I am.

BT: Are you surprised by the way that your music has been embraced in the UK as compared to the States? I know that you have been touring extensively in the UK recently, not only with The Earlies, but also Richard Hawley. I was actually turned on to your music by people in the UK recommending it to me.

MPH: I'm not sure why, but I think in the end they latched on because there is this kind of Americana craze going on over there, and I'm being kind of lodged in with all of that. In America, I'm in everyone's backyard, and this is just one of a million things. I was just talking with a friend about that today. Why, in Italy, where a lot of people can't understand what I sing, are they so much more excited about what I do than Americans? I really have no idea why Europe is so much better for me, but I'm glad about. Especially in England – I get one pound over there and I come home and it's two dollars [laughing]. But beyond monetary reasons, it just seems that Europeans, and even in Australia and New Zealand, people's hearts are just a bit more open to it.

BT: Does it say something about the American indie scene that we have great American singer/songwriters breaking out in the UK before they do here, and are issuing albums in the UK before they come out here?

MPH: I'm not sure what to say about Americans. I guess easily and naturally the asshole in me wants to come out and say, “We Americans don't want to pay attention, we don't want to get any further than the top layer of emotions. We just want to consume and consume and consume and not think about where we are, where we are going, and what's possible and not possible.” But I think in the end all Americans aren't like that. There are people in this country riding these same roads as I am who are just as rabid and livid about life and music and art and the creation of it [as I am]. Maybe it's just the fact that [in the UK] it's much more condensed. America is so huge that it's just harder to spread the word.

I'm concerned about America. We are good people and not the evil mongoloids that everyone thinks we are. It's just the people that run us that are like that. Americans are a strange, strange breed of human being. But I am glad to be able to play a gig in Paris, or play a gig in Rome and be able to walk to the Coliseum. It's a blessing to be able to see life-changing things.

BT: It's interesting, because reading about all of the stuff you were going through in the process of making this record, you might have expected it to be even darker than Gospel . But it seems to me that here you have more of these little glimpses of light. “Diggin a Grave”, for example, with its Eastern European vibe, is probably the happiest song about digging a grave that you're ever going to hear. It's an album recorded under difficult circumstances, but it seems that there are more joyous moments.

MPH: Oh man, maybe the reason is that, for the Gospel record, I didn't feel like I was that involved. In some ways I was the smallest part of that record. I just went in and recorded my guitar parts, played a teeny bit of piano, with everybody else kind of doing all the work. With this record, I had my hands on things a lot more and had a bit more time to work on it. I'm not sure why the lighter side of it came out, but a lot of people I've talked to have said that. Maybe it's just because there's more of me in the album. We've been talking for a bit now, and I think you can tell I'm not a completely sad asshole. I try to have a laugh and I'm not a depressed bastard in the slightest. I suffer the same sadness as everyone else. “Diggin a Grave,” like you say, Jesus, you're talking about burying someone alive, but it's very joyous and very jaunty, and you can see hippies throwing Frisbees and dancing in the yard and stuff.

BT: A song like “You're Only Lonely” is also not something you would have heard on Gospel , with that wall of guitar. It almost reminds me of a Bob Mould song a bit, and it's a real departure from the first album.

MPH: I really like “You're Only Lonely” for the fact that it is really huge, but it's almost ethereal, because it's about people being apart and then finding each other again. “Don't Leave Me Now!”, which is just after it on the album, is probably the saddest, most daunting things I've ever done.

BT: One of my favorite tunes is “Drift Off to Sleep.” One of the things that makes it really special is your vocals, and to me they are one of the things that make your music really unique. Do you find that people who are unfamiliar with your work are surprised when this guy with glasses in his 20s opens his mouth and this deep, raw sound comes out?

MPH: Definitely. Some guy in Ireland asked, “Who's this kid? When's his dad gonna come out and sing these songs for us? Where's the real Micah Hinson?” It definitely catches people by surprise. My excuse is always that I've smoked too many cigarettes – too much abuse. But I've been all over the world now, doing shows with other people, and they've clearly been smoking longer than me and been on this earth longer and their voices are pristine. I'm not sure where the weird growl comes from, but I tell the sound guy to make sure our vocals are loud because that's really the only thing we have going for us, man. I'm glad that this voice did find me and that I'm able to sing the way that I am. It's just what the gods have given me, and I'd rather sound like this than like Michael Bolton or some crap.

I'm glad you liked “Drift Off?°¦”. That was done in one take, with one mic on the guitar and one on my vocals, and I was sitting in my weirdo Marilyn Manson corset and my boxers and slippers and just kind of had a go at it. That was the first take and that's what we kept, and later put on the strings.

BT: The strings work seamlessly with that song too.

MPH: I think a lot of the strings here do that. None of the songs were done on a click track. Even a song like “Little Boys Dream,” I don't know how the balls they figured that out, because it was just a guitar track and we ended up taking my guitar part out and just leaving the strings.

BT: What are you planning to do next? Do you have another album in mind?

MPH: Me and John-Mark, we are going to be finishing up a Late Cord LP, hopefully to be finished sometime by spring, if we can get it done over January. We are going to try to find something a bit more song-based and not as convoluted and strange [as the first Late Cord album]. A lot of those songs came from before The Earlies began, and they were trying to figure out who was going to be the singer of The Earlies – whether it was going to be me or this guy Brandon Carr, who got the job – so they were just kind of sketches. But I think there are strange things inside me that kind of lend themselves to the 4AD kind of sound [4AD issued The Late Cord EP, Lights from the Wheelhouse – ed.].

But I guess for my own, hopefully I'll have an album out within a year from now, because I am in better health. In the meantime, we'll be doing a 7” single with Rough Trade Records – some stuff that wasn't put on the Opera Circuit record – and then I'll be putting out a single in Spain with my label over there, Houston Party, of some other different songs. Just trying to do as much as I possibly can without being as obnoxious as hell. There's a fine line. I'm not like Sufjan Stevens with a 5-disc box set, so hopefully people won't get tired of me. I always want to wet people's whistle, if you know what I'm saying.

BT: Now, you're on tour here in North America in support of the new record. Are you touring with a full band?

MPH: On this tour, it's just me and Nick Phelps, who plays lap steel, banjo and drums. The set will generally start off with me and lap steel, then we'll get into banjo and do some hillbilly shit and by the end we're a noise-punk band. I'm not sure what the hell we turn into. Things get a bit haywire – we're screaming and throwing shit.

BT: [Laughing] Well, we're looking forward to seeing that when you get to Lee's Palace and Maxwell's. Best of luck with the rest of the tour and thanks so much for speaking with us today.

MPH: Thank you.

Being There

Matt Conroy