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Doug HoekstraThere's something genuinely compelling and original about Doug Hoekstra's music. Something about the way his soft spoken delivery betrays an intelligence and literate sensibility that's all too rare in today's music scene. After releasing two albums with his first band, the proto-alt.country Bucket Number 6, Doug went solo, reaching critical attention in this country with the release of 1999's eclectic Make Me Believe. All too often referred to by lazy journalists as 'folk', the album boasted a willfully perverse and entertaining gamut of arrangements, female vocals and terse story songs whose delights unraveled on each successive listen. This year's Around The Margins is another step forward, introducing sultry gospel backing and ingenious jazz arrangements to a collection of songs which hook you in from their first lines, taking you into the detailed, precise nature of their worlds. Like his songs, Doug comes across as articulate, extremely self aware and conscious of his motives and thought processes. I talked to him on the last night of his brief British tour to support the release of Around The Margins.
The first thing that strikes me about the new record are the arrangements, the way each song is so different sonically and texturally.
by Stav Sherez / pictures by Paul Heartfield
Oh yeah, to me each song is a different soundscape and it's almost like little movies and I want the mood to shift from song to song so that you have an interesting progression of songs and it makes for a more interesting listen. You have the studio at your disposal so it seems to me like you should use it and if you can do things to vary the tracks, you should go for it and I don't think there should be any rules about it - just whatever serves it, whatever creates the right mood.
Jazz seems to have crept into the palette.
That's something I've never done before and part of that is the guy I collaborated with in Chicago, Jeff Kowalkowski, he's very jazz oriented, very avant-garde, and so I think I've been turned on to a lot of that stuff through him. We would start with him and me laying it down and then we'd come up with different ideas of what we were going to do with that and in Undone, I wanted that coda to be like the key change and have it fall apart and be undone and he suggested "I got a sax and clarinet player, why don't we bring him in?"
The version of Dylan's Isis on Margins seems to be an exercise in restraint. Was that the only way to go with that one?
It was just a case of I thought there's no way you can top Dylan's version for being biting or loud so the best way to go was go the other way. I wanted to do a couple of covers and I've never done that. Isis has always been one of my favourite songs and I figured it would be a real challenge and also what's interesting in that song, I wrote the melodic bridge to it that's not on the original because I just kind of wanted to play. I knew we would do a kind of sax/clarinet bed and I wanted to give a little release for that which in Dylan is pretty much he'll blow a harp for a few bars and I wanted something a little more than that, so I just added that bit. Actually, on that one, Jeff and I sat down and we kind of literally wrote the song down on a big board and chopped it up like an orchestrated piece - the way the saxes and clarinets come in - we mapped it out just like you would on a chart - and that was kind of the idea to make it work and to make it ebb and flow - dynamics - because as you know Dylan's a master at dynamics and phrasing. I think there's a lot of interesting things in the song, one of the things that I think when he's at his best is the songs can stay with you for years and take on different meanings and so Isis is a song that's always connected with me and I like the mythology, I like his use of mythology and how he plays around it and that's always interested me and taken different levels with me.
The title Around the Margins seems to be a pretty good summation of both the lyrical and musical themes of the record. How did that come about?
Well it's a lot of things, it's a line from Birmingham Jail, and when I looked at the songs - I don't think about it when I write the songs, I just write the songs and I write about what interest me but when I looked at what the songs were about in terms of the characters and also what the songs were doing musically, it just seemed it was all around the margins in terms of the kind of people I was writing about and the places we were going musically and where I'm at as a kind of Indie left-of-centre artist and so it all seemed to fit.
You moved to Nashville quite recently and I guess you feel somewhat around the margins of the mainstream scene there.
I think I liked it more before I moved there but it's like anything it's what you classify. Nashville is a good place because there's good musicians and it's nice weather and it's cheap to live and it's really easy to find really great people to work on your stuff...you can get stellar, stellar people and that's the key thing about there. I think the industry there for the most part sucks and it is very mainstream.
Each song on the new album is like a short story in miniature, with characters, mystery and intrigue. How important are the lyrics to you?
They're always the first thing for me. I write them first and to me they guide you because they put you in a frame of mind where you're thinking about the textures and what the record's gonna be about and it doesn't mean I'm married to them because I'll sometimes write the lyric and then the music will evolve in a way that makes me totally change the lyric but at least it puts me there. And people don't understand all the press I get and it's because my songs are always about something and people, especially in the context of press and radio, they're gonna recognise that. That's the whole point, you're supposed to communicate with people. I think lyrics really suck these days. Well, most people blow it off and it drives me up a fucking wall because people write completely about themselves a lot, which is really annoying, because nobody's that interesting. People don't understand, it's almost like being in writing class 101, it's like yes it's good to free write about your feelings but that doesn't make it a story. I find it, in a way almost arrogant, because it's like saying to the audience this is all about me, this is what I feel. People do these vague lyrics and then you ask them what their songs are about and it's like I hate to be pinned down on that - that's because they don't know themselves. So, I think that lyrics these days are really, really poor. It's interesting because musically I think rock and roll, or whatever you want to call it, has really advanced, production wise and all that. I have no nostalgia for the old days in that sense, I think it's really developed but lyrically it seems to have gone backwards and it's kind of scary, I don't know if that's a reflection of the fact that we're a less literate culture.
Tell me about your forthcoming book, Hard Boiled Heroes and Renegade Romantics.
I'll tell you how it came about, I was working on my master's degree in Nashville - one of things about going to Nasville was you get so immersed in music there, it's almost unhealthy...musicmusicmusic...and like everyone you know's a musician. They say if you throw a rock in Nashville you hit a songwriter and so I thought I want to get some other impetus and I was working on my master's and it came time to do my thesis and it grew up out of that and what it is, is like how pop culture gets assimilated into academia. I used two models and one of them is hard boiled detective writers like Chandler and Hammet and then I used songwriters like Springsteen, Guthrie and Dylan and then I also take it back to Byron and the Romantics...because these people, not only are they doing fringe art forms that become more mainstream, more academiscised, but they're also characters in the same way, outside of society. I did the Dashiel Hammet tour in San Francisco and it's like I have a guitar player who when I travel with him he relates everything to what movie was shot there and it's weird how all that spins around...that's what people like Warhol were into and I think that's all very interesting. I mean I do it all the time, you know, you stand there and this is where that unreal person lived and I was in Brighton and everyone was like, Quadrophenia was shot here, and so anyway that's kind of what the book gets into.
Do you find that books inspire your songwriting?
Totally. Books and film and painting. I think in some ways film has more of an effect because I try to write visually. I think of the shift from a verse to a verse almost like a camera move, I mean I think that's the ultimate good effect. Anything that'll like get me thinking about how people look at the world and how that might relate to what I do.
You use a lot of backing singers on Margins, more noticeably than on your last album. Are you insecure about your voice?
I think another thing that's progressed from record to record is my vocals and I don't feel shy about it but I think there's very, very few singers who can hold a sixty five minute record without boring you to tears. I think Dylan does, I think Dylan's a great singer. I think Sam Cooke's a great singer. I think there's people who can do it but a lot of singer songwriters they just kind of phone it in with the guitar - in rock there's a preponderance of interesting singers but not necessarily great ones and so, part of me, part of the reason I do that is to vary the textures from song to song and as you notice from the record it's not straight harmonies, a lot of time it's intertwining and there are even scored lines like on Lost Among The Ruins, so stuff like that is interesting. I mean why not use the voice as an instrument? I also think female voices go good with me. I think there's a nice interplay at times and it covers the sonic range because I sing so low. I think it made me a better singer too. I mean, I may pull back on that a bit on the next record because I don't want it to be too much of a crutch and I don't want it to be a cliché but at the same time it's been really cool.
Tell me more about the song Undone on the current record.
That's just a fiction, but you know it seems to me a lot of times when people have a kid, the kid doesn't want to be what they want them to be and it just circles around like that song. My parents were great but there were no artists, and my brother's a writer and I'm doing this and so I always joke that my kid's gonna want to be an accountant or something.
Is that something that would horrify you?
Well, that's cool if that's what they want to do but it seems like it's karmic justice because I'll be all ready to say here's a guitar, here's a paintbrush...and people become what they become.
You're a second generation American. The song Starin' out the Window seems to detail some of the immigrant experience. Is this one of the ways in which you define yourself, another example of being around the margins, perhaps?
Well, SOTW is this cabbie, truthfully, taking me to the airport, he was telling me a lot of that story and I think the immigrant experience in America's interesting. My grandparents on one side were born in Holland and England and on the other in Lithuania and I think that although I didn't know my grandparents that much, I do think you have a little different perspective because you hear all the stories and you feel somehow more connected to the heritage and to what your grandparents did to get there, where they came from. I think that's natural, I can't say it was a heavy part of my upbringing but it affects you and makes you. Chicago, where I grew up, is a very immigrant based place and all my friends have the same kind of experience and then you go down to somewhere like Nashville and everyone's been American for generations...I do think it's a different perspective.
You mention that Starin' Out The Window is based on a true story. When writing songs, do you tend to use real life events or do you make the narratives up?
A lot of times yeah, like Giving Up Smoking is completely true. Birmingham Jail's kind of like a news piece but that's obviously true. Desdemona's totally fictional so is Undone, though you know as an artist you can, if you want, self examine yourself, you can find pieces of yourself in every piece of fiction. I have a lot of friends who self-edit before they write, and I try not to, if something interest me I just go for it and do the song and then see where it takes me.
Looking back, how do you rate your first two solo albums?
Well, they suck. No (laughs), I think that they're pretty good. I just think it was like a progression because the band I was in, Bucket Number 6, we were sort of alt.country although we were a little more bent and then when I did the first (solo) record it kind of started there so I had a little more of that influence and it was a little more straighter folk and then (on) Rickety Stairs I used more gospel and it was a little bit broader so they were definitely a progression but at the same time I see myself writing about a lot of the same things but I think the writing's gotten deeper too.
Is Margins then, closer to what you hear in your head?
Yeah, but it's so at the moment. That album, I wasn't really ready to record it. I've always had a lot of songs and I just finished Make Me Believe and a friend said "hey, I got a studio in my house, come up and we'll record" and we just took it up from there and then I did some work in Nashville and next thing you know I had 20 tracks and it's like well, here we go. I try to roll with the juju on that stuff, it's like when opportunities come around and they make sense, I go for it and then sometimes you'll naturally have an ebb and a flow and there's a space you're not doing anything and that's good because you have the space to re-charge and maybe you'll go in another way and I've been doing even more stuff with loops on the stuff I'm recording now but by the time the next record comes out, I could be somewhere else.
We witnessed the emergence of the rapping Doug, D-Ho, as you called yourself, at the concert. Is Hip Hop something that you listen to a lot or are inspired by?
I think it's like all kinds of music, some of it you dig and some of it you don't but I think as a form it's really cool because it came out of real experience in a way that a lot of rock and roll does not anymore. I remember back with my band, Bucket Number 6, we'd use a drum machine sometimes in the studio and people would crucify us and I could never understand that and one of the good things too about all the hip hop stuff is that it's brought the technology to where people can accept that and I think it's perfectly valid because sometimes you'll get a different effect using that technology and you should go for it. What I always say to people is I see my music as urban, because we live in a predominantly urban culture whether you like it or not...it would be just goofy for me with my experience to sing about juke joints and running through the fields and all this other shit that people like to when they emulate old rock and roll or old country and it's just not a relevant world, at least not to me.
You've toured with a vast array of different line-ups and configurations. Is this something you enjoy or is it forced upon you by necessity?
Well, I think it's both. I think sometimes it's a necessity because you know sometimes people aren't available or you can't afford them but at other times I do like the fact that you have...I mean I'm open, I'm always open to trying different people because different people bring different things to the table. I think I probably like it better when doing studio stuff because then you have more control over it than you do in a live setting.
Do you tend to be a bit of a control freak in the studio?
No. I let people do what they want but the point is if they come up with something great you can leave it in, if not so great, you can mold it. Usually I'm very open. I feel like if I write the songs tightly and I set up the template of what I'm doing then they should be able to pop into it and expand within that. I mean, occasionally I will have hook lines or something that I'll tell people to play but not often. I think it's all about a mood. I think you have to get people to relax, to put themselves into it and they'll be better.
Any immediate plans for a new album?
I got some songs in the can and I've got lots of other songs written but I think I need to intentionally stay out of the studio for a couple months because I've been recording constantly for the last year and a half and I want to break that just so I wind up going somewhere different.
CWAS #8 - Summer 2001