November 22, 2007

Interview with Dakota Dave Hull

“There’s a million good things I could say about Dave Hull but I’ll narrow it down to two: He’s an excellent picker, both flatpick and fingerstyle, he collects some fine instruments, and we’ve been at a lot of good places to eat together.”
—Norman Blake

“One of the best guitarists in the world.”
—Dave Van Ronk

Local guitar legend and long time friend of The Podium, Dakota Dave Hull, plays guitar with conviction. His inimitable style borrows from the past – country blues, folk, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, early jazz – the list could go on. He plays what he calls Classic American Guitar, and the results are as masterful and rich as the traditions he draws from. A gifted composer, arranger, soloist, and accompanist, the proverbial hats that Dakota Dave wears are as numerous as the bright Hawaiian shirts that have become his trademark. He carries on the tradition of American song, keeping it alive and visceral, and avoids the pitfalls of slavish mythologizing that all too many revivalists are guilty of. That’s because Dave isn’t a revivalist. To be sure, he has been to the wellspring of the past, and has drunk deeply. But what emerges is a living and breathing homage – a style that keeps the best of the past alive, and leaves the trappings of what folk music is “supposed” to look and sound like at the door. His original compositions blend seamlessly with the classic pieces of his repertoire. In my estimation, Dave is one of those rare talents that can hit the ball out of the park, all the time…every time. He’s also an affable guy, never at a loss for a story, and more than a casual fan of the brewed bean– as evidenced by the name of his recording studio – Arabica.

This past week, Dakota Dave Hull took time away from his busy schedule to talk a bit about his new album, Time Machine.

So Dave, tell us a little about the making of your latest release - Time Machine.

Well....that’s a big question. I usually do better with yes or no questions, but I’ll give it a try [laughter]. Seriously, it came together over time. I’d been thinking about percussion some and wondering how music might have sounded before there were recordings. There’s photographic evidence that people played together regardless of the instruments—the “rules” governing, say, old-time music or country blues in these modern times are, in my opinion, more a product of the revival than of any reality. Certainly the tradition is the best possible filter but you need to remember that the stuff that was recorded in the old days was released for the same reason the labels record today: money. That’s why, for example, there’s lots of country blues available but very little of the black songster tradition. But I digress. If it sounds good it is good.

You recently released an album with Pop Wagner, Airship. Time Machine and Airship each have a very different feel. Did you work on them concurrently, or did they just happen to find their way to completion at the same time?

They were pretty much concurrent. I started Time Machine first but they finished about the same time. We mixed them both the same week. That was interesting.

Unless I’m mistaken, this album features more players than any other of your releases since New Shirt. You have some solo / mostly solo albums and the wonderful duet albums with Kari Larson. How did you arrive at approaching the material this way? What sorts of challenges arise in arranging the material for a larger set of players?

As you said, I hadn’t done a recording with more than solo or duo guitars since New Shirt in the early ‘90s, so it was time to try something like this again. There were some musical ideas I’d been kicking around for awhile and I was really ready to try, like the use of percussion. Also, I’ve been doing a certain amount of work in a supporting role, with other players taking the lead, and I think sometimes guitarists forget just how versatile the instrument is, how many different roles it can take. I love playing rhythm guitar behind a lead instrument—the choices for chords, colors, rhythm, all of that stuff—it’s just big fun. Don’t get me wrong, solo guitar is big fun, too.

You wear many hats – writer, performer, interpreter, radio host, recording engineer, producer, arranger, teacher – and I could go on. How do you balance the different aspects of your musical life? How do you find these aspects feeding or informing each other?

I guess you could look at it that way, but really everything you mentioned thrives on everything else. For example, the radio show forces me to listen to music pretty much constantly and that trickles down into my playing by osmosis, or at least that’s my hope. All of the things actually depend on each other in order to work. The bottom line is that it all comes down to listening. As an aside, it seems to me that many guitarists make the big mistake of only listening to other guitarists. It’s all music, for one thing, and if you steal from a fiddler or a piano pounder or a horn player you’re far less likely to get caught. There’s a lot of great guitar music out there, of course, but there’s lots of other great music, too.

Tell us a bit about your studio, Arabica.

One of the great things that’s happened in the last 20 years is that recording technology, the ability to make a good-sounding recording, has become affordable. Of course that’s also one of the worst things that’s happened, too [laughter]. My room is small—I can record a trio comfortably—and I have some nice mics and preamps. I usually do my mixes with Steve Wiese at Creation Audio, but not always. I’ve mixed several recordings at Arabica, too. Leo Whitebird of P.O.D. Studio actually built the room. In fact, he talked me into having a studio of my own. I’ve really tried to make it a comfortable place for acoustic musicians to work.

The climate of the music industry is rapidly changing. The big label model is on its way out, and the future of distribution, as we know it, is likely to change radically. As the owner of a small label, with a pragmatic outlook and strong sense of self-promotion, what are your thoughts on the future, mostly as it relates to independent acoustic artists?

Well, first of all, the acoustic scene, such as it is, is probably about five or six years behind the curve. Most of my sales come at live shows, directly to my audience. I’m not really sure how that will change over time. The industry as a whole is going to digital downloads. There’s a part of me that’s worried; with the price of gas, motels, etc., traveling is basically paid for by CD sales. I’m not sure how it will eventually play out, but these things do have a way of working themselves out, so we’ll see. For now it still seems to be the status quo. I grew up with album covers, so I’m of the generation that likes something I can hold in my hand. I can see that that’s changing, though, and I’ll do whatever I can to get my music to the dozens of people that want it [laughter].

While your tastes are clearly rooted in the past, I know that you are far from being a Luddite when it comes to embracing useful technology. Today, people use blogs, forums, online calendars (i.e. Yahoo, Google), and social networking sites like MySpace, etc. to promote themselves and stay connected with their audience. How has technology helped you in your work?

The Internet has kept me in business. In terms of booking shows, sending promo, even letting promoters hear my stuff, it’s all there. If there were 28 hours in the day I would be doing better with MySpace and the rest. I do use Yahoo Groups as my mailing list and calendar. Go to Yahoo Groups and look for dakotadavehull and sign up, please. There’s also a link to it from my own site. I suggest that anyone who thinks they’re not getting enough spam should sign up. You’ll get about six more notes a year.

Ok, here’s a related question (sort of)…I know you are an Apple Macintosh guy and an iPod user. Do you think the usefulness of the iPod outweighs the loss in fidelity that comes with Mp3s, M4as, and AAC files? Do you find that iTunes and the iPod have changed the way that you listen to your music collection? What is currently at the top of your play list?

That’s actually a more complicated question than you’d think. I use my iPod for old music, mainly. Pre-war stuff that’s been remastered from old 78s. When I’m on a long trip in the car or on an airplane, it’s great. You don’t lose much. At home, listening to a modern CD, I listen on a good stereo system. Actually even the old stuff. Do I notice a difference? Yes. But I think being able to carry 30,000 tunes in my pocket trumps the sound issue, at least on the old stuff. If something comes into my mind when I’m on the road, I’ve probably got it with me. It’s really expanded my whole musical experience. I love putting it on shuffle play for a long road trip. It’s like the world’s biggest jukebox.

I’ll probably get a second, smaller iPod for whatever work I’m doing at the moment in the studio, either as a producer or performer. They will take .wav files (the same sound files as a CD) so I wouldn’t lose anything qualitatively there and there’s plenty of space for a few CDs worth of material. It’s certainly an inexpensive and easy way to take your work with you.

As far as the top of my play list is concerned, that changes almost daily. I’m digging Merle Haggard’s bluegrass album a lot, and the new Levon Helm recording is simply great. And the great reissues that are coming out, like Yazoo’s The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of and nearly everything on Old Hat continue to do it for me. Back in the day we were lucky if we got a re-release or reissue once or twice a month. Now there’s so much it’s nearly impossible to keep up.

Well, it is a guitar-centered blog, so I’d be remiss if I neglected the topic. Tell us a bit about what guitars are finding their way into your recordings and shows. Favorite strings? Accessories? Picks? Fingerpicks? Acrylics?

My main instrument is a 1935 Gibson Jumbo. [see the picture at the top] They’ll have to pry that one from my cold, dead fingers. I use a 2000 National Style 1 and I like to say that National Reso-Phonic is the exception that proves the rule—their new instruments are better than the old ones. I had, for many years, a 1931 Style 1 guitar that I loved, but when I got the new one I kinda stopped playing the old one. The new one is better in every respect. They also made me an M-2 baritone guitar. It’s a prototype, and it’s incredible. I played it a lot on Airship. Charlie Hoffman made the piccolo guitar that I play, and that’s a monster, too. I had a ¾ size Gibson L-0¾ that sadly had a three quarter size neck, too. My fingers would get tangled up on it. The Hoffman improves on that guitar by having 24 frets, a cutaway, and a full sized neck. It sounds great, too.

I have a small flattop called a Kel Kroydon that I use in the studio and take out rarely. It’s just too delicate to travel well. It’s from about 1930, and Gibson made it. My 1929 National Triolian is a treat to play, especially since Don Young at National rebuilt it. It’s my ugliest guitar. I have a big maple-bodied cutaway that Charlie Hoffman made for me in the 1970s that’s a great guitar. I recorded with it last on Sheridan Square Rag and I use it when I have to fly to gigs. I don’t generally fly with the Jumbo. If I didn’t have the Jumbo it would be my main guitar and I’m incredibly lucky to have it. There are a couple more guitars and a couple of ukes around here, too.

Every three weeks I go to the Vietnamese ladies and have my three nails done. Acrylics. They think it’s a hoot when I walk through the door. Before I got the baritone I played on the natch, just my own nails, but that guitar chews ‘em up beyond belief. I had to do something. I’d say I lose a little tone, but this is way better. The volume and control is great and I still have the subtle stuff that you’d lose with fingerpicks. For flatpicking I have a few real tortiseshell picks that I bought in the ‘70s, before they made the endangered list. I think I have enough for the rest of my life. I won’t be buying more.

I use and endorse John Pearse strings. Phosphor bronze on the flattops, nickel on the Nationals. Basically a light set with a medium high E and a heavy low E. Naturally the baritone and piccolo take custom sets that I devised over time. The low string on the baritone is a .076! Last time I was at the Pearse factory we tried to put an .080 on there but it wouldn’t fit through the hole in the tuner.

So the new guitars from National Reso-Phonic are that good?

They’re incredible. Better than the old ones.

At The Podium, a question we often field is how to amplify an acoustic guitar. Most people are set on a pick-up solution. I know that you are ardently anti-pickup. I can see where they can be useful in some contexts, particularly in a noisy band situation. What advice can you give to someone who is interested in “cutting the cord”?

Look, a “good” piezo pickup (I don’t really believe there is such a thing) might cost $400 bucks or thereabouts, with preamps, controls, all that crap. You can put the same pickup into a $6000 guitar and into a $200 guitar and if you listen through the amp you won’t be able to pass a blindfold test. I’ve done it, and failed. If you’re going to give up all that tone why bother with a great guitar? You’d do better just getting an electric guitar and amp. They have tone. A Tele, or a National Reso-Lectric would be my choice if I had to do that. Even then, I’d still mic the amp.

One of the things about the sound of an acoustic instrument is air. Part of the sound of an instrument is the space around it. If you’re a singer using one of these pickups it doesn’t sound like your voice and guitar are in the same room. I could go on and on, but to me the whole thing is about tone.

I use a GrooveTubes GT-44 (now it’s the GT-40). It’s got a wonderful volume to feedback ratio. That means I can turn it up pretty loud before it starts to feed back. Louder than it needs to be, usually. I’ve rarely had a problem with it and usually my soundchecks take all of five minutes. I don’t have to dink with switching between guitar systems, either, when I change guitars. All in all, a great solution. There are a couple of live recordings on my website that’ll give you a great idea of what they sound like.

For those that like to move around on stage, there are some good internal microphone solutions. The main thing is not to mic is right under the soundhole, the boomiest part of the guitar. A mic up under the neck extension seems to be the best way. Martin Carthy mics his guitar that way, and it sounds glorious.

Last question…your collection of shirts is amazing (and colorful). When did you first start getting into Hawaiian shirts? How many do you have (roughly)? Do you have any favorites?

I’ve been digging Hawaiian-style shirts since I was a kid. I started getting into them in a big way in the late ‘70s. They sorta became a trademark by the mid-‘80s. I think I have about 90 by now. Maybe I should count them. My favorite right now is on the back cover of the new album. The fabric was sent to me by Dave Van Ronk’s wife Andrea and I had it made into a shirt. She told me that it would have been his next shirt and that he was really looking forward to one-upping me next time we got together. With that shirt he would have! God knows I wish he’d been able to.

Thanks Dave!

Dakota Dave Hull is celebrating the release of his new album on Saturday, December 1st, at Patrick's Cabaret in Minneapolis. The Podium is proud to support Dave in the release, and tickets are available for purchase at the store.

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