Catch the Squirrel

Catch the Squirrel – An Interview with Hautzel Fogh

Photo by Audra dePrisco

What are your musical influences?

I had to think about this recently when I put together my MySpace page. I just didn’t know what to say. But then I thought about it some more and I saw that I’ve been through some interesting phases. I guess like many musicians my age, Classic Rock had a large impact, at least initially. That was when I played electric bass, and my dad started teaching me. Jethro Tull is my big take away from those years. Then I started playing acoustic guitar and went head-long into Folk and later Blues. Somewhere in there Cat Stevens had a heavy impact from a philosophical point of view and I did the whole singer-songwriter thing. In fact for years, people said I sounded like Cat Stevens and I wasn’t aware of who he was. Then when I found out, it was a wakeup call. Then I started to realize that many of my previous influences had ties to other cultures, or explored the music of other countries. So it was only natural that I did the same. A friend at Penn State turned me on to a lot of new sounds, and my love of Indian food indirectly led me to a lot of East Asian music, even before I came to Bloomsburg.

For the past 5+ years I’ve really been diving into anything I can get my hands on that is *not* from the US or mainstream pop. People usually call that “world music”, but that term has lots of problems. Areas of particular interest are Mali, India, Cuba and my direct experience with Hungarian music had a large impact.

Lately I think my listening tastes are so broad that I will quite literally listen to anything. That doesn’t mean I’ll like it, but I want to know what’s out there, and I consider myself a sort of amateur ethnomusicologist – always interested in the process of discovery. As a result, I’m in a sort of “deconstruction” phase right now. Tom Waits is my idle of the moment… well, probably for the last several years. He’s just so great with nouns. Experimental and improvisational music holds an interest now.

What inspired the songs on Catch the Squirrel? And how would you describe the music to someone?

It wasn’t until the collection was complete that I realized that much of it was inspired by my life in Bloomsburg and some of the things that have happened to me since moving here in 2001. Bloomsburg is the framework for all of my community activism and it was where I was living when 9/11 happened, so now I think I see my experiences here come through the songs more – even if the songs are not specifically about Bloomsburg per se.

Most of the songs are not really about me per se.

As for describing it… if Cat Stevens, Beck and Ian Anderson had a love child, and it was delivered by Tom Waits in a cold dark studio by candlelight… that would be this album! But seriously, this is a strong folk-blues album. Some may call it Americana. This is a somewhat dark album, but not in a gloomy sense. There’s lots of room for interpretation in the lyrics. I think it is my best work to date. I am still not bored with it, which says something. It’s good driving music.

You mentioned 9/11… how did that impact you as an artist?

I think it impacted me more as a person first, then as an artist. I’ve talked to a lot of people who really felt that moment put a lot of things into perspective, and I’m no different there. The small joys seemed to matter more. The small annoyances seemed to matter less… and I think you can write about that without mentioning a major tragedy. What has bothered me more as a person and as an artist has been our reaction to 9/11, and the demonization of Islam because I draw a lot of inspiration from the Middle East philosophically and musically.

I have been cautious about writing anything reactionary about 9/11. No single song, or even a single album, could capture all of the layers of meaning there. Some have attempted it, but I am skeptical. When the topic does come up in one of my songs, like “Going Down to Smyrna” on the new CD, it is through the eyes of someone else. In this case, convicts in a prison. That sort of thing was much more interesting to me than writing another “down with terrorists” song, or even another Bush-bashing song. I really don’t have time for that.

My rhetorical training since 2001, via classes at Bloomsburg University, has shown me that music, while a powerful force to address political and social issues, is not the most efficient or the most desirable – particularly given that it is governed by marketing forces. My energy is better placed into community activities and educating myself about the history behind the mammoth conflicts we face.

There are three covers on this CD. Tell us why you chose them.

It’s all about what I am exposed to, how it resonates with me and what works both in the studio and live. I’m a huge Tom Waits fan, and I did one of his songs before (“Yesterday is Here” on Bloomsburg to Bangladesh). I knew I’d been doing more of his stuff so it was just a matter of the right song for the right collection, and that just turned out to be “Jockey Full of Bourbon.” Acoustic Blues is a big influence, and I’ve actually considered an entire album of Blues, but for now I thought it would be good to do one of my favorites from Leadbelly (“Ox Drivin’ Blues”). The other cover, “Cold, Cold Night” is from Dan Cantrell from the now-defunct band Peoples Bizarre, whom I met in San Francisco when working with Bodó Band. Sadly, that band is no longer together, but that song always stuck in my head. The original is much more complex, and their musicianship is far beyond mine. The strength of the song is that it can be deconstructed and put back together by someone on the other side of the country.

Would you call this a concept album?

Definitely not. The songs loosely tie together in mood, subject matter, tone and instrumentation. But there’s no story connecting each song to one another. Each song can stand on its own. I think that comes from a cinematic style I am developing, and the character writing I appreciate from other artists.

Does your cinematic approach come from the theatre work you’ve done?

Partially, though I’d say my writing style is very broad. I make notes like any other writer, but I also do a lot of people watching, channel surfing… web surfing. I love to read, and I’ll follow a lead as far as I can go with it. For example, in 1997 I started writing a song about the circus, derived from memories of one circus I went to when I was young. I don’t even know how old I was, or where it was. I just know I was there and I have these images. But the song never really came together, so I put it on hold.

Then last year I located a book about the history of the American circus. It was a really fun book, even if I wasn’t writing that song. Now I feel a bit more informed about the circus, and hope to use some of that background research to finish the song. Likewise, the songs on Catch the Squirrel are a mix of spontaneous, researched, or gradually written pieces from different writing approaches.

The artwork is very different from your previous albums. Tell us about how that came together.

My first criterion was that this CD had to be bright. In part that was to offset the songs themselves, but also because I felt that my previous projects had very dark artwork. I also insisted that there be lyrics in this one. My writing is what I am trying to showcase here, and while you can hear all of the words clearly, I think people really enjoy reading a booklet. I know I do.

I’ve wanted to do something with an illustrator for a long time. Some have told me my songs conjure images of cartoon-like characters and Japanimation scenes. I thought it would be fun to explore that, so I started looking for someone to execute the vision. Russ Cox from Smiling Otis Studios, whom I’d worked with on previous projects, teaches graphic design at Pennsylvania College of Art and Design. He told me that my project would be good for his 10 students. The students would submit samples based on my concept, out of which we’d pick one winning design for the final artwork.

My first concept drawings looked like a two-year-old drew them. So when I started getting back the samples, I was really amazed at how a good illustrator can define a project. It was very hard to nail down the one I was going to use. In fact at one point there were three or four possibilities that could have come out equally well. In the end I went with Adam Lunger, originally from Elysburg. His squirrel attitude was very good, and his colors were great.

After the experience of working with an illustrator, I don’t think I could do another project without one – even if it was not as elaborate as what I did with Catch the Squirrel.

Photo by Audra dePrisco

What are you listening to these days?

That’s often a moving target, but right now I am enjoying just about everything I can get my hands on from Mali, Senegal and West Africa in general. Tinariwen’s new album is really good. I’ve been following them in the world music media for the last several years, and I think in some small way their influence has started to creep into my music. Their use of electric guitars and repetitive rhythmic structures is definitely in there.  It’s kind of odd, but since I am heavily influenced by American blues, I guess it makes sense that a band of Toureg musicians in the Sahara with guitars could be equally inspiring.

I’m also really beginning to appreciate Bjork. She’s so sexy. I’m also really proud of the work Matisyahu is doing to break down barriers and to unite people with music. He walks the walk.

Most of your albums are solo or feature songs where you play most or all of the instruments. How did that approach evolve, and will you ever consider doing a “band” record?

My recording approach is due to a number of  things. The first is curiosity and the love of recording, experimenting with sounds. That naturally leads to learning how to play a number of instruments when you have something in your head that you want to get out. Another consideration has been purely practical and a product of where I grew up. Connecting with people of like mind, who were not into music for the pharmaceutical aspects was difficult when I was young. You could post a “Musician’s Wanted” ad at the music store and get all kinds of people. So their were not many collaborators that I really trusted and clicked with.

Today, it’s much different. You can have a whole web site that explains what you are into, and people can decide for themselves if they want to get involved. There’s more variety, and more control over the process. When I reflect on how things like the Internet have changed how I work – and the need to keep up with that – it’s amazing.

But to answer the second part of your question, yes. I think one day I will get tired of doing much of it myself and just rent a space and get a group of great folks together and play our asses off and let the tape (or hard drive) roll!

Earlier you mentioned community activism. That seems to be a big part of your life. Why?

Growing up in Hazleton, PA there really wasn’t much to do in the late 80s and early 90s, at least it seemed that way. If you wanted to do something creative, you had to make it happen. Venues came and went and there wasn’t nearly the community building possibilities like we have today with the Internet. So the early days of just wanting to get out and play and hang out with musicians instilled in me a need to get out there and make things happen. That, and during my “folk period” I absorbed some of the 60s/70s social-awareness ethic.

Then in Harrisburg, where we lived for four years, there were lots of things to do, but very little feeling of community. It was all very fragmented. Venues still came and went, but people were often apathetic and complained there was nothing to do! My study of Buddhism also brought me closer to an understanding of how to work on being socially aware in terms of my ability to organize and work through my creativity. So it is all connected.

Community activism uses a lot of the same networking skills. Most community events need sound design, so that is often where I come in since I have experience in that area. But in recent years, I’ve been much more than the “sound guy”. My interest in intercultural communication has allowed me to align my values with those of other community groups and help them out. It’s really a two-way street. How an artist fits into society is of particular interest to me. I don’t think we need to be a burden to society, as some seem to romantically believe.

Will you be gigging to support the new album?

Yeah, some. The backup band for the CD release parties is a really great combination, and I’d like to think we could make that go beyond the release parties. But everyone that is involved is very busy, so we’ll see. I definitely enjoy performing more with other people than I do solo.

There will be some additional local shows, but I can’t say when right now because we’re just trying to get through the next month or so. We are going to Chicago in June, and I may perform there as well.

It’s really hard to gig, work at Geisinger and do the other composition and sound design projects that I like to do. We have another Bloomsburg Alumni theatre production coming up, so I may need to compose for that. We’ll see. For me it’s about the whole package. I guess I want it all.

What do you do at Geisinger?

I’m a system’s analyst (software developer) for the electronic health record project known as EpicCare. We work with our vendor to make the software work for the doctors, nurses and of course the patients. It’s a very dynamic job, and we’re one of the leaders in the industry.

Which came first, your love of music or computers?

Well, computers as we know them today were not around when I was growing up, so I guess music. But I have been around electronics all my life. My father was always building stuff on breadboards and making circuits. We’d go to hamfests and radio clubs a lot because he was into amateur radio. My interest in technology came from an early age. One of my first recording setups was a boom box, a Casio keyboard and a mixer from Radio Shack.

Tell us more about the backing band. How did that come together?

Well, they are all really awesome musicians in their own right. Dave “Ike” Eisenhower has been traveling and playing drums for longer than I’ve been alive. So it’s really humbling to be working with him. We first met during the Compassion Moves project back in 2004, which was a combination of music, dance and poetry that featured some of my songs from Bloomsburg to Bangladesh.

I met Mark Tomeo, our pedal steel player, via a coworker at Geisinger. He helped out with a Tsunami Benefit that we did at Phillips. I always joke with Mark that I don’t know what he does to get some of the sounds he makes, but it sure sounds good and adds something unique to my music!

Joe Gaughan plays piano/keys, and he and I met via work as well. Joe does DJ work on the side, and he was working a Geisinger function. We got to talking about music and hooked up later on to discuss collaboration. When Catch the Squirrel came along, it seemed like a good time to work something out, even though there is no piano on the CD.

Dave Kessler, our bassist, does a lot of work with Dave Eisenhower. So when we needed a bass player he was the natural choice. This will be my first project working with him, and I am still trying to get used to having two Dave’s in the group. {EDITOR’S NOTE: Dave Kessler was unable to attend due to a family emergency.}

What will your next album be like?

If I follow the current pattern, the next one will be stripped down, less expensive and grittier. But that may change. The next time I do a full-blown release with artwork I’d like to go in a different direction just to see what else I could do. I might want to go from the artwork to the music instead of the other way. I’m an amateur nature photographer and I have a bit of drawing ability. I might ask Audra to draw for me sometime because she has some hidden talent there (aside from being the studio chef!). Who knows. Usually after a release like Catch the Squirrel, I just need some time to unplug from the writing process and promote it for a while.

With my home studio coming together nicely in the past few years, I’ve amassed a large amount of unpublished material. So the next album really depends on which group of songs lends itself to a release. I’ve got a number of stripped down acoustic numbers that need a lot of work, but could be an album. I could do a Blues CD. Then there’s the more produced progressive stuff that includes tracks recorded in Harrisburg. I may dust those off because there’s some strong stuff there. After over 10 years of association, Tom Dennehy and I have finally, though briefly, discussed collaboration. I would enjoy that. A few other friends like Jason Ramsland – a great synth and beat programmer from Harrisburg – may end up on the next one. Who knows? For now though, I think I will continue to do some other projects and just keep experimenting in the studio and see where it takes me.


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.