Hillfolk Noir - junkerdash with blues singing saws

As band riders go, Hillfolk Noir’s requirements are modest if unusual: none of your finest brandies by the lakeful or even bowls of colour-specific M & M’s for these Idaho exponents of a style of music they call Junkerdash. What they need most is a saw. And, no, it’s not to help them enact some scene that will help them live up to their name. They want to play it, make it sing even.

“We figured that arriving in a foreign country with a saw in a shotgun case, as we do onstage here in the U.S., wouldn’t be the best way to start our overseas touring career,” says Travis Ward, the group’s founder, guitarist and singer ahead of an extensive series of Scottish dates starting this weekend. “But the saw has become an integral part of our music. Where we come from, in the Pacific North West, the trend is for quirky garage and indie music. We’re much more into old-time blues and hillbilly music but the saw gives us this creepy weirdness that somehow lets us fit in with that psychedelic strain of rock music you find up here.”

Growing up in Sandpoint, a small town some forty miles south of the Canadian border, Ward had no designs on becoming a champion of country blues guitar pickers such as Son House and Skip James, both of whom have played a big part in the creation of Hillfolk Noir’s sound. There was music around him - his mother played drums in rock ‘n’ roll bands and used to drag the young Travis around the local gig circuit – and he became a music fanatic at an early age.

“I never listened to any one style,” he says. “I wanted to hear everything, country, rock, punk rock, heavy rock, jazz, folk music, but in Sandpoint, which is a small town of about six thousand people, you had to seek different things out. I’d hang out at the local record store and buy as many records as I could, go to the library and search out stuff, and listen to the radio and make up tapes of my latest new discoveries. I wasn’t playing music seriously, although there was always a guitar lying around the house and I’d strum a few chords. At that point I was just listening, listening, listening.”

The turning point came when his university studies went pear-shaped and he bumped into an old school friend who was planning on moving to Idaho’s state capital, Boise, not a big city but a town offering more options than Sandpoint. In a split second decision, Ward accepted his buddy’s offer to share the petrol costs, loaded a few belongings into his van and set off.

“As kids we used to sneak off to Seattle or Portland, which were both a day’s drive away from our part of Idaho, and catch a few shows when we were supposed to be camping in the mountains,” he says. “So I had some experience of the big city and I figured, either I stay in the sticks, and work in the local gas station or something, or I move to Boise and become a musician or a poet. And I’m really glad I took the chance.”

With his guitar and his favourite Son House records to learn from, he began working on his finger-picking technique and after a lot of practice – “the music we play is simple music but you’ve got to work hard to get it even half-way right” - he started looking around for musicians to form a band. Being able to play was important but a more decisive factor was being able to get along socially. The woman who became his wife, fellow Sandpoint native Alison, was an early recruit. She it is who plays the “singing saw” as well as contributing triangle, washboard, banjo, kazoo and vocals. Any other interested parties also had to be prepared to play and play and play.

“We play all the time because I figure, if you’re a musician, that’s what you should do,” says Ward. “Even now that we’re a little bit established and have made a few CDs, we’ll play coffee bars or go out and busk locally if we’re not working. There’s a market in town every Saturday and we play down there for a couple of hours and sell a few CDs if we can. Busking’s a great tradition. A lot of the blues players I listened to early on played on the streets, so I’m happy to follow their example and it’s a great way to advertise the band. Often we’ll arrive in a new town for a gig and go out and play on a street corner to let people know we’re here and that they can come and hear us that night.”

On their latest album, Radio Hour, the Wards, upright bass player Mike Waite and Jared Goodpaster (snare drum, tambourine, suitcase and jug) slip a few mock of-the-period advertisements between tracks to maintain the feeling that the listener is being taken back to the age of 78rpm records and homely product-sponsored radio programmes. You won’t hear those in their live set, though, as their policy is to get their heads down and play as many songs as they can.

“We’re not big on between-song chat,” says Ward. “But we know loads of songs. Last night we played at a festival over in the next town and we must have gotten through thirty-five or forty songs. We never decide what we’re going to play beforehand. We just play what feels right in the moment and once we’ve run out of songs and exhausted the audience as well as ourselves, we’re done.”

And under normal circumstances the saw goes back in its shotgun case.

“Yeah, we probably won’t bring the shotgun case over to Scotland either but having the saw around is a good talking point,” says Ward. “It’s great to watch people’s responses when they see the saw coming out or even just if they hear it. It’s a real head-turner. You can see people going, ‘What’s that?’ then looking to see where this eerie sound’s coming from. And it fits really well into what we do. It’s not a novelty or a weapon, it’s a real musical instrument. But I’m not sure we’d get away with telling that to customs officers.”

From The Herald, May 31, 2012.

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