"It's the most fun I’ve ever had making a record, I
think," John Hiatt exudes. "I mean, i don't know if you're supposed to
have fun making a record -- but it was. It only took two weeks to make the
thing, and two weeks mixing it. So in that sense it's kind of like “bring
the family” it's already been it's own reward. That we had so much fun and
it sounds so good to me and that i was able to share that satisfaction
with the people who were involved in making it... Hey, we're groovin' .”
Hiatt is talking about his new album “perfectly good
guitar” a record that's as raucous and guitar-crazy a disc as he's ever
waxed. Produced by Matt Wallace (producer of Faith No More) and featuring
on lead guitar Michael Ward (from School of Fish), drummer Brian McLeod (from
Wire Train) and bassist John Pierce, it's a collection of songs whose
underlying theme of turmoil and restlessness finds its appropriate echo in
the racket Hiatt kicks up with players young enough to be his own kids.
That's appropriate too, Hiatt observes, since one of his own kids helped
inspire the whole idea.
"My step-son Rob, who's 15 now, would be dragging
these tapes home by all these funny little bands and sticking them in the
tape deck when I’d drive him to school in the morning," Hiatt explains..'
'I liked these bands that had guys singing that sounded like regular guys,
instead of like somebody who' s just sucked all the air out of a balloon,
you know? And then of course there's the guitars. It's like all of a
sudden it's OK -- the three chords that I know are back in vogue. I’d been
off somewhere else for awhile musically, and it perked up my ears. I got
excited about it. I understood that sound.”
Besides, Hiatt was feeling restless, a feeling
well-documented on previous records, particularly his recent triptych for
A&M: brong the family, slow turning and stolen moments. Wide critical
acclaim and burgeoning success as the songwriter's songwriter (over the
years his tunes have been performed by dozens of artists as disparate as
Bob Dylan and Conway Twitty, Bonnie Raitt and Paula Abdul, Aaron Neville
and Iggy Pop)
nicely with the arching message of those albums -- that after many a rocky
detour Hiatt had managed to find some measure of serenity and peace.
"But that's the darn problem with serenity and peace
-- you can start to think it's your natural state," Hiatt cracks. "And
life begins at 40, you know? You spend your 30’s worrying about turning
35, 36, 37, oh my god here comes 38... and at 40 it's like: 'Haaaaahaaaaaaa!'"
As an additional kick, Hiatt's experience recording
and touring with fellow legends Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner as
the group Little Village (a notion inspired by their success together on
his bring the family LP) had unleashed a creative ferment. "I was slammed
and juiced by that band. I got really energized by the whole experience. i
was just writing, writing, writing, and i felt like a kid -- i didn't know
how to handle all this energy. It really shook a lot loose. After that, it
was definitely time to play with some youngsters."
So Hiatt hooked up with Matt Wallace ("I was really
taken with those two Faith No More records", he notes), who put together
the aforementioned trio for PERFECTLY GOOD GUITAR. Hiatt had been
making' 'funny little demos" in his home studio, "and buying really cheap
guitars" to drive home a raw kind of sound. With the new band, it made for
instant chemistry. "Matt somehow knew that these guys would fit; they're
guys who like playing in three chords with a sense of purpose, but also
one of abandon. And it's not easy to do that. A lot of guys can't get the
knucklehead thing, if you know what I mean," Hiatt smiles. "It takes a
knucklehead to really get it right.”
Modesty aside, the trademarks of Hiatt's previous
records -- terse, evocative lyricism at once gripping and poetic; melodic,
deceptively simple song craft; and riding above it all, a rich,
emotionally expressive voice that can rip it up like an 18-wheeler or tug
softly at your heart like a lonely blue yodel-- remain very much in
evidence. Hiatt cuts loose on the aptly titled' 'Something Wild"
with a ferocity to match the version recorded a few years ago by Iggy Pop,
then brings the lights low for' 'Blue Telescope", an ode to romance
There's also a good-natured tribute to a
"Perfectly Good Guitar"; the colorfully twisted tale of the "Wreck
of the Barbie Ferrari" (featuring an uncredited debut by "Ravi
Oli" on sitar), and "Old Habits," a sad, cautionary blues song
about a woman caught in the throes of an abusive relationship. There's a
nod to James Brown in the funky grooves and growls of “Hold Me Tight,"
and a reference to Hiatt's own search for roots through the rousing rock
choruses of "Buffalo River Home." And if another title, "Loving
A Hurricane," best describes the overall sound of his new album, then
“Cross My Fingers," the blistering punk riff that finishes it off,
might also serve as a motto for the leap of faith it took Hiatt to make
"I think it was the end of some period for me,"
Hiatt says of the three albums that preceded perfectly good guitar. But
at the same time, I felt this funny kind of fatigue. Now I'm more ready to
rock than I ever was! i think i had more of a focus than maybe i had in
the past, and I just got caught up in the doing of it. So this stuff is a
lot less personal than before, but in a funny way I think it has more
emotional impact. Maybe because it is less personal. Does that make
You can decide that one. As for Hiatt, he still has
one thing left to do. "The girls like the record," he says happily,
referring to his daughters. "But I haven't played it for Rob yet."
Why not? "I guess I'm kind of scared to," his dad
admits, looking slightly sheepish. "I think I'm afraid he won't like it.
And I don't want to be rejected by the other guy in the house."
What do the following artists have in common: Iggy Pop and Paula Abdul?
Bob Dylan and Conway Twitty? Nick Lowe and Willie Nelson? Buddy Guy and
The answer is that they've all recorded songs by John Hiatt, the veteran
singer/songwriter whose recent album "Perfectly Good Guitar" is finally
garnering him the recognition from the public that he has always enjoyed
with his musical peers. Long a favorite of critics, Hiatt has undergone a
transformation from angry '70s new waver to tasteful roots rocker, all the
while turning out songs that other musicians have lined up to cover. In
fact, nearly 100 Hiatt covers have been recorded, from Three Dog Night's
1974 "Sure as I'm Sitting Here" to recent hits "Thing Called Love" by
Bonnie Raitt and "Drive South" by Suzy Boggus.
"Perfectly Good Guitar" sees Hiatt playing in a harder style reminiscent
of his mid-80's albums "Riding with the King" and "Warming Up to the Ice
Age." This time out, he's brought along some more rockers for the ride as
well. Producer Matt Wallace, best known for his work with MTV favorites
Faith No More and Paul Westerberg, was pegged for not only producing the
album but putting the band together as well. Wallace paired Hiatt with
young musicians like guitarist Michael Ward of the Los Angeles-based
School of Fish to create a revitalized sound. The alternative rock edge
was furthered in adding Cracker alumni Michael Urbano on drums and bassist
Davey Faragher for Hiatt's touring band, The Guilty Dogs.
Hiatt's writing on the new record continues to exhibit his trademark
humor, personal insights, and slightly-off-kilter storytelling. While not
as introspective as recent albums, "Perfectly Good Guitar" continues to
explore the mystical relationship between love, emotion, and what happens
when we imperfect human beings give ourselves the opportunity to
experience such lofty feelings. While the focus of albums like "Bring the
Family" expressed affirmation of the value of love and relationships, this
time out Hiatt explores the apparent dichotomy of love and freedom, either
in celebration ("Something Wild," "Buffalo River Home," "When You Hold Me
Tight"), longing ("Blue Telescope"), or loss and betrayal ("Angel," "The
Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari"). His ability to address these issues without
becoming maudlin is a tribute to Hiatt's ability to write true to his
experience and to the musicians, who play it like they mean it.
After 30 years of writing and 20 of recording, Hiatt's popularity is
reaching an all-time high. "Perfectly Good Guitar" is fast approaching
Gold status and has become the darling of the new Album Adult Alternative,
or Triple A, radio format. Hiatt currently has three songs on the Triple A
charts and "Perfectly Good Guitar" was recently named Best Triple A Album
of the Year by the Hard Report.
I spoke to Hiatt on March 20 from his hotel in Steamboat Springs,
Colorado, where he and the Guilty Dogs were appearing. The tour is now in
California, with upcoming dates including March 26 at the Crest Theater in
Sacramento, March 27 and 28 at Slim's in San Francisco, March 30 at the
Freemont Theater in San Luis Obispo, March 31 at the Belly Up Tavern in
San Diego, and April 1 at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles.
Jay Hipps: So how's the tour going?
John Hiatt: The tour is going great. It seems like it's been going
forever, but it's going great. We've been out since September, not
straight through but 3 weeks out, a week home, that sort of thing.
JH: Was this planned originally? I was under the impression that the tour
ended December 18 in Nashville?
Hiatt: No, we were always planning to go right through the new year. This
leg ends April 2nd, I think. We ended a leg December 18th, and then we
came out again -- we had about two weeks off for Christmas and then we
started back in the Northeast in January. And we've covered the Northeast
and the Midwest and Texas and now we're up in Colorado and we're going out
west. We knock it on the head April 2nd and then we're starting up again
in May for two or three weeks. And then we're going back to Europe in June
and then we're coming back out the end of July with Jackson Browne, we're
going to do a shed tour. That's six weeks. And then we're going to knock
it on the head-if we live that long (laughs).
JH: So that's when you wrap the whole thing up? That sounds like a pretty
Hiatt: It's basically a full year of touring, which I committed myself to
when we made the plans to work this record. I was real charged up about
the music and felt real re-energized about what I was doing creatively and
it had been four years since I'd toured solo. 1990 was the last solo tour
I did, with the exception of some solo acoustic dates here and there. So I
figured it was important to get back out and play, play for the folks. And
the show's been going great, and the audiences are ever-growing-we're
selling out shows everywhere, so it's really been great, really been
encouraging to me.
JH: Well, I saw the show in Santa Rosa -- I guess it was
Hiatt: Ah yes.
JH: That was a lot of fun...
Hiatt: We've since changed the band a little bit, we've pared it down to a
four piece, which seems to work much better.
JH: The third guitar player is not around?
Hiatt: Yes, Corky James is no longer with us. We've got Mike Ward from
School of Fish on lead guitar and then the rhythm section, Davey Faragher,
Michael Urbano and myself. It works, it gives it a little bit more air.
The three guitar thing is something I've always loved, but it's very
difficult to pull off. I think Moby Grape was probably the last band that
did it well. And look where it got them!
JH: Yeah, hasn't done much for them. When was the last time you heard them
on the radio? So did Ravi Oli leave a disciple there? ["Ravi Oli" was
credited for electric sitar on the song "The Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari"
from "Perfectly Good Guitar."]
Hiatt: Ravi Oli is not making any appearances! Although Corky was playing
Ravi Oli, I was the actual original Ravi Oli on the record. So he was a
surrogate Mr. Oli, bless his heart. But he's still there in spirit. Ravi
JH: So it sounds like you're pretty pleased with how things are going.
I've heard that you're hoping to do a live album from this tour. Is that
Hiatt: Well, we've been recording since we came back out in January --
we've been hauling around 24 tracks of ADAT and recording every show. So,
yeah, I would love to put out a live record, I would really like to put
out a live record.
JH: It seems like it would be a good time because you have so much
material. Now that you're audience is getting bigger, a live album would
be a good way to introduce them to...
Hiatt: Exactly. Yeah, I feel the same way. Plus, I'm so pleased with this
band, the Guilty Dogs, they just re-interpret a lot of the stuff in such
an exciting way. I'm even more excited about getting into the studio with
them, which we're planning to do in September.
JH: Are you writing already for that one?
Hiatt: Yeah, I've been writing like a madman. Writing on the road quite a
JH: Seems like a good way to spend that time...
Hiatt: Well, you know, it's funny cause it's only in the last few years
I've been able to do that. I didn't use to be able to write on the road, I
used to have to be home in my little writing room and so on. But I've
gotten more flexible about that.
JH: One of the things that I've noticed about "Perfectly Good Guitar" is
that it seems like a sort of return to the sounds of "Riding with the
King"-era material. What made you want to go back to that harder-edged
Hiatt: I didn't feel like I was going back to it, but maybe just going on
with it. I guess...I'm just trying to figure out how to best put it
because it's not like you consciously make decisions, or at least I don't,
in terms of music. What I'm writing and what I'm writing about and how a
group of songs shape up over a year or two year period what tells me
what's happened musically, how it's going to be. So in hindsight I suppose
you can look back and see a design. I guess, if hindsight's 20/20, then
I'm looking back and thinking to myself that whatever I was writing about
with the last 3 A&M records ("Bring the Family," "Slow Turning," and
"Stolen Moments"), I was done writing about that stuff. I was done talking
about myself in terms of a self-inventory style of writing. I was just
through with that, you know? It's like the guy at the party -- you can
only talk about yourself so long, and if you don't start talking about
something else, people are going to walk away from you! (laughing) So I
was just sort of over it. I don't know if that's personal development. I
think -- I'm sure -- I think any writer in his writing life gets into that
self-discovery, that kind of writing where you go into yourself and check
yourself out. I think you do it more than once in your writing life, and I
think it's useful for the writer and I think it's useful for the listener
or the reader as well.
JH: But you don't want to make a career out of it...
Hiatt: Well, you do it when you need to do it. And when I'd done that, I
wanted to get back to some storytelling and maybe revealing some things to
myself and/or others through that.
JH: I think that's one of the real appeals to your music, at least
speaking for myself. There are things that I hear you address that are
real to you and are real to other people but that nobody really talks
Hiatt: Well, my whole motivation for writing these songs is to connect in
just that way you described. I want to know that what I'm feeling is not
all that unusual. I want to know that other people feel stuff like that
too. So that's why I write about it, to kind of send a flag up a pole and
see if anybody else says, "Oh yeah..."
JH: Yeah, "I recognize that, too." Well that's interesting.
Having seen you on stage and how comfortable you are and how much fun you
have, it's interesting to hear you say that. Because it sounds like
something where you'd be a little bit timid out there, "Here, I'm
Hiatt: Well, I think my comfort level on stage comes from some years of
having some things affirmed by the audience. In other words, by having
connected in whatever modest way I have in terms of the width and depth
and breadth of my career, I have that knowledge going into it, that there
are some people that understand what I'm talking about. But years ago,
when I started doing this, I couldn't even look at the audience when I
played. I used to sit down and stare at my strings and so on and so forth.
So it's been a journey for me of connecting with people.
JH: It's not like the first time you went on stage you were the same
person we see today.
JH: Getting back to one thing you mentioned about the songs, and the
direction they take you, it sounds like you let the song dictate...
Hiatt: Absolutely. Over the years, I've tried a lot of ways to trick the
song into appearing (laughs). Employing different disciplines, you know,
or superstitions, or attitudes, or whatever. These days, and I think
that's just a result of my personal and artistic development, I seem more
willing to just sort of go along and see where the song's going to go. I
don't have as many agendas in terms of, well "I want to write this kind of
song." In your 30's you think you have notions and attitudes and ideas
that are ever so important to get across to people, so you kind of come at
it from that angle. But I don't do that so much anymore. It's more like an
adventure for me these days, to see what the little old song is going to
be about. It's fun and it's really opened up the possibilities of what I
want to write about or what I'm going to write about because I hardly ever
know anymore, lyrically, what's going to happen, to tell you the truth. I
get inspired by a piece of music or a chord progression, and then a
melody, and then the words are the last thing. And that's when you go
along with the ride, see what happens.
JH: That's an interesting way to go about it, when you consider a lot of
popular music today is...people have an
agenda going into, it sounds like they have a marketing plan in mind
before they even sit down to play anything.
Hiatt: Well, there is a lot of that, of course there always has been in
pop music. There's been the Brill Building approach or Tin Pan Alley
before that. And right now I think Nashville's a perfect example of that,
just that approach you're talking about. It seems more designed to move
product, have lots of records sold and then have that artist go out and
collect...money. (laughter). And that's the pop machine, it's finally come
to country music. Everybody down in Nashville is just thrilled with it,
but artistically speaking, in terms of any artistic vision, it's slim to
none, in my opinion. There are a few people that are working -- again,
it's just my opinion -- there are some country artists who have an
artistic vision, but right now there's just a real glut of sort of the
JH: Well, when you look at someone like Billy Ray Cyrus...
Hiatt: There's a new kid every week. And it's the same story it's always
been: somebody young enough and dumb enough (laughter) to do what they're
told. It's a real producer-driven thing, right now, producers and record
companies are in cahoots. Which is why, conversely, to my ears anyway,
this new rock'n'roll, these new young bands that have been coming down the
pike here the last four or five years are so refreshing. It's so
invigorating to me that a music that is artistically driven for the most
part -- although, sure, in any group in any music you've got people just
trying to cop a thang, or whatever -- but what I hear is real songs being
written about real everyday feelings that we all have. Not being cleaned
up for the masses, or prettied up, just "here it is." I dig that.
JH: I guess that's one of the joys of rock'n'roll, really. In the early
60's, the record companies had it all pretty squared away -- Pat Boone
would cover the Chubby Checker songs and they'd go about their business
just fine. But there came about a time when artists broke through that the
record companies didn't know what to do with, and they found an audience
and broke free of that whole record company control. I guess that's the
same thing you're talking about happening now.
Hiatt: Well, there's been many cases of producer driven and record-label
driven periods where there has been some wonderful music made. Motown is a
perfect example -- that was just fabulous stuff. And Stax, the Stax/Volt
era in Memphis, the Chess era before that in the 40's and 50's with Willie
Dixon producing all these great blues acts for the Chess brothers up in
Chicago. But I think you have to have people involved that have some sort
of artistic awareness. I mean, it's a commercial venture, let's not kid
ourselves. It's a commercial art. I think that's not only the challenge,
but I think it keeps you honest as well. I very much believe in that. If I
just wanted to make records for a handful of people who think and look and
dress like me, I'd be recording for some small label somewhere. I don't
want to do that -- I want to reach people.
But again, it's whatever your motivation is, and a lot of
times the motivation is purely dollars and cents, unfortunately. But in a
lot of other lines of work it's the same thing too.
JH: Any word on further activities of Little Village?
Hiatt: No, no word, all's quiet on the western front. We have not spoken
lately, but when last we spoke, which was six months ago, everybody was
still hoping that we could at least make one more. I think we all felt
like we made an interesting record, but we didn't make a really great one.
JH: Well, the record was good but I think expectations were probably
Hiatt: For the audience and for us as well.
JH: I saw you guys perform in San Francisco and it was really an
incredible show. It was a lot of fun seeing you
guys work together. There are some great dynamics to the things that you
four [Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner] can do. So nobody in
the group is averse to playing together again?
Hiatt: No. I think it'll happen. I think it may be a year or
more before we get in the studio. The biggest problem is just getting
these four guys together, because we all have these different projects.
But I think we'll make one. There's a great rock'n'roll record in us, I
- Jay Hipps, Petaluma, California, USA firstname.lastname@example.org
(Article copyright '94 by Jay Hipps. Print rights reserved.)