Known primarily for his presence in the punk community, providing guitar support to rowdy musicians like Jeff Rosenstock and playing in bands like Shinobu and Hard Girls, Mike Huguenor has more than established a reputation as a reliable, passionate musician who brings his all – in musicianship and emotional vibrance – to what or whoever he is collaborating with.
That said, as steadfast resident of the San Jose, CA area, Huguenor has come to witness the gradual thinning of the local musical herd that has once permeated and colored much of daily life in the city – due largely to the increasing influx of larger corporately-run businesses and the subsequent upward shift to the local cost of living and availability of spaces for residence and art. Spurred in part by response this unfolding change and in part by Huguenor’s own desire to create an album of a notably different artistic approach, Huguenor’s newest work, titled, X’ed, is an instrumental solo LP focused on highlighting Huguenor’s central creative tool: the guitar.
Bearing a title that alone calls attention to the diminishing music community in San Jose, thinking of the shift in populous as folks being “X’ed out,” X’ed seems easy to understand from a distance. However, the motivations behind both the album overall, as well as individual pieces thereon, reveal the project as one of multi-faceted emotional, technical, and creative purpose. Built from an arsenal of one electric and two acoustic guitars; five pedals; and two amps, X’ed strives to show not just what Huguenor is capable of composing in an individual setting but also to show what the guitar as an instrument is capable of achieving in sound, pitch, and to tonal character over the 10 tracks on X’ed.
It’s when one then factors in the stylistically open-ended core of the record’s sonic personality (as opposed to the perhaps expectant punk driven influence,) that listeners can sit back to take in a definitively different side of Huguenor as a songwriter to see what awaits. The answer provided offers a mix of Huguenor’s own accumulated skill and relationship with the guitar after years of performance, in addition to the prospect that listeners will be learning, just as Huguenor did, how unexpected, unusual, memorable, and intriguing the guitar can be made to sound – independent of whatever creative ideas Huguenor went into San Jose’s District Recording Studio to flesh out.
Huguenor took the time to dive into and thoroughly explain several of the nuances sewn in X’ed – from re-discovering the power of his gear, to his mindset around San Jose as a music hub, and even a few fun details in between. Whether listeners are drawn to it for melodic, conceptual, technical, or purely creatively curious reasons, there is plenty of lively discussion.
Kira: The list of pedals your used to bring X’ed to life isn’t nearly as convoluted or extensive as might be expected given the album’s aim of showcasing the sonic potential of guitar in unorthodox ways. (In fact many of your choices, like the DOD Overdrive Preamp 250 and Way Huge Swollen Pickle, are quite popular and familiar with guitarists.) It’s a testament to your ingenuity with effects and your ability to blend them with our own instrumental aptitude. What are some creative realizations you had in your experimentation with these tools and their built in capabilities, that people might find fun to try out for themselves in their next compositions?
Mike Huguenor: Let me just say that I appreciate this subtly philosophic opening question. Are you a dialectical materialist??
Ok, let’s get into it: my belief is that guitarists are too often tempted & distracted by the novelty & possibility of pedals. There are so many options (and so many good ones!) that one could buy and buy and buy pedals, and never quite find the right tone, and I’ve seen it happen. I remember watching friends’ bands in the South Bay, suburban kids with these rhizomic, Deleuzian pedalboards who played three shows, never recorded a song, and then broke up. They got lost in the chain.
So, the most important thing is to start somewhere. Get a baseline sound that you’re comfortable with and feel like yourself in (this is important: always be yourself), and then don’t add anything for a while. Then, when you feel like you’ve got your foundation, be playful with it. When I add a new pedal to my board, I usually think of it as adding something that contrasts with my established tone, some specific new register I couldn’t otherwise have reached before.
Then, when you add your new pedal, don’t afraid to fuck around a little. Put it on a setting that sounds kinda bad and play in it for a while. After an hour, you might find two notes that sound perfect.
Kira: You highlight the damaging effects of continuous corporate expansion and big company detachment through a track like “Irruption.” Acknowledging this, how do you discern your relationship with technology (e.g. apps like Bandsintown, platforms like Bandcamp, payment tools like PayPal, and online stores like Apple Music and Amazon), particularly as it pertains to helping musicians disseminate their music and earn a living, given the clear disparity between larger corporations and hustling artists who struggle as a result of corporate expansion?
Huguenor: “I started releasing music before any of these companies existed, so I kind of consider all of them enemies on my turf, to be honest. But, at this point they’re all so big & powerful that, simply put, the artist has no choice. The ground has changed beneath our feet, and now in order to be a part of the conversation at all, you’re required to have a login & password with at least ten to twelve tech corporations (Google, Facebook, Linktree, YouTube, BandsInTown, Bandcamp, Spotify, Soundcloud, Patreon…). It sucks, and often feels very disempowering. However, I was one of the early signers for No Music For ICE, and told Lauren Records early on I didn’t want X’ed on Amazon. So it’s not on Amazon Music. At least I had a modicum of control there.
The truth is, I don’t like the tech industry. I grew up in San Jose. The first person I knew in the Bay to go homeless was a contractor at Google. He was paid considerably less than the other employees to park their cars for them, and he went homeless doing it. When Facebook moved from Harvard to Menlo Park, they set up shop across the street from one of the South Bay’s most storied recording studios, the place where San Jose’s biggest band of all time (Los Tigres Del Norte) recorded all their albums for decades. Shortly after Facebook arrived, the owner sold the building to cash in, and the studio closed.
Looping back to ICE, the company that makes ICE’s software is located near San Jose. They were founded by one of the darlings of Silicon Valley, a guy who spoke at the 2016 RNC, helped launder Trump to the LGBTQ community, & wants to infuse himself with teenage blood so that he can live forever. He’s the same person who started PayPal with Elon Musk, who in early March was tweeting that “the coronavirus panic is dumb.”
On a professional level, I’ve been making music at least semi-professionally in San Jose since 2002, and not once has any tech company ever tried to license a song, contract me for music on a project, or anything of the sort. I don’t know any musician here with a different experience.
One more example. Recently, the mayor of San Jose signed an NDA with Google, authorizing the sale of a wide tract of land to one of the largest corporations on Earth. Inside that tract of land is my partner of 18 years’ childhood home, which is set to be leveled so that Google can have a second mega-campus in the South Bay.
I could go on, but let’s talk about music instead.”
Kira: “Evening Light Seen Through a Window” really embodies a visual experience well through your compositional and sonic choices. How much of the intention behind this piece is encouraging listeners to connect with the specific experience you had, and how much was it written from a place of open interpretation for listeners to imagine their own sky-scapes at dusk?
(Bonus side thought: Would you consider collaborating with a visual artist that has Chromesthesia (Sound to Color Synesthesia)?)
Huguenor: “Let me start with the bonus question first: dear god yes. Please tell me that you’re asking because you can make that happen, because I would love to see what that looked like. I often think of color when I hear music, and this is such a cool idea.
And to get back to your original question, I 100% want the listener to be free to imagine their own evening light & window! A big part of the choice in making an instrumental album was to avoid the hyper-specificity of lyrics. I want people to fill in the emotional space with their own emotions & images, whichever ones these songs evoke for them.”
Kira: How much of X’ed is driven by feeling of futility and how much of it about holding fast to faith, hope, and inner strength of the folks who have lived in San Jose (and even those who have already moved), that change for the better – for the support of everyday people – is possible?
Huguenor: “I think it is possible to be honest about the severity of things while still being creative, positive, and pushing for a better future. Many of these songs are inspired by experiences and places in my hometown that I love deeply. I just want to make sure we can still talk about real problems, so that we can face them head on. And, to me, music is a great medium for that — even instrumental music.”
Kira: So many musicians have faced gargantuan challenges and downright defeats but even the worst pandemic and stressful finances haven’t stopped the creative spirit inside people and their drive to write songs. Did you look to draw on that kind of resilience as you were creating X’ed?
Huguenor: “X’ED was all about digging deep, so, really, yes. It’s a record about howling your truth as loud as you can, and, hopefully, finding a few other voices who call back in the night.”
Kira: To lighten things up for a moment, “Quick Shot” certainly feels like one of the more conceptually and emotionally lighter tracks on the album – what with its title being derived from an attack by the original Final Fantasy Black Mage. Since you were kind enough to divulge that piece of information, it only seems fair to ask: What’s your ideal Final Fantasy Fighter Party look like? Were you a champion of the Black Mage?
Huguenor: “I hadn’t thought about it before, but I do think that the Black Mage circa FFIX is one of the best characters in the whole series, so I guess I really am a Black Mage stan!
As for my ideal team, maybe…
Black Mage (FFIX)
And maybe Celes (FFVI)”
Kira: You share that “Sea Wolf” is the first track you composed for X’ed. What about it made you decide that it was the right piece to end the album?
Huguenor: “I really love “Sea Wolf,” but I realized that a full album of all Sea Wolves would make my already hard to sell all-guitar-improvisational- experimental-pop album an even harder sell. I wanted the album to also have some capital s Songs that would help orient people to what I was trying to do.
Besides Enoch Soames, Sea Wolf is the most structually open song on the album. It’s got these really wide spaces for improv and noise, and gets to the choruses more by feel than by meter (I think the first verse is an 8-bar phrase repeated 13 times, but I can’t remember exactly). As a closer, I like that because it’s cathartic. Here at the end, in the dusk hours of the album, the animal is free to roam.”
Kira: Now that X’ed is finished and released into the world, are there any experimental, creative ideas with the guitar or with guitar music that you think were left out? Do you have additional ideas that might encourage you to revisit an album like this again? (and by “album like this” I mean an album that’s focused on exploring the untapped potential of an instrument.)
Huguenor: “Definitely! In making X’ED, I really hoped to open myself up to do more creatively free projects like this in the future. One project I really want to do is a solo guitar album recorded through a “spirit box” (this weird radio-scanning device that people use for ghost-hunting). That’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while. I think to pull it off it would involve a few radio transmitters & at least one haunted location, so I don’t know when if ever that will happen. More than anything, I just want to make interesting records I’ve never heard before.”
Kira: What do you hope listeners come away with on an emotional level, after they’ve heard X’ed from front to back? Did you have a specific objective in mind for what this album is supposed to accomplish – at least as far as he album’s foundational connection to the situation in San Jose? After all, there are other cities like it (e.g. Seattle) that are experiencing a similar unwelcome exodus of regular folks and listeners from places like that can likely relate very well.
Huguenor: “My hope is that this album invigorates people. Every few months some reviewer tries to claim that guitar music is dead. The thing I want people to realize is that there are always new possibilities, new angles, or, if nothing else, new perspectives to be taken into account. The old San Jose may be on the edge of extinction due to billionaire developers and short sighted politicians, but we are still here, living through it, fighting for a better, more accessible city all the while. My hope is that by working on some new ways to think about an old instrument, I might also open people up to thinking about new access roads we all might take in all aspects of our lives. Thank you for listening to X’ED!”
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