Taking A Punch | The Charlie Hunter Interview

By: Carmel O'Farrell - @carmelocorn

Charlie Hunter.  The man has been a music world game-changer and for 20 years he has crafted a meaningful career, chock-full of collaborations and improvisation.

His journey began in Berkeley, California and has brought him all around the world as he has fined-tuned his vision as an artist and working musician. Hunter's most recent album Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth captures the essence of his art and highlights the unique sound of his seven string guitar.

Tomorrow's Verse recently got a chance to catch up with Charlie Hunter just before he embarked on a tour across middle America.  He hits Evanston's SPACE on April 8th, check out our ticket giveaway for more details and a chance to see Charlie and his trio for free.

So I don't want to drag out the redundant "influences" question that musicians get asked over and over again --  but I would like to know your thoughts on the passing of Chuck Berry and if he had any impact on you as a musician.

Huge. I think anyone who picks up a guitar will learn his stuff.  If not one of the first things they do, it's certainly going to be the second or the third. That music was really important to me because when I was a teenager I was really into 50's music and the guitar playing from that era.

I played a lot of gigs when I was in high school with a band that did all that material. In the 80s the 50s were kind of making a comeback at weddings and other things so I was really into Chuck Berry's music. I probably listened to those records ad infinitum so it did have an influence on me.

I read that you actually received guitar lessons from Joe Satriani at one point. Can you tell me a little bit about that time in your life and where you were musically?

I grew up in Berkeley, California and pretty much everyone my age that grew up there took lessons from him because he was just the local guitar teacher. It was a great experience and he is really responsible for getting me to take the instrument a lot more seriously than I had been up to that point. 

At what point in your life did you decide to define yourself as a working musician and follow music as a career path?

I think you don't really have a choice. You are going to do it or you're not going to do it. It's like you just have to do it.

Even when I was working a succession of menial jobs, which is always a possibility for any musician.  This is a crazy business and before you know it you could be working another one of those jobs, even if you consider yourself a working professional musician.

But I always had it in my mind that this was the most important thing to me. When that is part of your reality, you surround yourself with like-minded people.

Towards the beginning of your career you were a street musician. What brought you to that point and how do those experiences still influence you today?

I am really glad I had that experience. I was like 19 and I had tried to get scholarships to a few music schools but I was not lucky with that.

I just kept practicing and playing, practicing and playing. I had a friend who lived in France who said, "Dude you can stay at my sister's place for a month." So I did that and then it ended. So I just ended up being on the street... but it was great because I met all of these fantastic musicians from all around the world. For about three years I was playing between eight and twelve hours a day on the street, every day. That will really do wonders for your playing. 

I would like to know more about the guitar you play and how the idea of combining the guitar and the bass came about. Was it out of practicality or did you have an "aha" moment of inspiration?

Well, I spent a lot of time on the street playing solo or with just a singer trying to make the guitar sound as big as possible coming through this Joe Pass/Tuck Andress thing.

But also a lot of the music my mom listened to had a very self dependent guitar like Joseph Spence and Robert Johnson... Blind Blake and Mississippi John Hurt -- there is so much rhythm going on in there. I also played a lot of drums growing up and a lot of bass. When I was a street musician I played a lot of acoustic bass and it all kind of came together for me. 

You have collaborated with some really amazing players over the years. Is that something you seek or is it more people seeking you?

I think it all comes about naturally where some weird chain of events leads up to it. Then you find yourself in this cool position with someone who is a great musician or has some great ideas and you just kind of go with the flow. 

So how did your relationship with Snarky Puppy come about?

I think it finally came to the point where I was old enough, like I am probably about 20 years older than the guys in that group, and I think some of them had heard my records. I know Michael League did because he told me as much.

When they were coming up as musicians I guess I was kind of on their radar. When I talked to Mike about me potentially putting a record out on his label it was kind of as "we have all these young musicians but we need someone who is (laughs) old... older." It was actually kind of helpful to me too because they introduced me to a whole younger audience.

Lets talk about improvisation. Why do you choose to seek out music that is created in the moment? 

I don't know... it's just always been music that's exciting to me. Most of my music is very simple and ostinato-based or blues-based with a groove and even within that there is a massive amount of improvisation. It's just the landscape will be a little different.

So instead of lots of ideas like in a jazz context where you are packing a ton of ideas into a more linear concept that is very dense, I am trying to do changes over the course of 36 bars where you vary kind of a vamp just a little or do little things that create tension. So it is all improvised, really in a lot of ways.

How does a live audience figure into the overall equation of improv?

Huge! I just feel like if you are doing it right and having a good time, then everyone is with you. They are a big part of what goes on even if they think they aren't, they are because you are trying to make a community of some kind.

I want to shift gears to your latest album:Everybody Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth. First off, how did you come up with that name? Is there a story behind that?

Well... for all of the tunes on the record -- all the song titles are from quotes from people and the album title is a Mike Tyson quote. 

So have you ever been punched in the mouth?

Oh yes! (Laughs) Both actually and metaphorically. I think if you're a musician you get to look forward to lots of punches in the mouth - if not on a daily basis, at least a monthly basis. It is kind of an endless amount of getting your ass kicked unexpectedly. 

With albums like this, how much are you improvising in the studio and is there any fear or anxiety that comes with that risk?

Yeah, if you weren't afraid you would be constantly ruining the whole vibe, then you probably wouldn't have that intensity. (Laughs) I don't know if it is like fear and anxiety but you have a vocabulary and you really have to play the groove, in time, and have that feel be really good.

That is what I am really going for, having that really good feel. That is the thing that is most important to me and everything kind of come from that. In terms of this record, I wrote these songs so in a jazz sense, the songs are songs and anybody can play them or play over the changes that are there. They are all very simple blues changes, so anybody can do that. 

You are kind of a musicians musician and you teach a lot of clinics, classes, and tutorials. What drives you to pass along your knowledge of music?

You know I am just a tiny little link in this gigantic chain that goes back who knows how long and goes forward who knows how long. I feel like it is a gift to wake up every day and feel like the work hasn't even really started. So whatever little thing that I do, however insignificant it is, I feel like I am lucky to get to share it in any way I can. In the course of a lot of that, they share stuff with you that you wouldn't otherwise know.

In that same vein, tell me a little bit about your philosophy on having a meaningful career as a musician?

It is really hard to have a career. You're up, you're down... you're flying high in April and then shot down in May. You can be the next big thing only once and then you have to figure out how to make a career from that.

Ultimately, you have to do music that you like and the audience likes. If you can manage both of those things, then you'll be ok. But it doesn't always end up that way. Sometimes you are only doing music that only you like (laughs) and your audience doesn't like it, then you're screwed.

There are a lot of people who are great musicians but they have these hits that they have played for 30 years and that can't be that fulfilling on a nightly basis but their audience loves that. So maybe they get a kind of high from that for themselves. So in terms of fulfilling, you have to be doing the music that is making you happy because if you aren't happy playing the music, that's a surefire way to make your audience unhappy. 

Finally, what advice would you give to young musicians out there just starting their careers?

If you don't have a calling to play music, like if you don't feel like you are comfortable living on the street or pushing a van uphill with the breaks on...

Or getting punched in the mouth?

(Laughs) Yeah if you aren't able to live with that, then this isn't for you. If you're not comfortable with the potentiality that you could be existing on nothing, it's just not for you. If you think that you may like doing something else, then maybe you should do that because this is rough even at its best.

The positive of it is that it is really great to know what you have an affinity for and what you should be doing with your life. That is a blessing in itself. So if that is the case, then you just have to work work work work work and whatever you feel is special about what you do or what you like, you have to work on that.

You have to work on bringing that to the people because that is ultimately what is going to be your job in a lot of ways, just being a cipher for whatever your modern culture and generation's zeitgeist is. You have to bring that information forward to communicate with them in your own special way. In that way you will be successful. 

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