Thomas Hunter may be the best guitar player in Seattle. He's the swirl-mustached phenomenon/fixture of Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground and Wild Orchid Children. His playing has weight and touch; he is at one with the world of the fret. Hunter has the quickness of a deadeye gunslinger and the mind of a wise-seasoned jazzman. His solos can spread free-form cobwebs across the psychedelic sky, or they can mechanically nail down the most scatterbrained scale a Miles Davis song can throw at him. His fingers go to notes as if each finger has a brain. Hunter is the kind of musician who makes it look easy. But his mastery comes from endless hours of repetition and practice. He recently completed recording for his own album, White China Gold. It's a conglomeration of Serge Gainsbourg, vaudeville calliope, and Slash riffing on a ramshackle Tom Waits voodoo doo-wop with Harry Connick Jr. singing. We knew Hunter could play, and we knew he had worlds of music in his head, but where did this singing voice come from? Hunter spoke before heading to L.A. for a show at the Troubadour with Wild Orchid Children.
At what point did you know you had to do an album on your own?
It's stupid that it took me this long. I'm obsessed with songwriters, and I've always spent tons of time writing songs. I think I was always too busy making records with other people to really get down to facing my own tunes. Plus, I had gotten to the point where I was so obliterated with substances all the time I couldn't ever really process such a huge undertaking. About a year ago, I decided to drop drinking and smoking. Immediately, I started to grow emotionally. I realized that the money for recording was there without all the superfluous liquor and cocaine costs. It was such a simple adjustment. I got really driven, turned into a crazy person, and started making the record I always wanted to hear.
Do you consider it a "solo" album?
In some ways. It's always been referred to in our crew as "Thomas's solo shit," but my friends played such an integral part in the sound I was going for. It was cool because I spent one-on-one time with each individual person. We started with drums—one of the first things we did at the Tank after Tom Pfaeffle passed away. At that point, it was just drummer Aaron Benson and myself. I had no idea who else would be involved. I taught him the songs the night before we went to Black Diamond, and he killed the whole record in two days. Then I worked one-on-one with Kyle O'Quinn to get the keys in order. Then I worked one-on-one with Phil Peterson to get the strings in order. It was a very personal process with all of my dearest friends.
How did you write the songs? How did you fit doing this in with Kay Kay and Wild Orchid?
I write constantly—bits and pieces, probably a hundred a day. I've learned so much about structure and arranging from all my composition study at University of Southern California. Also from Kyle, Phil, and Kirk [Huffman] during the Kay Kay and Wild Orchid Children recording processes. I also attribute much of my writing instinct to all the time I spent with Christian Wargo when I was playing with Crystal Skulls. I think he's one of the best songwriters I've ever known.
It's exciting for me to make a roller coaster out of a song and take the listener to places that they don't know they need to go. That's the thing with being a musician: You have to fancy yourself a shaman. It sounds kind of arrogant, but you have to believe every note you play is the most important note that could have possibly been played at that time and realize that you have something to give the audience that they don't know they need yet. If all you've got to give is something that people already know they want, then sit the fuck down and join the audience.
All of the sudden you've got this singing voice? What the hell?
Relatively, it's a new instrument for me, but I'm really good at learning new instruments. I'm excited about continuing my practice with my voice. I love saying stuff. I have a lot of stupid shit to say.
Who and what influences you?
My influences are everything to me. That's how I learned to play music. When I decided I wanted to play jazz, I transcribed Miles Davis's Kind of Blue from front to back. Then I transcribed every Wes Montgomery tune I could find. Then every Django Reinhardt tune. Then learned every Bill Evans's voice-leading trick. Then followed around Joe Diorio like a puppy for two years while I soaked up everything about him down to his sense of humor. I'm not afraid to reference something that I love to every single part of my record. I think about music in terms of what I know. I'm a record fanatic. I spend all my money on records and so much of my time listening to and studying them. White China Gold shows that I was listening to an array of artists. You can hear a lot of nods of the head to Delfonics, Zappa, Queen, Lou Reed, Bowie, Humble Pie, Steely Dan, William Bell. Everything comes from something I've heard. It's all very deliberate. Nothing on the record is a mistake. I know a lot about sounds and groove and the history of music. I like musicians like Miles that have a vibe that they pull you into. The second Miles starts his band—whether it's Big Fun or Sketches of Spain, or Porgy and Bess for that matter—you're immediately immersed in his space.
How did this album come together? Who produced?
I saved up a little cash. It was very last-minute. We were up at the Tank finishing the Wild Orchid Children record, and on a whim I gave Austin Healy, the engineer helping finish what Tom started, some scrill and told him I'd be back the following weekend. Aaron did the drums, then I took the sessions to Phil Peterson's House of Breaking Glass studio. He helped me get the place set up initially. Then, I just lived down there a couple days every week by myself swimming in a pile of instruments and running my own sessions. I had friends come in when they could make it. We had Kyle on keys, Jacob James on French horn. Zana from Thee Emergency did beautiful vocals, Devin did tuba work, Sam Anderson played some viola... we all hung out and felt good vibes. Next, Phil came in and did his string-arrangement magic. Phil, Zana, Nate Mooter, and I were my own little doo-wop vocal quartet. It started to sound so good that me and Phil cried. That's about the time we decided we should take it to Steve Fisk for postproduction and get really pro with it. I took some really big chances with my production tactics and got some cool sounds. I didn't want them to get lost at all, and I trust Steve more than anyone to get the most visual mix possible.
What was it like working with Steve Fisk? What did you learn?
I've learned that mixing a record is like filming a Hitchcock movie. It's a very visual process. Things start where others end. Things sneak up on the listener. Everything has its right place sonically. I learned a little something new about how sound works every day I spent with him. He's a magician. He knows as much about manipulating sounds as I do about chords. I feel like we're on a very similar kick. He introduced me to the deranged mind of Joe Meek, and we started getting really weird with the compression we used. He has tons of amazing outboard gear that I don't really know how to use. We just sat around getting high and trying to make the presentation of the sounds just as interesting as the tunes themselves.
Anything messed-up happen while recording?
Blowing on some bent trumpet at four in the morning naked with a bloody nose.
Talk shredding. Do you think about flying when you solo?
I'm sure you're joking, but you're actually pretty dead-on. When I close my eyes, I think about floating through space. Every possible note passes by me. It's up to me to choose which ones to catch. That's why I flail around. Trying to catch notes. Those goddamned things are all over the place.
You're all sober now. How did that factor in? You're "flying high" in different ways now.
Well, I wouldn't really say I'm sober. I don't drink anymore. That was a huge distraction for me. I was destroying myself. I've found other ways to get stoned. For instance, I just took a two-hour break to go to the Sweatbox and do a Bikram session. I go five days a week.
Talk mustache. What's the current state of your 'stache? What's your technique for twirling? What product do you use?
The current state of the 'stache is very twisty. I use this stuff called Oregon Wild Hair. It's the best. Doesn't melt in hot beverages. There's no technique. At this point, it kind of just does what it's supposed to.