For the discriminating music fan, life is short. There are only so many hours in the day to digest all of the essential strains of American music, let alone all of the pre-1900 folk genres and classical styles found dotting our collective musical history. Obviously, even in indie rock, as most bands tend to bare more than a passing resemblance to each other, it pays to judiciously decide just what artists are unique enough to be worthy of your time. As such, time spent listening to Half-Handed Cloud is time well spent. And you don’t even have to spend that much of it.
Aside from the fact that John Ringhofer and his one-man band exploration of joyously chaotic, yet almost naively profound music is generally driven by songs that rarely stretch over two minutes in length, the number and quality of ideas that he expresses is the truly memorable quality of his songwriting. Channeling the unpretentious fervor of faith into his creative process, he is an enigma in modern music, communicating a childlike wonder through the expression of his art. After spending a brief period in limbo, his debut, last year’s Learning Your Scale, fell into the hands of Daniel Smith of the Danielson Famile (whose 2-year-old daughter, Lilly Smith, took the accompanying photo) and decided that the album was worthy of release on his Sounds Familyre imprint.
A primer for his dazzling combination of frantically paced piano ditties, lo-fi indie rockers, and kitchen sink clatter clap-alongs, the album went on to garner both enthusiastic and puzzling reviews. Ringhofer’s latest, We Haven’t Just Been Told, We Have Been Loved continues and expands upon those themes, possibly providing the year’s greatest surreal pop album in the process. Now, in the time span it might have taken him to write his next album, John Ringhofer explains to DOA his unique songwriting aesthetic, his connection to the avant-garde underground, and how he pulls everything off as one man. (Note: this interview was completed in early August. Since then Ringhofer has begun performing in the Berkeley area, recently taking the stage with Daniel Smith and Glen Galaxy of Soul Junk).
Delusions of Adequacy: First of all, where does the name Half-Handed Cloud come from?
John Ringhofer: Well, it’s about using your hand as a way to measure clouds. Something along the lines of, “If you see a cloud in the distance and it’s only at a partial-hand-size, it will grow closer to the full size of your hand as it moves towards you.” It’s also loosely based on the biblical text 1 Kings 18:44.
DOA: Your first album crammed an amazing amount of quality content into 25 minutes. How did your hit-and-run songwriting style develop? Is it a conscious effort on your part to make quick songs or just the natural course of your songwriting style?
JR: Most likely it involves both of those. There’s probably some sort of natural resistance built into me that limits the lengths of the songs. Funny. I think there’s been a fair amount of press about how I have a short attention span or whatever, and I probably even bought into that idea at first because I didn’t know what it was that made me enjoy succinct song structures. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve probably been wondering about it for 10 years. More than anything though, it’s got to be about an attempt to edit-out the unnecessary parts. (Or to not let them appear in the first place). Songs shouldn’t drag without good reason. There really are only a few ofthe Half-handed Cloud songs that are under a minute though. And there are some that are much longer that are divided into several tracks too. I’m not against thinking of the whole album (or an entire body of work) as one really long song with several segments.
DOA: Seeing that you seem to be working with different time constraints than most artists, how do you know when a song is finished? What elements do you see as essential to making a quality song?
JR: Those sort of things are tricky to think about. I’d have to say that the song-length is basically an intuitive decision based on if the song seems resolved to my ears or not. Sometimes a song in the context of an album will need to remain unresolved in order to set things up for the track that follows it. In terms of essential song elements, my feeling is that melody is the most important thing. It’s good to begin with a melody. From there it’s exciting to hear a song worked-on much in the same way that a painting
would be made in terms of arrangement: texture, rhythm, complementary colors, pause, saturation, variety, frequency, viscosity, accents. Sometimes it’s interesting for the process itself to show up too.
DOA: What can you tell us about your next album? Will it continue in the vein of your previous work?
JR: In December of 2000, Dan Smith suggested that I try something like a 40-day song fast. You know, “write a song every day for 40 days.” I guess that’s not completely unusual or anything, but about half of the songs included on the new album came from the song-fast in the early part of 2001. I’d say that this new album, (We Haven’t Just Been Told, We Have Been Loved) is similar to Scale in many ways (mostly because it’s the same vision) but different in that it incorporates much more of instruments like the piano and cello because of the environment that it was recorded in. The lyrics probably reflect a progression in my personal understanding of the gospel and the origins of creativity in general. The sound of the new album is probably clearer than the other one too, for a couple reasons. Mostly due to Drew Anderson’s mastering and Dan Smith’s four months of mixing. It made sense that Daniel should mix it after suggesting the song-fast in the first place.
DOA: Do you approach albums with a specific underlying thematic concept in mind or do you write individual songs and put them together for an album?
JR: This is another one of those questions where I’d have to say, “A little of both.” For the two albums, at first it was like, “Well, here’s a bunch of songs that have nothing to do with each other,” but then in the sequencing of the tracks a loose narrative or concept has shown up. Some people have helped me see more of that than I did at first. The I’m So Sheepy EP began as an idea in the vein of a more typical concept album. We’re feeble, clunky, helpless, fallen, confused, but guided all the same. It serves as a link between the two albums. Of course, all the albums/songs are excerpts or details of the same picture. It’s a picture that I get to see more of as time progresses.
DOA: What’s your musical background and how did the recording of Learning About Your Scale come about?
JR: My great-grandparents were music and art evangelists back in the dust bowl days. I only know this from a wrinkled medicine-show-looking poster that I found in an old trunk at my mom’s. Probably some of that has seeped-down into Half-Handed Cloud. There were many bands before Half-Handed Cloud that I was able to be involved with back in Chattanooga. Maybe 10? They were mostly just recording projects. We put out a lot of stuff on the Corner Room Recording label, and that’s what Learning About Your Scale was originally released on. It was recorded on a 1/4″ 8-track reel-to-reel in a house in the Chattanooga suburbs. Some of the musicians involved in that one were also in the other bands that I’d been playing with.
DOA: You recently moved from Knoxville, Tennessee to Berkeley. How does the musical climate differ and do you expect to be received differently?
JR: Yeah, in terms of musical climate, I’m not sure what to make of the Bay Area yet. It seems like there would be a lot of jam bands around here or something, but I’m not so sure. There may have been more of those back in Tennessee, actually. To tell you the truth, I’m a little intimidated by the area, but excited about the possibilities. It sure is gorgeous here.
DOA: How did you become associated with the Asthmatic Kitty and Sounds Familyre labels?
JR: I sent the CD-R of Scale to Soundsfamilyre and didn’t get any initial response from Dan. Just a note that said “God bless your dreams,” which turned out to be a great response. Ha. He called me about eight months later to say that he liked the album and that it “kept coming up,” and that he didn’t have the money to release it, but could distribute it if another label was interested in putting it out. Lowell Brams’ Asthmatic Kitty Records turned out to be that label. I met Lowell through Sufjan Stevens, and I met Sufjan though Jai Agnish who sent me a compilation from his Blue Bunny label with a few of Sufjan’s songs on it.
DOA: From talking to Dan Smith of the Danielson Famile and Sufjan Stevens, I’ve gotten the impression that the artists on the two labels have a real spirit of camaraderie. What is it like being associated with so many eccentric artists?
JR: It’s almost like a revival, isn’t it? Yeah there’s something going on and we’re all excited by it.
DOA: I’ve heard a lot about your live shows incorporating elements of performance art. What usually goes down at one of your gigs and what do you hope those who attend your performances experience?
JR: There are some visual elements to the shows. Not a whole lot though. Perhaps that could be pushed further? I basically surround myself with instruments so that I can reach them when it’s time for them to be played. It may seem a little chaotic.
As for what I hope that audience-members will get out of a show … well, that’s hard to say. It sort of disturbs me to even think about that, I guess. I don’t deceive myself into thinking I’m a preacher or anything like that. Yet, in one sense I really hope that the audience will actually press into the wonder of God with me. But I hope the same thing for the cashier-person at the grocery store. I tend to think that, during the best performances, the audience isn’t my focus at all. Ha. Maybe that’s a little cruel-sounding, but do you know what I mean? In the same way, the best Half-Handed Cloud shows might be the ones where the audience has totally lost track of me too. On the other hand, I do enjoy a healthy amount of interaction with the crowd. So, in a way it’s almost like I’m getting to throw several things out at once and maybe someone will catch at least one of those. You know, “Will they complete the pass?” Sure, that’d be great. This is so strange to talk about.
DOA: I know you’ve played a number of high profile gigs, whether at the Cornerstone Music Festival or at the Knitting Factory in New York City. What has been the highlight of your musical career thus far?
JR: Cornerstone was a fun time, although maybe not the Half-H performance itself. I was thankful for the invitation. Getting to play the Knitting Factory with The Singing Mechanic, Soul-junk, and the Danielson Famile is one of the ones I’m most grateful for. There was a show about a year before that with the Mountain Goats in Knoxville that seemed to work-out alright.
DOA: What have you been listening to lately and can you recommend any artists we might not know about yet?
JR: I’m a big music fan. Most recently I’ve listened to (or wished I’d brought with me) some George Gershwin, Billy Nichols, The Beatles’ Christmas Album, The Yellow Balloon, June Panic, Bruce Haack, Stories, The Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers album, Biff Rose, Donovan’s Wear Your Love Like Heaven LP, Charles Allison, Shaker Manifesto, Tomorrow, Gary Wilson, and Bread’s self-titled debut. Recommendations? Mt. Gigantic from Bloomington. Nichole and the Dreamcatchers. Title One. Joel Pickell is just about a minute over 16 years old but has written some pretty good songs.
DOA: In conclusion, seeing that you’ve displayed an affinity for economic song structures, approximately how many minutes would it take you to cover, say, “Free Bird” or “Stairway to Heaven.”?
JR: There’s no way that “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” needs to be more than a minute and a half, but somehow Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready” is a perfect length at 23 minutes. Ha-ha.