From eternal love and separation, to old-age endings and new fatherly beginnings, a wealth of life experiences inform Daniel Hutchens’ songwriting on The Beautiful Vicious Cycle Of Life, due out April 22 via Pretty Mean Records. Hutchens, the longtime Bloodkin frontman and Widespread Panic collaborator says the record is a rock n’ roll record at heart, while its lyrics often sound like a page out of one of Kerouac’s great Beat adventures. The Dave Schools-produced album is Hutchens’ third solo record, and features the playing of a few Panic musicians: Schools, Todd Nance and Duane Trucks.
We caught up with Hutchens to talk about his writing influences, hanging in Athens, GA back in the day with Widespread Panic, and the process of recording The Beautiful Vicious Cycle Of Life.
I heard you were quite a big fan of The Beats when you were younger, and I’m quite a big fan of them myself, so I wanted to start there. In the 80s, you and fellow Bloodkin founder Eric Carter performed with Allen Ginsberg, which is obviously pretty awesome. What was it about those writers that really inspired you?
Daniel Hutchens: It was the work itself. It was the writing itself. When I first started reading that stuff, it was a revelation, you know. I was a young guy, just starting to find my way into books of literature and art, in general. I came across this stuff, and particularly for me, Jack Kerouac. For a number of a years, that’s pretty much all I wanted to read. I loved it. As much of a cliché as it sounds, it spoke to me, for whatever reason. For a number of years, I would carry around a copy of On The Road and I would always give it away. It was like I was preaching the Gospel.
I don’t know. I can’t say exactly what it was. There was something about it that was much less formal than a lot of literature. It just seemed like someone talking to you, and I could relate to it for whatever reason. For those years, that was just my thing. It was as important as any music I’ve ever listened to, as far as my writing. It hit me.
It definitely appeals to a younger, more idealistic sense of life.
What that movement instilled in you stuck with you as you’ve grown older? How has that continued to influence your writing now as you have more life experiences to write about?
DH: I don’t read it much these days, honestly. I feel like I absorbed it at the right time in my life. I kind of processed it in there with the other stuff that I loved through the years. It becomes part of your education in a way. You’ve absorbed this stuff and it’s part of your vocabulary almost. So, you don’t sound exactly like that. It’s not like it’s right on the surface – like you’re trying to write like Kerouac, which is a big danger (laughs). But it’s in there. To me, the big influence was it was just kind of a sense of freedom. You don’t have to write in this very formal style. You don’t have to do things. You can write how you feel. That was a big effect on me I think – the bottom line effect.
I think that freedom is really evident in your songwriting. And, I wanted to ask you if you thought some of that freedom, and that lack of formality, is missing in a lot of songwriting these days?
DH: The short answer is yes. But, I probably would have said the same thing at any point in time, about songwriting, or about novels. Whatever percentage you want to put on it, there’s a big percentage of stuff that’s just, I don’t want to say ripoff, but it’s just kind of formula. You know, because that’s the easiest stuff to do. So, you kind of search out the 5 or 10 percent (hopefully more than that) that’s genuine, and that has feeling to it and soul to it. To me, it’s kind of always been like that, man. I don’t know if it’s better or worse. That’s just how it always kind of works.
To talk more about your particular songwriting, how does writing a solo album like A Beautiful Vicious Cycle Of Life differ from writing a Bloodkin record, other than not having Eric to write with?
DH: Well, I don’t that it’s that different as far as the actual writing, when I actually write a song. Because, you write them one at a time. Over a little period of time, you might write several songs. You may start to find a pattern, and even reinforce and work on that pattern. You’re writing a lot of songs about a certain thing and you connect it together. But, with a band, essentially, I bring in songs but then it’s, you know, the band likes them or they don’t like them. Or, it just works with the band or it doesn’t. It’s not a matter of someone saying, “This sucks.” [Laughs]. Sometimes it just takes off and sometimes it doesn’t.
In this case, this was kind of more like I had this group of songs, let’s do these. What it really was, I had a big group of songs and I gave the demos of those to Dave Schools. So, he and I kind of knocked that back and forth and we narrowed it down from there. So, it’s kind of the same process but it’s not with this whole band. It’s not with Bloodkin. But, it’s not that different. It’s not drastically different from the kind of record I do with Bloodkin. You know, it’s a rock n’ roll record. There’s probably some touches on here that would distinguish it from a Bloodkin record. It’s not as much as like a guitar solo record. It’s more just like compacted songs and sonically textured maybe is a good way to put it. Bloodkin is a pretty big guitar-slinging band, which I love, but that’s not what this is. There’s still plenty of guitar work going on. But that would be a difference I would notice.
Not to discount any of the writing of the Bloodkin songs, but it does seem like there’s maybe more of an emphasis on the storytelling aspect of it. I wanted to talk more about that. “The Beautiful Vicious Cycle Of Life” is obviously the title of the album, and there’s a song by that name. And, it also comes up in another song. What does that phrase mean to you?
DH: I guess it’s just kind of about endings and beginnings. I was at the end of a relationship making this record, and that was kind of in my mind. Pulling no punches, you know, this was my marriage. I was married for nine years. But we’re very friendly and we have two beautiful kids. So, I just found myself thinking a lot about endings and beginnings – just the cycle of that. Just like life and death. And, that’s where it came from.
“Beautiful Vicious Cycle Of Life” starts with you saying you had to put her in a home. But it seems kind of like a cathartic statement. The song is more upbeat, you’re getting on the road again, kind of in the style of The Beats. The road was kind of an escape for them. Is it fair to say songwriting, and playing music has kind of been your escape over the years?
DH: It absolutely is. For me, it’s a lot of things. It’s therapy at times. It’s probably my closest equivalent of church: just coming together with a lot of other people and having, hopefully, a pretty high experience. It’s all those things to me. Yeah, it’s escape sometimes when you need that. But, it’s also as real as it gets sometimes. I don’t know, it’s always just been the constant for me and it’s never really let me down.
Yeah, so you mentioned you’re a father. Obviously that changes your lifestyle. But, how has it changed your music career, if at all?
DH: I think it broadens your horizons a little bit. Even when you’re writing songs that are, on the surface, about yourself. I think a lot of great songs work in a very personal way, but they can also, if you think about it, they’re kind of universal. I think it makes it a little more [facile] and makes you think outside yourself a little bit. And, hopefully observe things a little more closely.
Dave Schools produced the album, and you’re longtime friends. How was that experience working with him in that role?
DH: It was great. It kind of happened organically. He was in town working on what would become the first Hard Working Americans record. He was at John Keane’s and he just invited me to come over and say hey and hang out. I was listening to that, and I kind of just said offhand, “Man this makes me want to make a record.” And he was like, “Well let’s make one” [Laughs]. It was truly that simple. That’s what it came from. But the actual process was really interesting and great. He’s really good at what he does, and he’s serious about it. He’s a lot of fun to work with but…I remember just the first couple days, I was in the vocal booth, because this is the studio where I always work with David Barbe. So, I was in there kind of bullshitting with David Barbe on the microphone talking about baseball or something. And, Dave Schools walks by and says, “Get your shit together, Hutchens” [Laughs]. It was just matter of fact, it was just the way he said it. So, he was all business and he was on it. It’s probably as hard as hard as I’ve ever worked on a record in a concentrated period of time. I’ve made records that, for one reason or another, have taken like two years. That’s a lot of effort in a different way. But this was like a short, concentrated period of time. We hit it hard. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun. No regrets. I had a great time.
So, it was the hardest you worked on a record because of the time period, not necessarily the content or the music itself?
DH: Well, I’m just saying in a concentrated, shorter period of time. You know, a lot of Bloodkin records, frankly, like back in the day, we’d be in the studios and it was very loose. We’d be drinking or we’d be bullshitting. There were days when we’d go there and hardly get anything done. But that was, in a broad perspective, part of our process. We were a rock n’ roll band. We didn’t want to organize. It was more about being off the cuff, and being a little sloppy and a little crazy. It’s just a different approach. This was very much like you walk in the studio, and let’s get to work – for a number of reasons. There were people from all over the place who had flown in to do it. That’s another thing Dave Schools said to me one day. I was complaining about something, I was sitting in the control booth. And he was like, “Look around you, we’re all here for you.” And, that just stuck with me. There were people who had flown across the country. It was just one of those little moments that made me appreciate. For various reasons like that, there just wasn’t a lot of time for messing around. It was like, “We’ve got a week, let’s go.”