Hudson Bell has been a musician for longer than I have been alive, starting out like any of us: in his bedroom. Hudson Bell may be also the name of the man behind everything, but it’s also the name of the three-piece with members spread around the Bay Area.
Living in the Bay Area, we all have friends in every part, and sometimes they are the friends that help you create and be yourself. It’s definitely a separation — sometimes it can seem like hard work just to be around the people you care about the most. Hudson Bell took this feeling, and took his knowledge of Bay Area history, and wrote a new album. Below is the first available stream of this new album called Yerba Buena, named after what San Francisco used to be known as and after an island between Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. Below that is an interview with the man himself.
The Bay Bridged: Hudson Bell has been a musical project for over ten years, what’s the history of how it started?
Hudson Bell: It started in my bedroom around 1989 when I made my first tape by recording something on one tape then playing that back while playing other parts and singing onto another tape player. In 1991 I bought a Tascam four-track and used that for the rest of the ’90s, making around five HB tapes in all, which I’d dub off and try to sell, or give to friends and bands I liked. When I moved to the East Bay in 1998, a friend encouraged me to put together a compilation of select tracks from these tapes for a CD which became Under Boxes and Dirt in 1999. After I moved to San Francisco in 2000, I traveled to the South and recorded Captain of the Old Girls with Fat Possum’s Bruce Watson. It was released in 2002 and received a good deal of Bay Area press and some national nods, and surrounding that is when I asked a bass player and drummer to play with me for upcoming shows. Given my name was already out there, the consensus was not to add “& the Whatevs” as they thought my name sounded like a band name anyway. When Monitor Records released When the Sun is the Moon in 2005, it was marketed as our “debut,” so that’s when the whole “it’s a band, but it’s also the name of a guy in the band” thing started, which remains an inside joke. I met both John Slater (bass guitar) and Brian Fraser (drums) here in SF through mutual friends from the South. We obviously had no idea we’d still be playing music together ten plus years later. As for live shows or touring, there’s a revolving cast of friends that have played with me over the years.
TBB: How did the new album Yerba Buena come to be?
HB: Following the release of Out of the Clouds in 2010, other than a release show, there were no plans. Brian was traveling a lot, and I had a newborn son. Time went on and we were asked to play a few shows at Bottom of the Hill and a few at Hotel Utah in there too, and at practices new songs were worked in and talk turned to recording. John was really the one that kept us all on an even keel to make the recording happen. The main session took place over one weekend in 2013, just before Brian left for grad school in Pennsylvania. Bill Racine, who lives in Southern California came up and recorded it at the studio/practice space we’ve shared for years with Rogue Wave, Carta, and Thee More Shallows. Bill had a lot of his recording gear stored there, so it all fit for him to be the one to do it. Bill and I did a number of follow-up sessions in 2013 for overdubs to finish it up.
TBB: What is your favorite music-related history about San Francisco?
HB: I’m a big fan of ’60s psychedelic music, so obviously the whole 1967-era and surrounding when SF was at the center of that. I recently went to an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Trips Festival that sort of set things in motion and they played a documentary by Eric Christensen that’s worth checking out. There’s also Mabuhay Gardens, when punk ground zero in SF was on Broadway in North Beach. If you look at the cover of the Circle Jerks Wild in the Streets one can assume that’s where they’re headed after having walked all the way up from Hollywood. If you want to go way back (or want to publish it), I have a piece in the works about the city’s first music store that was located on Portsmouth Square, I need to finish it up, but of course popular music was much different back in 1850!
TBB: How does the city’s past inspire your music, especially in juxtaposition to San Francisco’s present?
HB: It’s hard to say how it affects my music, but as for juxtaposition, what makes San Francisco fascinating is that not that long ago most everything was a bunch of sand dunes, hills of scrub oak, with some yerba buena around a cove. In the early 1850s they were about to level the hills, but certain city officials had hopes that one day the hills would be an aesthetic advantage, referencing cities like Genoa and Edinburgh. From that perspective, its quite amazing to consider the city’s development from what William Tecumseh Sherman called a hellhole in 1847 to what it is today.
TBB: Past and current musicians that inspire you?
HB: From a musician standpoint, John Coltrane always. I used to have a shirt from St. John Coltrane Church that said, “Damn the rules. It’s the feeling that counts. You play all twelve notes in your solo anyway.” When coming up with songs on this album though, I was listening to a lot of music I hadn’t listened to since the ’80s, like the Feelies for instance. It’s funny because some folks at Bar None — the label the Feelies are associated with today after getting back together — liked When the Sun is the Moon when I first sent it around, but when I talked with them on the phone they were thinking we were a Northeast band because of our name. “Can we come see you in New York City in the next month?” We did make it to NYC, but it was like a year and a half later.
TBB: We don’t have much control on the past, we can only control what we learn, but the future is at least semi-controllable. What would you hope for the Bay Area music scene in the future, and of your own music?
HB: I guess you could say I was part of the music scene here in the early 2000s, but I didn’t do MySpace until the very end, have a website, or live in the Mission, so when there was a break in playing shows I slid into the shadow world. I ran into Shayde Sartin once and he was like, “Dude, I thought maybe you died!” Recently I’ve been checking out some of the newer bands though, and I dig a lot of what I’ve heard. I’m not exactly sure what I hope for the Bay Area scene, but I do think local festivals or community-based shows are crucial, and can be lots of fun, like the shows Playing in Fog (Deb Zeller) used to put on, Mission Creek Music Festival (Jeff Ray), etc. I think when you can bring bands and artists together that may not get to know one another otherwise, it builds a better community and allows for future intermingling, even if everyone doesn’t get along! But anyway, I’m alive and here, we’re playing a few shows in June. You all should come.
The Starry Plough
June 4, 2016
8pm, $10 (21+)
June 5, 2016
8:30pm, $10 (21+)