- Natalie Simpson
It's not surprising that a band like Hectic Hobo—whose songs are less something played than they are stories spun into the air—would have a strong, real-life narrative arc of their own. The Salt Lake City-based folk-rocking, storytelling masters have moved and morphed to great degrees in their 10 years together. Starting out with just two members (vocalist and guitarist Hasen Cone and drummer Todd Johnson) in 2009, the group has gone from a septet identifying as "Wild West gypsy-rock" to a quartet whose experience has allowed them to refocus on a pointed, Americana sound.
Obviously, they've experienced a lot together over the release of four full-length albums, with their fifth due June 14. According to the band's frontman and main lyricist Cone, although their sound, focus and skill has grown, the reasons they write and play music, and the subjects that inspire them, haven't changed a bit.
"Pretty much all of our songs have been stories about people," Cone explains. "Some happy, some sad, often characters who are kind of out there mentally, living in their own crazy minds. I relate to that and believe that we often think everyone else is normal, but we have all these problems." Their music calls to mind true folk music. They almost engage in balladry, tunes that reflect the minstrel style that has long been entertainment for and by simple, everyday folk. Each song is an entertaining and engaging tale, with themes of tragedy, comedy, joi de vivre, love and loves lost, making everything swirl into a spirited, engrossing listening experience. It makes sense that in the beginning, with these big stories on their minds, that they went for equally riotous, complex sounds—most riotous on 2017's Died on the Fourth of July, and most complex and subtly layered on 2014's Our Medicine Will Do You In.
When they were at seven members, Cone says, "We were going for a gypsy-folk-rock-party-orchestra thing. A lot of our songs had that minor key, somewhat Eastern European gypsy feel, but also mixed with old-fashioned folk and murder ballad elements." But as time went on, they streamlined things. Cone notes that though their lyrics were always interesting and good, they were getting buried under the "melee and mayhem" of their instruments. Leaving behind the accordion, fiddle and trumpet they'd utilized for years to fill out their sound, they've stripped things down to a four-piece setup with guitar, bass, keys and drums. This change has not only allowed each member to shine more fully, but for the band to find a place for themselves in a less hyphenated identity: plain and simple folk Americana. "We've kept the storytelling element," Cone says, "which to me is the definition of folk, even if it doesn't necessarily sound like campfire music."
This is definitely apparent on their upcoming full-length, Master & Slave. The title track was inspired by a drawing Cone bought from a street artist in the Mexican town of Hautulco, of a personified Death and the devil sitting under a tree, having a conversation. "Death is trying to convince Satan that he deserves more respect, that he also has powers," Cone explains. "In our version [of the conversation], the devil listens patiently, wisely, then puts cocky Death back in his place." Besides this striking image of a song, the album goes all over, from songs about "rocky, passionate, sometimes violent relationships" that question pain, joy and love ("If I Didn't Have You"), to a man imagining his final will as a way to give parts of his body away, to be used by others for good and for justice ("When I Die"), and a country song of sorts about someone realizing he's been putting his hope in so many things when all along what fulfilled him was his simple, easy love of playing guitar.
Beyond their consistent penchant for crafting wild, heart-aching tales, their love of entertaining on the stage is as steady as it always has been, too. Even with their newfound minimalist aesthetic, Cone asserts, "We definitely haven't lost the ambition of energetically entertaining an audience. We've just become much more pointed, efficient."
And that efficiency comes from all that time spent together. "After playing for a long time with the same people, you really learn each other's strengths and weaknesses, and using that knowledge, [you're] able to write better songs, as well as have tighter live performances," Cone says.
Cone fondly remembers a time spent in a Park City greenroom with a touring bluegrass band, where the band asked Hectic Hobo, "How is it that after being together so long, you guys still seem like you like hanging out with each other?" An equally valid question could have been, "How do they keep finding inspiration together after all this time?" But it seems that the question is answered by simply inverting it: They've kept creating together because of all the inspiration they each bring to the table. As Cone puts it, "The songs keep pouring out, and unless we learn them, record them and perform them, they'll disappear into the ether, and we can't have that."