- Natalie Haws
On Pie & Beer Day, Hasen Cone—singer-guitarist-songwriter of Hectic Hobo—opens the door to his SLC restaurant, Sweet Lake Biscuits & Limeade. It's half past four, and the breakfast-and-lunch joint closed 90 minutes ago. The shades are drawn, muting the early evening sun. In standard street duds with his hair pulled back, Cone looks different. In band photos, he's worn his hair down, sometimes covered by a derby hat, dressed in a pinstriped suit, a bolo tie or some other affected stage look.
On the surface, Hectic Hobo is another one of those Portlandia "the dream of the 1890s is alive" bands. You know, hipster musicians trying to out-retro the pack by looking and sounding as though they've warped to the present from a time when barbershops, waxy 'staches and vaguely Amish fashion ruled. They cop the entire aesthetic, down to the sound and even the literary style of the time, shooting for the sweet spot between quaint/cool and smart—trying too hard in the process. This so-called indie-folk or folk-rock scene is now so pervasive that it's become poppy, with acts like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men in the mainstream. Even some of the better bands in the genre, like The Silent Comedy, are beginning to look contrived and silly.
Cone acknowledges that, initially, Hectic Hobo appeared to ride that "crazy imitation culture" train, but he'd started his band months before Mumford broke out in 2009. He admits that, at the outset, they were trying to do "something specific" but not necessarily derived from that scene. When he noticed the trend catch on, he knew changes had to happen. Laughing, he recalls thinking to himself, "If we don't drop the costume, people are just gonna think we're dressing like that." The band toned down the wardrobe and worked on their music.
They didn't, however, abandon their theme; the music remains rooted in the olden days. Cone says Hectic Hobo's first song, "Tin Roof Rusted," set the tone, which was "kind of based on an old-fashioned sound, but from the perspective of a crazy person"—hence their name. The past comes into play because Cone holds a history degree from Utah State University. His interest in itinerant folks with mental maladies stems from his nomadic family (he attended five different elementary schools and has lived in Washington, D.C., San Antonio and Australia for a summer, before he returned alone to settle in Salt Lake City in 2001). He started writing poetry in sixth grade, and his mother tells him that from a young age, he had empathetic tendencies and "certain ideas about fairness."
That's how he came to write songs that he himself calls "bizarre ... [about] people from the outer edge of society, people with strange stories." The title track from the band's new album, Died on the Fourth of July (hectichobo.bandcamp.com), is based on a late-night encounter with a wheelchair-bound veteran; "Brother" and "Liquid Bible" also reference war from the perspective of returned soldiers. "Good Dog" is about an inveterate miscreant; "Media Scandal" concerns a cover-up involving a governor's son, but is only "a little" (in Cone's words) influenced by the legal troubles of Gov. Gary Herbert's son, Nathan. "In the Pines (or the Gruesome Murder of Jacob Jones)" concerns a black girl who killed a white man. In "Jazz Funeral," a guy attends his own bon voyage.
Cone tells his tales with just enough detail, always the appropriate number of words—"Bottles and Chains" has only five lines; "Jazz Funeral" is essay-length. His writing style is informed by Kurt Vonnegut ("I like that he writes like he's talking to someone," Cone says) and Jack Kerouac, and songwriters like Woody Guthrie.
"I'm a good songwriter, but I'm a terrible musician," he says, crediting his bandmates with helping him create a convincing, vivid experience for the listener. On their new album, the group transcends trendy folk-rock with moments reminiscent of Neil Young's spare score for Jim Jarmusch's film Dead Man, vocals that flirt with Violent Femmes frontguy Gordon Gano's "Gone Daddy Gone" 'fraidy-cat whisper and jubilant moments that recall Dr. Hook's Freakers Ball. Now, after three albums, Cone feels that Hectic Hobo is finally at home in its sound.
He's right. Through 2010's Preachers, Paupers & Pimps, 2012's We Lost Our Legs in the War, We Just Can't Remember Which War and 2014's Our Medicine Will Do You In, you can observe the band having a clear idea for their sound, and working incrementally toward it. With Died on the Fourth of July, they achieve a satisfying, spellbinding sound that sets them apart as an old-fashioned but modern act. "It's not trying to be a replica of old music, but it is drawing on old music," Cone says. And in seeking to be both earnest and original, he adds, "Over time, we fell into our own natural groove."