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Published: 2005/11/14
by Dean Budnick

Charlie Hitchcock and The View Outside The Elevator

In late October, Particle surprised many of its fans with the announcement that it was parting ways with guitarist Charlie Hitchcock. As Hitchcock now tells it, the band’s supporters were not the only ones taken aback by the news, as he only learned of the quartet’s decision shortly before the public did. In the following candid interview, which took place via email, Hitchcock looks back at his musical career, Particle’s development and where the Launchpad might take him from here.

DB- Can you a talk bit about your career and development on the guitar before you joined Particle?

CH- I’ve always had a guitar around, and a piano when I was really young. I played sax when I was in elementary school (badly!!!). But in 7th grade I had an epiphany at another friend’s gig that guitar was my calling. I actually remember the exact second it happened and the riff he was playing (a solo break in Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”), so I started practicing and got in a band by 8th grade and I’ve been in at least one band every moment of my life since then. High school was playing classic stuff like Led Zeppelin and shredders like Satriani and Vai. I played football with the “cool” dudes and then went to practice with the “dorks” in high school jazz band (Sorry guys!!! You were cool in my book). Then I went to college in Santa Barbara and had a touring band and missed all my classes. That band eventually fell apart (very similar to Particle actually) which shifted me to intensive study of jazz and my love for the blues.

DB- How did you come to join the group?

CH- I don’t think anyone knows this but I was asked to play the very first Particle gig. Let me go back a bit. I went to college in Santa Barbara and was in many bands and played a lot of jazz and blues back then. Me and the ALO guys and Jack Johnson were all in the same class. I devoted myself to jazz and locked myself in my room practicing for 10+ hours a day. It was really an amazing time of growth for me. And I got to do some gigs with some of the best in the business (Michael Brecker, Jimmy Haslip, Airto Moreira, etc.) After school I moved to LA and lived with my parents for a while and started all over "from scratch" with no music contacts or money or anything.

I did EVERYTHING I could. I’d play weddings, great gigs, crappy gigs, gigs where I’d have to dress up like a dork, etc. I’d go to sit-ins where everyone sucked and I’d get depressed thinking, “Oh god. I’m never going to make it. This is my future if I keep at it.” But I had to keep on going, I had to devote myself 100% and if I wasn’t making any money, the hell with it, I was going to keep at it. Eventually I got to the point where I had a minimum rate I would accept to show up anywhere.

Around that time I responded to an ad from a bass player and drummer with a funk band (Eric and Darren). I showed up and jammed (they had a different keyboard player than Steve) and it was ok. But they weren’t making any money and I wasn’t that motivated with it. That keyboard player ended up moving out of town for a work opportunity. Then they called me again to jam with a different keyboard player, and that’s when I met Steve Molitz for the first time. We jammed for a bit, and it was cool, nothing special. Steve and I both had to leave early because we both had plans that night. He had to meet some friends and I had to meet a different band I was playing with at the time. And a few hours later in the huge city of Los Angeles we found ourselves at the same little rinky dink bar in the city. Very weird and had to be more than coincidence and more like some sort of fate thing. After that we (Particle) jammed a few more times in the tiny rehearsal space they had, but that was about it.

So Eric calls me one day and says they have a gig in San Francisco on a boat, and I was like, “Cool, I’m down. Just let me know the details.” SF and boat was all he knew and it was very vague. So anyways, Eric never got back to me. I guess they found Dave [Simmons] somehow. Anyways, I didn’t hear from any of them for a few months. They played 6 shows with Dave until he sadly passed away. But one day I happened to be alone at my parents house (at a time I was no longer living there and rarely visited) and the phone rang. For some weird reason I actually answered the phone, and it
turned out to be Eric. He said, “Hey… we got this gig in a few days at the Temple Bar. Do you want to do it?” And I was like, “Sure man.. sounds cool.” He replied, “Ok, why don’t you come by the rehearsal space at like 6:52 to work out the tunes were doing“ (or some odd time like that). And I was thinking, “Ok. That’s a really weird time to meet” but I didn’t say anything about it and said, “I’ll see you there“

So I show up at 6:52, and the door is in this ghetto alley. So I knock and one of the guys peaks their head out and says, “Hey, can you wait outside for like 10 minutes?” And I’m thinking, “Ok.. this is weird.. but yes I’ll wait outside in this shady alley even though I’m here on time and you’re here.”

So I’m sitting in my car, and eventually this dude with a little practice amp and guitar comes shuffling out the door. And I’m thinking, “OHHH I didn’t get the gig… I just got tricked into an audition… ha ha ha!”

Anyways, we jammed for a few songs and everyone was stoked. So even though it was secretly an audition, I got the gig anyways. I’m not sure how many people they auditioned, but they said it was a lot. So a few days later we played the Temple Bar in Santa Monica. Before the first gig, they kept coaching me with the phrase, “You have to kick ass, you have to kick ass!” And the rest is history!

DB- Did you know the group’s music and what were you initial impressions of the band?

CH- Well they were just starting out, so the music wasn’t really out there. And when I did the first gig I just kind of winged it. But that’s something I got good at from all the sit-ins I had done previously. I used to play at this jazz jam in Santa Barbara every Monday night when I was in college. And all sorts of people would get up there. Some of them the best in the world, Some novices that didn’t know what they were doing. My point is, because of this I think my “wing it” chops were really honed by the time I met Particle. My initial impression of the band was that they were ok, but they did have a good vibe and I liked what they were going for. Over the past five years, each member’s proficiency has grown immensely.

DB- Was it difficult entering a situation where founding a member and friend had passed away and how did you approach it?

CH- Well I never met Dave the original guitarist or saw him play live. Of course I heard his recordings and he was a really solid player, the most talented in the band at the time in my opinion. Dave having just passed was definitely a heavy situation to walk into. But when I showed up I really didn’t know what I was getting into.

When I joined the band I knew there must have been a lot of emotions for them but they never really came out when I was around. I was in the band a few days before the first gig in Santa Monica and all they said over and over was, “You have to kick ass!”

So the gig came around and I did my best to give them exactly what they asked for. I haven’t listened back to that show ever. I’m guessing if I did my critical self, would say I sucked. Regardless, I feel confident I gave them exactly what they asked for. The instructions for the first gig were very open and loose and pretty much just go out there and have fun and play what your feeling without stepping on anyone’s toes (btw, that’s the musical philosophy I feel should always be in place). After that gig the next time we went into the rehearsal room the band members spent many hours instructing me on what their expectations were.

I won’t go into specifics, but looking back at that now I can see the psychological underpinnings of what eventually perhaps led to the band’s dysfunctional battle for control. Maybe it wasn’t a huge problem then, but as the band grew all the problems and dysfunction grew with it.

DB- Can you give us some sense of how this dysfunction as you describe it, played itself out in the musical context?

CH- Well maybe that forced us into playing in a way that was loud and in your face, with a high emotional content and saying A LOT. That’s one of the things people have criticized us about in the past. I think some of it is off base and some of it is true. A lot of times if it was a soloist that was criticized, it wasn’t really their fault because their hands were tied. If someone wanted to play something soft and subtle, they would just get run over by the rest of the band. So a lot of times there really wasn’t much else to do but play MORE and LOUDER. Even if one person is supposed to be leading or soloing, there is still a symbiotic relationship where you’re both listening and playing off each other at the same time (or at least in a perfect world you are).

More often then not, I think the leader was following and that forced us into always playing busy with all high dynamics. It also forced everyone into playing the same way all the time, which didn’t leave much room for growth. Music is just like a conversation, so if it’s your turn to talk but there’s already a bunch of people talking loudly, the only thing left to do is to try and talk louder above them. You might even end up focusing on how loud you were talking than on what you were actually saying (and I haven’t even discussed what happens when you throw stage presence in the mix too!). So eventually everyone would be maxed out talking as loud as they could be. It can be cool for a time but all night long was a bit much for some people.

However, there is no doubt that playing with varied dynamics and listening was something we had been getting better and better at. Also, the things some people criticized us about were the same things that some people were drawn to us for. There’s always going to be someone out there who says, “You suck.” If critics told Coltrane his music was “shits of sound” you can’t expect to beat him as far as being accomplished on your instrument and innovating the genre you’re in. Maybe the worst thing you could hear someone say about you is that you’re just “ok”.

DB- Talk a bit about the band’s musical development over the years that followed?

CH- I think everyone has grown a ton over the years. It’s really amazing if you think about it. But the best education you can get is by playing the 150+ shows a year we did. Locking yourself up in your room or sitting in a classroom is great, but nothing is going to beat hands-on “in the trenches” schooling you get from hitting the road. So while everyone’s personal development was constantly improving, I think the band as a whole’s improvement leveled off maybe a year or so ago. The shows we’ve played recently have been some of our best, but creatively we weren’t really growing at all.

In the beginning we used to write all the music together and everyone was open to anything and things weren’t over thought. We just got together and played and it was as simple as that. But in the past couple years or so, the stakes got higher and band members were fighting for control, etc. So we moved from the band writing material, to individuals writing material, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the motivations behind it didn’t have the best intentions for the band in mind. We were supposed to be in this together. And anything one guy does should benefit the other. It seemed like everyone was spending time fighting over doing things THEIR way which took up all our energy and time and our productivity level was embarrassing because of it.

I always say that we would have been more successful if everyone just checked their egos at the door and we just played music when we got together and nothing else. John Paterno (Joan Osborne, Los Lobos, Badly Drawn Boy), who co-produced and engineered our debut album Launchpad had the same frustrations I did.. After seeing how we worked, he told us all we had to do was “shut up and play!” Wise words from a seasoned veteran in the industry. Unfortunately, for whatever reason the words never sunk in. At moments I’ve reminded the band of his simple words of wisdom but I guess they had different philosophies. Even though no one was open to trying things a different way, I think no one would argue that the way we were doing things wasn’t working.

DB- Please define what you mean by “not working?” Where would you have liked to take the sound?

CH- Not working means that our productivity level kept getting worse and worse. When we were “off”, we put in really long hours, which was crazy when you consider we were touring the majority of the time. We could work on a song together for weeks and still never finish it. The songs that people wrote by themselves were ok, but all of our best songs we wrote together, probably because no one was accomplished on each other’s instruments.

For example, I wouldn’t expect I’d be able to write the best drum parts, because I specialize in guitar not drums. If the band was learning a song I wrote and I told one of the other instrumentalists that I wouldn’t let him play anything but what I wrote (for the sake of my ego and control of the song) we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot creatively. Only the individual stood to benefit from this at the expense of the band and the fans in my opinion. If we all were willing to work together we could have written the best songs since we had everyone’s talents at our disposal.

In an ideal environment, I wouldn’t have a specific area where I wanted to take the sound. Rather, I wanted everyone to just play and not over analyze things and see what happened naturally and organically. When we did that in the early days it was easy and we were innovative since it was just 4 guys from totally different backgrounds getting together and talking. All of our different elements together led us to be saying something in a way that no one had ever done or heard before. Particular styles like house beats or rock guitar have been done before but not in the combination that we created.

I can’t think of anyone that plays jazz and blues ideas with a rock sound over electronic dance music. Maybe not everyone liked it (most seemed to though), but I don’t think someone is going to argue that it isn’t innovative and new. A musician can take the safe route and play everything in a way that’s been done before and isn’t going to challenge the listener’s ear, but that’s not what we did.

I’m not even sure we could have done that to be honest (play a particular style convincingly). But for some reason when the four of us got in a room and played what we felt, we could create something new and magical that no one had heard before, and the listeners out there picked up on it and were drawn to it. Even if Particle as individuals had their own strong and weak points, the formula that we had as a band was successful.

DB- Can you pinpoint some live highlights over the years (in particular situations with just the four of you performing together without any guests)?

CH- Hmmmmmwe’ll, most of the highlights for me WERE all the guests. But let’s seethe second Bonnaroo when we played for 6 hours straight with no set break. That was just Particle doing its thing on its own with no gimmicks or big name guests to fall back on. I hated playing those marathon sets where it just went on forever, but this set was different. The energy was magical and the crowd never ever let up. Surprisingly, it went by super fast and if the crew/ Bonnaroo people didn’t need their 3-4 hours of sleep we could have easily kept on playing .

DB- Can you talk a bit about your experience playing with B-52s at the Jammys?

CH- Really the best thing about the Jammys was the hang, and seeing and meeting all the other wonderful musicians. Playing with the B-52’s was cool, Not our best musically but definitely fun to play with them. For me personally meeting people like John Scofield for the first time was awesome. I watched our performance of “Love Shack” the other day and thought it was average. I thought my playing was nothing special on it.

Oh yeah, another highlight was “the jam.” See, we did “Love Shack” in rehearsal the day before pretty much exactly like the B-52’s recording. That’s all we practiced and we told Fred and Kate that we were going to just insert a “jam” here and then go back into the song. We didn’t have a lot of time and jamming is usually the thing that gets “axed” when bands are in that situation.. So during the gig I’m guessing they thought we were just going to do a short 1 min or less little ditty and then back in.. But instead, we did it Particle style and it was LOOOONG!...

They both had a lot of excitement about it at the start. But after a few minutes of the jamming they seemed to be running out of steam and I can see this look of a forced smile and a “When is this thing going to end!” type worry in both their faces. Kind of funny surprise!!!

DB- Particle has performed with many guests players over the years, what were some of your favorite moments there?

CH- Robbie Krieger of The Doors was great, and a really nice guy and an excellent player. John Popper, Buckethead, Phil Lesh, Stanton Moore, The Duo, Page McConnell, and Stefan Lessard, thinking off the top of my head (I could go on and on). Stanton used to sit in a lot in the early days and always brought the heat. Man can he play the drums! Fareed [Haque] was one of the guys who sat in early on and was the first guy I can think of to sort of “spar” me onstage. Totally fun. The Umphrey’s guys were always great. Jake and I have done a bunch of dual guitar stuff over the years that I thought was great. I love it when people come up that I can talk with musically.

Vinnie Amico from moe. was one of the first accomplished drummers to sit in with us. He was awesome. Ivan Neville was great every time he sat in and he can really play. I could probably go on for a while, there have been so many great ones. And I love playing with other bands too, getting to play with Warren and Gov’t Mule such great players has always been wonderful.

DB- Describe the Hydra experience? How did that come about?

CH- Well in standard Particle-style “big name” sit-ins, Mickey was supposed to make it to one of our gigs and play with us. But for some reason he couldn’t make it. I think he had been checking us out from afar. But since he couldn’t make it, he invited us up to his house to jam. We went up and played in his incredible studio and stayed in his guesthouse. He was a very gracious host and we had a great time up there. We had a good vibe and he liked the music as well as us, so we went back a couple times before deciding to tour.

DB- How familiar were you with the music of the Grateful Dead prior to then?

CH- In high school I used to play a bunch of their songs in bands at keg parties and such. I had a couple albums, and went to a handful of shows. I liked them but I didn’t follow as a true die hard GD fan or anything. I can’t remember wearing a tie die every day, but I did have big beard for a while!

DB- What were Hydra’s goals and do you think they were realized?

CH- Hydras goals were, at first, just to jam. Then we decided to write some material. We did that by me, Steve, and Eric jamming to old drum loops and stuff Mickey had from old projects. That’s how the entire catalog was written, basically. Then Mickey cut up all the jams and got songs out of them. The next time we got together Darren had to learn the basic drum loop grooves and Mickey played over the top of it all and added his thing which was great. Kind of a weird way to write but it worked and we got a ton of material fast. We did a month tour that was very successful in a lot of ways. And Hydra was great because it was new and fresh and everyone worked differently than they did in Particle. We just got together and played and that was it, just like the old Particle days. We were supposed to record an album which I think was essential and a must do. But I honestly don’t know what’s up with Hydra now. No one’s said a thing to me about it, so I haven’t really been kicked out of that band officially. It was a great experience for everyone, that’s for sure.

DB- You are no longer with Particle, was this a long time coming or was it a relatively recent decision?

CH- That’s a question I’d like to know as well. I guess you’ll have to interview Particle to hear what they have to say about it, I just don’t know. I do have my ideas. When they kicked me out it seemed to me they had it planned for a long time. For example, during the meeting where they ousted me the announcement was already posted on the Particle website unbeknownst to me.

It wasn’t like there was something that happened at the end of our tour or recent gigs that created the breakup. During the bad news meeting, I asked them how long this had been planned but NO one said anything.

DB- What do you plan on doing next?

CH- Well I’m still figuring that out since this wasn’t planned on my end. After the shock of the last meeting I wanted to get out of town so I took off for sunny Arizona. There I saw that Umphrey’s was playing. I called the guys and they asked if I wanted to play. I said I’d love to and we had a lot of fun that night and I think we surprised some people. I’ve never asked anyone to sit in since I’ve been with Particle, but was very happy that they were so gracious to me. They told me I was welcome on their stage any time which is a great compliment from a band of accomplished musicians. I also talked to Warren Haynes about what happened and asked him for some advice on some things. He said to come by one of their shows and when I did he asked me if I wanted to play and it was a great night too. He and Mule have been more than nice to me and they are all great guys and truly amazing musicians.

That night I also was hanging out with the moe. guys. They told me to come by and play at Vegoose, which I did. So even though I had a depressing week after surprisingly being let go from Particle, it ended up being a great week in other ways. People have really shown their love for me. As far as plans, I’m going into the studio this weekend to start work on Stephen Perkins (Banyan, Jane’s Addiction) new album. That will be cool. I’ll probably pick up a little studio work here and there. To be honest I made a lot of sacrifices being with Particle but I have no regrets. I’ve gotten a bunch of offers to do cool stuff over the years but I was always on the road or doing something with Particle, so I really put all my eggs in one basket with the band.

I have freedom now which is cool, but I’m also starting over. I’m still adjusting to this big change, but I think I’ll either start my own thing or join forces with another band that can use what I have to offer. Although the present isn’t as comfortable as I’d like, I feel like things are exactly how they should be right now and the future’s potential is unlimited.

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