Dan Hicks’s Ever-Tangled Tales
You know what’s funny about Dan Hicks? Well a lot of things, actually. Dan Hicks is a funny guy and has been for a long time. And that’s the deal when I first heard Dan and the original Hot Licks back in the early 70s on WBLM (back when it was totally free-form FM radio at its best), he sounded like an older way-cool hipster. Now we’re closing in on 40 years hence and he isan older way-cool hipster. Four decades into a persona would qualify most artists as an oldies act, but Hicks isn’t laying back on his “folk jazz” laurels. His just-released Tangled Talesis full of the quirky Django-Reinhardt-meets-Bob-Wills-and-picks-up-Tom-Waits-along-the-way music that Hicks was making all those years ago but with fresh twists, a hot band, and the kind of outlook that only a 67-year-old R. Crumb cartoon character can have.
We caught up with Dan the snappiest dresser you know – just as he was packing his suitcase to head out on tour with the Hot Licks.
BR: Hey, Dan thanks for making time to talk. Here’s the deal: I just turned in a review of Tangled Tales and basically said that although your back catalog is certainly worth listening to, a newcomer could start with the new album and do just fine. You’re still delivering the goods, man.
DH: Well, thanks I appreciate that. I’m glad you felt that way about it. I’m still doing the same formula; the same instrumentation; the female singers. I’m still liking the sound I got it ain’t broke, so why fix it?
BR: And it sounds like it’s still fun.
DH: Yeah, it is.
BR: Let’s talk about some of the tracks off the album. “Who Are You?” kicks things off. I’m hearing all the layers of what’s going on and it strikes me that as much fun as your music can be, it’s not simple stuff. What’s the process when you write? Is it just you and a guitar?
DH: That’s right that’s my instrument of choice. I usually work with a little multi-track recorder and get the vocal arrangements first. The gals work out their harmonies, but I’ll outline what they’re going to sing.
BR: And the other instrumentation say, a mandolin or violin solo do you suggest those parts?
DH: Yeah I’ll actually sing what I’m hearing in my head into the recorder and have someone write the parts out based on that. The band certainly contributes things here and there, too but I usually do the bulk of it. I’ll give them an outline and we go from there.
BR: There’s a lot going on at times.
DH: Yeah, I like it like that. (chuckles)
BR: Knowing that, how much rehearsal time did you and the band put in on these songs before you went into the studio?
DH: Some of those songs we’d been performing together for a while some of them I’ve been playing for a real long time. I’ve got a bootleg recording of me doing “The Rounder” with the original Hot Licks back in the early 70s, for instance. Some tunes we’d rehearsed for a couple weeks or so before going in the studio and we were still working out a couple of them when we went in to record.
BR: Your character in “The Diplomat” sounds like a happy-go-lucky R. Crumb kind of guy.
DH: (laughs) I like that! Yeah that’s a good description. There are a couple of those tunes that I can see that kind of R. Crumb cartoon happening. This is one of those songs that’s taking a look at me being 60-plus years old and how I feel about things my take on modern society. My philosophy of life.
BR: This current version of the Hot Licks sounds wicked tight.
DH: Wicked tight?
*BR: Sorry it’s a Maine thing *
DH: No, no I like it, man. It’s cool. I might use that “wicked tight.” (chuckles)
BR: Feel free. Anyway, how long have you been playing with this lineup?
DH: Well, the gals [Hot Licks vocalists Roberta Donnay and the jazz diva known simply as Daria] and I have been together at least 3 years and the guys in the band have been with me longer than that. We’re getting our sound down pretty good.
BR: Some of those songs sound like synchronized tightrope walking, you know little room for error; one goes, you all go.
DH: No doubt, some of the songs are harder than others. We can do all this stuff live, but I’ll admit: I need a music stand with a lyric sheet out there for some of them. I will admit that. (chuckles)
*BR: Oh, yeah it’s fun music, but don’t try this at home kids *
DH: I’m glad you appreciate that.
BR: David Grisman guests on a few cuts; how long have you guys known each other?
DH: I’ve known David for a couple of decades we’ve done the occasional concert together – we’re both San Francisco Bay Area people. I knew his style would fit in well on this album. We were ready for him in the studio the basic tracks were cut and ready for him to do his thing. We just did a local gig together this past Saturday night and it went over really well. Now I’m even more excited with the guy! David and I come from the same “acoustic school” type of thing it’s kind of a mutual admiration society.
BR: When I heard “Savin’ My Lovin’”, that felt like the first “summer breeze” on the album laid-back and jazzy. Is that Dave Bell’s guitar solo?
DH: Yeah, that’s Dave on that one. Dave Bell’s been with me, oh five, six, seven years maybe more. I don’t know, man sometimes it’s hard to remember in terms of years I’m starting to think in terms of decades. I better start writing this stuff down so I’ll be better prepared for interviews. (chuckles) Bruce Foreman plays guitar on the album, too. Great musicians, both of them. On that cut, it’s Dave, with me playing rhythm on a 12-string.
BR: I know you’re a Guild and Epiphone kind of guy when it comes to 6-string guitars. What do you play for a 12-string?
DH: You know what, man? I can’t even tell you what brand it was it was just a real nice-sounding guitar. I borrowed it from a friend of mine who has a music store just for that day. I probably should have nabbed it it’s since been sold. But, you know, 12 strings are a little too much to deal with. Six is actually too many. One would be good.
*BR: Well they make them I don’t think they call it a guitar, though *
DH: Dental floss. They call it dental floss. That would be about right.
BR: “The Blues My Naughty Baby Gave To Me” who’s doing the neat harmony lines in the beginning?
DH: That was Richard Chon on mando with Dave Bell on guitar. Bruce Foreman was saved for the solo he just came in with his 12-string and did it, man.
BR: And Paul Smith lays down a beautiful bass solo on that cut.
DH: He sure did. Paul’s been playing for a long time he was part of the band on the old Laugh-In show way back in the day. He’s played with a lot of great jazz guys through the years.
BR: When I first heard “Song For My Father”, I pegged it as one of yours a peek into some pretty personal feelings. I was surprised to find out it was a cover. Where did it come from?
DH: The idea for the vocal came from a version by Leon Thomas, a jazz singer who used to do a kind of jazz-yodeling thing. I’ve actually been doing that song live for a few years and decided to put it on the album. That’s Bruce Foreman on guitar on that one and Richard Greene on violin.
BR: Richard’s solo is sweet.
DH: Oh, yeah. Richard’s from the old Jim Kweskin Jug Band a very talented guy. I really like that song it’s one of my favorites on the album.
BR: I know you said “The Rounder” is one of the songs you’ve been doing for years. Your voice sounds great on that cut I don’t think you could have sung it like that back 40 years ago.
DH: I think that’s true. There’s a quality to my voice now that I didn’t have back then. I listen to that old stuff and I have a young, limited voice, you know? I’ve been singing all this time a lot of jazz and stretching my vocal ability. As long as I can keep my voice and don’t start sounding like an old guy, I’ll be okay! (laughs) My chops are better I know I can sing a lot more stuff than I used to be able to.
BR: Or “Magician”, which sounds like a song that you’d simply have to live awhile to even be able to write. You couldn’t have sung it 30 or 40 years ago with the same feeling.
DH: Absolutely, man.
BR: As far as your voice goes, you quit smoking a while back, right?
DH: That’s right: 1985. Best thing I could have done. I used to smoke constantly. My priorities were all messed up I’d be playing and couldn’t wait to put down the guitar so I could have a smoke. That’s bad. I had one puff in 1994 one puff. Nothing since.
BR: Good for you. So getting back to “The Rounder” talk about your blues summit: Roy Rogers and Charlie Musselwhite swapping licks.
DH: Having both of those guys play was a kick absolutely cool. When Roy Rogers gets playing, he just doesn’t quit he’s got a million ideas and can just keep going forever.
BR: “13-D” is another one of your originals. I like those sections where the band drops out and it’s just the vocals cascading over top of the big, walloping drums. Were you hearing that when you wrote it?
DH: That actually came during the mixing: “Let’s try dropping the instruments out right there.” I’d shown the drummer what I wanted and we tried dropping everything else out and letting the drums carry it. You know this isn’t the kind of stuff I usually get asked, man you really put your ear to the thing, didn’t you?
BR: Hey, I’ve been having fun listening to the album since it arrived. It’s you, but it’s not just you doing the same old thing
DH: I like to think I’m still growing; still being creative my pen is not dry, man.
BR: “Subterranean Homesick Blues” what made you think of doing a Dylan cover?
DH: I worked that arrangement up for a live gig here in Mill Valley after they showed that Dylan movie . There were a bunch of musicians in on that, playing Dylan tunes. We did it again at the Beacon Theatre in New York and it seemed like it was a good one to get on the album. It’s a little different than the other tunes.
BR: You took the jitters and the jangle out it’s a smooth arrangement. The urgency’s been replaced by a state of cool.
DH: Well, one of the factors was deciding to have the three of us sing it together. That made the difference, having the vocal ensemble.
BR: The title track,“Tangled Tales” was that written for the album?
DH: Yeah, it was. It was suggested that I do a song with a scat vocal.
BR: How much of a vocal like that is improv?
DH: It has the chorus in the beginning and at the end where we all sing together that was worked out, as was the girls’ background part the ooh wah oohs. The rest is spontaneous ad-lib scatting, like taking a chorus with an instrument, you know?
BR: Go blow.
DH: Exactly, man go blow; take a solo.
BR: How about “Let It Simmer” is that your motto these days? Your personal mantra?
DH: (laughs) It should be if it isn’t, it ought to be. You could say that I could afford to pay more attention to that song, you know what I mean?
BR: We all could, I guess.
DH: Oh, man think of the money the whole world could save on anger management classes, right? (laughs)