Panic, Ginsberg, The Velvets & Exile : Daniel Hutchens talks about Bloodkin’s One Long Hustle
I think one of the first of your songs Widespread covered that I was aware of was “Can’t Get High”. There’s a home-recorded version of that on the first disc in the box set from 1988, along with “Privilege”. You were how old at that point?
Those home recordings on the first disc were from late ’87 into ’88. They were pretty new songs at that point … I would’ve been in my early twenties. 22 or 23.
Most 22- or 23-year-olds don’t write like that.
Well … (laughs) … that was after we moved to Athens from West Virginia. For years before that, I’d been interested in writing. There are a few songs that we still play that come from back in West Virginia, you know. But back in those days, if you’d gone out to see some live music, you were going to see cover bands – and that’s it, man. (laughs) Anything else just didn’t exist at that time – or not much, anyway.
But when we got to Athens, there were all these bands and musicians … and being that age, I was just ready for it. To come to Athens and see Widespread Panic or Vic Chestnutt or catch REM doing some unannounced show … there were all these people, including all the ones who never got any acclaim, but who were really great, too, you know?
There were a couple years when we first got to Athens that I couldn’t keep up with myself – I started writing a lot. It was a result of being in a really creative community and interacting with friends who did it, too … it was what I was looking for before we got here. I felt like I was home.
It sounds like it. Let’s talk about the period in the early ’90s when you played with the Velvet Underground’s Mo Tucker and Sterling Morrison. Now let me get this straight – you played bass with them, correct?
Yet I’m looking through 25 years of songs and credits in this box set and I don’t see you playing bass anywhere else … so I’m thinking you strapped on a bass just so you could play with those people.
Pretty much. (laughter) When I met Mo, I started out playing guitar. She was auditioning people to play in a band for one show in New York and her daughter – who was going to the University of Georgia – recommended me. And just for that show, I played guitar.
Mo and I hit it off; from the first day, I just loved her. I considered her a great teacher to me and a friend. When I met her, she’d been working at Wal-Mart for years.
Oh, man …
Yeah – she had, like, six kids and wasn’t financially set up, by any means. Later on, in ’93, they ended up doing this Velvet Underground reunion tour in Europe and they all made a lot of money. It was like they were heroes over there. So then she could buy a house and put her kids through school … I mean, she made a small fortune. But when I first met her, that wasn’t the case. She was just putting together the idea of doing music full-time again and getting a band together.
And Sterling Morrison wasn’t part of that first band, then?
That’s the thing: I was playing guitar at first, but then she called up Sterling and I was like, “Well …” (laughs) “I’ll just switch over to bass ‘cause you don’t need me on guitar with Sterling around.” That’s how it happened.
I knew it. (laughter)
The thing about playing with Mo was – especially with some one like me coming in from the outside – she was very specific about what she wanted. Like, if someone was playing bass, she wanted them to play, “Doomp-doomp … doooo … doomp-doomp.” Real basic.
And she didn’t find anyone who would do that – they all wanted to play and jam … and she hated that shit! (laughter) They’d be throwing in a lick and she’d roll her eyes … she hated it. And I wasn’t a good-enough bass player to even be able to do that – so that’s why it worked out, you know? (laughter)
If you were going to point someone towards music in the box set from that period …
I was playing with Mo right before we put out the first officially-released Bloodkin CD [1994’s Good Luck Charm ]. There’s stuff on the latter half of disc 4 in the box set that I wrote while I was on tour with Mo and Sterling over in Europe – at night in a hotel room or something. I don’t know as there’s anything on the box that’s tied directly to her and Sterling musically … I just considered them great examples of how it was.
Mo’s whole thing was playing music the way she wanted to do it – and she really had a lot of contempt for all the bullshit of the music business. Just watching how she dealt with it – if it wasn’t on her terms she wouldn’t do it – was kind of heroic to me.
And Sterling Morrison was exactly the same way. When they did the Velvet Underground reunion tour, I was Sterling’s guitar tech. Not because I really had the qualifications to be there, but because he’d said, “Come on – let’s go to Europe!” Traveling around all over, man … it was great.
I remember he and Lou Reed getting into it about certain things – they all fought like cats and dogs which is why they broke up in the first place, I guess. Lou’d say something about being in tune, and Sterling would go, “Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t have to be in tune.”
All that stuff kind of stuck with me; I really admired them and how they dealt with the business.
There’s no way to talk about the history of Bloodkin without mentioning Zac Weil, who died in his sleep from a drug overdose in April of 2000. You can say as much or as little as you feel like, Daniel. I know he was much more than just a manager to you guys …
Oh, yeah; the manager thing was almost incidental. (laughs) It really had more to do with just how much Zac loved music.
Zac was 30 when he died … he was a young guy. And he really became our manager by default. He did a lot of great of things for us, but at the same time he was by no means an experienced music business guy. He was feeling his way around just like we were.
It’s easy to say that someone loves music, but the thing about Zac was that he lived music … it was his whole life. He’d hear about the Stones playing a benefit show in … Las Vegas, maybe – so he’d find a way to get a ticket and get to Vegas. That’s what he did. His enthusiasm was endearing. And to this day, everywhere I go, it’s not a surprise when someone walks up to me with a Zac Weil story. Even if they’d only met him once, Zac made a great impact on people. He was a great spirit. He was like my big brother … he took care of all of us. I look back on it now and it makes me cry.
Zac really changed the direction of my life for the better. And it’s just one of those rotten tragedies that he’s not around. It was one of those nights that he did some shit that he shouldn’t have done – but man … a lot of people do that and get away with it. It’s just a shame, that’s all. And I miss him every day.
Folks like that never leave you, Daniel. They’re not here, but they never leave you.
You’re right. And I find myself, like, trying to make some kind of decision and thinking, “What would Zac have done?” I do that all the time.
I loved him very much, man – he was a good one.
David Barbe entered Bloodkin’s world as a producer when he recorded 1999’s Out of State Plates. You mention in the liner notes that most of the tracks you’ve recorded with David have ended up on the “official” Bloodkin albums – but the fifth disc of the box is the “Chase Park Sessions”, loaded with Barbe-produced tunes. David’s been more than a good man in the studio, though – it seems like he brought some light back into things after those dark times that followed Zac’s death.
He did. When Eric and I first moved to Athens in the 80s, David was playing in a band called Mercyland. We used to go see them all the time – they were great. They were this 3-piece, super-fast thrash band … but they would do, like, Beatles songs. (laughter) Or these pop songs that I just totally loved.
Years later David kind of interned with [longtime Widespread Panic collaborator] John Keane as engineer for a while. When David opened his own studio – Chase Park Transduction – you had a kindred spirit. If we were recording something you could say, “Well, you know the second solo on ‘In The Light’ by Led Zeppelin – how that sounds?” And he’d just totally get it. And he was someone who really became a friend.
To this day, it’s hard for me to think about doing a record without David. There’s this kind of shorthand that you develop with somebody – he knows which microphone to use on my voice or whatever. He’s always a lot of fun to record with; if we wanted to waste time in the studio and get drunk or whatever, he would go along – but at the same time he’s a very smart guy who knows how to get the best results from people in the studio.
If David’s working with a band on a record and I ask him how it’s going, he doesn’t ever say anything about which guitar they’re playing. It’s always a psychological profile: “Well, the bass player’s really insecure and he needs a lot of encouragement” – stuff like that. David’s great about working with people. He obviously knows all the technical details of producing a record, but his real strength is an amazing knack for getting the best out of people.