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Charlie Hunter: Seven-String Samurai

By Published: November 9, 2009

AAJ: And what about Baboon Strength? What were you aiming for with that album?

CH: That was really about the working group with Tony Mason and Erik Deutsch. It was really fun band. We really had a sound with that group. The improvisation was based around these kinds of songs, almost taking a lot of cues from Booker T. and the M.G.'s, not playing that kind of music at all, simply taking the idea of instrumental music, very tune-oriented, with this ability to improvise. But instead of improvising in the jazz way, which uses a lot of intense and small gestures, do fewer, larger gestures over bigger amounts of time so that everyone is connected as an ensemble all the time, so no one is ever really out front. And that's what that band was about.

AAJ: So instead of making big gestures yourself, you have a bunch of musicians come together for the big gestures?

CH: No, you can make the big gestures yourself. So much of what I'm trying to do with my instrument is about the pocket and the time. If you really get to a point where you're really in the pocket, you can have a thing that's like (sings bass line, with guitar solo and finger snaps on the downbeat) you can make these little gestures. You can hold one note for a long time and you can play these lines that are bigger gestures because they are more rhythmically powerful, whereas if you're constantly playing tons and tons of eighth notes, which is a lot of people's stock and trade, then, well, that's just another way of doing it, right?

AAJ: Obviously you're a very prolific artist, 17 albums and only 42 years old, that's heck of a lot for a mid-career artist...

CH: Mid-career, the worst place to be in America. Mid-career, when you're playing your best, you're making your best music, and you can't get the dog to play with you unless you tie a pork chop around your neck. You know what I mean? [laughs]

AAJ: No, what do you mean?

CH: Well, it's just that we live in a youth-obsessed society and we're also living in a time where the music culture has morphed into the image culture. Music, when I was growing up, was always considered such a deep thing, that it existed on its own plane. There was always a little bit of the image thing, which is why someone like Pat Boone can't outsell someone like Little Richard, you know. But now in popular culture the music accounts for less and less. And when I look at the stuff that my kids are into, the music is just sad but the image they produce is pretty incredible. The videos, the shows, the style, the scene, it's all incredibly superficial but amazingly superficial. It's an incredible veneer, you know? So when you're 42 years old and you come from a culture that isn't about that, you can pretty much forget it entirely, which is OK because I'm not interested in the image scene... Guys and gals my age, we like making and playing instrumental music. I mean, we have a snowballs chance in hell of getting rich, but it sure is fun. I wouldn't trade it.

AAJ: Was there a period, back when you were first starting out, when you had to be more mindful of appearance and all that?

CH: Well, there was a time when I was a hired musician in this band called The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, which had a small amount of fabulousness associated with their name in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I was really just a fly on the wall because I was only performing a function, you know, playing the guitar and the bass. I wasn't a star. And we were on the road with very popular bands like Arrested Development and Public Enemy, all the big Hip-Hop acts at that time, and then we went on tour opening for U2. So I got that out of my system early. It's like when you get all the candy on Halloween and your parents either ration it out to you or they let you eat the whole bag. So I ate the whole bag and got really sick. [laughs] But it was a great experience to see that the scene and understand that being the star is really good for a certain kind of personality. But it's not for me. I don't really enjoy it. I think it is kind of an illusion and when it's over, no one will really remember it because there's nothing actual to it. It's dust.

AAJ: But that experience did give you some exposure, right?

Charlie HunterCH: Not really. I pretty much quit Hiphoprisy in the middle of their thing because I couldn't stand it anymore. And so I went back to moving furniture during the day and playing fairly low-paying gigs at night... At that point, I had my own group and we played a lot around the [(San Francisco] Bay Area. In the mid-1990s, there was this interesting thing happening with improvised music out there, an interest in what would be euphemistically called "urban," meaning anything that wasn't in the hallowed halls of "jazzness." So the record companies came looking for us and there was a big feeding frenzy, the last gasp of the old way of doing things...

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