Hear Hillstomp perform "Cardiac Arrest in D" — Hillstomp music is handmade in the most literal sense. Guitarist Henry Kammerer and percussionist John Johnson invented their hill country, blues stomp sound from the ground up.
Hillstomp's music is handmade in the most literal sense. Guitarist Henry Kammerer and percussionist John Johnson invented their hill country, blues-stomp sound from the ground up.
"Henry and I teamed up in early 2001 while working at a Newport Bay seafood restaurant in Portland," Johnson says during a telephone interview from his car parked at a Walgreens store. The cellphone reception at his house is bad.
Johnson had sort of given up on music, he says. He had piano lessons as a kid, played sax and studied jazz in college, then switched to bass and played in heavy-rock groups in the '90s in the Midwest and on the West Coast.
"But never percussion," Johnson says. "When I saw Henry play guitar one night at an open mic, I was inspired to grab a lot of stuff out of the restaurant's kitchen, take it home and start banging on it. We quickly realized that the sound was appropriate for the music we wanted to play."
Johnson and Kammerer didn't actually intend to take their sound seriously, but a friend invited them to perform at an open mic.
"We had an immediate impact on the audience," Johnson says. "Half of them got up and walked out to the smoking deck and the other half got up and approached us to see what was going on."
What was going on was a whole lot of weird racket, which has since evolved into something even bigger and more bombastic.
"Now it has more focus and a heavy, low end that makes it very danceable," he says. "But it's retained the original bluesy, hillbilly, trancelike sound."
In 2004, Hillstomp revealed its first self-released album, "One Word," to a sold-out crowd at Portland's White Eagle Saloon.
Johnson and Kammerer will play at 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Sept. 26-27, at Caldera Tap House, 31 Water St., Ashland. The cover will be $10 each night.
Johnson's first percussion kit included a cardboard box, a lid off of a Weber grill, a soup pot and a 5-gallon, plastic bucket.
"I still use the bucket, though it's been modified by a series of poorly conceived, temporary fixes used to adjust the sound and the stability," Johnson says. "I also use a brake drum from an old Chevy pickup, broiler pans and a lot of broken stuff."
Johnson plays drums and bass with Portland bands Brothers of the Last Watch and Hong Kong Banana, respectively.
"I've always been in love with the sound of a floor tom, so I added one to Hillstomp's percussion," he says. "Now it's more of a hybrid kit."
Kammerer's style of playing guitar also is unique, Johnson says.
"He's had a funny beginning, too. He wanted to learn slide guitar. When he bought a slide, the only finger it fit was his index finger. He didn't know it's supposed to be worn on the middle, ring or pinky finger. So he developed his own way of playing slide guitar."
Kammerer is the duo's lyricist. His songs reflect old bluegrass, hillbilly and blues themes of whiskey, women and death.
"They're pretty much the thing," Johnson says. "Folk music has been about those themes from the beginning. We just amp it up and twist it up."
Hillstomp's newest album, "Darker the Night," was released in 2010 on the In Music We Trust label. A new album is in the works to be released in the spring.
"We've worked many of the songs into our shows," Johnson says. "As soon as the weather gets crappy, we'll hunker down and finish it."