Hillstomp at Lounge South
"It's been a dramatic couple of years," says Henry Kammerer, guitarist and vocalist for Portland blues duo Hillstomp. Kammerer and drummer John Johnson, who plays on a homemade drum kit featuring a kick drum, some cymbals and a variety of buckets, are set to release their new album, "Portland, ORE," on May 14 and are in a place of satisfaction. However, the road to satisfaction was paved with hard times and revelations, they say.
"We were chasing a ghost," Kammerer says. "We were playing 200 or more shows a year for about six or seven years. That's hard for two guys to do. We're getting older and had to take stock in what was important."
The pair took a hiatus for a little over a year and, at the time, it seemed unlikely that they would get back together.
"We didn't talk to each other for about six months," Kammerer says. "It turned out to be just what we needed."
A revitalized Hillstomp will play at 10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, at Lounge South, 66 N. Pioneer St., Ashland. They will be joined by Billy Cook. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online at hillstomplounge.brownpapertickets.com or at the door.
To get to a positive place, Kammerer says the band had to dial back its reach.
"We tried to spread our music across the country," Kammerer says. "But when you get past Denver, no one really knows us. We work better as a regional band, not a national one."
Kammerer and Johnson work regular jobs during the week so that they can be with their families while Hillstomp is relegated to the weekends.
"It's lonely being in a two-piece band. You only have one other co-worker," Kammerer says. "In the van on tour, I would fantasize about having a day job. That's where I would meet people that became friends. Now we have these awesome human relationships. We're happier people and that makes the band better."
This doesn't mean that Hillstomp is ruling out the idea of wider success.
"We were trying to make something happen and it just wasn't happening. Maybe it will with this new album," Kammerer says. "We're just going to let it come to us rather than going to it."
According to Kammerer, "Portland, ORE" — to be released through Portland-based Fluff & Gravy Records — is the best album Hillstomp has made.
"We used to try to capture the essence of our live shows on our albums," Kammerer says. "Now, the live show and the CD are two very separate experiences. There are songs on the new album that we can't quite recreate live, and that's OK."
The songs for the album were written by Kammerer, who then brought them to Johnson for arranging.
"He basically does a remix on them. He does a lot of the arranging," Kammerer says. "The best way to put it is that I'm like the farm the music grows on and he's the chef who puts it all together."
Lyrically, the album is about the duo's hiatus.
"When we stopped playing, the money dried up," Kammerer says. "The record, to me, is influenced by that poverty and the potential breakup of the band."
The band formed in 2001 while Kammerer and Johnson were working together at a restaurant in Portland. Johnson invited Kammerer over to jam one night, drumming on whatever he had in the house.
"He had all this garbage to bang on and we were just having fun," Kammerer says. "We never intended to make this a real band."
Kammerer says that friends suggested that the pair perform live and the audience was drawn to Hillstomp's country blues sound backed by Johnson's punk rock energy and improvised drum kit.
"In any good band, I don't care what that band is, everybody's following the drummer," Kammerer says. "I guess I had some punk rock in me that I didn't know was there that he helped me bring out because it's definitely part of the show."
The energy doesn't only show up in performances, it also appears in band practices.
"We'll be rehearsing in the basement and (my wife) will come down to change the laundry and she's just belly laughing because we're down there flinging our heads around and going crazy," Kammerer says. "She's like, 'No one's here, you don't have to do that.' But that's what the music does to us."