Portland duo plays junkyard blues at a hellfire pace
John Johnson’s first drum kit was just a tad unconventional: a cardboard box, a soup pot, a bucket, and a barbecue lid. No, he wasn’t a toddler finding odds and ends to bang on; Johnson had just agreed to play drums in a new lo-fi blues duo. The only problem? He didn’t have drums.
“I’d certainly banged on drum kits before and knew how to put them together,” says Johnson, “but I’d never been a drummer.”
The solution? Johnson, whose nickname is “Lord Buckets,” raided the kitchen of the Portland restaurant where he and Henry Hill Kammerer, the other half of the new duo, worked, scaring up a collection of objects to bang on.
The DIY drum sound lent itself perfectly to Kammerer’s raw guitar playing and singing, and with that kitchen raid, Hillstomp was born. Drawing from the musical styles of blues greats R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough’s, Hillstomp plays no-frills, junkyard blues at a hellfire pace. In a video of the band performing the song “Cardiac Arrest in D,” Kammerer is playing rapid-fire guitar licks, breathlessly singing, and headbanging with all he’s got, while Johnson pounds tight and wild rhythms out of his buckets, nearly bouncing off of his stool. It’s a musical frenzy typical of Hillstomp.
Twelve years into their musical partnership, Johnson and Kammerer are tighter than ever and still having a great time—even as the raucous, high-energy delivery has taken a toll.
“When we’re playing the show it doesn’t feel like it’s been 12 years at all, ” says Johnson. “It feels as exciting and new as it ever felt.” Then he adds with a laugh, “But after the show it feels like it’s been about 18.”
One of Hillstomp’s biggest inspirations is Doo Rag, a 1990s lo-fi duo out of Tucson whose found-instrument, punk-inspired take on Southern blues established them as underappreciated heroes of the underground.
These days, Hillstomp regularly garners comparisons to the Black Keys and the White Stripes. But where the White Stripes were heavy on image and marketing, Hillstomp places emphasis on digging into the gritty underbelly of country blues. And though comparisons to the early Black Keys are justified, Hillstomp has stayed with the two-man stripped-down approach where the Black Keys have gradually gone from lo-fi blues to production-heavy rock.
“When I hear that comparison to the Black Keys, I honestly just kind of feel like, ‘Oh, you’re not really listening,’” Johnson says. “You hear two guys and something vaguely blues-related and think, ‘Oh, Black Keys,’ but I just don’t really hear it.”
Johnson isn’t bothered by the comparisons though, as long as people enjoy the music.
“For all I care,” he says, “they can say we sound like James Taylor if they like it and come out to the show and have a great time.”
For the last seven years, the Hillstomp sound has included a car part, which is the result of a broken-down van in Salt Lake City. While waiting in the garage, Johnson started banging on a brake drum that was leaning against the wall. He liked the sound and incorporated one into his kit.
Picking up random “instruments” along the road is not unusual for Hillstomp. The last time the band was in Santa Cruz, Johnson needed a new bucket so he got one from the Crepe Place. Though the bucket lasted only two songs, it made quite an impression on him. It sounded like a gunshot and looked unlike other five gallon buckets. Since then, he’s tried, unsuccessfully, to replace it.
“It was,” he says, “the best bucket I’ve ever heard in my life.”
On the band’s latest record, Portland, Ore., Johnson and Kammerer bring all the junkyard grit that Hillstomp fans have come to expect, as well as a few slower, emotional tunes that allow for more nuance and subtlety. When asked how they keep things fresh, Johnson acknowledges that it’s always a challenge.
“Maybe we can’t,” he says. “Maybe that was the last [record] that won’t sound like we’re repeating ourselves. We really just try to go in and keep doing what we enjoy.” He adds, “We do everything we can to write music we love—and hope other people do too.”
Hillstomp will perform at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $10/adv, $12/door. 423-1338. PHOTO: The DIY drum kit played by the Portland duo Hillstomp features buckets, pots, and even car parts.