Downpilot, an interview, Nov 26th 2015 in Aachen, Germany

Paul Hiraga aka Downpilot hails from Seattle and has released five albums so far, the latest being the wonderful “Radio Ghost” that will accompany the listener long after the first cursory listen.

He is currently on tour in Europe and plays older and new songs solo. At his gig at Raststätte, Aachen, Germany, he surprised with bringing the perfectionism of his records solo (well, okay, a beatbox and some pedals) onto the stage. He uses different styles of playing his acoustic guitar to make the absolute most of the instrument and sings his songs with a lovely slightly gravelly baritone voice. There was always time to enrich the tuning the guitar breaks with stories about where the songs originated.

Perfect for intimate and family-like and weirdly yet open and unbiased atmosphere of the Raststätte venue in Aachen. Downpilot’s records are available via Tapete Records and here are some snippets for you to enjoy. After that you can read an interview (and here some pictures of the gig) Paul kindly took some time for. Thank you!

Offbeat Music Blog: Paul, thank you very much for taking the time for this interview. It is very hard to find out something about you on, say, the internet. Are you too busy to handle the internet or do you actually not like to be so available on the internet?

Paul Hiraga (Downpilot): I actually had a website for a while but everything kind of went out of date and we shut it down and just pointed it to Facebook. But the problem is that I really don’t do much Facebook. So there is probably no bio anywhere. I think, you might say, I am a person who, because I don’t do Social Media, doesn’t really like to make my whole life public. The music is what I make in public and it should speak for itself.

OM: You started out as a jazz pianist?

PH: Yeah, when I was in High School and starting university, I was interested in a lot of music but I went to a jazz school in Boston to study jazz piano, Berkeley College Of Music, which is quite a well-known jazz school and pursued that for a little while. But at the same time I was quite interested in other music and I was teaching myself guitar at the time and I found myself gravitating more towards guitar as it is a better instrument to write songs and to sing with. As a result, I did not become a jazz pianist although I still like to play.

OM: Is it true that you are a carpenter or a jointer by trade? And do you still do that once in a while?

PH: Oh yeah, I have to! There is no money in music these days…so, don’t quit your day job.

OM: The idea of doing a whole product yourself as a carpenter, does this transport to your other work as well? After all, you build a studio yourself, you play all instruments on your album? Do you do this, not only for financial reasons, but to not having to delegate, to have full control over the product?

PH: It could be, yes. Sometimes in carpentry, you don’t control everything from the beginning to the end quite as much and sometimes there are other people involved. With music, you could say, I am a bit of a control freak. We’ll see what happens in the future. This is what happened with a lot of artists with computer recording that people feel they can do everything by themselves. And some people can, some people better than others. For myself, I have taken it as far as that can go and now I have a little more interest in going the other direction and getting back to a group, a live band. So, we’ll see. I don’t know if this is going to be for Downpilot or something else, but that is the way, I am thinking right now.

OM: As Downpilot you have done five albums so far apart from your other work such as working in a studio, even building your own gear like amps. Would it be possible to take us through the five albums and tell us shortly what you set out to do with each?

PH: Phew, that is probably the most difficult question to answer. Especially with the most recent album, I feel they have a life of their own. I set out to make a very different album with “Radio Ghost” and it was not working. I was going against the wind. I just decided at a certain point that I had to start over and tried to make a little more of a spontaneous, visceral experience where I was not overthinking or thinking style too much. It really just kind of created itself. In the past, I think, “New Great Lakes” the last album, I consciously wanted to do a little more an acoustic, not quite folk album, but maybe more towards that. But for this one, I really did not have any preconceptions. After I gave up on the first attempt of making the album, I just was trying things and seeing if they felt right.

OM: I was talking to Dave Heumann of Arbouretum the other week and I asked him whether he discards songs that are not working as some artists do. He answered, no, he just waits and leaves the song lying around until the idea or the small ideas come to make it work. Do you do the same?

PH: That’s exactly true. There is one song on the new album – and maybe I won’t say which one -that was actually written when the band started in 2001. We used to play it quite differently as a live band and when the time came to record it, it did not fit with where I am or where I was at that time. Every album seems to have one of those songs that I pull off the shelves and I feel like, ah, maybe it is working now.
Usually, stylistically, they change a lot. If a song is good, it can be played many different ways. That is a good test of the song, to see if it can be a quiet acoustic song or a rocker.

OM: You have been with Tapete Records for a long time. How on earth, does someone who comes from Seatlle, one of the big music towns in the U.S. end up with Tapete Records in Hamburg, Germany?

PH: They were looking for an American artist back in 2003 or 2004. They contacted my label in America at the time. That’s how we started a relationship. In the meantime, I have been on two small labels in Seattle that have closed up shop. As a result, my main label is Tapete. They have also grown as a company and now have distribution in the United States. They are great friends now after ten years.

OM: The title of your new album is “Radio Ghost” which is of course very interesting for me. What is behind it: Something from the past that has vanished?

PH: There were several things that I was haunted by when I was writing different songs on the album. But “Radio Ghost”, the title track, in particular: I am originally from Michigan, not Seattle. My mother and my grandmother grew up in Detroit. In the past several years, I have been going back to Detroit. I am sure, you have heard what a disaster that’s become. I wanted to see it a the ground level and see what – beyond the sensational news stories – is happening there.
I think it is a really interesting city and it may be representative of a lot of cities in America regarding what could happen to them. As far as Radio Ghost is concerned, I just felt, there was a lot of my past there, tied to that city. It’s not quite a literal song about Detroit but it was inspired by a lot of memories – no just mine, but for everyone in Detroit.

OM: When you write your songs, what comes first, the lyrics or the music?

PH: It really depends. There is no formula. It used to be more the lyrics in the past. It may have shifted a little more now towards music happening first. That has a lot to do with my process. When I am creating a song alone, I don’t have a band to rehearse with, so I end up doing a little more music first these days.

OM: Your album “Radio Ghost” is unusually diverse despite the songs having a common thread. But there is sort of an A-side and a B-side.

PH: You know, sequencing an album is always quite interesting. As you write the songs, you do not know what the sequence is going to be. For me, the last track, I usually know right away, that’s the closer. For me that’s the most important track of the album. I like to leave with a really important closer to give you the feeling of the whole album. “Suzanne” was the closer on this album and I knew it immediately. It was one of the first songs that I recorded and wrote for the album. I often work backwards that way. I did not really think about sequence until we were mastering it. For vinyl, you really have to think about timing for fidelity, how it sounds. I had a sequence and my master engineer said, we had to move a couple of songs. And all of a sudden, he was like: “Dude, this is like the classic side two!”
He loved it and he got me really excited about it. I realised there did really seem to be a distinct side one and side two. I cannot take credit for that. It actually happened at the very last minute. And then it made perfect sense.

OM: Your lyrics are obviously inspired by your own memories and experiences. But do you abstract the lyrics?

PH: Yeah, definitely. I think, on the last two albums especially, I have started a sort of automated writing process where I don’t sit down with pen and paper. I will get in front of the microphone and let things come out. Sometimes it starts out really ridiculous. Actually I got this idea, reading Keith Richards’ autobiography “Life”. The Rolling Stones would go into the studio and say: “It’s time to do the vocals.” And Keith would not have anything written. He said, it is like a jostling match with yourself, you always have to stay one step ahead of yourself. It’s really being on your toes. And it also brings up things that you would never write down with pen and paper.
It is a very different process from how I used to write lyrics. But it is something that I found is working for me. It is incredible how sometimes an entire song would come out and it would really be focused on something, maybe not literally, but for me. People can apply it to their own experiences. And that’s the way I prefer lyrics for my music and also often prefer music I am listening to, to be that way, to be a little open.

OM: During recording your first album, the band broke up. Was this about the other guys not really getting the idea of what you wanted to achieve?

PH: It was not so much that. It was more like Fleetwood Mac style drama between the bass player and the drummer. When that happened, it broke apart the real core of the band as we started. Once that happened, I was already in the process of recording and I had a strong producer in Tucker Martine. He became more of a band member to me at that point. The two us really worked on “Leaving Not Arriving”. We brought in some new people who remain with the live band today. I realised that is was going to be more of a studio band than a live band at that point.

OM: There was quite a hiatus before “Radio Ghost”, were you busy with other things or just fed up? In the end, you said, the songs needed to come out.

PH: I just needed a break. I wanted to take a longer break. I did not even think about it that much. It all of a sudden became a longer period. And I decided it was time to get back to writing and starting some new songs. I guess, four years was a bit longer than usual but there is no formula.

OM: The album indicates a darkness in the past, but it is not all doom and gloom, there is light at the end of the tunnel, this is what it sounds like to me. It is also very nicely produced, very smooth, sounds lovely on headphones.

PH: That is what I am trying to achieve, so it is nice to hear you say that. As for the the sound, I had a 70s album aesthetic. I wanted it to sound a certain way, like maybe some of the albums of the 70s that I like, maybe like an old Traffic album.

OM: What kind of music do you listen to?

PH: Oh, I listen to everything. I can’t be pegged down to one style. Of the new things, I like, The War On Drugs. Also some instrumental new music like Niels Frahm. And I love a lot of the Bureau B. re-issues, all that Krautrock that is coming back.
And my friend Peter in Stuttgart is running this label called Glitterbeat which is part of Glitterhouse. He has turned me on to some wonderful world music.

OM: Would it not be great to make loads of money with music? Or did you when you started out not dream of becoming really famous? Or could that be burden as well?

PH: Yeah, you think that would be your dream when you are young but as you get older, you realise whether or not you’re wired for that and I know now that I am not. This is why a lot of people end up alcohol and drug addicts because they are not wired for it and this is the way they cope.

OM: You also do studio work for other bands. What does the chemistry have to be like, what kind of bands do you go for?

PH: I am quite picky about it. I don’t just take everything that presents itself. It is based more on friendships than chemistry. I worked with some artists and that lead to some other artists. One of the things I did this year, was an EP of a long long time friend Terry de Castro who played bass in The Wedding Present. This lead to recording David Gedge’s vocals for the new Wedding Present album in January. That is going to be fun. I’ve known David a little bit over the years. But it is the first time I am recording with him.

OM: You have a thing for vintage instruments and vintage recording gear? Tell us about it.

PH: It is natural for engineers and producers who have experienced …ah no, also younger engineers and producers, they get obsessed with vintage gear. Often,I think, because it represents a sound and an artist. And the mistake is that they think it is going to make the sound of that artist. Everybody wants the gear The Beatles had, but it is not going to make them sound like Lennon/McCartney. It is just a fascination that is very widely held. There is a website called “gearsluts” and it is a huge thing and everybody is obsessing about vintage Neumann microphones and vintage RCA pre-amps and things like this.
It is natural to go through that curiosity. I have come to the point after building a lot of things that when building with vintage gear, yes, it’s nice, it sounds lovely but there is loads of modern gear that will do the job just as well. It comes down to the performance and the song. My advice to anybody spending too much time on gearsluts is: Don’t get too obsessed. It’s fun. It’s like learning to play the standards. They are classic, it works. But there is also room to move ahead.
Some people make great records recording with really primitive gear. I know people recording things through their laptop speaker and it is great. It is not really about the tools, it is how you use them.

Thank you so much Paul Hiraga aka Downpilot for all your time and a wonderful gig.