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INTERVIEW: John Hickman

How would you classify your music?

In short, I would say it sounds like classic rock, but with a few contemporary pop or rock elements thrown in.  But I do find that a difficult question to answer sometimes, since the song descriptions can vary a bit depending on the song, as I like to change things up a bit with the styles of each of my songs.  I try not to sound exactly like any particular artist or any particular sub-genre group of artists, for that matter.  I usually have a hard time coming up with comparable artists for describing my music.  At least for describing it as a whole – there may be one song that sounds a bit similar to this artist and another song that sounds a bit similar to that artist, but as a whole, it’s more a composite set of influences. It’s probably best not to copy any one particular artist (unless of course, you’re doing a tribute), but it does make it harder to describe your sound if it’s not extremely similar overall to certain established artists.

Who are some of your top 5 musical influences?  

Most of the time, my influences include the classic rock greats I grew up listening to, which include but are not limited to David Bowie, Styx, Rush, Alan Parsons Project, and The Beatles.  The song “Hello Hello”, off of the new album, definitely brings the Fab Four to mind.  But there are some more contemporary influences as well (as least defined as contemporary relative to classic rock artists).  “While Everyone is Sleeping” reflects a strong influence of Green Day, and I’m also a big fan of Coldplay; they have been a significant influence as well, especially as I began integrating more piano and keyboards into my music.

What do you want fans to take from your music?

I would like for them to take away a message of hope and of being uplifted.  Even the songs dealing with tragic events (“Remnants of the Human Race”) and controversy (“While Everyone Was Sleeping”) can remind us that there is a chance to make things better if we act now.  The songs of loss and grief (“Where Have You Gone?”) and heartache (“What Have You Done?”) can offer hope for a new beginning.  Along with the rough spots of life, there is much to be grateful and thankful for.  Overall, the album brings about a hopeful message – not all the songs are joyous, but this is life, and together we’ll make the changes necessary to get through it.

By the way, the song “Paris Is Burning” is not about a terrorist attack on Paris.  It is a romantic song about a burning passion for the beautiful city of Paris and its people.  The title was taken from the WWII drama “Is Paris Burning?” in which the Nazi commander of Paris, Gen. VonCholtitz, refused to burn the city down despite orders from Adolf Hitler himself.

Can you tell us a bit about your last album? How does it differ from previous releases? 

Remnants is officially my first album to be released, but it does have some songs that were originally written and recorded several years ago.  The album is an eclectic mix of rock styles from many influences, but it mostly has a “retro” sound, as some have described it.  I tend to think of it more like classic rock, but with some more contemporary influences thrown in.  The song that the album is partially titled after, “Remnants of the Human Race,” starts as a dramatic piano ballad enhanced with orchestral strings, but then evolves into a soaring, electric guitar driven progressive rocker chronicling an imagined sci-fi drama where human beings escape into space after the destruction of their home planet (which may or may not be Earth – that’s never mentioned explicitly).  Other tunes like the deep, throbbing rock jam “Escape” and the searing power ballad “Passing Thru,” take on a more hopeful tone (seeking freedom, searching for something more in life), while “Paris is Burning” is a romantic piano driven pop rocker whose lyrics tap into numerous historical references and playfully quote Cole Porter and Jim Morrison. Another spirited slice of optimism is “Soiled Dove,” whose title comes from a nickname that was used in the settlements of the Old West to refer to a prostitute. It’s about a woman who is damaged by a tough family background, but despite her present circumstances, is hopeful of a better life.  If there’s any concept to this album and you refer back to the semi-title track that I just mentioned, taken in that context, the album could be considered to be the remnants of the music that were able to be saved by those space-bound refugees from their own civilization.  The songs were written over a period of several years, and some of the styles changed slightly over that time; for instance, I made more use of keyboards and background vocals in the more recent songs.  And even though the twelve songs were written over several years, all of the recordings on this album were made within the last year; most of the songs were recorded for the very first time, but a couple of the earlier songs which had been recorded previously were given a makeover.

What do you love and hate about the Music Business?

What I love about it is that technological advances in computer hardware and software have made recording easier for the average person to accomplish, and the internet has allowed an open forum for anyone to share their music, which theoretically would allow more opportunity for exposure.  However (or but – there’s a very big but), what I don’t like about the business is that due to the extreme abundance of musical outlets and sources, it is a huge challenge for those of us independent artists trying to get our material noticed.  You can certainly put your material out there, but if everyone else is doing the same thing, then your material is a needle in a haystack the size of Mt. Everest unless there’s some way you can massively promote it and make it stand out (and of course, it helps if it is of great quality).  But even if you have a great product, if no one knows about it or no one can find it, then you’re realistically not going to able to share it with the world, even though in theory you are doing just that whenever you place it on the world wide web.

What is the best concert you have been to? What do you like most about playing live?

I have been to quite a few concerts, and I’m not sure what the best one was, but I was able to see Cheap Trick in a club setting once, and that was memorable because they were right there in front of us instead of being visible only on a stadium Jumbotron.

The best time I have playing live is when the audience is getting into it.  If they don’t look like they’re into it, then I have a hard time getting fired up for it as well.  I mean, I’ll still try my best, but getting motivated is harder if you don’t feel like they’re that into it.  Things go best when everyone is excited; it’s really a team effort.  I never realized that so much until I began to perform in front of other people myself.

How’s’ the music scene in your area?

On the island of Maui, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of Hawaiian style music.  Mostly traditional Hawaiian style at the luaus and tourist resorts, but away from there you’ll find the more contemporary Hawaiian music which is described more often as “Island Style”, influenced quite a bit by reggae.  But there are other types of music as well.  Just like the melting pot of culture that is found here, there are many different types of music around to be heard.

How have you evolved as an artist over the last few years?

Sometime around 2003, I had gotten an acoustic guitar for a present and started out just messing around with it as a hobby.  But as my interest in music intensified, I started singing and writing songs, as a serious hobby about 8 years ago, in 2008.  I started out with just the guitar as my sole accompaniment.  However, after a couple more years, in addition to playing the guitar, I returned to playing the piano again (after a very long hiatus since my lessons in junior high school) and began to incorporate keyboards into my music a little at a time.  I also began to take things more seriously with my vocal development at that time; first, I bought a book and CD package of voice lessons to improve my vocal range, and then I followed those studies up with personal vocal coaching from qualified instructors.  And in the very latest recordings that I made for my latest album, I added more vocal harmony tracks to go along with the lead vocals in order to add more texture to the vocals, which was something I had not done in my earlier recordings.

If you could meet, play a gig, co-write a song, have dinner, get drunk with any band or artist (dead or alive) who would it be?  

John Lennon – Not just because I admired his work with the Beatles as being part of one of the most prolific songwriting teams of all time, but especially because I really felt his message was right on with his arguably most popular solo song, “Imagine”.  He believed it was theoretically possible to achieve the ideals in the song of eliminating hunger, inequality, and war, and respecting each other for our humanity, without regard for one’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof).  But with human nature as it is at this point in our evolution, for now at least, we’ll just have to imagine it.  But that’s where all great ideas start – with imagination.

So tell us what’s next?

What’s next is probably writing some more songs and putting another album together.  Looking forward to that time when I can get back to laying down some new songs.  Got some new ideas already.  But first, there’s the promotion of Remnants, which seems like a job of its own.

Now that we are entering the fall of 2016, what are some words you would use to describe this year? What have been some of the highlights for you and your music?

This year has certainly been a busy one so far.  I am just beginning my attempt at a music career for which I had certainly been busy finishing up the work which started last year on recording and getting my latest album Remnants put together and produced.  During the same time period, I was also finishing up my “day job” previous career as an aerospace engineer from which I took early retirement in March.  A month after that, my wife and I moved lock, stock, and barrel to our favorite vacation spot of Maui.  So as you can see, it has been a very busy year.  And once the album was finished, I originally thought that things might settle down and bit and be less hectic, but of course I was forgetting about putting in the time to promote the album as well as putting together some videos to go with it.  I guess the highlight though was finally getting the album finished and seeing the entire package put together, not just the discs of the music recordings (12 songs and 68 minutes worth, by the way), but also the printed booklets of liner notes that went with each CD.  It was definitely something to see all of my ideas come to fruition along with the help of some fine musicians and producers, and now I have the opportunity to be able to share it with others as well.

Working as a solo artist, how did you put together this fully produced and multi-textured full band sound?

I had a lot of help in putting together this production.   If I can give a quick shout out to all the people who helped out, the production was done at London Bridge Studios in Seattle with the help of mixer/engineer Jonathan Plum (who also plays bass) and mastering engineer Geoff Ott.   Numerous local studio musicians played many of the tracks on the album including: Adrian Vanbatenburg (drums and percussion); ShoheiOgami (guitars); Tim DeHuff (guitars); Andrew Fox (some of the keyboard tracks); Mikhail Pivovarov (bass); Ally Jenkins (violin); Laurel Pistey (cello); and Ken Fordyce (bass).  My part in the performances are all of the vocals, both lead and background, and keyboards for all of the tracks except for two out of the twelve tracks.  But I did write the songs as mostly complete arrangements, as if I were writing for a full band.  In other words, I didn’t just write a simple vocal/guitar or vocal/piano arrangement for one person; I came up with demo recordings that were fairly complete arrangements (thanks to drum loops and multi-tracking), and I believe that doing this allows me to collaborate and communicate well with other musicians.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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